Friday, November 17, 2017

A Crown Of Rope And Sticks


Photo of SB Satheeshan by K. Shijith; Manju Warrier and Jayaram in the song, 'Confusion Theerkaname'

Costume designer SB Satheeshan talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Kathapurushan’, 'Guru', 'Black' and 'Summer in Bethlehem'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In his first film – Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Kathapurushan’ (1995) – costume designer SB Satheeshan was told to make a uniform of a Kerala policeman of the 1940s. But when Satheeshan came across the cloth, he realised that it was of a very thick material, almost like a canvas.

It was very difficult to stitch that cloth,” he says. “I used an old Singer machine, with a thick needle, which was provided by Adoor Sir, but still could not do it.”

So, he went to Adoor and told him that when he tried to stitch the uniform, 15 needles broke. “This was an exaggeration,” says Satheeshan. “But I wanted to show how difficult it was. Adoor Sir replied, ‘No problem, break about 25 needles, but I need this material only’. 

This gives you an idea of his dedication and desire for authenticity.”

In his next film, ‘Guru’ (1997), Satheeshan was asked to make a crown for Suresh Gopi who played a blind king named Samanthaka Rajavu. To suit the story, Satheeshan made a crown and costume of coir and bamboo.

But when Suresh saw it, he wasnot sure whether it would be suitable for his character.

I felt a great tension within myself,” says Satheeshan.

Actor Mohanlal, who was nearby said, “Wearing such a costume is a rare opportunity. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.”

But Suresh remained unconvinced.

Then Mohanlal asked Satheeshan’s help to put on the costume. “When I did so, all the crew at the location looked amazed at how good Mohanlal looked,” says Satheeshan. “That was when Suresh was convinced.”

The shooting resumed. “The next day, a grateful Suresh gave Satheeshan Rs 1000 to show his appreciation. “I shared it with my assistants,” he says. “It was a happy moment.”

But Satheeshan went through moments of deep tension on the sets of 'Black' (2004). At the climax, there is a conflict between Mammootty and Lal. A bottle of brandy falls to the floor. Mammootty throws a matchstick and Lal's white dhoti catches fire.

This shot was taking place at night in a house at Thevara, Kochi. Satheeshan was at home a few kilometres away. At 12.30 a.m. he got a call from the set. Three dhotis with a black border had been burnt but director Renjith was not happy with the shot. Satheeshan was asked to get another dhoti. But as he was being driven to the set, he wondered, 'At this time of the night, how am I going to get another dhoti, with a black border?'

If the production stopped, the producer would lose lakhs of rupees because it would have to continue the next day. But when Satheeshan arrived at the set and saw the burnt dhotis he suddenly got a brainwave. He cut away the non-burnt black border, and stitched them together on a white dhoti and got the border again. “So, the continuity in the scenes could be maintained,” says Satheeshan. “I was so relieved.”

Lal, who was producing the film, was also relieved. He shook the costume designer's hand and said, “This is the reason why we hire SB Satheeshan.”

The designer smiled happily.

However, there was similar tension on the sets of 'Summer in Bethlehem' (1998). For the song, 'Confusion Theerkaname', Satheeshan made Jayaram wear a white juba, dark sunglasses, and a white headgear. One day, Jayaram’s wife Parvathy came to the location at Chennai. When she saw Jayaram, she said that this is the type of headgear that women wore when they worked in the paddy fields. “I agreed, but had wanted to give a different look to Jayaram,” says Satheeshan. “I said the costume was aimed at matching the zany mood in the song. But Parvathy suggested that it should be changed.”

At that time director Renjith was looking after the costumes. Satheeshan asked Renjith to have a look. And when the latter did so, he liked it. So it was retained.

The song became a big hit,” says Satheeshan. “Thereafter, in many reality show competitions on TV, I had to give marks to participants who wore the same costume as Jayaram. In fact, Jayaram said the same thing happened when he was a judge.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Man Who Triggered the war for Independence

(These articles appeared in the 'Letters to Indira' supplement of The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Mangal Pandey: The Man who triggered the war for Indian Independence

On the afternoon of March 29, 1857, Lieutenant Baugh, Adjutant of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry was told that several men of his regiment were in an excited state.

Baugh did not have to go far to seek the source of the anger. At that time, a new Enfield rifle was introduced in India. A soldier had to bite off the ends of greased cartridges to load the weapon. There was a rumour that the lubricant used was either cow or pig lard; this was repugnant to Hindus and Muslims respectively. Soon, there was a belief that the British had deliberately done it.

Baugh was then given new information that one soldier, Mangal Pandey, was pacing in front of the regiment's guard room with a loaded musket.

So, he immediately set out to confront Pandey. When he came near, Pandey took aim and fired. But he missed. Instead, the bullet struck the horse, and horse and rider were brought down.

