30.10.13

Ornamental messages: The Tanishq ad

A measure of how 'backward' a society is to see how it portrays progressiveness. If you need to pat someone for what is considered normal, then it only means you do not view it as quite normal.

The new Tanishq ad for its wedding collection shows what is being touted as a dusky woman, and a mother, getting married. This is supposed to be about breaking of taboos regarding colour and remarriage. In reality it is so bloody self-conscious, besides of course being elitist.

All those who look down upon television soaps should know that these aspects have been handled in them, and quite sensitively at that. There was one recent serial 'Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuchch Kaha' where a mother of two remarries, and if it means anything she was dusky too. And at no point was it alluded to.

This commercial is about jewellery, and therefore the message too is ornamental. To posit the woman's duskiness we have a fair groom, which amounts to seeking the acceptance of the acceptable. When her daughter says she wants to go 'round and round' the fire when the marriage vows are being taken, it is the man who carries her, his role as knight and proactive partner consolidated.

Don't bother to see this in the light of some great reformist movement. Corporate India that deals with so-called modern sensibilities has played safe by using a religious ceremony, the male as being 'fair' to society, and of course the possibility of such progressive thinking being the prerogative of a few who can afford luxury and by default the luxury of ostensibly going against the norm.

Once again, the 'revolt' has been appropriated.

28.10.13

Bare lies



Would you expect a biology teacher who also takes a geography class to explain mountains and oceans in biology terminology? Or a writer of horror stories to pen a children's novel using the same language? Why then expect an adult film actress to necessarily go topless for a film of a different genre?

As the report states:

Ironic as it may sound, actress Sunny Leone, who is known for her porn films in the US, recently refused to go topless for a scene in her upcoming horror flick.


Why is it ironic? What she does, or did, in a related field was the demands of her work. She has joined Bollywood with different dreams, or else she would have continued in her old job. I have never heard her run down or give a sob story about her past profession, but it is only fair to let her make her choices.

There are other mainstream actors who do agree because of the 'demands of the script' and then go around sounding conservative or, worse, as victims of the industry. However, male actors like John Abraham or Ranbir Kapoor who have flashed their butt can go around citing this as their USP.

Sunny sees the cinema she is doing now differently, as she has every right to do. We are such hypocrites. Many will watch her adult stuff, but run her down and expect her to perform as per type. She finally gave that shot in a bikini.

However, a source has been quoted as saying:

"Though she was allowed to shoot wearing a top, it was later removed using computer graphics. Her breasts were then digitally superimposed from one of her earlier films."


I do not know how she has reacted, but it is a sneaky and unethical thing to do.

It is okay:

If she did not want to physically perform the scene, but has no issues with the portrayal.

It is not okay:

If this was done without her consent and defeats the purpose of her not wanting to even be seen bared.

In very old films, actresses wore flesh-coloured body clothes beneath their flounces and feathers. This included those who made short appearances in cabaret numbers. In some cases body doubles have been used for intimate scenes. They were aware that the audience would be unaware of the 'deceit' and would perceive it as their skin, so why did they do so? Simply because of the discomfort of performing such scenes with a crowd of lightmen, spotboys and others around.

In Sunny's case, the filmmakers think this is her territory anyway, so why the chariness? I have one question for these directors: they shoot such scenes often — are they expected to only direct such scenes and nothing else? And do they identify with these in their personal lives?

© Farzana Versey

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Also: Of porn and pawns

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Image: Sunny Leone with Naseerudding Shah and Sachin Joshi in the forthcoming 'Jackpot'

27.10.13

The case of 99% evidence: Pakistan, India and 26/11

The Ministry of External Affairs appears to be washing its hands off the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. There has been little to introspect about our security by the Home Ministry. Naturally, one cannot wish away that an attack did take place. So, what is the next best thing to do?

This:

Responding to a Pakistan foreign office statement that it requires more evidence in the Mumbai attacks case, the external affairs ministry said, “The entire planning of the dastardly Mumbai terrorist attack was hatched in Pakistan, the training of the terrorists who launched that attack was undertaken in Pakistan, the financing of the conspiracy was in Pakistan.

“It, therefore, follows that 99 per cent of the evidence will be available in Pakistan. It is incumbent on the authorities there to present that evidence in order to bring to book the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.”


1. If they can conduct such a fine-tuned operation, would they leave enough evidence?

2. If the Pakistani Intel agencies are involved, will they ever admit to it?

3. How is it incumbent on an aggressor to confess?

4. Is there any conclusive proof that because the plot was hatched there, the evidence will be in the same place? Could it not be a more broad-based plan?

5. Since the MEA has reached this conclusion now, how will it justify its tardiness and wrongful arrests of Indian citizens in the plot?

6. If 99 per cent of the evidence is in Pakistan, where is the one percent and why does it have no significance?

7. Does all this mean that Ajmal Kasab was given the death sentence based on this one percent evidence, when 99 percent is in Pakistan, the country that refused to accept his last remains?

This is going to be one more of those to-and-fro investigations that keep both the Track 11 and the governments in business. They politely call it diplomacy.

© Farzana Versey

Sunday ka Funda

This is not an obituary. Manna Dey has appeared on these pages in several forms, and twice to emphasise how it took him to reach the age of 90 for the government and the film industry to confer any recognition.

