Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So much hoo-ha about a drink?

Outlook has a long article on drinking and bars in India, and how the drinks culture has spread and changed in India over the past two liberalized decades. It made me think about differences in Indian and Italian attitudes towards alcoholic drinks.

I have a feeling that the attitudes towards social drinking in India are very much influenced by British-American attitudes towards alcohol. In the article in Outlook, Anvar Alikhan gives a list of characteristics of a good drinking place:
.. what exactly makes a good bar? It’s a complex, personal issue: what a 22-year-old girl would look for would naturally be different from what a 44-year-old male would want. However, certain basic, universal requirements generally apply, such as:

- First, a good drinks menu, with a sufficiently wide selection of good drinks, poured generously.
- There should be a great bartender. He doesn’t have to be a circus juggler, but he must be good at his job, able to mix interesting, innovative cocktails.
- Probably the single most important factor is that the crowd should belong to your “tribe”. Not necessarily people you know, but the kind of people you’d like to know. That’s what gives you a sense of belonging, and makes you want to come back here next time.
- The place must be 60 per cent full. Less than that and it’s uninvitingly empty; more than that and it’s too crowded.
- The service must be efficient, anticipative and unobtrusive. You shouldn’t have to keep waving out for a waiter.
- The music must be interesting, with a mix of familiarity and slight surprise. And the volume must be just right: not so loud that you can’t figure out what your companions are trying to say.
- Great lighting can make a huge difference to any bar.
- Comfortable chairs. Un-ergonomic furniture soon becomes a pain.
- The prices can be premium, but they should never leave you with a feeling of being ripped off.
- A distinctive character, a sense of history, or even a slight eccentricity always adds something special to a bar.
- Ultimately, no bar ever attains perfection. And if it did, it probably wouldn’t be any good anymore. Some small imperfection is always interesting.
My attitudes towards bars and social drinking are obviously influenced by my living in Italy, the original bar country, where there are bars at every corner and where in some areas, small kids, especially in rural areas, get to taste few spoons of wine from a very tender age, and where there are often discussions on nutritional values of wines and local liquers.

In Italy, when people want to go to a bar, they usually go to the one closer to their homes or their work places, or on the way from the home to the work-place, especially where it is easy to find a parking. Here, people go to the bar throughout the day - in the morning for a cup of coffee and a cornetto for breakfast, for another cup of coffee around mid-morning, for a sandwich for lunch or dinner. In all these occasions, some people will also ask for wine or other drink. Some times, usually in winter, some will ask for a drop of Grappa, the Italian grape liquer, in their coffee. So I feel that the relationships with the bars are very different from the ones described above by Alikhan, it is much more familiar.

Thus even attitudes towards drinking are quite matter of fact, and I have never heard of persons talking of good bars and bad bars. May be they talk of clean or dirty bars, or, they talk of friendly and unfriendly barmen/women.

The main differences between Italian attitudes and Indian (and British) attitudes towards drinking seem to be that in Italy, most persons drink wines every day with dinner, and on weekends and holidays, also during lunch. If you are invited by friends to lunch/dinner, you will get offered invariably some light appettizer drinks, then have some good wine with food and then finally have a selection of liquers for after-dinner drinks, that will usually end with a "digestive", that is a bitter tasting liquer with some herbs in it.

In a bar, in the evening, if you are with friends, you can try some exotic looking cocktail, for some social drinking. I think that women go more for this kind of drinking.

Beer drinking is not so common in Italy. Younger people drink it more. Some times, especially on hot days, people will offer you a bottle or can of beer, or you will order beer for drinking with your pizza. But most drinking is done with food or after-food and focuses on wines. I have also not seen persons drinking umpteen bottles of beer to get drunk, like it happens in Africa.

You hardly ever mix water or or soda or even ice in the hard liquers in Italy. I have yet to meet someone here who starts his drinks every evening, before dinner, with two or three pegs of hard liquer, usually whiskey, mixed with water/soda, accompanied by some snacks, that is so ubiquitous in India.

Most important difference in the attitudes towards alcoholic drinks between Italy and India, seems to be the aura of something bad or prohibited that surrounds drinking in India, in spite of the liberalization and changing attitudes in the recent years. The peripheries of cities like Bangalore, are full of seedy looking, dirty and ill-lit drinking joints, where you "hide" to drink. While in Italy, it is more of a common pleasure of life, taken for granted, sips offered to children and to growing up adolescents much like tea in India, and at the same time, that avoids hard drinking.

I have been fortunate with drinks, because invariably the first glass of anything remotely alcoholic is enough to make me sleepy, so usually I tend to avoid drinks. Having half a glass of red wine is usually enough for me! Drnking also makes me more melancholic and introverted. For me, a good bar will be where it is not too crowded, that has no loud music so that people can talk and that does not allow smoking.