Baugh quickly got up and fired himself. But he also missed. Thereafter, Pandey attacked Baugh with a sword, and slashed his shoulder and neck and brought him to the ground.

In the end, Pandey was overpowered by other British officers but not before he shot his musket at his chest. But the wound was not fatal. Pandey recovered and within a week he was brought to trial.

There were suggestions that Pandey was under the influence of drugs – possibly cannabis or opium – and hence was not fully aware of his actions. But the judge remained unmoved and sentenced Pandey to death. He was hanged on April 8.

Following this, there were many similar mutinies all over India. Without realising it, Pandey had triggered the first war of Indian Independence.

As a result, he has been remembered in many ways. A film called 'Mangal Pandey: The Rising', starring actor Aamir Khan, and directed by Ketan Mehta was released in 2005. The life of Pandey was the subject of a stage play titled, 'The Roti Rebellion', which was written and directed by Supriya Karunakaran.

On October 5, 1984, the Government of India issued a postage stamp bearing his image. There is also a park called Shaheed Mangal Pandey Maha Udyan at the place where Pandey attacked the British officers in Barrackpore.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: He united the country

In 1918, the farmers in the Kheda region of Gujarat suffered from plague and crop failure. Despite that, the British insisted that taxes should be paid. When the farmers were not able to do this, the British rulers responding by confiscating the lands. In stepped Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who stood tall amongst the agitating farmers and spearheaded the 'No Tax Campaign'. He united all the castes and creeds of the region. When the protests snowballed, the British quickly came to an agreement to suspend their tax collection and the lands were returned to the agitating farmers.

This showed the early leadership qualities of Patel. And thereafter, he made a steady march upwards in the hierarchy of the Congress party. Patel, who was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, worked closely with him during the Quit India Movement.

Once India gained independence in 1947, Patel became the country's first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He showed his heart was in the right place when he organised relief camps for refugees fleeing from the communal riots in the Punjab and East Bengal.

He was also a man of decisive action. When the Partition of India resulted in huge bloodshed and realising that Delhi and Punjab policemen were personally affected by tragedy, Patel immediately arranged for the South Indian regiments of the Indian Army to restore order, impose curfew and shoot-at-sight orders.

But his major achievement was when he convinced 565 self-governing princely states to merge with the Indian Union. He did this by using diplomacy and the threat of military action. As a result of this achievement, he earned the title of 'Iron Man Of India'.

He was also the one to set up the structure of the Indian Administrative Services. This includes the Indian Police Service as well as the Forest Service. So, it is no surprise that he is known as the patron saint of the Services.

Patel also played a major role in the shaping of the Indian Constitution. It was he who ensured the appointment of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee and called in leaders from different political streams. In the end, India has one of the most comprehensive constitutions in the world.

His career came to an end when he died on December 15, 1950, at the age of 75. Patel was posthumously awarded India's highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna in 1991. And in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his birthday, October 31, as the Rashtriya Ekta Diwas (National Unity Day).

Gopal Krishna Gokhale: the gentle face of the Congress

On February 27, 1914, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale, 'I propose to leave for India in April. I am entirely in your hands. I want to learn at your feet and gain the necessary experience. My present ambition is to be by your side as your nurse and attendant. I want to have the real discipline of obeying someone whom I love and look up to. I propose to use the funds you have sent for our passages'.

Gokhale and Gandhi had met for the first time in 1896. But it was only when they spent a month together at the Calcutta Congress of 1901 that they got close. Gokhale asked Gandhi to return from South Africa and serve the people of India. He then wrote recommendation letters for Gandhi to several lawyers in Bombay to secure an opening. But Gandhi who was preoccupied with fighting for the rights of Indians in South Africa decided not to take up the offer at that time.

Gokhale was always regarded as the moderate face of the Indian National Congress. He always believed in dialogue and accommodation with the British government to achieve the goal of self-rule. Not everybody, especially his fellow Chitpavan Brahmin Bal Gangadhar Tilak, agreed to this approach.

In fact, they had a confrontation over the Age of Consent bill. This was introduced by the British Government, in 1891. It raised the age of consent of marriage for a girl from 10 to 12.

Gokhale and other liberal reformers supported the bill to curb child marriage abuses. As for Tilak, he said that the British should not interfere with Hindu traditions. He wanted such bills to be introduced only after Independence. The bill, however, became law in the Bombay Presidency.

In 1905, Gokhale was elected the president of the Indian National Congress. It was at this time that he founded the Servants of India Society. Its aim was to expand education. Gokhale felt that if India had to gain political change, then a new generation has to be educated regarding their civil and patriotic duties.

The Society soon organised mobile libraries, founded schools, and provided night classes for factory workers. Although the Society lost much of its vigour following Gokhale’s death, it still exists to this day, though its membership is small.

