Month: September 2016

Of Awards and Underdogs

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The 68th Emmy Awards came to a close the previous Sunday night (Monday morning, for you and me), pulling the curtains down on an another year of television based glitz, glamour and predictability. While most of the awards went to the same people and shows it usually did (Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her fifth straight Emmy), there were a few notable moments from the Awards ceremony.

Rami Malek took home the Emmy in the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series category for Mr.Robot, in a ‘surprise’ win that felt obligatory. There’s no denying that Malek was excellent in his performance as the neurotic hacker, Elliot, but it felt unfair to me because some of the other actors in his category (and by some, I mean Matthew Rhys) had given better performances over a longer span of time. Mr. Robot’s second season is already far less impressive than the first, so although the Emmys took the apparently unconventional route with this winner, it didn’t come across as deserving. The Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series was also a surprise, albeit more meritorious – Tatiana Maslany, after three years of being snubbed, took home the award for playing multiple characters in Orphan Black.

mr robot, rami malek, emmys 2016, emmys 2016 rami malek

Aziz Ansari also took home an Emmy, although it wasn’t in the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series category. Instead, Ansari, along with Alan Yang, won the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for Master of None. While Ansari didn’t get to talk much (the orchestra began playing before he could even finish his thank-yous), Yang made a comment in his speech about how there are 17 million Asian Americans in the United States, and about the same number of Italian Americans. He went on to say that the Italians have The Sopranos, The Godfather, Rocky and Goodfellas, whereas the Asians have Long Duk Dong (an Asian exchange student in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, known for his bizarre behavior and over the top clumsiness). Yang also asked Asian American parents to get their kids “cameras instead of violins”. Yang’s speech was definitely one of the more dramatic ones that the evening saw, but it comes at an important time, after all, it has taken till 2016 for Asians and South Asians to be portrayed with nuance and depth, and not as inhuman parents constantly preoccupied with their children’s grades or bumbling owners of grocery shops.

The final hour of the Emmy’s was as predictable as the final hour of most masala movies – surprise winners notwithstanding, everyone knew who the winner was even before their names were announced. People vs OJ Simpson, which was nominated in a whopping 22 categories, took home the Outstanding Limited Series award. The Outstanding Drama Series went to Game of Thrones. Veep won Outstanding Comedy Series for the second year in a row. Now, People vs OJ Simpson, Veep, and Game of Thrones, are without doubt, studies in television excellence which deserved to win – but why does disappointment linger? Maybe it’s because from time to time, we want a David toppling a Goliath. Maybe it’s because we watch far too much television, for if we didn’t, we would know that underdogs hijacking spotlights doesn’t really happen in the real world.

Hits and Myths-es

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

About a year ago, I had ranted in this very space about the lack of creativity when it came to mythology and epic based serials on mainstream regional television. It was around that time that Star’s production of Mahabharata, with its opulent sets and six pack flaunting Pandavas had had audiences glued to the television sets again, after all, the lure of a good story, no matter how many it has been retold, is undeniable. The show finally came to an end last year (after a Kurukshetra battle sequence that probably lasted longer than the original battle as described in the epic), but I suppose the over-the-roof ratings and popularity of the show made it clear to the producers that the mythology genre is one that would never get old in our country, thus giving birth to Seedhayin Raman (Siya Ke Raam in Hindi, Janaki Ramudu in Telugu and Seethayanam in Malayalam).

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Seedhayin Raman seeks to narrate the story of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. I know of many books that have given a new lease of life to epics by narrating the story from the view point of a character who is usually sidelined in conventional retellings. Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s excellent novel, The Palace of Illusions, for example, is the story of The Mahabharata as narrated by Draupadi. Randamoozham (Bhima is the title of its English translation) by MT Vasudevan Nair is another classic novel that brings to life The Mahabharata through the eyes of Bhima. Naturally, the idea that a television show, and a prime time television show at that, would be attempting to a showcase a different idea of a beloved epic was something that I found intriguing, and that was enough for me to sit with the show and see what the fuss was about.

Visually, the show is stunning. The sets are lavish, the makeup and costumes are beautiful, and the actors are very good-looking. The writers, though, have taken creative liberties with the story. Ram and Sita, according to Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, are said to have met for the first time at her Swayamvaram (the ancient Indian practice where the princess chooses her husband among an assembly of potential suitors), but in the serial, they have a run-in much before. There are other changes in the story as well, but they’re minor, and it’s obvious that they’ve been made for the sole purpose of creating more dramatic television.

