hypnotic fish

Fiction Vs Nonfiction – an unending face-off

There have been many arguments and debates within literary circles about the bragging rights when it comes to fiction and nonfiction writing. If you are expecting an end to that debate, then you need to wise up and realize one simple truth – these arguments do not end. The closest one could possibly get to the ‘absolute truth’ is accepting that it does not exist. In the literary sense, fiction and nonfiction are obviously opposing genres but modern literature has also shown that the lines separating them have often been blurred. Apparent oxymoron terms such as ‘creative nonfiction’ and ‘nonfiction novel’ are liberally used in the writing and publishing world.



Both can be appreciated – The main reason I will steer clear of a debate pitying fiction and nonfiction against each other is that, as a reader, I have come to enjoy both styles in their own ways. Growing up, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens was of equal intrigue as Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. The reason could be that I am a fan of history. While the former was a fictional story of love and sacrifice with the backdrop of the actual French Revolution, the latter was a monumental piece in zoology and genetics written at a historical period when writing something such as this was not only full of risk but also potentially life threatening. Parallel to history based material, contemporary readers who are into, say, science might enjoy the essays of Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Hawking with as much zeal as they would while reading works like ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K Dick or the ‘Cthulhu’ series by H P Lovecraft.

The creative lee-ways – The point I am really trying to enforce is that instead of beating the dead horse of a debate between fiction and nonfiction, it would be far more interesting, enriching and exciting to discuss the relevance of both genres in an avid reader’s bookshelf. The thing is, it eventually boils down to a combination of personal choice and the quality of writing. The content needs to be good and this is the only thing that should actually count. This however does not mean that a well written lie that claims to be the truth qualifies as good nonfiction. Renowned author, Salman Rushdie, while giving a talk at Emory University, said that it is okay to fill up the forgotten bits in a factual narrative with the creative as long as it is done so to support the truth. For example, if someone were to write his own memoir where he wants to talk about his relationship with his father, it would be impossible for him to always accurately quote words from his childhood. To convey what he wants to tell his readers, he might take some creative liberties to fill up the quotes, but he should do so only to explain what the relationship is like, which would be the truth. Readers today are intelligent enough to understand this. When a writer admits to using such methods without claiming absolute facts, gradually a trust builds up between him and his readers.

Conversely, intelligent readers can also see through the deception when nonfiction material is decked up with too many inaccuracies just because the writer wants to create an ‘exciting piece’. They aren’t fooling anyone, except maybe the ones who want to get fooled.


Salman Rushdie


Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

Influence of New Journalism – Leaving the debate aside, one could also try to better understand fiction and nonfiction writing from a relatively academic perspective. If you are trying to be a good fiction writer, you would need to ask yourself a lot of questions – what story are I writing? Whose story is it? Why am I writing this? And finally, how will I write it? In fiction, these questions need to be answered before putting pen to paper. But, in nonfiction, the story or the incident has already happened. This rules out the ‘what’ and the ‘who’. The ‘why’ can also be sidelined because it is generally an accepted notion that the purpose of nonfiction is largely a journalistic urge to tell people something that has already taken place. So, all that remains is the ‘how’. In the sixties, the journalist Hunter S Thompson wrote his nonfiction novel ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs’. The title is pretty much self-explanatory. However, unlike most nonfiction works before it, his account of the lives of the motorcycle riders took a novelistic approach and yet all he wrote was pure fact. This new journalism, also carried on by writers like Tom Wolfe, Cameron Crowe and even Arundhati Roy, clearly blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction without giving up an inch of authenticity. That is good writing.

To conclude this, all that needs to be said is that we, as readers and writers, should be capable of accepting both styles as equally important in their own rights and also understand that at times, it is okay to mix them up for the sake of good reading or storytelling. Just remember – it does not matter if the character you are writing about actually exists or not; if you do not make it come alive on paper, you are doing it wrong.


Punch – The Life and Legacy of a New York Times Legend

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” – George Orwell.

