Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq - depicting the psyche of war

book review

Hassan Blasim's short stories capture the grim reality of a conflict-ravaged Iraq

Book: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Author: Hassan Blasim
Translated by: Jonathan Wright

It may not be the best idea to judge a book by its cover, but it's hard not to form an opinion based on the black-as-death cover and less-than-cheery title of Hassan Blasim's short story collection The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq. In this case though, the first impression proves to be quite accurate. Set against a backdrop of war, the tales in this body of fictional work are beset with depravity and devoid of happy endings.

Death and decadence are the norm in Blasim's Iraq, a land overshadowed by strife and conflict where everyone has an increasingly shocking story to tell. Darkness reigns in these 14 yarns that have been culled from two previous publications by the Iraqi-born author who was persecuted during Saddam Hussein's regime and eventually fled to Finland in 2004, where he now lives. Originally written in Arabic, the text has been translated into English by Jonathan Wright, who himself was held hostage in Lebanon in 1984 for two weeks before he managed to escape from captivity.

The background of both the writer and translator add perspective to the often harrowing incline of the storytelling. Executions, torture, murder, explosions, premonitions, and visions are some of the topics that appear. The subjects are mostly soldiers, terrorists, victims, refugees, and spirits, and they don't always serve as reliable narrators.

A surrealist bend often accompanies the underlying reality as the writer delves into macabre settings filled with troubled souls. There's a myriad of thoughts on offer here. The title story 'The Corpse Exhibition', for instance, sees an assassin detailing the 'art' of creating corpse exhibits by displaying the victims' remains in creative ways. 'An Army Newspaper' finds the spirit of a literary editor explaining what led to his death after he took credit for a dead soldier's story. In 'The Song of the Goats', a child grows up bearing the burden of having killed his brother by pushing him into a septic tank. A man finds himself trapped with a jinn in 'The Hole'. A soldier has premonitory powers in 'The Iraqi Christ'. A group that can make knives disappear and then reappear is the subject of 'A Thousand and One Knives'. And an Iraqi immigrant tries to make a life for himself in Holland but is haunted by strange dreams in 'The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes'.

The accounts reflect the violence the country has faced during the last few decades and the impact this has had on its populace. The characters are in such a rush to tell their stories that they don't have time to deliver their accounts with poise and eloquence. This abrupt style might not be graceful, but it suits their tragedies which are riddled with obscenity and jarring developments. The grotesque imagery does make an impact, but its gratuitousness is also disturbing and distracting.

Based on both its subject matter and style, it is hardly surprising that the reception to Blasim's work has been divisive. The translations of his stories have won several awards in the West, but his reception in the Middle East hasn't been as enthusiastic; a heavily edited Arabic version of his stories received an outright ban in Jordan. Readers too are likely to find his style either captivating or repulsive. The content of the book is very confronting, and definitely not for the faint of heart. War is anything but a pleasant topic, and Blasim's depiction of its consequences on the human psyche is uncomfortable to read. His characters are invariably damaged, and either suffering or causing others to suffer; their inability to escape the tragedies of their past continuously shadowing their present and often ensuring that they have no future.

Blasim's stance as an Iraqi voice relaying the horrors that have befallen the war-ravaged country automatically makes The Corpse Exhibition an important literary tome. But whether you find his blunt approach engaging will simply come down to individual taste. This book may be short, but it isn't a light, entertaining read. Instead it presents a troubling look at the darkness that has been cast upon a land and its people. The content isn't suitable for those who think that subtlety goes a long way, and there are several parts that these readers are likely to find offensive. But if you have the ability to work past the crude, graphic content and strong language, and explore the writing's depth, then you will probably find The Corpse Exhibition compelling.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 29th March, 2015 *

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The return of Mizmaar

interview: music mix

In an exclusive interview with Instep, the rock band introduces their new vocalist Mashhad Sharyar

The turn of the century saw an influx of new talent in our pop music industry with a number of bands and artists gaining mainstream recognition in the 2000s. One such group was Mizmaar, the Karachi-based pop rock act that rose to prominence with the release of their debut album Kash in 2003. Their sophomore album, Sitara, followed in 2007, but their musical union proved to be short-lived and the band parted ways soon after. Now, the group is all set to make a comeback with a new vocalist, Mashhad Sharyar.

