How India’s E-sports Industry Rose From the Ashes of an Elaborate Scam

The piece below is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph India, and probably the one I’m most proud of from my time there. It’s a feature-length article about the history of India’s e-sports scene, and where it’s headed in the future. I hope everyone reads the whole thing as a lot of research, planning and interviews went into this piece! Thanks for reading as always and enjoy 🙂

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The e-sports industry has a turbulent history in India, but stands poised on the brink of change in 2018. Stuart Wood takes a look at the scene’s past, present and future, and speaks to the people at its forefront.

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E-sports – the competitive, high-level play of video games – is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In 2017, it generated $1.5 billion in revenue, far exceeding all expectations. At The International 2017, a DOTA 2 tournament held in August, players competed for $24 million in prize money, while 92 million people watched online. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why retail giant Amazon paid $1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, the online streaming service which broadcasts e-sports events, and which all those millions of people were tuned in to.

E-sports’ rise has been meteoric in the last ten years.  What started as a collection of small, competitive scenes has since become a cultural phenomenon and billion dollar industry which offers lucrative full-time careers to players, broadcasters and event organizers. E-sports has celebrities, villains, scandals, stories of success and failure, plenty of high drama and, best of all, it can be viewed online free of charge. Just as importantly, it has helped legitimize gaming as a hobby, and tackle the cultural stigma which still surrounds it in some areas of the world.

What games are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘e-sports’? Primarily, games that feature in large scale tournaments are MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), or RTS (Real Time Strategy). Both are, in effect, top down strategy games in which two highly-trained teams compete against each other to control territory and dominate their opponents. Other genres which feature heavily in big tournaments are first-person shooters such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, as well as one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 5 and Super Smash Bros Melee.

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For as much variety, passion and market potential as there is under the e-sports banner, the industry is still in its early stages in India. The reasons for this are many: firstly, despite being home to a population of 1.3 billion, only 462 million people are connected to the internet. Of these, many are connected via phone as expensive computer equipment is considered a ‘luxury good’, and often has to be imported from outside the country. In addition, internet speeds are not as fast as those in the west, reaching only 60ms compared to 10ms in Europe and North America, which can present problems for games that require quick reflexes and reactions.

But things are changing. The e-sports scene in India is beginning to catch on, and several high profile events have emerged following the foundation of a group called Nodwin Gaming. Nodwin have partnered with ESL, the worlds largest e-sports league, to provide the ESL India Premiership, and its 2018 incarnation is offering a prize pool of 1 crore – the largest India has seen to date. It’s a far cry from previous attempts to kickstart e-sports in India, none of which reached the level of success and exposure needed to sustain the industry.

A brief history of e-sports in India

2000 – The first coming of e-sports in India is in the year 2000, when the country competes in the World Cyber Games. The event generates initial interest in the scene, but popularity wanes soon afterwards.
2005 – Online gaming begins to take off in India around the mid-2000s, when the spread of Facebook and social media brings gaming to a larger audience. Until this point, online gaming was a niche hobby and small market, owing to the cost of consoles and PCs.
2005/6 – Gaming website Zapak.com, a subsidiary of Reliance ADAG, launches a series of gaming cafes around India, where games such as FIFA, DOTA 1 and Counter Strike 1.6 can be played. The venture proves unsuccessful and fails to catch on.
2007 – The E-sports Federation of India is established, aiming to promote, represent and regulate the e-sports scene in India.
2008 – Indian Inferno, India’s first professional gaming team, launches in Mumbai.
2013 – Nodwin Gaming is established.
2018 – India’s first televised e-sports league, U Cypher, launches on MTV India.

The Scam That Started an Industry

The story of Nodwin Gaming’s foundation is one that begins with a carnival. The India Gaming Carnival, specifically – hosted in 2012 by a group called WTF Eventz, and billed as “India’s largest gaming & electronics expo”. WTF Eventz was a company set up just months before the event was due to take place, and they claimed to be offering India’s largest ever prize pool of 1.5 crore. They also claimed that they had received 4 crore in funding from two Indian companies named GenNext and NSR Construction.

