Tuesday, June 28, 2005

I have promised so many people to write them personal accounts of my recent Star Cruises trip (ahem) that if I actually sat down to do it, I would have to transform into the kind of super-efficient superwoman who actually keeps promises who I passionately hate. So here's the low-down that appeared in my newspaper (that should explain the plug-speak littered throughout -- but if you've been wined and dined in the best tradition for three days, well, why wouldn't you give them some free publicity?). I love junkets -- except when they turn out to be like the one to Malaysia in which we were taken to one-lion safaris and cheesy carnivals with dancers from Belarus and bike-riding chimps and cowboys with Oriental features and American cheerleader-type dancers with pom-poms and all. And fed Indian food throughout. I am thoroughly sick of the sight of dal makhani made Malaysian style which is no style at all. Anyway, I digress. More on that later. Here goes Star Cruises -- which was also tacky in a way, but a nice, luxurious, red-carpet sort of way.

Living it up on the high seas
It’s a great life once you’ve made it up the gangway.

Halfway up the gangway into SuperStar Virgo, I suffer a moment of panic. Where are those sea-sickness pills I’d packed away so carefully, I mutter, rifling through an over-stuffed bag. (None of this actually happened, not really, but what the heck, you’ve got to start with a bang. And nothing like an impending disaster to get the readers, you know, like, involved). Having grown up on stories of sea-crossings in which delicately nurtured ladies are reduced to being ignominiously sick all over their hot, cramped cabins, I knew those pills would probably save my life on this three-day voyage from Singapore and back.

Seeing me about to disembark in search of the nearest pharmacy to stock up on the pills that I have left on the bedside table of the hotel room, a gallant co-passenger who has been on this particular ship before comes to the rescue. “Never fear. No sea-sickness on this baby,” he says, pointing to the huge mass of the luxury liner that is to be home for the next three days and nights. (PR plug! PR plug!)

And looking up at the 13 decks (floors for you landlubbers) that make up the gigantic SuperStar Virgo, gleaming white in the hot Singapore sunlight, all fears recede. This is no rickety sail-boat from Pirates of the Caribbean — this is a true-blue luxury cruise ship, equipped to accommodate upwards of 5,000 people at a time and entertain them for every moment they are on board. Anything that looks so solid and secure could be nothing but impeccably safe, I tell myself, at least safer than those flying machines we keep gadding about in (genuinely funny comment, I thought). “Yes, that’s what the Titanic’s passengers told themselves,” a pessimistic fellow traveller says gloomily. “Yes, but are you expecting icebergs off the Malaysian coast?” I retort. (Lifted straight from conversation had much before I left on the trip. But what, do you expect me to tell the readers how we sedately went up the re-carpeted gangway and nothing remotely interesting happened, except ho-hoing arrival of a Garfield character who we were forced to pose for pictures with?)

On the opulent main deck of SS Virgo, we are greeted by kimono-clad women holding trays of bubbly (really, really, they did! I was so excited. Imagine – champagne on arrival!). This is the life, we sigh. The ship is yet to sail, and we are taken on a grand tour of all it has to offer. (Safely avoid rest of para – all plug speak). The list draws up to something like this: swimming pool with jacuzzi at each corner that would put any respectable five-star to shame, kiddies’ pool, sports deck with jogging track, basketball court and miniature golf, 13 restaurants and bars on board including four speciality cuisine restaurants that serve Indian, authentic Chinese, Japanese and Italian food, numerous watering holes including a karaoke bar and an open-air tavern, a gym, a beauty salon, an ice-cream parlour, a library, a business centre, a conference room, an auditorium, a casino — whew! (And may the man who insisted on taking us around to even the tiniest, littlest, tackiest entertainment the ship had to offer have to sing in his own effing karaoke bar for the rest of life)

Finally our tired feet are led towards our cabins — which, thankfully, are nothing like the cramped lodgings of the Moby Dick variety but come with double bed, attached bathroom, a TV (for those who draw their life-force from repeated re-runs of Friends) and, wonder of wonders, an honest-to-God balcony that looks right into the vast blueness of the ocean. (Nothing to complain here. How sad, I love saying bitchy things about things I secretly enjoy.)