“Mizmaar split up because our ex-singer Daniyal Badshah couldn’t commit to the band for personal reasons,” shares guitarist and Mizmaar frontman Kashan Admani. But despite the band’s break-up, music remained integral to Kashan and drummer Alfred D’mello’s lives.

“Our journey, even without the band, has been very musical,” he continues. “We have been producing albums for other artists and have also been doing jingles and commercials. Some of the prominent albums we have produced include Usman Riaz’s Adventures of the Lost Boy and Aliya Chinoy’s Almost Dawn.”

Meeting vocalist Mashhad Sharyar prompted the duo to resurrect Mizmaar. “We first came across Mashhad when he came to our studio to record with his band Kashmir last year,” Alfred recalls. “We were very impressed by his vocals and overall personality; hence we felt he would be the right person to add to Mizmaar’s line-up. We thought we could create something very distinctive and original with him. Not only does he have a fresh and unique voice with a very versatile singing style, being equally comfortable with eastern and western styles of singing, but he is also very young and energetic which complements the band’s performance style.”

For his part, Mashhad is over the moon to be a part of the band he once admired from afar. “It is a dream come true to be a part of this great act!” the vocalist enthuses. “I never saw it coming, honestly, and when I was offered the part, I just couldn’t say no! I remember how I used to watch Mizmaar’s videos and wonder what it is like to be a star and what it takes to make such beautiful music. I am thankful to God that I got this opportunity at such a young age and that the two stars from Mizmaar, Kashan and Alfred, saw something in me.”

The singer says he became interested in music as a child, and told his father he wanted to become a singer when he was just nine years old. “I went up to my father and told him I wanted to sing for the rest of my life,” Mashhad reminisces. “He smiled and said I had a lot to learn. He bought me a harmonium and taught me whatever he knew. I never had a real ustaad, so for me my dad will always be my teacher. My father was the sole person who gave me the confidence.”

Mashhad credits his mother with shaping his musical taste by developing his interest in the works of Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Kailash Kher, and many other artists. “I have been in love with the semi-classical and classical music since my childhood. I remember how every morning while going to school I would finish one side of the album and write the lyrics on my notebook during my classes.” As he grew older, he also discovered western music. Bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Queen as well as solo artists like John Mayer inspired him, and he decided that he wanted to be in a band. “I took part in all the competitions at school,” the singer continues. “Back then, winning meant everything, and I did that countless times for my school.”

The band is now all set to treat fans to their brand new sound with their comeback single ‘Jee Loonga’, which will be released today. The song is about living life the way you want and not giving in to the pressures around you. “The ‘Jee Loonga’ music video has been directed by Kashan and Alfred,” Mashhad reveals, “and it reflects the meaning of the song through an abstract concept of freeing yourself from your confines.”

Mizmaar have also been busy working on their new album, and while the record is almost ready, the band plans to release it single by single throughout the year instead of going for a full length album release. The changing dynamics of the music industry have surely played a hand in this decision. “The industry has become very difficult and competitive, because now music is a free commodity,” says Kashan. “You make a song and put it on the Internet and social media. People see it, and if it looks good to them they will watch it, if not they won’t. There are very few music channels left that play local music, so it makes it very tough for artists to reach out to the audience.”

With a whole album worth of material awaiting release, there is clearly a lot in store for Mizmaar fans in the coming months. “You can expect a lot of great music and surprises, for sure,” Alfred promises.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 25th March, 2015 *

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Broadchurch - case dismissed!

tv series review

There is little to applaud in the second season of Broadchurch

Series 2

Creating the second instalment to a critically acclaimed work can be a tricky task. The challenge often lies in coming up with the right mix of tried and tested components that made the first instalment special as well as introducing compelling new elements that will make the second series interestingly different. It is this challenge that the British television series Broadchurch has been struggling with and its return, with a less gripping case and a rambling trial, has yielded mixed results.

