Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Unreal Aliens


             A Romp with Real people in an Unreal World

  This hilarious political satire is a must read for any Indian ( or India follower) familiar with the loony world of Indian social media, with its seriously weird khichdi-cast of characters that populate the political- social circus of our public life. And Unreal Aliens presents the full parade -- mufflered mustachioed politician at large, a sleepy-head retired PM, verbose cricket commentator making painful puns, actors with unsought opinions,TV anchor stars who bully and outshout panelists and public alike, business savvy yoga gurus...and among others, a prime minister with a penchant for spiffy suits, colourful headgear and careful camera angles. Nobody is spared, many are named, caricatured, made fun of in a goofy, pretty bold, but good-natured manner....and one can't help but guffaw even if one is travelling by train while reading the book as I was. It's an unreal setting with real people -- and luckily no one's complaining -- and so may it remain. We need these laughs to survive tough times.

The book is authored by Karthik Laxman, a co-founder of the popular satirical- spoof website The Unreal Times, that till very recently, devoted itself to the honourable and necessary task of cocking a snook at our more colourful public figures. The website has (sadly) shut down , as of November 30, though one understands that it's Facebook avatar survives. UnReal Aliens is the second book that has emerged from this stable -- as a follow up to their first book Unreal Elections (2014), a satirical send up of the 2014 Indian election that proved a game changer.

This second book has plenty of chuckles -- and a trajectory that reminds me of popular Hindi cinema. It's got a rip - roaring first half, a somewhat muddling middle ( thanks to the author's love for Hollywood films like 'Inception' with its confusing dream within a dream concept) -- and a climax that is made to work despite its absurdity. That laughs continue right up to the climax -- which left me with a startled ( and satisfactory) what the eff feeling....but I am getting ahead.

In short the story is all about the world's first alien 'invasion'. And who do you think gets the honour? No, not good ol' USA which has made a gazillion films that show Americans saving the world from scary aliens .

A small company of aliens land in Modi's India, circa, 2016! And at the start, these guys come in peace -- similar to the American screen hero ET or our Indian Jadoo ( Koi Mil Gaya) , or the recent PK. Led by their commander Qaal-za, these grey- skinned hairy , four-armed Morons from the distant planet Mor are in search of their lost Prince, kidnapped decades ago, suspected to have been deposited ( and lost) in India. There is bonhomie ( covered by the media, but of course), a joint ' Mann ki Baat session to share mushy details about their budding friendship', plenty of talk about future joint ventures ( like 'manufacturing alien spaceships and saucers under the Make in India programme')....all of which dissipates into an uncomfortable standoff, when the aliens reveal their intention of searching for their long lost Prince.

But Modi and co refuse outright to give up any Indian who may or may not be the kidnapped alien prince. Though they do arrange a Lagaan style cricket match, between the inexperienced newbies and the Indian cricket team -- a riotously funny account; and this section alone makes the book worth its modest price. The visitors lose the match ( after some other- worldly shots) and a fair chance to search for their prince. Then the unhappy delegation now get bushwhacked by the waiting forces around them -- the opposition politicians, the TRP hungry media, our opportunistic rogue neighbour Pakistan ever - ready to create trouble for India.

And now the angry aliens really invade India. More Morons arrive , landing quietly in places as far apart as Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu ( at an Amma canteen in Chennai, no less) , Mumbai's TOI office, Lutyen's Delhi...the nation is at war, as zombified Indian citizens and a clueless central government wonder what to do.

It's a crazy rollercoaster ride from here, involving dreams within dreams. There's plenty of action, farce, hilarity, confusion, confrontation and a concocted climax that concludes a zany UnReal story situation, but peopled by real guys like Subramaniam Swamy as the 'Inception' inspired leader of the defence team -- which stars among others, worthies like a sleepy retired PM, a sleep inducing economist cum former PM -- and the mufflerwala CM with his perpetual complaint :' Sab mile huey hai ji.'

The book's varied and merry cast includes a politician mother and her child-like grown up son -- we know who. Of course, the author does not shy away from naming anybody. In any case the caricatured characters are all inhabitants of an UnReal impossible ( yet life like) India -- so any litigation angle is taken care of, I guess.

The book is very visual, reading like screenplay for a satirical film. It's all in good fun -- though Rahul , poor chap does get it more than others.

Ultimately what sticks in memory are the very life like situations and dialogues. -- drawn out as exaggerated subversive caricatures. Sample :

On the Northern outskirts of Islamabad....stood Pakistan's proudest educational institution, the Pakistan Institute of Terrorism Science, more popularly known as 'The PITS' in its military- jihadi circles.

General Raheel Sharif is speaking to the new students : 'Our faculty is truly world class. Seven of our faculty members are Nobel Laureates in terrorism, which means they have made it to the top ten of the US' most wanted list. Hafiz Saeed is a faculty member here. Al Zawahiri teaches every alternate year. Osama Bin Laden was a residential professor at PITS before his um, retirement.'

Beneath the humour real issues are quietly addressed. A teenage girl in a UP village is captured by the aliens but manages to escape, reaches home -- and realises that one of her brothers is threatening to kill her for 'bringing dishonour to our family.' The girl flees -- back to the spaceship and her erstwhile captors.

The ironies of India 2016, have been captured well in a most delightful manner. UnReal Aliens is well worth a read or two.

