Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Saffron Topdog Takes Gujarat

I woke up this morning with a distinct sense of deja vu. Earlier in the year I had written about Behen Mayawati's electoral trouncing of rivals in the UP elections. This morning, once again, I felt a mixture of irritation (don't like BMW and don't particularly like Modi) and awe at the increasingly sophistication of the Indian voter.

Yes, I know that international press is already screaming in shrill tones about "Hindu nationalism" and Modi's "fundamentalism." The thoroughly whipped Congress is calling it the victory of communal and divisive politics, while a section of the local media is gleefully predicting that the rise of Modi shall also mean the demise of BJP's party-not-individual-based politics.

Now the caveats: the foreign media loves to demonise anyone from a non-western country who doesn't speak with an Oxbridge accent or at least pretend to have clear western leanings and influences. Meanwhile, a large section of the English-langauge press - led by scions of the old English-educated elite - in India has an uneasy relationship with the plain-speaking (and often outright crass) Modi. They would prefer a Rahul Gandhi with his "international"/urban/dynastic credentials or a Jyotiraditya Scindia with a moth-eaten royal lineage.

Not surprisingly, a large section of the Indian media had gleefully written off Modi and the BJP in the state. An episode of NDTV's The Big Fight was immensely revealing of a general anti-Modi bias amongst sections of the media, as the host Rajdeep Sardesai admonished a primarily Gujarati crowd that "middle class audiences didn't make for election victories." Wonder whether he is tempted to eat those particular words today?

But let's go back to the basics of Modi's success which are surprisingly similar to the UP elections in May. Mayawati campaigned on the "Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh" inclusivity platform that had signalled the demise of old caste-based politics and indicated a new inclusivity. Modi's "Jeetega Gujarat" did the same - signalling (hopefully) the end of hypocritical secular-vs-Hindutva divisions in the Indian polity. Perhaps this election - barring some Congress-led mudslinging - can herald an era beyond creed-based politics in the country and a move towards elections won and lost on issues of governance.

As in UP, the Gujarat voter too signalled his/her ability to look beyond the campaign hyperbole. When Congress alleged corruption and lack of development, the voters could actually see the difference of transparent governance and economic growth. When the Centre (led by the PM Manmohan Singh, and Congress's favourite if inept campaigners of the Gandhi family) alleged that Muslims were marginalised in Gujarat, the voters noted that Gujarati Muslims still posted higher literacy rates and well being indicators in the state than other parts of the country.

More importantly, the Modi-led BJP campaign was focussed on economic growth and development platform backed with evidence of good governance. The allegedly "aggressive Hindutva" was only brought out in response to Sonia Gandhi's ill-judged "traders of death" (maut ke saudagar) remark. Even then, it was not the crude Ayodhya-brand but of the sophisticated "terrorism" and national security variety. Most voters found the "secular" credentials falling flat as abuse of power and vote-bank politics by so-called "secular" parties stood in stark light with issues of Afzal Guru/Sohrabuddin, Taslima, Nandigram etc.

In the days before mass media, 24-hour news channels, and Indian-style hyper-aggressive television journalism, Gujarat voters could have ignored the hypocrisy evident in statements by Congress/Left leaders, or remained dangerously unaware of it. This is no longer possible, and Modi/BJP used it to their best advantage.

There is a final aspect that needs mentioning. Like Mayawati, Modi also hails from modest origins, beginning life as a tea-seller on a small railway station. He has progressed through the traditional school of Indian politics, acquiring "grassroots" experience as an RSS pracharak, and then as an ABVP leader at university. Like Mayawati, he is one of the post-independence generation that have made ambition acceptable for Indians(watch this space as Modi slowly moves to the centre-stage in time for the next general elections). He - like Mayawati - represents an India that is no longer satisfied to live at subsistence levels while watching their leaders live lifestyles of the maharajahs. Not only do we want a piece of that pie, but we are increasingly unwilling to let our political leaders keep us away from the table.

With no elite pedigree, massive inheritance or foreign education, Modi - like APJ Abdul Kalam, Shahrukh Khan and Dhirubhai Ambani - symbolizes an increasingly impatient, aggressive, India where it is not only possible but also desireable to make it to the top of the heap by sheer force of will.

Compare then, how in contrast, the Congress dutifully trotted out the usual Sonia and Rahul Gandhis who increasingly seem anachronistic in a country where fortunes may be won by hard work and enterprise, and not by dint of inheritance. The duo seemed hopelessly out of touch with the daily realities of the land. The situation was not helped by the Prime Minister - another with little experience of electoral politics - who managed to score ample self-goals.

Of course, there is no denying that the Congress Signora was the star self-goal scorer. Not only did she introduce personal mudslinging into a campaign that appeared to be focussed on real issues of economics, security, development, but most of her remarks were ruinous in political terms. When Sonia spoke of the "merchants of death," most voters were reminded of her "martyr" husband's dismissal of the Congress-organised 1984 riots as reverbarations of "a great tree falling." The Gandhis ignored an essential rule of electoral politics, to their own detriment: never draw attention to one's own sins.

In May, I had wondered why the BJP - apparently the "party with a difference" had forgotten the very premises that had brought it to national significance and turned itself into a copy of the Congress. With the Gujarat elections, it seems that it is taking the lessons taught by BMW and finding its own path again. Unfortunately, as in case of BMW, Modi too shall be a leading light on this trail.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

In praise of an ancient garment...


Even the most modest amongst us feel the occasional, overwhelming urge to boast about our achievements. For once, I am ready to boast about an acutely feminine achievement. Feminists, social scientists and ideologues will ramble on about the importance of motherhood, coming of age rituals, marriage etc. in a woman's life. While these are universally feminine milestones, the one I plan to talk about today is uniquely Indian.

As a child, my mother would paraphrase a thought from her favourite Hindi novelist, Shivani (or at least I think it was this writer). "Har ladki ke jeevan mein aisa samay aata hai jab usme banarasi sariyon ki chah paida ho jati hai" (Every girl reaches a stage in life when she desires banarasi sarees). Well, since we were from Banaras and iridescent streams of silk, brocade and zari seemed to flow as vastly and bountifully, as the Ganges, I didn't think much about this oft-quoted phrase.

As a teenager, we had moved overseas and over time, sarees became somehow "traditional" and not quite modern in my mind. Of course, I would watch my mother wear hers and envy the grace and elegance that the drapes bestowed on her incessantly active frame. Yet, I didn't feel the urge to try wearing a saree myself.

In my fashion-victim twenties, I bought Thai silk and Kanjeevarams, and raw silk fabrics only to convert them into fashionable and "terribly devastating" evening gowns, copied straight from the pages of Vogue. The dresses all went down to my ankles, slits ran far too high up my leg and necklines were cut as low as I could possibly manage. If my mother occasionally sighed and wistfully fingered the watered silk of a bright red or deep purple evening dress, I ignored her. "Poor silks, all this cutting and sewing takes away from their flow," my mother told me once while we poured over fashion magazines on her bed. I couldn't have cared less, even if I had understood her.

Then, something happened. First, I neared, and then crossed, thirty. And that meant that my body started doing strange things. Despite all the exercise regimens and diet controls, it began to look more like the rounded, voluptuous temple statues instead of the svelte Cindy Crawford of the flat stomach and the angular clotheshorse physique. More importantly, I realised that I wasn't willing to starve myself simply to fit into clothes that really weren’t designed for me in the first place. It also became more important to be myself, instead of looking like a fashion model.

And other strange things began happening. My cooking began to improve. I could just walk into the kitchen and the right spices would find their way into my hands. The balance would be right. Instead of recipes and cookbooks, I would cook with my nose, and eyes, and if you can believe this, intuition! And the final results grew closer and closer to my mother's cooking, and her mother's before that. My brother laughed and called it "cultural memory." I wasn't willing to believe him.

When my first book was published, I began getting invitations to all sorts of grown-up, formal parties, cocktails and book launches, teas and luncheons. And along with the invitations, came the desire to identify myself as an Indian. I needed to "look" Indian! To feel like a part of the literary tradition that had gone before me, even as I forged my own path. And especially since I felt closer to Meerabai and Jaidev rather than Dante and Bronte.

So I began borrowing sarees from my mother's closet. And my god, getting dressed became such a production. Initially, after about half and hour of fumbling about, I would scream for my mother. After the first couple of times, of tears and tantrums, my mother shook her head and announced that "you probably won't wear a saree very often anyway, so let me just put it on for you." This meant that I would stand like a dressmaker's dummy, wearing a petticoat and blouse, my arms outstretched, while my mom deftly draped the saree. Not that it was a daily routine. Maximum may be four times a year.