There have been few people in this world, especially influential around the last century, who defied the odds and worked to ensure that freedom, in its truest sense, not like being out of school every evening, is a right that everyone deserves. In the contemporary world, names like Julian Assange might ring a few bells in this regard. And we all know how he is being treated by the powers that be. The twentieth century was truly the greatest one for the press. The things the world knows now and perhaps takes for granted were mostly due to the work put in by dedicated researchers and journalists who believed that reporting efficiently on things that the men in power wanted to stay hidden, was one way to get the truth out. That was a time when truth in reporting was valued more than gossip columns and tabloids. That was a time when Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was the publisher of the New York Times.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger passed away on September 29th.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger in 1973

The death of Sulzberger senior or “Punch” as he was fondly called was not shocking – he had been ill for a long time. But, perhaps his passing was a sign that the golden age of journalism and newspaper publishing has almost ended.

Steering a sinking Ship –
What one should also remember about Sulzberger, without falling for the typical stereotypes associated with his religion, is that he was an exceptional businessman as well. When Sulzberger took over as the publisher of the Times in 1963, the newspaper was respected and was taken very seriously by Americans. In fact, if there was one newspaper that was pushing forward the American agenda, it was the New York Times. However, the financial situation of the Times group was not as healthy as the content and this was greatly disconcerting for the investors. Sulzberger was the man of the moment after taking over the publishing duties as he decided to make the newspaper more interesting without compromising on the whole serious quotient.  His idea was simple and yet the move was considered maverick in nature. Under his leadership, the Times started adding weekday supplements catered to certain genres on certain days.

Being a pioneer – 

By doing so, the Times newspaper not only increased its readership especially amongst women at that time, but it also attracted companies that were hungry for advertisement spaces in the print media. Killing two birds with one stone is a cliché that perfectly fits Sulzberger’s decision but it’s not a cliché if you consider how he did it at a time when no one else even thought of doing it. That is a true pioneer any day.

Understanding Money –
Unlike a lot of other newspaper-men of that time, Sulzberger believed that one of the best ways of running a successful newspaper company was to ensure that the copies sold and one way to do so was to make the news interesting and target even non-serious readers without alienating the serious ones. The Times was one of the first dailies to have region specific editions, national editions and to make the news visually more appealing, Sulzberger also encouraged the use of coloured photos wherever it looked appropriate. Not only did he know how to publish news, but he also showed the world how one could sell it by packaging it well. The reason the New York Times has become synonymous like any other brand, is arguably the vision Sulzberger had for the company.

NY Times – June 13, 1971


Taking on ‘the Man’ –
If you have lived under the Lyndon Johnson administration, you would know how difficult it was to speak out against the state. Sulzberger went against all kinds of “friendly advice” and published what is now famous as the “Pentagon Papers” – a series of write ups that discerningly exposed the lies the Johnson administration had fed the people of the United States to increase troop deployment in the infamous Vietnam War. These papers were first published in the New York Times and made available to the public in 1971. The parallels with WikiLeaks are really uncanny, but then again, this was 1971. It brought about a large scale anti-war sentiment and if the administration wanted, they could have easily arrested Sulzberger by claiming that these write ups caused “disturbance of peace” all over the country. The irony in that would have been tragic but thankfully, truth triumphed and soon, Johnson was forced to withdraw from re-election.

Legacy left behind –
After the Pentagon Papers, the world got to know the true power of the press and how positive and effective journalism could turn public sentiment. Once Johnson left office and Nixon took up the mantle of the President, it was this sense of expose type of reporting that led to the infamous Watergate scandal – a victory for whistleblowers. Also, the fact that both the New York Times and the Washington Post won their arguments in the Supreme Court against the government which tried to get the courts to issue restraining orders, paved the way for future legal proceedings where the state and the free press collided. The world of journalism produced many great names but what we need to remember is that no journalist would be known for his brave reporting if it were not for some equally brave publisher like Sulzberger. The world could surely use more publishers like him.


Ashton Kutcher – the Right Man for “Jobs”?

as Michael Kelso in ‘That 70’s Show’

A biopic has always been a very sought after genre for most actors trying to make it big in Hollywood, or any other film industry for that matter. The challenge of playing someone who has already existed or still exists is a whole different ball game for actors. Here, they cannot simply imagine the persona and spin a role. They need to follow the nuances of the real person and try their best to bring them forward onto the screen. Not all of them achieve success in the biopic but those who do, are known for those roles for a long, long time. If there are any doubts to that claim, just ask Jamie Foxx, who played Ray Charles, Robert Downey Jr., who played Charlie Chaplin, Sean Penn, who immortalised Harvey Milk or Meryl Streep, who gave a whole new angle to Maggie Thatcher.

