Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Critique of the United Nations from Within

Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations, after remitting office in 2006, was the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria for six months until August 2012. He quit frustrated over the UNSC’s failure to come to a decision over Syria. It might seem surprising that a former secretary-general is criticising the UN, but if one were to read his Interventions, it will be clear that he has never shied from pointing out the pitfalls in the UN.
Interventions has eight chapters, each dealing with a different challenge and providing a different insight. Kofi Annan speaks about his role and growth in the UN. Interestingly, Annan gives a 360 degree view of each of the situations, tries to give a point of view of both the parties and makes it appear that though each time a peaceful solution was at reachable distance, it was not attained because of simple reasons.
The prologue is a powerful extract of what the book has to offer. A highlight is the scathing remarks he has for the ways world countries have gone about furthering ‘peace’ and is also critical of the role the UN has played in certain areas.

In statements like “For much of the global community in those days (after the 9/11 attacks)…the greatest threat to world peace came not from Saddam, but from an enraged and vengeful United States” and “Despite the singular contribution of the United States to the UN’s founding and its mission in the decades that followed, after Iraq, America was too often unwilling to listen, and the world unable to speak its true mind”, one can see the frustration Annan has towards Washington’s bulldozing ways. Kofi Annan does not mince his words when he says that the US went into Iraq hunting for WMDs on “highly circumstantial evidence” and doubts Tony Blair’s ability to “act as a credible mediator” during the Lebanon war.
The Ghanaian diplomat regrets to be the first UN secretary-general to endorse military action without the sanction of the UNSC in the 1999 Serbian campaign. He also regrets UN’s failure in Rwanda and Bosnia. A very astute statesman is seen in Annan when he says that if the UN has to achieve its primary role in today’s world, “we would have to acknowledge our past failures and set out a vision for how we would act differently in the future”.
Peacekeeping is a very important role the UN plays around the world. However, it will be hard to believe that before 1992 there were only a few hundreds of UN observers around the world deputed under the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). By 1994, this changed. There were around 80,000 peacekeeping forces around the world. Annan, as deputy chief of the DPKO, was witness to this change—albeit for the worse. He notes how An Agenda for Peace, developed at a January 1992 meeting, changed the nature of peacekeeping missions.
Interventions by Kofi Annan is a must read for anyone who wants to know more about the United Nations from someone who has been a part of the organisation for five decades. It gives an unprecedented view into the workings within the UN. A 2001 Nobel Peace Laureate, Kofi Annan is perhaps one of the few people who have been part of the UN at a very crucial time — conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia, East Timor, Darfur, Kosovo; the global fight against HIV/AIDS; the Millennium Development Goals and the war on terror. It’s not often one gets to see such literature.
(This appeared on December 23 in the books page of The New Indian Express)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Ente: Human Trafficking Comes to Celluloid

Every second movie that comes out on any given Friday is based on a ‘real story’. It is a tag line that has been done to death and is passed off along with the disclaimer. So when social activist Sunita Krishnan, Founder General Secretary of Prajwala, dons the hat of a film producer and when her movie has a tag line ‘a never before told true story’, eyebrows are bound to rise. “I am aware that there is a chance for a prejudice that, since I am a social activist and Rajesh Touchriver is a filmmaker whose documentary films are famous, the film is also on those lines. However, Ente is far from that. Rajesh (Touchriver), while ensuring that the scenes are true to the real events, has made sure that its entertainment quotient is not lost. The promos for Ente are slick and it’s an edge-of-the-seat thriller.”
Ente produced by M S Rajesh and Sunita Krishnan and directed by Rajesh Touchriver is a story about human trafficking and stars veteran Malayalam actor Siddique and NSD product Anjali Patil (in pic above). Ente is a movie about human trafficking. “I’ve conducted many talks and done short films to get across the message of human trafficking. I have personally rescued more than 1,500 girls and each one is a story in itself. However, there was this one incident that really shook me. It had to be told.”
Sunita Krishnan, who is also the concept adviser for the film, calls Ente a ‘family thriller’. “Ente is not your usual masala thriller with stunts by the hero and item numbers at the silliest of pretext. It’s a movie you can go and watch with your family. In fact that is how one should go and watch this film. It deals with a story that can happen to anyone; to anyone’s sister, daughter or friend. Every man watching the movie could be the father, brother, husband or friend caught in such a situation. I want the movie to linger in the minds of the audience and slowly sink into each person long after they have left the theatre. They should realise that human trafficking is an evil that is prevalent in their midst. It is not this distant vice that until recently was considered to not happen in ‘our society’.”
Ente is slated for a December 21 release and is pitted against at least four other movies that release at the same time. “The number of screens in Kerala is coming down over the years while the number of movies releasing each year is on the rise. We’ve had a lot of difficulty in going about with the release and are still on it. So it’s a great thing that we are able to release the film during the Christmas holidays. It has all the elements of a mainstream thriller and with the brilliant performances of Siddique and Anjali Patil it can’t go wrong,” says a confident Sunita. It’s the same confidence that comes across when Siddique says, “These days it’s hard to judge any movie before it hits the theatres. Gone are those days when the outcome of a movie could be predicted. The audience are changing and Ente is a good and different movie. It is something that the Malayalam industry and audience have not seen till date.”
Ente, is a bilingual (in Telugu as Na Bangarru Talli) has music by Bollywood composer Shantanu Moitra (of Parineeta fame) and features a song by Shreya Ghosal, which by now is a hit in the social networking circuit.

'I have no Image'

Among the kaleidoscope of roles he has portrayed, we’ve seen Siddique as a comedian and we’ve seen him as a menacing villain. However, to quote the actor, in Ente he is doing a “life changing role”. “As an actor every role is challenging and different…but what stood out in Ente is a story. It’s the story of a father and daughter; a very caring father who in a moments time loses his daughter.”
A highlight of the movie is that scenes have been shot in locations where the real incident took place. “We went to real locations for shooting this film. There is a scene in a brothel and a lot of women there hurl abuses at the protagonist. Rajesh (Touchriver) has focused on small things and has shown them as real as possible. It was an entirely different experience.”