Sarees were still something exotic, something to wear for weddings and the really formal do's. And most of them still came from my mother's collection. I didn't own one, and didn't want to either.

Then some years ago, something incredible happened. We were shopping for fabrics to make into a dress shirt. I wanted chanderi silk, to make billowy, translucent, romantic shirts to wear with formal trousers and skirts. As we went through the bolts, my brother suddenly pulled out one. "This one is beautiful," he told me. I looked at the vibrant, rich pink shot with blue and green, light as a cloud floating between his hands. And suddenly I knew what my mother meant that cutting and sewing silks would take away from the flow. We checked the width and then got five and a half meters of the fabric. Then came the first adventure of its kind in my life: finding a matching fabric to make the blouse, going to the "matching centre" to find the "fall." I surprised myself as I went through the preparations like a pro. "Cultural memory," laughed my brother again.

For months afterwards, I couldn't help smiling every time I looked at that impromptu saree. The first time I wore it, I felt like Sanyukta, Padmini, Draupadi, Shakuntala, and every gorgeous woman who has ever worn a saree before me. I felt beautiful and seductive, and in one evening collected more complements than I can imagine. Perhaps, it was the saree, or perhaps it was just the joy and pride on my face. You see, that was also the first time I had draped a saree by myself (with a little help from my younger sister, specially with the pleats).

But the story didn't end there. Within months of acquiring my first saree, my best friend informed me of her wedding plans. "Its black tie, but wear a saree if you want to," she told me in a long distance call from Amsterdam. The old, childish me would have hesitated, even wondered about being the only one wearing a saree in a room full of designer evening dresses. The old not-quite-confident me would have found excuses, ranging from the European winter to owning nothing appropriate. But the new me, the cultural-memory-me, wasn't quite so hesitant.

I told my mother, who – in turn - informed her sister and my uncles’ wives. And suddenly, finding the right saree became the most important family expedition for everyone. Flurries of telephone calls between Banaras and Delhi, Allahabad, Lucknow and every other city in between determined the colours I preferred. "Light colours, pastels, nothing bright or contrasting, or eye-twisting. The bride's wearing white and it should complement her." My aunts scoured the saree shops and workshops. No! Nothing light or pastel was available. It was the marriage season. Didn't I know that?

Then my aunt called the weaver who has provided sarees for all the weddings, and childbirths and milestones for the many, many women in my family. He would make a special tanchoi for me, in the plainest pastel but the richest brocade. But time was running short as the wedding dates grew closer. Never mind, the blouse would be made in Banaras itself and the saree would be couriered to me. In the meantime, another aunt had found another saree and decided that someone travelling to Delhi would carry it, just in case the courier was delayed. She called me from the shop, "There is an ivory tanchoi and one pale yellow one which is gorgeous. Which one should I send?" Whichever you like, I told her.

Both the tanchois arrived on the same day. One, the colour of creamy lemon meringue and soft as butter, light as a feather. The other, a burnished gold like the morning on the Ganges in Banaras, and heavy like the river. I wore the heavier one for the wedding. Cultural memory seemed to kick in, even far away from my family as the saree draped itself in one go, the pleats sitting perfectly, without an effort, the pallu just settling itself softly on my shoulder. If I didn't know better, I would have thought my mom had magically, invisibly, draped it for me.

Friends I hadn't seen in years gasped in surprise and delight when I walked in. "Wow, you look different." And that was meant as a complement. I didn't even worry when the dancing started about how I would move. I danced for hours and remembered my grandmother who used to swim in the Ganges in her cotton sarees. She was right. Sarees were dead comfortable!

Through the evening, I smiled when people asked me if that was my "traditional outfit." Even on a dark, cloudy, rainy Dutch night, I felt wrapped in the warmth of the Ganges on a summer morning.

Now I know what mom meant by every girl reaching a stage when she desires banarasi sarees. I have tried explaining it to my younger sister but I think she will have to wait and find out for herself. For now, I just look at my growing saree collection and hug myself. My wardrobe has planned itself out for all the future milestones of my life. The literary awards shall all be received in severe tussars and plainest of Madhubanis. Mr. Right, when he walks in, will be seduced by the sexy elegance of cream chiffon. And if I ever get married, it will have to be in a tanchoi the colour of freshly ground turmeric.

But before I end, let me share a secret. My mom didn't tell me one crucial thing! Once you begin craving banarasis, the benchmark goes up. Now I really want a paithani, to wear for my own daughter's wedding (if I ever have a daughter!). But I won't be complaining if I get one much before that!

PS: This piece was first carried by www.sawf.org , but I just remembered it the other day and felt it deserved a resuscitation.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Om Shanti Om: Long Live Manmohan Desai!!!

As I started my doctoral research a few years ago, I was shocked to find that little scholarly interest had been directed at Manmohan Desai, possibly the guru of the Hindi masala movie. Then last year, I found a biography of the great director written by Connie Haham. Finally, it seemed that Desai was getting due recognition amongst the greats of Hindi cinema, taking his due place alongside Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Yash Chopra, Nasser Hussain and other true masters of the form.

In an email exchange, Connie and I discussed Desai's influence on today's filmmakers. I noticed his shadow benignly growing over Karan Johar's K3G and Farah Khan's Main Hoon Na, while Connie pointed to Munnabhai MBBS. As passionate Desai fans, we were thrilled that the contemporary filmmakers were looking to his masterly touch for inspiration and teaching.

After all few other film-makers have managed to package national politics, social conscience, emotional drama in the same package as romance, action and brilliant music. Desai's concoctions blend - even after three decades - on the palate like the most delicious of thalis, combining flavours, colours, aromas with an aplomb and delicacy rarely achieved. If Bharatamuni could watch Amar Akbar Anthony, he would surely end up lauding the rasa-creation the film achieves with such ease.

Imagine my epicurean delight then when the first trailers of Om Shanti Om hit the screens. Mumbai hasn't done full on masala this year - one reason perhaps for the dismal box office performance of far too many ponderous, boring films! Farah Khan's venture promised nothing more than a frothy treat like a perfect glass of Madras coffee, all bubbly and sweet with a hint of pepper.

On that count at least, the film doesn't disappoint. The first half is brilliant - right from the opening sequence that intercuts the famous Chintu-baba Om Shanti Om song with a campy Subhash Ghai behind the camera (looking plump and baby smooth despite the years) and Farah and Shahrukh Khan as extras on the set. The rest rolls along at a furious and frantic pace, much like the best of Desai masala.

Hindi cinema is obviously catching up with Hollywood on technical expertise and F/X and that ability shows through out this homage to the 1970s. A clever technical twist on the "dream sequence" tradition ensures that while the old "reality" clips are faded, the "dreams" are to be savoured in full digital brightness.

The second half begins with as much dash and glamour. SRK looks good. There was a spontaneous sigh from the female half of the audience when his six-pack first made its first appearance. SRK must also be commended (along with Aamir Khan) for having the guts to not romance actresses who could be his daughters!

This was the single phenomenon that turned me off my childhood favourite Amitabh Bachchan. It was seedy enough with Rishi Kapoor romancing teenagers in the late-1980s, and outright cringeworthy watching a very old and unattractive Dev Anand romancing the glamorous Zeenat back in the 1970s. I had always hoped that Bachchan would have more class but remember feeling sick and revulsed at his romance numbers with Manisha Koirala and Shilpa Shetty.

SRK and Aamir seem to have avoided this trap so far. So in the film, SRK hankers after a glamorous Deepika Padukone in the first half, while she loves someone else. In the second half, she plays a fan to his super-star, with little to indicate anything more than infatuation on her part and kindness on his. A heartfelt chapeau to Madame Farah Khan and SRK for this stroke of subtlety in a film that makes of virtue of being over-the-top.

Unfortunately for the over all quality of the film, the script is a trap that the director sets up for herself: given the campy tone of the first half, there is no way of playing out the second without spoofing the re-incarnation genre mercilessly through the second half..

Also some of the repetition becomes a bit tiresome and hammer-handed. The rather touching 70s-style dialogue about wanting something with all one's heart is repeated so often that it begins to grate. The director also seems torn between sticking to the story and spoofing contemporary movie industry.

That urge also spills over to the conscious intertextuality: Kudrat, Mehbooba, Mahal and obviously Karz are all referenced. As are of course SRK's own Karan-Arjun. With endearing good humour, SRK and Farah Khan even spoof themselves - a masterly touch that ensures that none of the ribbing can be considered offensive. As a result, the film plays out as a film-fanatic's game of trivia, with every dialogue resounding with a prior references. Unfortunately, in the second half this intertextuality also gets a bit hamhanded. Slight self-restraint on the director's part would have ensured that the masala did't jar.