In a recent editorial in The Times of India, the headline called him the Amadeus of India. Not only is there no connection, but even in a tribute we need to compare one who gave so much to Indian music.

I know almost all his major songs, and am partial to his semi-classical songs. I have earlier mentioned that I felt "Pyaar hua iqraar hua" was the triumph of music directors Shanker-Jaikishen and not so much Manna da. I still think so. I have returned to his peppy numbers or the songs from 'Chori Chori' that he sang for Raj Kapoor because Mukesh was apparently not available. He was the second choice, although he was a trained, and in many ways, more accomplished singer.

This is, therefore, about the nature of what we call 'playback singing'. Raj Kapoor often said that Mukesh was his soul, and he did a stupendous job of it. Manna Dey had joked that he was always given songs that were picturised on beggars and boatmen.

Part of it is that despite his classical base, his low notes were brilliant. Unlike Talat Mehmood, there was no quiver in his voice, but there was a quiet, excellently expressed in his tribute to the Mohammad Rafi number in 'Pyaasa': Yeh kooche, yeh neelam ghar... It is unfair to include this here, but it reveals two facets of a song, as well as immense bonding in what could have been rivalry.*

For today, because I have been listening to this in a loop, I choose 'Phir koi phool khila, chaahat na kaho usko...". The scene from 'Anubhav' is a humdrum existence of a married couple where a bud flowering is not seen as some grand love, as the lyrics suggest.

And then there are these lines:

man ka samundar pyaasa hua, kyon kisi se maange dua
laharon ka laga jo mela, toofan na kaho usko


Essentially, why pray to anyone as the mind's sea thirsts and just because waves pile up it does not forebode a storm...

This is less detachment and more the beauty of now.



Manna Dey. A life, a sea.

23.10.13

Terrorism and the Indian Muslim: 'Shahid' as Apologia



Soon after the first shot was fired in the first scene, I felt uncomfortable. Anything to do with the riots of 1993 produces a pit-of-the-stomach reaction. I have no control over it. However, barely a few minutes into the film and my discomfort was transferred to the manner in which Shahid subtly works the mainstream.

The problem with the ordinary man as hero, or someone who does extraordinary things, is that everything else begins to be seen as a prop to bolster his story.

Those who have witnessed the 1993 Bombay riots up-close might be able to comprehend the issues I have with the film, based on the real life story of slain lawyer Shahid Azmi, whose portfolio comprised mostly of cases of wrongly-convicted or imprisoned men on charges of terrorism.

Except for that one torture scene, the dilemmas are portrayed in a touch-and-go manner. Not only does the film consolidate stereotypes, it comes across as an apologist for the government. Throughout there is an assertion of how wonderful the judiciary is. As the end credits roll, it is mentioned that in his seven-year career Shahid procured 17 acquittals.

While this is factually correct, there are numerous cases that go unheard, forget about getting justice.

The details, as shown in the film: A teenager from a lower middle-class family watches the riots of 1993. He is deeply affected and leaves for Kashmir. Here he gets some sort of training in handling arms. He escapes from there after a few months. Is arrested on charges of being a terrorist. In the seven years of imprisonment, he studies. Once out, he pursues a law degree, joins a firm, quits to start his own practice, starts fighting cases of 'suspects' who are rounded up without a shred of evidence.

And then one day he is shot dead in his office. The end is the beginning.

The premise was open to raise pointed questions, even as it maintained a narrative structure. Instead, there is no sense of commitment, except for mouthing of clichés.

It pained me when I watched it, and it pains me now as I write it, because this film is being hailed for taking a risk. Some have even said how wonderful it is that such a film was made at all.

What kind of a society are we that what needs to be stated as a matter of course is considered an achievement? It is infuriating that we have to accept these crumbs. Azmi's life was in some ways remarkable, but the biopic is not.

It works on the formula of good Muslim. Had this not been a "gritty" film, one would be tempted to recall Karan Johar's celluloid families. Shahid and his brothers are shown as too perfect. They are educated, clean-shaven, and the bearded men they associate with speak gently. I know loudmouths who are not militant. And much as education needs to be encouraged, should we assume that those who do not have access to it are all suspect?

Why does Shahid escape after the riots and that too for training in jihad? This is a horrible indictment, and assumes that those who are affected by such scenes will as a natural course choose to become terrorists.

We do not know what he is disillusioned about. It would have been an important message to understand that such jihad is not a panacea. But the director desultorily goes through the motions of showing a few men wearing skull caps, holding rifles, saying "Allah-hu-Akbar", and preparing for some grand plan that might come their way.

Upon his return to Mumbai, he goes home. He is later arrested because they think he is a terrorist. Resigned to a life in prison, a Kashmiri militant befriends him over games of chess. Yes, the good Muslim Shahid is pitted against the bad one who will use him as a pawn. This is borne out later when a good Kashmiri (the film is ridden with such good-bad ideas, although it does so quietly) warns him about Umar and how these guys just want to prove their superiority and lord over others. He also tells Shahid about how justice takes time, but it prevails. The fact that they are all unjustly in jail seems to be lost on him.

The good Kashmiri is friends with Professor Saxena. (You cannot possibly have a Prof. Gilani or Raza, can you?) They encourage Shahid to continue with his studies, and the professor pitches in with some tokenism about Sher Shah Suri.

