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)