Friday, August 27, 2010

What I'm Watching

TV for me is something I switch on when I'm eating, or if I have nothing else better to do, or I'm overcome by an intense desire to vegetate. I usually watch whatever is on - maybe a film or some program that catches my fancy - or I bemoan the lack of quality programming while flipping channels for the next half-hour.

However, I have become a staunch follower and fan of two TV programmes, both of which run on Star World.

Richard Castle and Det. Kate Beckett
The first one is Castle. This is easily one of the best-written murder mysteries on TV. The scripts every episode are phenomenal; they're high-paced, witty and never guessable. The latter is what draws me so much to the show - they don't try to present you with facts and give you a chance to guess. It's crime fiction written in the true, original sense: here's the mystery we're solving, why don't you sit back and enjoy? Of course, it also helps that Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) is insanely hot.

The cast of 'Castle'
Apart from the murders, the supporting story (and cast) are phenomenally written; it's obvious a lot of thought has gone into them as well. Ryan and Esposito as the support cops do a terrific job; their chemistry with the lead pair is spot-on and they have some very funny lines. Castle's mother and daughter Alexis turn in very strong performances; what I especially like is how they provide the common-sense and epiphany angle to Castle.

Finally, Richard Castle is a novelist. He's a writer, and that's what I am becoming. He's a world-famous, best-selling author, and that's what I want to be. He is working with his muse, who is super-hot with personality and intelligence to match, and who wouldn't want to have that? The chemistry between the lead pair is crackling.

Every day, when the show ends, I want to run to the internet and download every episode and watch them immediately, but I hold myself back and wait for the next episode to air on TV.

Master Chef Australia
The second show that I'm really into is Master Chef Australia. I'm surprised that I'm into a reality show, especially a cooking show considering I'm a strict vegetarian. But Master Chef Australia has that certain something that draws me to it and actually has me biting my nails, metaphorically. It might have something to do with the Australian accent, but it most certainly has to do with the format of the show. Every week, without fail, I have been stunned by the innovations they come up with on the show.

The Master Chef Judges
In the first week, the two chefs who were battling each other in the elimination round actually had a knowledge round where they had to write the name of the bird to which the egg they were being shown belonged. True to its name, they had Master Classes with true Master Chefs - increasing the knowledge of the participants, because that's what it's about, right? It's not a gladiatorial contest between chefs; you're preparing a chef who is good enough to be called a Master Chef. Next week, the two who are trying to survive elimination have to save a terrible dish and make it taste wonderful - a very real, practical skill that is so useful and necessary in the world outside television.

Sure, Master Chef Australia doesn't have a super-hot judge like Padma Lakshmi, but that might actually be working in their favour, because now all the attention is focused where it should be - on the contestants, rather than on Padma Lakshmi's chest or well-fitting jeans or her lips when she talks. I find the bald judge over-the-top and theatrical, but the other two are all right, and they all have very precise points of what they liked and what they thought could be improved. Their feedback is easily one of the most helpful I've seen.

The only thing that worries me is that Star World is trying to muck up the goodwill from these two shows. They've messed around with Castle a lot already, by not sticking to one time slot and playing far too many reruns. They haven't done anything with Master Chef Australia yet, but there are still a lot of episodes left; anything can happen.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who Told Autos They're Vehicles?

Disclaimer: The following post is politically incorrect.

Which nincompoop led auto-rickshaws to believe that they are vehicles? Why are autos allowed to traverse the same path as actual vehicles like cars, buses and bikes? Which dunderhead lacked the foresight and went ahead and committed a grave error in even allowing autos to be manufactured? Why are licences and permits still being issued to these guys? They should be issuing hunting permits instead and instituting 'shoot-at-sight' orders, allowing regular people and road users to take pot-shots at autos and their drivers.

Auto-rickshaws represent everything that is wrong with mankind's life today. It is a face for the urban decay that chokes the progress that man is capable of. The collapse of civilization that futuristic films continuously portray is captured in no truer form than the three-wheeled bucket of crap that terrorizes our roads.