Seven years later, the family has moved to a better residence. There is no evidence of anyone having dissociated with his family. This is not the story of many people, as Shahid himself suggests. Then why was this family spared? Because they are not 'typical'?

Shahid joins the firm of a Muslim lawyer. The avarice puts him off, and he starts on his own. I would like to emphasise here that all this conveys that for a young Muslim to be taken seriously, not only does he have to be clean-shaven and educated, he also has to be squeaky clean.

Maryam, one of his clients, is possibly a spark in many ways. Shahid falls in love with her and proposes. That is when she asks him, "You know I am a divorcee, don't you?" There you go. A Muslim woman who probably had 'talaq' said to her three times, and is now bringing up her son on her own. They marry quietly. Why?

When he later takes her to meet his mother he brings a burqa, something she has never worn. He requests her to do so just this once. I fail to understand this. His mother is not shown wearing one, and if he has married without consent, then does he need this? What exactly does the director want us to know? That all said and done, a Muslim woman will at some point in her life have to wear a veil?

The scenes in the court are slightly better, but again the judge is seen pulling up the public prosecutor more than the defense. This sounds rather utopian. At one point Shahid loses it and asks, "Are you trying to say I am a terrorist?" That is the one true moment. For the most part, he does not even use the word Muslim. He says "minority". If this is not a copout, then what could possibly be?

He fights the case of Faheem Ansari, arrested following the Mumbai attacks of 2008 because his laptop had some maps. Shahid starts getting threatening calls. There is no explanation. The silence is a tacit understanding of not taking sides.

One night, Shahid is called to his office and shot dead. His colleague appears for Faheem in his place. It takes a Ramalingam to justify the work of a Shahid Azmi. This is what the film tells us. This is what people tell us. This is how stereotypes work. This is how Indian Muslims get branded. Patronised.

Fine. I am glad this film was made. It just shows us how celebrity parallel filmmakers play the formula and consolidate the stance that the state is always right.

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Update

I have been fairly surprised by how the 'populism' of such serious cinema works. To the certified Muslim organisation that has sent this email:

"Go watch SHAHID before it is too late. If you dont have time atleast buy tickets and gift it to some who has. If people are so disinterested, filmmakers wont want to make such brilliant movies again"


I can only say that rather than gifting tickets, acquire the skills and have the gumption to make a movie that tells your story your way, instead of waiting for majoritarian prerogative to speak up for you.

You want to accept magnanimity, and that is the whole darned problem. And you in your elitist hole, there are people who do not need to watch movies to know what they experience.

If on an everyday basis one is taunted as being a jihadi and asked to go to Pakistan, I can only imagine how it is for the people who are rounded up without even the courtesy of a snigger.

I did not need this film to get me thinking. I have done so publicly since 'Bombay', then 'Fizaa' and later the execrable 'Black Friday'. My analysis of the last one is here.

It is no surprise that quite a few 'secular' people, even among Muslims, would want to applaud the film. It is their choice. Just do not expect me to fall for any and every gesture of some 'pathbreaking maverick'. I can turn around and say that I have posed queries that are not in the domain of either popular or even much of offbeat ideas. How does such hat-tipping matter when you are being handed over little bites of predigested bitterness?

What I write is to challenge the reader as much as I am challenged, though not by this film because it plays too safe. But do not tell me that the questions a film/art/book/thinker asks are the final questions and the ones I ought to ask too.

© Farzana Versey

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The performances were uniformly above-average. But I cannot bring myself to see it as just a film. Here is the official trailer; what I have written will not come through here:

22.10.13

The pose and the mosque



Why was Rihanna posing for pictures at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi? Some are likely to titter over the accusation of "inappropriate" or “indecent pictures” that made the officials ask her to leave. Nobody is bothered about one simple fact: she was told to leave before she posted the photographs online. She was going against visitor protocol prior to the religious one.

However, one cannot nitpick about some things, such as when model Claudia Schiffer had Islamic verses on her dress at a ramp show. Indeed, there was a reaction to that as much as there was to Madonna using Sanskrit shlokas in a song or images of the Virgin Mother or the Buddha being commercialised.

But, every place has its cultural requirements, and a place of worship is not meant for 'posing'. I include politicians and celebrities doing so at various shrines, seemingly in a fit of adept fervour, but in reality to get mileage and publicity.

She was on a tour in the UAE, so clearly she must have seen people in various kinds of clothes, including western wear, at her performances, in her hotel, at clubs. These include women from some Arab countries. So, why did she have to mimic a veil, by wearing a hooded jumpsuit?

If anything, this is offensive. This makes some people laugh at 'indecent' (put in single quotes). She, in fact, appears to be smirking at some of the other women. It is insensitive, and insensitivity is indecent.

20.10.13

Sunday ka Funda



Even before reading a word, this photograph completely shook me up. A woman crying in obvious desperation and a few cops sitting on the same bench, but keeping their distance and going about their job without a glance towards her. What more could express her loneliness and helplessness?

Who is she? I still do not know. The caption in Mumbai Mirror says:

"The mother of Prakash Salunkhe, 14, who was killed by a leopard on his way back from school on Friday, breaks down at the hospital after receiving her son's bloodied body"


Her identity is just that of the mother of a bloodied dead body. I look with discomfort at a cop's bright shoes, and the floor that seems to have congealed remnants.

