Sunday, 15 November 2009

A two-decade old dream

Now when many buffs speak with awe about Pazhassi Raja, the director of the multilingual biopic comes up with a wry smile and says that his recently rel­eased work, in a way, und­er­went a gestation period of not less than two decades. A pretty long delay, one might think — but T Hariharan has no regrets. True, the mega venture is a period film, yet its maker believes he has now made it look all the more topical. “I believe Pazhasi Raja has come at the right time,” he says about the film that features the life of a Malabar king who led a guerilla warfare against the imperial British in the late 18th century. “It’s a warning to my compatriots that if we don’t stand united, chances are that another East India Company will conquer us.”

Some 20 years ago, Hariharan, who ente­red the industry way further back in 1965, had toyed with plans of shooting a film on a freedom fighter-king. Around that time, cele­brated litterateur-scriptwriter M T Vasu­devan Nair conjured up a brilliantly tweaked version of a northern Kerala folklore, and Hariharan was simply tempted to finish it first.

The 1989 blockbuster, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, went on to grab many awards — at the national level as well. Hariharan continued making films — some of them won critical acclaim and laurels too. But the key to a watershed of sorts happ­ened in 2006, when Hariharan and MT — as Vasudevan Nair is known — narrated the Wayanad jungle tales of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja to a prospective producer who had approached the duo with the intention of producing a movie based on a popular legend. Once the story was narrated to them, stifling silence descended on the room. Then, with a broad smile Gok­ulam Gopalan said, “I am more than willing to produce this film.” His Sree Gokulam Movies got into action, and the work soon started. Rest, as they say, is history.

History textbooks, by the way, have it that, upcountry, Mangal Pandey’s refusal to bite the greased cartridge sparked the Revolt of 1857, and it was the first protest for freedom from the British. “But,” as Hariharan points out, “William Logan’s Malabar Manual has a date-wise record of the meetings and enco­unters with Pazhassi more than 50 years prior to the Sepoy Mutiny.”

When it released last month, Pazhassi Raja broke many existing records, including the tag of the costliest-ever Malayalam movie. For an industry that has an average superstar-cast film’s budget pegged around Rs 4 crore, this was way above at an estimated cost of Rs 28 crore. Hariharan believes — and not many disagree — that the money spent reflects in the film that stars Mammootty and Sarath Kumar. “In fact, the film is a document for future references, considering there are many misconceptions about Pazhassi Raja. MT always lamented the absence of good record of the king, and said it had to be done. There are tales that he died choking on a ring. The movie has set the record straight.”

Hariharan agrees that he did incorporate certain cinematic considerations, but adds in the same breath that they “don’t disturb or distort facts”. One record says Pazhassi was killed while fighting, and his body was later spotted by the British troops among the dead. The film has refashioned this legend for visual grandeur.

Pazhassi Raja, in which the characters speak in Malayalam, English and Tamil, is to be dubbed into Hindi, where Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan lends the introductory voiceover. “Shah Rukh was bowled over after seeing a portion of the film,” Hariharan

recalls. “He got emotional, saying that the film struck a chord with him as his father was also a freedom fighter.” (The Malayalam voiceover is by Mohanlal, while Kamal Haasan does it in Tamil.)

Drilling into the technical aspects of the film, Hariharan says the craft of a film depends on its subject. “For a period film, originality is very important. You should get the angles correct, yet ensure that the viewers don’t feel the presence of the camera (Ramanath Shetty is the cinematographer) or be distracted by the editing (Seekar Prasad).” The authenticity of the sounds also matters. Academy Award winner Resul Pookutty “has taken great care to capture minute details”. The renowned Ilayaraja has lent the music.

For all the different faces in the crew, Pazhassi Raja can bring in a sense of déjà vu for people who have watched Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. That’s largely owing to the period-film commonality and the coming together of Hariharan, MT and Mammootty. “While I had to contemplate about the rest of the cast, Mammootty was my only choice for Pazha­ssi,” says Hariharan.

The possible similarities one might notice in certain aspects apart, the director professes that donning the role of Pazhassi

required a completely different set of skills from that of essaying the protagonist Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. “Pazhassi was a challenging role; it wasn’t dialogue-orien­ted. You needed to emote a lot — and Mamm­ootty has done it brilliantly,” he says, amazed that the actor’s physique hasn’t changed much from the 1989 film.

Having collaborated with MT on a dozen-odd films, Hariharan notes that the synergy emerges from the depth of their understanding. “A director-writer liaison is very important for good cinema — they are the two people who should ideally control a film.”

Hariharan made six films from 1989 to 2005 — the year he made his last film. But the

return of the ‘trio’ has prompted Malayalam cine freaks to believe that Pazhassi Raja is his comeback of sorts. In the intervening two decades, Hariharan has only matured further and refined his craft. It might not be coincidence, thus, that the tagline for the film is: ‘It’s time to remember’.

“While I had to contemplate about the rest of the cast, Mammootty was my only choice for Pazhassi,” says

Hariharan. The similarities one might notice in certain aspects apart, the director professes that donning the role of Pazhassi required a completely different set of skills from that of essaying the protagonist Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989).

“Pazhassi was a challenging role; it wasn’t a dialogue-oriented film. You needed to emote a lot — and Mammootty has done it brilliantly.

