Eating with Your Hands
This is not only permissible, it’s expected. If you are eating any form of flat bread, that’s your spoon—tear small pieces, fold them slightly, and scoop up whatever else you’re eating. If you’re eating rice, first you moosh it up with whatever else you’re eating, then make a sort of spoon out of your fingers—right hand, straight fingers, thumb on top to kind of push the food into your mouth. Apparently, the amount of hand involvement in the mooshing stage is particular to different communities, ranging from delicate ends-of-the-fingers-only to food-past-the-wrist. Most restaurants have communal sinks to wash off; good restaurants bring you a bowl of water with a piece of citrus fruit in it and a towel.
It’s a very satisfying way to eat. You really get the full experience of your food.
The McDonalds of South Indian food
Since it's unlikely that McDonalds, Burger King, or the like could ever do well in predominantly vegetarian south India, the closest thing you will find is Komala's, an American-style fast food joint serving up nothing but traditional vegetarian south Indian fare (with the exception of veggie burgers with fries). But don't let the fast food look turn you off, because the food is actually quite good with authentic south Indian flavor.
Though actually established in Singapore (which has a large south Indian population), Komala's has adopted the American fast food franchise model, and is planning an aggressive expansion throughout the world. We visited their branch in Chennai for a quick lunch and found it to be clean, cheap, and tasty, exactly like the one in Singapore. This is probably the only fast food franchise on earth that I hope continues to grow. Komala's most popular dish (as evident by their mascot) is the dosa, a paper thin crepe made from rice and lentil flour. They also have many of the most common Tamil dishes such as chapati, idly, thalis, poori, etc.
Government Museum - Natural History & Zoology
The Natural History and Zoology section is located in the Main Building behind the Front Building. Galleries here include: General Zoology, Flight in Animals, Foreign Animals, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Coral, Invertebrates and Fish. There's also botany and geology sections.
Open: 9.30am-5pm. Admission: Rs250 for foreigners & Rs200 for camera.
Chennai, a City That Grows on You...
"A Darn Good Blend"
Chennai is not the perfect city. It is not the most beautiful city. It is not even a very clean city. It is very hot most time of the year. Hot and humid. But hey, Chennai grows on you. It was my home for about 12 years.
The most interesting thing about Chennai to me is, it is a darn good blend of the traditional and the modern (or the post-modern for those of you who prefer it). It can offer a niche to very many different groups of people. And one can sort of move between different groups seamlessly. However, it tends to be a bit tough till you find your niche spot(s).
(Revisiting this page in dread of Hottest, 2009 – originally posted after Hottest, 2007.)
For those not familiar with it, the south Indian season of hottest is about 4 weeks around May when the sun is white-hot overhead, and it feels like you’re breathing through a boiling sponge. Night is no better. The Tamil calendar calls it the “days of fire,” and there’s a widely-practiced tradition of newlyweds sleeping apart for a month in the fall that directly corresponds to fewer babies born during this time. It’s that hot.
I’m more or less from New England, so for hottest I’m condemned to air-conditioning. My (overly-air-conditioned) office is dandy during the workweek, but there isn’t much to do at my temporary (and less completely air-conditioned) apartment, and I hate being confined even with things to do. So I went mad for a little while. It seemed best at the time.
I stumbled out of that madness straight into the joy and total abandon that is the Bollywood masala movie. The teary melodrama, the dancing for no discernable reason, the cartoon-ish action, the black-and-white and inevitable triumph of virtue over vice, and, more than anything, the exuberance – I’ve developed a love of it all. And kind of a crush on Shahrukh Khan. (Yeah, yeah – go watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and tell me that you don’t have a crush on him too.) I get such a kick out of these movies I’ve started to learn Hindi. And I’ve found that if there’s air-conditioning you can dance along with abandon at any time of year.
"How to watch a masala movie"
Of course I had to start recommending these movies to everyone, but quickly ran into a problem: they weren’t getting it. We came up with some guidelines for watching them, which I hope will help the rest of you get started.
1. Suspend your disbelief at least an hour before viewing.
2. Prepare yourself for a long sit – a three-hour movie is short.
3. Watch it with other people, preferably a group of people with the same level of knowledge of the language. “None” is fine, and is in many cases best.