Every country has its drink-culture and probably our colonial pasts mixing up with our specific cultural backgrounds, do influence those drinking-cultures. The Mongolian way of seriouly drinking vodka on every occasion or the Caribbean way of having rum or the German love for beer, are very different from the drinking cultures in India and Italy.

However, I think that I need to remember the Indian habits towards drinking when we have guests from India. This means that I must make sure to have whiskey, soda, ice, snacks, etc. and offer it for pre-dinner drinks. I usually forget it and I don't think that our Indian guests appreciate the Italian way of having some light appettizer, wine with food and an offer of post-dinner drinks or digestives!

Usually for an evening with friends, I would prefer to be with at home. We have a good selection of liquers from different countries. This way, no body tries to insist and force me to drink anything and at the end, I usually drink some wine and may be some digestive. And, best of all, after the evening is over I can go straight to sleep!

To conclude this discussion on drinks and bars, here are some of my pictures of pubs, bars, bar-restaurants from different countries of Europe:

Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars
Having a drink in Europe - pubs and bars

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sonali and Roberto story - more details

More than two years ago, in May 2008, I had written an article about the love story of Sonali and Roberto Rossellini. Following the first article, I received many emails from different parts of the world, some of which were from persons who knew other details about the story and shared those details with me. Thus, an updated version of the article was prepared in July 2008.

Over the past two years, my interest in the events linked to Sonali and Roberto story in India during 1956-57 has remained constant and I wish I could write a book on this story from Sonali's point of view. Some months ago, I did write to her daughter to ask if Sonali would agree to meet me, but I have not received any answer.

However, recently I did receive some more information about the days when Sonali and Roberto had come back from India and this post is about that new information.

***

A few months ago, a person shared some letters and other documents of Roberto Rossellini with me and gave me the permission to write about these.

The letters were written in November 1957, around the time when Roberto and Sonali had left India and were living in Paris. It was the time when their daughter Raffaella was born. The handwritten letters written in Italian are addressed to "Aldo and Giuliana", persons probably living in India at that time, who seem to be confidantes and friends with Roberto.

In one letter dated 17 November, Roberto excuses himself for not having written earlier "because he was being followed by journalists and photographers". He also says that he is preparing a return to India in the beginning of December. He mentions some financial problems. At the same time, he is "excited about restarting my life at 51 years".

He awaits anxiously for the arrival of documentary films from India for completing the work. He asks, "what does Jennifer say? .. What does Blitz say? He asks his friends to telephone (Rambir) Haksar to present his (Roberto's) apologies.

In another letter dated 7 December, it seems that Roberto's financial problems are continuing and he writes of selling his car. He seems to worry about gossip, "the truth is that people love to gossip and make things seem more drammatic, even when there is nothing to drammatize..". He mentions lack of news from "our lawyer in Bomaby" and he continues to wait for those "damned documentaries".

He also seems upset about reactions of certain persons "because I have separated from my wife? How does that concern him? ... I believe that people become easily hysterical, without understanding ... I don't think he understood what I had to go through to resolve the questions here."

He mentions a visit to Rome "for the separation from my wife".

Among the other documents that I have received, there are some telegrams from Roberto (in Rome) to hotel Suisse in Delhi. The telegrams mention Rambir Haksar and arrival of Mrs. Selznick (Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones who was married to director David Selznick at that time), who is arriving in India. Roberto asks  in the telegram to make arrangements for her stay in Maidens (hotel in Delhi), avoid publicity and inform Menon so that Jones gets all assitance on her arrival in Bombay airport.

Among the papers, there is also a list of expenses for reimbursement for a total of 910 Indian Rupees, that includes the following items:
7 Rs for taxi on 29th October to film division
6 Rs for taxi for Indira Gandhi on 26 October
20 Rs for taxi to Palam for taking the monkey on 4 November (probably the monkey used in one of the documentaries)

Comments: I think that the expenses for reimbursement covering the period from 22 October to 22 January, relate to the period after Roberto's arrival in India in October 1956, when his love story with Sonali had not yet started or was just starting.

I am not sure about the telegrams concerning Jennifer Jones. Did she play a role in the documentaries made by Roberto in India? Was he planning to make a film with her in India, after completing the documentaries? If so, probably he was underestimating the strength of public scandal in India and didn't imagine that he would have to run away to Euorpe with Sonali? From the letter dated 17 November 1957, it seems that he was still hoping to go back to India in December.

Rambir Haksar, who was assisting Rossellini in India, mentioned in these messages, could be related (?) to P. N. Haksar, who was in foreign service in that period, and later became personal assistant to Ms. Indira Gandhi (?).

Pandit Nehru's daughter Indira, who had married Firoz Gandhi in 1942, had separated from her husband and was living with her father in Teen Murthy during 1956-57. That Prime Minister's daughter travelled in a taxi, is a reflection of those times, when security was not an issue and leaders were closer to the people. Her personal involvement in the supporting Roberto's visit, also reflects on the importance given by the Nehru family to Rossellini visit in India.

