The year of badass women in films

I’m tired of watching timid women in films, in whichever language they may be. I’m tired of them playing second fiddle to male protagonists, and I’m especially irritated with the stereotyped, hollow and misguided projections of “modern” women in Indian films (Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi, Sonakshi Sinha in Noor).

But 2017 has given me some hope. I’ve seen women kick bigtime ass in films, I’ve seen women who won’t take no for an answer, and I’ve seen women who won’t let others decide their destiny.

Like this one:

Gal Gadot playing Diana in Wonder Woman

And these:

Ramya Krishna playing Sivagami in Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali: The Conclusion

Anushka Shetty playing Devasena in Baahubali: The Conclusion

Taapsee Pannu playing Shabana in Naam Shabana

*Cue applause.*

And here is why I love them:

They fight. And how.

They fight, and not just physically. Not just by kicking or punching a villain, or by cutting off a perverted man’s hand. They fight society’s expectations, and they fight to save other’s lives. And, even better, they fight for themselves.

Naam Shabana fighting

I loved watching Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman taking down the bad guys, and Taapsee Pannu as Shabana extracting revenge. The immense satisfaction I got from seeing their toughness just blew me.

They are self-centred, but selfless and loving too.

Hurray for multidimensional women. They exist around the world, but very rarely on screen.

Whether it’s Diana (aka Wonder Woman) or Devasena from Baahubali: The Conclusion, they are clear about what they want- learn to fight, be a better archer, hunt down a kiiller. And they will do whatever they can to reach those goals.

Wonder Woman

But that doesn’t make them bitches.

Because they still care about people. They fight to protect their kingdom, to protect their country and to save humanity.

They have men in their lives.   

How many times have we girls heard the line, “Men don’t like women who are too ambitious or career-focused, so don’t be so driven”?

Sorry folks, but just because we like to do “unconventional” things doesn’t mean we can’t fall in love or have a man interested in us.

Thankfully, the men in these films are more in touch with their masculinity and like to see women fight. They cheer them on during a fighting match, and share their own skills with them (remember the three-arrow hold in Bahubali: The Conclusion?). And thank god for that.

Baahubali 2 archery

Because yes, there are such men in real life too and the world needs to see them. Not all men want their wives or girlfriends to be damsels in distress or be totally dependent on them.

But…

All these films have their flaws in their treatment of women characters, especially in their relationship with male protagonists (and that’s a blog post for another time).

Nevertheless it’s refreshing to see such wonderful roles for women in popular cinema in Bollywood and Hollywood. It’s even more awesome that audiences are watching and accepting these films.

Maybe the time will soon come when film makers won’t have to rely on big-ticket male actors to attract audiences, and have women do some REAL stuff on screen. Stuff that is mostly confined to men.

It’s too early to celebrate path-breaking female characters on the big screen. But there is some hope…

 

From hours to minutes: How I book the right hotel quickly

I remember the time I was planning a trip to Spain in 2011. Booking air tickets and drawing up a rough itinerary were the easy parts. Then I had to book my hotel rooms.

I agonized over dozens of hotels in Barcelona, Sevilla and Madrid. I looked at so many options across so many websites, so many blogs and so many travel portals that it took me days to decide the hotels. If I had spent as much time in preparing for my college exams, I would have aced them all.

Anyways, when I finally selected the hotels, I promised myself I would never spend so much time on figuring out hotels for my trip. Of course, hotels are a very important part of my visit to a new place. I want comfort, I want easy access to public transport and I want to be safe.

But spending days, or even hours on hunting hotels? Sheer waste of valuable time.

Wora Bura Resort Spa Hua Hin

(Wora Bura Resort & Spa in Hua Hin, Thailand)

For my next trip, I tried to be a bit more systematic. I cut down from several days to just a single day on hotel research. But that was still too long.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And when planning my holiday to Italy in December 2013, I was also planning my wedding (!) and so, I had very little time to ponder over hotels.

That’s when I hit upon my formula.

I’ve been following this method since almost four years now and it’s saved me a lot of time, stress and the end result has never been bad (touchwood).

Try it and tell me what you think.

Here’s how I do it.

Step 1: I decide on a budget

I break down the trip’s budget into all sorts of costs—from sightseeing to food. All are estimates, of course, but that works. After calculating all these costs, I arrive at a cost for my hotel stays.

Or sometimes, I just decide the amount of money I am willing to spend on a hotel room per night on that trip, such as $80 per night.

