the spy

Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen in The Spy

I find it hard to watch spy thrillers without mentally ticking off a checklist. An agent gone rogue, haunted by a dead partner. Sharp suits and trenches. Briefings that inexplicably happen in glass- walled buildings. The hero’s den- usually marked with such Wes Anderson-esque props as floral tea sets, a spare white bed and peeling green walls. The villain’s cave- impossibly hi tech but never not accessible. Car and foot chases through third world cities or the seedier bits of the first world. Women in tight ponytails. Silence, punctuated with the click-clack of weapons that herald a fight sequence. Brutalist architecture. British or East European villains. Disfigured villains. Villains fused with metal. Maximum security facilities fronted by tall gates that always open, no matter what. A red button situation. A suitably hassled head of state conferring with a clench- jawed military general. I believe that every spy thriller can be slotted into one of five elements based on themes of threat perception and destruction- earth, water, fire, air, ether.

Based on real events, films and shows like Raazi and The Spy show us that espionage is anything but glamorous. It has none of the linearity of the heavily stylized imaginings we scarf popcorn to. 

Gideon Raff, the name behind Homeland and the creator of its allegedly superior Israeli original, Prisoners Of War brings us a 6 part Netflix series so bingeable you can say goodbye to your weekend plans right now. Based on the true story of Eliyahu Cohen, an Israeli spy hired by the Mossad to infiltrate Syria’s military hierarchy in the 1960’s, The Spy speaks to the Jewry’s post-war anxiety around the annihilation of their existence. Unable to bring diplomatic or even military closure to violent territorial skirmishes with Syria, the Israeli government began to scout for a human chameleon who could cross over and pass on valuable intelligence. Hounded out of anti-semitic Egypt, immigrant nobody Eliyahu Cohen was perfect for the role. Overnight the ordinary accountant transformed into Kamel Amin Thaabet, a slick Buenos- Aires- based Syrian tycoon filled with nostalgia for his motherland. His handler tasked him with charming the socks off the Syrian expat community in Argentina, important men and women with skeevy histories that wanted a hand in the political reconfiguration of Syria. Thaabet’s money and amoral offers of help were theirs for the taking. He cultivated them assiduously, never losing sight of his real life with a lovely wife and children. He’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, his ridiculous comedic muscle vanished, his long, expressive face exquisitely transparent in its agony. Cohen the spy was so good at his job he was appointed chief advisor to the Syrian minister of defence. In a Vanity Fair interview, Cohen the actor calls him one of the greatest method actors of all time, a man who stayed in character for 6 years. In this, the Israelis drew on the Soviet spy tradition of plucking a man out of anonymity and alienating him from his reality so completely that he became his character. This was different from the American approach to espionage- shorter assignments, less character play. The key nuance was that the Israelis allowed their spies to come home on breaks as a sort of safety-valve measure for their tenuous sanity. On Cohen’s last break, he sensed that he would never return and begged Mossad to terminate his assignment. The Israeli Prime Minister vetoed the idea out of concerns for national security. The series begins at the eventual outcome of that decision. 

Sacha Baron Cohen is incredible in the role. 80% of the run time you catch him composing his facial features to meet the curveballs in his way- subtle flutters, a muscle slackened, a self- conscious swing of the chin, a too- wide smile. That’s what makes this such a simultaneously tough and arresting watch- you’re watching a man contort his face to save his life. To understand how insane that is, please watch the FBI clip below on decoding body language. 

The Spy airs on Netflix. 

the darkness at the heart of gold

At The Heart Of Gold is a 90 minute film about the failure of US gymnastics authorities to protect their athletes from sexual abuse. The key to understanding how team doctor Larry Nassar got away with what he did is to ask some fundamental questions. What is gymnastics? Is it dance or sport, or both? What does it prize and reward? The answers may seem obvious, but the truth is that no other sport has seen its goalposts shift as massively as gymnastics has. In the early 60’s it was a sport for older women hitting their 20’s. You scored for balletic flourishes, for artistry, for emoting through movement. It was all dance and deftness, and femininity was important. The reigning champion of that era was Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská, pictured above. She did her routine with her hair in a beehive, thighs clapping gloriously.

Since then, gymnasts have gotten younger. This shift can be traced to the early 70’s Soviet obsession with precocious sporting wins. They began training their athletes early. Peak performance was now pegged to pre pubescence, before the muscles could fill out into curves. Body lines were hard and angular, thought more suited to tougher routines that prioritised precision and agility over dance and expression. To emphasise their youth and innocence, the Soviets trotted their gymnasts out with white and red ribbons in their hair. Tiny Russian wunderkind Olga Korbut (below left) destroyed her competition in the 1972 Olympics wearing two beribboned pigtails. Were the bottom of her leotard a skirt she could’ve walked into a classroom and no one would have blinked. Other innovations in dress and appearance were calculated to stun and awe. Romanian champion and perfect 10 history maker Nadia Comaneci (below right) wore a white leotard with stripes running down the side in the 1976 Olympics. This was so you could visually measure the exact impossible angle between limb and torso at any point in her routine. The entire machinery of training took on mathematical levels of sophistication. The USSR and Romania led the way in both technique and presentation. Comaneci’s 1976 set at the Olympics included five more flight elements than Korbut’s 1972 performance, indicating tremendous raising of skill and risk profile in just 4 years.

