Monday, August 14, 2017

Heart-To-Heart Service


Joerg Drechsel, of German origin, talks about the Malabar House, at Fort Kochi, which recently won Lonely Planet's Heritage Hotel of The Year Award

Photos: Joerg Drechsel by Albin Mathew; Malabar House 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When David and Rebekah Benjamin checked in at the Malabar House hotel, at Fort Kochi, a few weeks ago, it was obvious that the latter was unwell. So, she was taken to a nearby hospital. After tests and a check-up, the doctor told the Swiss couple that Rebekah had dengue.

So, Rebekah stayed in the hospital for a few days. But every morning, the staff from the Malabar House would go and change the pillow and sheets. They would also provide all the meals.

Later, after Rebekah recovered, David wrote a mail to owner Joerg Drechsel (of German origin), in which he said, “We have never experienced such care and hospitality anywhere in the world.”

Drechsel has a reason to extend such help. “When you travel to a foreign country, you take along everything you need, but leave behind your social networks,” he says. “So, you have to depend on the people you interact with, like the taxi drivers, tourist guides and hotel staff. And we want to do our best.”

So, it is no surprise that, with this attitude, the Malabar House has won many awards. The latest, a few weeks ago, was the Lonely Planet's Heritage Hotel of The Year Award. In 2014 it won the World Travel Award for best boutique hotel in Asia, and became the first Indian member of Relais and Chateaux (a highly-respected global group of individually-owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants).

Asked the charms of the 17 room hotel-bungalow, CEO Saji Joseph says, “People come, not for a good night’s sleep but to have an experience. The ambience, the exposure of the restaurant to the tropical weather, while the cuisine is based on local flavours (you can have the seasonal catch of the day: fish with tempered tapioca and coconut milk gravy). Then there is the art collection, a blend of contemporary art and collectible old art. We also offer ayurveda treatment as well as yoga lessons.”

Guests are also encouraged to travel to the famed backwaters of Allapuzha, or take part in a beach picnic, and see how coir mats and carpets are made.

However, what greatly adds to the charm is the people-to-people experience. “The Malayali is a born host,” says Drechsel. “He is friendly, kind, warm and cordial. And intelligent, too.There was a waiter who studied philosophy and was happy to discuss French existentialism with a client. For the guests it is an unique experience.”

But, interestingly, the turnover of staff is very high. “In Kerala everybody has a passport in his pocket,” says Drechsel, with a smile. “I have people knocking on my door at 7 p.m., and saying, 'Sir, it was wonderful working with you, thank you very much. My flight to Dubai is at 3 a.m. So I am leaving'.”

Despite the hiccups, it is clear that Drechsel loves Fort Kochi. In the 1970s, he came to stay one night at Fort Kochi and ended up spending two weeks. Thereafter, he kept returning every two years. However, in 1994, when he came across Malabar House, a shuttered bungalow for sale, he decided to buy it. And stayed on. As he put it on the hotel website: 'Country of Birth: Germany. Motherland: India'. 


(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Narration During A Car Ride


COLUMN: LOCATION DIARY

Photos: Scriptwriters Sanjay and Bobby; the poster of 'How Old Are You' 

Scriptwriters Bobby and Sanjay talk about their experiences in the films, 'Ente Veedu Appuvinteyum', 'How Old Are You?' and 'Traffic'

By Shevlin Sebastian

For their first film script, 'Ente Veedu Appuvinteyum' (2003), Bobb and Sanjay felt that Jayaram would be the best person to play the hero. So, one day, they got in touch with Jayaram, who said he was on his way to Kottayam, the home-town of the scriptwriters, for a function. But Jayaram also added that he had to leave immediately, because he had to attend another function at Allapuzha. So, Sanjay narrated the script in the car when Jayaram left Kottayam.

Following the hearing, Jayaram said, “There is a child in the film. Who will be playing that?”

Immediately Sanjay said, “Maybe Kalidas [Jayaram's son] can play it.”

Jayaram mulled over it and stopped the car at Changanacherry. Then he stepped out and called his wife Parvathy. Afterwards, he told Sanjay, Kalidas would act in the film.

This opportunity turned out to be very good, not only for Jayaram, because the film became a hit, but also for the youngster. For his performance, Kalidas won the Kerala State Film Award as well as the National Award for Best Child Artist.

A different type of narration took place when Bobby and Sanjay had readied the script of 'How Old Are You?' (2014). “When we were writing the story, we did not know who could play the heroine,” says Bobby.

Then came the news that Manju Warrier was making a comeback. So, Sanjay and Bobby went to Manju's parents' home in Pullu, Thrissur, and narrated the script. “Manju listened with rapt attention for the entire two hours,” says Bobby.