Time taken: 10-20 minutes.

Hotel Kempinski Nay Pyi Taw

(Hotel Kempinski, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar)

Step 2: I pick hotels for that given budget.

I enter the city and travel dates into a hotel booking website. The booking website is usually one I find reliable and trustworthy. My preferences are usually agoda.com or booking.com. Once I get the search results, I filter by my budget, and now, I have a (long) shortlist. This doesn’t take long and the list could be anywhere from five to 15 hotels.

Time taken: 10 minutes

Step 3: I look up shortlisted hotels.

If there are too many (long) listed hotels could be dime a dozen, so I also filter out the hotels by the number of stars or ratings. The top ones stay on the list, the bottom ones are eliminated. From this shorter shortlist, I am now ready to research hotels. I look up traveller review sites like Tripadvisor for each hotel, and I especially pay attention to the bad reviews to get a balanced view. I then cut down to three hotels.

Time taken: 15-20 minutes

Step 4: I now have a final list.

With just three hotels on my list, I visit each hotel’s website and look up important details. For example, do they have a swimming pool and an elevator? Is it near the places I want to visit? Will I have access to public transport? How near or far is it from the airport?

Time taken: 10-15 minutes

Art hotel Chiang Mai

(Art Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Step 5: And now, I have a winner.

I go back to my booking site and book. Or, if the hotel offers a “lowest tariff guarantee” I write to them informing them of my travel dates and the best offers I’m getting online. Most hotels respond within a day and they often give me a better rate (this is especially true of boutique and single/ standalone hotels).

I get the hotel I want, they get a paying customer. Win-win all around.

Time taken: 5 minutes (to email), 5 minutes (to pay)

How do you choose hotels for your holiday?

 

Throwback Thursday: Banteay Srei, Cambodia

This month I’ve been reminiscing about my trip to Cambodia last April. Yes, we did the obvious thing (i.e. visit Siem Reap and explore Angkor Wat), but every moment there was a revelation. Despite the insane heat and the crazy crowds, we made a little trek to Banteay Srei, just outside of the main Angkor temples.

Banteay Srei Siem Reap Cambodia

Banteay Srei may be much smaller than other temples in Angkor, but the intricate level of detailing is astounding. Built eleven centuries ago, the glorious stone carvings in the temple are not just fine works of art but also a journey into past Hindu glory in Cambodia.

Banteay Srei Angkor Wat Cambodia

Stunning stuff.

#ThrowbackThursday

Lessons from a cooking disaster

 

I clearly remember the first time I tried to cook something entirely on my own (no, I don’t mean instant noodles). It was a weekend, early 2014. And I had decided to make bhindi (aka okra/ ladyfinger), a simple stir fry subzi to go with rotis.

I had no recipe, so I texted an aunt for help. She mentioned something like “Add this, then add masalas, then cook…” and so on and so forth. I had to text her again and ask, “Which masalas?”. Then I had to crosscheck their pictures online with the spices I already had in the kitchen.

Yep, I was that much of a cooking noob.

(BTW, this my sweet potato and spaghetti casserole. Doesn’t look like a newbie dish, does it?)

Spaghetti sweet potato bake

So I started my first kitchen foray all gung ho and super excited. I washed and chopped the ladyfinger, sliced onions, then turned on the heat, and began the actual cooking.

And I did everything right, just like my aunt had said. Or at least I thought I did.

At the “Iet it cook for some time” step, I left the pan unattended to do some other chores. I was away for just a few minutes. When I came back, the ladyfinger was sticking to the pan.

“Uh oh, they’re getting burnt,” I thought, and then I sought out to use my highly-developed common sense to rectify it.

I added water, of course.

Now, if you know how to cook ladyfinger, you may also know that adding water to ladyfinger spells disaster. Not the “Oh-I-spilt-some-milk” sort of disaster. But Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Adding water to the Indian ladyfinger while cooking is a catastrophic mistake.

And so… The dish became all stringy and icky and looked like a giant lump of goop. I ruined the first dish I ever cooked.

But I also tasted it. The balance of flavours was perfect, but the texture was slimy and it the little pieces of ladyfinger were as scary-looking as Medusa’s head.

Of course I was upset.  I cried. But then… I tried cooking the same dish a few days later. Did NOT add water.

And the result?

Success.

What a relief that was.