Seeing an auto weave its way languidly through traffic is cringe-worthy. Drivers cut across lanes at will, treating the entire road as his father's property. Hearing an auto crackle and rattle is enough to drive one crazy. I often fantasize about tying the head of the auto manufacturing company to a chair and playing recorded clips of autos roaring by (as vehicles pass them since they're never fast enough to overtake anything except stationary cattle) for him/her all day long. Maybe that will force him/her to pull the plug on these ghastly machines, obviously thought up and built by a moron who lived in a time period preceding the Flintstones' intellectual and industrial boom.

I fully advocate the creation of National Game Reserves dedicated entirely to the hunting of auto-rickshaws and their drivers. Its main feature is its expanse; it exists everywhere. I envision entire hunting clubs blossoming across the country where regular folk like you and me will gain membership, buy hunting caps and then meet once or twice a month to compare notes and blow their trumpets. These local clubs will spread at such an alarming rate that soon a National Auto-Rickshaw And Driver Hunting Clubs' Association (N.A.R.A.D.H.C.A) will be set up to regulate the activities of these clubs and their members. This will lead to the biggest technological innovation in weapons' manufacture since elephant rifles. An entire genre of guns will be spawned under the name 'Auto Guns' (not to be confused with 'Automatic Guns'), ranging from rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, pink snub-nosed ones that ladies can effectively tuck into their handbags and the special-edition Dirty Harry handgun: "the most powerful handgun in the world".

Videos will flood the internet showing kills and skills - combo kills, drift kills, acrobatic kills, parkour kills, you name it. In time, the sport of hunting auto-rickshaws and their drivers will get its own National Championship, where hunters will meet once a year in a designated city and pit their skills against each other. There will be special category prizes as well, apart from the usual awards, in categories as varied as 'Oldest Hunter', 'Kill From The Highest Point', 'Most Kills Without A Gun', etc.

To appease the humanitarian and autotarian (what a word!) groups that will undoubtedly spring up to clamour for their preservation, small pockets can be declared as 'Protected Areas'. In these 'Protected Areas', autos and their drivers will be ensured safe passage and visitors, gaining entry with a fee and positioned behind protective fences, can marvel at them in their natural habitat, lumbering painfully slowly and loudly across tarred and potholed roads that will be kept free of any other traffic or interference. All roads and flyovers in all the cities that are currently on-hold due to legal problems will be utilised in this heavy money-making scheme. Examples in Bangalore in the past would have included the Airport Road flyover and the portion of 100 Ft Rd under the Metro construction. However, a shining example, that in all probability will become a permanent enclosure, is the NICE Road.

Moreover, to introduce an element of excitement, a stationary cow will be planted occasionally in the middle of the road just around a bend. Visitors will grind their nails to dust, unable to take the suspense, as the driver sluggishly guides his auto-rickshaw along the road, unmindful of the bovine obstacle ahead; visitors will then gasp as he expertly swerves out of the way at the last possible moment without any dip in speed or without so much as a mindful glance behind, and the organisers will pat themselves on the back at having achieved yet another masterful display of the auto-driver's natural behaviour in man-made surroundings.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Is Aamir Khan Bad Luck For Exotic Indian Locations?

Exotic Indian Location 1 - Bhuj, Gujarat
In 2000, between January and June, Aamir Khan Productions filmed its first venture 'Lagaan'. The primary location was Bhuj in Gujarat, Western India. The film released on June 15, 2001.

On Jan 26, 2001, nearly 6 months before the film released, a massive earthquake, measuring between 7.6 and 8.1 on the Richter Scale, shook Bhuj to its foundations. The quake killed around 20,000 people, injured another 167,000 and destroyed nearly 400,000 homes.

