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Monday, 31 July 2017

# 47 - EXCLUSIVE – Interview with Arnab Ray aka Greatbong

One of the most followed Indian bloggers, Arnab Ray (or Greatbong, his preferred online moniker) is a man of many talents. An expert on cyber-security and all things pop-culture, he also happens to be a best-selling novelist. His published novels are ‘May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss’, ‘The Mine’, ‘Yatrik’, ‘Sultan of Delhi : Ascension’, and the just released ‘The Mahabharata Murders’.

In this unedited email interview, we take a closer look at the man who, among other things, brought ‘Gunda’ to the masses.

 Kanishka: ‘The Mahabharata Murders’ is out on the Juggernaut App to very positive reviews. The print copy has just released. High expectations? 

Arnab Ray: Always. My expectations for my books are like those of a desi dad sitting in the audience of a Spelling Bee when his offspring is on stage. I live vicariously through my creations.

What particularly struck a chord with 'The Mahabharata Murders' is we get an insight into Duryodhana's (albeit modern day) point of view. Many of us have grown up wondering how fair and justifiable the Pandavas were, but it is Karna who is generally viewed as the tragic hero. Did you have a fascination with the character of Duryodhana?

Always. When the Pandavas were in the forest, they sent spies to find out how Duryodhana was doing as an emperor. What they found out was he was a just ruler and the subjects were pleased with him. He opened his arms for Karna, perhaps strategically, but even then, it was an opportunity no one else was willing to take.  

Chetan Bhagat waxed his legs so that he could understand the female psyche better, enabling him to write from the point of view of a woman (One Indian Girl). What did you have to do to write in the first person as Rukhsana, the protagonist of the Mahabharata Murders? 

Each of us a have a male and a female side, and for the Mahabharata Murders I just got in touch with my female side. It does not require removal of body hair from any portion of the body to make that happen.

Your thoughts on the still nascent category of ebooks in India? Given the monopoly of the Kindle, do you think apps like Juggernaut have potential for growth? 

The competition of Juggernaut-like apps with Kindle is not on the UX (that is easily replicated), but on the pricing. If you can optimize the delivery and thus undercut Amazon's markup, these apps have a good business case. Consumers are likely to find books available for much lower on these kind of publisher apps than they would on Amazon, and the Indian book consumer is extremely price conscious when it comes to "desi" authors like us. Rs 20 here and there makes a difference.

Humour, horror, drama, thriller, crime-fiction. You haven't repeated a genre yet. We know that Sultan Of Delhi's sequel is coming out some time next year. How is it progressing so far? And what after that? 

In 2019 most likely. Haven’t been writing SOD2 for some time. After that, I am going to return to horror, but traditional Indian horror, with a book called Shakchunni, set in 1930s Bengal.

 Your novels have had passing elements of romance. Any plans of doing an out and out romance fiction? A very popular genre that you haven't fully explored yet.

Sultan of Delhi has strong elements of romance, as you possibly alluded to. I do want to out and out romance fiction, but herein lies a problem. I am the wrong gender, wrong age, and wrong BMI to write romance. For the Indian market, a successful romance book is as much as about the author as much as it is about the story. Also when I say I want to write out and out romance, it will not be conventional (I do not like writing conventions) but twisted, and combined with who I am and how I look in a high resolution photo, I hesitate.

You have a 9 to 5 job, you write novels, you tweet regularly, you blog (unfortunately no longer as frequently). How difficult or easy has it been so far? 

It gets increasingly difficult---fatherhood, increased responsibility at work. Which is why I do not blog as frequently, and the books will become more and more infrequent as we go on.

You come across as quite opinionated on social media and aren't really afraid to call a spade a spade. Do you think that this may alienate some of your readers?

Of course it does. It screws up my media coverage, leads to awkward dinner-time conversations at lit fests, and makes me persona non grata in some venues. But the thing is, I cannot be not me. You know what I am scared of? That the person who becomes a big author will not be me, but a person who looks like me but does not share my opinions, and I would feel jealous all over again.