Lesson learnt: Ask the right questions. Do your homework. And yes, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Since then, I haven’t let my kitchen disasters get my morale down. I learnt my lessons. And I’m glad I did.

(Here’s an attempt at broccoli soup. Still not perfect!) 

Broccoli soup

And I’ve been learning new lessons every time I go to the kitchen.

But from all the amazing, crucial, important and significant tips, tricks and hacks I’ve learnt about cooking, the most significant ones have been those that I apply to my life as well.

I don’t necessarily live to cook, and I don’t cook every day, but it’s an important part of my life now. I’m proud that I can feed myself, wherever I am.

What has cooking taught you?

Fantastic food: My recent faves

Back to Mumbai means back to noisy streets, crowded trains and endless traffic jams. But it also means dozens, nay, hundreds of amazing places to eat. And so, the last few weeks I’ve been heading to old haunts and new places, relishing my favourite dishes and exploring new ones.

So here are the best food experiences in the last one month.

Best breakfast: The Pantry, Kala Ghoda

We spent a gorgeous Sunday morning surrounded by peace and quiet, and great food, of course. “The kheema is brilliant”, declared S after a few bites. And so was the mushroom, chilli and cheese omelette. Oh yum!

Pantry Kala Ghoda breakfast kheema

Pantry Kala Ghoda breakfast omelette

Best main course: The Sassy Spoon, Bandra

Packed on a Tuesday afternoon, The Sassy Spoon at Bandra had a great vibe and even better food. The star of the show was my main course- zucchini and sweet potato roesti with ratatouille. With refined plating, the right balance of flavours and the goodness of vegetables, this was a truly memorable dish.

Sassy Spoon zucchini roesti

Best dessert: Bombay Vintage, Colaba

Now I’m not a desserts gal at all, but when friends order an weird-sounding dish called jaggery pudding, you know you got to try it. And so I did, and I did NOT regret the calories at all. Topped with ice cream, this dessert was a refreshing departure from cheesecakes and mousses.

Bombay Vintage jaggery pudding dessert

Old time favourite: Café Royal, Colaba

S and I are HUGE sizzler fans and so Café Royal is my all-time favourite. I visit the restaurant on an empty stomach and I polish off my sizzler. Always. Check out my sizzler. ‘Nuff said.

Cafe Royal Mumbai vegetarian sizzler

Friday Films: Chutney and La La Land for food and fashion

Food Film: Chutney

An extra marital affair, small town gossip, an annoyed domestic help and a seemingly-innocent housewife are blended expertly to create the intriguing story of Chutney. As the special chutney recipe is revealed, the home-grown green chillies are not the only secret ingredient we discover. Tisca Chopra’s performance is stellar as she shares her recipe and narrates a sinister tale. Meanwhile, I’m craving samosas with spicy chutney.

Watch Chutney here if you haven’t seen it already.

 

Fashion film: La La Land

La La Land is a delightful musical journey. Even several days after watching the film I couldn’t get City of Stars out of my head. Aside from the breath-taking view of Griffith Observatory and the Hermosa Beach pier, I was taking mental notes on the costumes. There was none of the sloppy-but-standard jeans and tee combos for the sweethearts. Emma Stone’s chic and flattering dresses in solid yellow, blue, peach and green have given me major fashion goals, while Ryan Gosling’s always-dapper look should hopefully inspire gentlemanly dressing.

La La Land fashion yellow dress

La La Land fashion peach dress

A boat ride on Inle Lake, Myanmar

A lone fisherman in a conical hat flings his net into the freshwater lake. As the mist clears, I see miniature gardens of brightly-coloured flowers gently floating in the water. For miles, there’s nothing to see except water, a fisherman or two, the Shan hills in the distance, and the unfamiliar flowers and leaves beautifully meshed into the lake’s surface. The only sound is the dull throb of the boat’s diesel motor.

Fisherman at Inle Lake Myanmar

We are sailing through Myanmar’s Inle Lake in Shan State. And the lake is nothing like any other I’ve seen before. It is the lifeline of villages and towns that live by the shore. It’s the means of income and the means of transport both rolled into one. And it’s a unique ecosystem (also a biosphere reserve) with distinct flora and fauna scattered throughout the 116-square-kilometres lake.