Canny users of Indian tech site erodov.com, however, noticed that these so-called sponsors listed the very same address and phone number as WTF Eventz, and also that WTF listed a starting capital of just 1 lakh – not even close to enough to fund an event on this scale. The India Gaming Carnival went ahead, but it was a shambles: the entire first day was cancelled, the electricity was shut off before League of Legends finals were played, and winners were not awarded any prize money. Attendees went through an arduous process to try and get their expensive tickets refunded.

Nodwin founder Akshat Rathee calls it “a disaster”, and it was the impetus for him to set up his company: “I set up Nodwin Gaming after the India Gaming Carnival, to show there was more to e-sports in India. We had to rebuild the gaming scene.” In the half a decade since, Nodwin and the e-sports industry have gone from strength to strength, forging links with publishers and advertisers, and staging larger and larger events to bigger audiences. “We now have one million daily players of DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive in India”, he says.

That growth has attracted the interest of investors from within India’s game industry, as well as further afield. Nazara Technologies, one of India’s biggest mobile game publishers, acquired a majority stake in Nodwin in January of this year. It is part of their plan, announced February 2017, to invest $20 million into India’s e-sports scene over a period of five years. “We need to build the ecosystem for e-sports in India”, says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Nazara. “The foundation is there, and the infrastructure is improving. We just need imagination.”

Nazara have plans for the creation of an online content platform, a professional league, and a network of pro teams entirely supported by the company. Agarwal says they are also working on the infrastructure around the scene, setting up faster servers with better internet connection speeds, and investing in local game development talent: “We want more games that are made by Indians for Indian audiences – to build the scene from the bottom up, not the top down.”

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A Portable Future

The key to capturing that audience might lie in a corner of the e-sports industry which has been under-explored in the west – competitive mobile gaming. Both Rathee and Agarwal believe that India’s mobile market has enormous potential to grow, and that the scene is still waiting for one game to reach widespread success and unify the playerbase. Cricket games like Real Cricket 17 and World Cricket Championship 2 have been downloaded millions of times on Indian app stores, but none has proved a runaway winner just yet.

The success in China and Korea of Tencent’s Arena of Valor, ostensibly a League of Legends clone for mobile, proves that the potential is there. And Rathee envisions that India could host a different type of competition for games like these: “Perhaps we will see big events that are less like Counter Strike or DOTA and more like the Tour De France, with players competing side by side in heats until only the best remain.” Competitive mobile games have already had some exposure in India: ESL India Premiership hosts Supercell’s Clash Royale, a spinoff of the enormously popular Clash of Clans. And Real Cricket 17, developed by Nautilus Mobile, featured in a significant Indian tournament which recently concluded.

U Cypher is India’s first televised e-sports league, and has been broadcasting on MTV India through January and February of 2018. It features six teams of fourteen players, all competing in four games: Real Cricket 17, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tekken 7. Teams are awarded points for each game, and place on a league table after each matchup. E-sports’ arrival on mainstream television – especially with the lavish production values boasted by U Cypher – is a sign of the times in India, and sure to spread the scene even further across the country.

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Rathee and Agarwal both agree that the future of competitive gaming is incredibly bright in India. They describe the industry in its current form as a ‘blank slate’ on which early adopters are staking their claim. As exposure to e-sports grows, so too does the infrastructure surrounding it, and the culture of fans and players that allow it to thrive. Rathee says that this, in the end, is the most important thing: “E-sports is about the community. To survive it needs heroes, and it needs stories.” We can only hope these stories are as compelling as that of the Indian e-sports industry itself – one with a turbulent history, but an incredibly promising future.

Learning the Language of Honk – Four Weeks in Calcutta

The Wooden Man has spent the last four weeks in Calcutta, India, completing a journalism internship for The Daily Telegraph. The following is an account of everything I got up to, with plenty of pictures to boot. Enjoy!