Sunita Krishnan, while agreeing that the role of the protagonist was initially offered to a senior actor, has no regrets now. “Things happen for a purpose. While the actor we approached was concerned about his ‘image’, I now can’t think of anyone other than Siddique for the role of the father. He has done a brilliant job and has done absolute justice to the character.”
When asked if he had apprehensions about the role and whether it would affect his image, Siddique was quick to reply: “I don’t have an image. I do all kinds of roles — both negative and positive. It’s superstars who are worried about their ‘image’.”
(An edited version of this appeared in The New Indian Express on December 12)

Sunday, 2 December 2012

This Talaash Gives Mixed Results

A poster of the movie belonging to the maker of Talaash

Talaash starts with a bang — there is an uncanny eeriness to Mumbai that almost makes one feel that it is too good to be true. From here the movie builds pace and just when the script is getting you to the edge of the seat with the twists and turns (gripping ones I should say) the director brings in the side track (or second track) focusing on the personal life of the protagonist cop. This shift — and it is an agonising one — robs the film of its momentum. Imagine you’re in a night club where the mood is picking up and suddenly the dance floor changes into a classroom — and you find yourself listening to a lecture on the agrarian practises in 16th Century India.
This lull is lifted towards the interval only to fall back into the ravine in the second half. There is a scene in the film where Inspector Shekhawat (the character Khan plays) manages to catch some sound sleep — it’s a good scene. Just make sure you wake up when he does the next morning. Things pick up towards the end but by then there’s little left for even a mind on sleep mode to fathom.
The central plot or the main thread of the film is in itself a very good, engaging and sumptuous story with all vital elements required. Director Reema Kagti, I feel, by bringing in the side track has not been able to do justice to either part in the film.
Having said that, the movie stands on its own thanks to the good performances by the actors. Aamir Khan lives up to all the sound surrounding the film. Rani Mukherji is pleasant as always — never mind her character is stuck in perpetual pathos. Kareena Kapoor as Rosy is the brilliance of the director (casting director) because there is a lethal beauty in Rosy’s helpless which (I guess) only Kareena could do justice to. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is effortlessly eloquent.
One very good thing the director has ensured is that the Inspector Shekhawat (with all the emotional swings) is just a cop — nothing more, nothing less. Khan, to his credit, has managed to bring a very everyday and simple gravitas to a character that could have easily been overdone. This police inspector has nothing special about him, he is no Jack Bauer who gets a whiff of who is behind the crime by standing next to the body, nor is he the muscle-ripping filmi police who solves cases using the Hulk in him. He rattles his subordinates and is told to get his act right by his senior (interesting played by a young actor — usually big stars are not seen getting a dressing down from younger actors).
Blame it on the hype surrounding the film or the expectations from the team behind the film, Reema Kagti’s Talaash is a letdown. One feels that the director tried to fit in too many things, give a laborious and painful side track, into a primary story that could have been a great story on its own. However, Talaash has got good music and is worth the money you spend on the ticket... though I’m not sure about the popcorn.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Choose the Railway Station to Say Goodbye

Saying goodbye is the hardest thing to do. Yet at times it is inevitable and the environs in which it is set plays a crucial role in alleviating the process. That’s why I felt strange waiting at the ‘Departure’ of an airport. There was something impersonal about waving to a person goodbye as she walked through security guards into a large airport.

The airport is not a good place to bid goodbye. It does not make the heartbeat palpable and lacks the personal and emotional tinge a seeing off at a railway station platform offers. The airport has a formal, a very English and a stiff upper lip corporate overbearing that stops the finer emotions at the gates and says ‘not here’.

A railway station offers the ultimate setting to bid goodbye. It has a very Indian feel to it — Indian because it’s filled with emotions, it allows a requisite sprinkling of drama and to add to the milieu there are just about the right amount of sound effects.

If the train is running late there’s always a bench waiting to be warmed or the ‘last’ coffee can be at the railway ‘Light Refreshment Stall’. The blood starts to rush in through the veins into the heart causing an intangible pain as the train pulls in by the platform. After placing the luggage it is customary to return to the compartment door for the ‘final’ goodbye. By now there’s considerable tension in the air and words are few and far between. The awkward wall of silence that suddenly builds up between the two is broken by the huffing and puffing of the train. It’s almost as though the train is jostling the two into speaking.

With the train whistle the ‘goodbye drama’ reaches its crescendo. The train chugs at such an incredibly slow pace it is as almost as the train is enjoying separating the two. It’s a sadistic pleasure the train enjoys while saying ‘I’m giving you one more chance....forgot to say something?’ The last act before the lights blur is the ‘waving goodbye’. One gets to wave till the other reduces to a dot and merges with the horizon. These are bittersweet pleasures missing at an airport.

Perhaps it is for this that Indian cinema has countless number of farewell scenes at railway stations. The airport, with security guards, multiple checking points and glass doors that enclose the other on a ‘safer’ inside is dead and does not exuberate the spirit of separating. It is railway stations, and not airports, that are the temples of parting.

While I wait at the departure lounge of the airport wondering whether to feel sad and risk being the odd one out, I receive an SMS: ‘Guess who’s on the plane: Ranbir Kapoor!!!’ Soon her facebook and twitter profiles are updated. While leaving the airport the mind offers an a la carte of emotions: I pick confusion. One thing, however, is sure — railway stations are better places to bid goodbye.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on November 6)

Friday, 2 November 2012

Myanmar’s Indifference to Rohingyas

The Muslim minority, attacked by the majority Buddhists, allege
that Aung San Suu Kyi, the United Nations and other countries
are looking the other way

The present wave of unrest in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has seen about 90 people killed, more than 22,000 people displaced and around 4,600 houses torched. The tension is between the Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims. The 90,000-odd Rohingyas are considered by the majority Buddhist (3 million) as ‘outsiders’ and ‘intruders’ from Bangladesh. While ethnically they might be from the west of the present Rakhine state, Muslim presence has been recorded in Burma for a good century or more. The government of Myanmar has made things further hard for the minority group by refusing to recognise them as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country.
President Thein Sein has expressed concern over the developments but considering that it was him who had suggested in July to hand over the Rohingyas to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ‘resettle’ them in a third country, Sein’s concerns are at best hollow. According to the president’s office, the Rohingyas are an “illegal border-crossing” community and not “an ethnic group in Burma”. In wise counsel the UNHCR rejected Thein Sein’s relocation plan.

Easy Target

Many times in the past the Rohingyas have been victims to Burmese nationalist politics, most notably in 1978. In 1978, General Ne Win carried out Naga Min Sitsin Yae, better known as King Dragon Operation. While the said purpose of the operation was to tackle Mujahid rebels in Rakhine, many observers believe that it was a pretext to round up Rohingyas. An estimated two lakh Muslims were displaced and many of them made it to relief camps across the border to Bangladesh.
While the Buddhist and the Muslim Rohingyas have not much love lost between them, the spells of peaceful coexistence is relatively longer than the sporadic violence as is seen now. The present wave of deadly clashes started in May after a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Muslim men. In what is considered to be a retaliatory attack, in August, 10 Muslims were killed in Taungup, in Rakhine. The violence that ensued resulted in hundreds getting killed. Emergency was declared and the army was deployed; but local accounts and rights groups have accused the army of not protecting the Rohingyas — some accounts accuse the army of siding against the minorities.
Tom Malinowski, of the Human Rights Watch, is of the view that the ruling authorities in Myanmar, over the decades, have used the Rohingyas as a decoy to divert popular focus from the administrations shortfalls. Speaking at a news show recently he observed that “sometimes dictators single out ethnic or religious minorities in a country for special hatred in order to distract their people from the abuses of their own government and that’s what the Burmese government did for decades. Those chickens are coming home to roost right now.”