In a memorable sequence, Satish Shah as a harried director talks of all the camera angles he has used for his "Bharat Maa" cinematic venture, including Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray. He is cheekily told by his producer to also use a "Manmohan Desai angle" as that would be the one to guarantee a hit. Om Shanti Om does try the Manmohan Desai angle - making the film a joy to watch. It even manages to catch Desai's classic exuberance and scripting twists and with good effect. What the film misses though is the social and political consciousness that Desai's film held at their core, along with the emotional link he could forge with his audience. And so far, there is no one in the industry - not even the supremely confident Farah Khan - to quite match up to his genius. On the other hand, Farah Khan seems definitely the one most likely to wear the Desai crown...with all my heart and Sai Baba's blessings recycled, I - for one - sure hope so!

Monday, October 08, 2007

And in my veins flows the Ganges....


"Sabki ragon mein lahoo bahein hain, hamri ragon mein Ganga maiyya"

(Blood flows in people's veins, and in mine flows the Ganges)

What a strange thought! Yet that line from the perky song "Hum to aise hain bhaiyya" (We are like this) from the soon-to-be-released Pradeep Sarkar film Laaga Chunari Mein Daag brought back a lot of memories.

Actually, just a disclaimer: this is not really a music review, even though I have been listening to some of the songs over and over again. Along with the quoted song, there are really only two other songs that make this album lovely enough to be worth blogging. And primarily that is because I can't remember the last time Hindi cinema managed to pay such sincere homage to Banaras.

The first song - Hum to aise hain bhaiyya - is a surprising but long delayed ode to Banaras - the first notes are laden with the smells and sounds of early mornings in the city of my childhood: the clanging bells in temples, the rhythmic splashing of the Ganges waters against wooden boats, the masti powered by bhang or simply life itself. The song catches the spirit of the ancient but lively city I grew up in - not the city that tourists and pilgrims see but the one that is reserved for its inhabitants. Banaras has always been a city full of fun, laughter, wit, music; it has long been a city of masti!

The first time I heard the song, I ended up with a lapful of memories, wondering how and when I lost those magical times: those early morning walks to Assi ghat to watch the dawn; the chattering of teeth when we finally emerged from playing in the water; those delicious breakfasts of hot kale channe ki ghughri and jalebis dunked in glassfuls of hot milk.

Similar nostalgia came with the Meeta Vashisht and Shubha Mudgal's lounge-style version of the title song. Mudgal's voice and training has rarely been used so well by commercial cinema. The lyrics - in klishth Hindi - as spoken by Vashisht took me back to hot June afternoons when the sky would turn brown and gold with clouds of dust and then the aandhis would race down the emptied streets. And over that storm, Mudgal's voice flows as gently as the Ganges, and just as relentlessly.

I remember growing up in a city where women were always tougher than the men - and far more rebellious. There is a sense of innate confidence and a sankipanaa about Banarasi women that I have yet to find elsewhere. My grandmother could swim across the entire Ganges, and not even the flood water would faze her. My mother and aunts seemed to have walked to unheard beats of a different drummer from all others. Even cousins seemed madly rebellious; there were a memorably fashionable bunch who scandalised Banaras by wearing Zeenat Aman-style mini-dresses (this was back in the 70s!). And there was that fabulous - unnamed - woman who drove to the university every morning, past our house, on a massive Enfield! They were all individual storm winds - some who faded into the galis while others have swept through the world, changing and transforming it in their wakes. And Mudgal/Vashisht just brought all those long forgotten aandhis back into the light.

Finally, there is Rekha Bhardawaj's song that has been classified by reviewers as a traditional mujra number. What a shame! Its so much more...The song reminds me of sitting on a rooftop at dawn, watching as the Ganges turns the into miles of red and orange and yellow silk, like so many tanchois spread out for miles. And from somewhere far away comes the faint sound of riyaaz.

On warm summer nights, we would sleep on the chhat. The preparations would begin as soon as the sun went down, with water being sprinkled over the cement rooftops. Steam rose hissing and spluttering like so many cobras as the first drops hit the cement. Waves of heat would rise up - vicious, vindictive - and had to be drowned out by water for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the roof would be left to dry in the summer night. We would wait up there soaking up the sondhi fragrance of water on hot ground mingling with sweet guava and early jasmine blossoms. After dinner, we would gather up there to hear the sounds of the city - voices raised in conversation, the final aartis in the temples all around us, and then much later, voices playing antakshari. Sometimes the game would turn into an impromptu contest across the rooftops in the lane; not for long but enough to make song and laughter create a sense of community.

And sometimes you could hear far off sounds of music. Thumri perhaps, or the strains of a sitar. Was it magic? Was it even real? Or just nostalgia polishing the materially constrained circumstance that we know we faced back then? Does it matter? Especially Bhardawaj's marvellously disciplined voice can recreate that magical nostalgia with such ease.

With each listening, the album takes me right back to the Banaras I knew and grew up in - full of laughter, love, hope and masti. In fact each time I am shocked at the ease with which I can transport myself back to that magical land, erasing all that has intervened since, as if none of the distance, time or experience matters.

Perhaps the song is right...as a born and bred Banarasi, may be the Ganges - not blood - does flow in my veins!


PS: The final shot is by Tarun Vishwa. I don't even know if that is Banaras but it seems to bring back every memory of the place.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fulfilling childhood dreams...

Sometimes I wish I could remember the man who helped built so many of my dreams when I was a child growing up in Varanasi of the 1970s. Yet I have only a hazy recollection of a skinny man on a rusty bicycle who brought around the weekly stack of magazines. I have a far better - and fonder - memory of those glossy stacks filled with pictures and words that seemed to be doorways to a world of fantasy.

Most of the magazines were grown up stuff - Dharmayug, that amazing literary magazine, and of course the Illustrated Weekly. There would be the film-zines, Stardust - the most coveted of them all. For the longest time, I could only turn the pages admire the pictures. I spent many years of my childhood waiting impatiently for the day when I could actually read and understand the words that filled those pages.

Of course, for us, there would be Champak, Chandamama and for a while Paraag, filled with stories and the "factual" bits - on history, culture and geography. And of course articles on far off places.

I would read the kiddie mags cover to cover, lingering especially over the travel and geography articles. All those places that I desperately wanted to visit and could not imagine how! Those were days before liberalization, and not only were currency exchanges strictly limited, there wasn't all that much disposable income around to throw around on foreign trips.

The closest we got to travelling overseas was watching Hollywood films where people spoke English all the time (and with odd accents), and lived lives so extraordinarily exotic that one could barely believe they were real.

Yet these are the stuff childhood dreams are made of...of remembered snippets from the Bond flicks where relaxing on a beach and sipping colourful cocktails seemed so normal; of treasure hunt films where seas were always impossibly turquoise blue; of Born Free brand of "kiddie" films where African skies seemed to turn every colour of the rainbow at sunset.

All through my childhood, I wanted to be in those films and magazines - in those places, doing some of those exotic things. I wanted to ski down a pristine white hill with nothing but two slim parallel tracks marking the trail (my only experience of the mountains was of the Himalayas where snow was heavy and the slopes too steep to warrant any form of skiing). I wanted to sail down the Nile as the sunset and watch the desert night swallow up the pyramids. I wanted to dress in glamorous khaki trousers and billowy white shirts and watch the elephants gather on the banks of the Zambezi. And I wanted desperately to be lost in the Amazon, trekking through the heavy foliage only to come upon suddenly on a spectacular waterfall.

For a while I kept a little scrap book of pictures cut out of magazines. It was a list of the places I wanted to visit in my lifetime. Every night I would mentally transport myself to an exotic place: Russia, Brazil, Austria, Samoa...and instead of counting sheep, I would list all the facts I knew about the place until drowsiness drowned all imagination. It was a little book of childhood dreams, even when they seemed impossible. Or perhaps because they seemed impossible.

But as I grew up things changed. Opportunities came up and we grabbed them by the armfuls: the Indian economy grew; my father took on a new job that took him overseas; then I won a scholarship that paid for an education overseas. After university, jobs came up in far off places - Africa, Latin America - and I jumped at each chance, using each one to travel and see all the places I had dreamt about for so many years.

One may well wonder why such a nostalgic post...well, because one place that had been on my list of childhood dreams was the Azure Window.
I remember seeing it first in a foreign magazine - perhaps the National Geographic - or at least in a magazine I wasn't allowed to snip up. To a child it seemed a place of impossible beauty. That is where I really wanted to go!

Yet somewhere in my travels over the year, it slipped out of my mind...not because I forgot, but perhaps I just stopped remembering. Until strangely enough this summer when a trip to Malta materialized rather spontaneously. (Actually, more accurately, the trip seems to have appeared in my life in January with a conversation with an Aussie and a Polish friend who had spent some time on the islands).

