Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Petitioning Parents

Confined as I’ve been to my home over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to strike up an unexpected acquaintance. With M______ and S______, ages 1 and a quarter and seven respectively, neighbours and frequent visitors who pound on our door (they cannot reach our doorbell) in the pursuit of chocolate biscuits and fruit shaped candy. Their mother indulges these transgressions.

These kids are essentially the definition of adorable.

M lunges for things she likes the look of, including objects many times her size, hurtles around our house like a pint-sized cannonball, is by turns peremptory and charming, and knows her mind.

S is bright, capable of simultaneously holding conversations and keeping an eye on her sibling, well-behaved and interested in clay dough. She attends an expensive and allegedly excellent school, affiliated to the international IGCSE and IB boards.

As far as these children's lives are concerned, I’m nothing but a benign bystander. But as I encounter their personalities and enthusiasms in the course of our everyday interactions, I find myself hoping that both manage to escape the fate of being Socialized by School, their quirks and kinks ironed away in the pursuit of grades and scholastic success, with just the prescribed dosage of extracurricular activities thrown in.

I have less than a handful of friends who are parents, with their daughters yet to reach a year. Already, they worry about how to protect their children from an educational system that emphasizes only one kind of achievement, while also ensuring that the girls get a sound foundation and developmental head-start for their later lives.  

What I, non-parent and disinterested observer of (almost all) children am yet to grasp is why this ‘start’ needs to begin at months ten and twelve and eighteen. I hear about projects being assigned to two year olds, of toddlers being asked to learn that A stands for astronaut and auto-rickshaw and not just apple, of pre-school admissions testing and coaching for these self-same tests. And I wonder why we, as a generation and a society (or both) feel so compelled to 'instruct' and 'improve' our most curious and malleable minds. I understand that there’s a line that connects high school to college, but do we really need to stretch that line all the way back to pre-school and play-school? Why infect our children with our anxieties? Why can’t we trust in their resilience and native intelligence and ability to make their own way through the world, at least till ages three and four and five?

As a child, I thought of my infant cousins as life-size sources of amusement. As an adult, I appreciate children as people-in-the-making. And I’d love for the making to break the mould. Parents, please. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Looking for Loops

I first heard of Roger Ebert during an undergraduate class on film appreciation. I'd signed up for the extra credits, for the chance to watch good, even great movies, to use my afternoons differently than I normally did. I remember being bemused by 'Alien' and 'West Side Story' and enchanted by 'Cinema Paradiso' and 'Red' - all reliable film class staples. At the end of the course, the instructors handed out a list of must-watch classics as a parting gift of sorts. For a short time, I dutifully referred back to this list and scratched movies off it, one at a time. I signed up with a local DVD library.

I lost that list. I retain and renew my library membership. 

I don't love the movies. Never have, and probably never will. But that class made a vital difference in that it made it difficult for me to watch a movie mindlessly. I began to want time spent with a movie to be time well spent. And Ebert's online archive became my port of call in making movie-viewing choices. 

I don't know about regional language publications in India, but intelligent and reliable critique of cinema in the mainstream English papers is hard to find, and has been, for a while. Our critics - and here I use the term very loosely indeed - are content to summarize plots and sub-plots, chalk up marks for acting, and share a wink-wink-nudge-nudge quip or two with their readers. Apart from Nandini Ramnath at the Mint Lounge (and occasionally, the Mint), there is no one who seems to write about cinema with authority and a keen eye. There are a few writers of books about our actors and our movies, but many of our critics are essentially glorified trade analysts.

Ebert's insightful reviews weren't exactly revelatory, but his was criticism of popular cinema unlike any I'd previously encountered - considered, full of depth, but also unexpectedly warm. Those reviews read like conversations, and I trusted Ebert's judgment. I began to read what he had to say about movies I had already seen or had decided to see, and I trawled through his 'Two Thumbs Up' reviews to figure out what to see next. Reading what Ebert had to say felt like a worthwhile way to open (or close) the loop on a movie. Reading about him in Esquire's acclaimed feature and following him on Twitter only helped cement my admiration of a writer who seemed to be clever and kind and who seemed to be writing about movies while hinting at everything else. 

Even so, why write about Ebert, for no particular reason, roughly 16 months after he has passed away? Because I've spent the last two days greedily paging through his memoir, 'Life Itself,' and I have a renewed appreciation for his skills as a writer, for the range of his experiences, for the catholicity of his tastes. Ebert's book is peopled with characters, newspapermen, actors and eccentrics like they were meant to be - one-of-kind, funny, handsome, odd, twinkling, irascible. He starts the book by saying that his life felt like a movie, and just even reading his memories, twice removed, I get the feeling that I have wandered onto the set of an indie movie old friends are making just for fun. No one expects much from it except for the joy of making it, but it's destined to strike a chord and make millions nonetheless.  

And in the way my mind always seems to work, I begin to wonder - where are our eccentrics, now? The flamboyant, the odd, the discerning, the discriminating, the colorful and carefully colorless, the dispensers of bon mots, charming compliments and devastating put downs? Looking around me, browsing our papers and magazines, visiting restaurants and cafes and pubs that are perennially crowded, why does it feel like everyone is Beautiful People but no one is genuinely cool? We have celebrities, page three doyennes, wannabes, hipsters, creased and idealistic jhola-wallahs but who is it that's playing against type? We have all the affectations and props but who has the personality? The impractical ideas? The out of date wardrobe? Surely we do not count among our eccentrics members of the fashionable set that preen for style-spotting blogs at the Hyatt during Fashion Week?  

I worry sometimes that in doing what we are supposed to do, taking one step after another, connecting the dots, we're becoming linear and flat. Losing our texture and a-tonalities. I don't mean to say this is a generation without bright and brilliant minds and wonderful people, of course not. But somewhere among the entrepreneurs, TEDx conveners, juvenile wonders, elfin women with pixie cuts, glamour dolls of both sexes, the annoyingly earnest and absolutely certain, the reliably tepid or tempestuous, I would love, love, love to encounter someone authentically intriguing, someone who throws me for a loop. Oscar Wilde. Beau Brummell. Dorothy Parker. Circa 2014.

It's a long way to travel from film appreciation class. I guess. 
 
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