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The first thing is the noise. Stepping through the gate at international arrivals, my very tired, very jetlagged ears are plunged into a symphony of traffic. Taxi drivers shout and gesture to potential customers, and each other. Vehicles swerve between lanes, doors are slammed shut. And honking car horns are speaking their own language, a language we’ve never heard in the place I call home. There are short, tooting little bursts of noise saying here here here, and then there are long drawn out honks that sound almost sentient, like the cars are marking their territory.

mdeThroughout my four weeks in Calcutta, and from the passenger seat of many Uber cabs, I gradually began to understand the language of Honk. It is a language of many verbs – move, stop, look, wait. But it can also express emotion: several cab drivers, I noticed, would honk the horn when they were forced to stop at a red light as an expression of frustration, not aimed at anything or anyone in particular. And one especially mad taxi driver, who took me home from work on a Friday evening, didn’t miss a single opportunity to overtake the cars in front of him – even if it meant driving into oncoming traffic. He would honk at each one he passed, partly as a warning saying “get out of my way”, but also as a kind of boast: “Ha! I’m faster than you!”

In those first moments, though, fresh off the plane, the language of Honk meant nothing to me. I was more than a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the roads, and the blast of heat that struck me as the doors opened. It had been a stressful flight, with several issues connecting from Mumbai to Calcutta. First I had gone through the wrong gate at immigration and then later, when going through baggage check, my boarding pass was not stamped properly. This meant that when I tried to board my connecting flight, I was told I hadn’t gone through security and almost wasn’t able to board the plane.

 

A New Day, A New Horizon

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All of this occurred at four in the morning, and my inability to sleep on planes meant I’d been awake for close to thirty hours. I finally did manage to board the connecting flight, feeling thoroughly grumpy and very, very stressed. But once we began take off, I was treated to a spectacular sight that put it all into perspective. Out the right side plane window was the most incredible sunrise I had ever seen over Mumbai – a long band of deep orange at the very lip of the horizon, slowly fading into yellow, pale green, silver and then the black of the night sky. I decided to take it as a sign: the start of a new day, and the start of a new chapter for me personally; one which I hoped would be full of new sights, sounds and experiences.

In my first week, the sight that shocked me the most (and one that was sadly prominent throughout the entire city) was the slums. I’d never before seen poverty on the scale it exists in Calcutta, and it made me appreciate how many simple things I take for granted every day. The divide between rich and poor is more prominent here than anywhere else I’ve been in the world – brand new shopping malls and hotels are next door to crumbling buildings that look hundreds of years old. The wild animals also required some getting used to. Of course there are wild dogs and cats in the streets, but the sight of wild horses, cows and a monkey caused me to do a double take. There was even a pack of wild goats that ran across the road in Central Avenue, headbutting a surprised woman who was looking the other way.

The other thing I could never quite get used to was the staring. Calcutta is not a city home to many foreigners, and my white skin (and probably also my shaved head) constantly marked me out as different. While I know there was nothing more to it than quiet curiosity, I am generally quite a private person and often found it difficult to be stared at in this way. Calcutta was the first time I had ever lived anywhere in which I was an ethnic minority: on bad days, I would describe the experience as feeling simultaneously invisible and as if everyone was looking at me.

A large part of this was just travel nerves, which passed after the first week. It isn’t easy to pack up your whole life and move to an entirely different continent halfway across the planet, one in which you know nobody and don’t speak the language. But I told myself that if I could do this then I could do anything, and that I had to conquer my fear of the unknown. Change is scary, yes, but lack of change is scarier. You just need perspective to see it.

 

The Work Begins

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Once I got my head down into some writing, I found I was more in my element. In the second week of my internship at The Telegraph, I was sent on a few food assignments to various places around Calcutta. I was lucky enough to visit Dum Pukht, one of the best restaurants in the city, to try some traditional Indian cuisine. Having not had a chance to experience proper Indian food up until this point, I went straight to the top for my first taste of the country’s flavours, and they didn’t disappoint. I quickly realized how important food is in Indian culture, as I explored the streets full of spice stalls and carts selling phuchkas and kachori. The syrupy sweets of KC Das, especially the famous rosogolla, were a favourite of mine.