Friday, 30 October 2009

A bridge across the Palk Strait

The simplicity of the storyline struck a deep chord in Sreekar Prasad when Prasanna Vithanage narrated its sequences to him ahead of his newest cinematic venture. So much so, Sreekar offered to co-produce it besides taking up what the Sri Lankan filmmaker originally wanted him to do: edit the movie, which is on the comeback of a star actress. After all, this wasn’t the first time the two had come together to complete a work on celluloid — their bond had been strong after Sreekar worked with Prasanna in the highly acclaimed Death on a Full Moon Day (1998). This time, it led the birth of Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky).
If Death on a Full Moon Day received critical acclaim after its release a decade ago, the graph only leaped further skywards in the case of Akasa Kusum. The Chennai-Colombo co-production under the banner of Filmfreaks has gone on gain an official entry into the 2010 Oscars.
Veteran Sreekar is delighted, and attributes it all to the merits of the filmmaker. “Prasanna is extremely talented. Having gotten associated with the Akasa Kusum, we next pitched it at the Pusan Promotion Plan (a pre-market initiative where Asian filmmakers are introduced to potential producers and financiers) — and the script got selected.”
Sreekar recalls that the film thus received a good response in the international festival circuit and also in Sri Lanka. So, did he expect an Oscar nomination? Not exactly. “Well, it was a surprise,” Sreekar gushes about the communiqué he
received from the Sri Lankan government about a fortnight ago. “It’s a recognition for the work we did.”
It’s only nine weeks since the film’s commercial release, but Akasa Kusum has been doing the rounds at film festivals from last year. If at Cines del Sur in Grenada, Spain, it won the honour for the best Asian film, it won the special jury mention at the Vesoul Film Festival in France.
Malini Fonseka, who portrays the protagonist Sandhya Rani, has been nominated to the best actress at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards to be held at Gold Coast, Australia, and has won the Silver Peacock at the International Film Festival of India at Goa.
So would film buffs in India get to see Akasa Kusum? “Surely there is an effort to bring the film to India. In fact, the process is already on. Only that it’s too early to give a date as of now.” Sreekar isn’t apprehensive about the prospects of acclaim that a film made in Sri Lanka would receive in India. He places his faith in the universality of the subject of the film.
“Indeed, I’m confident that the Indian audience would relate better with its theme, given that the history and impact of cinema is vast and deeper in our country than in Sri Lanka,” he notes. “True, the characters in the film are fictional, but then the protagonist could be any of your old actresses. Bigger the industry, more are its chances of Sandhya Ranis popping up. As a creative person, an artiste goes through this phase of fame and neglect. Some people take it gracefully, some don’t — and others succumb to the pressures of being in the limelight. This could be anyone’s story in cinema. Not just an actor, but of a director or a technician.”
Akasa Kusum is the story of how a yesteryear actress Sandhya Rani (Malini Fonseka), who lives a life in oblivion after retirement, is brought back to the limelight. That’s when the police come to know about the sexual escapades of a young actress Shalika (Dilhani Ekanayake) in a rented accommodation that belongs to Sandhya Rani. The police smell a rat and skeletons start tumble out. The rest is how Sandhya Rani’s life changes when she hears about a child she had from a relationship in her heyday.
Andhra Pradesh-born Sreekar, with more than 300 films to his credit starting from Simhaswapnam (1983), reveals with a chuckle that he gets nervous before starting any new project, and Akasa Kusum was no exception. “The film was a challenge as the director had to be subtle in telling the story. I had to ensure my editing didn’t overplay the emotions.” So, he kept repetition of visuals to minimum. “We got over this general feature with off-beat films. We just cut at the high point of a scene; and in the process we were able to tell the story in 90 minutes.”
Another special aspect of the film was that the background music is “almost negligible”. “Here the visuals speak for themselves.” For all its trappings of being a “parallel” film, Akasa Kusum is doing well in Sri Lanka, mainly in the urban centres. When it comes to box-office success, the case isn’t different with Sreekar’s latest release. Mammootty-starrer Pazhassiraja, directed by Hariharan, is doing well in Kerala ahead of its worldwide release even as Sreekar has started working on his next ventures: Mani Rathnam’s Raavan and a yet-to-be-named Telugu project.

‘Telugu films have two-three formats’
With six national awards (yet to get one for a Telugu film), five state awards and several miscellaneous awards, Sreekar Prasad knows his cinema. Is it a reflection of the quality of Tollywood films? “I think, yes,” he says. “For one, Telugu movies are very region-specific. They have probably two or three formats which they switch between; they rarely go beyond that.”
Sreekar maintains they are finding it difficult to break out of the rut. “There is this effort to cater to a particular audience;
so it does not stand a chance at an all-India level. There may be attempts to break this pattern, but are very few and rare.
At one point, Bollywood was like this.”
Obviously, Sreekar speaks his mind — and that from his experience in the industry for more than a quarter century. Over the years, he has made a deliberate attempt to strike a balance between ‘masala’ films and ‘serious’ films. “Initially, I took any project that came my way, but now I am selective. I associate with a film if the story is interesting, and also the director and I need to have similar wavelengths. Only then can I complement the director in the job I undertake.”

Myopia in fighting poaching

That poaching is rampant in India is hardly news and it would be an understatement to say that the menace is on the rise. But a recent news about a one-horned rhinoceros being killed at the Rajiv Gandhi Orang Wildlife Sanctuary, on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra, 140 km from Guwahati, gives pause for thought. Two poachers were killed in a shootout with forest guards on October 19. One of them, Harmuj Ali, had been released from jail just 10 days earlier. He was nabbed last June after killing a 25-year-old female rhino in the same park. The number of rhinos killed so far this year in the park has risen to six, with two dying of ‘natural causes’, against the seven in 2008. For all the awareness camps conducted and hi-tech training provided to the guards, such incidents rob the sheen of the India Rhino Vision-2020 programme, a project aimed at the long-term conservation of rhinos in Assam.It would be a tall order to expect the government to curb the demand for rhino horn, ivory, tiger skin and rare reptiles in the international market, but it could certainly increase the quantum and severity of punishment for poaching. This should be backed by expediting the legal course. Punishment must be quick. Going by the Harmuj Ali experience, four months is small change for the lakhs of rupees a rhino horn fetches in the international market.The case of Harmuj Ali also throws light on the fact that our jails do little to reform a criminal, which is the purpose of these institutions. They serve more as a place for criminals to cool their heels for a while. After they are released they go on the hunt again.Though the government has grander plans for conservation and has tied up with the WWF and International Union for Conservation of Nature, it has failed to address the concerns of the forest guards. Reports say that many of the guards have been working as temporary staff more than two decades. Irregular salaries and non-regularisation of jobs certainly weigh down on the morale of the guards who have threatened suicide if the government fails to recognise their demands.Wildlife protection is a demanding task and the government seems to have realised the importance of it, but it cannot save the remaining endangered animals unless it wins the trust of all parties involved, because the enemy is focused. Greed is, after all, a great motivator.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A distrubing trend of fakes

The report submitted by Metropolitan magistrate S P Tamang on the encounter of four people in Ahmedabad in June 15, 2004 by the Gujarat police would have sure come as a vindication for the Ishrat family who have been pleading the innocence of their daughter Ishrat Jahan. The fake encounter of Ishrat Jahan, Javed Shiekh, Amjad Ali and Abdul Gani by Ahmedabad police commissioner K R Kaushik and DIG D G Vanzara among others, reminds us of the horror that could happen when people who are supposed to protect us take the law in their hands for personal gains such as promotions and goodwill from the political class. The dangers of the anti-terror bill passed by the Modi government, which makes confession made before a police officer admissible in a court, should be viewed in this light.

