Monday, 26 January 2009

Saving lives

One man’s journey to redeem himself from a deadly secret
By Sneha May Francis

A thrilling encounter of how one tragic incident in the life of IRA agent Tim Thomas, essayed by the versatile Will Smith, leaves him scattered and disoriented. Motivating him to search for a deeper, more meaningful answer. And forcing him to set out to change the lives of seven strangers.

He picks random people, all good at heart and in dire need of help, and chalks out ways to put an end to their misery. He shortlists his brother Ben (Michael Ealy), social worker Holly (Judyann Elder), hockey coach George (Bill Smitrovich), little Nicholas (Quintin Kelley) and Connie Tepos (Elpidia Carrillo), who suffers at the hands of an abused lover. He ends his search with a meat salesman Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) and printer Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson). They are all good people, each with a bitter story to tell. And Thomas walks into their lives and makes drastic changes that leaves them empowered with the hope to live on.

The film travels with Thomas, through his search for the right beneficiaries. Once he finds a candidate, he trails them – watching and studying them closely – to reason their true worth. There’s an incident when he rejects a candidate because he find him ill-treating an aging lady who is under his care. He makes calculated donations, only to ensure that his recipients truly deserve it.

Though critics call this an emotional drama, Smith, who also takes on the role of producer, insists it’s a romantic film. Probably because of Thomas’ charming love story with one of his beneficiary, the lovely Posa. The film follows the two characters, painting a shade of hope in their lives. It’s during their interactions that we understand the intensity of this man’s turbulent past and how deeply injured he is. Despite her numerous attempts to learn about his past, he remains closed and non-committal. Their sweet love story makes us want to make it last. It’s heartening to watch Thomas go the extra mile to fix her antique card printer. But the more her health deteriorates, the more determined he is to help her.

The film’s title is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, in which a debtor must pay a pound of flesh, and will explain Thomas’ journey even more clearly.

After essaying a strong character in The Pursuit of Happyness and playing havoc in Hancock, Smith continues to thrill with his striking yet controlled performance. Through the entire film, Smith sketches out a beautiful frame for Thomas. You soon begin to bond with him, his triumphs and emotions. This man’s life, in a way, makes us question our intentions, on whether we are true to our deeds and actions. Prodding us on how far we would go to correct our mistakes.
Towards the end of the film, Thomas is seen retiring to his motel room, where he keeps his boxed pet jelly fish. The end, ain’t for the weak hearted, and could hurt some people’s religious sentiments. But it works for the film – making a strong, subtle statement.

This griping tale will definitely leave us questioning the true essence of our existence.

(Published e+, Gulf News, January 29,2009 issue)

A fishy affair

Delicious deep-fried seafood leaves Sneha May Francis craving for more

Being a hardcore foodie I have come to discover that some of the best dishes the world over are created in the tiniest, most inconspicuous kitchens. My hungry tummy always finds its way to the delectable knocks and corners of each city. And Dubai is no exception. Just a stone’s throw away from the famous Burj Al Arab is a gastronomic delight – The Bu Qtair Cafeteria.

Our friends took us on a rare gastronomic treat, leaving us completely bowled over. At first glance, The Bu Qtair Cafeteria is nothing more than a large, modest cabin with just four large tables, recreating the old-school canteen feel. A few tables are put outside near the gigantic boats with the colourfully shaded Burj Al Arab making a neat backdrop. The clean tiled kitchen is open, intoxicating us with the rich aroma.

We chose our catch from a tray of neatly-piled fresh fish dressed in reddish spiced splendour.
We then let the chef weigh the fish and announce its price. As we gave the nod, the majestic fish was handed over to the main chef, who carefully placed them in a pool of hot oil, peppered in some spices and patiently monitored the cooking.

We picked two black pomfrets, one mighty hammour and a pile of splendidly marinated reddish prawns.

As we waited for our meal to cook, our friends filled us in on how the Bu Qtair Cafeteria flavour has smitten many locals. They added that it’s almost impossible to find a table on Fridays, leaving many to pack their catch back home.

After nearly 15 minutes, the fish arrived, fried to crispy perfection with the interiors soft and juicy, retaining the flavoured spices. We ordered a bowl of lightly fragranced ghee rice, flaky soft parathas and fish curry to go with our fishy treat.

