Archive for the ‘CINEMA & THE ARTS’ Category

Robin Williams: The clown who wasn’t

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Mint, August 12

Autobiography of a Clown was a staple topic for essay writing in school in our time. Produce two pages in the voice of Bozo (or Koko or whatever), the circus clown. The formula was straightforward, and I don’t know of anyone who ever deviated from it. Every day, Bozo appears before cheering kids and their parents and makes them laugh their guts out with his antics. But no one knows about the deep sadness in his heart. Only when he returns to his make-up room and starts taking off his outlandish wig and his false red nose, do we come to know that he has lost a son/ his wife is a cripple/ he suffers from some incurable disease, or some such calamity. But he is a professional. His job is to make a fool of himself in public and make people laugh. He does that brilliantly every day. People love him yet know nothing about the man behind the ridiculous mask.

Hollywood star Robin Williams who was found dead from suspected suicide at his California residence last night was certainly one of the funniest men of his generation. Whether as Mrs Doubtfire, or the gay father desperately trying to help along his heterosexual son’s love life in The Birdcage, or the genie’s voice in Disney’s Aladdin, he made millions across the world guffaw till they wanted to beg him to stop.

The moment he appeared on screen, he was carrying the promise of the unusual, the zany and the comic. There was that slightly odd gleam in his eye, that certain something in the way he carried his stocky frame that hinted that anything was now possible. He embraced and rejoiced in the weird; it’s no surprise therefore that he first came to popular attention playing an alien in the TV serial Mork and Mindy.

He stuck to his funny—and extremely extroverted—persona in all his public appearances. Watching him on TV at the Oscars or some other Hollywood get-together was to be awed by his boundless energy, the endless number of funny accents and voices he could summon at will, and above all, his commitment to make his audience roll in the aisles. Sometimes, it seemed like here was an exhibitionist gone amok. But you laughed and laughed.

After all, his first love, you’d heard, was stand-up comedy, that loneliest and bravest of professions, and Williams returned to it time and again, even after he was one of the world’s most bankable stars.

But Williams was not just a comedian. The odd gleam in his eye vanished when he appeared in films like Dead Poets Society, One Hour Photo or Insomnia. In Dead Poets, he played a schoolteacher who saw his mission as one to create free minds, and turned in a performance that inspires the schoolboy in me even today, and brings a lump to my throat. It got darker with One Hour Photo, where he was a lonely photo lab technician in a one-hour photo shop, who gets obsessed with what appears to be a perfectly happy family. He turns stalker, and begins to lose his grip on sanity. The memories of a deeply disturbed childhood catch up with him, and the film enters truly disturbing areas of the human mind.

Master of Darkness Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia featured him in what was perhaps his most negative role—a pitiless fully-self-aware psychotic playing cat-and-mouse with Al Pacino as a detective on the edge of a nervous breakdown. There is not the slightest hint of anything goofy here. Williams’s performance is one of remarkable restraint while generating an air of disquiet and menace every time he is on screen.

His range as an actor knew no limits. He would have made as good an Iago as a King Lear. Quite possibly, he would have made an outstanding King Lear, the likes of which have never been seen before.

Now he is gone. Media reports tell us that he had been fighting alcohol and drug problems for decades. His publicist has released a statement that he had been suffering from deep depression for some time now. This is the second luminous talent Hollywood—and cinema—has lost this year. In February, Philip Seymour Hoffman, that marvellous actor who seemed to be getting better with every passing year and would have quite possibly been hailed as one of the greatest ever if he had a full career, died of a drug overdose. Hoffman was only 46. Williams was 63, which is also hardly an age when actors hang up their boots.

In spite of all his brilliance, Williams had only won one Oscar, for best supporting role in Good Will Hunting (another role with no gleam in the eye). He deserved more, perhaps a lifetime achievement one, at some point, when Hollywood decided he was hoary enough. That will not be.

And as I look at Williams’s photos on Google, I seem to notice a constant hint of melancholy in his face, a sort of unease—the downturned lips even when he smiles, a glimpse of insecurity, even fear, in his eyes. Or I am just imagining all this?

It’s so easy to say these things, post-facto. How does one end an obituary of someone who you never knew, but who gave you so much fun, and who you respected so much for his craft from a vast distance? I went to trusty, and looked for quotes by Robin Williams. I’ve selected two. “Comedy is acting out optimism,” he once said. And, “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Right at the end, that precious optimism seems to have deserted him, and that spark of madness turned malign. Or maybe not. As the genie said when Aladdin freed him from his servitude, and he said it in the way that only Williams could: “I’m history! No, I’m mythology! Nah, I don’t care what I am; I’m free.”

RIP Robin Williams.

The Great Ethnic Trail

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

Outlook, June 30, 2014

In September 2008, Kunal Sachdev, 44, quit his job as CEO of internationally fashionable leather goods manufacturer Hidesign. He wanted to create his own global brand, but with a twist. For years, as he worked in the fashion and retail industry, a question had been bothering him. India is without doubt richer than any other country in the world in traditional handicrafts and artisanship, from textiles to fine embroidery to metalwork to leather craft to woodwork. Yet, traditional Indian crafts had made hardly any impact on world fashion, and the artisans remained poor, often hostage to middlemen.

The handicrafts sector is India’s second largest employer, yet accounts for less than 2 per cent of the world’s handicrafts export market. And 47 per cent of the country’s handloom weavers live below the poverty line.