One of the biggest challenges of making a biopic is the primary casting. The producers need to cast someone as the lead who not only acts well but someone who can look the part as well. That could be one of the main reasons for casting Ashton Kutcher to play Steve Jobs in Joshua Michael Stern’s “Jobs”. Kutcher, who is mainly known for comic roles like Michael Kelso in That 70’s Show, is perhaps one actor who resembles a young Steve Jobs the most. So that’s one thing taken care of – but what now? Has Ashton Kutcher proved himself worthy as an actor who deserves a shot at one of the most envious biopics ever?

To be fair to Kutcher, the bloke has never been given a role where he could play something other than just the cute, funny, silly, pretty boy next door. His career took off with That 70’s Show where he was part of an ensemble cast. The movie roles that followed tried to capitalize on his pretty boy image. A string of romantic comedies like Dude, Where’s My Car? and Just Married followed. He also tried his hand at a romance-drama in A Lot Like Love which did win him a lot many female fans but it hardly got him noticed as an actor’s actor. What’s interesting to know is, Steve Jobs’ character will not be Ashton’s first attempt at playing a real person. In the romantic comedy Down to You, Kutcher plays a, for lack of a better word, highly forgettable Jim Morrison (of all people).  But it’s like the critics didn’t notice him. After all, comedy is one of the most difficult genres to pull off.

As Jim Morrison with Julia Stiles in ‘Down to You’

Has Kutcher experimented enough as an actor? Well, not everyone would be ballsy enough to take on a script like The Butterfly Effect, which dealt with serious issues like death, pain and even chaos theory while maintaining one of the most unique storylines you’ll ever come across. Ashton Kutcher, for a change, had to hide the ‘funny’ and show more of the vulnerable side actors need to carry around. The movie was critically panned although it was a commercial success. The important thing is it proved that Ashton Kutcher could act.

Coming back to the challenge of tackling a project like ‘Jobs’, we need to concede that Steve Jobs himself was an amalgam of characteristics. He was a free bird in college, an artist with a very clear vision, a rebel who did not want to conform – and all of this before Apple happened. A look at Jobs’ life will also reveal a darker side – his constant pang of knowing he was adopted, his fierce Tesla-Edison-ish rivalry with Bill Gates in the 80’s, his handling of employees in the wee days of Apple – they all combine to paint a very yin-yan picture of the person. Come to think of it, the entire life of Steve Jobs is a dream audition tape for any talented actor. Ashton Kutcher will definitely have his hands full when immersing himself into this project.

The latest news is that Kutcher has been seen in parts of New Dehi in India where he’s already shooting for the movie. The pictures released online show an unshaven Kutcher walking along a crowded Old Delhi lane. The very fact that someone from LA would try to survive the maze that is Old Delhi and that too in this humid weather, is a reflection of Ashton Kutcher’s dedication. He is a hard working guy, we’ll give him that.

A young Steve Jobs

Ashton Kutcher in Old Delhi

The bottom line, if you ask me, is that Ashton Kutcher hasn’t really had a real chance to show his acting prowess and hence one cannot judge his decision to play Steve Jobs. But, considering he knows what it means to be under public scrutiny (he’s the first Hollywood celebrity to have more than a million followers on Twitter), what it means to stand up for charitable causes and stick to them (he still fights the evils of underage prostitution in US) and what it means to be highly rich and successful (his show “Punked!” made him a whole lot of money), one can safely say that in his own way, he already knows what it means to be Steve Jobs – he just needs to portray it on the big screen.

Pages or the Screen?

What if the Lord of the Rings was never made into a trilogy? What if the Harry Potter series never saw a screen audience? If you are one of the many who consider these movies milestones in filmmaking, then you might also agree that these were great books too. Movies made from books, novels and short stories are nothing new. The Academy Awards have been around since 1929 and since then ‘Best Movie Adaption’ has been one of the most coveted categories to be in. Some of the classics in the movie world have been adapted from books and novels, the best examples being Casablanca, The Godfather trilogy, Brokeback Mountain, No Country for Old Men, Gone with the Wind, Mutiny on the Bounty, etc.