Suu Kyi Silence

Suu Kyi featured in the
January 10,2011 cover of Time.
Where is this fighter?
This being the case, there are sections in Burma that want to peacefully co-exist with the minority communities. Perhaps the greatest such voice was that of Bogyoke Aung San, father of Myanmarese leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. He was a great supporter for an independent Burma that also included all minority groups.
What has surprised many is the silence Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained throughout on the issue. Suu Kyi undoubtedly is the most recognisable face from the country and a stand taken by her will go a long way in bringing nations to sit up and take notice of this persecution. However, that is not the case and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate is being accused of not willing to stand up for justice in fear of derailing her political career.

Unfounded Fears

The West, especially the United States, which was more than eager to intervene in the Afghanistan, has not taken a shining towards the plight of the Rohingyas, who are stateless people in their own country. It should be remembered that in addition to Washington’s justification of fighting terror after the September 11 attacks, it was said that the invasion will bring justice to the people of Afghanistan who have been persecuted by the extremist Taliban.
Linh Dinh, speaking to PressTV, was of the view that “the US and the West are remaining silent on this because they have nothing to gain from intervening. For decades Myanmar was ruled by a military junta that was pro-China and anti-West. Now it has a government that is open towards the West and moving away from China. The West is not going to upset this balance....”
This fear that antagonising a supposedly pro-West and pro-democracy government in Naypyidaw would push the Thein Sein government into the hands of a waiting Beijing arises from a deficient understanding of the situation in Mynamar. Today, the people of Myanmar realise that the junta leaning on China for decades has resulted in a very predominant Chinese presence in trade and commerce. The Buddhist majority have also realised that an over-ambitious China is not in the interest of an independent and sovereign Myanmar.
The West and other countries, including India, that are rushing to do business with Myanmar should tell Naypyidaw in no uncertain terms that trade ties can only be established is the government is more receptive towards the needs of its minorities, in this case the Rohingyas.

No More Neglect

This problem comes at a very crucial time for Myanmar. A religious and sectarian violence at a time when the country is testing democracy cannot be left to resolve on its own. The government in Myanmar does not have the expertise to heal wounds that have been festered for decades. It is here where the international community should intervene. It is here where the United Nations should wake up. Going by the effort and reaction the UN has towards the crisis, it should hang its head in shame.
If only a fraction of the sound and noise it has been devoting to Syria was given to Myanmar, maybe by now the Say Thamagyi Internally Displaced Persons camp, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, would have not been brimming with people fleeing for their lives.
To ignore the Buddhist-Rohingya tension or to sweep it under the carpet is to do unimaginable injustice to Myanmarese people, many of who genuinely want to live in peace — all of them who have a right to live in peace. This crisis, if neglected, will have repercussions on generations of Myanmarese who will pay just because the world chose not to take a stand when it mattered.
(An edited version of this article appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Malala Shooting: They Fear the Girl at School

Sudarshan Pattnaik's sculpture at Puri

Law and order has never been a matter of pride for the establishment in Pakistan. So a bomb explosion or a shootout or an acid attack will not get the world sitting up and taking notice. However, on October 9 the world did pause to take note. A gunman in a Mingora, in the Swat Valley, attacked 14-year-old Malala Yousfzai at her school. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan took responsibility for the attack and said that it was Malala’s work in promoting education among women and other social activities — which according to their skewed interpretation of the Quran is ‘un-Islamic’ — that prompted them to attack an innocent teenager at school.
General Ashfaq Kayani, on October 10, visited Malala in a Peshawar hospital she was undergoing surgery. He condemned the attacks and vowed to fight the militants. Hollow statements like this prove that Kayani is more politician than soldier. If the Pakistan Army in true grit wanted to address the militant problem, by now the once-famous Swat Valley would have regained its sobriquet ‘Switzerland of Pakistan’.
Is Islamabad Ready?
The attack on Malala is a pointer to both negative and positive aspects. The most obvious negative is that an innocent teenager who only wanted to study and spread education is fighting for her life after a few cowards thought of it better to silence her. As is now being said world over, the Taliban are not afraid of US missiles or stealth raids by Navy SEALs; what they really fear is a girl with a book. That is true. It was not anger that led the Taliban to attack the National Youth Peace Prize winner, but fear that the message of resistance, awakening and education she was spreading was hitting them harder than Obama’s drones.
Oh No! That's worse than a bomb!

The other negative aspect is that the extremists — whatever label they come under — are in no mood to retreat. While Swat was once a stronghold of the Taliban, it no longer is and the attack can be seen as an attempt to regain that bastion and spread fear among the people. This should be stopped by all means—while it seems that the people are ready, is the Pakistan government ready?
Educate Her
Mainly there are two positives to take from this attack. First, the Taliban is desperate and are being pushed to a corner. The juggernaut of protests against the shooting is a sign that the people have had enough of the Taliban and value the progress and freedom they are enjoying. This is a positive sign.
The second is a lesson that changes on the ground, by empowering the people through education, better facilities and freedom, will achieve greater results than drone strikes and armed blitzkriegs. The ‘war on terror’ has been going on for more than a decade and relentless attacks and chases have not produced the desired results. The United States would love to think otherwise but even the killing of Osama bin Laden has not given the desired results. Al-Qaeda has not ceased to exist and it has spread to such an extent that the loss of one leader is too little a blow.
Petty Politics
The Pakistan government can rout out the Taliban if it acts in right earnest. The wave of anti-Taliban protests that is being seen throughout Pakistan is proof the Taliban’s wide support base in the country is but a shadow monster, a myth that conveniently suits political parties in Pakistan and adds fuel to a fear psychosis in the West. The civilian government in Pakistan and the West has got a real, tangible opportunity to channel this mass revolt against these forces of evil. The question, however, is whether Islamabad will rise up to the occasion. Past experiences have shown that it prefers to feed the monster in the hope that is can be used to its advantage in neighbouring Afghanistan and India. Islamabad fails to see that this Frankenstein is turning against its creator/nurturer.
Imran Khan

