The Lifeguard

That December day was going rather well. The weather had been very enabling, understanding even – threatening now and then to pour, but holding back lest it should be branded spoilsport.  Mother and Brother, both having agreed to an impromptu exploration of the Prachi Valley earlier that morning, appeared to be enjoying themselves too. There remained only one more temple to see. But it was now late afternoon, and before us, in echoes of Frost’s words, there lay two roads that diverged in the verdant coastland. One led to the temple, the other to Astaranga, literally, ‘of sunset colours’, a coastal town with an adjunct beach named Jahania.

Driving through the Prachi catchment area, we passed through hamlets and the occasional small town, interspersed among the lush paddy fields and the couple of rivulets and canals intersecting our path. Groups of coconut trees stood watch over betel-nut groves, and paddocks with haystacks, and roofs of the hut-like stalls and restaurants, dotting the entrances and the exits of the villages. Whenever the languorous clouds allowed, the sun would peer through the cracks, supplanted by the azure sky where the sun was absent. 

The day had begun with the hope of making rendezvous with the eponymous river sometime in the afternoon, while trailing vestiges of heritage, as far as we could, along its course to the sea. My hastily assembled itinerary had ensured that we touched almost every pre-medieval temple worth seeing. There may have been a few tucked away in the interiors, and I may have been tempted, as is my wont, to veer off course, wading into unchartered territory. And yet that day I restrained myself – no adventure was worth scaring Mother and Brother so much that they dared not risk a trip with me in the future.

Stopping at several temples, defined by their intricately carved proud spires, built sometime between the 7th and 13th centuries AD, we had finally happened upon the mystical river, where our heightened anticipation had been met with a chastening modesty. Mother and I bemoaned how the current fate of the river coincided closely with the fortunes of our great land Kalinga which the copious waters must once have fed and drained, while Brother, who may or may not have agreed with our assessment,  gazed unfazed at the coastal scenery outside.

With such topics dominating our conversation, we had reached the fork in the road. Between one more temple that would be another grim reminder of our diminished stature in the world, and a beach that could afford us a break from that grimness, the choice was easy to make. Thereon, my decision to not stop at Kakatpur – where the revered Mother Goddess Mangalaa is worshipped in yet another ancient temple – invited Mother’s ominous remonstration, “It is never good to invoke thoughts of visiting a Devi’s abode and giving it a deliberate miss.” Mother’s words resonated enough that I promised her we would stop on our way back.

Traversing a landscape taken increasingly over by larger clusters of coconut trees, and swathes of fishing ponds, we rolled downwards towards the sea on the Jahania road, flanked by trees and electric poles, and found ourselves at the entrance to the beach, with the sun still high, and the threat of rain, having all but disappeared. Ahead stood a thicket of tall casuarina trees as if forming a curtain that when drawn aside would reveal a sight of the sea. We passed by the numerous make-shift stalls selling ice-cream, soft drinks, paan, snacks, hats and the like, underneath the shade of the casuarinas on hard land, and finally descended upon the nearly-white sands a few feet below, with the prospect of seeing with our own eyes what the ‘sunset colours’ looked like writ large.

Groups of people, old and young alike, frolicked on the beach. The ambience, however, reverberated with the jeers and profanities emanating from a particular group of college-going boys and girls. Mother remarked, “Such unruly youth these days!” Not contesting what she said, Brother led her up the coast where greater quietude was assured, and I followed suit. Mother dipped her feet in the approaching waters, observing the foot imprints left behind by the receding waters. Brother and I, reminiscing our childhood days, chased the springly water crabs that emerged from tiny pits in the sand and disappeared back into them when shadowed. Then, for moments in between, we stared at the steamers and the ships and the trawlers floating on the horizon, wondering what they were up to and what life felt like on them.