In his autobiography, 'The Story Of My Experiments With Truth', Gandhi described Gokhale as being 'pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field'.

Gokhale died on February 19, 1915, at the age of 48.

Madam Cama: the fiery woman who fought for India's cause abroad

On August 22, 1907, a fair-faced woman wearing a white saree with a blue veil stood up among the thousand delegates of the International Socialist Conference at Stuttgart, Germany. She unfurled a flag.

It had three colour bands on it: green, saffron and red. On the green band, there were eight lotuses which represented eight provinces of India before independence. In the middle of the saffron brand, the words, 'Vande Mataram' was written in Hindi. On the red band, there is the rising sun, to represent the Hindu faith and a half moon to represent Islam.
Then Bhikaji Cama said, “This is the flag of independent India. I appeal to all gentlemen to stand and salute the flag.”

The delegates were taken by surprise. Nevertheless, they all stood up and saluted the first flag of independent India. Bhikaji had a clear aim behind the unfurling. She wanted to highlight the poverty, starvation and oppression of the Indian people under the British Raj, and also to make aware that Indians wanted freedom.

And that drive for freedom was brutally being suppressed by the British authorities through ordinances, bans on public meetings and imprisoning revolutionaries for life.

At the conference, many people wondered who Bhikaji was.

This is her background: She was born on September 24, 1861, into a wealthy family. Her father, Sorabji Framji Patel, was a famous businessman who was known for his philanthropic work in Mumbai.

Thanks to the ferment in the country, Bhikaji was drawn to the freedom movement. In 1885, she married a well-known lawyer by the name of Rustomji Cama. But there were problems between the couple. While Rustomji loved the British and their way of life, his wife was opposed to them.

Meanwhile, in this unhappy situation, in 1896, the bubonic plague broke out in Mumbai. Bhikaji became one of the volunteers helping the victims. Unfortunately, she too caught the disease. Although she recovered, she remained in poor health.

So, the doctors advised her to go to Europe for rest and recuperation. In 1902, Bhikaji left India for London.

It was in Europe that she continued with her political activities. She met up with Dadabhai Naoroji, the founder of the Indian National Congress and joined the party. She also came in contact with other Indian nationalists and addressed several meetings in London’s Hyde Park, apart from meetings in Europe.

Bhagat Singh: India's First Revolutionary

(Articles appeared in the 'Letters to Indira' supplement of The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Photos: Bhagat Singh; Khuidram Bose; Chandrasekhar Azad and Bagha Jatin 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Simon Commission came to India in 1928, to discuss constitutional reform, there were black-flag protests all over because there was not a single Indian member. One such response, on October 30, 1928, was by nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai. He led an all-party delegation towards the Lahore railway station to protest the arrival of the Commission. However, there was a lathi charge by the police. Lajpat Rai received was critically injured and died on November 17.

This inflamed a young man named Bhagat Singh. He, along with fellow associates Shivaram Rajguru and Chandra Sekhar Azad decided to take revenge. They decided to kill James A Scott, the superintendent of police, who had ordered the lathi charge. However, in a case of mistaken identity, the group ended up killing John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, as he was leaving the District Police Headquarters in Lahore on December 17, 1928.

Thereafter, the trio went on the run and managed to evade capture for several months.

Then on April 8, 1929, Singh, accompanied by another revolutionary Batukeshwar Dutt, entered the Central Legislative Assembly at New Delhi and threw two bombs from the public gallery when it was in session. Nobody died, but a few legislators were injured. There was smoke all around and confusion reigned. Singh and Dutt could have easily escaped. But they remained where they were and kept shouting 'Inquilab Zindabad' before they were arrested by the police.

Later Singh released a statement: 'We hold human life sacred beyond words. We are neither perpetrators of dastardly outrages, nor are we 'lunatics' as some others would have it believed. Force when aggressively applied is 'violence' and is, therefore, morally unjustifiable, but when it is used in the furtherance of a legitimate cause, it has its moral justification.'
In the subsequent trial, Singh was found guilty and hanged in March 1931. He was only 23. 

Following his death, Singh became a folk hero and is now regarded as the first revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement.

Said Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: "Bhagat Singh did not become popular, because of his act of terrorism but because he seemed to vindicate, for the moment, the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and through him of the nation. He became a symbol; the act was forgotten, the symbol remained, and within a few months each town and village of the Punjab, and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of northern India, resounded with his name."

Khudiram Bose: He gave up his life for the nation

Douglas Kingsford was the Chief Magistrate of the Presidency court of Alipore, Bengal. He presided over the trial of a few editors of the Bengali newspaper, 'Jugantar', in which fiery articles against the British were published. Kingsford found them guilty of sedition and sentenced them to rigorous imprisonment.