Then one afternoon this past summer, I stood on the rocks on the shore of Gozo, staring out at the Azure Window and felt like a very small child. All the wonder, awe, joy seemed to flood right back. We waded in the little coral edged pool behind the window and clambered on the rocks to get the best view. And yes, the water was impossibly blue - of this one particular hue that I remember from Parker's ink bottles, and the sky was so clear that it hurt to look out at it.


And I could only paddle about in the pool, with a silly smile on my face! After all, it isn't every day you get to fulfill a childhood dream...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Road Goes On....


Alright so I haven't been online for a while. Its been a hectic summer with travelling, parents visiting London and of course, that ever present bane of my life - WORK!

On the good side, travelling always reminds me of all the places I still have to get to and experience. And it makes me deliriously happy. So in the next few weeks, I plan to update my blog with pictures and posts about my recent travels through parts of Europe including Wales, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon (Bard anyone), Savoie (Vikram Chandra redux), and for a weirdly Knights Templar route Troyes and Malta...

For the moment though, as its a grey and wet day and there is a very LONG work meeting schedule this afternoon, I plan to cheer myself up with picture of bright sunshine and warm waters...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I won't back down! Consequences of Supporting Rushdie's Knighthood


A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post supporting the knighthood awarded to one of my favourite novelists, Salman Rushdie. Then Spain’s El Pais carried a version of the same article on its op-ed pages.

As far as I was concerned, the article was a personal response to an honour bestowed on a writer who has provided me with many hours of reading pleasure, whose writing has taught me some of the skills I use in my own fiction, and whose early work shall always remain inspirational for me. What I did not begin to imagine was the kinds of reaction that innocuous article would evoke.

Some people wrote in to tell me of their own initial discovery of Rushdie’s fiction. Others took the opportunity to comment on the geo-politics of terror, often in ways that showed their own intolerance and prejudices. Yet others emailed me to tell me that my article was “brave” (when did personal ruminations on literature become brave? How did things come to such a pass?) And a final lot decided to email me and post blog comments that were generally incoherent and illogical but full of righteous anger, venom and threats. In fact, if only for that final category of responses, I am very glad that my blog’s comment section was set up to be moderated (thank you, o great webmaster and sibling!).

More importantly, the article evoked some specific reactions that I believe need to be addressed:

Upon reading my article, some writers and journalist friends informed me that few people from the industry have spoken up in Rushdie’s support because he can be rude, arrogant and unpleasant. Yet what has that to do with his writing? Hemingway was apparently a drunken boor! Henry Miller was crass and foul-mouthed. Do we consider their writing diminished because of their personal behaviour? Shouldn’t a writer be judged for his/her writing instead of their ability to politely discuss the weather? Are we still debating that Midnight's Children is a work of genius, that Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a literary tour d'force, that Imaginary Homelands did not impact and inspire an entire generation of thinkers?

Second is a far more insidiously vicious response that claims that Rushdie should have known better than to have incited the fundamentalists. This one comes primarily from self-styled intellectuals and other “liberals.” It achieves in one fell swoop a whole host of results. First of all, it blames the writer for crossing some imaginary line that offends an imaginary public, a convenient if spectacularly hypocritical form of thought-control. Second, it holds the writer responsible for any harm that may come to him from members of that offended public (Naguib Mahfouz, anyone!); intellectually this is the same sort of logic that would hold women in short skirts responsible for rapes and assaults and yet another example of how frighteningly similar logic is applied by idiots of all ilks.

Third, it posits a particular religious tradition as exempt from basic principles of questioning and rationality as well as liberty of thought and expression. That ensures that this response is simultaneously condescending (“we can question our religion without trouble – a sign of “civilization” - but you should have known better to do the same to yours”) and cowardly (“we know the Muslims are violent so can you not incite them”). Curiously this is the same lot who insist that “moderate” Muslims speak up against the fundamentalists and work to “reform” the religion. Yet there is a curious distance, if not outright disdain, for those who attempt to fulfil that brief including Rushdie, Mahfouz, or Manji.

Finally, a more problematic response came from the apparently illiterate users of the internet who posted inchoate, hate-filled rants about Rushdie. I posted a couple – most coherent of the lot – of these on my blog in the interest of freedom of expression. Unfortunately most of the others were nothing more than invective and pathetic threats. More than one of these expressed a desire to stone various parties involved in the issue starting with the Queen of England to Rushdie as well as his readers!

Of the various threats of violence, I think the stoning ones are the most pitiable. These reveal not only an intense insecurity but also a need for anonymity that a violent mob can provide. For me, these have provided a narrow view into the mob violence that erupts in various Islamic countries at such regular intervals. While I thought Rushdie’s contention that masculine impotence and insecurity as the roots of “terrorism” (in Shalimar the Clown) was a bit simplistic, I have always conceded that this mass emasculation – for historic, social, political or cultural reasons – definitely plays a part in forming those who carry out asymmetrical violence. However, stoning is a particularly cowardly act as it cloaks an act of violence in false social sanction in the guise of a baying mob. It allows those who lack the will to take violent action on an individual basis to create and maintain fantasies of masculine potency by acting collectively. More importantly it allows the cowardly perpetrator to claim anonymity.

I realise that the above explanation may be a little complex for those who are incapable of thinking or expressing themselves coherently or logically.

So here goes a little anecdote for those who have taken the trouble to post on my blog or email me with threats of stoning or other violence: Like Rushdie, I grew up in a household where books were kissed. But more importantly, I also grew up in a home where pens, notebooks, and more recently - with typically Hindu logic – laptops are worshipped.

Every year on Diwali, you see, we are required to offer prayers to Durga – the goddess of war – and to our weapons that she is believed to embody and inhabit. Every Diwali, my family would clean and polish old swords, spears, revolvers and rifles. And at midnight, these would be placed on the altar and anointed with kumkum, turmeric, ghee. We would conduct an aarti, the polished metal of the weapons gleaming through the fragrant smoke of diyas and agarbattis.

While I was still a child, my grandmother began the tradition of placing our schoolbooks and pens on the altar instead of weapons. She said that in the coming world, these would be our weapons. That tradition endures and to this day, I place my laptop, even draft manuscripts, on the altar on Diwali. It is a tradition I plan to uphold and live for the rest of my life.

The point I am making is simple: keep those threats coming!

I am not about to back down from saying what I believe. And I am not about to back down from fighting for what I believe. And I am not – like some writers – about to “self-censor” my writing because some pathetic creature out there may be offended.

This is not about Rushdie! This is about my right to words, stories, opinions. And I will be damned if I let go of those without a fight!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Onward, Sir Salman: In support of knighthood for luminous prose


Okay, so I am not a huge fan of the monarchy (product of a republic, you see) or for that matter ridiculous honours from the Queen that can apparently be purchased for a good price. So when the news broke that Salman Rushdie had made the Queen’s annual list of honours being banto-ed, I smiled at the thought of “Sir” Rushdie, spent a brief minute imagining the paroxysms of joy “Lady” Padma must be experiencing, and then flipped the page.

Then came the inevitable flurry of news reports suggesting that the “Muslim world” was outraged by the honour bestowed on Mr. Rushdie. Dear departed General Zia’s son explained in the Pakistani parliament – and apparently with all seriousness - how the honour “justified” suicide bombings. Violent (but controlled) mobs took to the streets in Multan and Rawalpindi, and apparently the British High Commissioner to Islamabad was summoned to explain Her Majesty’s actions. In short, the usual fun and games that accompany living in the 21st century.

I still didn’t think much of it – beyond rolling my eyes (again!) at a bunch of unfunny loony tunes indulging in a bit of off-hours violence in the name of Islam. Then this morning, I found the esteemed Times of London circulating a petition in support of “Sir” Rushdie's knighthood. That got my attention!

Did that mean Her Majesty (or more appropriately Mr. Brown, the PM-to-be) was going to bow to pressure from the aforementioned loony tunes? Was Mr. Rushdie going to be stripped of his title before even being knighted? Worse still, was the UK again falling into the trap of appeasement (much like our own tottering politicos from back home) of a radical minority that insists on demanding privilege upon privilege with no accompanying attempt at civil, political or social reciprocity.

So being the good Rushdie fan, I promptly signed the petition. I must mention that this petition is open only to UK residents, I presume to ensure a representative sampling of the country’s views rather than violent opposition from the apparently “1.5 billion outraged Muslims of the world” (according to Mr. Haq of the Pakistani Parliament) or support from hundreds of millions of rabble-rousing net savvy Indians (remember the Shilpa episode?).