The magnetic first series of the crime drama — which followed detectives Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller’s (Olivia Colman) search for the murderer of a young boy named Danny — received a lot of praise from critics and viewers alike. The trial of the accused killer (who was revealed at the end of the previous series after being shrouded in secrecy for its entire run) forms the crux of the second series, with Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Jean-Baptiste joining the cast as prosecutor and defence counsel respectively.

Meanwhile, the community continues to face the repercussions of the tragedy that befell the small town. Danny’s parents, Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) and Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan), struggle with the ordeal of sitting through the trial while also dealing with problems in their marriage. Beth and Ellie’s relationship is strained, while the latter is left to come to terms with the events and their impact on her life and career.

Also, Hardy is still haunted by his inability to solve the Sandbrook case and the killer of cousins Pippa Gillespie (Hollie Burgess) and Lisa Newbery (Eliza Bennett) remains at large. Hardy tries once again to nail down the suspect, hoping his key witness Claire Ripley (Eve Myles) will somehow help him build a case against her former husband Lee Ashworth (James D’Arcy), the suspected murderer.

Laden with contrived situations and excessive subplots, the series plays out slowly and unevenly. The writers don’t have a solid story that would make eight riveting episodes which is probably why the whole season is peppered with developments that are either unconvincing or ultimately have no relevance or significance. It also doesn’t help that creator and co-writer Chris Chibnall and his team never manage to create the same kind of emotional impact with the Sandbrook case as they did with Danny’s case.

The acting, however, remains impressive. Colman is consistently terrific and Tennant continues to embody his role well. Together they make the series more compelling, often making us forget how unrealistic or inaccurate the developments really are.

On the whole, the season suffers because of its inconsistency and inability to generate enough emotional resonance. But viewers who have seen the first instalment should definitely go back to Broadchurch for the second outing. The drama will give them enough reasons to hang around till the end because ultimately, while it may not be as good as it was last time around, it is not a complete let-down either.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 22nd March, 2015 *

Friday, March 20, 2015

“We are Pakistanis and we can change the whole game” - Inteha

interview: music mix

Lahore-based band Inteha does its bit for the musical side of the Cricket World Cup season
Every four years, as the ICC World Cup returns to our television screens, our musicians busy themselves, churning out tunes which suggest that this time we’re surely taking home the trophy. This year is no exception. Jumping on that bandwagon is Lahore-based pop rock group Inteha, comprising of the vocalist-guitarist duo Naukhez and Nausher Javed, who recently released the video for their song ‘Jeetein Gaey’. In a chat with Instep, the duo tells us about the message behind the song and why they chose to release the video to coincide with this tournament.

Instep: World Cup season is when every other band wants to send a musical shout-out to the team. What made you turn your track into a cricket song – are you ardent fans of the sport or capitalising on the national craze?
Naukhez: ‘Jeetein Gaey’ was one of my favourite tracks from our second album Inteha-e-Rock. Keeping up with the World Cup fever amongst the masses, we thought to release the video of the song before the World Cup to boost the morale of our team and the nation, as we felt this was much needed.
Nausher: Our nation is emotionally distressed these days. Due to this negative frame of mind, we were also discouraging the Pakistani cricket team, saying that it is impossible for us to win, that our players aren’t fit to play internationally, and so on. So keeping that in mind, we decided to release a World Cup song, ‘Jeetein Gaey’ in order to encourage our team and uplift our nation. We are Pakistanis and we can change the whole game.

Instep: How did you go about conceiving ‘Jeetein Gaey’?
Naukhez: ‘Jeetein Gaey’ is a motivational track which revolves around catchy verses from Iqbal’s poetry and other famous quotes (such as “himmat-e-mardaan, madad-e-Khuda”). The key message of the song is that there are no limits for us and we can make everything possible for Pakistan. The song bucks up the cricket team through messages from the masses across all age brackets and walks of life. The track is a blend of strong verses with strong guitar riffs, which is the strength of our band. You may have seen the same trend in our earlier tracks, ‘Anjaana’ and ‘Dastaan’.

Instep: How was the experience of shooting the ‘Jeetein Gaey’ video?
Naukhez: The shooting day was full of energy and excitement. We fired off just one message on Facebook announcing the shoot plan, and the turnout was unbelievable. We had people from all age brackets and walks of life. This response made the shoot all the more fun and we continued the shoot for three days with all the fans around us.