Some book reviews published in the Sunday Herald

                                              Published on September 14, 2014


                                                       Published on July 12, 2015


                                              Published on May 22, 2016


                                                 Published on November 27, 2016

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Comedian Revisited



Quite like my earlier trip to the US (summer 2014), this time around too it’s been family, museums and …… books. A visit to the local William K Sanford Town Library, browsing the well-stocked shelves; and a couple of hours later, armed with a load of sweet-smelling tomes, stagger out with the pleasing prospect of bliss through the ensuing weeks

One of the books I picked up was a charmer, last read in Chennai, a couple of years earlier. The book in question – ‘I shouldn’t even be doing this!’-- is a memoir from Bob Newhart, the gentle American comic of the Newhart tv series (and sundry films) fame. And unsurprisingly, the lines sound and feel just like Bob – quietly hilarious.   

   As the jacket blurb declares, ‘That stammer. Those basset-hound eyes. That bone-dry wit. There has never been another comedian like Bob Newhart.’ In this his first book (published back in 2006), Newhart takes his readers and fans on a warm witty ride that starts with his childhood in Chicago, continues through his early attempts at having a normal career as an accountant (when he tried to reconcile petty cash by using his own pocket change), his early forays into radio and audio-comedy -- and then dwells drolly, on his tv and film career. But rest assured that it is no compendium, no bibliographic account of his days in the spotlight. Rather it’s a look-back, a revelation of funny inside stories, a fuzzy-wuzzy tale of a catholic upbringing that turned a normal American youngster into a graceful funnyman.

  There are the asides, the throwaway lines, lessons from a life well-lived; to wit:
'For some reason, comedians are still children. The social skills somehow never reach us, so we say exactly what we think without weighing the results.'
‘Most comedians are committable. People say I’m the most normal of all comedians – and I’m still certifiable.’
‘I always thought we were from an upper-middle class family until I met an upper middle-class family and realized that we weren’t.’ When Bob Newhart’s maternal grandfather moved in with them and took over Bob’s bedroom, the realization hit home­­: ‘we weren’t middle class.’
‘…like most kids I didn’t pay much attention in church, and I only took communion because I was always hungry.’
‘All religions are basically saying the same thing, and that is: “Be nice to each other.” ‘
‘Being a comedian means you are anti-authority and subversive at heart.’
After making it through a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and a Catholic College (where he got an undergraduate degree in management and accounting), Newhart joined a law college affiliated to the Catholic Church. He dropped out of law school mid-way, but study of law gave Newhart an appreciation of the precise word. And here is Newhart on lawyers and comedians:
‘…trial lawyers are actors. They stand in front of judges and juries and entertain them with borderline preposterous stories -- not unlike those told by stand-up comics, come to think of it.’

In 1952, Newhart was drafted at a time when the Korean War was on; but he talked his way into training within the confines of the US. His experience did however form the basis of one of his first comedy routines (The Cruise of the USS Codfish/The Submarine Commander), something that proved a springboard to later success. As the comedian remembers: ‘It was all about how someone totally unqualified can rise three levels above their competency because the organization is so big that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.’
 The book is replete with entire chunks from Newhart’s most popular comedy monologues—all quietly deadly funny. One can actually imagine Newhart play the bumbling submarine commander addressing his men on the USS Codfish, prior to completing two years at sea: ‘OH, all right. I’ve just been notified that we will be surfacing in a moment, and you’ll be happy to know that you will be gazing on the familiar skyline of either New York City or Buenos Aires. Dismissed, men. That is all.’

   Draft duty done, Newhart passed time as an accountant in Chicago, all the while contemplating a possible future in comedy. ‘Swapping absurd stories on the telephone with a friend in advertising’, led to the duo’s first radio routines – and the minimal payment the budding comedy pair had gingerly requested. But as Newhart recounts, ‘After thirteen weeks, we had lost $325 on the venture and our comedy enterprise collapsed in financial ruin.’

Newhart wished to discover whether he was funny only to friends, or…was there a living, somewhere in it? Unmarried still, with no family to provide for, Newhart took on part time jobs, still keeping his secret dream alive. And as he worked he made mental notes on all the foibles of his fellow men.

 It was finally the un-remunerative radio shows that provide Bob Newhart with small openings into the world of stand-up comedy, televised or not. But a viable living in comedy was still some time away.

The inevitable happened soon enough. Bob Newhart’s success story started with a comedy album in April 1960; The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a Billboard #1 topper for weeks; it was soon followed by seven more of the same, besides rewards in the form of three Grammys. And along with success came a delayed marriage but a happy big family, besides more on the professional front: touring the clubs in places as different as Las Vegas and Peoria; a film career of sorts where Bob did small roles in big films (apparently he was there in MASH) – and of course a fantastic tv career through the nineteen-seventies and eighties.

 My own introduction to the Newhart brand of quiet hilarity came in 1990, when Indian television opened up to the wonders of satellite tv. The Bob Newhart Show was our first experience of an American sitcom – and our family liked it very much indeed.

In the new millennium, an older but still twinkly-eyed Newhart continues to charm us occasionally; he was my pleasant surprise in the film Legally Blonde 2. Sometimes he makes a guest appearance on a sitcom or soap – and talking about this sort of new television, Bob lets it rip: ‘Then there is Desperate Housewives, which is either a serious drama or spoof depending on which side of the humor scale you fall.’

There’s plenty more of this sort. It is not exactly a new book; a decade old to be precise. But it still makes for a fun read.  It could even impel one to search out Bob Newhart on YouTube. In any case, intelligent entertainment  is guaranteed.