Names like Sanjit (killed in Manipur last July), Abdul Rehman (’07), Sohrabuddin Sheikh (November ’07), Manorama Devi (July ’04), Sadiq Jamal (January ’03) and Sameer Khan Pathan (October ’02) should not become mere statistical figures in the minds of the public. Such gross human rights violations should be protested, otherwise a Frankenstein of sorts will be created and our indifference towards the issue will have to be blamed. In the light of this it would not be alarming to know that the Gujarat police face allegations of killing 20 people in 11 fake encounters between 2002-’06 - in all cases the ‘terrorists’ had schemed for the life of the state chief minister Narendra Modi.

While extra judicial killings are not a new phenomenon in India where it has been present in the conflict zones for decades, the fact that it is spreading to other parts should have the authorities and the public concerned. That trigger-happy Dirty Harry(s) are a growing tribe is evident in the alarming rise in the number of ‘encounter’ and custodial deaths reported from almost every part of the country. Closer to home is the recent report from Chennai on the death of A Lakshmanan in a lock-up after being subjected to third-degree interrogation.

The affidavit from the Union ministry of home affairs supporting the claims of the state government that the four people killed on June 15 was terrorists is a tell-tale of the lack of co-ordination between various government agencies concerned with the nation’s security.

Revelations such as the one made by Justice (Retd) C Upendra Singh earlier this month that extra judicial killings are a reality only underline a serious lapse and subsequent cover-up on the part of the police and other officials. It is also unfortunate to note that in almost all ‘encounters’ the ‘terrorists’ belong to the minority community - thereby further paving way for alienation and prejudice laden stereotyping. These disturbing incidents should also pan our attention to the fact that for its effective and professional working, reforms in the police has to happen and it should be purged from external involvement - read political - at all levels.

(Edited version of this post is available at:

Friday, 21 August 2009

Veiling the right to education

Educational institutions should focus on improving the quality of education imparted to the lakhs of students, and stop short of moral policing is a point that seems to be repeated very often that the people who have to take note are missing frequently. Two news items that have appeared earlier this week in Bantwal and Uppinangady, both places in Dakshina Kannada, highlight a disquieting trend of increasing religious intolerance and how right wing extremists are blatantly using academia as a means to an end.

Aysha Asmin, a first-year student of Sri Venkataramana Swamy College, Bantwal, was given two options by her principal Seetharamayya --- ‘abide’ by the college rules or quit. That no such rules exist or were mentioned during the time of Aysha’s admission and the college union is managed by a right-wing group is not a mere coincidence. Similar objections raised by the college management at the Government First Grade College, Uppinangady, seem to have died down after Muslim girls have been permitted to wear a head scarf for the ‘time being’.

Religious intolerance has been on the rise and Dakshina Kannada has been its epicentre in South India. The banning of burqas and the graphic visuals of hooligans, backed by Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene, beating up boys and girls in Mangalore in January this year, details a disturbing malice that is gaining currency.

The show-cause notice issued by the district deputy commissioner is a move in the right direction and it is expected that the Department of College Education would take punitive action against the college. The state home minister, V Acharya, who has backed the college decision citing ‘discipline’, has overlooked a simple norm that ‘discipline’ and order should not be imposed or attained at the cost of an individual’s freedom as enshrined in our Constitution.

The question to be asked is why is it that the Universities Grant Commission and the ministry of education have not taken cognisance of the issue if there is a ‘rule’ in the prospectus of the government-aided college banning students from wearing a burqa, as claimed by Seetharamayya. As the ban is a clear violation of the fundamental rights, the college should be reprimanded and not just smacked on the knuckle.

The college principal’s statement ridiculing religious freedom and that he was under pressure from certain organisations, coupled with the Mangalore University vice-chancellor K M Kaveriappa’s assurance to Aysha that he would secure an admission in any college of her choice, are confessions in public that the system has bowed to antics of right-wing groups.

That colleges, and universities in some cases, insist on a dress code alibi discipline, is a reflection of the lack of maturity in thought and blinkered vision that is spreading among educational institutions at an alarming rate.

(The edited version of this can be accessed at

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Teflon Bill takes a call

It is said that history repeats itself and it could not be more true in the case of the United States when former Democratic President Bill Clinton chose to travel more than 6,800 miles to meet America’s bête noire North Korean premier Kim Jong-Il in a meeting that the White House described as ‘solely a private mission’ to give a diplomatic hint to the release of two American journalists who were held, tried and punished in a manner that would pale banana republics elsewhere in the world.

Fifteen years ago, around the same time, Clinton, then president, had sent former president Jimmy Carter to North Korea to speak with the ‘Great Leader’. At both times Pyongyang’s used its nuclear programme as the carrot to lure the US.

The successful mission should be viewed as a personal and political triumph for Bill Clinton. From being increasingly seen as the husband of the secretary of state, though Hillary is yet to make a mark of her own in an Obama Administration full of influential White House aides, to a former president who has a diplomatic panache and international presence that cannot be ignored, Bill Clinton is all set to be in the spotlight if Obama’s press secretary Robert Gates’ statement that the two presidents are to get together ‘sometime soon’ is to be believed.

While the administration is still reeling in the triumph of what Obama described as an ‘extraordinary humanitarian effort’, critics have not taken kindly to the fact that the US has yielded to a rouge regime and in the event legitimised it. It is argued that the trip has portrayed Washington in poor light for kowtowing Jung-Il and would encourage other countries, like Iran, to use arm-twisting tactics in the future to meet their ends. These allegations, however, would not hold water as Clinton, a private man today, has gone in his personal capacity and has not billed the exchequer for the North Korea trip. He has tapped his business contacts and well-wishers of the William J Clinton Foundation. Moreover, the administration was quick to distance itself from the rescue mission with secretary of state Hillary Clinton reiterating that US policies towards North Korea ‘remain the same’.