The fact that it is in the newspaper, front page at that, does mean that in the noise of politics and cult figures the story has been covered. Leopard attacks on children in the Aarey Colony area are not uncommon. It is also not fair to dismiss the reaction of the cops based on what has been captured in a second. They were probably paying attention to her earlier, and could be taking down details about her son.

That is not the issue. It is about us. About how callous we have become to things around. There would be many times when we would be sitting like those cops, not too far, from people suffering. And we would do nothing. And, sadly, at that point in time we would be as helpless as this mother. For, somewhere, without trying to justify the looking away, it is true that we don't do anything because we just can't.

19.10.13

Rivers, Oceans and Munro



Short stories are not rivers to the novel's ocean; they are more like oceans seen from a distance. They are just meant to appear smaller. There are the same storms, the ripples, and the shores. Dip your feet in the waters and feel the chill or the warmth.

It would be unfair to state that Alice Munro's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature has given the short story a literary gravitas. This would be to ignore some truly fine works. However, it is most certainly interesting to see the craft through the eyes of one of its prominent practitioners.

There are some wonderful thoughts in an old interview Munro gave to The Paris Review. I'd like to understand some better.

On the novel:

"Katherine Mansfield said something in one of her letters like, Oh, I hope I write a novel, I hope I don’t die just leaving these bits and pieces. It’s very hard to wean yourself away from this bits-and-pieces feeling if all you’re leaving behind is scattered stories. I’m sure you could think of Chekhov and everything, but still."


The whole genre idea is changing. There are long short stories and short novels. There are novels written in verse and poetry that does not follow syntax. A work of epic proportions may span across generations and worlds. All these could be considered bits and pieces.

The problem is that the reader has been tuned to understand that a short story is something that has been left mid-way, or is a prelude to something bigger.

Note: "Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult."

On feedback:

"The New Yorker sent me nice notes though—penciled, informal messages. They never signed them. They weren’t terribly encouraging. I still remember one of them: The writing is very nice, but the theme is a bit overly familiar. It was, too. It was a romance between two aging people—an aging spinster who knows this is it for her when she’s proposed to by an aging farmer. I had a lot of aging spinsters in my stories. It was called “The Day the Asters Bloomed.” It was really awful. And I didn’t write this when I was seventeen; I was twenty-five. I wonder why I wrote about aging spinsters. I didn’t know any...I think I knew that at heart I was an aging spinster."


I am so intrigued by a theme being overly familiar. Who is it to? Besides, it is the treatment of the subject that often sets one writing apart from the rest. Over time, certain writers become overly familiar to their readers precisely because of the comfort such familiarity provides. There can be bad stories about esoteric subjects that even aliens would not be familiar with. The purpose of language and technique is to make an everyday cup of tea seem fresh and refreshing.

As regards writing about aging spinsters, or about anything, why are we drawn to certain subjects or people or things? When Munro, a married woman, says she was at heart an aging spinster it is possible that the first such characters had an impact on her. Aging spinsters have possibilities. There are so many stories you can tell by implication of non-attachment (as opposed to detachment).

I am curious, though, to know the company the people at the New Yorker kept that they were overly familiar with aging spinsters!

On stories as entertainment:

"I’ve been reading Muriel Sparks’s autobiography. She thinks, because she is a Christian, a Catholic, that God is the real author. And it behooves us not to try to take over that authority, not to try to write fiction that is about the meaning of life, that tries to grasp what only God can grasp. So one writes entertainments. I think this is what she says. I think I write stories sometimes that I intend as entertainments."


Looking for the meaning of life can be entertaining. And entertaining writing could spark off thoughts that the author might not have intended. In which case, would the reader be committing blasphemy by taking over god's work? Without getting into a metaphysical response, suffice to say that human evolution is about grasping the purpose of existence.

The short story just could make god's job look, well, short.

© Farzana Versey

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Image: The Guardian

18.10.13

A sadhu's dream and the Indian economy




The Supreme Court, the Geological Society, the Archeological Survey of India are all following the orders of a godman. This is India of the 21st century.

The story:

King Rao Ram Baksh Singh, a local ruler who fought in the first war of independence against the British, had built a fort in a part of his little kingdom. He was executed and over a century later a memorial was built to commemorate him.

Today his Uttar Pradesh village Daundia Khera is in the news because of a dream.

The dream:

The dead king appeared in a god Swami Shobhan Sarkar's dream. He asked the good sadhu to go forth and dig for the gold beneath the fort. Like all ancient structures and oral traditions surrounding them, there were whispers about the hidden metal.

Is it not possible that stories that have been repeated can recur in dreams, or that some dreams are mere hallucinations? Was it the dream that has sparked off a search? Or is it something else?

The something else:

The news of the dream reached the world. This is the India so beloved of the west — of dead kings, loot, hidden treasure, superstition. Quite naturally, their media will want to be a witness to it. And why not when our own government is willing to give it a shot? As The Independent reported:

The godman was apparently concerned by reports about India’s flagging economy and plunging rupee. He said there could be as much as 1,000 tonnes of gold here and more nearby, which government could use to boost its gold reserves and help tackle its account deficit.