Exotic Indian Location 2 - Leh, Jammu & Kashmir
In 2008, between July and December, Aamir Khan's film '3 Idiots' was filmed. Among various locations around the country, one of them, where the climax was filmed, was a school - Druk Padma Karpo School - near Leh in Jammu & Kashmir, Northern India. The film released on Dec 25, 2009.

On Aug 6, 2010, barely over 7 months after the release of the film, flash floods - a result of a cloudburst - swept the region. At least 165 people died, another 200 were still missing, many buildings were destroyed - including large parts of the school - and thousands were rendered homeless.

Exotic Indian Location 3 - Bhadwai, Madhya Pradesh?
In 2009, Aamir Khan Productions filmed what would become its fourth commercial venture to release - Peepli [Live]. The primary filming location was a village called Bhadwai, about 70 km from the capital Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, Central India. The film released on Aug 13, 2010.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Poor Service: Not Just Jazz By The Bay, Mumbai

My cousin and I are Karaoke fans. We've tested out Karaoke options in 3 different cities in India and have come away impressed with only a couple of them. We had been to Not Just Jazz By The Bay on Marine Drive before and hadn't come away particularly impressed, but on a Tuesday night, we decided this was our best option. Nothing prepared us for the Karaoke experience of that night.

Upon paying Rs 100 as entry charges, we found ourselves in a dimly-lit, entirely-closed pub. Our eyes soon adjusted to the dim lighting. On stage was the MC/host for the night. He introduced himself as Sheish, a native of Iran, in heavily accented and sometimes grammatically incorrect English. However, to prove his love for India, a little later, he would shout to one of his friends at the bar, "Jai Maharastra".

Karaoke night was starting off a little slowly. Shiesh tried to move things along by saying encouraging things to the members of the audience; he also sang the initial songs, including 'Hotel California'.

My cousin and I pored over the book they had given us with the song listings, but we came up with nothing. Most of our favourite songs weren't there. A large, raucous group occupying 3 tables, and another large, but not quite as vocal, group occupying 2 tables began to take over proceedings. Entire droves of people went up to sing together while the ones who stayed behind provided very loud backing vocals. It was to be a feature of the night, with volumes only heading up.

Just as a groovy Karaoke tempo was being set, Shiesh emerged from outside, where he had disappeared for a few minutes, took over the microphone and said, "I'm going to sing a song that I sing the best because I sing it my way." He went on to sing Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' in a terrible Southern and Western accent, making it sound like a horrible country song - a complete mood dampener.

The night refused to lie low and picked up again. Much later into the night, Shiesh decided he was going to assault our sensibilities again. But this time, he picked 'Because I Got High', a song whose lyrics were so offensive in a public setting that my cousin actually turned to me and said, "I find this song very offensive." However, a regular patron obviously loved the song for he jumped on stage to join Shiesh. After the song, the patron, a young muscular Indian male headed back to his place by the bar, but once he got there, he pumped up a fist and shouted, "USA, USA."

Shiesh very calmly took the mic - there was no music on - and announced clearly and deliberately, "Iran is anti-American; I am anti-American." The reaction was so unexpected that it took us a couple of minutes to actually register the full import of what he had said. My cousin, who is American, found his comments to be extremely offensive, as she rightly should.

"I did not pay Rs 100 to come in here and be insulted or hear my country be insulted," she said. "He's been playing American music all evening and now he says he's anti-American?"

Just then, members from the large, raucous group assembled to sing James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful'. I shouted over the opening strains to Shiesh, "If you're anti-American, why are you playing American music?"

"They're singing it," replied Shiesh, "I'm not."

Here was a man who had sung Hotel California and a Frank Sinatra song saying that he was anti-American and was not singing American songs. My cousin and I decided this was going too far. We called the manager and told him what had just happened. To his credit, he immediately whisked Shiesh outside for a chat. Meanwhile, we asked for our bill and paid. We then went to find the manager outside and asked him what the situation was. He assured us that he had told Shiesh there was no reason to bring religion and country into this and he should apologise; he said Shiesh would apologise publicly. So, despite it being past midnight, we sat at the bar waiting for the apology.

