The year end post – 2017

A year ago I was living in Singapore.

A year ago I worked in a startup that was building cool things but that many hadn’t heard of.

A year ago I was still in my 20s 😉

A lot can change over a year. 2017 was that year for me.

After living in Singapore for 3 years, it had started to feel like home. I felt comfortable there – perhaps too comfortable and both Sid and I were itching for a change. That’s when the opportunity to move to the USA presented itself to us. We both weren’t sure about it – it is one thing to come to the US as a student and a totally different experience to move after having lived and worked in other countries. However, we decided to pack our bags and move to the other side of the world with cautious optimism. Almost an year later we feel like we are getting a hang of the place. Every country is unique in its ways but the stark contrast between Singapore and US can be unsettling initially.  At first, we compared everything – the taxes were higher (ridiculously high if you ask me), navigating healthcare was like doing a Ph.D in a week (I don’t have a Ph.D so I am just guessing here), the rents were crazy (we downsized) and the culture of tipping drove us nuts (especially when you get a fraction of the customer service when compared to most Asian countries). I was excited about experiencing 4 seasons for a change but when the sun sets at 4pm and walking to the grocery store in 3 layers of clothes becomes a daily occurrence, you start to miss the freedom that predictable warm weather brings. Like I said it was a big change for us. The silver lining though came in the form of friends- old, new and re-acquainted and family who helped us navigate some of these changes. Plus living in the New York area is a blessing since you do not have to rely on a car, there is always something to see and do, the food scene is amazing and there is diversity – both visible and subtle. I am still not completely sold on the ‘USA dream’ though. Sure there are tons of opportunities here but the trade-offs sometimes don’t feel worth it. I am willing to give it more time. After all, a lot can change in a year.

One of the biggest questions I had when making the move was – what about my career? Will I find a job there and will I like it. I will be honest, it was a struggle to find a job – reaching out to connections, brushing up on skills, interviewing numerous time, facing rejection and so on so forth. But I definitely noticed how responsive the HR folks here were, how thorough the interview process was and how dynamic the work environment is. Again, the work culture is very different here in comparison to Singapore and it takes a while to break in but putting myself in these new and sometimes challenging situations is a good thing I think for both my mind and soul. I am now working in a completely different industry that is pushing me to learn and un-learn at the same time. I have always wanted a breadth of experiences, which can run counter to career progression that often values depth, but I am willing to go with the flow for now!

November is a celebratory month in our household. It serves host to both my birthday and our anniversary. This year came with milestones – I turned 30 and we turned 5! We decided to celebrate in a way we best know – by traveling and being thankful for not only having found each other but also for all the people we have in our life because of it. I could write a whole separate post on what it feels like to be 30 (I have flashbacks to Rachel’s tv birthday on Friends). Sure, my metabolism has slowed down and anti-aging skin care is slowly making it’s way into my cabinet and I am giving myself a hundred other reasons why 30 is the new 20 because let’s be honest I am freaking out and that is why this topic shall not be discussed! As a side note, check out this fabulous lady on Instagram who personifies the “age is just a number” adage(https://www.instagram.com/iconaccidental/?hl=en)

If you have made it to this part of my post then the fun part truly begins. Rounding up my favorite things of 2017 below

Favorite Movies of 2017

HINDI

Hindi Medium: Hindi Medium tackles an important subject – that being able to speak English, and a certain kind of English, is linked with social status and upward mobility in India. Whilst doing so it puts it’s protagonists through the ringer. They conjure elaborate plots to ensure their daughter gets into a prestigious English medium school. And while these antics are funny. after a point they seem to far fetched to be taken seriously. However, with Irfan Khan at the helm of things, even the average scenes become gold and the movie manages to rise beyond it’s flaws.

Bareilly Ki Barfi: We happened upon this movie out of boredom. We wanted to go and watch a movie but could not figure out which one and a quick google search suggested Bareilly Ki Barfi had good reviews. I don’t trust reviews AT ALL these days but decided to give the movie a shot because I like both Rajkumar Rao and Ayushman Khurana (I know I am misspelling their names but numerology can wait). Set in small town north India, which suddenly seems to have become the 90’s Switzerland of Bollywood, the movie chronicles the story of Bitti who often sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the more conventional woman that inhabit her world. She is ‘different’ she says and does not want to change in order to get married. What unfolds next is the story of two men who enter her life and seem to accept her for who she is albeit hoping for different outcomes. Through this process they also find themselves changing. Super funny and touching at different moments, Bareilly Ki Barfi gets both it’s authenticity and plot right which makes for a nice breezy, viewing.

Newton: I have mixed feeling about Newton. When I saw the trailer I was very intrigued. After all when was the last time you saw a movie being made about the electoral process in India or thought about what it takes to conduct free and fair elections when all elements are against you. The movie however left me slightly disappointed with it’s pacing. It was so slow at times that I drifted away. And while Newton, portrayed wonderfully by Rajkumar Rao is interesting, his holier than thou stance puts the storytelling to test because he is not like-able. Au contraire, Pankaj Tripathi, who plays an army commander charged with protecting the electoral officers, comes across as more sympathetic because he is more like us – adjusting and compromising and practical. Not sure what that says about me but the fact that it made me think about something like this is why this movie features on the list.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan: I cannot think of many actors who would have said yes to playing Mudit in SMS. Mudit is one of those regular guys who have now become fairly common in movies set in the Hindi heartland. But what’s uncommon about him is that we the audience become privy to his very personal secret – he suffers from erectile dysfunction. It is a topic that could be milked for crude jokes to no end but in R S Prasanna’s very able hands, Mudit’s condition becomes a trigger for several pertinent conversations – his inability to talk about it openly with his own father, resorting to quacks to solve his problem as opposed to seeking professional medical help in order to avoid embarrassment, his parent’s refusal to accept that this situation has nothing to do with his fiancee Sugandha and finally Sugandha’s own conflict of deciding whether she loves this man enough to lead a life of compromise with him. Ayushman Khurana and Bhumi Pednekar are in fantastic form in the movie and share a genuine chemistry with each other (watch out for the scene in the park between them) as they struggle to navigate the stress an arranged marriage in India brings although theirs is a love-cum-arranged-cum-love marriage.

Honorable mentions: Secret Superstar, Jolly LLB 2, Tumhari Sulu

TELUGU

Baahubali 2: A visual spectacle combined with great storytelling by S S Rajamouli has propelled the Baahubali franchise to great heights. There were a lot of things to like in the second installment – Anushka Shetty’s character arc and performance, the music and some creative action sequences. However, the incessant use of slow motion and background score overshadowed some of the on screen proceedings and some of the acting was over-the-top. Despite that, this movie was one of those rare occasions when one felt like going to a movie theatre to watch a film. I think that sums up the impact of Baahubali.

Fidaa, Arjun Reddy, Ninnu Kori, Mahanubhavudu: Wrote about these movie here – Guide to the 10 best Telugu movies in the past two years (2016–17)

Some thoughts on Arjun Reddy, the movie

Gruham: Siddharth (who is also a co-writer on the movie) stars in this horror movie that gets a lot of things right. The visual palette of the movie and it’s setting are both unique and lend a distinct mood to the movie plus there is a great momentum build up till the interval. It is the second half that lets the movie down where the movie meanders a bit before a surprise twist brings back some excitement again. Well acted and with one of the most interesting sound tracks I have seen in a south Indian movie, Gruham is a movie made with the right intentions and worth a watch.

Honorable mention: Shamantakamani, Nagaram, Mental Madhilo. Did not see PSV Garuda Vega

TAMIL

Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru: Very few films reel you in the way Theeran does. It starts off as a cop drama with a romance angle and while this part is entertaining you get a sense that things are about to get serious. It is to the director’s credit that he manages to keep that sense of urgency and fear throughout the movie. Based on a real investigation spearheaded by Tamil Nadu police in the 90s around murders and robberies committed along the country’s highways by a notorious gang, Theeran has a lot of ground to cover – from the robber’s motives and history to the actual investigation itself which is why the distractions in terms of songs and some other characters seem like speed breakers. Despite these flaws, the movie managed to keep you engaged due to its intensity – thanks to Karthi’s fantastic performance and well-researched plot.

Vikram Vedha: My most favorite Indian movie this year. I loved everything about the movie – the acting, music, references to Vikram Betal and the perfect blend of style and substance. Vikram Vedha pits it’s lead actors against each other and on the surface they represent the opposite sides of law. However through clever flashbacks in the narrative the lines get blurred as do the two characters and you leave the movie hoping to learn more about what happens to the characters. Madhavan is rock solid in his performance but is it Vijay Sethupathi who steals the show with a performance that would appeal to both his core fans and neutral ones.

Honorable mention: Adhe Kangal, Kuttram 23, Maragadha Nanyam. Saw Mersal but did not like it.