“People treat the swami like a god,” said Mr Ajay Singh, the headman. “I am 100 per cent certain.”


There is a difference between a village headman and the government. The local and state government were taken in, but why did the Centre depend on one of its ministers and get the geological survey done? What does its initial finding that there could be some metal mean?

Was the government taken in by a dream or does it really believe in a sadhu's concern for the economy? What is his knowledge about the plunging rupee?

If some gold is found, this could well be attributed to some remnants of an era and not a trove. What if, indeed, there is a huge amount? The ASI will need to first check how old it is. The possibility of ill-gotten wealth being dug up later cannot be ruled out, and of the swami being used to do a whitewash job.

Interestingly, the villagers who, according to this report, met with bad luck if they chanced upon random gold coins nearby, have demanded 20 percent of the gold for their development. Heirs had started making an appearance as a prelude. This should raise eyebrows.

The other questions:

Is the Congress government so desperate? The godman's spokesman has been quoted as saying, “He said ‘ask the prime minister how much gold he requires’."

Where does the swami's certainty come from, if some deny the dream theory? He has even said, “If there is nothing there, send us to jail.”

Who is the 'us'? Only the godman is in the news; it is his belief. Does anybody know who else is involved? And, worse, does it make sense to expedite this search as an 'economic recovery' measure? Forget the world, what do we convey to our own people?

The excavation costs money. Do we not have modern means to check? Or is this to add to the 'mythology'?

The secular question:

We do remember another such ASI expedition. It was at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid to ascertain the existence of a temple underneath. That issue has been taken over by the BJP. They have not hidden — they flaunt it, in fact — their agenda to use it as an election plank.

Is the Congress now trying to find something akin, but of a secular nature to respond to that? We have a seer, a dream, an old fort, a village, a king who died fighting the outside forces. And then we have gold, the national metal of India. It is said to this day that if you have a little gold it can help you in any crisis. For all its place in tradition, the Indian is also pragmatic. All those jewels are investments.

The government will not as easily raid ashrams and other quasi religious places where hoarding of gold is fairly common. The government will not consider digging parts of rich mansions where secret chambers might hold unaccounted for wealth.

What the economy needs is smart thinking, and not these magic brush initiatives. The problem is most of us are fascinated by all of this. No questions asked.

Think about how this 'find', or just the idea of it, helping our economy can work on upwardly mobile but conservative minds. Or, those who merely like some such fantasy.

© Farzana Versey

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Image: The Indian Express

16.10.13

Kebabs don't grow on trees

Children are cruel. And those whose school tiffins would be filled with all kinds of meat would snigger close to the time of Bakri Eid. We never got quite around to saying Eid-al-Azha, or however it is spelled and pronounced in other places. The bakri immediately brought images of goats, and then the allusion to qasais, butchers who were mainly from the Muslim community. (Christians do have their own, though.)

It is easy to blame certain political parties today, but the attitude predates their prominence. It is no different from producing waste, and then looking down upon those who collect it and clean up your space. With meat, there is the added factor of 'sinful' consumption, never mind that animal sacrifice is fairly common in other faiths, too.

I won't repeat that I believe the spirit of sacrifice is more important than the qurbani, of sacrificing a goat on this day, to commemorate an event. But, then, for devotees all symbols need reiteration.

It could be through such sacrifice or other rituals. One hopes that irrespective of the level of faith, or its existence at all, we all learn to give a little of ourselves to something.

Eid Mubarak!

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Reminds me of one year when I was in Dubai. Arabs celebrate rather quietly, except perhaps at the malls. I went to Festival City, and they had a performance. I expected some Middle-East type of music. Instead, it was a melange of artistes from different parts of the world, and the violinist was an Arab, as were a few others.

For those few hours, it was the religion of sur and taal.

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Here is another such moment.

13.10.13

Burning Evil



How interesting evil is. It makes all else look good in comparison. Without evil, there would be no concept of good. But can evil exist without good? It is like this: evil does not need something to compare itself with. You can see a wrong as an independent entity, as intent too. The right comes with an inbuilt halo, and there is a tendency to assume that a right thing is also the ultimate truth.

Today, on Dussehra, as the effigy of Ravana is burned, it is seen as a triumph of good over evil. I have attended one Ramlila at Mumbai's Chowpatty beach where the story of Lord Rama's battle with the king of demons is enacted. The costumes are garish, the swords covered with shiny foil. The actors are usually from the villages, and the audience is made up of a largely immigrant population from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. After casting curious glances our way, they were totally focused on what was so obviously over-the-top performances and looked fake, including crowns falling from heads, silky dhotis causing a few falls.

They guffawed not at this, but at the loud monologues, designed to produce just such an effect. For them, it was all believable. Even though the seats were plastic and so were the emotions. Even though they were munching peanuts and hollering out to old acquaintances from their hometowns. Even though they would return to the one-room tenements they shared with ten others and would report next morning to work in houses, from palatial to modest, or drive cars that cost a fortune or were bought on easy monthly installments.

They did not even want to think about how Ravana was quite a scholar, had the strength to move mountains, and that in some ways by kidnapping Sita he was only avenging the honour of his sister Surpanakha whose nose was cut by Rama's brother Lakshmana.