At the end, Manju said, “This is the challenging role that I was looking for. It suits me perfectly.”

When Manju accepted, the duo felt happy and tense at the same time. “Her comeback had generated a lot of attention in the media,” says Sanjay. “We were worried that if the film did not do well, it would reflect badly on us. However, Manju was confident that it would do well.” This belief was not misplaced; the film became a hit. And Manju made a resounding comeback.

For the Tamil version of 'How Old are you', ('36 Vayadhinile') , there is a scene where actor Jyothika goes to see the President of India. Bobby and Sanjay sent a list to the production controller in Chennai indicating that the number of extras needed to play the roles of Security and Protocol Officers, as well as the Black Cat commandoes.

After a week, there was a message from Chennai. Everybody had been readied, except for the black cats. “They told us they had managed two black cats, but the others were white and brown in colour. Was that okay?” says a smiling Bobby.

The scriptwriters had a different experience on the sets of 'Traffic'. In the film, there is an important character called Dr. Simon D'Souza. “We had a desire that our uncle Jose Prakash should play this role,” says Bobby. “He was 84 at that time, and not keeping good health.” Initially, Jose was not keen but agreed when his nephews urged him.

One week before the shoot, Jose asked for the script. Thereafter, he began rehearsing at home.

My uncle had acted in 300 films,” says Sanjay. “Despite this, it seemed to us, looking at the excited look on his face, that he was acting as if for the very first time.” In the end, the shoot, at Jose's home at Vaduthala, went off very well.

But, sadly, this turned out to be Jose's last film. He passed away on March 24, 2012. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Friday, August 11, 2017

When Amitabh Bachchan Got Angry


Colleagues remember the qualities and achievements of the former Chief News Photographer of The New Indian Express Jeevan Jose who passed away on August 10

Photos: Jeevan Jose; the pics of an angry Amitabh Bachhchan taken by Jeevan Jose 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 6, 1988, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan had arrived at Kochi airport on a helicopter following his secret week-long vacation at Bangaram Island, in Lakshadweep, with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia. Thereafter, he got into an Ambassador car. As it was about to leave the airport, The New Indian Express photographer PK Jeevan Jose managed to click four frames.

An angry Amitabh stepped out out of his car and waved his finger at Jeevan and shouted, “No". But Jeevan remained unfazed. Amitabh turned to the security team, but they remain immobile. Eventually, a grim Amitabh entered the car and left. And Jeevan ended up with an exclusive scoop. (At that time the Centre was probing Ajitabh Bachchan's involvement in the Bofors scam. Opposition politicians asked how there could be an impartial scam when the elder brother was vacationing with the PM)

Memories of Jeevan and his many achievements flooded the minds of his former colleagues and friends as the big-hearted former Chief News photographer passed away at Kochi, on Thursday, at age 64, following a heart attack.

Among the people paying compliments was MK Das, former Resident Editor. “Jeevan had a good nose for news,” says Das. “He was ever willing to take risks and go into any type of situation, no matter how dangerous.”

In 1991, colleague Leela Menon and Jeevan went to a colony at Aruvacode, in Nilambur. In this area, because of poverty, prostitution was rampant. Nobody could enter because of the presence of criminals.

By taking the police into confidence, Leela and Jose posed as representatives of the Union Ministry of Social Welfare. “They showed remarkable courage, as they interviewed the women,” says Das. “And they returned with the story about the racket along with the photos.”

It was published in the Saturday supplement. Immediately, it aroused the interest of the national media. “Many newspapers and magazines followed up on our report,” says Das. “This was one of the numerous occasions when Jeevan rose to the occasion.”

Says Leela: “I feel a pain at his passing away. We had gone on many assignments together including the one which Das had mentioned. Jeevan Chettan was very caring and kept a protective eye on me. I always travelled with him on his scooter. He was a nice man, with no bad habits. Jeevan Chettan was very committed to his profession. And he took very good photographs.”

Apart from being a committed professional, Jeevan was also a mentor. “I had always noticed how good-heartedly he mentored newcomers and junior photographers,” says KA Antony, a former colleague. “He would teach them how to take good photos and encourage them. He would help reporters too, with excellent story ideas.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Empowered By The Spin


Manoj Thomas has an invented the 'Spin Power' wash, which has a brush, as well as shampoo, that can be used to wash cars effortlessly

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Four years ago, entrepreneur Manoj Thomas was laid low by a severe case of spondylitis. As a result, he found it difficult to wash his car at his home in Chakkampuzha, Pala. So he bought a high-speed hose. But after he washed his vehicle he did not feel satisfied. Then he had to use a piece of cloth to dry the vehicle. But that became difficult to do. So Manoj realised he needed a machine which would clean the car smoothly and not need a cloth to dry it. But there was no such product in the market.
  