So is it easier to turn a book into a movie because the story is already there on paper? That is not always the case because a lot of factors decide whether a good book will be a good film or not. A book has the luxury to go into great depths about the characters in it, the plot it paints through words but a movie can be a bit restrictive due to the time constraints and the production budget. This is when a good screenplay writer, a skilled director and a clever producer form a deadly combo that helps the movie sail through an ocean where a lot of others have sunk (some critics are still embarrassed about discussing adaptations that have bombed, like the first and only film from the Inheritance Trilogy by Christopher Paolini or the really mediocre rendition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams).

The story in a book or novel can be shown from any angle and the reader can use his own imagination to complete the picture inside his head. A movie adaptation is just one person’s view of how he or she perceives the story he has read. This is perhaps why a lot of bibliophiles often shun the idea of movies being made into films. For most of them, a movie spoils the imaginary world they had created inside their heads. Is it self-preservation? Who knows? But filmmakers are storytellers just like the writers that come up with these brilliant books. The difference is that they are telling someone else’s story. Honestly, it’s not such a bad idea because sometimes the way a story is told can make it go either way in the readers’ or audience’s judgement scale.

What many people, who criticize adapted screenplays, often forget is that the filmmakers are also fans of the book, just like the other readers. Francis Ford Coppola would have never made The Godfather if he did not like Mario Puzo’s work. The movie actually adds to the flavour of the book by painting a whole new picture for the audience who has already loved the book. Would anyone have imagined Vito Corleone as a heavy voiced Marlon Brando when reading the book? I seriously doubt that. Brando used cotton buds in his mouth to perfect the idea of Corleone he had and now the world knows that idea as the only one. This is the power of good movies.

Sometimes, a well made movie adaptation often ramps up the sale of the original novel which might not have been that widely circulated. A very recent example is Jason Reitman adapting the novel ‘Up in the Air’ which was written by Walter Kirn back in 2001. Not many people knew about the book before they saw George Clooney epitomize the role of Ryan Bingham as he flew around United States firing people from their jobs while collect a million frequent flyer miles. When Alexander Payne turned ‘Sideways’ into a film, critics and audiences applauded the transition. The lead actor Paul Giamatti almost won the Oscar for his hilarious portrayal of the unsuccessful writer travelling along California’s wine country with his friend. The examples of Brando, Clooney and Giamatti tell us one thing for sure – movie adaptations need actors who can bring new life into the characters they portray. Before Andy Serkis lent his voice and body mapping imagery to the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not many in the LOTR universe realised Gollum’s eyes and body language were as important as his speech.

Often directors and adapted screenplay writers have to make certain changes in the story they choose to make the plot more ‘reel friendly’. Such creative liberties have often been met with harsh criticism from the fans of the books. People often ask why Steven Spielberg left out the love affair between Cooper and Chief Brody’s wife in ‘Jaws’ or why the character of Tom Bombadil was entirely removed from the LOTR movie trilogy. They believe that taking such creative liberties is not fair to the writers and fans of the books. What they often forget is that it is the writers who sold the rights for movie adaptations and the fans always have the books to fall back on in case the movies do not impress them.

Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for his novel, Life of Pi. The story revolves around a boy who survives 227 days on a boat which he shares with a Bengal Tiger. The plot deals with human nature, how man perceives animals and also how one controls the animalistic urges within. There are a lot of sequences in the book which are straight out of pure fantasy. Now, in 2012, noted director, Ang Lee is about to release the movie adaptation for the Martel’s book. The trailer has been up for a couple of months now and the verdict on that is mostly positive. The visuals and the special effects have not gone unnoticed. The fans of the book have matured up to accept that the film adaptation deserves a shot at being watched before being judged. The movie releases this December and until then we wait. For now, all that can be said is, it’s a good thing the movie is being made now, now that the studios can combine a good story with the digital effects to make a show out of what started out as a few pieces of paper.