What was the deal or the compromises made, if any, is not clear yet, but from either point of view it is a win-win settlement. For an ailing Kim Jung-Il, who wants to handover a powerful N-nation to his youngest son Kim Jong Un, the release is a propaganda gimmick and a masterstroke that would silence the voices of dissent in Pyongyang as well as reaffirm the power of his dynasty.

In the coming days it would be interesting to see if there is a shift in the stand either country adopts, or of any developments within North. There are also chances of Obama extending his ‘open hand’ all the way up to the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Moonwalking all our lives

As I had some writing to meet a deadline, I went to bed at around 3.30 am on Friday June 26. By then news channels were breaking the news that Michael Jackson was rushed to a UCLA hospital. I didn’t think much of it for two reasons. One MJ has been having a hard time keeping himself fit, especially for the concerts lined up in London. The second was that the media frenzy for everything has been so overdone that ‘breaking news’ is no more breaking enough.
I dozed off with the television on. I woke up around seven (IST) and got to know the bad news. I managed to break my spectacles by sleeping over them. I felt strange. Not because my specks were broken but because it was not the first time I was sleeping over them. The sinister omen was right. After putting together my specks I gazed at the TV and Anderson Cooper broke the news. ‘King of Pop Michael Jackson passes away’ (1958- 2009). I surfed other channels and all were ‘breaking’ the news. An Indian news channel had even sniffed a conspiracy angle to it by then.
For someone who missed the Beatlemania, Elvis and many more, MJ was what filled the gaps in aspiration. MJ was a child star (by the early 80s he had attained cult status), was coloured and had a charming innocence that prompted every parent to wish their child was a MJ.
Growing up in the Arab world, in Kuwait among other places, it would seem strange to say that in the concoction of friends I had, Michael Jackson was a rage. Yes from dishdasha flaunting Arabs to Spaniards who popularised the Berumda shorts breakdancing was the coolest thing to do – on Friday evenings, after football matches and even near souks. Moonwalking was a good way of connecting with the local boys. Though we could not figure out a word they said, and for them what we said, the only common thread we had was music and in the 80s music was Michael Jackson. MJ pushed us to moonwalk near the subways, sneak to school with our walkmans playing Thriller blasting our eardrums. Adding to this, girls liked MJ; they like boys who either played MJ, looked like him or who could dance like him. Where Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, Bobby McFerrin and George Michael failed, Bad worked.
MJ raised a phenomenal craze for black jackets and white gloves. I always made it a point to wear white socks and pointed toe shoes. How could I forget the black shades. Finding a pair for kids was hard and we resorted to the big ones that rested on our cheekbones. But who was complaining. With our shades, shoes and jacket we were also MJ!
My first MJ video, as far as I recollect, was a collection that had video songs of Thriller, Bad, Dirty Diana and many more. A Pakistani friend who had cousins in the US managed to get hold of an assortment of MJ video songs and Moonwalker. All friends huddled up in Jude’s house. Those days we didn’t have compact discs and VHS’ was the best. As Jude pushed the VHS in (it always took an awful lot of time to start) all of us were staring at the dictionary-type VHS cover. We played, replayed and replayed the songs forever. Music, dance and style were never the same again. All of us friends hugged Jude. Never did I feel so much love for a Pakistani.
Being on the healthy side, as a kid there were people always taunting me to reduce the flab. If at all I felt the need to trim down it was because I wanted to shake my leg like the King of Pop. There was also another reason for aspiring to follow MJ. My brother, five years elder to me, was a lookalike of MJ. His lean built, coloured complexion, big sparkling white eyes and natural curls helped him earn the status of a neighbourhood MJ. To top this he was a singer and knew that he could pull a moonwalk with equal grace (something that I still can’t do).
Maybe it was this deep bounding that later down the years I found it hard to believe his fall from grace. During all the scandals and innumerable eccentricities there was always a voice in me saying that he was paying the price for being popular. I kept telling myself and the world that sneered at him: ‘Wait, he’s gonna come out clean and put to rest all these scandals. His next album is gonna make history’.
The whole world was looking forward to the concerts in July. I hope he is remembered for the music he gave and not his personal life; that he would be shown justice denied to him while he was alive.
Michael Joe Jackson went away before he could sing his last song and receive his last standing ovation.
MJ - thank you for the culture, thank you for the revolution and thank you for the music. Thank you Michael Jackson.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Reforms at the cost of education

Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, probably is all pepped about warming a Cabinet seat and wants to have an impressive progress report at the end of 100 days while Manmohan Singh examines it. Heeding the suggestions from ‘a group of experts’ the minister has proposed for a unified system of evaluation for the Board examinations. The minister might have been referring to the Yashpal report titled The Committee to Advice on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education which was submitted to the government in March earlier this year. The Left has seen red over Sibal’s remarks and it is not without reason. While the report has taken objection to the unaccounted growth of private educational institutions and deemed universities and suggested a halt in further allotment of such institutions until proper guidelines are set, its suggestion for private sector involvement in primary education is a step if not taken cautiously would lead to irreversible damage.

It is a fact that the present system of evaluation with focus on two board exams, one in tenth and the other in twelfth standard, is a burden on students for the shear amount of pressure it exerts on them, not to mention the family.

The tremendous pressure, an alibi used by naysayers criticising the education pattern, is not a product of the system, but our creation. It is the taunting and torture primarily from parents, teachers and peer groups, and secondarily from the society and media that push students to extremes.
A unified system of evaluation is not the answer to rectify the existing malice in a system that has been applauded by many developed countries. Ask any child who has had part of his/her education in India before moving to the US, UK or Australia, and they would sing paeans of the system back home.

The proposal for a grading system is a road that leads to nowhere. An example for this could be Kerala which has only recently shifted to it. This year the state has recorded a phenomenal pass percentage of 91.2 or for every 100 students who gave the exam, only nine failed. Even is we were to momentarily blink at this ‘great feat’ and attribute no political undercurrent to the ‘achievement’, do we have the required higher education infrastructure to meet the demand? And in cases where they are present, does it meet the required criterion?