The Ramayana is very different from the Mahabharata – the former doesn’t possess the multitudes of characters or complexities that the latter does, but it does have its own intricacies. Seedhayin Raman’s treatment of those intricacies, however, are not well done. The story of the Vaanara brothers, Sugriva and Vaali, for instance, is one of the few grey areas in an epic that is mostly black and white. Although Rama sides with Sugriva, both the monkey kings had virtues as well as flaws, but Seedhayin Raman insists on showing Sugriva to be an incorruptible, virtuous king, and Vaali as a power-hungry villain who deserves to die. Seedhayin Raman might be creative in its setting and clever in its style, but without the nuance – without the grey, there’s no colour in its story.

My wait for an original, bold, televised take on Indian mythology continues.

{Seedhayin Raman is currently telecast on Star Vijay, and is also available on HotStar}

Diet Coke

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

There was a point in time while watching Narcos, when I had to pause and look up the events that were being played out on screen, just to see if they had actually happened for it all seemed so incredulous and unbelievable. Did Colombia really go through such a prolonged period of drug related violence? And did all the devastation really root from one man’s crazed ambition?

Narcos resurrects the life and times of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord whose business and political aspirations led to government unrest, assassinations, and overwhelming violence across the country, which lasted for most than a decade. Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is a smuggler from Colombia, who knows his way around the local officials who are impediments to his business. Each time he’s confronted, he gives them a choice – Plata (silver) or Plomo (lead, referring to the bullets in his gun), and the fear he invokes, coupled with the economic situation in Colombia, ensures that the officials’ choice is almost always Plata. It isn’t long before he controls certain transport routes in the country. Around the same time, Mateo “Cockroach” Moreno (Luis Gnecco), a chemist whose specialty is the manufacture of cocaine, comes into his acquaintance.

Cockroach wants Pablo’s help to sell coke in Colombia, but Pablo, the visionary, decides to take the business to the United States. The initial smuggling of coke which happens through blazers with hidden pockets, expands into one that requires shipments delivered through private planes, and before he knows what’s happening, Pablo finds himself with so much money that he has to bury it in fields, and even starts distributing it to the poor. Pablo also takes the initiative to form the Medellin cartel, consisting two other important players in the drug business – the Ochoa family, and Gonzalo “The Mexican” Gacha (Luis Guzman), for it is important to keep one’s friends close, but even more important to keep your enemies closer.

Pablo’s ascent has him believing that he can do anything, he can be anything, including the President of Colombia. His cousin and closest friend, Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba) warns him that his political dreams are bad for the business, but Pablo is beyond reason. He positions himself as a philanthropist with a dream for Colombia, but his history catches up with him, and he’s shamed out of parliament for being a drug dealer. The humiliation is too much for Pablo, and he unleashes a brutal war on the streets, bringing Colombia to its knees, and giving the government no choice but to support extradition of convicted drug lords to the United States, and empowering the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Colombia.

Although history will serve as a spoiler to how Pablo’s life eventually turned out, the show’s execution is flawless. It’s thrilling, it’s got a great deal of black humour, and it’s impossible to stop with watching only one episode. The screenplay explores the lives of both the drug lords, as well as the men and women on the other side. Wagner Moura’s portrayal of both Pablo, the ruthless drug lord, as well as Pablo, the gentle family man, is impeccable. Although the narration isn’t one-sided, the show has a narrator in the DEA Agent, Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who has been brought into Colombia to help the American government tackle the drug menace. Steve Murphy, and his partner, Javier Pena (the extraordinarily handsome Pedro Pascal), along with the Colombian General, Horacio Carillo (Maurice Compte) are crucial players in the fall of Pablo Escobar. It’s interesting to know that the real Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, who’ve long retired from their Narco hunting days, were hired as consultants to show to ensure that the series is true to the real chronology of events. Season one of Narcos explores the first decade of Pablo Escobar’s reign, and the newly released, and just as brilliant second season, takes on the three years that Pablo spends in hiding. The show is as addictive, and possibly as pleasurable as the drug that forms the core of its story. You’ve been warned.

{Seasons one and two of Narcos are currently streaming on Netflix}