I believe that good food takes over from good conversation. And that’s exactly what happened. As soon as the fish arrived, everyone went quiet, planning their way through the fishy delights and relishing each bite. And once the bony leftovers clogged the large plate, we leaned back to savour the taste! A round of hot, milky tea proved the perfect way to end the lavish meal.

This is truly every fish-eater’s paradise. Don’t expect an elaborate menu or other such frills, just a large helping of the best fish fry in the world.

Bill for 4 (plus one tiny-tot!)
3 fish fry + prawns Dh130
Parota Dh6
Fish curry Dh3
Water Dh2
Ghee rice Dh4
Tea Dh3
Total Dh148
The Bu Qtair Cafeteria,
Jumeirah-5, Beach Road

(Published e+, Gulf News, January 29,2009 issue)

Bollywood Dreams

Debutante Zoya Akhtar hopes to recreate the magic of the world of glitz and glamour through her lenses, writes Sneha May Francis

Bollywood is a fantasy land for millions of Indians. We all grow up star-struck, aping the actors and hoping that one day we’d turn out just as famous. Fame and recognition are packaged and sold to us in neatly captured celluloid chunks. In fact, we are all mesmerised by the Khans and Kapoors. From dressing like them, to miming Hindi film dialogues and swaying to the Bollywood moves, just reflects the scale of the madness.

And it is this Bollywood mania that forms the crux of debutante Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance. With intelligently crafted trailers, Zoya teases the viewers with the ever enchanting Bollywood dream.

Talking exclusively to e+, Zoya takes us on an insider journey of the Bollywood rigmarole.
This ain’t the first time that the Bollywood dream has been captured on celluloid. Guddi, Rangeela, Main Madhuri Dixit Bana Chahti Hoon and Om Shanti Om have all told similar stories and, in the bargain, created a mark at the box office. Zoya, daughter to famous lyricist Javed Akhtar and talented Honey Irani and sister to the dashing Farhan Akhtar, chose to tell the story of struggling actors, mainly because she’s been witness to many.

Zoya’s film is about "about two people – a struggler Vikram Jaisingh, played by Farhan, and a starlet Sona Mishra, portrayed by Konkona Sen-Sharma. He moves to Bombay, goes through acting classes and the whole gamut. She, meanwhile, has been working in the industry for a couple of years and is awaiting for her promised break. They meet and their relationship changes their lives forever."

So being an industry insider, was it any tough or easy for her to make this film? "My background definitely has its perks, I am not denying that. You do have access to a lot of people and you get your foot in the door. But that’s about it." She is quick to add that the access is not enough to make a film. In fact, she had run into troubled waters while casting her lead actors. There were talks that Tabu and Saif were roped in, but things didn’t work out. "Yes, I did have a tough time casting. There was a time, I decided not to make the film even. But then things fell in place and suddenly just flipped on its head. Today audiences are looking for something different. So it’s happened at the right time. And with a great cast."

It’s heartening to note that Zoya and Farhan share a mature working relationship and no sibling rivalry. "It was easy to direct Farhan because he knew the script and the character inside out. He knows my take, my intentions. In fact, he was the easiest actor to work with, because I didn’t need to explain anything to him," she points out. And this is not the first time that the brother-sister duo has worked together. They had earlier teamed up for Lakshya and Dil Chahta Hai, taking on different roles. It’s interesting to note that Farhan was cast even before his successful debut in Rock On!!!. It was her best friend Reema Kagti who suggested Farhan’s name for the lead role. In fact, Farhan was to debut in Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, taking on Abhay Deol’s superhero role, but due to date problems it didn’t work out. Zoya is absolutely happy with her lead actor. "He (Farhan) was always the performer (‘involved in school theatre’) and we all knew he would take up acting."

And in this whole circus of fame, glitz and glamour, it’s interesting how stardom didn’t entice either Zoya or her brother. "Both Farhan and I were never star-struck. We were into watching films and writing. A lot of it comes from my parents. We’ve grown watching them discuss films. So our heads were geared into something else."