It is a fact that primary and secondary education is on a strong footing when compared to the quality, and availability, of higher education in India. It is only good sense to disturb the strong foot once the other is firmly placed. Change, on the other hand, is always welcome, unless it is for the sake of it.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Malady of state defining religion

On Monday, June 22, French President Nicolas Sarkozy created history in at least two ways. With his address to lawmakers at the historic Chateau at Versailles, he became the first president in 136 years to address a gathering at the venue. The Greens and communist kept away from the address stating that the selection of the venue smacked of Sarkozy’s thirst for power.

The other was his denouncement of the burqa worn by Muslim women as a sign of ‘subservience and debasement’. France has a substantial population of Muslims and at around five million it is the largest in Western Europe, the ‘developed’ side of the continent. French authorities have agreed to set up a commission to study the spread of burqa wearing after 60 MPs signed a petition to this effect demanding an inquiry.

In 2004, France imposed a ban on wearing apparel that had a religious insignia to schools. This included the hijab, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and crucifixes. This created a stir but was later eased. Sarkozy’s is not a lone voice but one of the many across Europe who think that the burqa, hijab and niqab are a hindrance to personal freedom. Voices of dissent have risen in other parts of Europe and the world. In 2003 the schools in Sweden were allowed to ban burqa’s while the Dutch stopped short of banning it in 2008. Not to forget the Sikh protest in Vancouver, among other places, against a ban on turbans in Canada.

As all debates have two sides and so does this. While Sarkozy, and the European community, which gives paramount importance to individual freedom, might have a point in terming the burqa as a means of subjugating women and treating them as ‘mobile prisons’, Sarkozy overstepped by saying that it was ‘not a religious symbol’. Religion, at best, should not be a subject of national debate and its practices should not be defined by the secular democracy.

That Sarkozy has said this at a time when France is going through a crisis also indicates that its principle of ethnic assimilation is failing – a fact he observed in his speech while stating that the present immigration model was not working. Sarkozy’s reaction can also be attributed to France’s near xenophobic adherence to guarding its or secularism which is its religion. But what the authorities fail to realise is that if they manage laicite to pass a resolution banning the burqa in public places, it would be a great injustice towards women who enjoy a certain level of freedom because it would further lead to the cloistering of womenfolk.

The irony in the whole episode is that after pronouncing the burqa’s as not , Sarkozy and Carla Bruni were playing good hosts at the Elysee Palace to the Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani who was joined by one of his wives Sheika Mozah, whose head was covered in an elegant turban.
(Edited version of this can be found for six days from day of post at

Thursday, 21 May 2009

A lame Rule 49(0)

The recent reports from our Tamil Nadu bureau stating the difficulties voters faced on election day at polling booths should have the Election Commission concerned given that it is considered that the five-phase general elections was relatively peaceful. The issue in mention is the widespread intimidation and harassment voters faced at polling booths for opting Rule 49(0). In a case where a voter does not favour any of the candidates contesting from a constituency and would want to exercise his/her franchise Rule 49(0) can be used where the vote would be recorded, but in favour of none.
If in Uthapuram, infamous for the caste divide, more than 500 women shied from voting zero, more than 5,000 victims of the airport expansion drive in Sriperumbudur backed out from voting --- in both cases fearing thugs hovering around the polling booths. Reports also said that voters, overcoming fear, who opted Rule 49(0) were left to the mercy of ill-informed polling officers who made them wait for hours, mocked at them and chided voters for their preference.
For all the pride we take in our democracy and elaborate voting mechanism such instances pose serious questions about the rate of inclusiveness and fairness of the system followed. The thugs at polling booths, in spite of the presence of paramilitary forces, were not local boys flexing their muscles but, in all probability, mercenaries hired by political parties to alter the tide in their favour.
The level of protocol awareness of the polling officers should also be of unease for the Election Commission. It should be agreed that while there are awareness drives to familiarise the EVM, not much is done when it comes to Rule 49(0). It is a matter of concern that the PIL filed in the Supreme Court by Peoples Union for Civil Liberties in 2004 seeking a ‘None Of The Above’ option in EVMs seems to be in limbo.
There seems to be an unfair bias that the franchise is secret only if the choice is against a name in the EVM and not while opting for Rule 49(0). This being the case, it is little surprise that large sections of the society refuse to ink their finger, in many cases mass poll boycott being reported. An option on the lines of Rule 49(0) in the EVM can prevent people abstaining from participating in democracy. With an increase in voter percentage it would also prompt political parties to introspect, field better candidates and discuss people’s issues. This is a win-win situation.

Let there be a pet in Race Course

What’s common in Fellar, Checkers, Billy, Macaroni, Drunkard, Tipler, Tipsy, White Tips, Millie, Socks…? While this election season it could be mistaken for the list of the people who have hurled a footwear at a leader, the list has nothing to do with the hustings or India. They are the names of the First Pets in the White House in America to which the latest addition is Bo, a Portuguese water dog. Perhaps the most talked about issue during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, after his religious leaning and multi-cultural upbringing, must have been the promised presidential pet. Since the time of its announcement all sorts of speculations have been made about the pedigree and type of canine the Obamas would opt for. All the talk about a dog would seem weird to many but for anyone with a fair smattering of the history of US presidency, knows only too well the importance of a pet in the White House. Pets have known to make and break presidencies. If Richard Nixon’s ‘Checkers Speech’, named after his cocker spaniel, saved him his bid for presidency, it was Fellar, another cocker spaniel, which tarnished President Truman’s image after he decided to do away with the dog.

The point we would like to stress over here and encourage is the idea of inculcating the practise of a first pet for 7, Race Course Road. Not that it would be mimicking the United States but it might bring a certain character and command of respect which, many argue, at present is wanting.

Rumour mills touted that Obama, who breezed through Pennsylvania Avenue with the promise for change, would use the choice of a pet for furthering diplomatic relations. In the same vein it was suggested that Fidel Castro present Obama a Havanese or Felipe Calderón present a Chihuahua or a Xolo, given the preference for a furless breed.