That was when I decided to make one,” he says. Manoj set aside a room in his home, where he got himself a drilling and cutting machine. Thereafter, for the next years, he did numerous trial and error experiments. And finally, he has made the 'Spin Power' car wash equipment.

At his shop, on a recent evening, Manoj looks upbeat. Just outside is his dusty Santro. He immediately connects the Spin Power to an electric outlet as well as a water tap. And when it starts working, the first thing one notices is the way that the brush moves smoothly over the car body, moving clockwise, and anti-clockwise, with water dripping through it. If you turn a knob, drops of shampoo also mixes with the water.
  
The advantage of this brush, which is of American origin, is that when it comes in touch with water, it becomes smoother,” says Manoj. “So, it has a scratch-free effect.” Effortlessly, Manoj cleans the back, the bonnet, the tyres as well as the top.
  
The advantage is that after the wash you don't need to dry it,” says Manoj. “That's because we use clean water throughout. When you use a bucket and a piece of cloth, you carry on cleaning the car even when the water turns black. So, when the car dries, there are usually spots on it.”

But there are no such issues with Manoj's machine. The Spin Power weighs 1.8 kgs and is priced at Rs 6500. This is cheaper than the high-speed hoses in the market. The other attributes include and A/C as well as a D/C adaptor. The machine uses about 40 volts as compared to the 1500 volts of other products. The number of litres used is 20, which is far less than used by others.

In order to protect his discovery Manoj has applied for a patent. But in India, a patent can take five years to get cleared. “The risk is that when my product is in the market, others will copy it, since there is no patent,” says Manoj. “Unfortunately, I cannot wait so long to get a patent. So, I have decided to keep changing the model to stay one step ahead of the competition.”

Meanwhile, as of now, there are some satisfied customers. Recently, a 53-year-old central government employee James Abraham had gone to buy jackfruit seeds from Manoj's dad nursery. However, there were no seeds in stock. “My father suggested to James that he should have a look at my product,” says Manoj. So, James did so, liked what he he saw and bought it.

After a month of use, James says, “My car [Toyota Etios] can be washed quickly. Since the outer bristles do not rotate, the water does not splash. Sometimes, if there is no electricity slot, it can be used using the car heater. I like this product very much.”

A happy Manoj is keeping his fingers crossed. “I have spent Rs 50 lakh so far,” he says. “But I am confident that customers like James will make Spin Wash a success.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Mapping The Moods


Nitin Vasanth has invented an electrode that traces the mental state of a person, with the help of a smart phone

Photos: Nitin Vasanth by Albin Mathew; the Rajeev Circle Fellows; Nitin is fourth from right 

By Shevlin Sebastian

As his name was called, Nitin Vasanth felt a shiver of excitement as he strode on stage at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi on March 17.

The 23-year-old received The Gandhian Young Technological Innovation Award from Ramesh Mashelkar, a former Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Nitin’s prize-winning entry was called ‘NeuroBuds - Brain Wave Mapping Smart Earphones’.

Apart from the award, the Kozhikode-born Nitin received a grant of Rs 15 lakh to do further research.

While doing his B. Tech in electronics from the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), Nitin came up with the idea of tracking the mental state of any person through an app on the smartphone.

With that end in mind, Nitin put electrodes inside an earphone and then placed it in the ear. “These electrodes are similar to what we use to measure the heart,” says Nitin. “You have seen doctors placing them on the chest. But it is based on a different principle called the Electro-Encephalography.”

In this case, the electrodes help in tracking your mental state. “For example, when you do meditation, the brain emits a particular frequency, which is different from when you are angry or sad,” says Nitin. These messages will appear on the app.

When you find that your stress levels are too high, you can take steps to bring it down, by taking deep breaths, going for a walk, listening to music, or seeing a film,” says Nitin.

Nitin is targeting the stressed-out working professionals, from the ages of 25 to 45. “They are usually short of time and not aware of the stresses they are under,” says Nitin. “This device will make them realise they need to ease up. As a result, they can avoid health issues and save up of on medical costs.”

But Nitin is not yet ready for mass production, as he wants to fine-tune it some more. For that he is getting help from companies like Bosch and Intel.

In fact, in February, Nitin was selected for a five-month ‘accelerator’ programme, organised by Intel and the Department of Science and Technology. So Nitin and the members of his firm, ‘Neuro Tech’, were able to access the Intel Lab at Bangalore and interact with the engineers.