What Danny Boyle can bring to the London 2012 Opening Ceremony

When Lord Sebastian Coe placed his bid for the 2012 summer Olympics to be held in London, he pledged that the bid would include a legacy which would make about two million people in the country take up sports and other physical activities thanks to the infrastructure hosting the games would bring. This tells us a lot about the legacy of the Olympics in a first world country like the UK. In a society which is fully developed, in which people depend on technology for almost everything, it is perhaps high time that people take a step back and invest a part of themselves in encouraging physical activities.
pic – Lord Sebastian Coe

On a somewhat unrelated note, a country like a UK is also home to a lot of creative minds in the entertainment industry. It is hence not surprising that someone of the caliber of Danny Boyle has been hired as the art director for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony. For those who have been living under a rock, Danny Boyle is an English filmmaker, director and producer who has made a slew of top notch films like Trainspotting, The Beach, Sunshine, Shallow Grave and Slumdog Millionaire. The last one on that list also won him an Academy Award in the Best Director category and the movie went on to win eight Academy Awards in total.

The job Boyle has been hired to do is obviously very different from what he does usually but knowing his passion of going for challenging projects in the field of film-making, one can surely look forward to nothing short of an extravaganza in the opening ceremony. But the question a lot of people are asking is, can Boyle actually top the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony? Frankly, one cannot really compare different events on a sheer scale of magnitude. Let’s face it, it is not easy to make 2008 drummers congregate in a field and have them perform synchronized drumming. And it wouldn’t be wise either. Beijing 2008 opening ceremony was a celebration of the Chinese way of life which included the nation’s traditional music which explains all the drumming.


pic – 2008 drummers at Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony

So what is the English way of life? Apart from all the fish ‘n’ chips and the pub culture, at this moment in history, England stands for multiculturalism and changing views. It is a modern nation which gave us the world some of the best thinkers, musicians and entertainers. If we narrow down our field of view by small margin, we can also say that this country also gave the world some of the best DJs and electronic music ever. Now that explains Underworld – a British duo, formed by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith,  that is working with Boyle and overseeing the musical arrangements in the historic event. Those who have followed Boyle’s Trainspotting as true fans, know that Underworld had a big hand to play in that films original soundtrack. Every time one hears the track ‘Born Slippy‘, one thinks of Trainspotting, of Ewan McGregor as Renton, of the magic Danny Boyle creates in his movies through the music.

Coming back to the Danny Boyle and his team that is overseeing the London event on 27th of July, one could also ask – why Danny Boyle? Well, they could have picked any capable director and there would be a could reason for each one of them. In this case, I would say, here is one guy who knows how to keep the audience at the edge of their seat even in movies where the subject is not even remotely close to anyone watching  it. In Sunshine, Boyle managed to instil all kinds of emotions and fan reactions (mostly positive) while narrating a story about few people in outer space trying to re-ignite the sun. In Millions, he made audiences all over fall in love with a young boy who finds a bag full of cash in an otherwise uneventful town.

pic – Ewan McGregor as Renton in Trainspotting

But then again, Boyle also has the ability to dazzle the viewers. He has great visual ideas that somehow seem to click in the most unlikely places. A grim and dark movie about heroin junkies like Trainspotting  is known for its visual effects and camera work. The depiction of a decrepit slum in Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire got many positive nods from cinematography experts from all over. Also, Boyle is a filmmaker who never hesitates to use the latest technology to make his work not easier, but better. The revolutionary camerawork in Trainspotting  has had followers even today.

So what can Danny Boyle do for the opening ceremony in London 2012?

There’s only one way to know for sure and that is, watch the event as it airs in a few hours. There are people who have been part of the month long preparations leading up to the event and there are others who have seen parts of the event during the dress rehearsal. In an age of Twitter and Facebook, it would next to impossible to keep any secrets about such events. Danny Boyle has tried to make sure that no one leaks any info about the event. The performers who show up day in and day out for practice, are made to sign a contract under which they cannot reveal details of the event. The places where the performances are being practiced are well guarded to ensure that media people do not venture too close and reveal any details beforehand. In social media, Danny Boyle’s PR team is constantly telling the crowd who have seen parts of the event to “Save the Surprise”. So far, it seems to have worked and all that the people who have seen the rehearsals are saying is “be ready to be amazed.”

pic – Danny Boyle