There were widespread protests against the ruling. Several people were arrested including a young Bengali youth by the name of Sushil Sen. Kingsford ordered a whipping of Sushil. This made Kingsford Enemy No. 1 among the nationalists. They decided to kill him. By this time, Kingsford had been transferred to Muzzafarpur.

So, two young revolutionaries by the name of Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki were assigned the task. They spent three weeks monitoring the movements of Kingsford.

On the evening of April 30, 1908, they waited within the branches of a tree outside the Kingsford residence, with a couple of home-made bombs with them. Meanwhile, Kingsford was playing bridge at the British Club, some distance away, with his wife and the wife and daughter of Pringle Kennedy, a leading pleader of the Muzaffarpur Bar.

At 8.30 p.m., the group left in two identical single-horse carriages. When one of the carriages appeared near the Kingsford residence, Khudiram and Prafulla ran up and threw the bombs. 

Unfortunately, that particular carriage contained the wife and daughter of Pringle. While Miss Pringle died within an hour, Mrs Kennedy passed away two days later.
Khudiram and Prafulla escaped on foot. They walked all through the night. However, the next day, both were apprehended. While Prafulla shot himself, Khudiram was taken into custody.

When he was brought to Muzzafarpur, the people gathered to have a look at the young revolutionary who was now surrounded by armed policemen.

As a report in Kolkata's The Statesman stated: 'A mere boy of 18 or 19 years old, who looked quite determined. He came out of a first-class compartment and walked all the way to the phaeton, kept for him outside, like a cheerful boy who knows no anxiety.....on taking his seat the boy lustily cried 'Vandemataram'.

Meanwhile, in the ensuing trial, in May, 1908 he was found guilty and was sentenced to die by hanging on August 11. Khudiram was thereafter taken to Kolkata.

On that day, a huge crowd gathered in front of the prison at 6 a.m., the scheduled time for the execution. Many people held garlands. Following the hanging, the funeral procession went through the city, and crowds of people threw garlands on the funeral cortege.

At 18, Khudiram was one of the youngest revolutionaries of India. Today, a railway station, a metro rail station and a stadium are named after him in West Bengal.

Chandra Shekhar Azad: The man who refused to surrender

In the tiny village of Bhavra in Madhya Pradesh, a mother gave birth to a boy. The moment she held the baby in her arms, she had a wish: her son Sukhdev should become a great Sanskrit scholar.

So Jagran Devi Tiwari, the third wife of Sitaram Tiwari, persuaded her husband to send Sukhdev to the Kashi Vidyapeeth in Varanasi. The years passed. When Sukhdev was 15 years old, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. Sukhdev joined the protests. Subsequently, he was arrested.

When he was produced before a magistrate, he gave his name as 'Azad' (The Free), his father's name as 'Swatantrata' (Independence) and his residence as 'Jail'. It was from that day that he came to be known as Chandra Shekhar Azad.

In 1922, Gandhiji suspended the Non-Cooperation Movement. During this time Azad met another freedom fighter Pranvesh Chatterji, who introduced him to Ram Prasad Bismil.

Bismil had founded the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), a revolutionary organisation. Asked whether he had the strength to fight for India's Independence, Azad put his hand over a lamp and did not remove it till his skin burnt. An impressed Bismil invited him to become a member. He began collecting funds for the HRA, but this was done through robberies of government property.

One was the famous Kakori Train Robbery. On August 9, 1925, a train was travelling from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow. But when it approached the town of Kakori one of Azad's associates pulled the chain to stop the train and overpowered the guard. They managed to collect bags containing Rs 8000 but in the process, a passenger was killed by an accidental shot. Thus, it became a murder case. The British administration launched a massive manhunt, and

Bismil was captured along with a few others. But Azad escaped detection. Later, Bismil was hanged. Thereafter, Azad took control of the HRA and it was renamed as the Hindusthan Socialist Republican Association.

But the police were constantly on the lookout for him. On February 27, 1931, thanks to a tip-off that he was at the Alfred Park at Allahabad, they surrounded the area. There was an exchange of fire and Azad was wounded. But he managed to kill three policemen. Earlier, he had pledged that he would never be captured alive. So, with the last bullet of his Colt pistol, he shot himself dead.

When the incident came to light, the people surrounded the park and raised slogans against the British.

The park was renamed as the Chandrashekhar Azad Park. Many schools, colleges, roads and other public institutions are also named after him.

Bagha Jatin: The man who killed a tiger

One day, in March, Jatin Banerjee heard that there was a leopard wandering about in his native village of Koya. He went in search of it and came across a Royal Bengal tiger. They had a fight. The tiger managed to claw Jatin many times, but somehow, the latter managed to plunge a Gorkha dagger on the tiger's neck and killed it.