The DJ, meanwhile, had started mixing his tracks and the now-sozzled patrons were crowding the centre showing off their moves. Shiesh went and sat by the DJ; he went outside and came back; he went up to the mic, but then sat by the DJ. We figured he was just working up the courage to apologise publicly; so, we waited patiently. However, the crowd was slowly starting to disperse. More and more people picked up their bags, said their goodbyes and walked out the door.

Close to 1am, the house tracks stopped and Shiesh stepped up to the mic. My cousin and I sat up; the moment seemed to be here.

"The next song we have is 'Love Me Do' by The Beatles."

Both of us were stunned. When another song followed with no apology, we sought out the manager again. This time, he went to the stage and brought Shiesh to us. Shiesh came to me with his hands folded and he launched into an apology. I stopped him and pointed to my cousin. He began to apologise profusely to her.

"I saw you leave; that's why I didn't apologise. I am so sorry. My friends know that I am just joking. I have family living in the US. I was just kidding around."

"I am not your friend," my cousin replied curtly. "And you sing Frank Sinatra and have the balls to say you're anti-American. You made a public statement; you apologise publicly."

Shiesh went up at the end of the song, stopped the music, drew attention to himself, and delivered the worst mash-up of an apology I have ever heard.

"I have to apologise to a lady over there," he said, pointing to my cousin. "Everybody here knows that I am just joking when I make comments about somebody's country. I hope you accept my apology."

While he said this, his muscle-bound singing friend from earlier in the night remarked in a most sarcastic voice, "Oh Shiesh! You are hurting my feelings."

My cousin and I left, not accepting his 'apology' and vowing to never return here.

Imagine if you had gone abroad, and the MC/host there had played and sung Indian songs all night, and then declared, "I am anti-Indian." What would you have done?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Poor Service: SpiceJet

When things start going wrong, everything seems to go wrong at once. On a recent SpiceJet flight from Kolkata to Goa, it appeared almost as if every single staff member was colluding to give us a nightmarish flight, one that we will never forget.

The dominoes started tumbling even before the actual flight. While I was to fly to Mumbai after my week in Goa, my 3 other friends were to fly to Delhi. A couple of weeks before the flights, an insipid representative from SpiceJet called and informed them that their direct flight to Delhi on the night of July 25 had been cancelled due to 'technical reasons'. He offered them so many apologies that, after a while, it became an automatic response to everything my friends said, whether he heard them or not.

"Would it be possible to put us on another SpiceJet flight the same day?"
"Sorry."
"Can you put us on another carrier?"
"Sorry."

In between all the apologies, he offered them a SpiceJet flight that left the next day, without offering an accompanying overnight stay amount or package. Sorry.

Our SpiceJet flight from Kolkata to Goa (via Mumbai) was at 8 in the morning on July 20; so, we wanted to get there somewhere between 6:30 and 7. The Kolkata airport is quite some distance from the city, taking about an hour even without early morning traffic. In order to leave at 5:30, we had to wake up at 4:30 am, even before the sun had risen - quite an achievement in that Eastern city.

Blurry-eyed and dishevelled, we stumbled into a moderately crowded airport. While 3 of us busied ourselves with the scanning of our many bags, the fourth - a lady - headed to the check-in counter. The SpiceJet executive behind the counter immediately waved her aside for the gentleman behind her, even though she indicated to us a few metres away approaching. She wasn't happy that the executive chose to bypass her even though the rest of us would have been there with our luggage in a few seconds.

"I was here first; I was in the queue."

The executive reacted as if he had been stung by a personal slight. His face hardened, his eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. He replied with unmistakable menace in his voice.

"Where is your ticket then? Show me your ticket."