But his turning point came when he was selected for the Rajeev Circle Fellowship to spend the month of May in Silicon Valley, California. (Rajeev is the first name of the late Motwani, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, who was a mentor to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin).

I met a lot of entrepreneurs, investors, and venture capitalists,” says Nitin. “I got to know what works, what doesn't, and what I should focus on. Our group of 11 was allowed access to the R&D labs of Google and Facebook. We saw the frenzy of innovation first-hand. It was a huge learning experience.”

And Nitin was very much taken up by the work culture in the Valley. “People are ready to help each other, even among start-ups,” he says. “There is competition, but they believe that there is space for everybody. Failure is not seen as a disaster. If one thing does not work, they try something else.”

Today, the Bangalore-based Nitin is working hard to ensure that his ear plug becomes a world-class product.

Meanwhile, one who is sure of his success is Unni A M, Associate Professor, Electronics Engineering, CUSAT. “Nitin is extremely dedicated to his work,” he says. “Since 2013, he has been working on this project. He wants to ensure that it materialises and becomes useful for society. I am sure, in future, he will be someone to reckon with.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Monday, August 07, 2017

As Close To Real Life As Possible


Director Dileesh Pothan talks about his critically-acclaimed hit film, 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum'

Photos of Dileesh Pothan by Albin Mathew; the poster of 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum'

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent afternoon, Mollywood director Dileesh Pothan was relaxing in a production bungalow in Kochi with his crew members. Suddenly, he heard the 'Ping' sound of a message. Quickly, he picked up his mobile phone. It was a forward from actor Fahadh Faasil. The message read: 'Please congratulate the director for me. Wonderful to see such talent flourishing'.

The message was sent by the noted director Mani Ratnam. And the film he was referring to is Dileesh's second, the critically-acclaimed hit, 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum' (Material object and eye-witness).

The tale, based on a script by journalist Sajeev Pazhoor, is simple. A couple Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu) and Sreeja (newcomer Nimisha Sajayan) are travelling on a bus from Vaikom to Kasaragod in Kerala. Owing to family opposition, because they belong to different castes, they had got married hastily and are now eloping.

On the bus, a thief (Fahadh Faasil), who is sitting behind, managed to snip off Sreeja's gold necklace, using a cutter. Fahadh is spotted immediately by Sreeja, but he quickly swallows the item and denies the robbery. The bus is stopped, there is a hullabaloo by the passengers and the vehicle is eventually taken to the police station.

What follows is an intriguing and gripping drama at the police station. In order to provide authenticity, 23 actual policemen are acting, including the Sub Inspector, who is played by Sibi Thomas, a Circle Inspector in real life.

To provide even more authenticity, Dileesh did away with written dialogues. I told the actors the main points of the scene,” says Dileesh. “Then I would ask them to come up with suitable dialogues. But we would do a day's rehearsal. And we kept practising till the conversation was perfect. This enabled the actors to go deeper into their characters.”

Another game-changer was the presence of noted Bollywood/Mollywood cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, who shot most of the scenes with a hand-held camera. “When an actor moves, if the camera moves at the same time, you can catch him in a most natural manner,” says Dileesh, whose first film, 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram' was also received well.

While everybody acted well, Fahadh took the prize for his portrayal as a thief. “To get a true feel of what it is like to be inside a police station, Fahadh would sit on a thin mattress on the floor in the 'arms room',” says Dileesh. “On most days, after lunch, he would also go and sit in the cell. Sometimes, he took a nap.”

All this hard work by everyone has paid off. 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum' is one of the best Mollywood films in recent times. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

So Many Gifted Voices



The two volumes of The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature showcases some of the best writing of the 20th century

Photos: Clockwise from front: M. Mukundan; AS Priya; Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Chandu Menon, OV Vijayan, MP Narayana Pillai, ONV Kurup (with spectacles) and Sarah Joseph. Collage by Amit Bandre; the book covers 

By Shevlin Sebastian

'The deep black of her locks, its length, abundance, and softness were most alluring. As for her lips, I wonder whether it is possible to see their likeness in women who are not Europeans. Her eyes - their length, their triple tone, their sparkle, the way she uses them on occasion, and the intense fire in them - can be described only by young men who have been subjected to their effect. In addition, she was at an age when her bosom was filling out. Is there a man invulnerable to the power of those growing breasts? Can anyone describe the bewitching beauty of this Indulekha!'

This is an extract from Chandu Menon's 'Indulekha' (1889). “This is the first novel in Malayalam that has the characteristics of a Western novel,” says PP Raveendran, Professor Emeritus at the School of Letters, Mahatma Gandhi University. “And it has been presented as a social narrative. One can say that it is a realistic presentation of society during those times where a feudal way of life was giving way to an industrialist-capitalist one.”