Similarly, the next prime minister of India, who would be decided after the May 16, could further the bilateral relations with our neighbours by adopting a Bully Kutta from Pakistan, a Black Hill from Nepal, a Lhasa Apso from Tibet or a Chow Chow from China.

Pet power is not just a feature that is confined to the US. Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s poodles, Pakistani dictator-president General Pervez Musharraf’s Whisky, are only a few of the celebrity First Pets.
Our word of advise for the next incumbent in South Block would be give the nation a first pet and the news-craving media would make it a celebrity. On the brighter side, it could also bark at any opposition whenever required.

Monday, 27 April 2009

A wake-up call from Rubina

When Salim and Jamal board a train to escape from the crooks in Danny Bole’s Slumdog Millionaire, they leave Lathika behind who is sold and she ends up in the red light area of Mumbai. In real life too, Rubina, who plays young Lathika, according to a sting operation conducted by News of the World, was in the line of being sold by her father, Rafiq Queeshi, to their journalists who posed as agents for a buyer from the Middle East.
While the incident has created considerable noise, we would like to look into two important aspects. First is that human trafficking, especially that of girls, is a crime so common that many of us are inured into a sort of acceptance and acquiescence. From beggar girls to part-time maids, labourers to child brides, from the acrobat in the circus to the girl in the local bar -- child trafficking is a crime that is often ignored, thanks to the lack of stringent laws and shoddy enforcement. A predominant notion that ‘children-do-not-have-rights’ and that they do not command a share in the vote bank politics of the day is best reflected in the fact that only 0.034 per cent of the Union budget (2005-’06) was allocated for the protection of children, who constitute more than 35 per cent of our population (Census 2001). A telling example of the helplessness and sheer volume of the problem we are facing is reflected in the Delhi government’s estimate in 2006 that in the city alone there were close to 7,00,000 girls working as maids.
Second is the sting by one of Britain’s most notorious tabloids. The journalists who conducted the sting will obviously feel good about it (they’ve created news, after all), but media houses need to ask whether exploiting the vulnerability of the underprivileged to create a sensation is what it’s all about. The tabloid that has pulled a quick one with a sure bait in the process was just reinforcing a stereotype that “Shockingly, this sort of transaction is far from unusual in an impoverished nation where human life comes cheap and children are often treated as a commodity. (NOTW)”
Journalism should not stoop to cater to satiate the voyeuristic exigencies of a section of the society that prefer paparazzi reporting. That the poor are lured into this net of trafficking is a fact and Rafiq happened to be among them.When stories such as Rubina’s catch the headlines, the first thing should be a prompt response from the government. So it is good to note that the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights is taking cognisance of the issue, but what about the millions of Rubinas who are forced into child marriage, camel jockeying and drug pushing?

Friday, 27 March 2009

Tharoor is looking Parliament, talking Knesset

Shashi Tharoor, when declared as the UDF candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Thiruvananthapuram, appeared too polished to be a politician and had a panache that was the much-hooted sign of the middle class professional entering politics. But that was just a resounding loud false alarm. No sooner was his candidature announced than skeletons started to tumble; and tumble they did from everywhere imaginable.
Though Tharoor tried to lure the netizen youth and NRKs (Non Resident Keralites) through his website explaining his candidature, he has been criticised in many Internet forums. Right from his being a member of the advisory committee of the Coca-Cola India Foundation to the legal tangle for allegedly disrupting the National Anthem; to his 1992 comments on Sonia Gandhi’s inability to lead the party, to recently the KPCC youth burning his effigy at the state capital.
These allegation standing, what should be of concern to the diverse electorate of Thiruvananthapuram are Tharoor’s views on Israel and his admiration for its military offensive in Gaza that left the strip in tatters earlier this year. In an article titled India’s Israel envy (Haaretz, January 23, 2009) Tharoor, contrary to India’s stand on the Palestine conflict (which incidentally is also Congress’ view), expresses his sympathies for Israel that is “a small country living in a permanent state of siege… surrounded by forces that are hostile to it”. Tharoor, displaying his pro-Western ideology, might overlook the fact that the “forces” (read Hamas) is a democratically elected government the people of Palestine have chosen, but he cannot or rather should not gloss over the human right violations that the Israel army has done in Gaza for which it is drawing flak from the UN Human Rights Council, a subsidiary of the UN that he aspired to head only a few years ago.
While sticking out his neck for the Israelis, Tharoor does not miss to take a dig at the Congress-led UPA and the sorry state of India’s national borders in, “… unlike Israel, India has seemed unable to do anything about it (terrorist attacks)” and “India is a giant country whose borders are notoriously permeable, an open society known for its lax and easygoing ways”. Tharoor’s “lax and easygoing” comment reminds one of an oriental view of a Westerner who sees Indians as a group of people who ‘need to be governed’. This is a view of a person sitting in Park Avenue or cooling off at Burj Dubai, not that of a peoples representative who has sweated it out in front of the secretariat or the streets of Thiruvananthapuram.It will be interesting to see if Thiruvananthapuram, which last favoured a LDF candidate, oblige Tharoor. Tharoor claims to know the state capital. The question is: Does the state capital know him? For a man who until 2007 was “living in and out of a suitcase” while in the city, Thiruvananthapuram must be more than a handful. When Tharoor says that the time he has spent in the city is enough to represent it, it reflects poor of the electorate he aspires to represent. Come May 16 and we would know if Thiruvananthapuram will have a parliamentarian who is an Israel-sympathising NRK.