Even as Mother continued her therapeutic tryst with the playful waters, Brother and I turned our attention to the mini sand-dunes covered with thick shrubs lying towards higher ground but well in front of the column of casuarinas. Reminded of the dunes at Ranau in the Thar where we had visited earlier that month, we proceeded towards the dunes, hoping to relive some of the desert experience. Turning around a few minutes later, we caught Mother staring intently at the busier section of the beach, where the crowd had become more dense than when we had left it behind.

“Look at those kids hooting so hard – are those two having a competition or something?”, Mother said, pointing at a couple of figures bobbing up and down in the waters way off the coast. One of them was frantically waving both his hands. Brother furrowed his brow trying to infer the situation, and wondered, “Are these the same kids who were creating a ruckus?” Mother replied, “Yes, those trouble-makers.” The three of us stood ruminating over the sight in front of us, for about a minute, while the crowd seemed to be transfixed on those two seemingly competing figures.

“But why are those guys not approaching the beach, why are they moving away instead – is it a competition about who could go farther into the waters?”, I asked. Meanwhile, more people came down from the entrance to join the swelling crowd. One of the bobbing figures continued waving his hands. That is when it occurred to me, “Are those kids drowning?” Mother’s expression of disgust at the kids’ behaviour suddenly turned to one of panic, “Oh my god, baba, they are indeed drowning!” As if on cue, the swelling crowd seemed to stumble upon the same epiphany that we had just had, and immediately transformed into an island of commotion.

The three of us headed down nearer to the crowd, where the tension was now palpable. “They have been swept away, swept away!”, screamed a man, “Dheera bhai is trapped, save him, save him!”, shouted a girl, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!”, wept another. The crowd moved like a shapeshifting amoeboid closer to the waters. Mother started hyperventilating, Brother looked helplessly at the scenes unfolding, while clasping Mother’s arm hard in a bid to soothe her. “But why is no one calling a lifeguard?”, I wondered aloud, “In fact, where is the lifeguard?” 

The sun was now preparing to set, and the crowd had grown hysteric. It was clear the majority of it comprised tourists, and the ones that were calmer were doubtlessly locals – they had seen too many such incidents before to be surprised. Nonetheless, neither the tourists, nor the locals seemed inclined towards any sort of samaritanism. And it got my blood to boil. I sprung to action, lamenting, “How on earth could people be this indifferent! Why is no one stepping forward to help?” 

I sprinted up to the apparent locals, thundering, “Where is the lifeguard? Where is the lifeguard? What are we doing to save those guys?”

“Which lifeguard?”, quipped the cotton candy seller in Odia laced with a heavy local accent. 

“The one who is supposed to save drowning people?”, I asked incredulously, as the din around me continued. 

“Who cares about lifeguards here, sir?”, he replied, shrugging, with his trademark enunciation, “We have asked the police to look into it and they don’t take it seriously either.” 

I was flabbergasted and inquired, “Still,there must be someone who does the saving when required?” 

An old man standing behind the cotton candy seller interjected with a similarly accented Odia, “Tiyu is required!” 

“Tiyu is the name?!”, I asked in confirmation. “Tiyu indeed.”, the man nodded.

So I slipped off my shoes and off I scampered away from the crowd of whom I had scant hopes, in the direction of the stalls at the beach entrance, screaming my lungs out, “Where’s Tiyu?! Where’s Tiyu?! Where’s Tiyu?!” On the way I encountered a couple of hefty middle-heighted young men with sinewy arms, running in the direction opposite to mine, towards the crowd, and I repeated, “Where’s Tiyu?” “If you have not found Tiyu yet on the beach, then Tiyu should be in one of those stalls.”, said one of them.

I shouldered on, overcoming the push-back from the sands below, with singular focus brought on by the adrenaline rush. I clambered up the incline leading to the stalls on the harder ground, and soon went about from stall to stall frenziedly crying, “Where’s Tiyu? Where’s Tiyu?” A stall keeper, seemingly the only one who had not deserted his stall for a glimpse of the action, replied, “I don’t know. If you have not found Tiyu yet on the beach, then Tiyu may be back at the town.” 