Comaneci’s coaches, couple Bela and Marta Karolyi gained worldwide fame for their methods, in particular their aggressive training of 6 year olds. They hastened the de-ageing of gymnastics with their obsession with scouting at kindergartens. They insisted that training facilities double as hostels, so parents could leave their girls to their practice for days on end. By the time the Karolyis took on the US team, their methods were the gold standard in training. At their Texas coaching facility they forbade parental contact for the duration of the athlete’s training. These conditions were ripe for predators like Nassar.

This heartbreaking film attests to how girls’ bodies are at the heart of the sports- corporate complex, driving sponsorships, viewership stats and TV programming. The sport breaks their bodies to build them, unmakes them to make them. Gymnasts are expected to power through pain and injury as long as it isn’t debilitating, causing one former gymnast to liken her kind to wounded animals who can’t show weakness no matter what. An inside not-joke goes like this: when a gymnast plays football for a day, she’s sore, but when a footballer does gymnastics for a day, he’s dead. It is one of the few sports in the world that completely lacks a recreational element. You don’t take that sort of risk unless you’re around trainers and physiotherapists, competing formally.

Larry Nassar understood all of this intimately. He was the classic serial predator- likeable, meticulous, opportunity- minded. What is different though is his mass gaslighting of an unusual cohort. His victims were elite athletes, taught to clamp down on their pain and keep their sights fixed on gold. He used their ambition against them. Over decades hundreds were entrusted to his care, and any whispers were dealt with swiftly and decisively by a network of denier- enablers.

At The Heart Of Gold speaks not only to institutional failure, but also a cultural one. When we value politeness over safety and conformity over dissent, we tell our girls that their minds and bodies don’t matter. ‘What we really have to do is we have to start listening to our kids,’ says a child health and safety advocate in the film. ‘If a child says to you they don’t like how someone touched them you don’t say ‘But that’s one of the nicest people I ever met.’ You sit down and you say, ‘Why? What was wrong?’

It is hard to watch his victims struggle to reconcile their admiration of him with their revulsion. This is where the film shines. In letting the survivors wrestle with their feelings honestly, it lets us know that there is no singular template for survivor behaviour, that coping mechanisms must always be read in context.

Watch it if you’re a parent, a survivor or just someone interested in human behaviour. If you’re in India, watch Erin Lee Carr’s At The Heart Of Gold on Hotstar.

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dr. sheth’s pure olive squalane

I came to Dr. Sheth’s by way of the internet, which sometimes has a way of landing you on life- changing things. This dermatologist- led Indian brand claims to have distilled the knowledge of three generations of dermatologists into a tightly edited bunch of potent brown glass bottles. The skincare market is still eurocentric; even though the Koreans seem to be changing that with exciting formats like sheet masks and their uniquely kawaii take on packaging, their slant on skin lightening muddies the waters a little bit. Melanin- rich Indian skin, the product of generations of vegetarianism and protein- deficient intake, is unique. Today, rising incidences of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), associated hormonal wonkiness and type 2 diabetes are wreaking havoc on our skins, causing complications like patchiness, oiliness and hyper pigmentation. The urbanite’s skin responds especially badly to environmental stressors- pollution, long commutes bookended by hasty, poor dietary choices, punishing workdays that leave little room for mindful eating or exercise. We’ve always needed homegrown solutions that straddle kitchen science, naani ke nuskhe, heavy duty Ayurveda and a modern understanding of formulations. This is why Dr. Sheth’s works.

Their Pure Olive Squalane is a light, colorless olive oil- derivative that subs beautifully for moisturiser. A small lick spreads easily and evenly on your skin, and is best applied to a freshly cleansed face spritzed with natural rose water, which has astringent properties. For those wary of the heaviness and low absorbency of facial oils, this product is perfect. Because squalane is a version of a compound produced naturally by our sebaceous glands, it is a skin- safe emollient that is capable of squeezing into the interstices of skin cells and deliver instant smoothening. I love how visibly my face comes alive when scrubbed clean and slathered with the oil. It’s an all- weather moisturiser that works best on dry and combination skin, though I’ve read reports of people with oily or inflamed skin thrilling to how natural and barely-there it feels even hours into application and yet how efficient it is.

I’d recommend it for anyone working in an airless, heavily air-conditioned cubicle farm. Keep a bottle on your dresser and you know you have an ally that won’t let your skin feel or look wrung out by evening. I’m on my second bottle and can’t get enough.

Available on the Dr. Sheth’s website.