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on October 16 said that "the work that she (Malala) led was higher before god than what terrorists do in the name of religion. We will continue her shining cause.” These words are definitely reassuring but it loses its glow when one realises that it comes from a person who has little popular support and is yet to show resolute action against the terror networks operating in the country. Moreover political leaders have taken up the issue to further their cause. Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, after visiting Malala in the hospital, spoke in favour of the ‘jihad’ happening in Afghanistan. It is disappointing to see Khan, who is riding on a popular wave of support, fish in muddy waters. In the politics of opportunism what is lost is the freedom the people of Pakistan deserve. If this opportunity is not used to weed out the Taliban menace, posterity will not forgive these leaders and their name will be found in the gutters of Pakistan’s history. While most Pakistan leaders have a tainted past, the biggest loser now will be Imran Khan.
Until a few days back not many people around the world would have heard about Malala Yousufzai. After October 9 there should be not many who have not heard about her and the cause she represents.
The Taliban and apologists for the attack fail to realise that a very important person has been quoted in the Quran saying: “If a daughter is born to a person and he brings her up, gives her a good education and trains her in the arts of life, I shall myself stand between him and hell-fire.”
(The appeared in The New Indian Express on October 19)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Symbiotic Adrenaline Shots from Unpopular Govts

S M Krishna (L) seen with Hina Rabbani Khar

Earlier last month external affairs minister S M Krishna was in Pakistan on a three-day visit. He had meetings with important leaders and described the trip as ‘fruitful’. This positive momentum was also evident when both the foreign ministers, Krishna and his Pakistan counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar, came out with a joint statement after their meetings. What was different this time, from the routine tenor of earlier meetings, was the gung-ho mood on both sides. Visa requirements have been relaxed and there are moves to give trade a fillip. If everything seems to be rosy and bright it can only be attributed to the craving of both governments. Reality, however, is something altogether different.
The history of Indo-Pak relations show that progress is a permanent mirage. Past experience shows that for every step taken forward a few steps are retraced. While largely the people of both the countries want cordial relations, the same cannot be said about the political establishment and armed forces. Many segments of the political establishment, on both sides, thrive on ‘neighbour-bashing’ rhetoric. It is not just regional or fundamental political outfits, but even mainstream political parties indulge in such venom-spewing depending on how it furthers their cause. The armed forces of both the countries have fought at least four wars and have had numerous stand-offs. If anything there is no dearth of bad blood between the two forces. The list of unresolved issues keeps on rising with every passing year.

Zardari’s Infamy
In politics timing is paramount and for important decisions and breakthroughs this is crucial. If one were to take this into consideration keeping the recent Indo-Pak talks there could not have been a more bad time for India to lend its hand towards Pakistan for friendship. The political climate in both the countries, more so in Pakistan, is anything but stable.
In Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party is at the nadir of its popularity — with the people and with the army. Battling widespread corruption and inefficiency the PPP-led government has lost its appeal among the people. Almost all opinion polls predict a thorough hiding for the party at the hustling. It’s siding with the United States of America in the war on terror, especially the drone attacks that have killed civilians, has considerably eroded its popularity. As if to add insult to injury the Abbottabad operation that saw Osama bin Laden’s end was done by the US keeping Pakistan in the dark.
The rise of other political parties has also dented the present government’s popularity. While Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and leader of Pakistan Muslim League (N), has come to the front from virtual obscurity, it is the rise of Tehreek-e-Insaf leader and former Pakistan cricket team captain Imran Khan that is notable. Such has been the rise in popularity and appeal of Khan that it is hard to believe that he is the only notable face for his party in the legislature at present. Khan’s anti-US approach and pro-Taliban stand has won him acceptance, even among the conservatives. It is also said that he has the blessings of Rawalpindi (Rawalpindi is where the Pakistan Army headquarters is situated). To add to its woes, the government has got the judiciary, which only recently has become a force to reckon with, regularly pulling it up for administrative lapses, notably on reopening graft cases against Zardari.
It is with this Zardari government that the Manmohan Singh-led government wants to mend fences. While the Zardari government is trying hard and keeping its fingers crossed to be the first elected government in Pakistan’s history to complete term, there is no guarantee that the next government in Islamabad will continue from where Zardari and Co have left with India. (The same is also applicable if there is a change in regime in New Delhi after the next general election). If the present talks have helped anyone it is Pakistan. These talks are happening at a time when Pakistan has been isolated in the international arena with even the US being critical about it. Pakistan has managed to show Indo-Pak talks as a gesture from its side to achieve peace in the subcontinent. However, if Zardari’s UN speech recently, in which he brought up the Kashmir issue, is anything to go by, good relations are just a Trojan horse for Islamabad.

Manmohan’s Woes
In India, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government headed by Manmohan Singh has been dousing one fire after another for a great part of its second term in office. There has been a series of scams haunting the ruling coalition and this has adversely affected the image of the government. It is not just opposition parties that are attacking the government but also members of the ruling coalition and parties that are offering outside support to the coalition are critical of the ways of the government. Initially the government was accused of turning a blind eye to irregularities because of submitting to ‘coalition dharma’. In addition to this it was blamed of policy paralysis leading to the economy being depleted of the strength acquired over the years. Recently, from a snooze mode it has gone full throttle taking much-delayed steps to revive the economy. However, these moves have not generated the desired results.
It is this Manmohan Singh government that is trying to set things straight with Pakistan. It is often cited that Manmohan Singh has a deep desire to be seen as a PM who made great progress in building cordial ties with Pakistan. Singh’s desire to mend fences with India’s western neighbour is seen as unreasonably high given the deep-seated differences both the countries hold for each other.

Simmering Issues
India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and there is an unpleasant arms race between the two countries. The sine qua non of the Pakistan Army is to inflict damage on its eastern neighbour. Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Baglihar dam — the list of simmering issues is endless. Add to this the constant string of terror that starts from Pakistan into India.
Political observers do not see much hope in the efforts made by the two governments at this point of time. There is a general sense of hopelessness and resignation from the common man in both countries, never mind the jubilation shown by either government. This ad nauseam is partly because of the numerous previous talks and efforts to build ties that have not borne fruit. The relaxed visa regime also raises many concerns as past experiences have not been pleasant.
India’s move to better relations with Pakistan has come as a much-needed relief for the Zardari government. However, whether it will help the Manmohan Singh government is to be seen.
(This appeared as a comment in The New Indian Express)

Friday, 14 September 2012

Arab Spring Exploits Haunt US in Autumn

An attacker at the US consulate at Benghazi, Libya. (Inset: J Chris Stevens)