Instep: What did you think of the World cup anthems released this year?
Naukhez: The quality of this year’s World Cup songs is awful, but I still think that every musician has talent and the ability to create something successful. My least favourite is the song currently on PTV Sports by Desi Brits.
Nausher: I personally didn’t like any songs that have been released. I found all of them more focused on non-serious content in an effort to go viral, and this compromises the motivational aspect and patriotic essence, which we used to have before, in songs by the likes of Madam Noor Jehan, Junoon, and Vital Signs; Inteha takes inspiration from these music gurus.

Instep: You also released an anti-drug song titled ‘Ranjhanna’ recently; is drug abuse an issue close to your band’s heart?
Nausher: There’s no doubt that drug abuse is an important issue, which needs to be addressed in a number of ways. Our youth is drawn to drugs and I strongly feel there is a need to communicate the consequences of addiction, especially in a way that the youth will understand. Hence the video was directed specifically with this message in mind. Once a fan asked if I got high before composing my music and I thought it’s really important to change such perceptions. It’s the loudest message ever given by any rock band in our industry, and has been praised by ANP locally.

Instep: Which song(s)/video(s) are you planning to release next?
Nausher: We shall be releasing videos from (our latest album) Inteha-e-Rock and two videos from the Tribute to the Legends project. And we are also collaborating with some international artistes.
Naukhez: I am working on a few soundtracks for TV drama serials. Also a couple of Indian movie songs are in the pipeline. Plus, our India tour will start in April this year. After that, we will travel to the US and UK in the summer for concerts.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 20th March, 2015 *

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Terms & Conditions - the legal small print

book review

Book: Terms & Conditions
Author: Robert Glancy

"I have read and agree to the terms and conditions." How many times have you clicked the accept button on a similar message without looking at a single word on the multi-page agreement that crops up every time you try to install an application on your computer or phone? Quite often? Then you are not alone. Most of us don't bother to read the fine print before agreeing to terms or signing lengthy contracts. For all we know, we signed away all of our rights the last time we accepted the iTunes contractual terms, and Apple Inc. can now legally lay claim to our souls.

Quite possibly the only people who really know what is in these documents are the individuals who write them. In Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy, our narrator, Franklyn Shaw, is one such individual. He is a corporate lawyer who creates contracts for a living and specialises in fine print. But as the story begins, he knows as much about himself as we do. Frank, it turns out, has lost his memory.

Following a car accident, Frank wakes up in a hospital with a bout of amnesia. He has no recollection of who he is, who his family members are, or what led to his crash. All he knows for sure is that something awful happened, but no one is willing to tell him what.

As he recovers and eases back into his life, things seem to be fine on the surface. His wife, Alice, is beautiful. His flat is amazing. His older brother Oscar is also his boss; they both work at Shaw & Sons, which was founded by their grandfather, then run by their father, and is now headed by Oscar. His younger brother, Malcolm, is nowhere to be found, but based on his email correspondence, is a lovable free spirit off on yet another adventure in some distant corner of the world.

But when memories gradually start floating back into his mind, the fractures in Frank's existence start to become visible. As he pieces his life back together, resentments and regrets start to catch up. Thereality of his strained marriage and neurotic work as a 'legal chimpanzee' leads him to the realisation that old Frank was quite miserable. New Frank now has a chance to rewrite the terms and conditions of his life, and set things right.

Drenched in dark wit and fuelled by wry humour, Terms & Conditions is a deliciously clever exposé on the human condition by way of one man's journey of self-discovery and self-realisation. Thanks to the writer's disarming tone, Frank is an instantly likable protagonist and is incredibly easy to root for. If you have stumbled at any point in your life, then you are likely to find the narrator very relatable.

Styled like the contracts that Frank has been toiling over for years, Terms & Conditions makes use of amusing footnotes that are peppered through the book, and give the protagonist's thoughts a chance to take witty detours. Some might find these footnotes intrusive, and going back and forth between the text and footer can be a bit distracting, but for the most part, this literary device works surprisingly well and gives the book a unique spin.

