Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Bollywood at its shrewdest

PUBLIC memory is short. To see larger than-life characters on 70MM, to forget a harsh reality called life, we willingly suspend disbelief and cherish the action on screen. But public memory is not short as in the case of Sanjay, the protagonist in Aamir Khan’s Gajini, whose memory span is not more than 15 seconds or so. We remember what we consider important and what we are told is important. Similarly we keep a tag on our celebrities — what they do, what they don’t, and what they are believed to have done. No celebrity is immune to this scrutiny.
In a scorching April in 2006 he braved the Delhi summer and extended his support to the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The next day was the DVD release of his movie Rang De Basanti. More than appreciation, he received flak from all quarters, so much so that activists asked him to stop promoting a soft drink and his movie Fanaa was not screened in Gujarat.
Two years later, he again braved an unforgiving Delhi April and ran with the Olympic torch. This time (as mentioned in his blog) he ran “with a prayer in my heart for the people of Tibet, and indeed for all the people across the world who are victims of human rights violations”. He might have had little option, as the soft drink giant he was endorsing was an official partner for the games.
This winter he is back, with a new cause. Yes, it is 26/11 — the talk of the town. This time he has expressed a desire to postpone the release of his movie, slated for Christmas day, as he is yet to come out of the ‘shock’ of the attack and is not in a frame of mind to think about movies. A closer scrutiny would reveal the arithmetic behind the thought. The fact is it might not be a good time to release a big budget movie. Post-26/11 around 70 theatres/multiplexes in Mumbai saw less than 25 per cent collection till the second week of December.
Another reason for Aamir Khan’s press conference on Id-ul-Adha could be that Shah Rukh Khan, whose movie Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi released on December 12, has been all over the media speaking about religion, his movie and the terror attack.
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi is clearly the most anticipated Bollywood film in recent times, and is hogging all the light. While trade pundits bet on the movie for its freshness and the SRK-Aditya Chopra team, the feedback from distributers and moviegoers is that it has the power to bring the audience back to theatres post-26/11 — and the movie seems to be doing that.
Other than the fact that it is an Aamir Khan movie, there’s nothing fresh about Gajini. The heroine is a new face in Bollywood and so is the director. The storyline is known, as it is a remake of a Tamil movie ‘inspired’ by an English one. It might be this fear that has made the actor market his movie in a way best known to him — get hold of a contemporary issue, identify himself and then the movie with it.
Bollywood has been all over the media, expressing shock and making suggestions on the lapses, what needs to be done and how the nation can fight terror. It seems everyone is an expert in terror management except the government and police. Sanjay Dutt was among the first from Bollywood to be interviewed after the attacks — maybe the anchor thought firsthand information on how hard it is to handle an AK-47 would give some perspective on how much training the killers received in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or wherever they came from. It is not Aamir Khan’s acting skills that are in doubt. It is his concerns that often come across as the conniving shrewdness of a politician who waits for the press before paying floral tributes at a leader’s memorial.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Show Must Go On

The biggest hit this season seems to be a 62-hour spectacle that was scripted from across the border. None of the actors were known faces until now and its overnight success has send shivers down the spine of many in Bollywood.
The 26/11 Mumbai attack, while an unprecedented and grotesque one, has threatened the country’s biggest movie industry and rightly so because in a holiday season when every teenager should be humming OSTs and copying movie styles, they are trying to gather themselves after 26/11.
TRPs are the highest for news channels while entertainment and sports are forgotten. For an industry that has had a lean year, missing this season is unimaginable. Also sensing this, many in tinsel town reacted openly in a manner that has never been witnessed before. Bollywood was all over the news before the fire in the Taj Hotel was doused.
While the media in a deliberate attempt refrained from communalising the attack, as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Islamic’ terror, in a subtle way it projected how the attack had maligned the Muslims. For reasons best know to the news channels, most of the celebrities who appeared on TV or appealed for unity and peace were Muslims – Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Javed Jaffrey, Farah Khan … . Saif Ali Khan and his latest arm candy Kareena Kapoor dashed a letter on how they were ‘shocked’ by the attack. The exceptions in this could be Amitabh Bachchan on his blog and Sanjay Dutt. But given Sanju’s alleged 1993 blasts links one cannot miss the parallel. How come the media missed the Kapoors, Kumars, Deols…?
What took the industry so long to react while the country, particularly Mumbai, has been reeling under a series of attacks time and again?
This time terror has hit the glitterati in more than one way. The panic the attack has created has stopped people flocking to multiplexes thereby reducing the revenue movies churn.
26/11 has dawned upon them the reality that they could also be hit by terror. An average Mumbaikar does not frequent the Taj or the Trident. He has been hit many times in the past when bombs went off in crowded trains and BEST buses. Bollywood does not frequent the CST terminal, their hangouts were targeted on 26/11. The appeal filmstars have among the public cannot be underscored but one wonders what took them so many years to voice themselves in the chorus they are now?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Jesus Christ Superstar