I scanned the entire stretch of the stalls, but to no avail. Distraught at my inability to procure help for the poor kids back in the sea, I walked back heavy-footed towards the scene of action, dreading the knowledge of the outcome of the event taking place against the backdrop of the ‘sunset colours’. 

As I approached the crowd, I noticed far out at sea four men flailing their arms and dragging a long cord at the end of which were tied two other men, while the crowd cheered them on with words of encouragement. The four men kept flailing on and on, drawing a few meters closer, then floating a few meters back, while slowly drifting laterally up the coast. The cheering crowd moved in lockstep, determined not to give up on the unheralded lifeguards. As the men drew closer, I realized two of them were the ones I had run into in my search of Tiyu. Before long, I had reunited with Mother and Brother who were now ensconced in the crowd. 

After twenty minutes, seeming like an eternity, the ‘lifeguards’ along with the rescued boys were back on the beach. The rescuers walked off shaking the sand off their skin-hugging drenched clothes, even as the crowd thronged to the spot where the boys lay, in an apparent bid to chastise them for their foolish deeds. Still, an air of relief permeated the whole crowd. I spotted the two locals I had learnt of Tiyu from and approached them, grinning, “So Tiyu was not required after all?” “Why not? It did the saving, didn’t it?”, replied the old man in his typical accented Odia, pointing at the long thick brown-coloured plastic tube lying side-winded on the sand. 

The End


The Walk

It was half past one in the night, and Abhineet, a lonely silhouette of a figure with his half-empty, slightly worn mini-backpack slung from his shoulders, ambled straightly along just below the sidewalk. The constant clacking of his thick-soled hiking boots was only intercepted by the drone of the occasional vehicle whizzing past him.  

Only minutes ago, he had stepped out of the multiplex, with the imagery of John Wick Part 2 swarming in his head. In fact, he had wondered, ‘What would John do if he needed to get somewhere and there was no public transport? Perhaps, John would break into someone’s car or snatch a motorcycle from an unsuspecting rider…if he had to get somewhere in a jiffy.’ Abhineet’s life did not warrant such urgency, though, at the moment. Nor did his monetary situation encourage the desire to hail a cab. After a brief evaluation of his options, he had decided to set by foot. 

The road that ran through this part of South Delhi was bright but wore the desolation of a countryside highway. On his left, the string of malls shone like pearls, by the courtesy of the high masts standing tall on their spacious courtyards, whereas on the other side, the outlines of the Khirki Village rooftops formed a jagged boundary separating the cold concrete below from emptiness merging into the skies above.  

Not that the smoggy air afforded a view of the stars, though, and soon, the fusion of matter and light fading into black seemed to resonate with what he felt inside. As he eyed the trajectory of the tip of his own shadow, cast unusually longer due to the distance between the streetlights, he felt taller than he really was, and his chest instantly swelled with pride at his sense of self-reliance. 

This pride, he reckoned, was justified, for his self-reliance had been driven by years of living alone – if he was allowed to overlook the fact that his daily supply of meals was serviced by a hired cook. Often though, when his pursuits, however vacuous, came to naught, he would lug his backpack on his shoulder and set off on solitary wanderings with no motive but to float in the comfort of his own company.  

One such solitary wandering had led him just two months earlier to Khajuraho, where a scooter-ride fuelled by a mixture of the sense of self-reliance and perhaps, a tinge of arrogance, had ended in tragedy. Limping, in fact, almost dragging a nearly disjointed shin and a shaky knee, and drowning in a mire of painkillers, he had made his way back to his modest tenement in Safdarjung Enclave in South Delhi. Needless to say, his recuperation, including the solitary painfully wobbly visits to the doctor, was a vindication of his belief in his own abilities.