ENGLISH

Thor – Ragnarok: The Marvel universe has so many movies now that it is hard to keep track and they seem to sometimes blend into one another. However, one thing they consistently get right is ‘entertainment’. Ragnarok is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies and easily the best Thor movie. The use of humor, music and action sequences are top notch and Ragnarok gets all the other characters right too – Cate Blanchett is amazing as are all the other usual suspects like Loki and Hulk. But the real icing on the cake are the new introductions in the form of Korg and Grandmaster and Thor himself who seems to have loosened up and doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder anymore.

Wonder Woman: Can I just say how incredibly proud and happy I am to have a female superhero movie that seems to match the standards of mostly male driven superhero franchises. Played beautifully by Gal Gadot who brings charm, female vulnerability and strength to the character, Wonder Woman is an engaging, well-directed movie that should set the foundation for hopefully even better WW movies in the future. Plus, how amazing was Chris Pine in the movie.

Get Out: It is easy to see why Get Out made such a cultural splash when it released. Although it is cleverly guised as a horror movie, it also serves as a reflection of what’s happening in the American society now. Saying anything more would give away the plot but I would highly recommend watching the movie.

The Big Sick: My most favorite English movie this year. Based on the real life story of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, The Big Sick is a relatively straightforward movie – it is a story about two people finding love, losing it and then re-finding it although the situations here are quite unique. The leading lady is in coma for the majority of the movie and the story plays out between Kumail and Emily’s parents. Filled with humor (there are lots of laugh out loud moments), great writing, great acting (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are brilliant) and a sincere performance from Kumail, TBS was a total delight to watch.

Also enjoyed watching Okja and Mudbound

Haven’t seen  Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, The Post, I Tonya, The Florida Project, Darkest Hour, Call Me By Your Name. Did not like Dunkirk.

Best TV shows of 2017

Stranger Things (S2): Not as organic as the first season but still consistently engaging in it’s plot and charming in it’s portrayal of teenage friendship, love and misplaced bravery, the second season of Stranger Things shifts the focus from Mike to Will (Noah Schnapp in a surprisingly strong performance) who has returned from the upside down but carries something evil within him. However, the biggest revelation this season was Steve who makes a fantastic turn from Nancy’s whiny arrogant ex-boyfriend to the best babysitter/hair-advice giver ever!

Mindhunter: I am not yet done with the show but I can see why this show has been garnering such positive reviews. Behavioral science is a dry subject so the show obviously is not your typical FBI drama thriller but instead builds slowly with each episode helping us delve deeper into the minds of people who commit crimes and that of those who try to understand them.

Big Little Lies: My favorite TV show this year. So much so that I saw it twice in a span of a month. Set in Monterey where people’s family drama seems to contrast with the mundanity  of suburban life and headlined by A-listers Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, BLL is slow in the first few episodes as it builds momentum towards it’s exhilarating finale giving us memorable characters (I will never look at Aleksander Skarsgard the same way) and a fantastic background score.

Catastrophe: The show that keeps on giving. I have written before about how much I enjoy this show and that love continues for it’s most recent season. As Rob and Sharon’s life takes turn for the more complicated, we also get a sense of their individual struggles withdrawn from the lens of unplanned pregnancies and parenthood. Despite getting more serious on the face of it, the show manages to also be funnier and sweet. Really sweet especially with the extended family characters. And boy oh boy, that finale just hit me in the gut. Highly recommended!

Riverdale: You would imagine I would be past the high-school dramas that I thoroughly enjoyed a few years back (The OC and One Tree Hill will always remain close to my heart), but Riverdale was all over social media and I wanted to give it a go. Although the setup is a high school the focus is not on teen heartbreak and love triangles although these themes do exist. The focus is on an unsolved murder and how it affects all the residents of Riverdale. Oh and I forgot to mention, the characters are all based on Archie’s comics.

The Keepers: Netflix has a treasure cove of documentaries and The Keepers is one of the best. Based on the unsolved murder of a nun almost 5 decades ago and the quest to uncover the secrets and stories around her disappearance, this mini series is engaging and disturbing on many levels.

Some podcast recommendations

S-Town: From the team that gave us ‘Serial’, S-Town is an interesting, often disturbing story of John Mclemore and his uncomfortable relationship with his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. The plot shifts from the investigation of an alleged murder to the town itself and then John who is a colorful personality but troubled in more ways than one. A must listen!

Dirty John: Brought to us by the LA Times, Dirty John is a story about bad decision making and how going with one’s heart can sometimes have disastrous consequences. John Meehan is the central character of this podcast – a man who raises several red flags even to us listeners and yet he somehow manages to marry Debra Newell who overlooks all of his flaws. As Debra’s family struggles to make her realize the peril she is placing herself and her family in by inviting this man into her life, John turns more and more dangerous.

At Home with: Hosted by Anna and Lilly, two Youtubers/bloggers whom I have followed on and off for a while, “At Home With..” focusses on telling the stories of women through their home. The home hear serves as a conversation starter and helps pivot the discussions into interesting places and the good thing is you can pick and choose which episode you want to listen without having to worry about continuity.

Reply All: This podcast has a one subject per episode kind of approach which is great if you are a casual listener and want to pick and choose a theme. Some of my favorites include “Vampire Rules”, “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman”, “Return of the Russian Passenger” and “The Prophet”.

Other honorable mentions: 99% invisible, Modern Love

Things I discovered in 2017

Playing Keyboards: From time to time I decide to take up a new hobby for no rhyme or reason. Sid comes home to amazon packages housing “weird craft stuff” (his words not mine) but I am his lobster so he humors me. This year I made a DIY earring holder and a macramé hanging for our hallway but the biggest decision was to start playing the Keyboards again. I had actually taken classes for a couple of years in middle school but lost touch over time. So, I bought a compact keyboard to restart my learning process and the first song I learnt to play was Kal Ho Na Ho’s title track. I know, how Bollywood of me, but I just love that song and movie. The end goal is to be able to play one of Hans Zimmer’s songs (I do not dream small).

Cooking & Baking: I have always been a decent cook but baking overwhelmed with it’s  precision and measurement, especially for someone like me who goes by gut and taste. But, the easy availability of baking ingredients and a great oven in the house sparked an interest in egg-less baking this year. We now make everything from pizzas (including pizza crusts) to muffins to cakes to breads at home as much as we (and by we I mean I) can. I am by no means an expert but you only get better with practice so if you ever look at us and wonder “what happened to their weight” you know there was a legitimate reason behind it! Here are some places where I find my food inspiration

Doing Yoga: I have been doing Yoga on and off for a few years now. More off than on but this year I made a resolution to get into it seriously and thankfully I was able to stick to that resolve for most of the year. I can feel a difference when I do it regularly (2-3 times a week) and I hope I can make a habit of practicing it 5 times a week in the new year.

Amazon Echo: I had always wanted an Echo and one of the first things we bought after moving here (got to put Amazon Prime to use) was this cylindrical device that somehow seems less useful once you have it in the house. We barely use it to set alarms and ask for weather conditions, so there is still a long way before “devices take over our race” but yeah, very underwhelmed!

Board and Card Games: Thanks to winter conditions for half the year, you end up seeking out options other than Netflix for those days when you want to just cozy up in the house with a cup of hot chocolate. I remember playing a ton of board games growing up and somehow that habit waned as I grew older but I am going through a tech fatigue right now so board games have made a comeback into our household. Apart from the usual suspects like Chess, Ludo, Chinese Checkers, Uno, Settlers of Catan and Poker, we have been really enjoying Clue. Also shout out to Anusha for introducing us to some great new games -Ticket to Ride and Dixit (the latter is probably my favorite of the bunch). We also recently bought a puzzle that is almost done.

Cryptocurrencies: Aah the C-word. It was hard for anyone to escape the assault of altcoins this year. I have long been interested in learning more about the coins and the technology (Blockchain et al) that powers them but always put it off. This year I finally took the plunge and started learning more about these coins and what it means to invest in them. I honestly do not know if this is a bubble or a watershed moment for how we trade and use money in the future but I am glad I got in on the crazy ride.

That was my recap of 2017 – an year like any other and an year unlike any. Would love to hear how your year went by and what were some of things you guys loved/liked/hated? Here’s wishing all of you a Happy and Prosperous New Year. May we all learn to be happier, healthier and kinder in 2018.

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Guide to the 10 best Telugu movies in the past two years (2016–17)

Posters of some of the best Telugu movies in 2016, 2017

I often find myself falling through the rabbit hole that is ‘google search for best movies in other Indian languages’. Since I do not live in India anymore I miss out on watching trailers (unless I fall through the Youtube rabbit hole of trailers which is a topic for another conversation) or having a gauge on release dates of movies.