The Vatican last week pardoned John Lennon for his “more popular than Jesus now” statement made 42 years ago. It said that in all probability the remarks were made by the band members because they could not handle the sudden fame and stardom they had achieved. Given this, it must be an irony that Lennon made that statement, as he met Paul McCartney for the first time at St Peter’s Church in Liverpool.
It might be true that being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire did make them a bit cocky (George Harrison was 22 when he received the MBE).
The Beatles were no strangers to controversies -- be it snubbing the Marcoses in the Philippines or getting arrested in Hamburg for arson. In the US, Elvis Presley asked President Richard Nixon to ban the group from entering the US for their anti-war activism and open drug use.
For the Church, which was relatively unchallenged for the greater part of its existence, the statement by the band was a rabbit punch. In the 1960s and 70s the Church was in crisis. The disillusionment of the two World Wars and the hippy movement saw a sharp decline in church attendance all over the world.
The Church was rocked, perhaps for the first time, when Henry VIII of England decided to separate the Anglican Church from the Roman hierarchy in the 16th century. Until then the Vatican had enjoyed unquestioned power and anyone who was seen as being against its interests got a taste of its tough love. The best example is the case of Joan of Arc, burnt at the stake. Later, the Vatican apologised and Joan was canonised in 1920.
Lennon’s statement was small potatoes considering the damage Henry VIII caused to the Church. But the eighth Henry was a monarch while The Beatles were a ‘working-class group’ who symbolised values unbecoming of Christendom. By taking strong exception, the Church was rebuking not just The Beatles.
But the Church’s biggest knock came from a Cambridge theologian who said that all species of life evolved over time from common ancestors through a process he called natural selection.
Is anyone paying heed to a pardon that has come 28 years after Lennon was shot dead? In 1966, when the Church reacted and Beatles’ LPs’ were burnt in the US and South Africa, Harrison said: “They’ve got to buy them before they can burn them.” So how much would McCartney and Starr heed the pardon now?

Thursday, 4 December 2008


In an uncouth, callous and insensitive statement the Kerala (a state that boasts 100 per cent literacy) chief minister has bared his fangs at the family of slain officer Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan for snubbing him at Bengaluru. His statement to a news channel that “If Sandeep had not been a Major, not even a dog would have gone to his house”, has come for much criticism from the media, political circles and public. What is more alarming is that the 85-year-old leader refused to apologise and it took him three days and arm-twisting by the Polit Bureau to ‘regret’ his remarks.
Velikkakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan and the state home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan called on the Unnikrishnans’ late on Monday only after political and media pressure mounted on the state government for not attending Sandeep’s funeral. The vernacular media in Kerala has been projecting the Major as a son-of-the-soil and to make things worse for the grumpy old man, the Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa was seen by Unnikrishnan’s side during the funeral.
What irked the Unnikrishnans’ was the political mileage that the Left government in Kerala was trying to gain by the visit. Not heeding the family’s request for privacy, sniffer dogs were sent to sanitise the house before the leaders could call on.
In our country where the death of a soldier is seen as a part of his ‘duty’, it is not of surprise that a leader would politicise the issue, especially when the party is preparing for an election.
The triviality of the sacrifices for the country and the outbursts over inaction can been gauged by the reactions from our leaders --- a minister brushes aside the Mumbai attacks as a choti choti baath, a BJP leader cannot stomach the protest march taken out by Mumbaikers and says that people in suits and lipsticks do not represent the voice of the nation.
At a time when the country should show a semblance of unity and purpose, politics has taken the attack and its aftermath to a low --- the gutters of vote-banks politics. The principal Opposition party is busy campaigning, the Gujarat chief minister has offered Rs one crore to the family of slain ATS chief Hemant Karkare (the family declined the solatium).
Mumbai will show its resilience and get back to normalcy, India will shoot blanks at Pakistan --- this time overseen by the US, heads will roll – governments will continue, alerts will be sounded -- life will continue. After all, public memory is short.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Minister prefers shadow boxing

WITH statements like “for us, everyday is no smoking day,” and his seemingly relentless pursuit of celebrities to knock away the cigarette, Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss comes across, with best intentions though, as a desperate man.