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In my third week, I did some modelling. T2 were having a photoshoot for Holi all about how people were adding colour to their wardrobes, and asked me to come along. As someone who is generally terrible at having his picture taken, I wasn’t hugely excited about the idea. But the shoot ended up being silly fun – I’d never realized before just how unnatural some of the poses in professional photoshoots are, and my awkward laughter as I tried to hold them was just about enough to pass for smiling. I certainly didn’t expect my face to end up on the front cover of Tuesday’s T2, but my copy of the day’s paper is a souvenir that I’ll take home with me, and it makes me laugh every time I see it.

It was only in my final week in Calcutta that I was able to find the time to visit the city’s main tourist attractions. The gardens of the Victoria Memorial were a nice escape from the chaos and noise of the streets, and the building itself was a grand tribute to the fallen power of the Victorian British Empire. St Paul’s Cathedral, meanwhile, was the first cathedral I’d ever seen to feature ceiling fans. Both buildings felt emblematic to me of Calcutta’s peculiar mix of old and new: these imposing historical relics tower over a city which is still full of the influence of its colonial history, even 80 years on. But at the same time, India’s rapidly rising economy is giving birth to new developments, five star hotels and shiny shopping malls all across the city, while huge billboards spread the influence of Western capitalism.

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Somewhere in all these contradictions, I gradually began to understand the mad, chaotic energy of Calcutta. It truly is a different world to any other city I’ve visited, or any place I’ve called home. I won’t soon forget the noise, the sights, the smells, the people and those streets, which are more intensely alive than any I’ve seen. I just hope, when I get back to the UK to take my upcoming driving test, I don’t start speaking the language of Honk.

A Magical Mystery Tour of the United Kingdom

The Wooden Man takes you on a guided tour of the United Kingdom, one gig at a time.

 “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?”

I asked this question in the basement of a German-themed bar named Bierkeller, a venue situated in the centre of Bristol. Bristol is a British city about an hour west of London that is home to some of the best live music in the UK, and I was at Bierkeller in the middle of my first ever moshpit. The band I had come to see were one of my all time favourites – a metal group by the name of Electric Wizard. And midway through their classic tune ‘Barbarian’, the crowd – and myself – reached a fever pitch of such headbanging intensity that I felt an enormous noggin thump me right in the back of the neck.

Charged up on the music and adrenaline, I hardly even noticed at the time. But when the song ended, I turned to the greasy-haired metalhead dude behind me and asked, a bit too politely: “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, man. I think so.” I couldn’t even be angry – I grinned back and replied: ‘Nice one.”

Moments like these are exactly why I love live music. There’s nothing to compare to the thrill of hearing your favourite artists in the flesh, sharing in the atmosphere and the energy of a performance with like-minded people. In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best live music venues in the world, and there’s no better way to experience the culture of a city than to get off the beaten path and hear some local bands. So in this article I want to take you through some of the venues and cities throughout the United Kingdom, and recount some tales from the amazing artists I’ve seen there.

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Entering the Big Jeff Zone

The city of Bristol is known for a few things. First, it’s the home of Banksy and some of the best graffiti art in the world. Second is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, an impressive feat of Victorian engineering just outside the city centre. And third is the Bristol accent, full of rolled ‘arr’s and ‘urr’s that are famously difficult for anyone outside the city to understand.

But Bristol is also one of the best cities in the UK for live music. It’s home to a floating nightclub – Thekla, an old German timber ship converted into music venue, which sits in the buzzing harbourside area. And it’s also home to The Fleece, a rock bar which plays host to rising talent from around the south west. The Fleece is perhaps as well known for its music as it is for a small square of tarmac near the stage, which has been affectionately dubbed the Big Jeff Zone.

Big Jeff is a resident of Bristol who is something of a legend in the music scene. The man is a towering seven feet tall, and his love of live music is so strong that he attends a different gig almost every single night. That’s no exaggeration: if you go to a live show in Bristol, there is a very strong chance that you might spot the blond-haired giant himself, right up front by the stage and rocking out to his hearts content. At The Fleece, the big man has his own designated standing space in front of a support beam, where his huge height doesn’t obstruct the view of the poor souls behind him.