All this was inconsequential to this audience, as it is to most devotees. For those few hours, they believed what they had been brought up to believe. My understanding is that these people would not be communal. They were happy in their pragmatic devotion, their idols, their calendar with a photo of a deity on a peeling wall. They would not feel the compulsion to compare. They had seen the good and the evil within what was theirs. They owned and owned up to it.

I do not think the burning of the Ravana effigy is imperative for them. As a finalé, yes. Nothing more. As a sidelight, I might add that fire is a cleanser, and is used in certain cultures as such. Therefore, would it not amount to purifying evil? But that does not seem to be the purpose. It is an aggressive act. If we do it year after year, does it not reveal that evil does not die...it does not even get burned to toast? What we do is to beat an assumed-to-be-dead horse.

It is a cosmetic moral victory. The evil within, and the struggle to overcome our shortcomings, is sorely lacking. It is a vicarious thrill to watch a gargantuan ten-headed monster, a caricature of all that is bad, afire and turning to ash. Then we return to other caricatures and stereotypes in our heads.

Our walls have no mirrors. Nothing will burn. There will be no flame. No light.

© Farzana Versey

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Image: Painting of Ravana's abduction of Sita, and the bird Jatayu coming to the rescue.

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11.10.13

Chemical weapons, Malala and Hype: A Nobel Peace?

Those who spent days hyping up the Nobel Peace Prize are now saying it is a load of nonsense.

The reason is simple. 'Their' candidate did not get it. There goes all talk about a unified world.

Technically, this year's winner is the right choice, if we understand that the Nobel Peace is for disarmament. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the 2013 prize "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons".

However, it is clearly a political decision. Despite its avowed independence, somebody is pulling the strings. What exactly is the definition of "champions of peace"? This year there were 259 contenders, and there is no peace in sight. Most parts of the world are in a state of constant disturbance, if not civil war.

Getting rid of chemical weapons is indeed necessary, and important. One cannot even dispute the topicality, for the Nobel Prize organisation has stated:

"OPCW inspectors are currently working in Damascus on a U.N.-backed disarmament mission to verify and destroy Syrian President Bashar Assad's arsenal of chemical weapons."


This is where one must pause. Does an organisation become relevant only after the chemical weapons have been used, or should it not be able to sniff them out and preempt any strike? Is it not valid to question other means that might push such abuse of weapons? How would OPCW respond to individual nations interfering in what is their work?

Fact is, it is not just their work. The United Nations has a history of taking bad calls, and people similar to those who sit in the U.N. also constitute the Nobel Commitee.

Syria is eyeball-grabbing in so many ways. A dictator, rebels depending on Big Brothers (yes, it is a 'plural'istic world in interesting ways), and then the self-righteous war against terror.

One can safely assume that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 'own' the Syrian construct, if not manufacture it.

This is probably one of those rare times when a message is being sent under public glare to these nations as to who is boss. Within the western world, it will also come across as a politically-correct decision.

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Most Nobel Peace decisions are pleasers. There was not a chance in hell for Russian President Vladimir Putin to win it, forget Edward Snowden or Bradley (now Chelsea Manning). These are thorns in the way of how sanctified systems works, although Putin has his own system that is questionable.

The other politically-correct choice would have been Malala Yousafzai. In the run-up to the awards, she has appeared on primetime talk shows, received other awards, has released a book. She had most of Pakistan rooting for her, as also a number of people in the West.

It is easy to understand why. At 16, she would be the youngest. The West has saved her from the Taliban. She talks about pen against weapons (never mind that her audience uses drones). She even mentions little children in Syria.

If Malala were a country, some superpower would be trying to bring in democracy and park its forces and arms there.

A couple of articles even said that she does not need the Nobel, the Nobel needs her. With so much over-the-top basic acceptance, there would be little space for understanding nuances.

Those who rant against the 'Malala Haters' expose their need to be in control. They can do this only by toeing the line the West takes.

Pakistan is pretty much indebted to the West for almost everything politically. It cannot afford not to like what the West likes. The real problem is that the vocal segment of Pakistanis is uncomfortable that those raising questions do not have a problem with the young Malala and her fight for education, but with them and their stupor that prevents them from acting and choosing instead to ride on the fame of one who was targeted.

Reacting to the accusation that she is speaking for the West (this viewpoint is mainly from the Taliban, and the professional liberals are giving it importance only because they need to look good in comparison), the opinionators came up with the argument that she always talks about Swat and Pakistan. Naturally. Will anybody be interested or even tolerate her views on Haiti, let alone a government that had to shut down? It is like diaspora literature. It has to stick to its brief and not veer away from the exotic.

In a typical subcontinental response after the award was announced, the Nobel Peace Prize was questioned. Had Malala won, it would have been a perfectly legitimate award. Sherry Rehman was among those who said, "Whole of Mingora is praying for Malala to win the award." This was supposed to convey the sentiments as a 'proud Pakistani'. Indeed, an honour is a matter of pride, but why the double-speak then by the hype-pushers?

It included the chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who was depending on what the bookies said, that "Malala is the second favourite to win Nobel?! Who's beating her? Don't tell me they're giving it to Obama again?"

After the announcement he declared her prime minister: "Wazir-e-Azam Malala Yousafzai." His humour surfaces only when his party is not in power. Would he have said this if PPP was in the seat?