In an era of coalition politics, it is the small parties that call the rook when it matters the most (as was seen during the last trust vote). So it boils down to not what is done while one is in power but the amount of visibility and media space one has managed to achieve then.

If Ramadoss was ‘really’ concerned about the health of the nation, his focus should have been on the thousands of PHCs that are crying for attention. With the medical supplies system plagued by an archaic approach, it is a miracle that vital health figures are intact. Moreover, to get a grasp of the problem, one does not need a WHO study or a mortality rate figure. A visit to a government-run facility would be a revealing experience.

Ramadoss’ anti-smoking drive, at its best, can be seen as an effort to occupy media space. There is no denying that smoking is a dreaded practice and the effects it has on the individual and society are perilous, but targeting an individual for his supposed influence upon society or by banning smoking is immature. The liberty of making an informed choice should be given to every individual. Moreover, with an election in the near future, one cannot but read between the lines.

The countless studies by his department and NGOs are proof enough that more than smoking, tobacco-chewing affects crores of Indians. Maybe, the Minister could turn to his high-profile colleagues and ask them to stop painting their mouth red. Politicians, thanks to the ever-growing media coverage, have more visibility than any professional in the country. Ramadoss would have got a glimpse of this lately because he readjusted his target from Bollywood to West Bengal Chief Minster Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.

If the Minister is sincere about his efforts of putting out the light, he should look at the world and learn from it. With an estimated budget of nothing short of $40 billion spent every year, AIDS research, prevention and treatment is the largest funded health project in the world. AIDS gets this royal treatment much to the dislike of health experts who often claim that with this focus, many other vital diseases are ignored. But this was not the case 10 years ago. Dr Peter Piot, executive director UNAIDS, has been in the field of AIDS research and programme management for three decades. Piot who was trying to bring world leaders to understand the enormity of the disease hit upon an idea as the millennium approached. “I asked myself what political leaders really cared about. The truth is, it’s not health. It’s economics and security. Health is what they talk about if there is money left at the end of the day,” Piot was quoted telling the Newsweek. Piot said that the disease would wipe away a young generation, destroy the health system and in turn reverse the economic progress achieved. Soon diplomats, policy-makers and world leaders were paying attention. The Unites States that was allocating $100 million a year in the 90’s for AIDS in 2003 allocated $15 billion.

Dr Ramadoss would be aware of this but he is part of a government that fills its coffers with the revenue earned from tobacco trade in the country. Probably the Minister prefers this kind of publicity. The one that is seen before a boxing match - A match between the Minister and the shadow of a heavyweight industry.
(Edited version of the post is published in The New Indian Express: )

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


It can be a backlash of the twin blasts in Bangalore and Ahmadabad, security has tightened in all the metros and seeing lot of checks-and-stops in Chennai is strange. I think more than the physical caution that has been taken, it is the mental precaution that has set all minds alert. The repeated images in the print and electronic media or security measures, have for sure, pushed the level of alertness a notch above than the usual. This can be seen in the number of false alarms that ring at the control rooms everyday.
After the alert was sounded I’ve been on the lookout for a probable unclaimed bag, abandoned car in a crowded place and so on, more so because I frequent the public transport. It was July 29 and two days after the blasts rocked the psyche of the nation. As usual, the bus which I got in, to my office, was crowded. Finding a seat was impossible and it was always book-the-seats-by-standing-in-front-of-it game which all standees engaged in. To my surprise there was this one seat on the right side facing the aisle which was empty. Without thinking twice I jumped for it. Adjusting my big frame I tried being courteous to the passenger sharing the seat by smiling at him. He was a gentle soul who obliged and turned away as though he was in the middle of looking at something.
The passengers in front turned and stared at me. A few among the standees also did the same. The conductor was rash and quick to issue a ticket. He too gave a what-the-hell gawk. It is not uncommon to have these reactions on an MTC but I was intrigued. It might have been the ‘level of alertness’ that was the cause for such a reaction. I looked at my neighbour and found the answer. The gentle soul was in casuals, wearing a white cap, a beard which long due needed a trim. He had a bag with him, a black one. In the sweltering humidity he was wearing a full-sleeved shirt and had an uneasy calm on his face.
The countless images that were dished out in the past few days played in my head. I smiled at him and looked at the others. I felt sorry for them. How could they stigmatise a person based on stereotypes? Their prejudices were amounting to discrimination which was uncalled for. I found answers for my doubts. I knew why the seat was not occupied, why the passengers and conductor gave me the stares.
The ease at which he was taking it surprised me. He was enjoying the ride, occasionally attending a call, unaware of the bias he was subjected to. I knew he was a good person, probably religious and had a family waiting for him to get back. When his stop to alight came, he excused himself and went away. I felt so much at peace with myself for standing apart from the rest of the passengers. I saw myself as a person who did not further the marginalisation that was prevalent.
As the bus left no one cared to occupy the seat that was vacant.
It might have been the ‘level of alertness’ that was a notch up lately, I checked under the seats if there was any unclaimed bag even though I remember seeing him take his bag with him. I tried memorising his visage and other features – he had a mole on his left wrist, was carrying a blue mobile and spoke fluent Tamil and Hindi. Probably English as well, was middle-aged, dark complexion, nose had a long bridge and eyes which drooped. And yes, he was carrying a black bag which was a compliment from a company next to Britannia in Padi.
Was I more other than the others?