(Avoid, avoid!) These are the Balcony Class rooms — one of the five kinds of rooms and suites available, the others being inside staterooms (no view), oceanview staterooms (with a porthole, those looking for some genuine shipboard experience should go for this), oceanview staterooms with a window (about the same size as the previous) and the junior suites and executive suites (for the luxury-minded).

Dinner is at the richly appointed Italian restaurant on board, Palazzo. Excellent food tastes better served in baroque surroundings, we decide, as the fettuccine in butter sauce I am having, literally melts in the mouth. After that, it’s time for sipping wine at the appropriately named Galaxy of the Stars, a glass-covered deck on level 12 towards the front, sorry, the forward, of the ship. (One night we stumbled upon some ‘adult game competitions’ going on here. No, nothing remotely naughty. Only fat Punju men from Delhi making fools of themselves playing a sort of musical chairs minus the chairs and plus some hats)

The 3-days-3-nights package on SS Virgo that starts from Singapore each Sunday and docks back on Wednesday takes in two pit-stops at Penang in Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand. The next day, we land into the blistering heat and killing humidity of Penang around mid-morning. This island state off the western coast of Malaysia was once a fishing port and is now a thriving business centre and beach-bummers’ paradise — thanks mostly to its stretch of sea-front shops and restaurants catering to the tourist crowd called Batu Feringhi. Famed for its much-rocking nightlife, the good Batu is denied to us as we have to return on board ship by early evening. Air conditioning never felt so good. (Penang terrible let-down. Was taken to batik factory. Wanted to tell them am coming from shonar bangla where batik was invented. I think)

The regular night-time entertainment on SS Virgo is the Lido show — a Las Vegas style live show with dance and acrobatic acts, the brochure promises. What it doesn’t inform is that these will take place simultaneously, with little Chinese kids pirouetting on hoops mid-air even as samba dancers do their thing on the stage below. (Horrible, traumatic experience. At one time, there were these three puny kids who had stuck themselves, bum first, into a sort of bin thing and that was supposed to be like really acrobatic) A bit of a hotchpotch, as one can imagine, but the men, apparently, have something to look forward to as there’s an ‘adult’ version of the same later in the night. The word ‘topless’ is whispered. The ladies look the other way as the men try hard not to look interested. (was told later old hags tried to look demure while showing nothing. Said men were severely disappointed)

The next day, we say land ahoy off the coast near Phuket. It will be just as hot as Penang, we are warned the night before, only to wake up in the morning to see the emerald Phuket in the distance through a mist of light drizzle and a lazy, cool sea breeze. After a few brief and unfortunately lacklustre visits to a cashewnut factory and a jewellery and artefacts store that reminds one strongly of the various state emporia back home, we are let loose into a departmental store to get a taste of the famed shopping in Thailand. This is where most Indians head to stock up on the gifts that they must take back for the three hundred and forty nine relatives back home — and it’s not difficult to figure out why, with T-shirts as cheap as 80 Thai baht and quality footwear for around 300 baht. Since the baht is only marginally higher in value than Indian currency (about 0.25 paise per rupee), shopping in Thailand is minus the constant headache of having to make impossible multiplications in your head to convert costs into Indian rupees, a fact that undoubtedly contributes towards its popularity. Besides cheap DVDs and Thai massages, of course. (Amazing, marvelous Phuket! Where else would one manage to get all the cheesy gifts one had to get for the loads of freeloaders at home? Oops, some of them could be reading this!)

It’s disembarkation time next evening, and we bid farewell to our own favourite nooks and crannies of the ship, armed with bottles of wine procured with left-over dining credit. (Undignified last minute scramble while moaning ‘why did I treat everybody to that last drink yesterday? why? why?’)It’s good-bye to the good life for us as we land into hot and muggy Singapore.