No wonder, then, that on this day, Abhineet felt no need to depend on hires. After two months of religiously taking his medicines and performing knee-strengthening exercises, tending to his wobbly leg, he felt sufficiently prepared to be walking to his place, no less than seven kilometres away. He knew in his heart how he had managed to shake off any outward indication of his recent affliction, and the thought of it infused his stride with a haughty confidence. Moreover, two decades of living away from his hometown had perhaps instilled the right amount of freedom in him to do as he fancied – even if that meant walking alone in the middle of the night with only a modicum of life in sight around him. 

Suddenly, the tell-tale whir of a vehicle grew on him from behind. He immediately knew it was a tuk-tuk. The pitch rose until he could feel the vibrations wrought by the machine behind cause the hair on his arm to flutter, and he was instantly reminded of the tyranny of the tuk-tuk drivers, especially at night. ‘There comes another leech’, he thought. He decided he would let the tuk-tuk pass, for, he had to live up to his notion of self-reliance. Besides, would not the tuk-tuk man be the typical ‘looting’ type who spared no opportunity to fleece him, given the time and desolation around? 

He sensed the tuk-tuk slowing, and he knew he had to steel himself so as to ignore it. As the tuk-tuk rumbled past him, he saw from the corner of his eye the driver taking a long hard look at him, as if soliciting, even as the vehicle’s speed slackened. 

‘Oh, man, not what I wanted at this time!’, he muttered under his breath. He wanted to march on, reinforcing the steely resolve he had sought to maintain. ‘Keep moving, dude! I am not falling prey to your extortive machinations, at least, not tonight.’, he thought. By then though, the tuk-tuk had stopped about twenty yards ahead – clearly, waiting for Abhineet to catch up.  

‘Where to?’, the driver asked Abhineet as the latter drew level with the front partition of the tuk-tuk where the driver sat. Now, despite what Abhineet had been thinking before this moment, he found himself responding to the driver, ‘Safdarjung Enclave.’ Perhaps, it had suddenly dawned upon him that the real reason he had been meaning for the tuk-tuk driver to leave him alone was not so much about him wanting to reach home without anybody else’s help as it was about not wanting to be fleeced by a ‘greedy’ tuk-tuk driver.

Even so, the math circuits in his brain went into overdrive, quickly computing the price he would be willing to accept to pay. Tuk-tuk drivers were notorious for quoting at night prices that were astronomically higher than the fare the meter would eventually have thrown up. ‘If he refuses to charge by the meter, I will not pay a single paisa beyond Rs. 100.’, he told himself, fully expecting the driver to quote twice that much. Within seconds, he spoke tersely as if ordering the driver, ‘Go by the meter, else I am off.’ ‘Hop in’, the driver said. Upon boarding, Abhineet noted that the meter already showed a fare, but since it was merely worth only a couple hundred metres, he let slide the fact that the driver did not reset the meter.

And so, the tuk-tuk glid along, leaving behind hospitals and metro stations, closed shops and shut restaurants, a mosque and a gurdwara, passing now under a flyover, and flitting then past a shopping complex, when before long the wide roads made way for less wide ones which in turn led to lanes so narrow, made even narrower by parked cars, that only one vehicle could pass through. He was finally inside his own territory. 

Abhineet had been eyeing the meter all along and the moment the reading reached the figure he had computed earlier, he asked the driver to stop, even though he lived a couple of lanes ahead. Hopping out, he drew out his wallet to pull out the exact amount of money he had had resolved to pay all along, when the driver said, ‘Sir, it’s okay.’  

Abhineet looked quizzingly at him, and inquired, ‘Why?’ The driver responded, ‘Sir, actually I was on my way home to Chhatarpur which is in the other direction, but then from afar I had been observing you limping for what must have been a mile. I figured you were in trouble – I cannot accept money for helping a fellow human. Take care, sir, and try to avoid the outdoors this late at night.’ Abhineet stood there, his eyes transfixed on the rear of the yellow canopy strung over the green frame of the tuk-tuk with a banner of a prominent politician pasted on it, receding into the distance. 