 You are an unabashed fan of the 90s movies. But, Mithun da, Kanti Shah and the Ramsay Brothers are no longer the forces they used to be. Where are you getting your "so-bad-that-it's-good" fixes from these days?  

Ashutosh tweets.

What was your "oh, so I am kind of famous" moment?

It is usually being recognized. In airports, in malls. "Excuse me, are you Greatbong?". I won't pretend it does not feel good, though I make suitably embarrassed gestures.
5 books down. Great reviews. But you haven't really matched the kind of popularity levels that one would expect from a writer of your calibre. Any regrets? Any plans to do things differently in the future?

Many regrets. I wish I had started writing sooner. I wish I had been born a bit later. I know they are contradictory, but that is the thing with regrets. And no plans to do things differently, as I said before, if I reach my destination and it is not me, who it is then at the finish line?

What are you reading right now?

Book 2 of the Expanse Series

We have to ask you about your thoughts on the 'nepotism' incident and the events that followed.

Don't see the problem seriously. Nepotism is only a factor when the opportunity is supposed to be available to all. Like a government job. Like a job in a publicly traded company. The presidency of Congress is not supposed to be available to all, it is a family business. Similarly, Karan Johar has no obligation to not cast the son of a friend as hero.  If he is really that bad, then the market will throw him out. Rahul Gandhi, Puru Rajkumar....

Last question: Your take on the proposed 'Gupt' sequel

Compensates for global warming. The future is something to look forward to, after all.

[Arnab Ray’s latest book, The Mahabharata Murders is currently available in India on the Juggernaut App and on Kindle outside of the subcontinent. The print version is available in stores and can be ordered from Amazon.  He blogs at and tweets at @greatbong.] 

Friday, 21 July 2017

# 46 - Movie Review - Dunkirk - Thankfully, no Ta-Da moment

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

Directed by: Christopher Nolan.

A retelling of the Dunkirk evacuation - a crucial episode in the early years of the World War II. Allied soldiers fight for survival against seemingly insurmountable odds as German forces close in. 

Dunkirk has been touted to be the movie of the year, not without reason of course, it's not every day that a Christopher Nolan movie hits the screens. Some have already hailed it as the greatest war film ever.

Coming three Years after Interstellar and seven years after Inception, expectations are rather lofty and I for one am glad for the subject, mostly because Dunkirk isn't the third of the "mindf*ck trilogy". I had to watch Inception twice in order to ‘get’ it, and with Interstellar, I stopped trying.

Thankfully, Dunkirk follows a far more conventional plot, and even though we are shown the story from three separate timelines that sometimes criss-cross but truly converge towards the end, it is not very difficult to follow after a while.

No twists, no Ta-Da or a-ha moments, but all through its 106 minutes, you can’t help but be at the edge of your seat thanks to the tight screenplay, taut editing, and brilliant visuals and sounds.

There is no background story or introduction here, the movie starts off by dropping us in the midst of a war-zone, and we barely get time to dust ourselves off as the almost nameless and always faceless enemy strikes, regularly and unflinchingly.

This is Nolan's most ‘different’ film yet and credit to the director for pulling it off superbly.

What is his biggest achievement is the fact that in this age of excessive CGI and visual effects where we have gotten used to watching buildings and planets being destroyed by aliens and cowboys, how amazingly real and painful the sequences appear. The sound of a single bullet hitting metal is enough to jolt us and make us panic for the unnamed soldiers whose lives are in danger. 

There is no single protagonist here, and very little dialogue is spoken during the length of the film, and this adds to the effectiveness of the plot. Almost all the actors are flawless in their performances and the emotions are subtle and not shoved down our throats; Bollywood would do well to take a leaf out of Nolan's page and abandon the jingoism we reserve for our war films (Lakshya being a rare exception).