On Wednesday in an attack on the United States consulate at Benghazi, in Libya, four Americans, including Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, were killed. US diplomatic missions in Egypt and Yemen were also targetted. People were protesting after a film made in the US portraying the Prophet in bad light was picked up by the sections of the media in Egypt. It was later used by radicals to fan anti-US sentiments, leading to the attacks.
While the attack has been condemned by one and all, this should make Washington introspect and see why its actions have led to harnessing hatred among people in the region. That Stevens was killed in Benghazi, a stronghold of the NATO forces in the war to liberate Libya from Muammar Gaddafi, shows that the basic tenets on which this campaign is led needs to be looked into. After the 9/11 attacks the US has been on a ‘War on Terror’ overdrive, often taking questionable decisions and supporting wrong groups. From the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — on the concocted claim of Weapons of Mass Destruction — the US has been more than enthusiastic about extending its vision of democracy to West Asia, ignoring regional complexities. Washington’s role in the ‘Arab Spring’ is also questionable. While in all these cases it overtly or covertly lent a hand to overthrowing the regime, it did not have a plan in place to ensure that the vacuum was not exploited by extremist groups.
The White House must think before toppling governments in West Asia and make sure that fundamentalists do not use the situation to extend their influence and spread hatred. It is election year in Washington and as expected Mitt Romney’s Republican camp has accused the Obama administration’s response to the attack in Benghazi. Rather than getting lost in political one-upmanship, the US must rework its approach towards West Asia. It should ensure that the opposition to American adventurism does not lead to a terror nightmare for the rest of the world.
(This appeared as an edit in The New Indian Express on September 14)

Monday, 10 September 2012

Nuclear Games and a Cold War Relic

Sami Al Faraj is the head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies and an adviser to the Kuwait government. In an informal meeting last winter he spoke about the possible threat countries, both small and big, in West Asia face with a nuclear Iran in their midst. Kuwait has normal ties with Iran (the same cannot be said of Iraq with whom Kuwait shares a border) and more often than not dons the hat of a negotiator between countries within the region. The concern Faraj had about Iran going nuclear — the fear of a nuclear disaster or of the technology falling into the wrong hands — was striking. It was fear that stemmed out from a state of helplessness in knowing that stopping Iran or making Tehran understand the concerns of other countries have was easier said than done.

The nuclear debate

The debate on nuclear power is understood depending on which side of the argument one stands. One side argues that nuclear power is an evil that should be detested at any cost. It should not be used, not even for peaceful purposes. A few countries have the technology and it should remain with them.

The US and the Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories fall into this category. Nuclear technology for peaceful use should be pursued only under the watchful eyes of international agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The other side, Iran and other non-NPT countries belonging to this group, believes that nuclear technology is not a privilege that only certain countries can enjoy — it can be used for peaceful ends like meeting power sector requirements and can even as a deterrent when it comes to the grandstanding of military might. It eventually boils down to a debate between the haves and the have nots.

This argument is further complicated when regional equations and past record is added. India, though not a signatory of the NPT, is largely trusted as a nuclear power because of its impeccable record. Neighbouring Pakistan, which also went nuclear after India, does not enjoy that confidence thanks to a certain A Q Khan who went around the world with a briefcase containing nuclear know-how.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are complicated on several counts. Iran is an NPT signatory and going by its rules Iran is wrong in nurturing nuclear ambitions. The constant anti-West sabre-rattling Tehran indulges in at the drop of a hat further adds to the fear. Its Holocaust denial and anti-democtic moves makes it unpredictable for the West, thus further complicating the picture. As a final dab to this threatening portrait of a nuclear Iran, add the complex mixture of the country’s Shia-Sunni divide and regional issues.

Iran’s advantage

Under normal circumstances most nations of the world would have opposed Iran going nuclear, even if it were for the said purpose of fuelling its reactors to provide power to the country. That is what we see in the opposition to North Korea going nuclear. However, that’s not the case with Iran. Some of the most evident advantages Iran has over North Korea are its geographic position, which places it at the eye of Asia, its crude oil deposits and economic bargaining power however flawed it might be.

For more than a year now there has been active international debate on Iran’s nuclear capability and the imminent threat posed by whether Iran has been able to enrich uranium good enough for weaponisation. For almost the same amount of time Israel has been threatening to strike Iran. Israel still continues with its chorus of attacking Iran ‘if need be’, often leaking to the media hints about the government seriously considering sending its air force to target the nuclear installation Tehran has kept out of the purview of inspecting IAEA officials (like it destroyed the Osirak reactors in Iraq in June 1981). What has taken the wind out of the anti-Iran sails is the cautious approach adopted by the Obama administration. While Washington understandably has reasons for its caution after being embroiled in two long-winding, costly wars in the region, it is hoping and going the extra mile to ensure that Iran comes to the table for discussions.

NAM games

It is at this juncture that Iran hosted the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran. The Non-Aligned Movement, formed in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, is a consortium of around 120 countries that did not want to align with the West or the USSR. However, today, long after the Cold War has ended, its relevance is questioned, especially since many member countries have drifted from the core principles of non-alignment. India is one such example after it went ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. Whatever be the perceived benefits of hanging around in the NAM, India’s purpose is long-lost, and is a ship that has lost its compass. The NAM is a Cold War relic maintained at best (in its present form) for the nostalgic value it imparts.

What would have otherwise been a damp NAM summit gained prominence as Tehran was the host. That the US and Israel stuck their necks out to ensure that many members abstained from attending the summit went on to show that the 16th NAM summit was a sort of referendum for Iran. That things did not go the way the US wanted was evident in the turnout for the summit. Iran made sure to play all the right cards and got more than 30 heads of state to attend. At the moment it is not sure how significant is it that the Natanz uranium enrichment plant was open to Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, but nonetheless Iran has used the NAM summit as an effective PR campaign against Israel-US efforts to ‘isolate’ Iran.

Everything could not have gone according to plan. There had to be an unpleasant moment for Tehran at the summit and that came in the form of Egypt’s newly elected President Mohamed Morsi. While Ahmadinejad thought that he had managed a coupe de grace in getting the Egyptian president to attend the summit, Morsi had other plans. Morsi, holding Ahmadinejad at arm’s length, was so critical of the Assad government in Syria, which is blindly supported by Iran, that Syrian officials attending the summit walked out in protest. Again, when Tehran thought it was thumbing its nose at Washington by getting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to attend the summit, Ban was scathing in his criticism of Tehran for making the IAEA run in circles. He was severe on Iran for its ‘war of words’.

Ways forward

While the western world, including, of course, Israel, is quick to junk Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and club it with North Korea as two rogue states having nuclear ambitions, there are not many countries around the world who would want to see it that way. This was clearly evident at the NAM summit. On a lighter note, the action and attention that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad & Co are demanding has given Pyongyang’s greenhorn ruler Kim Jong Un time to consolidate his position with the ranks in the country without calling for much international attention.