Simmering with discontent, they have now transformed her into a queen of hearts. It really has all along been about them.

© Farzana Versey

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Also A Mirage Called Malala

7.10.13

Aam Aadmi in the time of Elitism



When there are attempts to sabotage, one need not jump the gun about the popularity of the player. The fact that Arvind Kejriwal has chosen the capital as his debut with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and his promise that post assembly elections he will convene at the Ramlila grounds is a clear indicator that he has merely politicised activism rather than it being the other way round.

The media, saturated with the BJP and Congress, finds Kejriwal a good drumbeater to have. He claims to have collected Rs. 12 crore in donations from 12,000 families, and in a transparent manner. This sounds plausible. Rs 10,000 on an average contributed by one family is feasible. But, will it have an impact? He says:

“We are setting the agenda as far as Delhi politics is concerned. We raise people’s issues, be it water and power bills or women safety. Other parties follow us."


There is absolutely nothing new about this. Paani-bijli are old slogans, and women's safety has become the calling card for politicians. Let us not forget that it was politics that drove certain recent fast track courts and verdicts too.

Kejriwal is entering the fray when the anti-incumbency vote has become an intrinsic part of the scenario. It is important to question whether it is a 'There is no alternative' factor at work here or a genuine acceptance of the AAP philosophy. This would lead us to further ask what exactly the party's philosophy is. Can it sustain interest on the basis of anti-corruption and the Jan Lokpal Bill, when both are essentially part of a street fighting startup venture?

What does a headline like "How AAP made the common man relevant in democracy again" really mean? To begin with, Kejriwal is the product of our democracy, not its creator, and certainly not a renaissance figure. As regards the common man, which common man has been walking in Lodhi Gardens with a cheque book to contribute to his cause? What kind of common man is really affected by corruption as hidden in Swiss banks and invested in antiques, when he has to deal with chai-paani demands and is sometimes the one making such demands?

The "surge from the bottom" is a falsification. The movement against corruption was and continues to be an upper middle-class conscience picnic. The 'I am Anna' caps have been replaced with 'Main Aam Aadmi Hoon', which does not sit well with the common man who might have no roof over his head, but is given a topi. The other slogan of 'swaraj', self-rule, negates a democratic India, by harking back to a colonial era term. Who will decide on the nature of the community that is to be built? Will there be no hierarchy at all?

There are issues with Indian democracy, and political parties have been used by dynasties and cult figures. One does not see how Kejriwal is going to change this for, besides him, no other person has any recall value in the AAP.

To consolidate it, even the conspiracy theories use his name. Take this "hidden campaign" business. A recorded phone call from 'no political party' goes like this, according to a report:

"Hi, I'm Sri Om. I used to work with India Against Corruption when Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal led the campaign. But Arvind Kejriwal colluded with the Congress and made his own political party with their backing. Arvind Kejriwal betrayed Anna. A person who can betray his own men can betray anyone. I therefore, request you not to vote for Kejriwal in the coming Delhi elections."


The article poses some interesting possibilities:

Is it the Congress trying to scuttle his chances? Is it the BJP trying to cut its losses by asking people not to support AAP? Is it some disgruntled element from the past? Or finally, is it AAP itself trying to garner 'sympathy' votes?


It could be any of these. Or it could be a supporter who wants to make sure her/his donation goes through an 'agni pariksha' and comes out a winner. There really is no free lunch in politics. Or anywhere.

© Farzana Versey

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Also Insulting the broom on Kejriwal's election symbol.

6.10.13

Sunday ka Funda

She said she does not know about Devika Rani. Fair enough. Mallika Sherawat was corrected that she is not the first actress to kiss on screen. Devika Rani did it way back in the 30s.

The beauty of cinema is, of course, about much more than that. Some of us who manage to dig end up with gems, for that is what the purpose is. Movies have always been about escape, a little exaggeration and such immense beauty.

I am reminded of that line from 'Sunset Boulevard':

"I am big! It's the pictures that got small."

This scene from 'Karma' (1933, starring Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai; all 'dialogues' were in English) is just delightful at so many levels. Particularly how the woman is completely unselfconscious, vivacious. The device of using a 'squirrel'...can't get friskier than that!



4.10.13

The writer as soothsayer



Can a novelist predict events or does he assume by relying on common sense? Tom Clancy's obituary pieces, while paying a tribute to his hugely popular espionage genre, have invariably mentioned his 'predictions'. He had believed so himself when he stated, “I hang my hat on getting as many things right as I can. I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real — that’s the spooky part.”

Getting it right need not always be real. A magician gets things right, too. So, how did the stuff he wrote about become real, if it did?

Time magazine listed out four events that Clancy's book foresaw. Let us see whether imagination preceded reality.

9/11 and the planes

• 'Debt of Honor': "The pilot, driven insane with grief, flies his Boeing 747 into the U.S. capitol during a joint session of Congress."

The story was about Japan and the United States and there was a military conflict. Not terrorism. And not planned. Planes crash and crash into.

Where is the prediction?

2008 Russia-Georgia War

• 'Ghost Recon', a video game: Clancy’s game is strangely on target predicting the war’s start, as the game’s events take place in April 2008, just a few months before the real-world conflict began.