He was immediately taken to Kolkata. One of the city's well-known surgeons Lt-Colonel Suresh Prasad Sarbadhikari operated on Jatin. In the end, Jatin survived. But impressed by his bravery Dr Sarbadhikari wrote an article in the English press. Later, the Government of Bengal awarded Jatin a silver shield with the scene of him killing the tiger engraved on it. Thereafter, Jatin got the title of 'Bagha', which means 'Tiger' in both Bengali and Hindi, and that was how his name became 'Bagha Jatin'.

Jatin was well known for his physical prowess. Once when he was travelling on a train, he noticed four British officers were harassing a young woman and her grandfather in a neighbouring compartment. Jatin barged in and attacked all the officers. He was arrested a few days later. However, the judge felt that the publicity about his actions would inspire other young Indians. So Jatin was released.

However, Jatin continued with his opposition to the British. He felt the use of violence would enable India to gain freedom. So he taught other young revolutionaries on the way to use bombs and firearms.

All this work was done at night. During the day, he worked as a stenographer for the Governor's secretary. The police commissioner, Tegart, was puzzled by the continued spate of deadly assaults on British officers. He did suspect Jatin to be the mastermind, but he had no proof. However, a young revolutionary finally revealed the identity of their leader. Based on this confession, Jatin was arrested and was held for 15 months. But he was released for lack of proof. 

When his fellow revolutionary Arabinda Gosh left for Pondicherry, Jatin took over the leadership. Soon, a plan was hatched by Jatin, Rash Behari Bose and other revolutionaries to launch an armed conflict against the British army on February 21, 1915, in Punjab and the rest of North India. Unfortunately, an informant relayed this to the British. Immediately, the revolutionaries were arrested. But Jatin escaped.

He was located at Kaptipada. He, along with four other revolutionaries, were cornered on a small hill and managed to hold off the British officers for hours. But, in the end, when the troops reached the top, one revolutionary was dead and the other four were severely wounded.

As Jatin was being taken to the hospital he insisted that he himself was entirely responsible for the day's events. Jatin's undying devotion and single-minded devotion to India's freedom commanded the respect of those who worked with him.
Jatin passed away on September 15, 1915. Officer Tegart said, “Bhaga Jatin was one of the bravest Indians I had ever seen.” 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Scripting A Success Story

One of the leading scriptwriters in Mollywood, Sachi, talks about his latest, the hit film, 'Ramaleela'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, around six years ago, the bell rang at scriptwriter Sachi’s house in Tripunithara, a suburb of Kochi. When Sachi opened the door, a young man stood there. He said, “My name is Arun Gopy. I have been working for a few years in the Malayalam film industry as an assistant director.”

Sachi invited him in. They began chatting. And then Arun made his request, “Sir, I want to direct my first film based on a script by you.”

Sachi immediately said, “I am tied up in many projects. It would be better for you to look for somebody else.”

But Arun said he would wait. Over the next few years, they would chat regularly on the phone. And then Sachi realized that Arun and he shared the same wavelength when it came to movies.

So, when there was a gap between projects, and Sachi had a story ready, he decided to give it to Arun. That script was called ‘Ramaleela’.

The film, which was released recently, has now become a blockbuster hit. So the wait was well worth it for Arun. But there were a lot of anxious moments. The hero, Dileep, had been arrested for allegedly being the mastermind behind the abduction and rape of a Mollywood actress. The fate of the film became uncertain. But, after a three-month incarceration, public opinion turned in favour of Dileep. That was when the producer released the movie.

The positive attitude towards Dileep was one of the reasons why 'Ramaleela' did well,” says Sachi. “But it also had to be a good movie for it to get an audience. I believe it is a fast-paced film. The viewer is always moving forward, from one crisis to an even bigger one.”

What helped was the stunning and unexpected climax. “At that time, I had only one climax in my mind,” he says. “Dileep, accused of a political murder, has proved his innocence.”

But to write the last portion of the script, Sachi went to an area near the Mookambika Temple (the place of worship for many Mollywood artists) in Karnataka. “One morning, I got up and had a brainwave: 'why not another climax',” says Sachi. “It was a memorable moment for me. I would describe it as a divine intervention.”

Today, Sachi is regarded as one of the leading scriptwriters in Mollywood. His previous film, 'Anarkali', which he wrote and directed did well at the box office.

He also wrote the scripts for 'Chettayees' and 'Run Baby Run'.

Writing is never easy,” he says. “Sometimes, I do get a creative block. But it is all worth it when the script is finally ready.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Making The Cut

Rayhan Thomas, of Malayali origin, who equalled a world record of hitting nine birdies in a row, is steadily making a mark on the international amateur golfing stage

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Middle East Golf Awards, at Dubai, recently, where Rayhan Thomas won the Amateur Order of Merit, the compere said, tongue-in-cheek, “Has anybody offered you any money?” Without missing a beat, a smiling Rayhan says, “There have been a couple of bribes here and there, but I am trying not to take it.”