Of course I have since been wondering about consequences of the whole episode – would the current fracas mean “Sir” Rushdie shall spend more time at rock concerts and fashion shows instead of his desk? Or perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. Perhaps all those bomb threats will curtail his hectic social life and send him back to writing. Oh, for a great novel again from that literary light instead of recycled pulp he seems to have resorted to in the past decade!

More importantly though – and all snide remarks aside - the recent events have reminded me of my discovery of Mr. Rushdie’s opus back when I had turned sixteen and set myself the task of reading through his novels, starting with Midnight’s Children (having been too young to read “adult” literature when it won the Booker).

During those hot summer days in Varanasi, I devoured first Midnight’s Children, then Grimus, and finally Shame. Holding the books with my fingertips so as not to mess up the pages with sweat, I sprawled on the red stone floors of my grandmother’s house, aided only by a pillow under my elbows. Of course, the pillow had to be turned over every ten minutes to its cool side. And after an afternoon of reading, my stomach, knees, back all hurt. But the floor was the only cool part of the house as the unrelenting summer left all linen, clothing, even wood, unbearably hot.

But none of the discomfort mattered. Mr. Rushdie’s novels opened a new world to a teenager who had intuited some of the literary and linguistic realities of writing in English but had found no support from teachers or other writing. Mr. Rushdie demonstrated – and how! – that the English language could be kicked about and reshaped to sound like the language we spoke in the playground and markets. That it needed none of the deference and respect that our teachers (ah, for Catholic schools!) insisted it deserved. That we could ignore the “great (all European) masters” of the novel and tell a story the way we liked. Those were glorious – and much needed - affirmations from a master! Besides, all of it was worth the looks on our teachers’ faces, shocked and blushing above their pristine white habits, when I airily declared that my writing style (shocking as it was) had been influenced by the notorious Salman Rushdie!

At the end of the summer, we moved to New York, a city that I have long since outgrown but is now Rushdie’s home of choice but my collection of Rushdies moved with us. Over the years, I have acquired each of his books and found myself returning to Midnight's Children and Haroun... repeatedly. No longer for inspiration but for pure reading pleasure!

I was in college when Mr. Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. I remember reading the book sprawled on the far more comfortable lawns of the university, basking in the autumn sunlight that turns all of New England gold and red. I remember laughing through much of the book – especially at Gibreel Farishta’s antics and sly references to the Amitabh-Rekha affair. I was an outsider on that New England campus, but The Satanic Verses made me feel like an insider in a world locked to my colleagues. I knew the references, the places, even the language even as they groped in the dark.

Not too much later, the fatwa was declared and Mr. Rushdie forced into hiding. I can’t say I was particularly surprised although the stated reasons seemed a bit untenable. Having studied Islam briefly in school during my father’s sojourn in Pakistan, I searched in vain for the “blasphemous” passages, or at least passages that aren’t already to be found in some form in earlier texts by Muslim writers.

Then on my third reading of the novel, I realised – with the sort of excitement only a young adult can muster – that the Ayatollah wasn’t offended by the “blasphemy.” Mr. Rushdie’s “crime” had been something far simpler and more personal, and of course I had noticed it even at the first reading. Even at the first instance, I had admire his courage in writing the passage where Gibreel looks back to see the radical Islamic leader (quite clearly the esteemed Ayatollah) devouring thousands of his followers. Isn’t it lucky that none of the lunatic religious fringe has bothered reading the novel? How much better to proclaim that the novel insults the prophet than to express offence at being depicted as a murderous, eccentric, irrational opportunist!

That realisation brought another important lesson in becoming a writer. If Mr.Rushdie’s earlier novels had taught me the freedom I could claim – as a writer in English from India – for transforming form and language, The Satanic Verses taught me to value courage as part of the writer’s repertoire of tools.

In the years since those heady days of university, things have changed. Mr. Rushdie’s pen seems to have grown blunt as his social appearances take precedence. Of course, I still rush out to pick up every new novel, only to be disappointed. And amongst certain Indian writers in English, it is now fashionable to run down both Mr. Rushdie’s skill as well as his contribution to all our writing trajectories. And that is indeed a shame – far greater perhaps than the illiterate religious fanatic fringe that threatens violence.

Salman Rushdie's greatest achievement was to blast open the hallowed portals of writing in English for a whole generation of writers from the former colonies. And he did that to the sound of joyous - albeit at times, sly - laughter, with luminous prose that thrilled and delighted. If he never puts down a single word on paper ever again, his oeuvre is worthy of respect. For that alone, his knighthood (and any other honour) is well deserved.

And it is the most appropriate response to the religious loons who demand his head!

Photo courtesy: Times of London

Saturday, May 12, 2007

BMW’s elephant stomps through the Gangetic plains

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Behen Mayawati (BMW) or a voter for the BSP. Yet over the years, I have developed a grudging respect for this pugnacious grass-roots leader.

Much is already being said about Bahujan Samaj Party’s resounding victory in the Uttar Pradesh legislative polls. Numbers are being examined, caste configurations revisted yet again, Congress is once again pronouncing its defeat as a victory for Rahul Gandhi (won’t they EVER learn?), and the RSS mouthpiece Organiser has already started explaining how BSP’s “soft Hindutva” has trounced BJP’s “half-hearted” Hindutva flip-flop. Of course, the Western papers are too busy explaining how it is a “lower caste” victory and painting it in usual colours of imaginary caste wars. All these have their place, but I wonder why a couple of simple ideas have been left out of the equation.

In the past thirty years, India has relentlessly moved towards aspirational values, privileging these over inherited power and status. While calling us a meritocracy would be going a bit too far, a look at the country’s elite tosses up more “self-made” leaders in most fields – APJ Kalam, Narayanamurthi, Sabeer Bhatia, Shahrukh Khan, and of course the political leadership of people like Mayawati. Beyond their individual achievements, these are all people who made ambition acceptable again for Indians. These men and women are living proofs that old princely privileges maintained by collaboration, or newly gained by toeing Macauley-ists lines are no longer acceptable to the bulk of Indians. And most of India - born in the past forty years - took their lesson to heart. Blame it on the generational shift if you will.

Through out the UP electoral campaign, Rahul Gandhi sounded much like the kids from the recent film Tara Rum Pum: “My daddy is the bestest father, bestest husband, and the fastest racer in the world.” Not a word on his own achievements. There aren't many of those, other than of course enjoying the wealth and status, and showing off the entitlement that is part of his inheritance.

BJP’s “Congress-ification” seems to have been completed in the past years as it reneged on its idea of "party with a difference" and follows the long-standing Congress tradition of sidelining leaders with a mass voter bass (think Uma Bharati amongst others) to keep the fossilized old men in tottering top party office (can we just get MM Joshi and Advani to go away: think Gollum: “Go aways and nevers come back!!!!). Not only are these old men out of touch with the people’s pulse, their constant flip-flopping on core party issues such as UCC and Article 370 is now a tiresome roadshow of power-hungry politicking. Meanwhile, younger leaders with mass appeal are marginalized in favour of insipid foisted-from-the-top names (why has Rajnath Singh president other than because he poses no threat to anyone but the BJP?).

Contrast this to the BSP’s list of candidates who were drawn from the masses. No “raja sahibs” and princelings, or Oxbridge types here. Just plain old-fashioned grassroots activists with a hankering to claim a piece of the national power pie! Is it a surprise that they speak for the bulk of the country that is young, ambitious, and desperate for success?

Is it any surprise that they chose Mayawati? With her humble beginnings, an incredible tenacity and drive as shown by nearly three decades of striving for political power, she stands for more than just Dalit ambition. During her campaign, she spoke of her prime ministerial ambitions. It should be no surprise. She lives in a land and in times, where not only such aspirations are acceptable if not downright desireable. Besides, with each passing day of changes, there is a good chance of achieving ambition, no matter how grand they may appear. As such, and whether she likes it or not, Mayawati embodies the post-emergency, post-Congress India where ambition, ability, and graft can upset older equations of family and entitlements.

There is another point to be noted even as most commentrators talk of caste politics in the heart-land. BSP’s warlike slogan “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inpe maro joote char” that had alienated the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya voters in the 1990’s has been replaced by the far more inclusive (and “Hindu” as the Organiser pointed out)“Haathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai” for the recent elections. The BSP choice of candidates also shows a comprehensive inclusion of castes and religions, ensuring that no section of the populace would be left out of the final power-pie in Lucknow. Mayawati’s speeches – as well as her crack team of advisers – reflects the same inclusive logic. And it is this inclusionary politics that have paid off! And how! After 14 years of hung assembly, UP has thrown up a clear majority in favour of a single party.