 The End

A Date with the Harappan Age at Rakhigarhi

Alighting from the Haryana Roadways bus at Hansi, 20km before Hisar, my first reaction was one of regret. It was already 6pm and I was circumspect about the situation I had gotten myself into owing to my mad uncontrollable urge to venture into the Harappan Civilization clusters in and around Hisar. But then I fired up Google Maps and walked towards the Hansi Fort. And am I glad I did!

Earlier that day, I had ditched the India-Australia World T20 Cricket final 10 overs in, when it became clear that India were going to be decimated. And still reeling from the after-effects of finishing the book ‘The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati’, I had packed a few bare essentials and taken a bus to Hisar from Gurugram bus-stand, with no itinerary in place, except for one pointer – get as far into the purported Sarasvati Valley as possible.

The only trouble was – I did not know how to get there. A colleague from the Hisar region had earlier dissuaded me from venturing solo into that area. In fact, he did not know about the Harappan sites around Hisar. It also didn’t help that there was little material on the internet pertinent to tourists addressing these Harappan sites.

So in Hansi as I walked towards the fort through the city’s old-fashioned streets, and passed through the Barsi Gate, I pacified myself visualizing Prithviraj Chauhan’s troops rolling in. The Fort would have been closed by 6pm as per Google – still, something kept me clambering up the hilly incline to the entry point of the fort, where I realized there was no closing time, and there were most certainly no closed gates. With the sun already down, I entered the final gate and presently came upon the fort enclosure set upon the plateau atop the hill. As the few remaining visitors retreated in the twilight, I started surveying the scattered structures.

By the time I was done, it was pitch dark and not a single soul was in sight. With my heart pounding, but my blood awash with adrenaline, I was leaving a subterranean long hall-like structure with nothing but darkness inside, when I chanced upon silhouettes of 3 people sitting near the roof of the structure. If I had any survival instincts intact, my first reaction should have been to flee. But I decided to approach them to inquire about the structure. And as it would turn out – all I had to do was ask!

A view of the city from atop Hansi fort in the quickly engulfing darkness

They told me the structure was an erstwhile horse-stable, and as we spoke about the fort, they asked me as to what brought me to Hansi. I explained I had landed in Hansi since it would be the nearest hub to the Harappan sites, which I had been keen on exploring for a long time. One of these persons, who I learnt was from the Tehsil office, was so impressed with my motive that he assured me it was quite easy to reach these sites, especially Rakhigarhi, and he promptly gave me the phone number of a Mr. Ram Niwas, a Rakhigarhi resident no less! and local Tehsil official. He suggested I call him before I reached there.

So with an apparent lead in hand, I left the dark confines of the fort, illuminated with renewed hope of realizing my dream of setting foot on a Harappan site. I checked into an inexpensive lodge in front of the bus-stand, got little sleep from anticipation of the next day’s events, and woke up late! As I was stepping out after having a cheap quick breakfast, I beheld a bus headed to Jind already leaving the bus-stand exit. I ran in parallel to the driver’s window, asking in a scream if the bus was going to Narnaund. The bus slowed down, and I scurried around the front side of the bus and hopped onto it.

In 30 minutes, I was at Narnaund, where the diversion to Rakhigarhi originated. I called up Mr. Ram Niwas and in a short conversation comprising sentences alternating between pure Haryanvi from his end, and Hindi from mine, I only deciphered that he would indeed meet me at Rakhigarhi. I hopped onto a Scorpio that was carrying passengers headed to Rakhigarhi, and following 20 minutes of riding on a well-laid road, squeezed amidst the village folk, I was standing at the main cross of Rakhigarhi village.

Thereupon, Mr. Ram Niwas appeared on a motorcycle. He was nothing as I had imagined. Ram Niwas ji is a lanky white-mustachioed soft-spoken elderly gentleman, somewhere in his late 50s or early 60s. After exchanging pleasantries, I rode pillion with him towards his home ensconced somewhere within the rows and rows of brick-walled houses. The brick-laid streets for the most part cut each other perpendicularly, and in places, were slushy from puddles of rainwater and patches of cow-dung. On some walls, cow-dung cakes hung drying in the sun. Neat open drains lined both sides of all the streets we traversed.