Rayhan exudes a cool confidence even when the questions are unexpected. And the 17-year-old took this confidence into the highly competitive US Amateur matchplay golf championships held at Kansas in July this year. Eventually, he came third, after losing to eventual winner Noah Goodwin in the semi-finals.

In the process, Rayhan became the first Indian to reach the semi-finals. “To finish in the Top 3 means a lot,” says Rayhan. Incidentally, previous winners include former world No. 1 Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. Last year, Rayhan also became the first amateur to win on the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) tour.

The achievements continued. During the Dubai Open, in September, Rayhan equalled a world record, when he hit a stunning nine birdies in a row (a birdie is one stroke less than the designated number to complete a hole). The record was first set by American Mark Calcavecchia at the 2009 RBC Canadian Open.“When I hit the first two birdies, I felt this was going to be my day,” said Rayhan. “I’m very happy with my performance.”

And this dream career began very accidentally. One day, when Rayhan was eight years old, his father gave him a club and the boy played his first strokes at a store called Golf House. “I was immediately attracted,” he says. “There is such a nice feeling when the club hits the ball.”

Seeing their son's interest, his parents John and Neena enrolled him at the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Dubai (Butch is a former coach of Tiger Woods). And Rayhan began to get better and better.

But when he was fifteen years old, the family made a fateful decision. Rayhan was taken out of the St. Mary's Catholic High School and joined an online school academy.
And John has a simple explanation for this. “If you want to become a professional player, at any level, you have to give it 100 per cent,” he says. “The number of hours you have to put in practice is way beyond your normal school time.”

Indeed, this is true. On any given weekday, Rayhan gets up at 5.30 a.m., and goes for a hour-long walk. Then he returns, has his breakfast and heads to the Butch Harmon School at 8.30 a.m. He does training under the supervision of Justin Parsons, the director of instruction. “Justin is one of the best coaches in the region,” says Rayhan. “He points out my errors and I work hard to correct them.”

Rayhan returns at 1.30 p.m. Following lunch, and a brief rest, at 3 p.m., Rayhan starts his online studies, with occasional help from his mother, and finishes at 7 p.m. Thereafter, he relaxes by watching TV.

In his spare time, he is learning to do meditation. “The mental aspect plays a big role in golf,” says Rayhan, “There are a lot of matchplay events in amateur golf, where we are playing one on one. You need mental strength to overcome your opponent.”

Meanwhile, John, a Chief Operating Officer of a oil, gas, and marine company, based in the United Arab Emirates, does admit that the expenses are steep. However, the equipment is being sponsored by Titleist and the clothes and shoes by Footjoy. “Since Rayhan is India's No 1 amateur, the Indian Golf Union has agreed to provide some sponsorship,” says John, who is from Kottayam, Kerala. “So that will help.”

And so, Rayhan, with his obvious talent and calm temperament, is all set to become India's version of Tiger Woods. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Keeping An Eye

The ParentEye app enables teachers and parents to connect with each other. The students' performance can be evaluated over the year and their daily movements can be monitored

Illustration by Shuvojit Dey; the team of Scientia Innovation

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was 5 p.m. on a Saturday. Renuka Menon was relaxing at her home at Kozhikode. In normal circumstances, she would have been worried, since her ten-year-old son Sashi had not yet returned home. But now thanks to the ParentEye app, she can follow his movements in the school on the mobile phone. Today is the Annual Sports Day and Sashi was expected to be late.

At 5.30 p.m. she observed that he had got onto the bus. Thereafter, she watched the movement of the bus. When it was about five minutes away from the house, Renuka stepped out and reached the stop just as the bus arrived.

This is a very handy app,” she says. Thanks to ParentEye Renuka did not have to go through tension regarding Sashi.

This app has been developed by Shaiju CK, the Co-Founder and CEO of Scientia Innovation, a Bangalore-based software engineering company. “We have placed a blue tooth enabled chip on the identity card of each student,” says Shaiju. “And in every class and the common areas of the school, there is a blue tooth sensor. So a parent or teacher will know where a student is, at a particular time. Suppose a student moves away from a group, during the lunch break, a notification will be sent immediately to the class teacher as well as the parent.”

There are other features too. One notable advantage is that you are able to make a profile of each student. “The teachers will give a feedback regarding a student on the app, under each individual name,” says Shaiju. “Teachers can say he likes to draw or read or do maths. When a student does something often, most probably, he has the talent for it. Through this data, we can predict the skills of the child.”

Parents can get a good idea of the activities that are taking place in school. And when the teacher gives the homework, through the app, the parent also comes to know immediately.

Performances can also be monitored. “There are graphs which show whether a child's performance is improving in Maths or English over the course of a year,” says Shaiju.