If the voters in Bihar had rejected fragmented politics of caste and creed with the last RJD defeat, UP has followed suit. And that bodes well for years to come.

Intellectuals would talk of the “impossibility of the outsider” in India, or point to the historical paucity of social “revolutions” in favour of “reformations” in the land. But the simple fact is that India makes little long-term space for radical ideologies, preferring to absorb all ideas into a “middle way.” So isn’t it ironic that a “self-made” leader like Mayawati has comprehended that basic voter logic better than the “grand old men” of the BJP and Congress’s political “aristocracy”?

One last point: UP results have been announced in the same week as the French presidential ones, and the results could not be more different. Compare the woman-leader from the humblest beginnings who has fought her way into the corridors of power, Mayawati, to the entitled heir of the Austro-Hungarian nobility with ties to the American corridors of power, Sarkozy. I know that we Indians like to crib about our systems, but after watching the political closed-shop that operates in Western Europe, I would take the internal mobility of India!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Des Mera Rangeela

Last weekend when an international group of party-goers spontaenously broke into a perfectly coordinated performance of Des Rangeela from Fanaa, I was suitably impressed. Okay, I confess that I am partly to blame for this because these monthly parties hosted by the Barcelona-based cultural association Masala were one of my hairbrained ideas way back in 2003. But it is Sheri Ahmed, the president of Masala, who has turned them into such a success!

Back in 2003, India may as well have been a different planet for most people in Barcelona. Yet now the city has a movie theatre dedicated solely to "Bollywood," featured on the Temptations concert circuit in 2005, and is developing a dedicated group of Bollywood lovers.

And Masala continues to lead the charge: hosting parties, organising courses and classes, managing art and photography exhibitions and creating cinema-inspired clothing. The Masala cultural centre is scheduled to open later in the year that will provide an autonomous cultural space for exhibitions, film projections, classes and activities - all centered around our Des Rangeela. Funny - all of this has been done with no governmental funding, no corporate sponsorship, no support from organisations claiming to promote "multiculturalism." Just goes to show - nothing succeeds like passion and hard work!

Catch Masala on: http://club-masala.com

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kabul Express and Robert Fisk: Stories of War and Humanity

It may appear strange to many that I am writing an apparent review of a movie – Kabul Express – nearly four months after its release, especially since I watched the film on the second day after its release, back in December. But I needed to digest this one before I wrote anything…

I wasn’t disappointed by Kabir Khan’s simple, moving yet patchy film even though it plays at times like propaganda; the American government is really bad and Pakistan’s military is its people’s worst enemy; beyond their guns, turbans and beards, the Taliban are simply humans with families and fears and sentimental memories of well-loved songs; that humans are similar and can connect despite political and military differences. In short the film encapsulates a vision of the world that is typically Indian, perhaps “Bollywood” in many ways, right down to showing ultimate horror – for an Indian at least – of one’s own army shooting a returning soldier.

The acting is uneven: John Abraham and Arshad Warsi as TV journalists – Jai and Suhel - looking for the big scoop are hilariously reminiscent of some of Indian news journalism’s great escapades including Barkha Dutt’s “kidnapping” of Sharad Pawar for an interview. Abraham, despite his recent brush with the Oscars will never be a great actor but Warsi more than makes up for that lapse. Linda Arsenio’s American reporter is annoying and superficial (or perhaps that is intentional). Khyber – played by Afghan actor Hanif Hum Ghum - embodies the tragedy of his country, with each glance at the ravaged landscape echoing the war trauma this actor has experienced in his own life. Pakistani actor Salman Shahid is gruff and tender by turns as the Talib, Imran Khan Afridi, and does a good job of portraying a man caught by forces beyond his control.

The stunning landscape of Afghanistan is at once familiar and forbidding, evoking memories of a thousand literary texts from the subcontinent, from Alexander’s grim march to the Babar-nama and Khuda Gawah (1992). Perhaps that is why Khan includes the mandatory buzkashi game in the film. After all, an Indian film on Afghanistan would not be complete without buzkashi and the honourable Pathans (there are many in the film, including Khyber and various other warlords).

Yet this is no Khuda Gawah. Despite the breathtaking scenery and Warsi’s hilarious lines, Khan never lets us forget the ravages this beautiful land has survived over the past thirty years. He focusses on a child crippled by a landmine admiring Jai’s physical prowess, and lovingly pans on golden piles of rubble and fragments of beautiful jaali-worked windows, with each shot evoking the horrific and prolonged violence the Afghan people have experienced since the mid-1970s when the world’s super-powers opened a new chapter of the Great Game, using Afghanistan as its chessboard.

Curiously enough – or call it a twist of fate – I watched Kabul Express at the same time as I was reading Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Now Fisk has his critics – many feel that he is too partisan, although this is a curiously Western conservative critique. It is telling that few non-Western people see Fisk as “partisan,” finding in him one of the few voices that speak against the politically and economically powerful (from all countries) and on behalf of the disenfranchised masses.

His book – a strange but compelling amalgam of personal memories, thirty years of reporting and political analysis – is one of the most comprehensive tomes on the region I have yet read. In addition, unlike most Western correspondents, Fisk actually speaks Arabic, and knows the Middle East intimately, which frankly makes him far more credible than most “foreign correspondents.” His knowledge is astounding – not only for his ability to make sense of the complex social and political structures of the region, but also for his ability to make connections beyond superficial and simplistic lines. One of the most chilling observations in his book is that the many of the videotaped “beheadings” of Westerners in Iraq since 2003 are carried out in the exact same manner as that employed by official Saudi executioners. Fisk takes this no further than observation, but the conclusions are obvious.

Fisk’s weighty tome – for at nearly 1300 pages of writing, it can be considered nothing else - relentlessly lists all the atrocities he has witnessed and reported for the past thirty-plus years. He details the genocides, mass killings, torture, and human rights violations committed by the state structures composed of Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans (of all stripes), Saudis, Algerians, Israelis, Americans…The list is endless. And the descriptions can turn most stomachs!

Kabul Express and Fisk’s book are inextricably linked in my mind now, despite the difference in medium and genre. Both are laments for the opportunities that so many humans in lands torn by war can never have. Both are unrelenting in demonstrating the brutalization of war that can numb humans to all idea of compassion or kindness. And yet, strangely enough both Fisk and Khan are equally compassionate in documenting those brutalized minds that can find no other way of coping but by perpetuating more violence.

Fisk’s book details an incident that made international news: when he was attacked by a group of Afghan refugees in the wake of American post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, and rescued by another set of brave Afghans. His statement that he found that action understandable had drawn derision and scorn from conservative Western commentators. Khan’s film too takes a similar stand despite the violence the unit faced during the filming: having run into a brutal mob execution of Taliban fighters, the journalists can’t bear to reveal that their “kidnapper” too is a Talib, although such a revelation would end their predicament.

Khan’s achievement is not necessarily a great film, but his ability to demonstrate the unreasonable – yet utterly human - compassion of his characters. His journalists aren’t heroes but merely humans fortunate enough to be untouched by years of unimaginable brutalization, and no amount of covering “riots,” crime or corrupt politics can ever prepare them for the dehumanization that an absolute break down of civil society and war can cause to humans. They aren’t the heroes in the film the way Khyber (their Afghan guide) and Khan Afridi (the Pakistani Talib) are. Khyber can still find kindness within himself, and loyalty just as Afridi can find sorrow, shame and love for his daughter (their meeting forms one of the most touching yet harrowing moments of the film).

The two journalists – like Fisk – can do no more than narrate the “reality” – brutal and kind, violent and beautiful – with as much compassion as humanly possible, because, but for the grace of god (or universe, or fate, or sheer bloody luck), there go you and I!

And in good Indian/"Bollywood" tradition, not surprisingly, the most profound line is also the cheekiest: “A flower blooms in the desert, and you want to know its colour?” Warsi quips. Perhaps we should take a cue and just be grateful that the desert still throws up a bloom, solitary though it may be…

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Chaiyya Chaiyya and The Inside Man

The other day a friend basically forced me to watch Spike Lee’s 2006 venture, The Inside Man.

That sentence needs explanation: given my current location in the throes of writing over fifty thousand words analysing cinematic practises, watching movies has slipped from its prime position as entertainment. Movies are work at the current time and I don’t need to do any more work than is absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, the aforementioned friend felt that I needed to watch Lee “bookend” his film with one of my all time Gulzar-A.R. Rahman favourite songs: Chaiyya Chaiyya. And so I did!

And have been confused ever since. Admittedly I am not alone in this state.