One of the wider typical Rakhigarhi streets

The route we took headed to the north, went up an incline and then sloped down, and I wondered aloud if we were on one of the Rakhigarhi mounds, to which Ram Niwas ji answered in the affirmative. As we rode further down the slope I could see two huge mud mounds before me, one straight ahead and another to its left, with iron fences delineating each from the other and from the village streets. Turning to the east for a short distance, we turned south again into a lane which again went up an incline and suddenly diverted towards the left and opened up again to reveal a couple of havelis large enough in comparison to the basic box-shaped brick houses below, of which one belonged to Ram Niwas ji.

In his quaint unadorned drawing room that opened directly into the lane, we had tea and introductions to other members of his family. Ram Niwas ji laid out the plan for the day – he would show me around all the mounds and the upcoming museum on his motorcycle, and get me to speak to somebody who would then be able to identify the mounds from the pictures I showed him. And then I would have to have lunch! To my perfunctory remonstrations, his gentle yet firm Haryanvi-laced reply was, ‘khaana toh khaana padega (lunch will need to be had).’

And so we went first to a mound (RGR-4) on the east side of the village where a street had been carved from one of its sides revealing the brick lining of an old Harappan structure. Taking pictures, we proceeded to the two mounds I had spotted earlier. We rode up the mound on the left first (RGR-2) upon which tall shrubs were growing and children were playing. I alighted and was taken aback by the continuous layer of pottery shards and little portions from bricks strewn across the whole surface of the mound. The mound must have been about 40m by 20m. Excavations done on this mound had been back-filled with mud on top of polymer sheets to enable easy stripping for display or exposure of the excavated parts in the future.

Old and new co-exist near this excavation on the side of Mound RGR-4
Bricks of a Harappan-time structure revealed on RGR-4

I ambled across the northern side of the mound soaking in the energy of the place, transported to a day in the lives of our ancestors who inhabited the innards of the metropolis I was standing on at present. I zeroed in on a day sometime in 2500BC, where I walked through paved streets bustling with traders and carts rumbling along loaded with earthenware, and the air imbibing the fragrance of burning wood and food getting cooked in earthen ovens in the nearby brick houses. There I stood transfixed on the luscious grain fields down below, spread to the farthest my eyes could fathom, wondering if such fields stood at the same place back then or if they were now standing on metres and metres of silt deposited over more structures underneath. Ram Niwas ji told me the famous Rakhigarhi skeleton was dug up from somewhere amidst those fields.

Standing on Mound RGR-3 and looking at Mound RGR-2


Ram Niwasji with shards of ancient pottery

The mound to the east (RGR-3) was separated from the mound I was standing on, by a small pond of clear water. I walked my way to the top of RGR-3 where a small blue-coloured structure dedicated to a Pir saint stood. This mound too had pottery shards strewn all across its surface. We then rode further east to the mound (RGR-1) that had been excavated first. The same pattern of pottery shards and brick pieces strewn across the surface repeated, with the mound too having been excavated and covered up. It had other visitors besides us – a handful of Red-naped Ibises!

Signage at RGR-1, the first mound to be excavated
An avian visitor – a Red-naped Ibis!

Moving further east and then turning to the north past a couple of clear-watered amply filled ponds, we got to the sprawling Rakhigarhi Museum, which is still under construction and is expected to be up-and-running in 2 to 3 years. Locals believe that once the Museum comes to life, and a settlement has been reached between the villagers and the Government with regards to the rehabilitation of locals whose houses are built on two major mounds, Rakhigarhi would be a major tourist hub.