The world must bring Iran back to the table for talks and should stop it from weaponising its nuclear material. Sanctions, as many in Washington now agree, are not the way to achieve this goal. Concessions, from both sides, need to be made as an initiatory move. Trade ties should be established and cultural exchanges done, because once trade ties get strong it’s hard for mindless politics to derail the achieved progress. Cultural exchanges will help clear lot of the misconceptions both sides have and will pave the way for better understanding. While this is so, focus should be on North Korea — a closed country with appalling human rights and living conditions that are any day a more potent danger — and other countries with nuclear ambitions waiting for someone with a briefcase full of explosive details.
(This appeared as an opinion piece in The New Indian Express on September 10)

Friday, 31 August 2012

Cold War Hangover

The 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit underway in the Iranian capital Tehran offers a mixed bag for India. India’s large delegation, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sends out a signal that we still hold a lot of brief for a multilateral institution that has long outlived its purpose of creation. This is evident from the fact that for the Tehran meet the prime minister is accompanied by the external affairs minister, the national security adviser, and foreign secretary among other delegates. Giving such importance to a Cold War relic is a reflection of the flawed foreign policy approach of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.

While the meeting between Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Shiekh Hasina is a positive, it would have had a better effect if the leaders met in either New Delhi or Dhaka. Singh meeting Pakistan President Zardari or any other Pakistan leader — and such meetings on the ‘sidelines’ of important summits have become nauseating frequent — will have little of the desired effect. Manmohan Singh and his government must realise that we have done enough of talking with our neighbour and now the message should be that unless there is tangible action from Islamabad normalcy in ties cannot be restored.
For Iran the NAM summit is an important event and it will be Tehran’s answer to Washington, and other Western powers, which has been exerting pressure to make it an international pariah. The presence of Latin American leaders, rulers from Oman and Kuwait, leaders from the subcontinent, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the attendance of UN general secretary, Ban Ki-moon, is definitely a show of strength by Iran.
While it goes without saying that India has to have good ties with Iran on its own terms and not take instructions from the United States, it is important that we not strain our relations with Israel at the cost of extending a hand to Iran. This diplomatic tightrope walk is the challenge the Singh government will have to face.
(This appeared as an edit in The New Indian Express on August 31)

Friday, 29 June 2012

Collective Failure Sees Syria Burning

The Syrian Free Army is not organised and powerful to stand against Assad's forces

When the protests took off in January 2011 in Syria, no one thought that the opposition to the government would take so much time to bear fruit. It started as a peaceful protest but soon took a wrong turn and became violent. Resistance against the Assad government, along with sectarian violence, has seen city after city being attacked and it seems that human life is the ready casualty. According to estimates by the United Nations (UN) at least 10,000 people have been killed and scores more have been injured and displaced since the protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started.

US Inaction

The economic slowdown since 2008 and the costly misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the US realise that it can no longer go about its old ways. The US has pulled out of Iraq and has set a timetable for its exit from Afghanistan. Given the scenario, it would not want to engage its troops in another mission on foreign soil.

Washington is like a cat that is extremely cautious after having stepped water. Only a cat that has lost its mind will step into a bowl of boiling water. The presidential election in November is another reason why the US could be exercising extreme caution.

Russian Obstacle

Probably, the biggest hindrance for any meaningful UN resolution on Syria is the stand taken by Russia. Russia has strong military, economic and political ties with Syria and does not want to relinquish relations with its sole ally in the region.

The Kremlin is banking on the probability that by assisting Assad it can help the government gain control and that things will get back to normal.

What the Kremlin does not seem to understand is that the longer the unrest continues the slimmer the chances of Assad regaining control are, and prolonged conflict will only strengthen the Islamists. For the Islamists Russia is the bete noire.

What has not helped is the recent accusation by the Obama administration that the Kremlin was arming Damascus with helicopters. The US has been blowing hot and cold over its remarks on Russia. After US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of providing Syria with assault helicopters, the US State Department ate humble pie saying that the helicopters were ‘refurbished’ and belonged to the Assad regime. Countering the US attack on Russia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow was not arming Syria to attack peaceful demonstrations but at the same time Washington was giving riot control gear to regimes in the region — hinting at alleged US covert efforts to help tackle growing protests in Bahrain.

Rise of Islamists

The so-called Arab Spring sparked off in Tunisia. From there it spread to Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, and by the time to gripped Syria it had brought down a few regimes and was taking a form that was not conducive for the world powers in the region.

Political observers look at the ‘Arab Spring’ as a development which none — neither the people nor the governments— had anticipated to take its present form.

By the time the wave of freedom and unrest spread to Syria, it was clear that the Islamist forces/groups, that were either kept at the margins or outside the system (thanks to the pro-West bend the fallen rulers had adopted in their countries over the years), had gained a foothold and were working their way to the heart of the system. The most prominent of these groups is the Muslim Brotherhood.

While analysts have been caught unawares by public acceptance and support base the Brotherhood has gained, what worries them is that the Brotherhood might enforce retrograde codes of conduct thereby enforcing a sort of ‘Talibanisation’ of the countries that are in a political flux. Even if one were to think that the Brotherhood is not much of a problem, what cannot be wished away is the possibility of the al-Qaeda gaining ground where there is a vacuum of power and order. The Assad government’s brutal use of force and the near helplessness of Western powers have left the people opposing the government on their own. In this time of need it is the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that are extending a helping hand — Islamists have been pouring in money and many people are turning to them for arms and protection.

In Syria, while the resistance to Assad’s army was initially peaceful this changed once the protesters were attacked by the Syrian military.

While it has been almost impossible to ascertain the pattern and chronology of the attacks, the rebels started armed resistance after their non-violent demonstrations were targeted by Assad’s army. Many from the military defected and formed what is now called the Syrian Free Army.

It is speculated that there are western governments, including the US and other countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar that are arming the Syrian opposition — though not in a way to match Assad’s brutality.

Difficult Moves

Not much hope should rest on the peace plan that former UN general secretary Kofi Annan has been trying to resuscitate for some time now. That is a dead horse and no amount of goodwill will suffice. For a peace plan to work, the basic fact is that both sides in the conflict agree that there is a conflict/issue and express interest towards resolving their grievances. Here, the Assad regime maintains that it is a domestic problem being fanned by vested interests from outside the country. As for the Syrian opposition, it has evolved from a peaceful, well-meaning protest to a headless armed resistance that is assuming dangerous proportions with every passing day.

The best shot the West and Arab countries have is to get Russia to turn around and work towards stopping the bloodshed in Syria. However, that is easier said than done. Vladimir Putin is back as Russian president and a lot will depend on how Obama and Putin strike a chord.  The role of the Arab nations is important. It is to be seen if they have a plan for Syria in the event of Assad’s fall. Rooting for it without a far-sighted plan will only be a gift to the Islamist forces that thrive in such situations. Iran can also not be kept out of the picture for the simple fact that it is a powerful regional force and has considerable clout in Syria.