Is the movie perfect? Not really, Nolan being Nolan, some questions, while not left unanswered, kept me bugging well into the second half of the movie, and that felt a bit unnecessary, given the larger context. Also, the separate timelines, while they contribute positively to the film, take some time to get used to, particularly because of the abrupt cut-scenes. 

But this is nitpicking of the connoisseur kind.

Watch Dunkirk, not because of the 'Kids watch Game of Thrones, and legends watch Dunkirk' memes, not because of Harry Styles (fine performer and at par with the rest of the cast except for the train scene), watch it for the horrors and the little victories of war, watch it to realise how good film-making can sometimes transcend the boundaries of the medium, and become something else altogether.

And yes, watch it because you don't have to see it more than once to figure it out. 

RATING: 4/5.

Image taken from here.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

# 45 - Movie Review - Spider-Man : Homecoming (2017)

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau
Directed by: Jon Watts.

Another reboot of the Spiderman saga, sans the origin story. Peter Parker is already Spiderman, but crime fighting isn't as easy as he thought it would be. 

What's common amongst Barney Stinson, Ironman, and Spiderman?
They are pretty much useless without their respective suits, well, almost.

Tom Holland is the third Spiderman to be portrayed on the big screen and the youngest. He is neither the lovable loser Tobey Maguire portrayed, nor is he the bratty, angst-ridden, Andrew Garfield (the videshi Ranveer Singh) - Tom's Spiderman is the somewhat middle path treading, more relatable 15-year old who all of us were at one point in time.

He isn't out to avenge Uncle Ben here, his priority lies in becoming a part of the Avengers team by impressing Tony Stark (extended cameo from Robert Downey jr., delightful as always). Of course, his big spider heart is at the right place, and he makes sacrifices - like missing a party or foregoing a chance to represent his school in a competition.

There is no sob story here, Peter Parker is a regular kid who, while ambitious, barely gets the chance to punch above his weight, and he doesn’t have to, this is a rare Marvel movie where the world or the universe isn’t facing imminent destruction. Spiderman’s heroics are, for the most part, restricted to his neighbourhood. This is your friendly neighbourhood protector alright, and it's mighty fun that way.

So we have a very attractive Aunt May (Marisa Tomei in a role that's closer to ‘My Cousin Vinny’ than any of the previous Spiderman movies), a loyal sidekick (Jacob Batalon, more irritating than amusing), Captain America (the brief appearances of Chris  Evans are seriously funny), an all new love interest (Laura Harrier is competent), a very interesting Michelle Jones aka MJ  (Zendaya) and  Flash Thompson re-imagined as a flashy nerd (Tony Revolori ).

And lest I forget, there's Adrian Toomes played by Michael Keaton. Think of him as an evil version of Uncle Ben.
Keaton is obviously no stranger to superhero movies, but he is on the other side this time around, and he is mighty fine, oozing menace with or without his combat suit and justifying his villainy with panache. He is absolutely a treat to watch, we hope we haven’t seen the last of his character.

It's not all positive though, the film isn't really about Spiderman, and it isn’t about Peter Parker either.

It’s the suit.

The spider sense has been laid to rest and has been taken over by a Siri/J.A.R.V.I.S.

And *Spoiler Alert* the Spiderman suit has enough bells and whistles to rival the Ironman suit, which is no coincidence because it's been designed by Tony Stark himself.  A big part of the movie is about the suit and gadgets that go all shiny in the night. While that doesn't take away from the plot itself, for some of us older viewers that is a let-down, because 'Spiderman' was never about the suit as much as it was about the person wearing it, and this one departs from that aspect a tad too much for my liking.

Go watch the movie.  It helps if you have followed the Marvel cinematic universe, but even if you haven't, it isn't a big deal.

You will get more than a few decent laughs, and more pop-culture references and inside-allusions than you may have expected; also the fact that it isn't a dark, brooding, coming of age tale without being all-out-campy definitely helps.

Oh, and there's Tony Stark attending what appears to be..naah, can't give that away.

Spidey may be 15, but he is definitely all grown up and in sync with the times here. 

RATING: 3/5.

Image taken from here.