However, the Time piece also mentions that "tensions between Georgia and Russia were likely to escalate into military conflict". In this case, he did predict the year, since the game was released in 2001 but was set in 2008.

The question would be why did he choose 2008? Having done so and war being the natural result it is obvious that he could not possibly place the war at any other time. A video game has an urgency about it.

Getting Osama Bin Laden

• 'Dead or Alive': “The Emir,” the notorious terrorist has evaded the U.S. intelligence authorities, not by hiding out in South Asia, but Las Vegas.

No one in their right mind would believe that Osama would stay holed up in a cave for ten years. This fantasy resulted in terrible consequences for the region. He was found in Abbottabad, which is not Las Vegas, although some Pakistanis might be thrilled with the comparison.

The character being brought to justice has to do with a denouement, and not an ability to foresee. That the book was released a few months before the capture could be coincidence.

Edward Snowden leaks

• 'Clear and Present Danger': The U.S. government tries to stem South American drug trade. The CIA resorts to intercepting mobile phone communications between cartels in South America, to later launch covert military actions.

Tapping phones is not new. The Snowden tapes about NSA are damning because there is not one target and a specific purpose. There are issues of privacy and of superseding diplomatic routes with other countries that may not even have a problem with America.

Clancy wrote about the drug cartel in 1994, and the interception was a device to move the story forward.



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These examples and questioning them do not in any manner take away from Tom Clancy's work. The more pressing concern here is about seeing a writer as someone whose imagination can create reality, so to speak. It somehow takes away from the art.

With cinema, we do debate about whether art imitates reality or reality imitates art. Film is a visual medium and mimicking it would amount to looking into a mirror. A work of fiction, even when it gets close to the bone and sears the soul, is about suspended reality. The characters could well be based on people who seem familiar, events in their lives may be true to our own, but the process is to build a story.

The story is the truth, and not whether we have lived through it.

There is much of futuristic writing that has predicted gizmos, and these are coming true. Should the writer be given patent rights? Was the writing a scientific endeavour?

George Orwell's '1984' is probably one of the most trenchant political treatises that makes sense even today, as it did when it was written. His 'Animal Farm' resonates with the 'kingdom' we live in.

Fables and parables are not predictions and yet they reflect the world we live in at any time. I dip into 'Alice in Wonderland' and it looks like a crystal ball to me. No one will call it real because it does not use a realistic theme or language.

But, then, do we understand the language of those who we see as enemies and do we really comprehend the words of friends? Such reality could well be 'unimagined'.

© Farzana Versey

3.10.13

Secularism and shit

Have we exhausted all options that political parties are fighting over who spoke about sanitary facilities first? If this is a necessity, then go and build those toilets instead of throwing up nonsense.

In his now familiar style of useless rhetoric, Narendra Modi told a group of 7000 students in Delhi:

"My image is that of Hindutva but I'll tell you my real thinking. I have said in my state: pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya (toilets first, temples later)."


It is not his image that is the problem, but his fake attempts to wipe that image when and where it suits him. Addressing a young audience in the capital is different from repeating these words before the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and his own party, the BJP.



Will Modi say this in Ayodhya? Will he say this while talking to the sadhus who blessed him at the Maha Kumbh? Will he make this into an electoral issue and expunge any reference to temples? Will he be able to sell this idea at the woo-the-minority rallies and add other places of worship too?

It is not only Hindutvawadis who need to use the facilities.

He further stated:

"I define secularism as nation first, India first. Justice to all, appeasement to none. No votebank politics - a poor man is a poor man, where he prays is immaterial."


Why is this only about the poor? The majority that lives in the rural areas have figured out how to use waste as manure. He knows that the poor do not vote if they are promised toilets. They first need something to eat before they can digest it. They need water, they need jobs, they need healthcare, they need electricity, they need roads. They are not looking for a special place to take a dump. Not until their other needs are fulfilled.



And they really do not spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about where they can pray. They just raise their hands when they want rains, and they fall to the ground when they want the earth to sustain them. They do not need temples or mosques or churches.

Justice is not only about toilets. Modi should know that.

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Not to be left behind, the Congress has joined in to claim credit for the toilet idea.

Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh is on surer ground here, though. He had said this last year, and now recalls:

"When I spoke, Rajiv Pratap Rudy said I should respect the fine line between faith and religion. Then he went on to say that the BJP maintains that one should not get into the debate of whether a temple or toilet is more important. Prakash Javadekar also attacked me. Activists of the RSS and VHP came to my house and left bottles of urine. I wonder where they are now when Mr Modi has suddenly discovered the value of toilets. I still believe we need more toilets than temples. I wish Modi had discovered this 20 years ago, then we would not have had the Babri Masjid episode."


The point is, has the Congress done anything about those toilets? Talk is cheap.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, there were many ideas floated by Indian citizens, not politicians. Among those that suggested building hospitals and schools, some even mentioned toilets.

I personally think this is reductionism. Nobody is really interested in these non-controversial issues unless they are used to promote 'development'. Imagine a basic facility being touted as development. Worse, it is not the ones who are supposed to benefit making the demand, but those with all the amenities. They start the fire and then use the smoke. A stinky smokescreen for secularism again.

© Farzana Versey

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Images: GujaratIndia & New York Times