Month: May 2017

In conversation with Itchy Feet Comic creator Malachi Ray Rempen

In conversation with Itchy Feet Comic creator Malachi Ray Rempen

Malachi Ray Rempen

I have always loved comics and comic strips and the post-internet era has created a wonderful platform for the webcomic.

I have many favourite webcomics like XKCD or The Oatmeal and the number is increasing everyday. One of these is the Itchy Feet Comic created by Malachi Ray Rempen.

Itchy Feet Comic deals with two very specific areas : language learning and travelling. One of the things I love about Itchy Feet Comic are the minute observations on the experiences that are so universal that you cannot help but say “That is so true!” For instance, here is one of my favourites, about how airlines decide their ticket prices.

Itchy Feet Comic
Reproduced with permission from Malachi Ray Rempen.

I was curious about various aspects of Itchy Feet Comic and Malachi was very kind to answer some questions. Here is our conversation.

Raj :  ItchyFeetComic has a very specialized field – language learning and travel. How did this come about?
Malachi : When I moved to France in 2011, I wanted to somehow record my experiences as a foreigner learning languages and traveling, but I didn’t want to write a blog or journal, so I made a comic. I do a lot of traveling so I figured I’d have lots of material…and I was right!
Raj : How many languages do you speak? Which approach or learning method do you use when you learn a new language?
Malachi : I speak German and Italian pretty well, French pretty not well, and Spanish very unwell. The only sure-fire method I’ve learned is complete immersion. It’s definitely the most expensive and time-consuming method, but it gets results.
Raj : Post-internet era has seen a steep rise in web-comics where you can connect directly with your readers. It has also gives rise to some comics that can be called quite specialized like the PHDComics. What are your thoughts on this?
Malachi : I’m not sure what PHDComics are, but I love that the internet has allowed people to enjoy my comic, which otherwise would just be photocopied and circulated among friends and family, I suppose. All hail the internet.
Raj : I think the Peanuts comic strip on “Kilroy was here” is as deep and poignant as any of the masterpieces on WWII. I always feel that comic strips do not get the critical attention that they deserve. Where do you see the place of comic strips in arts?
Malachi : I think comics are an integral part of the arts, and I’d say recently they’re getting the attention they deserve. The generation of people that were kids when the first superhero comic books came out are now much older, and have influenced several generations of new artists and audiences to appreciate graphic arts.
Raj : How do you create humor? Exaggeration is one of the elements that’s obvious. Or do you go more by instinct?
Malachi : Exaggeration is certainly one of the elements of humor, but I think another is the one-two-three method. Basically, you make a statement, you repeat the statement, then you invert the statement. My recent comic about Italian meals is a good example of this technique, though a lot of my comics follow that formula.
Raj : Could you tell us a little bit about your other projects?
Malachi : I’ve got lots of other projects! Chief on my creative mind right now is the Merry Mariner, a kids adventure book series I’m writing and illustrating. You can already read some short stories (with lots of fun drawings) on the site. I’m working on the first book now. Another project that I think Itchy Feet fans – and anyone who likes travel – can get excited about is an Itchy Feet-themed card game. I’ve been working with a game designer in Canada, and we’re nearly ready. I’ve just printed the prototype and it looks fantastic. It’s also really fun to play. Keep an eye out for our Kickstarter campaign coming soon!
Many thanks to Malachi for interesting conversation.
How to Handle Today’s Turbulent Politics

How to Handle Today’s Turbulent Politics

Indian parliament
Indian Parliament © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

When I was growing up, I did not have any political heroes. Gandhi, Nehru were long gone and the politicians who were around were ordinary at best. The best I could hope for, along with millions of fellow Indians, was that they should ease up on corruption and maybe do some good for the country for a change. This state of affairs continued and soon I gave up on the fact that India could produce a capable leader.

Politicians are a different breed altogether. First, their primary goal is to get into power and then stay there as long as possible. Second, what they say and what they usually do differs vastly. The difference depends on each politician. So you should never judge a politician by what she says but you should always judge her by what she does. Selecting one politician over another is always like choosing headache over ankle sprain. To be fair, some of them do good work as well but they are few and far between. Most often it’s a trade-off between good work and disasters. Nehru did great work in establishing the science and technology infrastructure but he failed while dealing with Kashmir and China. Indira Gandhi was remarkable during the Bangladesh war but that was forgotten by the dark days that were to follow. Rajiv Gandhi was instrumental in the digital revolution but he miscalculated badly in case of Sri Lanka. I could go on but suffice to say that if you ever find a politician doing good work, that would be more than compensated by her bad decisions.

So, which party do I support at present in India?
Ans : None. I hate them all with a relish.

Ans : Why not? Let us take them one by one. Is there anything worth saying about present Congress party? They are still clinging to the tradition of Gandhi dynasty. AAP started promisingly but they got too ambitious too fast. Maybe in 10 years they may amount to something. As for the BJP, I am of the opinion that religion should be a private matter and it should be kept as far from politics as possible. I can never agree to the extremism of this party.

Now this may seem like an escapist route but I assure you it is not. In fact, I would propose that this point of view allows me much greater freedom than the die hard supporters of any party. Why is that? Because now I can dispassionately examine their actions and praise or criticise as the case may be. For instance, I fully support the Clean India initiative of the present government. I can also say that since Modi government has come into power, our foreign relations have improved considerably.

This approach also allows me to judge each politician individually, irrespective of the party. In the present government, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Sushma Swaraj has done such wonderful work that one cannot but help admire it. What was the last time you saw a politician using Twitter to actually help people? Since she became minister, Ms Swaraj has helped countless Indians stranded in foreign countries. This is a rare instance where citizens can just tweet their problems to her and she tags the necessary offices and takes immediate action. Few months back, she has a kidney transplant and now she is back working relentlessly. It is rare to see politicians working so hard for people and I have nothing but admiration for her.