Question is: Why? Assuming that Spike Lee plans his movies and their effects carefully, what does Chaiyya Chaiyya contribute to the flick? Other than of course another attempt to cash in on the growing “Bollywood” craze. Oh how I hate that unavoidable tag!

I was disappointed, I have to confess. I did have visions of Denzel and Jodie doing a train-top routine a la Shahrukh-Malaika. Or given the racial politics of Hollywood, at least an Owen-Jodie two-step shuffle. But no such luck! The song just shows up during credits, with no real contribution to the movie it bookends.

Of course Western critics are equally baffled – which I suppose is a good thing! My favourite response came from TimeDispatch.com that explained: “The end credits and the opening titles, incidentally, are enlivened by the peppy Bollywood hit song "Chal Chaiyya Chaiyya" from the movie "Dil Se." The song does not seem to have anything to do with this movie -- no one dances on top of a train -- but it is a hip way to reassure the audience that nothing too bad is going to happen.”

Really? That is where globalization meets Lost In Translation! Or rather when any form of “manageable models” of making meaning are nonexistent. Poor TimeDispatch.com reviewer of course has no clue of the original movie, Dil Se.

Obsessed lover-boy chasing sulky suicide bomber until they can blow themselves to bits in picturesque Old Fort setting is definitely my definition of something "too bad” has happened!

Sigh….the joys of globalization!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eklavya: The Royal Guard. Just Don't Bother


The hype has been building for the last few weeks on Eklavya – The Royal Guard. It has a star-cast to rival most “multi-starrers,” not to mention a director on the hilt known for “great” past work. Press also reported that La Tagore and Saif were replaying their real life roles on screen for the first time – a casting coup that would make cinematic history!

Recent stories in the press suggested that producer and director Vidhu Vinod Chopra of the film was sooooo impressed with the performance of his lead star, Amitabh Bachchan, that he gifted him a Rolls Royce Phantom sedan, priced at approximately 800,000 USD (after import duties). Moreover, Chopra has gone on the record saying he took five years to write the film. After watching the film, one really wonders why?

Beyond the hype of course, Chopra has – at best – been a patchy director. He has created amazing work like Parinda and Mission Kashmir, but also delivered clankers like Kareeb and half-clankers like 1942: A Love Story. But still, when a director of his stature presents a new film, especially one packed with an exciting cast – with all present having proven their star status as well as acting abilities - expectations are bound to be high.

Imagine the horror then of finding yourself with itchy palms, wishing desperately for a tokri of rotten tomatoes that you could hurl at the screen! And yes, they would have been hurled at very aesthetic images, because that is one thing Chopra knows how to get right – the plush interiors, the vast Rajasthan desert-scapes, the sun gleaming through clouds of sand. But his is a jaundiced, cynical and dated eye, missing much of the verve and edge of another recently shot-in-Rajasthan film like Dor.

So what is wrong with this movie? Well, “let me count the ways,” since Mr. Chopra is so fond of the bard that he makes Boman Iran repeat Sonnet 18 twice. In the opening sequence, an irate husband strangles his queen, after romantically reciting the aforementioned poem at her sick-bed. It could have been a great screen moment – full of shock, horror and pathos. Instead the scene is bizarrely played out: the mentally challenged daughter looks on while a be-wigged Boman Irani appears to dry-hump a-devoid-of-all-emotion-but-elegant-as-always Tigress Tagore.

Mr. Chopra, if you must have spouses strangling each other in beds, can you please take a look at the recent Omkara variation!

Next: In a post Black and Sarkar world, one expects the Big B to deliver a great performance and not regurgitate the bored attitudes of his mid-1980s bilge, but Chopra seems to get no more from the thespian than a sort of Coolie-like ennui. Yes, the Big B is dignified and noble on screen, but surely sleepwalking his own star persona around doesn’t qualify as acting? And what was that bit of humbly back out of the door, and then “Superman-takes-off” jump beyond the doorway? The entire theatre doubled up with laughter! The Big B weeps, he looks heavenwards, he holds up his hand to ward off bright lights! His tears fall in slow motion only to sizzle and evaporate on the hot train track under a scorching desert sun (see I can be as self-indulgent as Chopra!). But none of the motions add up to anything more than prettily shot but meaningless sequences.

Vidya Balan is beautiful and expressive but has little to do except simper and coddle Saif and Raima Sen at various points of the film. Raima Sen is annoying with her little-girl style, mentally challenged princess act. Parikshit Sahni has little to do, which is a shame! Saif – after proving himself with Omkara – does little more than play the pouting princeling. His constant addition of English lines destroy all possibility of drama in his scenes: “I can’t express myself” and “wait” in romantic sequences with Vidya Balan were bad enough, but when he declared that he is prepared to die and follows it up with the English, “I am ready,” the audience was in splits. Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Sheirgill (another one with an extra letter in his name!) are competent but have little to do. Sanjay Dutt provides a few (intentional for once) laughs, although there was little need for comic relief given the unintentional gaffs in performance and script.

And finally, there is the blatant Orientalism! Chopra seems to pack in every trope he can manage, in a desperate attempt to cash in on the growing international market for commercial Indian cinema. So out come the royal palaces that sit atop wretchedly poor villages; despite the revolting caste histories and apparently ongoing exploitation of farmers, the “masses” are quite happy to go back chanting “Rana ki jai” (albeit particularly disheartedly); the women in the narrative never seem to leave the household and devote their lives to being doormats, or peeking out on jharokhas and dropping silk scarves; the palace interiors seem to be lifted either from the Gujarat handicraft emporium on Delhi’s Kharag Singh Marg or from Bhansali’s kotha sets of Devdas; and just in case, you had missed the point – we get an loving aerial shot of wailing rudalis clad in pastel chiffons!

Mr. Chopra – a word of advice: stop reading circa-1998 commercial Hindi film scholarship junk! Commercial Indian cinema works internationally because it offers a counter-narrative and alternative, not because it fits into the Western stereotypes!

But in all fairness, there are a couple of scenes that reveal Chopra’s innate cinematic talent and abilities: the sequence with the pigeon is beautifully shot although a bit clich├ęd. The screening room sequence is interesting for its self-referentiality - a key scene from Parinda plays on the projector, although the choice of the scene suggests it was imagined by a gang of film scholars rather than the director. The innovative use of a visual black-out where sound becomes the key component is intriguing and effective, mostly because of AB’s magnificent voice. But unfortunately two scenes are not enough to save an entire film.

Sadly (and I speak as a one who watched Parinda eight times in a row when it was released!) Chopra’s best work appears to be behind him; perhaps a fate he shares with other major directors of the 1980s who can’t seem to either catch the pulse or pull of innovative scripts anymore.

For his part, the Big B would be better served in his current run to stick with younger directors who seem to extract better work from (specially by not allowing him to sleep-walk Coolie-style through their movies).

All in all – don’t bother with this one!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

More on Shilpa: And three cheers for Vir Sanghvi!


Yes, you read it right. I never thought I would call for cheers and applause for Mr. Sanghvi given that his opinion tends to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from mine. But...BUT his HT piece on the Shilpa-CBB controversy found me agreeing with the man all the way.

It is a long article on the HT site, but some of it deserves to be quoted:

"Is it any wonder that our blood boils? Are you surprised that educated Indians are angry and outraged? When we take up for Shilpa, we are responding to centuries of humiliation and hurt. We are serving notice that the old days are gone and done with. This is the new India. And we don't take this kind of crap any longer...But equally, I think our reaction to the way in which Shilpa has been treated tells us something about the new India. The Indian reaction is not about race. It's about nationalism, about our coming of age as a country; about a new pride in ourselves. Within a month, the Big Brother controversy will be forgotten. But I'm glad it happened. It told us something about ourselves. And more important, it told the world that the new India will not allow itself to be messed with."

Thank you Mr. Sanghvi! My thoughts exactly! So meet at Janpath for Republic Day? You bring your tricolour and I will bring mine....

Friday, January 19, 2007

Shilpa-Gate 2: Karan Thapar, Get a Reality Check


With more racist remarks against Shilpa Shetty being aired in the past 48 hours on Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother, you would think the English-language press in India would pause in its usual pompous declarations. But no such luck from our old guard of "Macauley's elite" baba-log.

Today's Guardian quotes Karan Thapar as saying: "What this seems to be is that a middle-class young Indian woman has come face to face with [British] working-class crassness. It is unfortunate but she is being paid $680,000 (£346,000) to go on the show."

RIGHT Karan!

Which world do you live in?

Beyond the rarified air of your South Delhi posh residential neighbourhood, the five star social scene, and political intrigue of the Dilli durbaar, there is a larger world: A world where a lot of us "middle-class" Indians take up jobs in UK, Australia, USA, and many other countries. We take up these job to promote our careers, to make money, and yes, to experience new places and things. And yes - in many cases we get paid LOTS of money for the jobs we do.

