Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Films, Literature, Social Media and Cancer

Tahelka recently conducted Think, an initiative to get together prominent personalities from various fields – literature, films, science etc - and across the globe to discuss and exchange ideas on topics as varied as their professions - literature, films, social media, etc. The venue was Goa.

I had read about Think in newspaper when it had run into a controversy over Tarun Tejpal’ s (the founding editor of Tahelka and the man behind Think) comment:“Eat, drink and sleep with whoever you want tonight but come tomorrow as it’s full house.”

They covered the program in the Tahelka magazine and I flipped through its pages to get a feel of things. I decided to Youtube, but as the list of guests was both impressive and long, the choice of whose views I would like to hear was difficult to make. But I finally chalked out a small list for me. Shashi Tharoor, VS Naipaul, Sidharth Mukherjee (biography of cancer fame) etc, were there. Later I made an addition to my list - Ammir Khan.

All of them were interesting. Sashi Tharoor spoke on the role of new media in the modern world, sharing the stage with Hari Kuzru. Shashi said how new media are not just helping connect people but also making meaningful contribution to disaster management and handling humanitarian issues. “But what about its downside – the fact that the direct access Twitter and Facebook give to public figures (like Tharoor himself) can be misused by abusive fans?” the host asked. Over time you develop a thick skin Shashi responded. Hari said that’s why you have the blocking button.

Tarun started his conversation with Naipaul after a long introduction of the author about his prominence in the world of literature. Naipaul is great and controversial in equal measure. So Tarun finished his introduction by saying, “Try to know Naipaul through his books, that’s where he lies, not through Google posts and media reports.”

Some years ago Naipaul had rued the ‘death of the novel’ and he substantiated his prophesy. He said any art form has its own life cycle. The novel was born hundred or so years ago with Charles Dickens and hundred years on it has changed so much that Dickensian novels are not written any more. He said probably cinema will replace the long form of writing.

Tahelka runs a ‘how to write’ course and Tarun mainly asked questions keeping in mind the benefit of his students, I felt. Talking about his writing process , Naipaul said he used to go to a place and put up in a hotel and spend the hotel life for sometime. Before going he would make sure he knew some people in the place who would put him in touch with more people.

Naipaul would casually talk to them while wining and dining. But the casual setting of wining and dining didn’t mean Naipaul was relaxed; instead he was constantly on the prowl for ‘anything interesting or profound’. Naipaul said every writer has his own methods and you will find out your own as well. On certain things, however, you have to depend on your instinct or whatever.

Tarun Tejpal and Naipaul go back fifteen years (Naipaul blurbs for Tarun’s books) and their intimacy was quite evident during the discussion.

I was particularly curious about Siddartha Mukherjee. Siddartha probably has been a prominent figure in the world of oncology for a long time, but he entered general consciousness this year by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

With some-days old stubble and an untrimmed French beard, Siddartha has a grubby and intense look. The unkempt appearance helps him look his part: a cancer scientist. He is based in the US.

He was interviewed by Barkha Dutt. To give the discussion a dose of immediacy Barkha framed some of her questions based on the theme - that by failing to save Jobs from being claimed by cancer, science or technology has failed to return Jobs the favour he did to the humankind by giving us so many powerful technologies. (Never mind the exagerration; that has become our habit when it comes to Steve Jobs.) Siddartha said it’s a failure of imagination for the medical world.

He informed that women who eat fatty foods are more prone to breast cancer and this fact, a survey revealed, led some breast-cancer afflicted women to conclude that the bag of potato chips they ate in remote past was responsible for their affliction. A bag of potato chips can’t lead to cancer. It’s plain guilty consciousness.

He revealed many more important facts about the disease.

For all our medical advancements, our attitude towards cancer hasn’t changed since the time Cleopatra, in ancient Egypt, had discovered that she had cancer.

The discussion was certainly grim, but I heard it very intently. This is a disease we all want to know about for curiosity as well as dread.

What impresses me the most about Ammir is the sincerity he brings to everything he does. When he spoke about his films, that sincerity was evident. He talked about the shock that the first cut of Lagan, which was seven-hour long, induced on them. They felt the movie that took one year and a lot of money to be made would probably be a dud given its length. Aamir edited the film for six months. And it wasn’t easy because he couldn’t indiscriminately chop scenes as that would make the film too fast; and a too-fast narrative would go against the basic nature of the film which was classic.

Aamir said he believes in making ‘good’ films without ignoring their commercial interests as film-making is a team work and many people, starting from the producer to the distributor, remain dependent on a film and are affected to various extents by its success or failure. Being from a film family, he understands this.

He said he doesn’t take fat advances; instead he waits for the film to play out and then takes his fee depending on its performance. He follows the philosophy of madaris (roughly translates into minstrels) who are surrounded by viewers when they perform on streets and when the show is over one of them takes off his hat and goes to the viewers for their fee. Those who liked the show drop a fee in the hollow of the hat; those who didn’t are free to go without a payment.

The list of guests I Youtubed on excluded many. Probably I would catch up with them later.

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