New age Gandhigiri

India means different things to different people, but the iconic figure of the Mahatma looms the largest. The scenes at the Antiquorum auction in New York on March 6 gave a new dimension to Gandhigiri. Some of the stuff that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi used in his lifetime: eyeglasses, pocket watch, sandals and a bowl and plate, went under the hammer. The entire lot was bought by billionaire industrialist Vijay Mallya. So in a week’s time India will be home both to the sandals worn by a great ahimsa preacher, and the sword used by an 18th century warrior-king, perhaps under the same roof, owned by a liquor baron. Mallya’s right to purchase Gandhi memorabilia is unquestioned, but the attitude of the government and the media hysteria need serious contemplation. And it is one thing for the Navajeevan Trust to create awareness about Gandhiji’s writings, but its claim to every piece of paper and shred of cloth owned, used and associated with the man is bogus. In any case, what charismatic transformation will the Mahatma’s belongings bring to India, where probably he has been disrespected the most --- from the politician who swears by his name to the crisp Rs 1,000 note. The silly hysteria fanned by the auction has become an occasion for politicians and public figures of all stripes to indulge in a sickening display of competitive sycophancy.
Gandhi himself was in favour of such auctions and did it during his time for the welfare of Dalits, a fact great grandson Tushar Gandhi might probably not be aware of. Anu Bandyopadhyaya’s Bahuroopee Gandhi with a foreword by Pandit Nehru exalts bapu’s bania traits. Gandhi, like his contemporary George Bernard Shaw who obliged autographs knowing its appraisal, might have been aware of the monetary value his items would fetch. If the Centre is really serious about retrieving Gandhi memorabilia, it should keep its coffers filled because Gandhi used to gift visitors his belongings as a token of appreciation. Moreover, the government does not have a good record of safeguarding national treasures, Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medallion being the most glaring lapse. Perhaps it would be better for Mallya to keep the items, as he did with the sword of Tipu Sultan. At times like this one feels the father of the nation was wise to dress like a ‘half-naked fakir’ rather than wear a three-piece suit. If Gandhi had continued with his raiment from South Africa, we would require more Mallyas to bid for his leather gloves, handkerchiefs or his trouser clips.

Friday, 20 February 2009

A prescription for fairness creams

Is it fare to be fair? Is it a crime to aspire to be a few tones lighter? While most of us would find it usual, the Union minister for health Dr Anbumani Ramadoss does not. Ramadoss is an angry man these days and has taken offense of manufacturers who advertise 10-second spots promising damsels (even dukes) a fair deal. If Ramadoss is serious about his fight against fairness products, for its lack of “scientific proof” as he reiterated in Delhi recently, he would have to lock horns with Kollywood super star Rajinikanth who in a movie tries fairness creams, among other means, to lighten the tone of his complexion, to win over his love interest.
But going by past instances, where the minister has raised objections against - smoking, junk food and alcohol - it would not be surprising if this new-found aversion is soon forgotten. At the early stages of his tenure as minister his TRPs soared during his much-publicised tiff with the previous AIIMS director Dr Venugopal that went in favour of the latter. His crusade against smoking is an apology to the space it occupied in the national media. The ban imposed on smoking was perhaps stillborn. Later, Ramadoss took up the issue of junk foods and even later was for prohibition. All the above mentioned initiatives taken by Pattali Makkal Katchi founder’s son was abandoned after it lost its charm. The enthusiasm that was shown initially soon lost steam.
While the minister’s intentions, as was in earlier cases, might seem noble, what is intriguing is to see what steps he would take to ensure that such advertisements are stopped? One would expect the minister to have learnt from his previous experiences but that does not seem to be the case.
By asking the information and broadcasting ministry to take action against manufacturers of fairness products, Ramadoss, who is a doctor by education, is treating the symptoms and not the disease. We would want the minister, under the aegis of his or any other ministry which would suit the job, to conduct a study in any renowned laboratory on these fairness products and if they are found to be just promising the stars, cancel their licences. In that way Ramadoss would not just be preaching but practising as well.
But that would be asking too much from the minister who is running the last lap of his tenure. We also forget that the importance of this year and what would be an election year without some clattering. Ramadoss might or might not leave the issue but to get back to Rajinikanth - he does become fairer in the movie and wins the love of the heroine.

It’s always good at Kumars’

Staying alone in a city is fun, especially when the city is peppered with family and friends. There has not been a weekend where I have found it hard to get through. It’s always packed --- If last week it was an office party, this week it was a reunion of old friends and next week I would have to spend with relatives calling on from out of station. But whatever be the case, I never fail to make it to the Kumars’ on Saturdays.
Vijay Kumar and his wife Rekha live in a three-bedroom apartment in Chennai. The best part of being at Kumars’ is the post-lunch chinwag we have that at times goes till dinner. Thankam (Rekha’s mother), Rekha and I are regulars at it. Thankam is in her eighties and is full of life, enthusiasm and is up-to-date on the current affairs.
Of late our pet topic is recession. Last Saturday, while I shared stories picked from my workplace, Rekha gave inputs gathered from different apartments in the colony. Thankam who is mostly confined to the house had her take on it. She went into the flashback mode --- On how life used to be ‘then’.
It was at this time Vijay came out of his study.
“If you miss the bus, you better walk it back. No autorickshaws,” he was shouting at Rohit (their son studying in 12th standard).
“Please be careful,” Thankam cautioned, “make sure you cross the road properly.”
“As a part of cost-cutting, the school bus plies only once in the afternoon for evening classes. And invariably some of the students miss it,” Rekha informed me.
“Look how easy she is about it. I am very scared,” Thankam commented about Rekha’s attitude.
“I still remember,” Thankam reflected, “When we were in Koramangala in the early Seventies. One day, Vijay had to go to for classes. And as though it was conspired, both the drivers did not turn up. The cars were at home but without a driver. I was expecting Maya (Vijay’s sister) and could not drive. Vijay’s father was in a foul mood that morning. He asked Vijay to walk it all the way for classes. I could not protest and Vijay had to go that day walking for the first time. I don’t know how he managed it.”
The expression in Thankam’s eyes said she was reliving that ordeal.
“From the time Vijay left home till he got back I was on tenterhooks. Both the telephones were out-of-order. None of our servants had also turned up. Vijay’s father left for work and I was alone at home. If someone broke into the house I could not even call for help.”
“But I was more worried for Vijay. On his way while walking someone could kidnap him. Those days that were rampant and children were taken away for their vital organs. They were even blinded and sent to Delhi for begging. Out of fear I let loose our four dogs. At least they would protect me from any harm.”
“Finally at around five I heard our dogs bark and knew Vijay had got back.”
With a frown on her face Rekha turned to me and whispered: “Vijay was late as he had to collect the application forms for his M Tech entrance exams.”
“Those were the longest few hours of my life,” Thankam said. After ruminating for some time and taking a long sigh she concluded: “Those were actually the toughest times. No car, no servants and no telephones…”