Luck By Chance also features the multi-talented Rishi Kapoor as the loud boisterous Punjabi producer Romy Rolly, the vivacious Juhi Chawla as his wife Minty, Sanjay Kapoor as Ranjit Rolly, the gifted Isha Sharvani as Nikki Walia, the versatile Hrithik Roshan as the spoilt Bollywood super-hero Zaffar Khan and the gorgeous Dimple Kapadia as diva Neena Walia.

Like Om Shanti Om, this film too has its share of celeb guest appearances, that will definitely pull in the audiences. There’s Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Aamir Khan, John Abraham, Ranbir Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, among a host of other celebrated names. All playing themselves!
The music is an eclectic treat. "It totally works with the film. Once you watch it, you will get into it even more. Music directors Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have done a fantastic job," adds the director.

Despite receiving huge acclaim for his rendition in Rock On!!!, Farhan won’t be lending his voice to any soundtrack. The peppy Baawre, featuring the colourful Hrithik and Isha cavorting their way through a colourful backdrop, sets the pace of the film. It almost feels like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are attempting to recreate the magic of Dil Chahta Hai.

There are rumours that, after Aamir Khan’s six (or eight) pack, Farhan too will don a chiselled look for the film.

Luck By Chance is a family work, with Farhan leading the acting bandwagon and taking on the role of producer, while dad Javed penned the dialogues. Now, it remains to be seen if luck will favour the Akhtar family this time round as well.

(Published e+, Gulf News, January 29,2009 issue)

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Burger delights

From salsa sauces to crunchy salads, to crispy onion rings, there's more to a burger than meets the eye! Sneha May Francis digs in to pick the best burgers

Ever tried mountain climbing? I am not talking about the professional, Mt Everest-kind, but the more achievable trek to the peak of a tiny hill. The task requires determining the mound, acquiring proper gear, extensively learning the route, working your way to the top and finally conquering the hilltop by placing a flag. Likewise, eating a burger involves almost the same skills, just a tad different! From finalising what meat mount to order, to gearing up with a bunch of sauces to zing the tastebuds and a bunch of soft tissues to whip away any leftovers, to precariously holding the heap so that each bite demolishes it in a structured way, to finally clearing the entire mass and leaving a burp to mark the victory.

Yup, eating a burger is no easy task! And it might appear as nothing more than a round greasy patty sandwiched between two soft buns. But look again! The erstwhile burger has undergone a complete makeover. It's evolved from being just a kiddie fun snack to a more sophisticated wholemeal for grown-ups.

Admitted it does more harm than good for the heart and could leave you running on the treadmill far longer than you would have ever wished to. But despite all the negatives, burgers still find their way into our lives almost all the time. So we’ve braved through the greasy gourmet journey just to present you with the best of the sandwich kind!

Do remember that it's humanly impossible to eat all the different kinds of burgers in Dubai. In fact, it would've most definitely led us to a hospital bed for ill-treating our hearts! So we relied on friends, family and colleagues to pick the best meaties that would race for the top slots. We also avoided the burger joints, only because it’s often the non-burger chains that cook up a complete bun delight. And our test just proved we are right!

Rating: *
We singled out the Coco’s Original Burger because logically every kitchen introduces their winning recipe under the original tag. Dressed in a creamy Thousand Island dressing, this mountainous meat bun pleased our eyes but did little to our tastebuds. The meat beast left us stretching our mouth muscles wider than we were comfortable with. The sliced veggies and dollop of pickle left the buns soggy, falling apart even before it reached our mouth. The solid peppered meat could well do with more flavourings.
Verdict: Could do with solid buns that didn’t crumble under our fragile hands and more sidedish options than the usual coleslaw and French fries.
Cost: Dh26

Rating: **
Johnny Rockets
This is a perfect example of the most delicious, scrumptious burger falling apart even before we could bite it. Thus pushing it to the fourth place. We had to work extra hard towards each bite, navigating our mouth to the burger before it disintegrated on our plates or stained our clothes. The soggy buns and overflowing sauces had us more concerned about our greasy hands. The shredded lettuce refused to behave and stay within the buns. The delicate flavours were completely lost in the mess. We believe that any burger that refuses to make it to our tummies in one piece fails the burger test! But we let this one pass only because the flavours softened us in its favour.
Verdict: A more solid bun-footing would boast this burger giant, making each bite a delight and not a messy affair.
Cost: Dh29