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Tales from the UK rave underground

Bristol is also a hub for electronic music, being the birthplace of the short-lived dubstep genre and containing a thriving scene of drum ‘n’ bass, house and techno. The UK has a storied history with raves, or underground parties – in the 80s, many illegal raves were shut down by police as the nation was swept by fear of the drug Ecstasy, and its effect on youth culture. In the aftermath of these illegal raves, many changes were made to laws on UK nightlife, allowing venues to stay open much later into the night.

The impact of those parties can still be felt at music venues around the UK. In Bristol the nightclub Motion, which is just a short walk from the city’s main train station, plays host to regular raves which channel the spirit of years past: huge speaker systems, loud bass and music playing into the early hours of the morning. Some nights end as late as five or six AM, and clubbers leaving to go home are likely to run into early morning commuters catching their next day trains and buses to work.

All drugs are, of course, banned from the premises, and there is tight security at the door. But there are inevitably some who smuggle illicit substances past the bouncers, and you can usually spot them a mile away. The person stood in the corner by themselves, staring intently at a strobe light and dancing like a confused jellyfish, is probably best left alone.

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Music in the capital

It goes without saying that there is plenty of good music in London: the city is among the top billing for almost any international performing artist. One of the best music venues in the capital, though, is the Roundhouse in Camden. This venue, true to its name, is a circular, open space with a stage at the front, and plays host to all the best bands not quite big enough to fill an arena. It is large, but the round shape of the building and fantastic stage setup keep it feeling intimate.

I came here to watch a band named Beach House perform a handful of years ago, and had a fantastic evening all around. Beach House are a band who play a style of music known as dream pop: slow, hazy tunes with wistful vocals and steady drum beats. My enjoyment of the gig was only slightly dampened when I found out, having travelled halfway across the country to get to London, that the band were performing at a venue not fifteen minutes away from my house just days later.

Going up north

That home was in Leeds, where I studied at university for three years. Leeds is another hub for live music and is, alongside Manchester, the go-to place for artists performing outside of London. Deep in the student district of Headingley you’ll find the famous Brudenell Social Club, where bands of all shapes and sizes play to adoring student crowds. I visited the Brudenell several times, to see everything from American punk rockers Viet Cong to freaky noise-pop band Deerhoof.

But the best gig I attended in my student days was one that ended with the lead singer pouring a bottle of whiskey on top of my head. Crystal Castles are an electro-pop group with elements of house music, and their shows are a sensory overload of loud bass, flashing lights and jumping crowds. I saw them at the O2 Academy in Leeds, and the crowd were so hyperactive that at one point a girl slipped and fell, causing a domino effect that left about fifty people lying on the floor. The music was stopped to let everyone get to their feet, and then resumed at the same volume as before.

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Having pushed my way to the front of the crowd as the show went on, I found myself up against the barrier for the encore. Lead singer Alice Glass pulled a bottle of whiskey from out behind the stage and took a huge swig from it, then poured the rest into the open mouths of the front row. Unfortunately, the majority of the drink landed squarely on top of my head, but I was so into the music that it didn’t bother me all too much.

That’s the power of live music: an atmosphere and energy so intense it can let you forget being headbutted, or taking an unwanted Jack Daniels shower. And the UK is second to none for gigs: whether you’re up north in Leeds and Manchester or down south in London and Bristol, the country’s cities have a huge variety of shows for all tastes. For anyone visiting the UK, seeing some artists perform is one of the best ways to get in touch with the locals and get a feel for the city, and all the venues above are highly recommended for doing exactly that. Who knows – you might even spot Big Jeff.

5 Timeless Albums That Turn 50 This Year

The year 1968 was an incredible one for music. A year on from the summer of love and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, many of the best artists from the psychedelic ‘60s were taking their music to new and fascinating places as the hippy movement reached its peak. In this article, we’re taking a look at five albums that are celebrating their 50th birthday in 2018, and why these records have stood the test of time.