But it also had a powerful impact on society. “It led to a radical reform of the ways of the Namboodiris and Nairs, the two major communities featured in the novel,” says Raveendran. “No organised movement could have brought about a social transformation that this novel did.”

The Indulekha extract was featured in The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature, which has been edited by Raveendran and Prof. GS Jayasree. There are two volumes: while the first deals with poetry, drama and prose, the second book focuses on fiction.

Expectedly, many greats are featured in the fiction volume. They include names like Ponkunnam Varkey, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, SK Pottekkatt, T. Padmanabhan, O.V. Vijayan, MT Vasudevan Nair and M. Mukundan.

One notable omission is Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. And the reason is because the editors could not get the required copyright permission.

Asked about the target audience, Raveendran says, “This will benefit ordinary readers, those who have specialised in literature as well as research scholars from outside Kerala, who want to read Malayalam literature. This is the first time that such a comprehensive anthology of Malayalam literature has been published in English.”

Not surprisingly, thanks to the patriarchal nature of Kerala, males dominate the list. “But, in recent times, more women writers have emerged,” says Jayasree, the Director of the Centre for Women's Studies, Kerala University. “They include AS Priya, KR Meera, Sarah Joseph, Gracy, Geetha Hiranyan, and S. Sithara.

This is a beautifully produced set. The Adobe Garamond font is a delight to read. Before each story or drama or prose, there is a biographical sketch, so the reader is fully aware of the author's career as well as a description of the story he or she is about to read.

And some are highly imaginative. In MP Narayana Pillai's 'The Court of King George The Sixth', he writes: 'As rain and sunshine fell on me, moss slowly covered me. The soles of my feet were eaten by termites. The tips of my toes put forth buds. My hair turned into upward-growing roots. My hands became branches.'

Adds Raveendran: “Pillai created a world of myth, magic and fantasy peopled with devas, asuras, yakshis, ghouls sorcerers, demons and other natural and supernatural beings.”

There is an equally vibrant writing in the Poetry, Drama and Prose volume thanks to the presence of well-known writers like N. Kumaran Asan, G. Sankara Kurup, K. Ayyappa Paniker, and the late ONV Kurup.

All in all, this is a sumptuous celebration of Malayalam literature. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvannanthapuram) 

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

It's Just So Tasty


Radhika Menon and her friend Priya Deepak sell traditional cookware through 'Village Fair'

Photo: Priya Deepak (left) and Radhika Menon. Photo by K. Shijith

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, two years ago, Radhika Menon was going through her Facebook timeline. Soon, she saw a post by a friend of hers about a cast iron fish that had been invented by a Canadian Dr. Christopher Charles. The idea is that you drop the iron fish while cooking is taking place, so that the iron seeps into the food. All humans need a bit of iron in their diet. Soon, Radhika saw a comment: “Once upon a time we used to cook in cast iron pots!”

Immediately Radhika typed, “I still do, the way my grandmother did.” Then she posted a few pictures of her cast iron dosa pan and kadai. This was shared in a foodie group. Thereafter, many asked where they could get this.

It suddenly struck me that this could be a business,” says Radhika at Kochi. She decided to team up with her friend, Priya Deepak and thus was born the ‘Village Fair’.

Today, the duo sells all types of traditional cookware, ranging from clay pots, kadais, tavas, pans, skillets, grinding stones, and traditional stoneware.

The USP is the seasoning. This is being done by a 20 member group of men and women on Vypeen island. In fact, their first volunteeer was Radhika's house help, Lalitha. “She knew how to do it,” says Radhika. “We began with a few orders. When the numbers became big, Lalitha included other family members.”

The group gets the 'raw' utensils from factories and kilns. Then they wash it in cold water to remove all the mud and the grime. Then it is immersed in rice and starch water for four days. Thereafter, the vessels are scrubbed clean and sandpaper is used to smooth out the rough edges. After that it is placed on the fire and cured with vegetable oil. “If it is a kadai oil is applied inside, and on a dosa pan it is on the outside,” says Priya. “We then make one or two dosas to check whether the seasoning has happened correctly.”

The prices range from Rs 1500 to Rs 2500 for cast iron, bronze, from Rs 4000 to Rs 5000, depending on the weight, soapstone is from Rs 1700 to Rs 2000 and clay pots from Rs 680 to Rs 1500.

Asked whether it is a bit on the expensive side, Priya says, “You are paying for the cookware as well as the seasoning efforts. It is not an easy thing to do.”

Anyway, owing to a rising health consciousness, there is a growing demand for traditional cookware. “People have realised that in modern utensils, once the non-stick wears off, food can become toxic,” says Radhika. “The advantage of traditional cookware is that once you buy it, you can use it forever.”