I recently stumbled upon a starter list of Malayalam movies that was recommended highly on Twitter. That sort of served as an inspiration for me to put together a list of Telugu movies I have really enjoyed watching these past couple of years. Unfortunately, for several non native Telugu speakers the ‘idea’ of a Telugu movie is built on badly dubbed Set Max versions (some of these movies were bad in their original form as well but the awfulness is exacerbated by the bad translation), so the aim is to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

Like any list, this one is subjective and a reflection of my own preferences however I am fairly confident you wouldn’t feel cheated watching any one of these :). I refrained from including Baahubali in this list because it has already had a pan-India release and frankly deserves a post of its own.

Note: The list is in no particular order

  • Pelli Choopulu (Romantic, Comedy)

Funny how the first movie that came to my mind when I set off to write this list was the one I had heard least about. I actually saw the trailer of the movie after the movie was already in cinemas. But, take nothing away from this lovely, slice-of-life film directed by Tharun Bhascker. Drizzled with lovely moments — both humorous and emotional with top notch performances from all actors especially Priyadarshe, Ritu Varma and Vijay Devarakonda, Pelli Choopulu talks about ambition, struggle to find a passion and societal pressure to start earning and get married at a certain age. There is a maturity with which the story unfolds and the tone of the movie is relatable throughout. The songs and background score complement the movie beautifully and elevate the scenes. Though there is a strong nativity to the dialogue, the subject matter is so universal that the movie should have no problem crossing over to people who do not speak Telugu.

  • Ninnu Kori(Romantic, Drama)

Nani is perhaps my favorite actor in Telugu cinema right now. Beyond his acting skills and comic timing, it is his choice of movies that impresses me the most. Pick up any movie of his and you will enjoy it. I cannot think of many contemporary Telugu male actors who would have done a movie like Ninnu Kori where the story, female lead are the focal point. Director Shiva Nirvana doesn’t lose sight of the message he is trying to communicate all the while working inside a commercial format — a balance that even seasoned directors often fail to strike. Nani and Niveda Thomas (in another exceptional performance and showing maturity way beyond her age) are lovers separated by circumstances who re-connect after the latter is happily married to Adi. The movie could have benefitted from more character development. You wonder if someone as patient as Adi exists in the real world and had Nani and Niveda communicated better things would be so different but by not spending time explaining these things too much we also get to walk away thinking about ifs and buts and regrets in life (and a shorter movie!). Highly recommended for a warm cosy viewing.

  • Kshanam (Thriller)

A movie I have recommended over and over to family and friends, Kshanam is Telugu cinema’s answer to Kahaani. A great story with a strong emotional core that keeps you invested to the very end. A missing child, a mother whom no one seems to believe and an ex-boyfriend who is struggling to come to terms with his own emotions, Kshanam captures all the complexities of a suspense-drama with great finesse (thanks to a tight screenplay). Adivi Sesh (who is also a co-writer on the movie), Adah Sharma, Satyam Rajesh (in a surprising brilliant performance) and Vennela Kishore all perform well without over the top histrionics which helps you feel a strong connection with the proceedings on screen.

  • Oopiri (Drama, Comedy)

An official remake of the French movie The Intouchables, which I haven’t seen, Oopiri literally came as a breath of fresh air when it released. How often do we see male bonding or friendship (or for that matter even female boding) be the driving force in a story? Nagarjuna and Karthi are brought together by an unusual circumstance — the former is confined to his wheelchair and wants a caretaker who doesn’t pity him, the latter has a zeal for life that often results in carelessness. They quickly develop a friendship that seems mutually beneficial and helps both characters evolve into better versions of themselves. Their journey is beautifully captured by Vamsi Paidipally who masterfully navigates both the emotional and humorous moments in the movie without any obvious dissonance. A feel good movie with a positive message.

  • Gentleman (Thriller)

Thrillers are often tricky to pull-off. To keep an audience constantly guessing is no easy feat so I was excited to see Gentleman aim for that even if it doesn’t hit the bull’s eye. Starring Nani, Surabhi and Nivetha Thomas, Gentleman starts off as a harmless romantic comedy between it’s lead pairs but the trick here is that the girls are either in love with the same man or two men who look identical. The rest of the movie is a key to unlocking this mystery. Director Mohanakrishna Indraganti sets up scenes that set your pulses running high but then intercepts them with slower scenes thereby resulting in inconsistent pacing. However, these are minor obstacles in a movie that gets most other things right. Nani performs brilliantly especially in the role of a businessman with grey shades to his character. The entire team should be appreciated for attempting a tricky genre and almost pulling it off because TFI doesn’t always have a healthy appetite for risks.

  • Mahanubhavudu (Comedy)

A delightful movie that is centered around a protagonist who suffers from severe OCD. The humor is clean and crisp and the performances — especially from lead actor Sharwanand and Vennela Kishore — are top notch. You can read more about my thoughts on the movie here https://medium.com/@namratasuri/mahanubhavudu-telugu-61ea2d67ebb3

  • Arjun Reddy (Drama)

What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. A movie equally loved and scorned. I had a tough time slotting Arjun Reddy into a genre because it straddles so many themes and therein lies the biggest reason why you should watch it. While the story isn’t novel, it’s the treatment of the characters and the texture of the movie (the music is fantastic as are the performances) that sets it apart from several movies in both Telugu cinema and Indian cinema in general. It is a coming of age movie about an anger fueled, immature doctor whose notion of love and romance is messed up as it is a story about friendships, egos and growth. I wrote about it extensively here — https://medium.com/@namratasuri/some-thoughts-on-arjun-reddy-the-movie-f039457df63e

  • Fidaa (Romance)

I often struggle with the way romance is depicted in Telugu movies. More often than not, it involves a glamorized first meeting between the boy and girl, courtship that often feels like stalking, tons of songs in foreign locations and no focus on the ‘relationship’ itself. Which is why when I saw Shekhar Kammula directed Fidaa I was overjoyed. Not only does this movie rectify a lot of the flaws I mentioned above, it goes a step beyond by giving us a female lead who feels, looks and talks like a real girl (Bhanumati is a once in a lifetime role and Sai Pallavi excels and turns in a star turning performance here). I was also impressed by Varun Tej’s character because he too is devoid of standard heroic qualities and is vulnerable and emotional in a way we don’t often see. The story is not ground breaking (to be honest there are only so many new stories that can be told) so the packaging of the story is what drives this movie. The movie stumbles towards the latter half but it isn’t too big a hurdle so as to affect the entire movie.

  • Manamantha (Drama, Thriller)

I saw this movie on Youtube of all places. A friend recommended it to me much after it had had its theatrical release so I went in went no expectations. However I was thoroughly impressed with how unique the movie was in terms of screenplay and plot and how involved I was in the unfolding of the events. The movie follows 4 characters through their day to day lives — each has his/her own struggles, challenges and mundane life stuff to deal with. All of this is simply setting the foundation for the conflict coming up in each of the character’s lives and finding out how they resolve it. Whilst guessing one step ahead may be easy in some scenarios in the movie, the end result is still satisfactory thanks to the acting ably led by Mohanlal and Goutami. Director Chandrasekhar Yeleti serves the movie well by shooting in surroundings that seem lived in and his characters dress and talk like middle class people. A refreshing emotional story with suspense tied in that deserver more viewing.

  • A Aa (Drama)

Trivikram Srinivas has penned some of my favorite one-liners in recent Telugu cinema. He is a dialogue writer par excellence and comes across as an intelligent, well meaning director through his movies. His biggest issue is catering to the masses whilst still sticking to his ideas and ethos. This often results in his movies being just shy of great. In A..Aa he finds a freedom to tell his story without any constraints and he manages to deliver a movie that is heartwarming and emotional. The movie’s protagonist is Samantha — a 23 year old struggling to come out of the domineering shadow of her mother and trying to find her own identity(how refreshing to have a movie where the lead actress isn’t either a glammed up doll nor a perfect miss goody two shoes). A sequence of events lands her in her native village where for the first time away from her mother’s suffocating gaze she finds happiness and freedom for the first time along with love. Her love-interest is played by Nithiin who for a change isn’t your typical village buffoon or simpleton but rather an intelligent, kind young man who is aware of his circumstances and limitations but lives life with dignity. There are several other interesting characters in the mix and Trivikram lets them all co-exist beautifully in this world that he creates.

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Mahanubhavudu (Telugu)

As a serial sanitizer user and organization freak I am often used to people wondering how I find the time or enthusiasm to color code my wardrobe or clean an already clean house. Friends and family often remark “you have OCD”. I know I don’t, they know I don’t and yet the phrase is thrown around so loosely that by that yardstick most of our mothers would have had OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). So much so that the term seems to have lost the very impact it was invented to convey! However, it is a condition that manifests itself in different ways in different measures and often affects an individual’s life dramatically.