If you find yourself confused or lost during the movie, here are some tips:
• You’re over-thinking it. Stop it. Now check the clues below to re-orient yourself and just let it be what it is.
• The hero is the handsome, virtuous, modest(-ish, maybe), and hard-working one.
• The villain is the one drinking, gambling, stealing, or being generally disrespectful of elders. He may or may not also be shooting people.
• The hero might start out doing villain-y things, but if so he learns the error of his ways over the course of the film.
• The heroine is the prettiest girl spending her screen time playing hard to get.
• A temptress is the prettiest girl spending her screen time NOT playing hard to get.
• The heroine will never start out doing temptress-y things, but a temptress will probably learn the error of her ways.
• Provided the temptress is human. The temptress can also be money, fame, fortune, etc., in which case see the point above about the hero learning the error of his ways.
The following notes don’t apply to non-masala movies (characterized by fewer songs or the hero/heroine dying)(often both), of which there are many, and many very good ones – but for the vast majority of what Indian cinema churns out:
• There is no mystery to the plot. The hero wins. The villain loses. The hero ends up with the heroine, and it takes at least five song and dance numbers to get there.
• The lovelorn best friend ends up happy and/or married (comedy) or dead (tragedy), but there’s no need for you to be sad either way because it was all meant to be.
• Comedic subplots may have no connection with the main story. If a connection isn’t obvious, don’t go looking.
• The point is escapism – watch the movie accordingly.
A few recommendations, in no particular order. I’ll add as I see good ones.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
Actually this one is in order. If you see only one Indian movie in your life it should probably be this one. It has absolutely everything an Indian movie should have, and it is touching, funny, charming, and accessible to everyone, even if you can’t get the subtitles to work. Masala movie.
Of course you won’t be seeing only one Indian movie in your life because there are too many good ones, so now, in no particular order (really):
Yes, it’s about cricket and taxes, yes, it’s a period piece, yes, there are song and dance numbers, and Lord yes, it’s almost four hours long, but you won’t care – it is excellent in every way and you will be better for having seen it.
An interpretation of Othello, and a very good one. Not a masala movie (thank goodness).
Rang De Basanti
Not sure that “like” is the correct word, but this is a compelling movie; it’s unlike most of what’s out there, and it’s very well done.
Main Hoon Na
I love this movie. It’s self-aware and very funny. My not-Indian mum and dad called at intermission, actually choking on laughter. Ultra-masala movie.
Kal Ho Naa Ho
I love/hate this movie. Let me explain. I hate emotional manipulation. This movie is about emotional manipulation, it uses emotional manipulation, and you can see the emotional manipulation coming from miles off. And it still made me cry. It’s lovely, and I am not a sap, damn it. Masala movie for the NRI set.
Interesting story, interesting construction, excellent performances. The first part leads up to the central event from three radically different perspectives; the second part carries forward with those three paths intertwined. If Abhishek Bachchan’s stone cold thug doesn’t freak you out you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. Only a masala movie because it had to be so people would watch.
Taare Zameen Par
Didactic, but moving, and beautiful to look at besides. Ostensibly the topic is dyslexia (learning disabilities are generally not acknowledged or accommodated in India), but beyond that it’s about nurturing children who don’t fit into their parents’ expectations, and nurturing those who don’t fit into society’s expectations. So, pretty much everyone needs to see it.
If you look into these you’ll find that most of them star either Shahrukh Khan or Aamir Khan, and there’s a reason for it. I got my first recommendations from a group of colleagues who, unbeknownst to me, were ardent fans of Shahrukh Khan. I just figured he was in everything ever made (and he is, kind of – he’s also a spokesperson for a huge number of brands in India, so he’s on billboards, in magazines, and on TV all the time). On finding out my skewed viewing, another set of colleagues raised hue and cry, “no no you must see these instead, much better,” so I ended up with a list of movies all starring Aamir Kahn. It seems fans of the one can’t stand the other, and vice versa. I don’t know. I’ve seen as many movies starring each of them that I’ve liked. And maybe I’ll do a “life’s too short” list sometime – they’ll be equally represented there too.
For cinephiles, here are Zulm.net’s choices for all time best Indian movies.
Just because I'm adoring Shahrukh today, here’s the famous dancing-on-a-moving-train item number. (From Dil Se, which is beautiful, disturbing, and not a typical masala movie.)