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Yet another sign of Talibanisation

Some people believe that invoking God and tradition can sanctify a vile act. That seems true of the Sri Ram Sene thugs who raided a Mangalore pub on January 24, rounded up, groped and beat up the women present. The reason: “because of the attitude of the young women” and for “consuming alcohol, dressing indecently, and mixing with youths of other faiths”. In short, it was done “in the name of God”. Almost as an echo comes a statement from Krishna Palemar, minister in charge of Dakshina Kannada, that “obscene” dances will not be allowed in the district. Such a pronouncement from a government minister implies a worrying degree of support for vigilante hooliganism. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has “categorically” distanced itself from this incident, but this is the same party whose chief minister B S Yeddyurappa only four months ago excused the attacks on churches in the state on the grounds that conversions were the cause. This time he has said, “It is unfortunate”, and nothing more. But the signs are ominous. Three days have passed, and the police still have not arrested the main perpetrators. As for the Sri Rama Sene, it has admitted its responsibility, and its founder Pramod Mutalik is unrepentant, dismissing the public outcry as unnecessary hype. That will be their attitude as long as the Krishna Palemars provide tacit support for their agenda, which is nothing more than a creeping Talibanisation of society, where everything that does not fit a selfserving “tradition” is suspect.
Such incidents in an election year are fodder for political parties and some have grabbed the bait gladly. Women and child development minister Renuka Chowdhury has condemned the attack and so has the National Commission for Women. Chowdhury has gone a step further, saying that if needed she would personally intervene in the case. Unfortunately, the assurance rings a bit hollow, because activists report that the rate of convictions for crimes against women is near zero. It is not just crimes against women, though. It was the Sri Ram Sene that attacked an M F Hussain exhibition in Delhi last August. It has also been mentioned by Lt Col Purohit, a prime suspect in the Malegaon blasts, in a transcript as doing a “good job”. True, judicial custody for the arrested could be extended. Remember the case where 14 youths were granted bail after two NRIs were molested on Juhu beach while celebrating New Year in 2008?
The people in the Amnesia bar were doing nothing illegal. It was the intruders who broke the law and they must be made to pay for it. We cannot allow morality to be used as a cover for barbarism.
Published version of this post can be viewed at ( or

Friday, 23 January 2009

Bollywood denies Boyle’s mirage on Mumbai

I cannot recollect when I first heard about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. It caught my attention after I heard Jaya Ho on MTV and saw that the film was creating ripples on the international circuit by winning four Golden Globes, three Chicago Film Critics Award, three Satellite Awards, 10 Academy Award nominations and 11 nominations for the BAFTA Awards among many other laurels. Reviews have praised the treatment of the film as unique and refreshing.
It may be an inane notion to contradict popular choice, but I refused to believe Slumdog was a good film. As though we don’t have enough of them, the promos showed Anil Kapoor as a quizmaster in a TV game show, with slum children running throughout the montage.
In a week’s time Slumdog managed to do what every Bollywood film wants: attract the attention of a billion people. This in itself is an achievement given that most promising Bollywood masala films are received with a yawn. While movie buffs were praising Allah Rakkha Rahman’s music in the film, Indian film industry insiders were trying to work out how an Oliver Twist-meets-Richie Rich film shot by a foreigner had captured the imagination of the nation.
With fame comes foes and Slumdog is no exception. The detractors focus on two aspects. First, that it is being seen as an Indian/Bollywood film. Though the definition of an ‘Indian’ film is vague, Slumdog fails on certain prerequisites such as an Indian director and production house. But the film has other kinds of ‘Indian-ness’, an Indian cast, music director, co-director, milieu, and of course, a love triangle, hero-in search-of-childhood-sweetheart, betrayal and, even a dance sequence in a railway station. In that sense it is more Bollywood than Bollywood.
The second charge is the old whinge that when foreigners make a film on India they choose poverty. A theme that not many would want to associate with, a theme that India would not want to project to an international audience and a theme not many in Bollywood could relate to. As a veteran Bollywood director noted, from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali onwards, filmmakers have eternalised poverty on screen.
Whoever raked up the issue might be unaware that almost all international indices on health, livelihood, maternal mortality, malnutrition and, female foeticide, infanticide and mortality, place India in alarmingly dangerous categories (India’s surplus of hunger, TNIE Jan 15). We can’t deny that.
The tempo of protest and reactions may have been different if the film had been made by Nagesh Kukunoor or Madhur Bhandarkar or Vishal Bharadwaj. The fact that a Briton has highlighted slums and poverty is a bitter pill to swallow.
The chances are that Slumdog, being a foreign production, would not have been noticed if not for the international acclaim. Recall Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal released in 2007. It exposed the underbelly of our metropolises, but the cacophony we hear over Slumdog was not heard then. Bhandarkar’s film showed the murky side of city life in greater detail. In contrast, Boyle’s treatment has an almost innocent yet refreshing touch. One sees the joys of living in a slum — an aspect none of the ‘Indian’ films have captured. In that sense, it is about hope and optimism.
In an interview, Boyle said it was not poverty that attracted him to make the film but the ‘rags to rajah’ theme — a universal theme. But what if Boyle had been attracted to poverty and its omnipresence in Indian cities? Mumbaikars know that close to 60 per cent of them live in slums or ghettos alongside 10 of the Top-100 richest in the world, in many cases both sharing the same postal index number.
Maybe Slumdog has come at the wrong time. India as a nation is in denial. We are refusing to accept that our personal security (Mumbai 26/11), economic security (financial meltdown) and much-vaunted corporate growth (Satyam fraud) are like a mirage. Films seem to be the only comfort and Slumdog has invaded even this haven. We deny that the slums and life shown in the film are real and construe them to be a figment of the director’s imagination — a mirage the director has seen.
We surround ourselves with run-of-the-mill stories of love triangles. We prefer dancing jodis, re-incarnation and separated-at-birth tales. We forget that by taking these films internationally we show the world the India we prefer to see, the India we choose to acknowledge. By making films on India, others show the India they see and understand.
And we deny it.