Case in point, Anand (played by Sharwanand in a fine, fine performance), the protagonist of Mahanubhavudu, who suffers from an acute case of OCD that dictates the way he lives his life in a society that doesn’t put the same emphasis on cleanliness as he does. This situation is naturally milked to great extent for comedy purposes but director Maruthi excels in not letting the humor get too crass or obnoxious. Instead the scenes feel relatable, the dialogue flows naturally and is aided with good background score (the title song in particular is fantastic) and you develop a sense of compassion for Anand as he struggles to cope with his condition. Anand is a very well written character because of how self aware he is. He realizes that his lifestyle is not common and that people around him often suffer because of it. In one scene, we see how much it pains Anand to have alienated his mother on account of his condition and that despite all the jokes and mockery, this is a real person with a real valid condition.

Anand’s life takes a turn when he falls in love with Meghana (played by Mehreen Pirzada who manages to do a decent lip-sync job) who whilst appreciates the cleanliness standards demanded by Anand quickly realizes that what he has is not just a quirk but a condition with serious implications. Through several situations, she comes to logically conclude that for their relationship to work Anand has to change or at least be willing to overlook some things. What I really liked about this whole romantic angle was that the woman had a voice and was allowed to make a rational choice. We see how she is torn between loving a man who means well but cannot help himself in most situations that demand human interaction.

When the movie shifts action to Meghana’s village where Anand goes with the intention of winning her back, the humor picks up a notch as Anand’s OCD is exacerbated by the environment he is living in. Instead of slowly overcoming his condition, an emergency triggers a change in him. Whilst this seems discordant with the relatively realistic tone of the movie, thankfully the movie ends on a nice note where we sense that Anand is a work in progress. And aren’t we all in some way 🙂

The star of this movie is Sharwanand who infuses Anand with both charm and like-ability. In playing a character that isn’t perfect and typical of traditional Telugu heroes, he breaks the mould whilst still staying true to the character. His comic timing, especially in the second half of the movie is brilliant. He is aided well by the always reliable Vennela Kishore who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors in Telugu cinema. The rest of the supporting cast does a respectable job as well. I wish the director didn’t feel compelled to include the regular 2–3 romantic songs because they do nothing to propel the story forward and instead break the flow of the movie.

It is refreshing to see traditional Telugu cinema storytelling thrive in a newer setup where plot and logic hold value and Mahanubhavudu is a perfect example of that. Definitely one of the most entertaining movies I have seen this year and one of those rare movies that can appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers.

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Some thoughts on Arjun Reddy, the movie


One of the biggest fallacies that Indian cinema audiences fall into is of taking movies too seriously. Now, don’t get me wrong. Cinema is an art form (when it is treated that way), a source of entertainment, reflection, comfort and often holds a mirror to our society whilst also sometimes transporting us to fantasy lands far away. It is a serious profession and business enterprise. However, it is important to remember that once the end credits roll we all go back to reality and the characters we grew attached to in the past few hours cease to exist in the real world we inhabit. It is naive to expect our movies or for that matter the characters in them to be more intelligent or profound than the people around us. A movie is after all a team’s collaborative vision, interpretation of a story which has every right to differ and deviate from one individual’s.

Which brings me to Arjun Reddy — a brave, brilliantly-acted, Telugu movie that seems to have found its share of devoted fans and bashers. But before delving into that, let’s talk about the movie itself first.

When a heavily bearded, hungover Arjun — played by Vijay Devarakonda with the sort of confidence, maturity and passion that one seldom sees in most contemporary Telugu actors, forces a women to have sex with him but then walks away on realizing how embarrassing the situation is, you get your first glimpse of Dr. Arjun Reddy. It is an unusual introduction for any actor, let alone in Telugu cinema where the lead male actors are often cut from the same cloth and can never make an entrance without a song and dance, literally. Arjun has an alcohol addiction, does drugs and is rude to most people around him. But, you are invested in him because Vijay Devarakonda plays him with such conventional machismo and authenticity that you want to see his journey irrespective of whether you like him or not.

The journey is an age-old one. A love story set against the backdrop of a medical college where Arjun sees Preeti, falls in love and makes the decision for both of them that they should be together. Preeti, played by debutant Shalini Pandey doesn’t say or do much initially. I was left wondering what eventually drew her to Arjun and this is one of the areas where the director could have done more. For instance, in one scene Preeti asks Arjun what he likes about her. It would have been nice to see Arjun ask her the same question. As their love grows, families and egos come into the picture and things go sour. Again, you see Arjun’s immaturity come to the fore on several occasions while Preeti doesn’t offer much resistance. In one scene, she is slapped and any self-respecting woman would probably leave this terribly behaved man at that point. But Preeti doesn’t. In some way she is flawed too. Without giving much away, their relationship doesn’t survive and we get to see Arjun Reddy in all his (in)glory.

Arjun seems more preoccupied with proving to himself and the ones around him that he is heart-broken and sad. Because on the face of it, he doesn’t really have to drink his way to death. He is young, a successful doctor, has loving friends and family around him. However, to understand why he behaves the way he does, one would have to be like Arjun Reddy — impulsive, possessive, short-tempered and harboring the wrong notion of what it means to be in love. As Arjun keeps wallowing in self-pity, his closest friend Shiva (played by Rahul Ramakrishna who is a total star) sticks by his side — consoling him, advising him, admonishing him but never judging him, something only a true friend can do and by devoting this time to Shiva the movie manages to capture friendship in all its vulnerabilities. Eventually everything catches up with Arjun and the rest of the movie is about his redemption. This final act of the movie is also it’s weakest — everything seems rushed and Arjun’s transformation is explained as conveniently as a switch being turned on (or in this case off!).

However, Arjun Reddy is a movie where the sum of the parts is bigger than the movie itself. The background score and songs composed by Radhan are a highlight — they are nothing like what you would have heard in recent Telugu cinema and add great atmosphere to the scenes. The performances from everyone in the supporting cast is really good and the dialogues don’t seem contrived or overly dramatic. It is hard to believe this is director Sandeep Vanga’s first movie given how well executed the end product is. In giving us a truly flawed leading man, he has achieved what even seasoned directors seldom do.

But if there is one thing you will take away from Arjun Reddy it is Vijay Devarakonda’s performance. This is a star-turn of Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai proportions (which should tell you how old I am). He is nuanced, vulnerable and in total control of his performance. Here’s hoping he takes on more risks and pushes the envelope in terms of his choices and doesn’t get trapped in the “star” conundrum several actors face.

Now that the review is out of the way, let’s talk about some of the controversies surrounding the movie. I ran into a few articles and youtube videos where people were miffed with the movie for its portrayal of relationships (kissing, pre-marital sex) and use of alcohol since these are a ‘bad influence’ on the youth of the state. If that’s the case what about all the abhorrent violence that is shown in several Telugu movies or for that matter the lack of respect towards women or minority characters. The interview below for instance seems so transparent in its agenda that it’s hard to take it seriously.

If you are looking towards movies to influence your youth then please find better influences. A movie or the people associated with it cannot take total moral responsibility for it’s impact on the audience because no two audience are the same. A viewer should be discerning enough to know what’s right or wrong. And isn’t this why we have certifications for movies? To at least ensure people of only a certain age can view certain movies. The responsibility is on parents, schools and society in general to give our youngsters the tools to tell the difference between what’s good and what isn’t. Art by its very nature can sometimes be controversial and provocative, and as a society we should allow that to happen within reasonable boundaries. That’s the only way our cinema can expand and grow. Also, it is just a movie. Important to remember that.

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Spyder — Movie Review

Halfway through watching Spyder — the latest action thriller from A.R.Murugadoss starring Mahesh Babu and S J Suryah, I turned to my husband and said “this is one of the best written antagonists I have seen in a long time in Telugu cinema”. Telugu cinema is notorious for its over-the-top, almost caricaturish portrayal of negative characters (or villains). Forget about telling the story from their perspective, efforts are seldom made to give viewers even a sense of why the character was driven to behave in a certain way. They are often in the movie to highlight the ‘heroism’ of the main lead actor or serve as a punching bag towards the climax. So, it was a pleasant surprise then that Mr. Murugadoss spends a significant part of the first half of Spyder setting up the background story of Bhairavudu — a character equally terrifying and fascinating to watch.

What makes this even more interesting is that Shiva, played by Mahesh Babu, is not setup in a grand way. He works for the Intelligence Department and listens in on people’s conversations — all for the greater good of the society. The fact that he single handedly is able to stop crimes seems far-fetched but because this role is played in characteristic Mahesh Babu style — subtle and understated, it doesn’t look too jarring. The movie head towards a ‘good vs evil’ showdown which isn’t groundbreaking but the tools employed by the director helps the proceedings from getting too dull.