And the food is tastier. “There are far more flavours in the food,” says Radhika. “You have to try it to know the difference.”

Today, thanks to a thriving online presence, the Village Fair has customers from Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and many other cities. Their first international customer was a couple from New Zealand, Tim and Suzie Hunt. “They had come to India earlier,” says Priya. “And they ordered a dosa pan.”

In fact, the dosa pan is one of their most popular items. “Because people like to cook a nice crisp dosa, and it is much tastier than when you use a non-stick cookware pan,” says Radhika.

The duo say they have a lot of satisfied customers. “They call us a God-send,” says Priya. “Our business has grown through word of mouth.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kicking Off Her Heels

COLUMN: LOCATION DIARY

Prayaga Martin talks about her experiences in the films, ‘Kattappanayile Hrithik Roshan’, ‘Viswasapoorvam Mansoor’ and 'Fukri'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Kattappanayile Hrithik Roshan (2016), Prayaga Martin is standing on a stage and doing an audition. For that, she has to mouth the dialogues of Revathi, wh plays a Bharatnatyam dancer in 'Devasuram'. Sitting behind a table are the three judges. After she concludes her dialogues, Prayaga is supposed to accidentally kick her platform heels at the middle judge played by an actor called Suraj.

The first time I kicked off my heels, it went and hit the false ceiling,” says Prayaga. “As a result, some of the thermocol broke off.” So the shooting had to be stopped for a while. Then the second time, the heel went and hit a very sensitive part of an associate director standing nearby. Prayaga had to apologise profusely. Then finally, after a few retakes, it hit the judge, who spilled a cup of tea on to his clothes. “I felt the need to apologise to the judge even though it was part of the story, and one of the funniest scenes in the film,” says Prayaga.

In Viswasapoorvam Mansoor (2017), Prayaga enjoyed other humorous moments. There was a night schedule at Tellicherry. Asha Sharath was getting ready inside her room. Zarina Wahab and Prayaga were waiting outside. After a while Zarina knocked on the door.

Coming,” said Asha.

Suddenly a gruff male voice said, “Hey Asha open the door.”

Prayaga got shocked. “I was thinking, 'Where is this voice coming from?'” she says.

Asha got scared. She said, “Who is this?”

The voice again said, “Hey, open the door, Asha.”

Prayaga turned to the right and got another shock. It was Zarina who was impersonating a man's voice. “We all had a big laugh later on,” says Prayaga.

Zarina continued with her pranks. Once, when Prayaga and Zarina had a shooting schedule in Hyderabad, she asked for the number of Roshan Mathew who has a role in the film. He was in Mumbai at that time. So, Prayaga gave it to her.
Zarina called Roshan, and said, “Hey I am a big fan of yours. My name is Pooja. I am a student from Mumbai. Are you single? I really want to marry you.”

Roshan said, “Who are you?”

Zarina said, “I want to marry you. I want to marry you.”

Roshan got a little scared. “He thought that Pooja was a mad fan, so he agreed to marry, and then cut off the line,” says Prayaga.

In the film, 'Fukri', it was the time of Prayaga to have fun. Somehow, word got around that she is a good mimic. So, the crew asked her to mimic Jayasurya, who has a role in the film. So, she did it in front of Jayasurya, who was impressed. And he told director Siddique. When he heard that she could mimic him, Siddique asked her to do so in front of the entire crew at a bungalow in Pala.

Whenever I would see Sidique Sir on the set, I would bend my head and say, 'Hi Sir, good evening',” says Prayaga. “He talked in a soft but hoarse voice and always asked me, 'Where is your father and mother?'”

So Prayaga mimicked that. And everybody, including Siddique, burst out laughing. Emboldened, she continued with a skit between Jayasurya and Siddique.

I imitated a conversation between Jaya Chettan where he is giving an idea to Siddique Sir, who says, 'No, we don't want that here',” says Prayaga. “'We can try it later. At this moment, can you do what I have told you?'” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Back To Its Glorious Best


The members of the Maliyil-Pulikathra family reflect on their recently-renovated snakeboat, 'JaiShot', and their plans for the future

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 4.30 a.m., on June 30, it is pitch black on the banks of the Muvattupuzha river at Chempu (27 kms from Kochi). The only sound is of the crickets chirping and, surprisingly, an occasional cawing of a crow. A bare-bodied priest, in a white dhoti, who has come from the nearby Nadakavu Temple, sits cross-legged in front of a fire. The Ganapathy Homam Puja is taking place. Lord Ganesha is known to remove all obstacles. As the chants begin, offerings of coconut, honey, banana, ghee, and puffed rice are made.