Asked whether there is an invasion of privacy of the student, Shaiju says, “In most schools, there are cameras, even inside the classrooms. ParentEye is not looking at what the child is doing. It is just identifying the location.”

So far, the ParentEye is being used in 150 schools in North Kerala. Another 47 schools are using it in Bangalore and a couple of schools in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have it.

And most users are happy. Teacher Seena Sivaraman says, “This app is very useful and handy for day-to-day updates. We have gone almost paperless and saving a lot of time.” Says parent VA Paulson, “It has helped me to know how my child is faring in school.” Another parents Saneesh Parambath says, “I would recommend ParentEye to new-generation schools.”

In fact, Shaiju is indeed reaching out towards the new-generation schools. He has plans to introduce the app in South Kerala, Chennai and Pune and also in Africa. “We have already set up the app in schools of Ghana and Nigeria,” says Shaiju. “It is an exciting time for us.”

Shaiju is a former Vice President at JP Morgan Chase in New York. Some of the other companies he has worked in include Hewlett Packard, Qwest Telecom and Satyam. But in 2010, he started his own firm. “I am passionately in love with technology,” he says. “And I am so glad that, with the help of my brother Shaji, I could make an app that is helpful for teachers, parents and students alike.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode) 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

When An Autorickshaw Overturned


Child actor Gourav Menon talks about his experiences in the films 'Jilebi', 'Kolumittayi' and 'Philips and the Monkey Pen'

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the shoot of the film, 'Jilebi', in April, 2015, Gourav Menon was sitting in an autorickshaw with fellow child artiste Sayuri at Pollachi. They were being chased by hero Jayasurya in a car. Gourav's auto was being driven by actor Shashank. Soon, Jayasurya came abreast of Gourav's vehicle. They went like this for a few moments. Suddenly, a bus came from the opposite direction.

Jayasurya had no option but to move to the left. As a result, Shashank had to also move the autorickshaw quickly to the left. But he lost control and it went and hit a lamppost and overturned. “I was right at the bottom,” says Gourav. “My nose hit the rod behind the driver’s seat.”

Blood started streaming from Gourav's nose. Soon, he lost consciousness. Sayuri had a small cut on her forehead. A cutter had to be used to break the rod to get to Gourav. Thereafter, he was rushed to the local hospital.

A few minutes later, the blood flow was stopped. “The doctor who inspected me said that if the cut had been a millimetre above, it could have been fatal,” says Gourav. “So, I was very lucky.”

It took a month before Gourav could rejoin the shoot.

Meanwhile, in the film, 'Kolumittayi' (2016), Gourav also experienced tense moments. There was a swimming scene. So, at a pond in Kanjiramattom, child actors Roshan and Gourav, all of whom knew swimming, entered the water, along with the director Arun Viswam and a couple of assistants.

Behind them, Aakash Santhosh, who did not know swimming, also stepped into the water. But there was no mud underneath. So, he sank immediately.

When they saw that Aakash was in trouble, Arun and the others came back to save him. Meanwhile, Roshan’s leg got stuck in a frond. And he began sinking. Somehow, he managed to come up to the surface, take a gulp of air and sink again. He was under water for a few minutes.

Seeing this, make-up man Sunil Kumar jumped into the water and went in search of Roshan. “Since the water was blackish, he could not see anything,” says Gourav. “He grabbed a leg, but that turned out to be mine. Arun Uncle saw this, and, after saving Aakash, he came up and took me the shore. Otherwise, I would have also gone underwater.”

By this time, Sunil had located Roshan and was trying to lift him. Crew member Rakesh dived in and tried to loosen the frond. While he was doing so, Roshan accidentally kicked Rakesh in the face. For a few moments, Rakesh was winded and began swallowing water.

It was getting chaotic. “But, somehow, Arun Uncle and Sunil Uncle managed to haul Roshan to the bank,” says Gourav. “Rakesh then managed to climb ashore and kept vomiting to get rid of the water he had swallowed.” Thankfully, a tragedy was averted.

But in 'Philips and the Monkey Pen', there was no escaping bad news. A scene was being shot at 9.30 p.m. at Sacred Heart College, Kochi. Gourav and his fellow child actor Sanoop Santhosh were having a good time.

Suddenly, an ambulance came into the campus. A lot of people had gathered around. There were sombre looks all around. Gourav could not understand what was happening. Then finally, three bodies were brought out and placed on a table. That was when Gourav came to know that they were students of the college who had died in a car accident on the Bangalore-Chennai highway.

We felt very sad,” says Gourav. “Sanoop and I started crying when we saw the dead bodies.”