Plants at Inle Lake Myanmar

Pockets of civilization appear in the distance. Local Burmese men and women line up for a “shared boat taxi” for their daily commute to the market or places of work. We stop by a market on the lakeside to buy souvenirs. Bargaining is hard in Myanmar, most of the times both you and the seller know that the price is exorbitant, but it’s a question of who is more stubborn. So you win some, you lose some.

House at Inle Lake Myanmar

Further down the lake, houses made entirely of wood appear like islands. Some of these structures have artisan workshops, where local craftsmen weave fabrics from lotus stems (exquisitely soft silk!) and make silver jewellery.

House Inle Lake Myanmar

At one souvenir shop on the lake, I see some women making small souvenirs. They are like any other woman, except their long necks are stacked with brass rings. They are Kayan Lahwi or Padaung women, seated here to fascinate tourists with their exotic neck jewellery and peculiar anatomy. Of course pictures are welcome.

Later, we head to a pagoda just off the lake. It’s like any other pagoda in Myanmar, filled with throngs of Myanmar people praying to Buddha.

After a refreshing drink of fresh coconut water just outside the pagoda, we head back to our boat. The gentle morning breeze has made way for the afternoon sun. The lake is busy, as boats stuffed with tourists slice through the water to explore life on Inle Lake.

Tourists at Inle Lake Myanmar

But we head back to the hotel on the boat and relish the quiet moments of solitude. As I step off the boat, I suddenly have a wish. One only. That the lake is preserved, its animals and birds and plants kept intact for centuries. That we humans don’t destroy the lake’s understated beauty with our ever-present destructive tendencies. I wish. I pray.

Reaching Inle Lake: To visit Inle Lake, take a flight from Yangon or Mandalay to Heho. The airport is 35 kilometres from the lake. The nearest town is Nyaungshwe in Taunggyi District of Shan State, Myanmar.

Sunday Street Stories: Rangoon War Cemetery

In a quiet lane off Yangon’s Pyay Road is a square of lush green grass dotted with trees and flowers that belie the crazy traffic just a few metres away. Few people go there. Taxi drivers wonder why you would want to get off at that strange place.

That strange, quiet, manicured place is Rangoon War Cemetery, with graves of hundreds of soldiers who died in action in Burma during the Second World War. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetery is a space where race and nationality don’t matter. Indian and African soldiers lie next to their colleagues from Britain, bound together by war.

Rangoon War Cemetery Yangon
This piece of history is not on any tourist map of Yangon. But this place is important. Because it reminds me of the damage that war has caused over the centuries. And the consequences of war affect all of us, no matter where or when we are born.

Rangoon War Cemetery Yangon Burma

Location: Rangoon War Cemetery, Yangon (Myanmar)

Date: December 16, 2016

Device: Xiaomi Mi 5

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s Living Restoration

Almost every colonial-era building in downtown Yangon has a spellbinding story to tell, though interest in aesthetic restoration is still fledgling. An unassuming building in Merchant Street now serves as a demonstration of how  a facelift can be done while keeping the original architecture intact.

image

Taking into account the views of the residents and tenants, Turquoise Mountain set about renovating the building. They trained local workers, used quality materials and did it all on a tight budget. It’s a job well-done, and now there’s some hope that people living in historical spaces in Yangon will make an effort to preserve their inherent beauty. Fingers crossed.

PS- The project managers even restored the little altars outside!

image

Pictures taken on: July 19, 2016
Location: Merchant Street, downtown Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

The Quinoa Debut

Life in Yangon is good. I’ve been in beautiful Myanmar (aka Burma) for 13 months now and each passing day I learn new things about the people, their culture, their religion, their beliefs, their beauty secrets, their ideology…

The isolation from Mumbai has been an eye-opener. I didn’t know I took so many things for granted back home, from the city’s crazy but robust public transport to the easy access to great food to the sheer convenience of grocery shopping. The first couple of months here in Yangon were a struggle to put food on the plate. Though S and I had stuffed our suitcases with essential ingredients, we still had dozens of things we couldn’t carry. Where can I buy dal? What about pav? Do we get curry leaves here? What about cumin seeds? The unfamiliar wet market, the cluttered supermarkets with so much foodstuff yet so little for me (dried shrimp and pickled fish aren’t my thing), and, of course, the language barrier, were a bit too much to handle.

But once I got confident with my language skills, I began exploring the market and local stores, and things began to look up. I found curry leaves at the neighbourhood market. S found a pav seller. The local supermarket began stocking most types of dal! I even found fresh tamarind and jaggery (Myanmar jaggery is yum!).