Shiva uses all the technology available at his disposal to catch Bhairavudu whereas the latter employs the tools he has grown up to value — fear, intimidation and violence to get a leg-up on his nemesis. There is a wonderful sequence in the second half of the movie where Shiva manages to recruit housewives for a rescue mission which is equal parts creative and comic. Throughout the tussle between the lead players, the lines are clearly drawn. You never see an ounce of compassion from Bhairavudu; even when he is in distress he shrugs it off. At the same time, Shiva never crosses over to the dark side. It would have been interesting to focus the movie purely on these two characters and see their evolution and in not doing so is where the movie’s major failings lie.

For instance, the romantic arc with Charlie (played by Rakul Preet Singh) is totally unnecessary and doesn’t serve any purpose until one pivotal scene towards the end which to be honest seems contrived. Also diverting attention from the main plot of the movie are the songs which often seem misplaced and forced. They are shot beautifully but you hardly care because the viewer investment is somewhere else — Shiva vs Bhairavudu.

There are some other problems too — the pitch or tone of the performances is inconsistent across scenes. While Shiva is played with stoic grace for the most part, in some scenes the characters around him seem like they belong to a different movie (I have a major beef with movies where emotional loss is depicted with people shout crying over loud melodramatic music). The action scenes while shot well also seem so outlandish that they do not make sense for the more cerebral hero that Shiva is. By rooting his characters in reality but not applying the same rules for everything else, the director creates a dissonance. I found myself shaking my head or losing interest at several junctures purely because of these distractions.

As I write this, I am aware that the movie has not done as well commercially as it was expected to. The margins of error are so small with a movie made on such a high budget that anything short of perfect won’t cut it. Spyder could have been perfect if the focus was on the two main characters who by themselves are more interesting than a roller-coaster fight sequence or huge CGI rock. However, it is still better than most Telugu movies one routinely sees make more money.

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10 years of blogging

I just realised that this little space on the internet, that I call my blog, is more than 10 years old! I wrote my first ever blog post when I was 18, way back in 2006. I had to take a second to let that sink in. Not the fact that the blog has been in existence for a decade, I mean that blows my mind too, but where the heck did time go. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was giving my engineering entrance exams?

A little bit of background is necessary here. This blog was born in IIIT, Hyderabad – a place that holds a special place in my heart. A lot of the early posts on this blog are hence about college life and things that come along with being 19, 20, 21. There was a nice blogging community in college which motivated me to write more often. That should explain the sudden drop in frequency of posts after I graduated. However, I hope that I keep writing here, no matter how occasionally, for another decade or more.

All this reflection led to an unavoidable trip down memory lane. As I look back at my posts through the years, there are some obvious takeaways. The language, tone and themes have obviously changed. More understandably the naivety, myopic world view and stubbornness of youth has now given way to nuanced thinking, a broader mindset and being less impulsive with judgement . Maybe I am giving myself too much credit but I genuinely think I have become a better person and it wouldn’t have been possible had I not gone through all the good and bad experiences. So this blog is also a nice reminder of how far along I have come as a person.

So, after 133 posts, I thought I should write a post about my blog itself. If you are not too familiar with my blog or lost touch at some point (hello again), you might find this post interesting but even if you are someone who was part of my journey from way back when I was an oily faced, insecurity ridden teenager, you might get a few laughs as I go about embarrassing myself.

Disclaimer:Some of these posts are so badly written that it took every ounce of strength in me to not delete them. But feel free to judge away. I know I would have 😉

1. The one where it all started: Girls Day Out!!!

2. A nice little tradition that has spawned 7 articles: Year End Posts

3. I was discovering my political and social preferences when I wrote this post, but I am adding it here because the comments section was quite interesting with lots of viewpoints and arguments: Are we a culturally proud generation

4. The part of my life that took me to Mumbai:

5. One of my lame attempts at being funny/sarcastic: ‘THE’ women

6. If you thought my love for Roger Federer or tennis in general is a recent affair then you should read this. I think I wrote this right after the 2009 Australian Open match but the one memory I have is that of Sushma, my college friend coming to my room to find me sobbing uncontrollably, expecting the worst, only to realize the tears were for Federer. She still reminds me about this incident and we have a good laugh about it! : Australian Open ’09 – another classic

7. I had all but forgotten about that time when I got admission into a journalism college and almost changed career paths. Life would have been very different had that happened: Interview Experience – ACJ

8. The one where I talk fondly about train travel – The great Indian train

9. I took a break for 6 months when making the switch to an MBA and wrote about how it felt to be ‘jobless’ – The perks of being jobless

10. This blog and the encouragement I received over the years for my fairly average writing spawned my travel blog. While I find it hard to maintain a writing discipline, it feels good to have another space where I capture memories that capture a different facet of my life.

I can’t help but feel nostalgic and a little bit proud that this blog has survived for over a decade. I am surprised I kept up with it through two college degrees, three jobs, marriage, cross-country moves and just life in general.

I will drink to that!

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The year end post – 2016

It has been a year since I last published on my blog so it is only fitting that my first and last post of 2016 be the year end post. There was a lot to talk and write about this year – from good to bad to worst, mostly the latter. However, it’s better to sum up the last twelve months now with the benefit of hindsight. If you were to read things (and by things I mean mostly tweets and memes) it would seem as if people cannot wait for 2016 to be over. I feel like one of the most enduringly optimistic qualities we as humans possess is the belief that as clock strikes 12 on Dec 31st, somehow things will change and get better. A new dawn, a new day sort of thing. I think at 29 (I have no clue how I got to this age this fast), I am past this but it is still nonetheless a nice way of reflecting back on things, events and people that left an impression on you. So without further adieu here’s my 2016 year end post broken down by priorities categories

TV shows

There was a fair bit of Netflix and chill 😉 in our household this year. Both Sid and I are homebodies so we go through tv series quite quickly. However, our tastes tend to vary. I love me some trash reality television from time to time whereas he will watch anything with superheroes or sci-fi themes in it. I know it’s a cliche but it’s true! So, shows get vetoed off within the first ten minutes sometimes and there is a collective hurrah if we find a show we both want to watch. The list below comprises of things we have seen together and enjoyed watching. Because god forbid if I get Sid to watch an episode of Project Runway with me (now, that will truly be a new dawn!)

  1. Stranger Things – Probably my most favorite show of the year, Stranger Things was great because it was simple. Simple fun. What it had going for it was memorable characters and wonderful child actors who infused these characters with immense like ability and charm. I can’t wait for season 2.
    stranger-things
  2. The Night Of – This show had a strong start, a somewhat slow and stagnant middle and an end that was arguably dissatisfying. However, it was terrifically acted and some parts of it were gut wrenchingly emotional thus leaving a huge impression on us. It was hard not to care for Nasir Khan played exceptionally by Riz Ahmed so much so that after a point the show became more about the people rather than the facts about the case.
  3. The Night Manager – A beautifully shot and well acted show but in hindsight the story was a bit underwhelming. Had it not been for Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, this show would have been mediocre.
  4. Black Mirror – thanks to Twitter recommendations we discovered this show and finished the first season in one sitting (it was just 3 episodes before you think of us as people with no life 😛 ). The show makes you uncomfortable but also makes you question things. I wouldn’t recommend this show if you want to lift your spirits. The morbidness of it all can be a bit depressing. Having said that, we went back and saw Season 2 and 3  and every episode has something unique to say and the show is so relevant for the times we live in. Insightful, compelling and so much more than just a television show. Special mention to the episodes ‘Nosedive’ and ‘San Junipero’ from this season.
  5. The Americans – why doesn’t this show get more attention and love is beyond me. Season after season they knock it out of the park.
  6. Silicon Valley – Sometimes I feel the characters and situations come off as too far fetched (and I hope they are) but it is still a consistently engaging show. Also, Gilfoyle and Jared Dunn are fantastic to watch.
    silicon-valley
  7. Catastrophe – I saw the first season of this show on a flight, loved it and couldn’t wait to see the second season. Brilliantly written and acted, I just wish there were more episodes. It’s so good.
  8. Survivor – always interesting to watch and one of those rare reality shows that offers great insight into people. Sid and I have seen all the 33 seasons and the show’s catchphrases have found their way into our vernacular.
  9. Modern Family – a perennial favorite. I feel like I miss out on some jokes in the first viewing and inevitably have to watch it the second time. The writing is that good. Also, Phil Dunphy should be president of the world.
    phil-dunphy
  10. Descendants of the Sun – On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being The OC and 10 being Breaking Bad, DOTS would probably be a 2 or 3. It lies in the seemingly frivolous and superficial rom-com space but when shows in this space are done right they are very entertaining. It was a colleague who pointed me to this show and after resisting the urge to watch a K-drama I finally gave in. If you were in Singapore it would have been hard to miss how popular this show was. The humor, acting, music, locations were all top notch.