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1.) The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

The 1960s was a decade that spoke the language of the guitar, and nobody was more fluent than the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Electric Ladyland is the finest hour in his all-too-short discography, which was brought to an end when he overdosed on barbiturates and died at the age of 27. This album features countless all-time classics like ‘Crosstown Traffic’ (two of the most perfect minutes of rock music ever recorded), ‘Gypsy Eyes’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Then there’s the absolutely epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, in which we can hear Hendrix writing himself into rock music mythology right before our very ears: ‘Oh the night I was born, lord I swear the moon turned a fire red…” Electric Ladyland oozes virtuosity, confidence and raw sexuality from its every note, even fifty years on.

 

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2.) The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat

No artist from the 60s was as influential as The Velvet Underground. This is a band that were relatively unknown when they debuted in 1967, but in the presiding 50 years their experimental and noisy songs have been a blueprint for generations of forward-thinking rock musicians. White Light/White Heat is their weirdest and darkest album as well as my personal favourite – it features scuzzy, lo-fi rock songs about heroin, orgies, and a lobotomy, as well as ‘The Gift’, in which an entire short story is read aloud to music. And to top it all off is the infamous ‘Sister Ray’, a controversial, 17-minute noise rock freak-out that is pure, uncensored chaos. The Velvet Underground were always torn between the musical interests of their two primary songwriters: the experimental John Cale and classic popsmith Lou Reed. But on White Light/White Heat, they found the perfect balance of beauty and filth, and created an experimental rock album for the ages.

 

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3.) The Beatles –   The White Album

The Beatles wrote and recorded much of their classic White Album – officially titled just The Beatles – while travelling in northern India. The group flew in to Rishikesh to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who taught them the practice of transcendental meditation. It was a trip intended to creatively recharge the group and bring them closer together, after they had burned out on touring and the music industry in 1966 and ’67. And though it did prove a fruitful period creatively, it also highlighted the growing division between the bands four members: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison wrote many of their songs separately, and the results were then compiled into one huge double album, thirty songs long. It’s for this reason that The White Album, as brilliant as it is, often feels quite uneven – there are timeless classics like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, but there are also throwaway tunes like ‘Rocky Racoon’ and ‘Piggies’ that mostly serve as filler. In the end, you have to take the good with the bad and appreciate the whole for the brilliant, indulgent mess that it is.

 

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4.) Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of the most gorgeous albums ever recorded, but it’s a bit of a difficult record to pin down. Stylistically it is somewhere in between folk, jazz and soul, but its winding songs have an elusive, dreamlike quality. They feature strummed guitar, bass, violin, flute and many other instruments, all combining in semi-improvised harmony. Van Morrison’s wild scat singing style binds it all together, as his voice latches onto words and notes and spins them in dizzying patterns. His lyrics are poetic and difficult to make sense of, but always beautiful: “From the far side of the ocean / If I put the wheels in motion / And I stand with my arms behind me / And I’m pushin’ on the door…” Astral Weeks is the definition of a cult classic, and its stature has only grown over the course of the last 50 years. Today, it rightly takes its place among the greatest folk albums ever recorded.

 

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5.) The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For the Money

Many bands and listeners were swept up by the idealistic views of the 1960s, but Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were not among them. We’re Only In It For the Money is an album that tears down the hippy subculture, and its naïve belief that love, drugs and tie-dye t-shirts could change the world. The cover of the album is a parody of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, featuring the band members posing in frilly tutus. And the songs, likewise, miss no opportunity to skewer the long-haired stoners flocking to San Francisco and Woodstock: on ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’, Zappa sings “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” We’re Only In It For the Money is a surreal, satirical concept album that feels very much of the 1960s, but its quirky sense of humour and playful songwriting have allowed it to stand the test of time.

Eating For Free at the #1 Restaurant in Calcutta!

When the Telegraph ask if you want to go for a free meal to the #1 rated restaurant in the city to try their new seasonal menu and interview the chef, you of course say yes! This was my first assignment for my internship here, and it was some way to start. Dum Pukht was my first taste of proper Indian food, having spent a good part of last week eating plain rice while curled up sick in bed. This piece is something a bit different for me, but was fun to put together – hope you enjoy reading!