Now that I know where to find the most essential ingredients, I can breathe easy. You’d think I’m all set now.

But no, I have a terrible itch. The itch to try different things. The itch to visit an unseen country, to sample an untried cuisine, to learn a strange language, to cook a new dish…

So I signed up for a cooking class run by a lovely Australian woman here to learn shortcrust pastry and later baked a delicious rustic pie! I observed Myanmar-style salads and prepared some at home—trust me, they give a new meaning to the word “salad”. In summer, I tried making mango shrikhand without sugar, and succeeded. When Mom visited, I insisted she teach me malai kofta.

Last month, I was ready to try some new things in the kitchen. But a severe muscular spasm in my neck knocked me out and I couldn’t cook for several weeks. I visited Mumbai to see a doctor and get the treatment started. And, foodie that I am, I seized the opportunity to get my hands on some new things—such as a half-kilo box of quinoa.

I’d once used a packet of Lemon & Herb quinoa (or something similar) someone had gifted me. I needed to prepare it like any instant food (like packaged noodles). But the quinoa didn’t cook at all. Maybe I did something wrong? Either ways, I felt like such an idiot that I banished the incident to the “cooking failures” folder in my brain, never to be accessed.

But now, I’m a bit more confident of my culinary skills. And after the long break from cooking, I was hoping to try something new. Quinoa was fresh on my mind, and so began the hunt for a great recipe.

Despite my neck pain acting as an irritating companion, I wanted to make a complete meal, not just a snack or “light meal”. So I decided to debut my quinoa experiments with wraps.

It didn’t all go smoothly. I underestimated the cooking time at first, then I ended up with more quinoa than expected. No harm done though. Halfway through cooking I realized that the dish was becoming a mix mishmash of several cooking styles and flavours. I mean, hummus with herb-seasoned veggies? Wrapped in a South American flatbread? What was I doing?

But when I had the first bite with some vegan mayonnaise (yes, that’s a real thing), the elements fit together beautifully. S did a taste test and gave it a thumbsup.

Quinoa vegan wrap

Phew. All’s well that ends well.

Anyhoo, a bit about the recipe: The original recipe suggests cooking quinoa with the vegetables, but I decided to cook them separately because I wasn’t sure about cooking time and didn’t want to end up with mushy veggies and raw quinoa. It was wholesome, nutritious, delicious and hearty lunch! I used whole wheat tortillas from a local bakery.

Quinoa Debut Wraps

Ingredients

For the quinoa and vegetables:

1 cup quinoa (uncooked)

1 tsp chopped garlic

1 medium onion, chopped

1-2 green chillies, finely chopped

1 bell pepper/ capsicum (any colour), chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 tomato, chopped (or use a handful of cherry tomatoes instead)

A handful of corn (aka American corn)

1-1.5 tsp mixed seasoning (I used a readymade seasoning- you can use whatever you like: Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or a mix of your favourite Indian masalas)

Salt to taste

Juice of half a lemon

Small handful of chopped coriander leaves

Other vegetable possibilities: Zucchini and french beans

For the wraps:

4 whole wheat tortillas

4 tbsp of your favourite spread (any type of hummus or sandwich spread will do)

Method:

Wash quinoa well, then soak for five minutes in a pot. Drain the water, add two cups water to the quinoa (the ratio of quinoa to water is always 1:2). Put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil, then lower heat and let it cook covered.

While the quinoa is cooking, heat oil in a pan, then add garlic and onion, sauté for a minute. Then add the green chillies and cook for few seconds.

Add the vegetables to the pan with your seasoning or spice mix and a little water. Mix well, and cook for some time, stirring often and adding water if needed. The vegetables should soften a bit, but not lose their crunch. This could take anywhere from five to ten minutes.

When done, switch off the flame. Squeeze in the lemon juice and mix coriander leaves with the vegetables.

Meanwhile, drain the cooked quinoa. You know the quinoa is cooked when it’s soft and it seems to have “sprouted”. Keep it covered for five minutes, then uncover and let it cool.

Assembling the wraps:

Mix the cooked vegetables with the quinoa.

Dab some of your spread on a cooked tortilla, then add the quinoa-veggie mixture in a straight line across the middle. Roll it up and voila! Your quinoa wrap is ready.

Serve with a light dip of your choice.

Quinoa veggie wrap

PS—This recipe is vegan.