But get a reality check Karan!

Our choice to take up these jobs or indeed the money we are paid does not mean that basic rules of civility and workplace regulations or laws regarding workplace harassment do not apply.

Holding a job and getting paid for doing it does not mean we should be sexually or racially harassed or abused, or indeed be subjected to workplace bullying.

Are you really saying that those of us who work abroad have forfeited our right to be treated as human beings? That racism against us doesn't count because we "choose to have these jobs and be paid for them"? That we can be bullied, harassed, abused, perhaps even beaten up or killed because we "chose" to explore new horizons? Will you justify all acts of racism against those of us who live and work abroad as "unfortunate" but "hey, they are getting paid a lot of money"?

Lets get one thing straight: Shetty is in the CBB house to do a job. She is an actress and getting paid to do a TV show is what actors do! Yes, she is getting paid for it, just like her "colleagues" in the house.

NONE of this however means that she ought to be subjected to bullying or racism. If her "workplace" were a bank, or indeed a media house, she would be well within her rights to sue her employers. Why should she forfeit those basic employee rights simply because she is on TV or getting paid for her job?

To indicate - even implicitly - that the behaviour meted out to her is somehow justifiable simply because she "chose" to go on the programme, and because she is getting paid for it is perverse!

But then what can we expect of a "journalist" (or is that a "media personality" now) who couldn't stomach Shahrukh's "policitally incorrect" answer regarding Muslims in India!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Shilpa-gate in Britain: What will Channel 4's CBB do now?


After a long time, I have a post. No excuses really except I have finally been working on the thesis.

And I have been watching Celebrity Big Brother – and yes, this is where my family starts to giggle uncontrollably – because it is RESEARCH! Let me explain – as a student of cinema, my doctorate looks at how films work. More specifically, I look at how commercial Hindi cinema works!

That means all those “first day, first show” scrambles are research. So is incessantly played Hindi film music in my house and office. And all the DVDs and cinema books! To quote a family member, my PhD thesis is a “Laloo-barabar scam!” Be that as it may, my thesis - for the record - is extremely scholarly and theoretical.

Going back to CBB - I began watching the show primarily to see how stars are constructed, and star narratives are built. With Shilpa Shetty entering the house, I had a perfect case study. After all here was an “unknown Bollywood star” as one British tabloid called her. The general British audiences did not know her (except of course the small minority of Hindi film fans, from South Asia and beyond) and she was going up against well-known names and faces from the West. It was the perfect scenario to answer a question that confounds me: do stars have something inherently different that makes them stars, or is their star status a function of media “spin.” Of course, it is most likely a combination of the two but Shetty was the perfect case to study. And what a case study this has been!

She stated her motivation – and thus indicated her screen persona for CBB – by explaining that she wanted to represent India and Indians as “glamorous, modern and intelligent.” So of course she arrived at the house looking radiant, in a pink sari, and proved herself supremely articulate. She emphasised her “Indian-ness” by teaching the firangis to chant “Om” and meditate, cooking Indian food, walks around in gorgeous kurtas and gold bangles, with stunning pashminas and jamawars flung about her shoulders – a picture of Indian cinema diva.

Then came the first clashes – with another “house-mate” named Jackiey (sic) who refused to pronounce her name, decided to call her “the Indian,” wondered whether the star lived in “a shack,” and threatened to “sweep her out of the kitchen with an Indian broom.”

When that particular housemate was voted out by the public, a trio of other British “chavs,” famous for rather dubious reasons “celebrities” decided to gang up on the actress. These “celebs” btw are: a foul-mouthed, pea-brained woman who apparently was ranked fourth on a prior Big Brother show; a former Miss Britain whose crown was revoked for a sex scandal involving one of the judges; and former popstar whose music is apparently unknown beyond British borders (ie, people famous for being famous!).

In the past few days, the three have mocked her accent (which I am grateful Shilpa Shetty has neither tried to adapt nor disguise), told her that she was “just the cook” while others in the house were friends, suggested that she “wanted to be white,” and finally suggested that food prepared by her was making them ill, and that Indians were “unhygienic” for a host of reasons including, eating our chicken raw, eating with our fingers (“who knows where the hands have been”), and that Indians were “thin and sick” because we all suffered from constant food poisoning from poorly cooked food.

Shetty has also been called a “dog”, “wanker” and a “fucking cunt,” (the last is still under discussion as Channel 4 chose to beep out the word and many viewers believe the word was the racist slur for Asians in general, ie, “Paki.”). Of course, she has retaliated, although with far more grace and attitude than I would have ever expected from her: “I am not patronising, look it up in the dictionary,” “It’s a name, not a frigging sentence,” etc. However many of the nasty digs have been out of her hearing.

Here it must be said that Shetty has neither backed down nor stooped to the level of the bullying trio. On the other hand, she has played the audience and the three bullies with the skill of a maestro. The softly spoken, articulate, sympathetic, tearful, and fragile-looking Shetty has managed to gain the audience’s sympathy. At the same time she manages to effortless rile up and counter the bullies. This must surely count as Shetty’s greatest performance yet!

Of course more of the narrative has unfolded beyond the boundaries of the text. From the “unknown” Bollywood star to the centre of “race row,” Shetty has managed to acquire a massive sympathetic following in Britain in days (so how is a star made again?) Press has pitched in to support her, and reaction against the racist remarks lobbed at her and her bullying have flooded Ofscom (the media watchdog body) and Channel 4. Net forums seem to be grouping to pressure the show’s main sponsor, Carphone Warehouse into pulling its support. An opportunist Keith Vaz has taken up the issue in the parliament. What a “masterful” star narrative in making! What a pleasure to watch the process (won’t bore you with the technical details of this one).

Within two weeks, Shetty has moved to occupy a volatile intersection of class, race and gender. Her mastery of English and manners (not to mention the “fabulous” lifestyle) has managed to startle and annoy the bullying trio. Her ability to attract masculine support and attention within (and outside) the house is forms the crux of sexual jealousy (bell hooks, you are SOOOO right! So much for Western "sisterhood" bs!). Finally, the race factor burst the floodgates of anger and outrage against her treatment. Channel 4’s refusal to acknowledge the racist bullying and an attempt to “spin” the abuse as having been incited by Shetty herself has worsened the situation. At the close of business (5 pm GMT) on Tuesday, media watchers had clocked 7,600 complaints lodged at Ofcom while another few thousand had been lodged directly with Channel 4.

Shetty – ironically has become the rallying point for the South Asian diaspora in Britain. While terrorism and religious fundamentalism have divided the South Asian communities in Britain on mostly national lines (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) over the past years, the current incident has hit viewers across the board, raising personal memories of racial abuse. Moreover, Shetty is not an unknown quantity among the diaspora – she has been a well-known, and often well-loved figure of Hindi cinema for many years and her ill-treatment by CBB housemates has been taken far more personally by viewers than imagined. Perhaps, Channel 4 had underestimated the power of Hindi cinema?

A final factor must be noted here: the internet! Although CBB is only being broadcast in Britain and Ireland, a quick search on youtube.com for “Shilpa, CBB” throws up all the necessary footage required to be outraged on Shetty’s behalf. Same goes for the heavily edited and controlled Big Brother website on Channel 4’s homepage:
http://www.channel4.com/bigbrother/index.jsp. The coverage and forums on http://bigbrother.digitalspy.co.uk/ as well as the bbc.co.uk’s Asian network forums have also been prime movers in mobilising the protests.

So what happens next? Well, Channel 4 better find a quick way to solve the crisis they have on their hands. This afternoon, the show’s live feed was blocked and only reinstated when the bullies had been separated from Shilpa and her support group in the house. The live feed has been since censored to prevent viewers from discovering the reason for the separation (one hopes that Shilpa wasn’t physically attacked in the house – that could have ugly consequences outside).

And they better hope that no Indians with internet access – from home or other parts of the world - get in on the act. After all if Indians with net access could upstage all Hollywod stars to vote Amitabh Bachchan the “star of the millennium” on BBC’s online poll back in 2000, imagine what we could do with a few choice addresses from Ofcom and Channel 4.

Fyi in case you want to follow this one on your own: www.youtube.com (seach for Shilpa and CBB), http://www.channel4.com/bigbrother AND to protest: ofcom.co.uk, bblb@channel4.com, bbbm@channel4.com, AND here is the petition doing the rounds already: http://www.petitiononline.com/Shilpa/petition.html

I know, I know - but I am Indian yaar, and nothing better than some sabre-rattling (nonviolently of course) and rabble-rousing to get things going....