While the plot itself isn't very complex and the general arc of the narrative is quite predictable, the story is still poignant and leaves you with much to think about. Author Robert Glancy who was born in Zambia, raised in Malawi, studied at Cambridge, and now lives in New Zealand has come up with a charming debut novel that puts his cynical sense of humour to good use. The book is fun and light even when its subject matter isn't. The prose is smooth, lively and enjoyable. Most of the characters are realistic and properly fleshed out (although a few are a tad one-dimensional).

Terms & Conditions is an engaging novel writ-ten in a delightfully quirky way. The author's style elevates a simple story into an enjoyable reading experience. The book is a fairly quick read, but depending on their taste, some readers might struggle with its pace. If you want an action-packed outing, then Terms & Conditions isn't the right book for you, but if you appreciate self-reflective satire, then you will find this tome very rewarding. Ultimately, unlike their iTunes counterparts, Robert Glancy's terms and conditions are very enjoyable and well worth a read.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 15th March, 2015 *

Friday, March 13, 2015

Flower Power

the scrapbook

The vibrant beauty of the floral world serves as a treat for the senses. But all too often, these small wonders of nature go unnoticed as we fail to take a closer look at the world around us. So we have snapped this set of images to (hopefully) inspire you to take some time out of your busy schedules, and stop and smell the roses ... literally!

The flower that by any other name would smell just as sweet* but happens to be called a “rose”, this ever popular blossom is widely grown for its lovely appearance and distinctive fragrance. And of course its prickly perennial plant gives us a chance to rejoice that thorn bushes have roses**.
*William Shakespeare
**Abraham Lincoln

Canna Lily
Not a true lily, the canna can grow in most countries around the world, and is a rich source of starch. One of its many specimens, the Yellow King Hubert has artistic yellow petals with red/orange markings.

Named in honour of German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn, the beautiful zinnia comes in a wide range of colours and shapes, and is a favourite of butterflies. Growing on annual, perennial plants, the flower’s ability to attract hummingbirds and wasps has also made it useful as a defence against pesky whiteflies.

The resemblance of the flower to the head of a rooster has earned the celosia cristata the colloquial moniker of cockscomb. Its hardy plants grow well in most conditions, both out and indoors, and are used for both ornamental and edible purposes.

The striking hibiscus often finds itself diagrammed in science books because of its distinctive features and is known for its attractiveness to hummingbirds. Its different species serve as the national flower of various nations and territories, including South Korea, Malaysia, Haiti, and Hawaii. Along with its ornamental charms, the flower also makes its way into foods and beverages.

The fragrant jasmine comes in many varieties, but is almost always white or yellow in colour. The blossoms are often used as adornments, especially in garlands. Additionally, syrups and oils are derived from these flowers, and they are also used to flavour tea.

Worshipped by the Incas because of its symbolic association with the Sun, the mighty sunflower is as useful as it is gorgeous. Its buds track the Sun across the sky, and its flowers are treasured for their seeds and oil.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 13th March, 2015 *

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Wild Card - busted!

movie review

Slow-motion knockouts and a predictable storyline make Wild Card standard action fare

Wild Card

Starring: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, and Stanley Tucci
Director: Simon West
Tagline: He's all in.

Jason Statham has been stuck in the quicksand of typecasting for so long that by now it is fairly easy to guess what his new movies will be like. Sadly, his latest release, Wild Card, does nothing to alter this impression.

The crime drama finds Statham playing the role of Nick Wild, a muscle for hire who takes odd jobs, such as accompanying people who need protection and assisting those who simply want to impress a woman. But when his friend Holly (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) asks for his help to take down a vicious gangster named Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia) who assaulted her, Nick finds himself in dangerous territory. Holly’s quest to get revenge could prove deadly for everyone involved.

It’s hard to believe that the screenplay was penned by William Goldman, the celebrated writer who has given us classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President’s Men (1976), and The Princess Bride (1987) during his illustrious career. Wild Card — based on Goldman’s 1985 novel Heat which was previously adapted into a film of the same name in 1986 — is a limp, unfocused outing that doesn’t seem sure of its own tone and finds itself wandering aimlessly, shuffling between dull drama and ludicrous action sans the requisite excitement.