Rating: ***
Of the lot, this was the most economical and also the tiniest. The Double Cheese Burger was an instant hit with our tummies. It was tiny enough to fit into our fists and the buns deliciously rock solid. The double sheet of cheese complemented the burger patty. This is how a burger should be – uncomplicated and perfectly sized with just the right flavouring. Having said that, a little improvisation could give it a flavoursome push.
Verdict: The pocket-ish burger was a delight to feast on but its lack of creativity left us wondering if they were merely playing it safe. And the tiny size would mean ordering more than one to fill your tummy.
Cost: Dh8

Rating: ****
It's understandable why these gigantic burgers are such a rage! With blobs of cheese and butter, any burger could become an absolute treat. This joint offers a wide range of choices – meat cuts (1/3 and 1/2 oz), different kinds of buns and sauces, and a fresh salad bar that allows you to dress your burger the way you want to. The Works burger is sinfully delicious. The succulent meat patty melts in your mouth, sending you on a cheesy rush. And the sauteed mushrooms placed on a sheet of cheddar cheese adds the right zing.
Verdict: We were completely smitten by this burger giant. The option of ditching the fatty French fries for the lesser sinful onion rings made us smile!
Cost: Dh28

Rating: *****
Gourmet Burger Kitchen
The freshly made black-Angus patties are cooked to your specifications and sandwiched between a soft bun. The veggies are not too many, just right and sit perfectly without falling apart. The pickle adds a zing that leaves you craving for more. Each bite was a different revelation. We devoured on the bunny masterpiece and were left, literally, licking off our fingers! This one definitely made our burger journey, burp worthy!
Verdict: The riot of flavours, the solid yet soft buns, the soft juicy meat patty, totaled into the Best Burger Award.
Cost: Dh28

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Mystical journey

South India’s finest actress Shobana talks exclusively to e+ about her dramatic take on an Indian epic
By Sneha May Francis

She’s an actress par excellence and an enchanting danseuse. She’s enraptured audiences on screen and on stage with her spectacular performances. Her sparkling eyes and expressive gestures can tell a thousand stories. A quintessential beauty, Shobana needs no real introduction to true admirers of art. Described as an institution in her own right, Shobana is one of the most prominent South Indian artistes, who balances acting and dance with effortless grace. It’s almost impossible to look at Shobana in a one dimensional way – as a dancer or as an actress, she exemplifies each talent wholly and yet remains greater than the sum of the two parts.

Coming from an illustrious background, with aunts – the famous Travancore sisters – Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini, all exponents of dance and acting, it’s no surprise that Shobana’s initiation into art at the tender age of three fortuitous inevitability. A disciplined dancer who trains under the legendary Bharathanatyam dancer, Chitra Visweswaran, Shobana emerged as an independent performer and choreographer in her twenties. In 1994, she set up the Kalarpana Trust (school of dance) in Chennai.

In fact, many believe that Shobana is solely responsible for giving the traditional Indian dance form Bharathanatyam a new lease of life. She has embellished the traditional art with the right mix of innovation and tradition, making it equally appealing to the young and the old. Her acting career began when she was nine but her real initiation into Malayalam cinema was in 1984 with Balchandra Menon’s April 18. Her realistic portrayal of a simple girl-next-door appealed to audiences instantly and she went on to work in numerous films.

Shobana’s true recognition came with Fazil’s Manichitrathayu. Her enthralling performance in this film is etched in the mind of every Malayali film aficionado. The character explored her true potential both as an actress and a dancer, winning her the prestigious National Award for Best Actress. Consequent to the award and as if the honour instilled a sense of responsibility in her, Shobana turned extremely selective about her work. A few years later, she won the same honour for her work in close friend and South Indian fimmaker Revathy’s Mitr – A Friend. Her film career spans nearly 90 films and she continues to hold her passion for acting and her love for dance in a fine balance. Her artistic contribution has been honoured with the Padmashri.

Come January, Dubai too will get a glimpse of Shobana's magic. She will showcase her musical extravaganza Maya Ravan (mystical Ravan) at the Shaikh Rashid Hall. Organised by Good Times Global, the event will be held on January 9 and 10. Maya Ravan is her interpretation of the spectacular Indian epic, giving more prominence to the villainous character of Ravan (whom she essays on stage).