A quick shout out to TVF Tripling and telugu web series Mudapappu Avakaya for being a breath of fresh air when it comes to Indian shows. I had my parents staying with us for a month during which time we saw endured hindi serials with them. They sure don’t lack in drama. Or should I call it sci-fi given the number of reincarnations, the super-advanced aging process, plastic surgeries and extra terrestrial species (I refuse to consider some of the people on these shows normal humans) that exist on these programs.

Movies

  1. Zootopia – I was genuinely surprised by how good this movie was. All the subliminal and obvious messages in this movie are great not only for kids but also for adults. Plus brownie points for the “Godfather” references
  2. Deadpool – It’s very rare to see movies where the lead character and the actor that plays that role are so in sync that it becomes hard to imagine anybody else in that position. Ryan Reynolds IS Deadpool. I liked that they did not dilute the edginess of the movie to appeal to a broader audience. The shock factor was strong with this one.
  3. 10 Cloverfield Lane – An interesting psychological thriller that had me engaged throughout its duration. There aren’t enough good thriller movies out there so this one makes the list.
  4. La La Land – All the critical acclaim notwithstanding, I thought Whiplash was a better movie. Now that that’s out of the way we can focus on La La Land. When I walked out of the theatre I didn’t really feel much – perhaps I was expecting too much considering both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are my absolute favorites. Au contraire, Sid, the president of the ‘I hate musicals’ association, thought the movie was quite good. The performances and the musical numbers were great but somehow it did not have that much of an emotional impact on me in totality, despite the beautiful ending. It was only the next day that the movie or rather specific scenes and moments from the movie hit me. I think I would re-watch this movie just for those few scenes.
  5. Finding Dory – Yes, it got ridiculous towards the end but I loved the characters so much that I am willing to give that a pass. Baby Dory has to be one of the cutest things I have ever seen.
  6. The Lobster – Probably one of the most innovative movies I have seen in a while. Sid and I saw this movie together on a flight and were thoroughly amused by it. Buoyed by fantastic performances from its leads, this movie should definitely be on your radar. It’s weird but good weird.
  7. Nocturnal Animals – Beautifully shot – can’t expect less from Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals drew me in right from the get go because the of the atmosphere it created and Jake Gyllenhall (gosh he is handsome). And that ending was haunting. Sid hated the movie – he slept through the middle portion of it and could not wait for the movie to end.

*Haven’t seen Arrival, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, Jackie yet

  1. Kapoor and Sons – Loved everything about the movie. A movie that has terrific repeat value which is very rare these days.
  2. Dangal – I loved the first half of the movie – it seemed authentic and the child actors were brilliant. The second half, while good, was overlong and melodramatic. The struggle of an athlete would have been compelling in itself without the need for a caricature of a coach. But these are minor gripes in an otherwise great movie. Aamir was brilliant in the movie and it was nice to see one of our usually ‘ageless’ superstars act in a vanity free role.
  3. Pink – Another fantastic movie from start to finish. While the courtroom drama was compelling, it was the journey of the women – strong, independent yet vulnerable – that was interesting to watch.
  4. Udta Punjab – What an actress Alia Bhatt is turning out to be. Her scenes in the movie were gut wrenchingly brutal and emotional. Whilst everyone else performed exceptionally well, for me this movie was all about Alia Bhatt.
  5. Neerja – It got too dramatic towards the end but for the most part Neerja was a well acted movie that did justice to its namesake. I tear up very easily anyways so Neerja was tough on me, especially the scenes with Shabana Azmi. Again, not a movie you might like if you appreciate subtlety.
  6. Kahaani 2 – I admire Vidya Balan’s commitment to her character – she is an actress in a league of her own. However, comparisons to the first movie are inevitable. This one obviously doesn’t soar as high as its predecessor but Kahaani 2 was less a thriller and more the story of a child abuse survivor and it’s admirable that these stories are being made and accepted.
  7. Fan – If you look at Fan just at the surface level, it is rather mediocre. But, it’s the non obvious nods to stardom, success and ego that elevate this movie. Especially considering it is Shah Rukh Khan who plays the role. I found the character of the movie star more fascinating than the fan. The makers could probably have done without the over-the-top action sequences in the latter half but even with all its imperfections, Fan is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.

*Haven’t seen Parched, Phobia, Raman Raghav 2.0, Aligarh. Plus, I may be in the minority but I found Airlift to be very cringeworthy. Dear Zindagi was frustrating to watch and I couldn’t wait for ADHM to finish despite the performances. I liked parts of Sultan and MS Dhoni.

Some food for thought

  1. Although I wasn’t in India, thanks to news and my family (or rather their Whatsapp joke forwards), I got a sense of what the demonetization saga meant. I think the idea to reduce corruption, increase transparency are great at the intent level but in a country as huge and diverse as India, the devil is in the details. Hopefully all this works out for the good. Even if it doesn’t, at least we got some more Rahul Gandhi jokes!
    You know what would be good though – depopulation. Someone please talk about this because the root cause for most of our country’s problems is that there are just too many of us.
  2. Every time there is a global sporting event it serves as a reminder that we as a country are underperforming. This year’s Rio Olympics was no different. It was heartwarming to see fantastic performances from some of the athletes, especially Dipa Karmakar, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. However, if we want things to change maybe we should channelize our collective frustration more often rather than every four years. Also, maybe focus more on building facilities and infrastructure rather than falling over one another to gift flats and BMWs to athletes.
  3. This was also the year of Brexit, US presidential elections and anti-immigrant rhetoric all across the world. On one side we seem to be moving to a more global, connected world and yet some minds are getting narrower. It’s also funny how everyone wants to close the door behind them. These are complex issues with no easy solutions which makes it that much more important for us to rely on basic human decency in times of doubt.

Some holiday cheer

  1. Learning how to swim
    At the beginning of this year I decided I wanted to learn how to swim; partly because I wanted to get over my fear of water and partly because it is one of those skills that everybody should learn even if they don’t use it regularly. It took me 2 weeks to just learn how to float in shallow water but once I got over that initial hurdle it got easier. I wish I had learnt how to swim when I was younger because one has lesser fears then but nevertheless I am very happy to say I can swim now! I am still awkward to watch in water and to a bystander might even look as if I am sinking rather than swimming but technically I can swim.On a side note, a behind the scenes documentary of how Sid taught me to swim would be a fantastic comedy+drama.
  2. Traveling and road trips
    2016 was the year of road trips. We drove all around New Zealand’s South Island which was by far our most favorite trip ever! We also did the famed Pacific Coast Highway drive in USA which was stunning. We love listening to music or podcasts and just talking about life as we drive around so here’s hoping 2017 brings many more road trip opportunities. Plus, I have become an expert in gps navigation, music management and snacks handling since Sid is the one who does the driving. I am happy that we invest our time and resources into travel because we like to experience different cultures, people and places. I also know we are fortunate to be able to do this. Travel because you want to. Not because you have to.
    [You can read more about our travels here and here]
  3. Reading more books
    2016 was a good year for my reading. I finished a book a month on average which is a huge improvement from previous years. The running theme seemed to be edgy thrillers (one of my favorite genres) because I find myself more engaged  with these but I am hoping to read more diverse books next year. I really want to read books around India’s culture and history that aren’t too highbrow. Any recommendations?

Favorite quote/life mantra of the year

quote

What are your new year plans? We will actually be in a new country this new year. It’s a big (apple) move and any anticipation has been walloped by the amount of packing I have done in the last few weeks. My dreams these days comprise of bubble wrap, tape and cardboard boxes. But, I am low key excited and hoping for more interesting adventures. Having said that, it is bittersweet to say goodbye to a place that has given us such fond memories. Singapore will always have a special place in our heart.

So as another year comes to a close, here’s wishing we are all happier,healthier and wiser in the next one. Have loads of fun and Happy new year everyone!!

new-year

PS: I am a south Indian who has never seen a ‘real’ winter. So send in your best wishes as I move from the tropical sunshine of Singapore to freezing temperatures. I reckon I will bundled up in fourteen layers with a red nose. It’s going to be a pretty sight!

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Road Trip from Singapore to Malacca

We love a good road trip. Listening to music, snacking on junk food, arguing over directions -despite a GPS and scouting for clean public restrooms. What’s not to love! Since we don’t get to drive around in Singapore, we decided to rent a car and drive to Malacca, Malaysia for a quick weekend getaway instead. It was a plan we made on a whim just a few days prior and that’s about as spontaneous as we tend to get with our travels. We’d already seen Kuala Lumpur and Genting, so Malacca was a good option. This was our first time travelling from Singapore to Johor Bahru (JB) or driving in Malaysia in general, so it was an interesting experience to say the least. Read on to find out more

Travelling from Singapore to Johor Bahru (JB)

 

There are multiple options to reach JB from Singapore. You can drive in a car directly from Singapore to JB or take a bus or train. Find more details at the below mentioned links:

We would have preferred going by train but since our plan was quite last minute we ended up taking a bus from Queen’s Street (headed for Larkin bus terminal) to the Immigration checkpoint near Woodlands. The immigration process was quite straightforward but after this is where it gets a bit interesting.