After our lady friend had swallowed her irritation, we cleared security and went to sit in the waiting area. We were just preparing to sit, with our behinds sticking out seeking the chair, when a SpiceJet staff member hurtled towards us and commanded in a booming voice that would have been more apt to bring errant soldiers in line during a morning hike.

"SpiceJet Mumbai Goa? Go and board!"
"But it's only 7. Our flight's not till 8."
"It's a base flight. So, boarding is early. Go!"

We settled down in our seats in the plane with a sigh, hoping that the worst was behind us. I was seated in Row 15, the emergency exit row - necessary due to the extra leg space it afforded my lankiness - while my friends were in Row 24; we hadn't managed to secure 4 seats in the emergency exit rows. Soon after the flight took off, the air hostesses came around offering food and beverages for sale. I had been up since 4:30 am and hadn't eaten anything since dinner the previous night; I was really looking forward to breakfast, whatever the airline chose to offer me.

SpiceJet has a pre-registration option, where fliers who register and book their meals before the flight will get serving preference during the flight. I only knew of it because my friends had been talking about how they had had to wait on a previous flight for their food. The air hostess came to our row and asked my neighbours if they would like anything to eat or drink. They placed their orders and were served. I looked up a couple of times from my book but when she ignored me and moved on, I went back to the book thinking that my neighbours had availed of the pre-registration option and that I had to wait my turn. I waited while my neighbours finished their meals. I waited while the air hostesses came by with a trash bag to collect remnants. I waited while the aisle cleared out and everybody settled back in their seats with a full stomach.

Then, I got up to visit the restroom. I passed my friends in Row 24 and noticed that they had breakfast boxes in front of them. They confirmed my suspicions that they had indeed been served breakfast and were amongst the many passengers who were now nodding off satiated. Incensed, I headed back to my seat and pressed the button above my head calling for service. A full minute passed before an air hostess came by to see what I wanted. I spoke in a quiet but firm voice, one that I reserved only for extreme anger.

"Why is it that no one has offered me any food or beverages yet?"
"Oh, we did ask you," the air hostess replied confidently, "but you said you didn't want anything."
"You did not ask me," I replied in the same level voice. "You asked this gentleman [my neighbour, who now looked slightly alarmed at the prospect of being dragged into an argument] if he wanted a chicken sandwich, but you did not ask me anything."
The air hostess sighed audibly and asked, "What do you want now?"

I ate my breakfast and drank my coffee, but I did not enjoy them.

At Mumbai, a large part of the flight cleared out. We had a wait of about an hour before we took off for Goa. Some of us slept, others read and some just stared blankly out of the window. An announcement was made to all the passengers travelling onward to Goa to keep their boarding passes handy. A nondescript executive walked down the aisle, stopping at each row and checking boarding passes. He brusquely demanded mine and I complied, unhappy at his grim countenance. When he reached Row 24, he checked the passes of the 2 friends who were awake. The fourth - the lady - was asleep. Her husband, seated beside her, informed the executive that she was sleeping and that she was travelling with him. In response, the executive leaned over and yelled at the sleeping lady.

"Excuse me, madam!"

The lady expectedly awoke with a start; the husband stared at the executive incredulously.

"Are you mad? I just told you that she is with me and that she is sleeping."
"But I had to check her ticket," the executive replied defensively.
"So, why couldn't you just have asked me?" the husband insisted. "I told you she was with me."

Every single SpiceJet employee that we had encountered that day had given us terrible service, almost as if it were part of their training manual and this is how they had to treat every customer every day. The only one remaining was the pilot and I was secretly thankful when he landed the plane safely.

While circumstances might make me take another SpiceJet flight in the future, it will never again be an airline of consideration or recommendation. Change is already taking place; I just chose to book an IndiGo flight - where I have had many lovely on-time flights - over a SpiceJet one, despite it being 1 hr 15 min later and a little bit more expensive.

How can this sort of service experience be prevented/remedied? What must SpiceJet do to ensure, from a long-term perspective, that their customers are pleased rather than aggrieved?