The puja concludes before sun-rise. Then, in the true traditions of a syncretic Kerala, at 7.30 a.m., a priest from the local St. Thomas Jacobite Syrian church arrives. He also chants prayers.

All this is being done beside the just-renovated 'JaiShot' snakeboat. At 10 a.m., the boat is finallypushed into the water, by several people, amidst shouts of 'Come on' and 'Jai Ho'.

And the one person who looks the most pleased is Minoo Verghese, of the Maliyil Pulikathra family, which owns the 'JaiShot'. For the past few years, the boat had remained idle. But there was a reason for this: for the snakeboat races, the boats now seat 60 people, while the 'JaiShot' had only 48 oars.

There were several discussions among the family members,” says Minoo. “And we decided that, instead of selling it, we would increase the number of seats.” The 'we' includes Minoo's wife Resina Sarah, aunt Molly John, and first cousins Sam C Maliyil and Dr. Abraham Oomman.

The renovation, at a cost of Rs 20 lakh, was done by a fourth-generation master boat builder Uma Maheshwaran, along with his brother, sons and nephews. Today, the boat has a length of 85 feet, a width of four feet and a depth of one-and-a-half feet. “The wood is top-quality wild jack, which we got from a large tree in our property,” says Minoo, a businessman. The rims are made of teak, the rivets, of copper, while the planks have been joined together using pine resin and silk cotton grounded together.

It took eight-and-a-half months. “There were many difficult moments,” says Resina. “But we are happy we did it, because we have kept up our family tradition.”

This began in 1926, when their grandfather MC George bought a boat from the skilled boat-builders of Varapuzha and named it the 'Pulikathra Vallom'. A Director of the State Agricultural Department, George was also a rice farmer. “The boat was used to transport men and materials,” says Sam. “And since it was fast, it could speed through dacoit-infested marshes and rivers.”

In later years, the boat also participated in snakeboat races. And it reached its apogee of fame in 1952. At that time, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the chief guest. He was accompanied by his 35-year-old daughter Indira. When Indira saw the speed of the Vallom, which won the race, she said, “Look, look, it goes like a [bullet] shot!” This was repeated by the radio announcer as well as on the public address system. “So, everybody came to know about it,” says the elderly Molly.

Immediately, the boat was re-named as the 'Shot'. And in the 1970s, the 'Shot' entered racing folklore when it won the trophy three years in a row. “That was a proud moment for all of us,” says Molly. Incidentally, following a renovation in 2001, the 'Shot' was re-named as 'JaiShot' by the next generation. “'Jai' is a short form of Jai Hind,” says Minoo.

Meanwhile, as the family members are conversing, and downing glasses of fresh palm toddy, at their spacious bungalow, beside the river, a group of muscular men arrive. They are the members of the Kumarakom Town Boat Club, who had come to take the boat. The family have allowed them to use it for upcoming races. “We look forward to many victories,” says a smiling Minoo, as he raises a glass.

Boxes:  

The Men On The Boat

Traditionally the boat is controlled by a Kaarnavan or a village leader. There are three main rowers (Amarakaran) at the back who control the movement using 9-foot long oars. The rowers sit two to a row, and follow the rhythm set to the vanchipattu (boatman's song, see box below). This rhythm is set by the drummer in the middle who beats the 'odithatta' (firing platform) with a staff.

The boat song

The song was composed by the poet Ramapurathu Warrier (1703-53), who belonged to the court of King Marthanda Varma. During a boat journey from the Vaikom Mahadeva temple to Thiruvananthapuram, Warrier sang the 'Kuchela Vrittam Vanchippattu' and used the hypnotic refrain, 'thi thi tha thi thei tho'. This poem tells the story of Lord Krishna meeting up with his poverty-stricken friend, Kuchela. Warrier was also indirectly hinting at his own situation. The king got the message and rewarded him amply.

The history of the races

During the 13th-century there were many feudal kingdoms in Kerala. Now and then they would go to war with each other. During one such war, between the kingdoms of Kayamkulam and Chembakassery, the latter suffered a defeat. A frustrated King Devanarayana asked a noted carpenter in his realm to make an efficient war boat. He made one and it was called the Chundam Vallam (Snake Boat). Later, races took place on these boats during the harvest festival of Onam.

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Looking For The Blood Vessel


Medtra Innovative Technologies, a start-up, has made the Veineux, a product that can detect veins through infrared rays. So, injections can be done easily

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September, 2011, Saj Sulaiman was looking at his seven-day-old son Adan through a glass panel in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital in Kottayam. Because of a cold, the infant was in distress. After a while a nurse came to give an injection. But somehow, she could not find a vein. It took several attempts before she could finally inject the medicine. “It was a worrying time for me as a parent,” he says. “I never forgot that moment.”