Address Flaws

The crisis in Syria is a reflection of one of the many problems that exposes the limitations of the UN and many other international agreements.  This is an apt instance to show the unflinching and enviable power the P5 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) enjoys needs to be questioned.  If Russia and China had not objected to resolutions and other actions on the Syrian government, by now it is probable that things would have looked better in Syria. The crisis in Syria is a lesion and needs to be treated at the earliest.  However, the cause for it needs to be addressed and the required corrections made.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on June 19, 2012)

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Bollywood Loses the Plot and Trivialises the Issue

Film stars discovering themselves on television shows, be it reality shows, chat shows or even soaps, is not a recent phenomenon. There is also nothing novel about the media frenzy — doctored without doubt — surrounding it. These days with TV rivalling cinema as we know it there isn’t much surprise that many film stars — even the so-called superstars — are testing new waters. Even though only a handful of these film stars who have ventured into the small screen have tasted success, it nevertheless is still a very enchanting milieu.
The entry of Aamir Khan — last of the troika Khans in Bollywood to do so — with an ‘Oprah Winfrey type show’ into every Indian living room was pitched sky-high. Three episodes old Satyamev Jayate is the talk of the town — or at least that is what the media keeps reminding us by saying that the show has broken all known records on TV viewing records and has forced law-makers take decisions.
It is telecast at the ‘Mahabarat’ slot —11 am on Sunday. Telecasting at a coveted timing, however, will alone not do the trick. Unlike the epic, Satyamev Jayate does not have drama, grandeur and flamboyance. What it has, instead, is an artificial, thrust-down-your-throat packaging of reality. If the producers of Satyamev Jayate thought they could replicate the Mahabarat success, it only goes to show their overconfidence in their marketing genius. Mahabarat is an Indian epic, with almost all the essential ingredients to keep one glued to the TV. That it was based on a religious text helped in its success.
Satyamev Jayate, on the other hand, speaks about taboo issues that are unfortunately prevalent in our society but none would want to address. This in no way is to undermine the importance of the topics that are discussed, but how many people would want to spend a lazy Sunday morning listening to issues that many cringe at?
The promoters of the show have heavily relied on the image of Aamir Khan as a crusader for social causes and have taken great pains to show that the issues discussed are close to his heart. The fact that female foeticide is close to the actor’s heart will make good Page 3 news or will make headlines in news channels that have unashamedly blurred the lines between news and entertainment. The question is: how does it matter to someone who is taking such a decision, wrong as it is, either due to ignorance or pressing circumstances whether Aamir Khan is against the practice? Film stars or celebrities have not been able to create such a profound impact in society. If that was the case, law and order would have been much better in the country given the number of police-officer roles the popular film stars have portrayed.
In the effort of covering Aamir Khan in an activist armour the promoters of Satyamev Jayate have actually done harm to his image as an entertainer. That, one presumes, explains the clarification given by the actor shortly after first episode of Satyamev Jayate stating that he was just an ‘entertainer’. It perhaps seems that it was seen as necessary to disassociate the ‘star’ from the ‘cause’, not because the ‘cause’ was not worthy to be associated with the ‘star’ but because contrary to expectations the ‘cause’ was hampering the image of the ‘star’.

An overkill of activism is eating into the ‘entertainment’ quotient Aamir Khan is commanding, and there is little argument that projects he is associated with are the most anticipated ones in Bollywood. In addition to the quality of the film and publicity surrounding it, what gives an Amir Khan movie an edge is the fact that unlike many other stars there is a certain invisibility about the actor from the public eye and rampant speculation about the project/film. Satyamev Jayate brings him in the news almost every day, into the living room space and thereby killing an anticipation that earlier existed. One wonders how this will affect his Talaash, which is now slated for a November 2012 release and by then Satyamev Jayate would have run its whole season and Aamir Khan would have addressed almost all social evils in the country. Would this constant reminder of what ails our society hamper Aamir Khan’s glow? After all, who likes someone who always points out the mistakes in us?
Finally, recent news reports linking Satyamev Jayate to Parliament passing a Bill on child molestation and Rajasthan seriously considering addressing female foeticide is wrong on two counts. First, it trivialises these important social evils. One only wishes addressing these issues was such an easy task. Secondly, to say that our politicians wake up and take note only if celebrities speak is a sad state of affairs.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hope can work wonders even in the deepest of abyss

English Novelist George Orwell’s 1984 is summarised by The Literature Network as: ‘1984 is possibly the dystopian novel, set in a world beyond our imagining. A world where totalitarianism really is total…’ The novel talks about how The Party is overseeing lives of all citizens and controlling their mind. One is not sure if George Orwell knew about Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s ‘Eternal President’, but there is an uncanny resemblance between Orwell’s 1984 and the way the Democraic Republic of Korea has turned out to be today. 1984 was published in 1949 -- Kim Il Sung had assumed office a year earlier and it seems the Korean leader built the nation taking cues from the book. Orwell’s work appears as a juvenile attempt when compared to the totalitarian state North Korea has become today.

Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14 is a novel about the escape of a person from a gulag (prison camp) in North Korea to China, from there to South Korea and finally to the US. There is nothing new about North Korean gulags -- like global warming and climate change it is an inconvenient truth great nations in the world have either chosen to deny, ignore or live with in spite of human right groups proving beyond doubt that the regime in Pyongyang is a brutal and fascist one.
A number of books and reports have been published by escapees from the North and commissions that have visited the closed nation. However among the many things that makes Escape From Camp 14 unique is that it is the life story of Shin Dong-hyuk who escaped alive from Camp 14. Shin was born in Camp 14 -- Camp 14 is different from other camps as most of the inmates in this camp are born in the camp -- and escaped while he was 23-years-old. Going by records maintained in Seoul and Washington, Shin is the only prisoner born in a gulag to have escaped.
Harden very deftly uses the third person narrative and interweaves it with a narrative voice to corroborate Shin’s observations using facts and accounts from interviews he has done with other escapees. In one account Shin recollects how guards in the camp used to hit and torture the inmates without giving an explanation; if in the process someone died, it was a ‘lesson’ to the others. No guard was ever questioned for the death of an inmate. To give more credence to Shin’s observation, Harden uses an interview with An Myeong Chul, a former prison guard, who escaped to Seoul. An says that they were taught to look at the inmates as “dogs and pigs”. “We were taught not to look at them as human beings”.
Shin’s story is special, Harden explains, because ‘his life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder.’ In another instance, Harden throws light into one of the reasons as to why the human rights abuse in North Korea has gone unnoticed for such a long time. He quotes Suzanne Scholte, a long-time activist as saying: “Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney… North Koreans have no one like that.”
Harden’s book also explains, through Shin, why Pyongyang has been able to hold on to power despite unimaginable human suffering. Kim Il Sung brought in a caste system and divided the people into three groups, based on their allegiance to the leader. The lower strata consist of people who have tried to escape the country or family members of those who escaped. They are treated as inferior beings and torture – physical and psychological -- is the least of benevolence they can expect from the guards.
Harden’s Book gives an unprecedented picture of Camp 14. Shin, who is born in the camp because of a ‘reward marriage’, is taught that he has to suffer because of the sins of his parents and to wash away those sins he has to work very hard and snitch about others. Like all children born in the camp, Shin is loyal to the guards (who are also his teachers) and will snitch about anyone -- he even betrays his mother and this leads to her execution, which he watches sitting in the front row.
Shin Dong-hyuk at Amsterdam in 2012