After the Singapore side immigration, you need to board the same bus that you traveled into the immigration center in to reach the Malaysian immigration center. The bus boarding area can get quite chaotic and if you are new to the whole process it might be a bit confusing so make sure to check the bus numbers.

After the immigration process at JB, you are free to proceed with your journey.

 

Renting a car and driving to Malacca

 

We had pre-booked a car from Europcar in JB based on recommendations from friends. Their office is a short walk from the JB immigration point via the JB Square mall. However, there was so much construction going on in that area and not to forget crazy traffic, that we got into a taxi just to avoid walking on the road. The entire process of getting the car was quite smooth though and once we completed the formalities we hopped into our car to start the journey.

Roads in Malaysia are quite well maintained and for the most part we were driving on the highways and 4-lane roads so it was an enjoyable 3 hours. While you won’t see a whole lot of variation in flora and fauna or the landscape, you will find tons of farms and palm trees lining the road that make for a pretty picture.

We reached Malacca just about around our hotel’s check-in time and freshened up a bit before heading out to see the sights.

 

Things to See and Do in Malacca

 

Malacca is an important cultural and historical city in the region and that reflects in its UNESCO World Heritage site status. While it has all the trappings of a modern city – hotel chains, malls, fast food joints etc. , the moment you step into the heritage area, you feel like you have taken a step back in time.

Our first stop was St. Paul’s hill. A short steep hike up a flight of steps leads you to St.Paul’s church – the oldest church in South East Asia. Built originally by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch, the building fell into bad state after the British occupation of the region, but seems to have been restored partially since then. You can explore the interior of the church that has exposed brick walls and interesting artifacts. From outside the church, you can catch a glimpse of the Malacca strait and the growing city.

 

 

A short walk from St.Paul’s will take you to Malacca’s most iconic attraction – the Dutch Square, also knows as the Red Square because of the colour of the buildings in the area. Flanked by the Christ Church on the left and the Stadthuys on the right, there is always lot of activity and hordes of tourists in this area. The Stadthuys is a huge complex that now hosts a museum and is worth a visit if you are interested in Ethnography or want a quick respite from the heat. The clock tower and Queen Victoria’s fountain in the center of the square are beautiful and a great backdrop for some photos.

Christ Church, Melaka

Christ Church, Melaka

After spending some time in the Dutch Square, as the sun was about to set, we crossed a bridge to enter Jonker street – also known as the place where all of Malacca seems to be (just kidding!). While first impressions of the street would lead one to consider this area to be a shopping hotspot, there is so much more to Jonker. It hosts some of the most iconic houses of Malacca offering glimpses into Peranarkan history and culture, but more about that later. As we navigated our way through the narrow and crowded lanes, we saw shops selling food items from all over the region – squid on a stick, rice balls, pancakes, noodles, sweets, crackers and chandol ! Being vegetarians, we had to give most things a miss but the energy and vibe of the place was amazing. If you are crowd-averse, Jonker Street is not for you. It gets very very busy towards the evenings so plan your visit accordingly.  If you have the patience you can scout for some interesting handicrafts from one of the bigger shops. Electronics, clothes, footwear, games at throwaway prices are also in abundance, but we didn’t find much of it to be that unique. Also,try exploring the by lanes and side roads branching off the main street since these are less crowded but have the same kinds of shops.

Jonker Street offers a lot but is not for people uncomfortable with crowds!

Since we didn’t have a GPS, we just went into random streets and took a turn somewhere that led us to the beautiful Cheng Hoong Teng Temple. Unfortunately, it was closed by late evening but we did manage to catch a glimpse of its beautiful exteriors.

We were quite exhausted after the drive and sight-seeing so we grabbed something to eat and went back to our hotel room to call it a night. The next day we decided to visit the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum which is located a short walk off the main Jonker street. This museum is unlike any I have visited in that it is actually a house, parts of which have been converted to a museum. Baba-Nyonya is a term used to refer to Chinese-Malays or Peranakan Chinese who have lived in these parts for a while now. The architecture of the house is well preserved and offers glimpses into the life of the Chan family that lived here for more than 4 generations starting in the 1860s. The elaborate woodwork and porcelain collection is definitely a highlight but my favorite room was the Thia Besar or Reception Hall that has some beautiful silk embroidery hanging from the walls. All in all, it was an interesting place to visit and the clearly labelled items and descriptions were helpful.

We wanted to leave for JB in the afternoon to avoid the evening rush but not before tasting some delightful local vegetarian cuisine at Veggie Planet. Co-incidentally we ate at their sister establishment the previous day thinking that was the actual Veggie Planet (don’t ask – we were way too hungry to care and didn’t realize there would be that many 100% vegetarian restaurants in Malacca to be honest). The place is a bit away from the center of the city but is well worth the walk or drive if you want to eat good authentic vegetarian Chinese/Peranarkan influenced cuisine.

 

 

Delicious Veggie Assam Pedas

Delicious Veggie Assam Pedas

After a sumptuous lunch we set off on our return journey back to JB. We got stuck in a traffic jam on entering JB given it was evening time and most people were probably returning back to Singapore. We lost a good one hour just sitting in the car waiting for the cars to clear out. The immigration process on the way back was again quite straightforward but there was just too much crowd for the buses and we felt it was not worth going through all this hassle. We will most likely check out the train route if we go back to JB again. But minus this one dampener, the rest of our trip was really good. Malacca was a pleasant surprise and definitely exceeded our expectations in terms of the places it had to offer to a visitor. Now only if I could eat that Chendol again !

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Budapest – A picture essay

Ever seen television shows or movies set in Medieval Europe and wish you could be transported to that era? The castles and palaces and the amazing architecture are too beautiful to resist, aren’t they? Well, we don’t have time machines yet but visiting Budapest is definitely an opportunity to experience a little bit of that magic. We hear so much about other European cities that Budapest sometimes doesn’t get that much love but it is one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever visited. Situated on the banks of The Danube and brimming with history and stories, Budapest is a traveller’s delight and so much more.

We spent three days in Budapest during the summer of 2015, well actually a whole month before Summer is supposed to actually kick-in in Europe, expecting pleasant weather. After our last trip to Europe in 2014 (the one where we came very close to melting in Rome), we thought we should avoid the peak summer season. But, as luck would have it we got caught up in another heatwave – Europe’s worst in recent history to boot. Given our track record we should have probably planned for a December visit to be safe but we made it back to the other side alive! Severely tanned, but alive. And with tons of memories and photos.

This post is going to be a little different in that I am going to write less and instead let the pictures do all the talking. We are not great photographers by any standard (our phones are full of pictures with missing limbs and unintentional photobombs) but when the subject is as beautiful as Budapest, you can’t really mess up that much. Hope you guys enjoy the post.

 

Hungarian State Opera House - a stunning piece of architecture. Buy a ticket for one of the performances instead of the guided tour to explore the very well preserved interiors and of course, the Opera!

Hungarian State Opera House – a stunning piece of architecture. Buy a ticket for one of the performances instead of the guided tour to experience the very well preserved interiors and of course, the Opera!

Heroes' Square - famous for the iconic statues that adorn this major intersection in Budapest. The walk along Andrassy Boulevard to reach the square is beautiful.

Heroes’ Square – famous for the iconic statues that adorn this major intersection in Budapest. The walk along Andrassy Boulevard to reach the square is beautiful.

 

A crown jewel amidst several other stunning pieces of architecture on Castle Hill - Fisherman's Bastion is straight out of a fairytale.

A crown jewel amidst several other stunning pieces of architecture on Castle Hill – Fisherman’s Bastion is straight out of a fairytale.

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

And to end on a high note - a plate of delicious vegetarian Hungarian food.

And to end on a high note – a plate of delicious vegetarian Hungarian food.

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Magical Istanbul – Three day itinerary

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
-Alphonse de Lamartine

Istanbul is magical. There are no two ways about it. From the mesmerizing blue waters of The Bosphorous to the stunning architecture that captures your gaze from every corner, Istanbul is a feast for the senses. As a child, my interest in Turkey was first piqued in geography class when we learnt about the significance of the Silk Route and its impact on trade and culture in the region. In my naivety, I had also always thought that Istanbul would have distinctly European and Asian sections being a city that straddles the Eurasian border. The city certainly has a distinct flavour to it but it is a flavour that takes from both sides of the world – a blend of numerous cultures and styles which in turn is a reflection of Turkey’s history that included Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman influences among others. Modern day Istanbul is like any other growing metropolis – full of people,change and energy but the well preserved pieces from its chequered history give it a timeless quality.