(Plug warning) The good news? The Star Cruises family is starting its first Indian cruise aboard the Super Star Libra. The ship will be homeported in Mumbai from September and after a series of one-night cruises from Mumbai, she will do regular four-night destination cruises to Kadmat in virgin Lakshwadeep and Goa, two-night cruises to Goa and 1-night weekend getaway cruises off Mumbai.

La Dolce Vita, here I come.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In Bengali, parineeta means betrothed or spoken for. The root of the word is 'parinato', which means mature. It’s a word I would hesitate to use about the latest Bong weepie from Bollywood everyone's talking about. Sarat Chandra's novel, which has been ‘adapted’ for the film -- and Vidhu Vinod announces this cleverly before the Bong purists can cry 'cholbe na cholbe na' -- was a mature love story. Yes, even though the protagonists were ridiculously young by our standards. In the novel, Lalita is 15 and Shekhar barely older. (It's a different debate how on earth they could be so bloody precocious and that's a problem I've always had with Sarat babu but we'll settle that later.)

In all respects, Parineeta is a well-researched, well-shot and considerably moving and engaging film. But I have a few irreconcilable problems with it. Firstly, it is a tad too well-shot. I completely agree with my friend Sumit Bhattacharya who reviewed it for Rediff that it is just too pretty-pretty. It's a montage of set-pieces, each very eye-catching and picture perfect -- yet not really soul-satisfying. It is all very well to do that in a music video where you have to grab viewers in the split second before they switch channels to AXN Dhamaka, but Pradeep Sarkar seems unable to get over the music video hangover.

Which brings me to my second problem. Why are Hindi film heroines ALWAYS so well-dressed? I mean, it's a great change to see film-makers pay so much attention to the look of a character and not dress all the girls uniformly in frumpy frocks or loud salwaar kameezes, no matter who they are playing -- tough policewomen or idiotic college girls -- as was the trend in numerous Madhuri Dixit/Sridevi starrers till as late as the late nineties. But now they've gone and overdone it. These days, all the women look so bloody well-groomed it's difficult to imagine they are for real and do real things like take the bus to work.

All great directors pay attention to how their characters are dressed, but the difference between them and the mediocres is they do it without looking like they've tried really really hard. With these guys -- and you take any of them: SLB, Farhan Akhtar and now Pradeep Sarkar or Vidhu Vinod -- you just know they’ve spent hours with the image consultant to decide whether the heroine should wear a red-bordered dhakai saree in that scene or the plain blue one.

This happens in Parineeta too, besides the fact that Sarkar gets quite a few period details wrong. Back in the sixties, young girls wore short-kurta churidar ensembles but they were NOT crystal-encrusted J J Valaya rip-offs (so says the veteran fashion hack in me). There were Ambassador cars on the roads and people did not zip around in vintage baby Austins.

And once and for all, Bengalis have no pre-shaadi sangeet ceremony with old fat aunt singing bawdy songs. Not now, and certainly not fifty years back. What was Sarkar thinking? He could just have asked the many mashis and pishis and kakimas that abound in any Bong phamily! He is a Bong himself, though after seeing the film, I doubt it. How could he have let most of the actors get away with their own interpretations of how the name Lalita ought to be pronounced? They all have their own versions and not one, apart from the Bengali actors, gets it right. To put the record straight (on the off chance that Sarkar or any of his diction-challenged actors are reading this), the Bengali 'Lolita' is not pronounced the same way as the Nabokov Lolita is, which is how we hear it through most of the film and which really game me some serious ulcers. It's not Lolly-ta, it's Loli- (rhymes with goli, as in to ab goli kha)ta.

Finally, I hate this habit film-makers have when making a Bong-theme movie of interspersing the dialogue, which is mainly in Hindi, with choice phrases and snatches of dialogue in Bengali. What does that mean – that the rest of the time the characters are actually speaking Hindi? In a Bengali family in sixties Calcutta? They might as well be shown speaking Zulu.

I won’t even talk about the overdone climax here. It’s just too ridiculous for words and completely spoils the tone of the rest of the film.

But I do long to see one contemporary adaptation of a Bengali literary classic that doesn’t make me cringe every few minutes or want to get under the seat in sheer embarrassment.