In an exclusive interview, the actress throws light on her interpretation of The Ramayan.

Maya Ravan is a lavish musical drama, at par with Broadway musicals. How did the concept become a reality? And how long did it take?
We as artistes are always on the lookout for newer concepts, often exploring our own traditions. So this drama came about when I felt that my students, who have been training for nearly 10-15 years, may not get an opportunity to showcase their talent as much as I did. So we worked on The Ramayan, which gives an opportunity for everyone to take part because of the scale of the epic. It’s a subject that all age groups can appreciate. And personally, the tradition of The Ramayan has been passed down to me by my aunts - Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini.

It took me two years to complete the production. It was because the medium is different. It involves a lot of hand gestures and body movement in a theatrical manner, dialogues like in films, and extravagant costumes like in the olden day musicals. Maya Ravan is like a mini movie, with a two-hour sound track. So with my background in cinema, theatre and classical dance, and with the incredible support from my students, I decided to put it all together. This is basically a great work of production: there's a lot going on backstage. We have about 36 costume changes! It's a serious classical show but with a few Hollywood inspired twist to bring energetic novelty to it.

Is Maya Ravan from Ravan’s perspective?
No it's not. It is The Ramayan, although it highlighs the role of Ravana more. We have woven in Ravana from the beginning of the script. It’s in shades of greys, not black or white. And it’s our interpretation. We know that Rama went to the forest, but we don't really know how he felt at that moment. We know that Kaikayi liked Rama more than her own son, but we don’t know why she changed her mind later on. This is our attempt at filling in the gaps. We can't change the beautiful story of The Ramayan. So we have imagined and visualised these unsaid and unexplained moments in the epic.

You have roped in celebrity voice-overs by Tabu, Naseeruddin Shah, Milind Soman and Suhasini Maniratnam. How did you select the voices for the musical?
When the script was completed I decided to ask Naseeruddin Shah, Tabu, Jackie Shroff, Milind Soman, Suhasini Maniratnam, Revathy and Rohini whether they would want to be part of it. I don't know most of them, but when they read the script, they loved the concept of something entertaining, yet academic. They appreciated the innovation and volunteered to do it for me. From then on, the journey was easy.

What dance forms have you used in the musical - is it a bharathanatyam based dance drama or dance fusion?
Fusion is when you marry two things. Maya Ravan is very much a fusion. But when you hear the word fusion it gives rise to an imagery of Shivamani on the drums and Neeladri on the sitar, but it's not the case in Maya Ravan. This is an amalgamation of classical mudhras (classical dance expressions which convey a lot of meaning). We only use classical mudhras to co-ordinate theatrical body movements. The dialogue, which forms an integral part of the production, is actually fixed, like in films. So when you have theatrical body movements, you would expect the dialogue to be dramatic but it's not, it's natural. And when the dialogue is natural you expect the acting to be natural also. Again in this epic it’s not, it's very classical due to the mudras! So the entire combination has been put together in a way that it doesn’t strain the intellect of the audience.

How difficult is it to make a musical in India? Is there a market for them?
We are doing extremely well but I can't pinpoint a reason why we are doing well. I think it is because people are open to seeing new concepts. But it's not only new, it's also good. Personally, I would prefer to watch a two-and-a-half hour classical show by an artiste who does it exceedingly well. I would prefer that to going to a circus or a new, modern dance show. Basically it depends on how you do whatever you do. You just don't innovate for the sake of innovation. It has to be a natural progression in your creative thinking. That is the only thing that will motivate the artiste and it will also motivate the viewers to watch it.

You have toured the US and India with this musical. What prompted you to bring Maya Ravan to Dubai?
Dubai was shortlisted by our organisers. But on deeper introspection, Dubai is ideal because of its large cosmopolitan crowd. We will be touring a few more cities in the Gulf, after which we will head to Australia.

You started dancing at the age of three. With an impressive artistic lineage, was dance in your genes?
When you are three years old, you really don't know what you are doing. This artistic life is a very natural part of me. It's fun and it's like any other work. I can't intellectualise it. It's also a lot about celebration.

So how would you describe Shobana? As a dancer or as an actor?
I would describe myself as creative.

Published in e+ magazine, Gulf News (01-01-2009 issue)