Gourav pauses and says, “In a shoot, there are so many happy moments, but some incidents can make you feel very sad.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 06, 2017

A Steadfast Faith

Muslim couple Abu and Asiya Backer, despite protests, continue to worship at the ancestral snake temple at the back of their house in Kerala

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the wall of the living room of Abu and Asiya Backer's house at Perumbavur, (41 kms from Kochi) two numbers are written in black: one is of the local police station and the other is the mobile number of the Circle Inspector.

When people attack us, we get into a panicky mood,” says Asiya, 68. “So, it is easy to dial the number where we can see it.”

It all began in 2013, when an estranged daughter-in-law of their son Mujeeb Rahman, who stays with them, went and complained at the local mosque that her in-laws were praying to Hindu gods.

Indeed, they were and are. The couple has a snake temple at the back. “It has been there from the time of our ancestors,” says Abu, 76. Interestingly, when they go and pray at the site, they say Muslim prayers.

But that is no comfort for the community members. A couple of years ago, a mob of 500 attacked the house, when the elderly couple was away and demolished the structure. Abu and Asiya filed a police case, even as they went about rebuilding the temple.

However, soon after, when Abu went for the Friday prayers at the local mosque, the imam mocked his faith and the way he wore his skull cap. “I stopped going at once,” he says. “It has been a very difficult time.”

On a recent windy and cloudy morning, Abu and Asiya go to the back of the house. They light lamps and place it on a granite top. All around are 30-foot high trees. “When I pray, I can see a light streaming down,” says Asiya. “Only I can see it. So, it is a deeply spiritual experience for me. We will never leave this holy place.”

Asiya says this, despite receiving some tempting offers by affluent locals who said that they would purchase them an apartment. This resistance is all the more remarkable because the family is going through financial difficulties. Mujeeb had taken a bank loan to set up a flour mill near the temple. But because of the disturbances, the mill has closed down. “Now I am struggling to pay off the debt,” says Mujeeb, who runs a taxi service.

For a long time, Abu and Mujeeb did not go to the mosque. But a few months ago, Abu started going again. “By this time, our names had been struck off as members,” he says. “So we don't get any financial benefits. But nobody speaks about the controversy.”
Nevertheless, Abu senses a change in attitude. “I believe that people have begun to accept the reasons behind our worship at the temple, although nobody has voiced anything aloud,” he says.

But local municipal councillor Imbichi Koya is not sure. “The people in the area do not have any contact with them,” he says. “It does not mean they have accepted the situation. But there is no harassment now.”

However, Abu says, that their immediate neighbours, who happen to be his close relatives, have not eased up. “Every now and then stones are thrown at the house,” says Abu. “People shout abuse. They want us to leave so that they can demolish the temple. But God has given us the strength to stay firm.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

A Joyous Moment. Rare too

The circumcision of a Jewish baby took place at Kochi after seven-and-a-half years. The community is only twenty strong now

Photo:  Mordokkayi Safir holding his baby son as he listens to prayers said by rabbi Avive Mizrakhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8.30 a.m., last Sunday, around twenty people of the Jewish community gathered at a hall on Marine Drive, Kochi for a ceremony. And it was the rarest one: the circumcision of a baby boy, Menahem Yohan Pallivathukkal. He is the second son of senior marketing professional Mordokkayi Safir and his wife Sarah.

A Jewish rabbi Avive Mizrakhi from Jerusalem officiated as the mohel (the person who performs the circumcision). As Safir, who wore a kippah cap, held Yohan, encased in a blue blanket, in his arms, Avive read out prayers from the Torah.

Following the half-hour ceremony, Safir and Sarah, as well as their relatives, went to the City Hospital. There, following the administration of a numbing cream, the foreskin of Yohan's penis was cut by doctors. It was now that Yohan had officially become a Jew.

This event took place on the eighth day after the birth. “The reason why it is on this day, is because a verse in the Torah commands us to do so,” says Josephai Abraham (Sam), the president of the Association of Kochi Jews. The verse goes like this: 'And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised'.

Meanwhile, Safir's joy was tempered by the fact that both his parents had passed away a few years ago. “To be frank, I was not keen to go through with the circumcision because of the pain my son would have to undergo,” he says. “But it was Sarah's insistence that Yohan should be a Jew that made me go through with it.”

The couple returned to the hall at Marine Drive. They were greeted with loud claps and cheers. “It is a moment of great happiness when a baby becomes a Jew,” says Sam. “There are so few of us in the city now.” It was at this moment that Safir put a drop of grape wine in Yohan's mouth (this is symbolic of the blood which the Jews shed when they left Egypt and entered Israel after wandering 40 years in the desert).

Meanwhile, drinks flowed and snacks were consumed. Several Hebrew songs were sung loudly. And everybody had a good time.

Interestingly, the last circumcision that took place in Kerala was of Safir's eldest son, Menahim Ryan. “That was seven-and-a-half years ago,” he says, with a smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)