The sprawling Rakhigarhi musuem under construction

It was already 2 hours since we had been riding around, and once back at Ram Niwas ji’s place and after having a spartan yet filling meal of chapatis and raita, another surprise awaited me! Ram Niwas ji’s younger son, in his early 20s, took me to one of the rooms where a waist-high iron chest lay huddled in the corner. From there in, he extracted a cloth wrapped into a pouch and opened its knots to reveal several relics gathered from the mounds – terracotta toys including miniature animals such as the bull and the dog, pieces of pottery of different styles and a seal! He went on drawing out relic after relic – this cloth pouch being the figurative gift that kept on giving – until I asked him to stop. My glee upon being able to touch these pieces from the past knew no bounds – money couldn’t buy the preciousness of the objects I held in my bare hands!

Treasures from Harappan times – terracotta figures and earthenware

At last it was time to bid adieu. Ram Niwas ji vehemently refused to accept some money I offered as a token of my appreciation. I touched his feet and got into his car with his son, who dropped me back at Narnaund. From there as I retraced my way back to Gurugram through Hansi on a local bus on the wide smooth highway, I could not help but smile at the sight of the seas and seas of wheat and mustard fields lining both sides of the highway. Whenever I saw a mound-like elevation, I wondered if there were cities of the past buried underneath. Maybe I used to live in one of them.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Travesty of Justice (to a Promising Premise)

Batman v Superman is a movie that has director Zack Snyder trying hard to marry two worlds – a world that is inhabited with DC Comics characters and another world, enamored with Marvel Comics characters, that has already been shown how an extended Cinematic Universe should look, and indeed looks, like. So you have Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder teaming up to cobble together a DC Comics alternative universe and to pit one superhero against another just in time, before Paramount and Marvel steal their thunder with their own interpretation of a similar scenario – only they are trying a little too hard.

That is the problem plaguing the movie for the better part of its run-time – trying hard to quickly establish things or rather, to make you believe things, without having much to show for it. For example, you must believe Batman is fed up with Superman’s God-like reverence from the masses, because Zack Snyder shows a single scene of Batman getting miffed at the newspaper headlines. You must tell yourself the world is on the brink of yet another catastrophe because the characters are saying something on those lines, looking into, perhaps, a crystal ball that is never shown. You must convince yourself that Batman and Superman are in a conflict of war-like proportions – and, since they never showed a real buildup – simply because the movie title says so. You are asked to take huge leaps of faith and logic, because Zack Snyder wants you to never be sure about what really is happening up until the big reveal, which, after it arrives, is deliberately drowned in noise and chaos so Snyder can stretch the aura of mystification half an hour longer. On the way, you never know the reason behind why Superman would suddenly turn up in the middle of Batman’s daily business and let him know he let him off out of mercy. You never know how Lois Lane knows that the spear that she threw away held the key to annihilating the newest monster in Metropolis.

Add to that the mix and match of the different universes that Zack Snyder is attempting. Despite having made it amply clear ahead of the movie’s release that his universe was different to that of Nolan’s, he still imbues his universe with a forced darkness that evokes the ambience of Nolan’s, while also borrowing for his Batman, traits, most notably, the dead-pan, from the pre-Christian Bale incarnations. The problem with this forced grimness is that it draws itself to unnecessary comparisons with Nolan’s creation – and fails miserably at it because the bar has been set so high by both Nolan and Bale – while simultaneously flying in the face of the slightly upbeat mood of the same universe portrayed in Man of Steel. And if the intention was to show a Superman in deep conflict, a sign of the times he is living in, then it is back to the initial problem – you must believe without being made to spontaneously believe, that Superman is in turmoil.