In another instance he observes that ‘A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations’. Oblivious to the outside world inmates born in the camp take torture and begging the guards as part of survival and not as humiliation as seen by prisoners who arrive at camps later in their life. Suicide is a route many take in the camp, but as Shin says ‘he had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend.’
Escape From Camp 14 is an account of gulag brutality and an account of how indoctrination is helping Pyongyang further its stranglehold. Above all it is shows how once hope is given the human spirit finds its way to freedom overcoming insurmountable obstacles.
Escape From Camp 14 is Blaine Harden’s third book.
(An edited version of this appeared in The New Indian Express on Sunday, May 6, 2012)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Memories in Sepia Tones With Glossy Effects

Sir James Matthew Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once said: “God gave us memories that we might have roses in December.” The mind has its way when it comes to memories. Memories, even the sour ones, which are caustic at first, are bearable as time passes, eventually making them acceptable. Memories are time-machines that can take us to a world long gone, to a world created by our imagination and to one that we long to belong. What divides the harshness of today from the bliss of yesterday, and keeps flickering alive the hope for tomorrow is a rickety old wooden window; a window that creaks at the hinges while pushed open. It leads to an infinity of goodness and mirth. Childhood memories, like the first bicycle ride, college days and the vacations spent in those pristine ancestral homes tucked safely in lush green villages are all experiences cherished. Like precious silverware it is every now and then taken out and polished; the cobwebs of time are dusted; we flirt with it, admire its value and fantasise with its saucy curves. Each time we recall it from the mind’s maze we add more detail to it before carefully placing it back.
The earliest recollection of walking through the paddy fields and coconut groves are invariably seen in sepia tones with a glossy effect. One is always seen walking hand-in-hand with the neighbour’s curly-haired daughter; both admiring the butterflies and listening to the melodious cuckoos. But was it so? Was it really a rosy experience? Were those the thoughts that one had then? The walk in the paddy fields was a misadventure. One had to walk barefoot in ankle-deep stagnant muddy water. Soil mixed with water squeezed up through the toes; the odd sharp twig hurt the feet. It was a tight-rope walk on the ridge; a wrong step and there was the danger of landing in knee-deep dirt. In addition to this was the fear of bloodsucking leeches, tadpoles and snakes. But over the years we have lied to ourselves; we have convinced ourselves that back then things were perfect. Even the little glitches were pleasures that were enjoyed. Nostalgia is a beer-goggle the mind designs to make the present suffering bearable. It is a mirage we create in the deserts we find ourselves in. Given this, it is no surprise that it is mostly people in tough times that have the sweetest memories of the past; people who are content and happy with the present do not generally long for ‘those good ol’ days’. This could be why 19th Century author Josh Billings wrote: “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” So what if it was painful then? What if we slipped and bruised our knees while strolling aimlessly through the coconut groves? The pain was then, it was temporary. Today it is a cherished memory sweetened with a lie we have told ourselves. Those rickety old wooden windows still creak while pushed open. It does not matter what we see; what matters is how we look at it. (This article appeared in The New Indian Express on April 12 2012)

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Spinning Yarns Glorifying Silver Screen Mannequins

A few years back Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan said in an interview that a filmstar’s shelf life in the industry was till a given Friday. He was referring to the fate of actors being decided by the audience with the release of a new movie every Friday. How I wish that was true. If that was the case --- of the audience, and the audience alone, getting to decide the fate of silver screen mannequins ostentatiously called superstars --- we would not have blockbuster hits but good cinema, we would not have superstars but actors, and the tribe of conniving pretentious conmen called ‘film critics’ would have been extinct by now.

Film critics can be compared to a glorified version of the effusively earnest broker, who for a cut in the deal would sell a dead duck as a daffodil. Follow the many reviews appearing every Thursday on newspapers/blogs/TV channels and one is left with the impression ‘this was the movie I have been waiting to watch all this while’. It gives the impression that suddenly our filmmakers have got it right and have reached a state where they cannot go wrong. A dearth of good scripts and actors have made sure that the same old plot is told, retold and told yet again – the difference being the location, number of item songs and, how can one forget, the ‘controversy’ and ‘news’ about the film. News about such developments and film critics are largely to be blamed for this sorry state of affairs. Words like ‘superhit’, ‘blockbuster’ and recently ‘terra hit’ have been abused beyond recognition. It is a different matter that with pre-budgeting a movie more or less recovers the money spent on it before its release. Given this one should work real hard to deliver a flop.
This being said there are a few critics who can be taken for their word or rather for what they do not say. This group speaks at length when the movie is good and if it is bad, they either choose not to comment or talk about the ‘positives you can take from the movie’. It is a survival tactic in an industry where criticism is largely not welcomed while ‘hero-worship’ and sycophancy is hogged upon. Thanks to inflated egos and an equally inflated purse such criticism is seldom heard, if not silenced. This group of hopefuls are a minuscule that does not match against the behemoth ‘film critic’.

The media is also to blame for cultivating this trend and breeding the ‘film critic’. With various media organisations coming in competition grew and so did news coverage. While that was the positive, the flipside was the birth of an oxymoronic entity called ‘entertainment journalism’. The race for ‘exclusive’ interviews, juicy gossip and inane details about people associated with the film industry ensured that ‘stars’ were never rubbed the wrong way. Add to this the curse of paid-news and we have an overkill of ‘entertainment news’.
Coming back to Shahrukh Khan: No doubt he is a superstar and has been entertaining the nation for more than two decades. But then again Lalu Prasad ruled Bihar for more than a decade and it would suffice to say that the state is better without him (not to forget that he has been entertaining us for years now).
(The appeared as a Middle on The New Indian Express edit page on March 6)