Director Simon West has somehow managed to assemble an impressive supporting cast by getting Jason Alexander, Anne Heche, Hope Davis, Sofia Vergara and Stanley Tucci on the roster, but then promptly sidelined them all, limiting their participation to only a few lines of dialogue apiece. Meanwhile, Statham does his typical, stoic action hero schtick dutifully, but doesn’t quite embrace the film’s inherent silliness or succeed in making his character engaging.

Everyone involved in Wild Card is potentially better than this project. In this case, the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts. The film seems content with stitching together a handful of clichés without bothering to be inventive and, as a result, ends up being stodgy and predictable. It neither succeeds in displaying dramatic depth nor working as an exciting action romp. Wild Card rambles on and lacks energy. Ultimately, it might please diehard Jason Statham fans, but the rest of the viewers are very likely to find it boring and forgettable.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 8th March, 2015 *

Friday, March 06, 2015

Presentations: creating a lasting impact

on campus: presentation tips

If you are a student, then presentations must surely be an unavoidable part of your life. But impending presentations can often generate dread, and the fear of failure can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, what is the best way to overcome anxiety? Preparation, of course! Here are some tips that might help you deliver a better presentation:

Know your topic well
Choosing a topic you have significant knowledge of and are passionate about will be the best first step in your presentation preparation. If you pick an interesting idea, you’ll find it easier to focus on the subject matter and will add a natural enthusiasm to your delivery.
You won’t always have the option to pick the topic of your choice though, but that is a snag you can easily overcome by developing a complete understanding of the topic you have been assigned. (You are likely to benefit from mastering the area that is slightly broader than your actual, specific thesis. Extra knowledge can come in handy, but make sure you stick to the point and don’t needlessly wander off into adjacent territory during the actual presentation.) Being confident in your grasp of the concept will help you feel more in control as well as improve the chances of an accurate delivery. Know your topic inside out, and you’re off to a good start.

Prepare a succinct slideshow
The purpose of a slideshow (PowerPoint presentation) is to providing a basic summary of your presentation and its flow. Don’t use too many slides or write your entire speech up on the screen. Slides are a visual aid. The idea isn’t that you read what is up there. The bullet points are meant to provide the basic structure to guide you through your delivery while helping the audience follow along with what you’re saying. Instead of overlong, busy slides, go for brief and to-the-point text in a suitably large font that will be visible to everyone in the room. Focus on the content. Use tables, charts, and diagrams as needed, but remove unnecessary elements. Don’t add animations or flashy transitions to your slideshow. You can have as many swirly letters as you want (and seriously, you shouldn’t want any), but if the content is subpar, then a fancy layout won’t make that better.
Slides can also serve the additional purpose of sharing the spotlight with you and deflecting the attention away from you, helping decrease the intensity of the “OMG, everybody is looking at me!” effect. But make sure the slideshow doesn’t take over the session. If no one is paying attention to you, then you aren’t very likely to make a positive impact and win over your audience.
(Also, if you are using a slideshow, don’t risk being a victim of technology failure; arrive well ahead of time and set up the presentation before everyone else gets there.)

Plan out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Work on your delivery. Time yourself and ensure that your content fits your time limit. Rehearse your speech out loud. Reading it silently in your head isn’t the best way to go about it. Many people suggest rehearsing in front of a mirror or your friends. An excellent way to assess your delivery is to record yourself (either audio or video), and review the file to figure out what is and isn’t working; you will definitely notice an improvement in your performance after you play back the audio/video; reassess your material and style, and repeat the process.

Dress simple and neat
Presentations are about your presentation as well. If you want somebody to take you seriously, then you have to look like you have actually put in some effort. Choose the appropriate attire for the occasion and try your best to look smart. If your educational institution has a uniform, make sure your uniform is neat. If there is no uniform and the environment is formal, then sticking to neutral colours is generally a safe choice (unless the occasion specifically requires you to stand out and make a mark). If you have a tendency to fiddle with your accessories, like jewellery, and if you, for instance, have obtrusive bracelets that clink and make noise, then don’t wear them (unless your presentation is on the topic of jewellery itself, obviously). Be mindful of your subject matter and environment and dress appropriately.