The letters do not mention Sonali nor the birth of his daughter in Paris in November 1957. This could be an indication of his relationship with Aldo and Giuliana, who were probably more informed about his business issues than personal issues. His mention of gossip in Blitz, shows that he was concerned about the Indian press. Blitz was among the most active Bombay newspapers of that time, protesting loudly about Roberto and Sonali love story, describing it as an attack on India's morality and asking for Roberto's expulsion from India.

***

When I had found that the famous Bengali actor and director Aparna Sen was coming to River to River film festival in Florence, I had immediately thought that she would know details about the Sonali and Roberto story. She is daughter of Chidanand Dasgupta, who was close friend of Satyajit Ray, and since Sonali's ex-husband, Harisadhan Dasgupta was also colleague and friend of Satyajit Ray, my conclusion was they all must have known each other. In 1956-57 when it had all happened, Aparna must have been 11-12 years old, so I had thought she will remember things from that period.

Aparna did confirm that her father and Harisadhan knew each other. She said that as a child, Raja, Sonali and Harisadhan's elder son, used to come to their house. But she didn't know much else. There hadn't been much discussion about this subject in her family in that period, and Harisadhan's family had been very discreet about the whole issue, so she couldn't say much about it.

You can imagine my disappointment!

***

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Reliving teenage dreams in Florence

Even after decades, can we ever forget those first giddy confused times, when our bodies changed, hormones were raging and suddenly we thought that we were in love with some one, and the world seemed stronger, sharper, more colourful?

And then, how does it feel when many years later, suddenly you find yourself sitting in front of one of your old dreams? It happened to me yesterday and I felt confused, stuttering and giddy, as if I had gone back to being sixteen once again.

But let me start from the other things, before telling you about my meeting with my teenage crush.

Yesterday, 8 December was the day of Rahul Bose and Onir's new film, "I am" in River to River film festival in Florence, Italy. River to River is the most important festival of Indian films in Italy since 2001 and is directed by Ms Selvaggia Velo. This year it has an important retrospective of Satyajit Ray's films.

Rahul Bose has five of his films in the festival this time - Split wide open, Every body says I'm fine, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, I am and The Japanese Wife. I had already seen Every body says I'm fine and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer but still it was good to see them again.

I had not seen Dev Benegal's "Split wide open" and I loved it. It has plenty of scenes that usually create great scandals in Indian media including, plenty of Hindi cuss words, two integral nude scenes of Bose, a steamy sex scene and even a scene where the mumbai mafia don takes out his dick hanging it in Bose's face. So they must have talked a lot about this film when it had come out in 1999. However, I hardly knew anything about it and so had started watching it without too many expectations. If you have not seen it, get hold of a DVD and watch it.

River to River festival 2010, Rahul Bose, Selvaggia Velo

In the picture above, Bose is answering questions by the audience after the film. Next to him are Selvaggia Velo, festival's director and the English/Italian translator (sorry for not asking her name).

I had a conversation with Bose, that focused mainly on his involvement in the NGO called The Foundation, and touched superficially about his films.

Coming out of hall, I ran into Rizwan Siddiqui and Vijay Singh. I had seen Rizwan's short film "Kharboozey" on 7th. Vijay introduced himself and told about his works including a film called Jai Ganga. I need to look for his works and see them. Rizwan lives in Lucknow and Vijay is based in Paris.

River to River festival 2010, Rizwan Siddiqui and Vijay Singh

Then it was the time for the Italian premier of Onir's film, "I am". Here are film's director Onir and one of the actors, Rahul Bose.

River to River festival 2010, Rahul Bose, Onir

The film is beautiful and as usual for Onir's films, has beautiful music. Made of four inter-related stories, characters from each story spill off into others, the film touches on some of the sensitive issues including child abuse, homosexuality, artificial insemination and conflict-religion issues. The stories are based on real life incidents. Onir was telling that it will probably release in India in February 2011. Don't miss it.

The cinema hall where they are holding the main festival, Odeon, is one of the historical old-style theater of Florence. Yesterday, for "I am" it was full.

River to River festival 2010, cinema Odeon Florence

Now about my coming accross one of my teenage dreams, Ms. Aparna Sen. Her "Iti Mrinalini" opened the festival and her "The Japanese wife" is going to close the festival today evening (9 Dec.).

I had read lot of her interviews and had thought of asking her a lot of questions. But in front of her, I felt confused and forgot half of my prepared questions. I don't remember what she answered and probably I was a very distracted interviewer, asking something, then interrupting her, and all the time sneaking looks at her! Hopefully she is used to men like me and didn't take me for being exceptionally stupid or clumsy.

The evening after talking to her, passed in a daze. Couldn't have asked for more! Thanks Ms. Sen.

River to River festival 2010, Aparna Sen

If you wish, you can see Aparna Sen's Question-answer sessions after Mr. and Mrs Iyer at the festival on Youtube. On the same page, you can also find links to videos of Rahul Bose answering questions.

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