This is a common problem in most hospitals. “Identifying a vein is not easy,” says Saj. “30 per cent is visible. For the remaining 70 per cent, you need to prick at least three times, before the nurse or doctor can locate the vein.”

Usually, this problem is seen in new-born babies. Since mothers eat well these days, the babies are on the heavier side, at 3 kgs. So, it is difficult to find a vein. This is also the case with patients who undergo chemotherapy. Many veins became damaged owing to over-use. In cardiology cases, to insert the balloon, you need to find the right vein. Another vein which is difficult to find is the jugular. This is needed during neurosurgery and critical cases.

A couple of years ago, Saj, through his Riyadh-based Medtra Limited Company, began marketing a US product. This palm-sized machine locates the vein easily through an infrared ray. But he found that there were few takers in the huge Indian market, because the American item was priced at Rs 6 lakh.

He was wondering what to do, when he came on a visit to Kochi two years ago, and met up with his friend Sujith Surendran. They were classmates at the Government Polytechnic at Vechoochira in Pathanamthitta district. The pair got talking. Soon, they decided to start a company, Medtra Innovative Technologies, and decided to make an Indian version. “We did not infringe on the patent at all,” says Sujith. “The US company had only patented some particular processes.”

After several trial and error attempts, the company has come up with the Veineux (the French word for a 'vein'). And it is being priced at less than Rs 1 lakh. A large number of Chinese players have also entered the market, but their products are priced at Rs 3.5 lakh. “So, we can easily compete with them,” says Saj. “We hope many hospitals and clinics will buy our product.”

Essentially, a button is pressed and an infrared ray is pointed at the skin. The penetration factor of the ray is 1.5 mm, while the vein usually lies 1 mm below the skin's surface. “Whereever there is haemoglobin in the veins, the absorption of the rays is higher,” says Sujith. “It is seen as a black smudge. That is where the vein is located. Thereafter, you can insert a needle and do the injection.”

This is becoming a vital machine to have. “When a person with haemorrhage is admitted into a hospital, unless a senior nurse comes, it is difficult to find a vein,” says Sujith. “You could lose precious minutes. Recently, at a hospital in Kochi, an elderly patient came and it took 16 nurses to find the vein.”

Before introducing it into the market, in a few weeks, a trial run has been conducted at Kochi's AsterMed City Hospital. “This is very promising product,” says Dr. Jose Paul, senior consultant in neonatology. “When we tested on a baby, the veins looked very prominent. So, it is easy to do the injection. Very likely, we will be buying it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)  

An Illuminating Talk

Musician TM Krishna provides new insights to age-old concepts

Photo by Madhu Krishnan 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Moments before Carnatic musician TM Krishna began his talk, ‘The Artist As Citizen and The Citizen as Artist’, at the Dr. TK Ramachandran Memorial Lecture 2017 at Kochi, the rains came down.  Krishna looked out of the fifth-floor windows and said, “For a person who is coming from Chennai, these rains are unbelievably beautiful.”

It was a jam-packed hall comprising intellectuals, cultural and social figures, educationists, artists, scholars, students, as well as journalists.   

Very soon into the talk, you realise that Krishna has an unusual thought process.  “All the people coming into this space know how to come here,” he says. “They already know they are insiders. It is like all Left party members holding a meeting. There is no point. They talk to each other and feel very happy about themselves. But nothing is achieved by it.”

This is also the case when you go to a Carnatic music concert. “But what are we doing?” says Krishna. “We are basically saying, ‘We are wonderful people’. We are saying that, ‘People outside really don’t know anything, they are not good enough to come in. But if they want to come in there are certain rules and regulations which they have to understand before they can come in’.”  

It was a talk that made people aware of their thought processes. And Krishna was asking the audience to test their conclusions. And maybe adopt some changes. 

He gave an example: Some years ago, Krishna changed the way the musicians sat in a Carnatic concert. “I moved to one side and we sat in a C,” he said. “As soon as I did it, my control diminished. The sheer moving from the centre to the right changed the way I dealt with my own body. It almost felt that I was not that important any more. It changed the way I listened to the violinist. And it changed the way he listened to me.”

And it had an impact on the audience. They began listening to all the musicians differently. “Suddenly you saw two people who are in a hierarchy having an equal conversation: the ghatam and the mridangam,” he said. “There was a content disruption which is taking place. And it turned out to be so wonderful.”

These are just a few examples of the numerous insights, thought-processes and ideas which Krishna provided in his speech. For those who were interested in the subject, his lecture was nothing short of fascinating. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)