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)

Monday, 5 March 2012

Obama's Fate and an Israel-Iran War

On February 13 a ‘sticky’ bomb placed in a car went off in New Delhi, grievously injuring an Israeli diplomat’s wife. While many were tempted to point fingers at India’s neighbour on the west, the choice of target and prevailing circumstances put Iran on the spot, though there was little evidence to back what till now appears to be a convenient guess. The same day an attempt to kill an Israeli diplomat in Georgia failed and on February 14 three Iranians were arrested in Bangkok for attempting to target Israelis. The Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, was quick to conclude that Iran was behind the brazen attack. Not going into the similarities of these attacks to the mysterious deaths of top Iranian nuclear scientists in the recent past (alleged by Iran to be the work of Israel) or Israel’s claim that these were the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (which begs the question why it would send its men for an attack with documents identifying them), India’s response to the attack and the composure it has maintained is praiseworthy.

Selfish Interests
Since the attacks there has been more pressure on India to cut ties, mainly its oil trade, with Iran. New Delhi has maintained that it will not support any unilateral sanctions imposed by any bloc but will abide by a resolution adopted at the United Nations. It goes without saying that India has a selfish interest in maintaining ties with Iran.
India’s ties with Iran date back decades. Delhi-Tehran ties are on an economic, cultural and strategic level. Indian refineries are tuned to Iran crude standards and close to 12 per cent of our oil come from Iran. If India were to stop getting oil from Iran there would be two fallouts. Our refineries would have to be re-tuned to the standards of oil from another supplier country and India would have to turn to other countries, most likely Saudi Arabia. India definitely has better ties with Iran than with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s oil loss, in this case, would mean a gain for the desert kingdom but New Delhi will be on tenterhooks doing business with Riyadh.

India-Israel Ties
India’s ties with Israel have been growing stronger in the past decade or so, especially in the fields of defence and intelligence sharing. Intelligence sharing has been active especially after the 26/11 attacks in which the Lakshar-e-Toiba had specifically targeted Jews and the Chabad house in Mumbai.
Investigation is being conducted into the February 13 attack and if it becomes clear that Iran has used Indian soil to settle scores with Israel, New Delhi should condemn Tehran in the strongest of terms and take necessary action which it deems fit — not what Washington or Tel Aviv dictate.

Capitol Hill Race
The nuclear tension brewing in the Persian Gulf, as many of the problems in the region, has multiple layers to it. While on one hand it is a nuclear proliferation problem, on another it is the tension between Israel and Iran representing a Zionist-Muslim conflict hovering around the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the present Palestine crisis. The United States, by virtue of being Israel’s eternal best man and by dutifully performing its role as global super cop, is ‘concerned’ about the developments in the region and working towards ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. The US, like many other countries, has not bought Iran’s argument that it is working towards nuclear power and not nuclear weapons and in the process enriching uranium to fulfil its power needs.

However, the call for action on Iran will be decided in Washington depending on the climate in the country. President Barack Obama came to office in 2008 with the promise of opening diplomatic doors with Iran. His letter to Iran’s religious head Ali Khamenei and the Persian New Year message that year were clear signs of openness towards realising better relations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not impressed because while extending a hand to Iran the US was also covertly operating in Tehran. Obama’s belief in reaching out to Iran through diplomacy has not gone down well with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel body in Washington.
Israel wants to halt Iran — at any cost — and this is not an option for the US. It has just got itself out of two decade-long bloody wars that have lightened the state coffers considerably and earned more bad blood in West Asia than the goodwill it hoped to earn while going on its ‘democracy’ highway. Obama’s approach towards tackling Iran is cause for rebuke by the Republicans and in an election year Obama finds himself in a fix. Acting against Iran would further drain the country’s coffers, until recently on life-support, and men and women will be again sent out for war, but if he were to not act, it would be projected as weakness and give the Republicans a much-needed stick to beat the President with.
An attack on Iran will skyrocket oil prices and this will put pressure on the world’s economy. Iran, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, is populous and, unlike Israel, is a bigger country.

Regional Supremacy
The present crisis at first reading gives the impression that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are developed mainly keeping in mind Israel. While a nuclear Iran is definitely a concern for Israel, what is forgotten is that as much as Israel fears such a scenario, countries in West Asia also dread it. A re-reading of the scenario will give more credibility to the fear of other Muslim countries in the region than to the paranoia exhibited by Israel. In other words, an Iran with nuclear power or nuclear weapons (there is no credible evidence to suggest Tehran is weaponising its nuclear programme) is worse news for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait than for Israel.

This distinction is missed by the western eye that fails to appreciate the myriad intricacies within the Muslim world. Iran, which credits itself as the first to overthrow a western regime in the region, is vying for prominence in the region. Also Tehran detests Riyadh, which it claims takes orders from Washington. Further, when taken into consideration that religious clerics and heads wield much power in both countries, it will not be wrong to argue that a Shia Iran is trying to project itself as the big player in the region by eclipsing a Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Glimmer of Hope
Another question to be considered before condemning Iran is how much truth there is in Tehran’s tall claims. It is a fact that Iran has nuclear ambitions and that a middle level team of the International Atomic Energy Agency had an unsuccessful visit to the country. But Iran, in the past, has made tall claims that were proved hollow. Hyperbole is part of Tehran’s discourse.
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US, in a February report is of the opinion that Iran is more likely to look at the option of nuclear weapons based on ‘cost-benefit analyses’. This means that while it is not clear if Tehran will stop short of developing a nuclear weapon, it is premature for doomsday alarmists to cry mayday.

Whether Israel will attack Iran or not is a scenario that is best avoided. Even the US has been kept guessing by Israel. Every step taken towards tackling this situation is a tightrope walk. The questions are: Will the US succumb to pressure and toe Israel’s line in attacking Iran? Will Israel attack Iran without informing the US and pull Washington into a war it will have to reluctantly be part of? How will Iran react? How will world nations see an unprovoked attack by Israel (and the US) on Iran? Will Iran’s nuclear programme go deeper underground? Will India cut ties with Iran; will it use its leverage with Tehran to open diplomatic channels, and; how will the world avoid a catastrophe?
(This article appeared in The New Indian Express on March 5)