(edited version of this article has appeared in The New Indian Express )

Monday, 30 June 2008

Dasavaatharam – how Kamal and the media took us for a ride

What do you do when you are old (read 50+) and probably running out of steam? What would you do if you've delivered amazing characters early in your life and not matching them of late? You are a script-dialogue-screenplay, find a fat producer, cast yourself in all possible avathars (how I dread that word now) and call it Dasavaatharam.
For a person who has always rated Kamal Hasaan as a superior actor, especially when compared to his contemporary Rajinikanth, for various critical reasons, this latest offering by the 'Universal Hero' is nothing but a desperate show of glorified nothingness. Only if we had it, I would have dialled 911 to save me from the ordeal, torture and trauma that came in the form of 180-odd minute diarrhoea on celluloid. Not only is the actor a shadow of what he used to be but it seems that he has lost the ground beneath his feet. Often quoted by the mavericks of the industry as an all-season actor, his recent movies only glare one message – this is an actor who is in search of a genre which can befit his ventures, an actor who is trying to make a point, an actor who is desperately trying to make the audience gasp, tears roll down their cheeks, give that edge-of-the-seat feeling.
If his movies in the recent past were premonitions and signs of what were in the waiting, D-10 is the proof of the decline in the standard of cinema he chooses and is associated with.
This new movie, D-10, thanks to the new-age-marketing-gurus will be a hit. The regular talks in the media, the promos have over-satiated the audience that anyone and everyone would want to see the ‘magic’ in the ten-roles-rolled-into-one movie. It will be a hit, a hit to the scale that it would recover the invested money. Would this hold any relevance as a blip on the radar of Tamil cinema or in the actor’s personal profile? – I am sure not. For the best it can be cherished as a magnum opus that should not have happened. It is a blip on the radar – a sign of danger or an itch that is in the larger frame a sign of the times we are in. a time when marketing cacophony is good cinema and not performances.
For the industry this is just another movie which is in tune with the trend at the box office. Hyperbole media attention before the release, aggressive marketing and shrewd publicity is the underlying factor of any present day blockbuster-movie. Most of the movies are but the hero-action-songs-item numbers and D-10 has all of this. The technology is refreshing but not awe creating. There are a few scenes which can be counted as different but the difference ends there.
Kamal Hassan might be a happy man to have donned ten hats or perhaps nine different G-R-O-T-E-S-Q-U-E make-ups but sure not in the top few movies of his good movies. It seems that the actor came up with ten different characters – representing different countries, race, languages, and gender – and wove a movie around it. Or to a thread of a story got this brilliant idea of 10-roles-one-movie-first-time-in –history and made the movie. Except for two – being generous – three roles the others are but a glorified fancy dress competition. Probably Kamal got hooked to the Avaishanmughi routine of extreme-long-sessions-of-make-up and wanted to test it to the maximum in this ten-in-one.For an actor, a thespian of emotions, who has graced the silver screen for more than three decades, this is not just an amateur and uncalled movie but an uncalled and to-be-kind-to-the-movie – uncouth one.