We landed in Istanbul on a beautiful July morning and straight off the gate felt the hustle and bustle in the airport. Hordes of tourists, guides and locals swarmed the frankly, overwhelmed Istanbul Ataturk Airport but we were happily taking it all in. Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up who seemed quite friendly and interested in guess what, Bollywood! A pleasant drive that steered us through the narrow by-lanes of the city led us to our hotel – Basileus. The place was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and I would say it deserves most of the praise that comes its way. Basileus is a family run establishment and you will be greeted warmly by the hotel staff who are very helpful with their recommendations of places to see and things to do. The location is great too , it is a short hike away from Sultanahmet Square and the metro line making it perfect for tourists. Personally, the best part for me was the breakfast. Prepared in a home style kitchen, the lavish spread of cheese, local delicacies and fresh fruit every morning was a refreshing change from the typical breakfast buffets in big chain hotels. But, if you are looking for a modern hotel, then you might want to look elsewhere. Wi-Fi was a bit flaky and since the hotel is located right on the road, noise can be bothersome sometimes, so the trade-off is quite obvious :).

We made sure we left around 8.30-9 everyday to avoid mid-day crowds and returned back to the hotel after lunch to escape from the sun. We would then set-off again in the evening to enjoy Istanbul under the night sky! Here are some of our recommendations on how to make the best of 3 days in Istanbul

Take a boat ride along the Bosphorous Strait

There is perhaps no better way to get acquainted with Istanbul than to take a boat ride along the waters of the Bosphorous. The easiest way to reach the ferry terminals is to go to Eminolu metro station. Spare a moment there to catch the stunning views of Istanbul as you walk along crowded footpaths filled with tour operators. We wanted a no-frills boat ride where we could just sit back and admire the views and would highly recommend Şehir Hatlari which is a city run ferry service. The tickets are around 10 Lira per person with the option of renting audio guides. Snacks and beverages are also available on the boat for reasonable prices. There are tons of other cruise options, some with entertainment and more elaborate dining options on board but we weren’t too keen on that since more often than not these experiences tend to be inauthentic thanks to the commercialization of tourism. But, if you are keen on a more fancy cruise experience, consult your hotel concierge or staff who could offer you better deals and advice.

Istanbul - as viewed from the blue waters of The Bosphorous

Istanbul – as viewed from the blue waters of The Bosphorous

Visit the Spice Market

After the pleasant boat ride, we walked across the street to Istanbul’s famed Spice Bazaar. Being an Indian, I could appreciate the multitude varieties of cinnamon, cardamom and ‘masalas’ but my guess is this market would be more fascinating for people who do not frequently use spices in their food. While traditionally a trading spot for spices in Istanbul, the Spice Bazaar now hosts other shops as well that sell souvenirs, dry fruits, sweets and of course, Turkish Delight. For some weird reason, we ended up eating ice-cream here which was delicious. We would highly recommend spending some time here just walking by the shops and taking the aromas in. It is rare to find places like this any more what with people ordering even toothbrush on-line!

Glimpse of Spice Market

Glimpse of Spice Market

Marvel at the Sophia Hagia
Sophia Hagia is one the most iconic structures in the world. A perfect example of Byzantine architecture, this beautiful dome shaped building was a church for a long time but was converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule. It was eventually turned into a museum in 1935 and continues to remain one to date. Sophia Hagia has served as an inspiration for several similar constructions, most notably the Blue mosque which is situated right next to it. Once inside, you will see several instances where Christian and Islamic motifs co-exist on walls and ceilings. As stunning as the Sophia Hague is from the outside, it’s journey across time as captured inside is even more so.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Admire the beauty of Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka Blue Mosque
Adorned with stunning glass lights and colourful tiles, the Blue Mosque was one of my favourite places in Istanbul. The fact that this mosque is still popularly used as a place of worship makes it even more special. Strict dress code is followed for entry into the mosque and cover-ups are offered at the entrance, just in case. While the interiors of the Blue Mosque are spectacular, it’s courtyard and towering minarets are also stunning examples of architecture. We spent more than 3 hours just walking, taking pictures and absorbing the beauty of this place and had it not been for our tight schedule, we would have happily spent more time.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Visit the Basilica Cistern
If you have read Dan Brown’s book Inferno (like my husband Sid), this place should feature highly on your list. Even for someone like me who did not have prior information about this place, the Basilica Cistern was an unusual yet thrilling experience. Located just a few mins away from the Hagia Sophia, this place is a hidden gem literally. One of the oldest and largest underground water storage structures in Istanbul, the cistern supplied water to Istanbul for several centuries. It is quite dark inside and the feeling of being underground can feel spooky but I didn’t get time to dwell on this fact thanks to Sid who narrated the entire story of Inferno to me whilst touring the cisterns. Of special mention are the two Medusa column bases which are interesting to look at and have variation of stories attached to them.

Pillars that stood the test of time - inside Basilica Cistern

Pillars that stood the test of time – inside Basilica Cistern

Shop (or not) at the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the most famous shopping streets in Istanbul, if not the most. Think of Chandni Chowk or Sarojini Nagar, only more chaotic and thronging with tourists. In fact, Grand Bazaar was the world’s most visited tourist attraction with a staggering 91+million visitors in 2013. We visited the place twice in three days because there is so much to see and do in and around this area that one visit won’t suffice. The most charming thing about this place though is the ambience and atmosphere inside the covered market. The market is more than 5 centuries old and it feels like the walls have stories to tell! Inside you will find shops that sell everything from jewellery, handbags, footwear to home decorations. Bargaining is common and stuff does tend to get repetitive after a point but Grand Bazaar is not just a place to shop. It is an experience in and of itself.

Travel tip: Grand Bazaar houses several money exchange centres and offers the best rates in Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is a majestic Ottoman style palace that houses numerous attractions and offers some of the most breathtaking views of the city of Istanbul. In its heyday, it is believed to have housed thousands of people and was a mini city in itself. Apart from the stunning architecture, some of the other things to marvel at inside Topkapi Palace include the beautiful gardens, the kitchens, the room holding a stunning watch collection and the Harem. My favourite part though were the courtyards. We did not know they would provide beautiful glimpses of Istanbul and were pleasantly surprised to have discovered them amidst all the other rooms.

The Gate of Salutation

The Gate of Salutation

Imperial Hall

Imperial Hall

Views from Topkapi Palace courtyard

Views from Topkapi Palace courtyard

Dolmabahce Palace
Slightly off the beaten path but ever so stunning, Dolmabahce Palace was easily my favourite tourist find in Istanbul. The grandeur of the palace is second to none and its location – sitting prettily on the coast of the Bosphorous river just adds to its beauty. When we visited the palace, we spent a good hour just touring the gardens and marvelling at how the blue water caressed the walls of the palace. The highlight is of course the Chandeliers that adorn several rooms of the palace, most notably the Ceremonial Hall and the Blue Hall. There are free guided tours of the palace in English so do check out the website to time your visit.

Entrance to the Dolmabahce Palace

Entrance to the Dolmabahce Palace

Vegetarian eating options
The truth is if you are a vegetarian, you will find Istanbul frustrating. Turkish cuisine revels in kebabs and koftes and is hence heavily meat centric. You will however find mezze platters and eggplant based dishes frequently in restaurants but more often than not, these are sub standard and frankly, boring. We long made peace with the fact that travelling the world as vegetarians would not be easy as I documented in detail here, which is why we research extensively on veggie joints before going to any place. Here are some of our recommendations for fellow herbivores

Have a heavy breakfast. Turkish breakfast if full of fresh cheese, breads and dry fruits. Most hotels also serve the usual continental breakfast options so leave for the day with a full tummy just in case you do not find a good vegetarian option whilst sight seeing.

We take our food seriously - exhibit A of the research we do when it comes to veggie friendly restaurants

We take our food seriously – exhibit A of the research we do when it comes to veggie friendly restaurants

We personally enjoyed the food at Parsifal and Falafel House – the food was delicious and value for money.

A delicious plate of food from Falafel House

A delicious plate of food from Falafel House

Avoid eating near tourist attractions such as the Sultanahmet Square or Grand Bazaar because the food is overpriced here for the quality served. Instead, walk a bit further away from the hustle and bustle to find a quieter place. Lot of restaurants serve breads with their dips and hummus. A word of advice though – these breads are huge. So order keeping that in mind.

If you have a sweet tooth – indulge in baklavas and Turkish delights which are easily available at most street corners. We were fortunate to find an outlet of Karakoy Gulluoglu near our hotel and we ate their delicious baklavas every single day. They are utterly delicious.

I think it is wise to end this post on the sugar high that is the photo above! But, I will say that Istanbul was all that I expected it to be and so much more. I still remember the sight of the blue Bosphorous taking my breath away like it was yesterday. Aren’t memories like this why we all love travelling?

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