Avoid unnecessary handouts
Give anyone a random paper and they are obviously going to be curious about its content. That is why handouts can be distracting. Distribute a paper or worksheet just as you begin your presentation and you risk losing your audience immediately; instead of listening to you, many might start trying to read the printout and figure out what the paper says. Handouts aren’t necessary when your class fellows have access to the same information already. If you do feel like you can legitimately use handouts as a positive tool to impart additional information and explanatory examples, then distribute them at the appropriate time that doesn’t divide attention or hamper continuity.

Make notes on cards
It might be tempting to just write down what you have to say in its entirety, and then simply read everything off your notes when you’re in class, but don’t do that unless you want to bore your audience and make a bad impression on your instructor. Looking at a paper all the time makes you seem insecure and prevents you from making eye contact with the audience. Eliminate the temptation of reading altogether; simply don’t go to the podium with page upon page of a lengthy speech written down. Feel free to write down what you want to say while preparing for the presentation; just don’t rely on those papers when you’re actually speaking in class. Instead, prepare cards that you can use during the presentation. Write down brief notes on small cards, and consult them as you speak.

Engage the audience
Look at your audience. Make eye contact. Present an amicable visage through your gestures, posture, and movements. Be lively and energetic. Smile, speak clearly, and don’t hunch. Don’t exceed the allotted duration or drag the presentation on needlessly till everyone loses interest. See the situation from the audience’s perspective. Sum things up as you go, returning to key points of focus, add pauses for emphasis, make the content as interesting as possible, and help people remember why they are listening to you. Try using examples that your audience can relate to. And appear confident. You may be nervous but everyone doesn’t need to know that. Besides, if you’ve done your prep, then you have no reason to be nervous anyway.

And no matter what, don’t panic. Keep calm and carry on. Good luck!

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 6th March, 2015 *

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Top Five - a Rock-ing comedy

movie review

Top Five depicts what it takes to be an African-American entertainer

Top Five

Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J. B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer, and Tracy Morgan
Written and directed by: Chris Rock

Funnyman Chris Rock has earned much praise as a stand-up comedian, but his talent hasn’t always translated into big screen success. With his latest film, the actor brings his standup smarts to celluloid, creating an amusing flick that will probably rank in the top five of his movie career.

Top Five tells the story of actor Andre Allen, a former standup comedian who is the title star of an action-comedy film Hammy the Bear. Tired of playing a cop in a bear suit and longing to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, Allen chooses to star in Uprize, a movie about the slave rebellion in Haiti. On the day of the film’s release, he finds himself being shadowed by entertainment reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a profile, while also preparing for his imminent wedding with reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Resolves are tested and secrets are spilled as the interview proceeds, as the characters find out more about each other and, in turn, discover more about themselves.

How things unfold is quite predictable, but while the premise may be simple, it still offers the perfect platform for Rock to showcase his wit. Top Five (which gets its title from Andre’s habit of asking people to name their favourite rappers) functions as a showbiz satire that comments on everything from racism and addiction to fame and relationships. But the freewheeling style also makes the proceedings seem haphazard.

A host of cameo appearances by famous faces pop up throughout the film; some of them seem shoehorned, but they are mostly quite amusing. Rock’s performance is genial and Dawson helps carry the film with her affable, easygoing turn, which makes the proceedings more engaging.

For the most part, Rock manages to keep viewers amused with his wry observations. At its best, Top Five is genuinely funny and effortlessly charming. The humour, however, is definitely not for everyone. Some of the language and crude jokes could offend viewers; plus, its raunchiness detracts from the substance and is likely to make some moviegoers cringe. If the focus had been on making the film smarter instead of smuttier, the project could have probably been more enjoyable.

On the whole, Top Five may have its flaws, but it is still one of Rock’s most entertaining outings. Despite its untidy execution and conventional resolution, the film offers some sharp commentary and also manages to charm its audience by delivering a fair share of laughs.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 1st March, 2015 *