Sachdev wanted to do something about it. If every man is finally defined by his passion, Sachdev had found it. And Caravan Craft was born.

People he spoke to initially were cynical. Another Fabindia, you mean? was the question he faced repeatedly. The immediate reference was of course a result of Fabindia being the most visibly successful Indian brand related to crafts. No, not another Fabindia, Sachdev would patiently reply: “Caravan will be urban chic with an international flavour. It will be global fashion aimed at consumers who currently shop at chains like Zara or Marks and Spencer, but built on Indian culture and craftsmanship.”

It was a difficult concept to explain. Even if an investor was convinced, after being shown designs and prototypes of the sort of products that would define Caravan, he would ask why Sachdev wasn’t thinking of an online store, why a chain of brick-and-mortar retail chain? Sachdev would explain that the unique differentiator for Caravan’s products would be their distinctiveness from anything that was currently available in the market, and that could only be established and stamped in the customer’s mind if she physically experienced them—saw them, felt them, tried them on. A real-world brand needed to be built, before a virtual delivery system. Caravan needed mono-brand outlets—even the outlets would be designed to stand out in the mall melee—to start with; this was a long-term brand play, not an e-commerce gamble.

My first impression, when I entered a Caravan store, was that its clean Scandinavian straight-line design evokes Zara or Ikea more than an Indian ethnicwear outlet. One looks at the women’s wear and jewellery on display (men’s apparel and home furnishing are next in line) and immediately sees why Caravan is not Fabindia. The cuts and silhouettes of the dresses are stylishly Western, yet the material and the craftsmanship are unmistakably Indian. Sometimes the patterns on a kurta are Western, but the execution is traditional Indian artisanship. Then there are patterns which are clever melds—Western tweaked to Indian, or the other way round.

Till date, two Caravan outlets have opened, in Phoenix Market City Malls in Bangalore and Pune, and the company is looking at 15 more points of sale over the next 12 months, in India and abroad. West Europe will possibly soon experience Caravan.

While Sachdev was hunting for finance, he was working with the National Institute of Design on blending Indian craftsmanship and design with Western aesthetics, and travelling the length and breadth of the country, locating clusters of artisans practising their traditional craft. He established contact with, among others, leather workers in Biaora in Madhya Pradesh, Ikat weavers in Pochampally, Mangalgiri weavers in Guntur, muslin weavers in Burdwan and Kantha embroideres in Shantipur in West Bengal, lacquer workers in Channapatna in Karnakata, block printers in Bagru in Rajasthan, metal workers in Bidar, applique workers in Mithapur, Gujarat, and made his proposition. The talent of artisans of nearly every state in India (including the newly created one of Telangana) is represented in Caravan products, a unique achievement by itself for a private enterprise.

But it was four long years before funding came through. The initial investment finally arrived from the public sector National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC), in 2012. NSDC recognised that Sachdev’s vision was tightly aligned with its own mission of up-skilling of artisans. Caravan was finally on the road.

By this time, the design team was in place. The firm began holding formal training courses for each cluster it planned to work with. Last year, it trained more than 500 artisans. By 2017, Sachdev hopes to take the aggregate number to beyond 30,000.

Says Sudipta Sinha, director and chief operating officer, Caravan Craft: “Every product of ours has three aspects: functionality, aesthetics and a story behind the product. To achieve all three, we had to do some deep design intervention, aligning colour palettes and silhouettes with consumer trends. We spent an immense amount of time on fabric and craft interpretation, and product detailing.”

As a result, the journey that a standard Caravan kurta may undertake—depending on the design—can often be extraordinarily long, literally. The material may actually travel 4,000 km to be finally ready for sale. For example, the design is done in Bangalore, the muslin woven in Burdwan, cut in Bangalore, the applique work done in Ahmedabad, and then the applique work is stitched onto the kurta back in Bangalore, and shipped to the Pune store. And at no point is there any middleman. The revenues are shared with the artisans.

“As far back as 325 BC, Alexander the Great was struck by Bandhini printwork in India,” says Sachdev. “But we have done very little about developing our wonderful traditional handicrafts to be in tune with the evolving customer. Today, we have a huge mass of globally aware and culturally proud Indians. And culture can clearly be a motivation for consumption, if it is adapted to modern tastes and needs.” Caravan has been careful to keep the price premium, but not luxury. The logic: the customer should see it as value for money for the amount of thought and labour that have been visibly invested in every piece.

Caravan is already attracting the attention of just the type of people Sachdev is talking about. Investment banker Roopa Purushothaman shot to fame in 2004 as co-author of Goldman Sachs’ legendary BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) report that placed India among the top three global economies by 2050. Purushothaman recently drove down from Mumbai to Pune to take a look at this unique fashion store she had been hearing about. She went back, a satisfied and loyal customer. “The level of craftsmanship coupled with design and high quality materials is striking in Caravan products,” she says. “It’s a unique balance that’s executed exceptionally well.”

The world is getting interested. When I call up Sachdev for a clarification, he is on the Paris leg of his European business tour. He is cagey about revealing details, but says that yes, some top retail and fashion chains are very interested. “Fingers crossed!” he says, laughing.

If Caravan can crack the global market, it will be the first Indian brand committed totally to traditional Indian craft to make it to the world fashionistas’ shopping list. All those years of pursuing a dream would then have paid off. As they should, in a fair world.