In Calcutta, the #1 and #2 rated restaurants in the city are a thirty second walk away from each other’s doors. Not far from the main entrance of the extravagant ITC Sonar hotel, which is home to six restaurants and a nightclub, you’ll find the rustic Peshawri, which offers a wide variety of Indian cuisine. But within throwing distance is Dum Pukht, the restaurant that has held the #1 spot on TripAdvisor for the last two years. Chef Zubair Qureshi tells us, with a grin, “They know we are #1. There is a lot of friendly competition”.

It is perhaps, then, in the spirit of friendly competition that Dum Pukht is offering a brand new menu throughout February – one which is built around the culinary delights of qaliya curry. From the 1st until the 28th, Dum Pukht is serving a selection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian qaliya dishes, ranging from Gosht Chaap Qaliya – lamb chops cooked with yoghurt, brown onion and almond paste – to Nadru Kofta Qaliya – marbles of minced lotus stem and hara masala finished in yellow gravy.

Dum Pukht invited T2 down to the ITC Sonar to try their new dishes, and it was certainly an incredible dining experience. From the moment we arrived, greeted by opulently dressed staff and the huge white stone curves of the front entrance, through to the moment we left – the ITC Sonar was a remarkable venue, and home to some of the best food in Calcutta.

We arrived at Dum Pukht at about half seven, when the kitchen had only just opened and the restaurant was empty. This allowed us to take in the beautiful décor of the room – moody orange and white lights illuminate a marble floor, while onyx cladding along the walls complete the ambience. The kitchen at the back is surrounded entirely by windows, allowing diners to see (and hear) the food being created, and offering a real sense of spaciousness.

It was at this point that we were given the chance to taste a few items on the menu. First up was the Gosht Chaap Qaliya, lamb chops cooked to perfection in a wonderfully rich sauce. Second, and my personal favourite, was the Mahi Dum Sarso Qaliya, a whole baby bhetki fish marinated with mustard, yellow chilli and yoghurt, finished on dum. This fish has an incredible texture: creamy and salty in the extreme, melting in the mouth like butter.

Last was the Gosht Chandi Qaliya, which chef Qureshi said was his own personal favourite, and the dish he would order from his own menu. This piece of boneless lamb is slow-cooked for four hours until it falls off the bone, and the tastes of cardamom, saffron and turmeric increase the intense flavour. The dish is topped with a garnish of silver leaves for a decadent finish.

The long preparation time of these dishes epitomises the slow-cooking style which Dum Pukht is named after. It is a style of cooking which originated in Persia, but has since become a part of Indian and Pakistani cuisine. For the qaliya dishes, chef Qureshi says he starts from a simple base of yoghurt, coriander and assorted spices before building up his recipes. Each is laboured over carefully, as evidenced by the delicious flavours on show.

Mr Qureshi is a chef with plenty of experience – he has been cooking at Calcutta’s Dum Pukht for over seven years now, and before that spent another six at Dum Pukht in Delhi, at the hotel ITC Maurya. He grew up in Agra, surrounded by a family of chefs, and his grandfather was khansama to the Raja of Mahmudabad in Uttar Pradesh. To put it simply, he knows what he is doing.

All of that experience has been poured into the new qaliya menu which Dum Pukht is providing throughout the course of February. This is an experience not to be missed for anyone who loves great food, great service and world class accommodation.

How to Not Get Laid on Valentine’s Day

Hello everyone. Today is Valentine’s Day, and that means network television and organized broadcasting the world over will be delivering you a steady drip-feed of romantic sap to fuel your plans for getting laid. For those of you who have no such plans – for the freedom fighters rocking it solo on the most depressing day of the year – I’ve put together this list. Here are my favourite subversive movie romances: the tales of love that were weird, dark, or entirely unexpected. All are guaranteed to not get you laid on Valentine’s Day.

Wall-E

Yes, Wall-E. Wall-E is a movie about a pair of binoculars on wheels who falls in love with a floating trash can, and in the process of trying to court her accidentally ends up saving the Earth from a biological apocalypse. For my money, this is Pixar’s finest hour: a screwball romantic comedy starring two robots who never speak, and yet tell us so much about climate change, the nature of humanity and the power of love. And who could forget that intergalactic slow-dance through the vacuum of space, Wall-E flying around with his little fire hydrant, wide eyes staring longingly at his robot darling?

Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy contains two of the most romantic movies ever committed to film, but there’s something a little different about Before Midnight, its third and final act. This movie is about the parts of a relationship that don’t get idealized in movies: the late stages, where two people have become so comfortable with each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies they know each other better than themselves. Linklater’s depiction of marriage is dangerously intimate, and shocking in its pragmatism. “If you want true love, this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien is a coming of age story about two Mexican teenagers who embark on a road trip with an alluring older woman. All three characters have secrets, and Cuaron’s depiction of young love, lust and jealousy are scintillating as the group make their way across Mexico, a backdrop which seethes with political and economic turmoil. Much of Y Tu Mama Tambien’s power rests on a masterful romantic turn at the very end of the movie which I won’t spoil here, but which forces the viewer to reassess everything that came before.

Her

Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the most contemporary and socially aware romances made this decade. In it, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theo falls in love with an artificial intelligence inside the operating system of his apartment, played by Scarlett Johannson. The unusual pair develop a growing intimacy throughout the course of some wonderfully written conversations about sentience, commitment and the nature of feeling. Her is both a glorious satire of modern humankind’s obsession with technology, and a touching, passionate story about the limits of what can (and cannot) be loved.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This excellent movie is all about love and memory: what we remember of the people we used to love, and how we might forget about someone we’ve stopped loving. Couple Joel and Clementine have a vicious argument, causing Clementine to seek the assistance of new age corporation Lacuna Inc, who have the ability to remove all her memories of the relationship. A devastated Joel resigns himself to the same procedure, but midway through decides against it, and the majority of the film takes place inside his mind as he fights to save his memories of Clementine from being erased. Imaginative, futuristic and totally unique: this is a romance like no other.

Why You Have to See ‘The End of the F***ing World’

I punched my dad in the face and stole his car. That seemed like a good place to start”. So says seventeen-year old psychopath James (Alex Lawther), in the first episode of UK drama/comedy The End of the F***ing World, which made its international debut on Netflix this past month. James is a troubled child with a traumatic past, and in his spare time he sneaks off into the woods to murder cats, dogs, and butterflies. He is planning to murder his first human target when he meets Alyssa (Jessica Barden), a brash and outwardly confident young girl at his school who he pretends to fall in love with.

Things don’t quite go according to plan, and James’ scheme is put on hold when he and Alyssa decide to leave town in his dad’s car – but not before delivering the unfortunate man a punch to the face. This sets in motion a darkly comic and wildly unpredictable journey, brought to life by the fantastic acting of Barden and Lawther in the lead roles. Straight-faced and socially inept James is the perfect foil to Alyssa, whose fiery personality is a front for a lot of vulnerability and pain.

It quickly becomes clear that The End of the F***ing World is more than just a comedy with a dark sense of humour. As the series progresses, it tackles delicate topics like mental health, parental role models, masculinity and domestic abuse. But it does so very subtly, and never loses its ability to make us laugh out loud. In fact, some of the shows funniest moments are those that arise out of the bleakest situations: in a later episode, we are introduced to local drug dealer Johnny, who only ever wears shorts. “What did you wear to your ma’s funeral, Johnny?’ someone asks him. ‘Black shorts’, he replies.

The show’s production is fantastic all around, too. Its editing is snappy and stylish, cutting quickly between scenes and jumping backwards and forwards in time. The soundtrack features plenty of memorable songs, and a score put together by Graham Coxon of Blur. And the cinematography is gorgeous, particularly in the later episodes, which feature long shots of desolate, windswept beaches and sunsets.

The End of the F***ing World performs a deft balancing act between comedy and tragedy, making us laugh in order to get us thinking about some important and under-explored issues. It had me completely hooked for the entirety of its short duration, and it’s shocking ending left me wanting more. Simply put: The End of the F***ing World is one of the best shows to come out of the UK in some time, and wider international release on Netflix means you have no excuse not to check it out.