The movie is hobbled by poor direction and banal dialogue, if not by tunnel vision and hammy or wooden acting. Visual effects are run-of-the-mill, and Ben Affleck is just OK as Batman – he is no Bale after all. Jesse Eisenberg goes over-the-top and strangely strikes you as a white version of Shah Rukh Khan in virtually every movie of his (ever). Amy Adams, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot, in that order, try to hold on to dear life in a floundering ship. Jeremy Irons’ cocky, wise-crack Englishman Alfred is an apology of a replacement for Michael Caine’s fatherly, sympathetic portrayal. But not all is hopeless though, since the best moments are reserved for the last half-hour, that is, after Wonder Woman appears and joins forces with the other two, when the movie begins to become bearable. From there on, it is uphill for the movie – reaching its zenith in the very last shot – but by then you wonder if it was an uptick two hours too late.


The Revenant: Gory, Tragic, Ultimately Daunting

If you have been waiting for months to watch ‘The Revenant’, be forewarned it is not one for the faint-hearted. That this could be the case is alluded to five minutes into the runtime, when you have barely settled in for, perhaps, a popcorn-munching, cola-guzzling, sweet-faced Leo-watching binge that you are yanked out of your cosiness by a violent attack scene, thereby preparing you for a possible further assault of bloodiness, and thrusting you into a sustained state of alertness and stoicism. You will need a lot of those – either those or a deep slumber – for there is no let-up in the gore and violence following that. Whether it be the bear-mauling or arrows piercing foreheads & torsos and jutting out from the other side or axes slashing off appendages or mauled & mangled flesh or even Nature doing its thing, director Iñárritu’s goriness is remarkably realistic in detail and in-the-face – as opposed to the sanguine tongue-in-cheekiness of, say, Tarantino.

What emerges, slowly, is the surprising evolution of Tom Hardy’s acting – when you had had dismissed him as simply an improved version of Vin Diesel. With the evil on his face and in his voice – and as opposed to the over-the-top portrayal of evil in TDKR – so palpable you would actually hate him. Then there is Lubezki’s camera work- conjuring up angles and heights, sneaking into corners you would not expect, contributing to so much of the in-the-face visceral nature of the visual that sometimes the only respite you could get is by looking away. But then you would also miss his wizardry.

That brings us to Leonardo’s performance. It is hard to calibrate Leonardo’s acquittal – seasoned that he is – against the backdrop of the overwhelming circumstances depicted in the movie. Leonardo has pulled off quite a list of challenging roles in the past, where it was hard to discern Leo the man from the character he played – but here, where he speaks all of ten lines distributed equally over the first 10 minutes and the last 20 minutes, you are left to wonder whether he would be far ahead of the pack were his peers also to portray the daunting hardships that Hugh Glass must go through. In other words, it is a cakewalk for him, or maybe, the effortlessness is to blame. Which is to say, if he wins an Oscar this time, it was because he has been long owed one.

Meanwhile, director Iñárritu, in going for the jugular, does pull off the gore and treachery of circumstances in glorious detail but then he cannot stop any intended themes of relationships – between man & nature, civilisation & savagery, man & family – from submerging in that very sea of blood and breathtaking scenery. One theme in particular – visions and whispers of his dead wife – falls short in eliciting any sense of connect. Then you could fault him for the runtime, and since he is also partly credited with the screenplay, for also the story, because it feels incredulous that a character should be faced with insurmountable clichéd tragedy after tragedy, and also come up trumps in the end. In short, Iñárritu did better on ‘Birdman’.

Ultimately, however, ‘The Revenant’ descends into revenge saga territory, and by the time Glass has finally laid hands on Fitz (Hardy)- and you knew he would half an hour into the movie- you are left wishing you were over with it already, for only after you have freed yourself from the overpowering grip of it all, can you sit down to objectively separate the performances of the crew from the grandeur of the gore.

Timber Trawler Who?

Someone quoted Anonymous, and I quote him, “Better late than never.” I took this literally. So, for 29 years of my life, I waited until it was just late enough to not be called too late to put pen to paper…er, keyboard input to WordPress. I am Reed, and I trawl through the beautiful woods of the various places and things this world has to offer, fishing for the finest bits of timber. I am the Timber Trawler, and this is the story of my trawling.