Did you see what just happened? I am able to appreciate a politician based just on her work. I can do this because I am not married to any party. Most die hard supporters do two things. They refuse to acknowledge any accomplishments of the opposite party and they are blind to any mistakes of their own party. So congress supporters refuse to acknowledge the emergency era while BJP supporters are blind to the extreme communal violence instigated by the party leaders.

Also, the fact that I admire the work Ms Swaraj is doing does not mean I support her unconditionally. In a democracy, unconditional support to any party or leader spells disaster. You have to examine each issue and decide your support on a case-by-case basis.

Eminent jurist Nani Palkhiwala, who was one of the strong opponents of laws abusing fundamental rights during the emergency era, said in a speech at the time, “It is easier to throw off a foreign tyranny than the tyranny of your own elected representatives…the price which you pay for being a citizen of a democracy is eternal vigilance…you don’t inherit [freedom] in the bloodstream. You have to fight for it, cherish it, preserve it all the time otherwise it just vanishes”. The full speech is worth a listen.

This vigilance is called for today while dealing with the Aadhaar law. We have to look beyond parties and keep in mind that the law will be used by all future governments. This reminds me of a quote by Chris Rock (and I am paraphrasing because I cannot find the original quote). What he said was you do not assume a position – left, right, centre etc. beforehand. Instead, you look at the issue and its consequences and you take a position that makes most sense to you, irrespective of which party it aligns with.

Democracy is far from perfect but it is the best choice we have. I would not be able to write this if I were a citizen of Russia, China or North Korea.

The Apples and Oranges in Film Awards

The Apples and Oranges in Film Awards

Images credit : Pixabay

The kerfuffle on social media after Akshay Kumar received the National Award for best actor has died its natural death by now. More interesting were the vicious reactions criticizing Akshay Kumar, even by seasoned critics, which beg the question :

Dear critics, how do you define good acting and what, according to you, makes a good movie? Please give a clear and direct answer. Don’t hide behind buzzwords like “Acting should transcend the technique so as to bring out the ethereal beauty of meaninglessness of existence”. I could write a book full of such phrases and it would still mean zilch. Tell me in practical terms how you identify good actors.

I like Akshay Kumar. He is a very good actor. And I will tell you exactly why I think so. It’s subjective, but then so is every opinion on art in general and movies in particular. In fact, when you read a movie review, you should always imagine the author saying “in my opinion” before every sentence. No one has the final word on art.

One of my most important criteria for good acting is language, diction and accent. I cannot believe in a character that has a false or wrong accent. I loved Akshay Kumar’s Punjabi diction in Singh is Kinng, along with the amazing Om Puri. Agreed, it’s easier for Akshay because he is a Punjabi but the language added so much charm to the character. In contrast, in Airlift, he speaks Arabic in the beginning and his Hindi is broken and not fluent. This single aspect brings out the crisis of being away from your homeland for years, trying to merge with the locals but still feeling rootless.

You might think that I am making too much of a small thing. After all, diction is just one part of the acting repertoire. You will be surprised as to how many Bollywood actors have ignored this and consequently ruined the movie for me. In Bazaar, Smita Patil plays Najma who is from Hyderabad. No trace of the famous Hyderabadi accent is to be found anywhere in her dialogues. It’s strange to see her speaking Hindi during intense scenes with Farooq Sheikh who speaks amazing Hyderabadi. Here is a character who is born and brought up in Hyderabad. Even if we assume that she speaks Hindi when in Mumbai, who speaks in a foreign tongue with friends and family? This is like those old Hollywood WWII movies where the German officers speak English even when talking to each other. That’s why I liked The Longest Day, where every European character spoke his or her own language.

The failure of Baazar is on the script and directorial level. And these are supposed to be ultra realistic movies raising important social issues. This shows that art movies can also be sloppy. An off-beat topic with non-commercial treatment does not, ipso facto, make a good movie. On the other hand, good accent makes the character come alive on the screen. Some great examples of diction are : Naseeruddin Shah in all movies where the character speaks a different dialect, Amitabh Bachchan in Don, Shabana Azami in Pestanji, Aamir Khan in Dangal and Mehmood in Gumnaam.

Akshay Kumar has had a very interesting career. Excluding the Khans, the only actor from his era still going strong is Ajay Devgan. These two actors have constantly reinvented themselves. Starting from a regular Bollywood hero doing song, dance and fighting, Akshay has always ventured into new areas. His flair for comedy roles is impeccable but again this does not register high on the critics radar because comedy itself is not taken very seriously. With movies like Jolly LLB II or Airlift, Akshay has further consolidated his flexibility in doing different roles.

The criticism drives home an important point. No matter how good you are in commercial movies, that is rarely considered as good acting because song and dance movies are considered inherently inferior to the so-called serious experimental cinema. The perception that great art has to be confusing and incomprehensible still persists.

Good acting should not be dependent on the genre of the cinema.

Another mistaken belief is commercial movies are easy to make. I read recently about Ranbir Kapoor doing biopic on Sanjay Dutt. He has to start makeup at 3.00 am in the morning for four to five hours followed by 10 to 12 hours of shooting. The critics will pass a snap judgement when the movie is released. I wonder how many of them will work at least half as hard while writing their reviews.

Deciding if one movie is better than another is highly subjective. It’s a classic case of apples and oranges. The main point of awards is to appreciate good work. Good to see Akshay Kumar getting the recognition he deserves.