Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Devas Deal and the ISRO Row

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 31 January, 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/the-devas-deal-and-the-isro-row/358514.html)

NOTE: This is not an opinion piece. It's a summary of the row over the Devas deal.

Over the past couple of days, four men who were among the most celebrated in the space science community of India have been blacklisted, and banned from holding any government-affiliated jobs in future.
Madhavan Nair, former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief, K Bhaskaranarayana, former scientific secretary of ISRO, K N Shankara, former director of the ISRO satellite centre, and K R Sridharamurthy, managing director of Antrix, the ISRO’s commercial wing, were apparently being penalised for their role in allocating S-band spectrum to private company Devas.
That deal was annulled last year, and the reason given was that the spectrum was needed for strategic purposes by the nation. So, why are the scientists in trouble now?
What is the Devas deal all about?
On January 28, 2005, a deal was signed between Antrix and Devas, a private company headed by M G Chandrashekhar, a former scientific secretary at ISRO, stating that ISRO would lease 90% of the transponders using the S-band (2.5-5 GHz) on two satellites that the ISRO was planning to launch in 2013. Devas was to use these transponders for digital multimedia broadcasting purposes. S-band wavelength is usually reserved for a country’s strategic interests.
Devas was to pay Antrix $ 300 million (Rs 1500 crore at the time) over 12 years. ISRO later admitted that no competitive bidding procedure was followed. According to reports, Antrix got permission from the Space Commission and the Union Cabinet to launch the two satellites, at a cost of Rs 400 crore, without informing the agencies about the deal.
The policy guidelines say that private sector providers can use spectrum only on a non-exclusive basis, and the deal went against this. Later, the Department of Space called it a security risk to allot so much spectrum to a private player. In February 2011, the deal was cancelled. Radhakrishnan, who had succeeded Madhavan Nair as ISRO chief by then, said this was because there had been no prior intimation that the satellites were meant mainly to fulfil Devas’ business purposes, and that the government had decided to hold on to the spectrum for national “strategic and social priorities”.
What were the controversies then?
Newspapers reported then that the deal gave Devas 70 MHz of S-band spectrum for about Rs 2000 crore. This was compared to Rs 67, 000 crore, which was acquired by the government by auctioning 15 MHz of airwaves for 3G spectrum allocation.
While some people maintained that the two entities were incomparable, and the PMO rubbished claims that there was revenue loss, the opposition BJP held that the Prime Minister, who heads the Department of Space, is responsible.
There was controversy on two counts – that Devas could sell equity in the spectrum it has acquired for profit, and that the scarce resource of S-band spectrum was needed for defence and strategic purposes.
On 17 February 2011, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formalised the annulment of the deal. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was said to be looking into the deal.
On January 13, 2012, a two-page order from the Department of Space, signed by its director Sandhya Venugopal Sharma, said the four scientists “shall be excluded from re-employment, committee roles or any other important role under the Government.” It also says “these four former officers shall be divested of any current assignment/consultancy with the Government with immediate effect.”
Why is the business murky?
Questions are being raised because there has been no explanation from the government about the circumstances under which the deal was struck, and what the role of government officials in the business was. What had led to the signing of the Antrix-Devas deal?
Reports in the media said the Department of Space (Dos) had sent a note to commissions set up to look into the deal, saying only 4 of the 8 members of the Antrix board had approved the deal, and the decision to go ahead had been made in a hurry. Even more strangely, the agreement was reached before permission had been acquired for the satellites to be set up. But in an earlier note to the CCS, the DoS did not mention these issues at all, only saying that the spectrum was needed for strategic reasons.
There is also some concern that the four scientists have been banned from holding government office, without being given a chance to speak for themselves. This has led to speculation that the PMO is trying to hide the government’s role in the deal. The PMO has said the action was taken based on the report submitted by a five-member team headed by former Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) Pratyush Sinha. Nair’s successor Radhakrishnan was part of this team, and Nair has accused him of pursuing personal vendetta.
Also, the team was constituted following a report submitted by a two-member high-powered review committee, comprising Planning Commission Member B K Chaturvedi and Space Commission Member Professor Roddam Narashimha.
Neither report was made public. The only report that has been made public is the initial CAG report, which pegged the potential loss to the government as Rs 2 lakh crore.
What were the reactions?
Madhavan Nair called the government order “discriminatory and unfair” and said he may take legal action as he had been given no opportunity to defend himself.
The next day, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V Narayanasamy hinted that the scientists had been made an example of, saying, “The government wanted to send a strong message to our scientist community that no wrong-doing will be tolerated.”
Professor C N R Rao, Head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, defended the scientists, saying angrily that they had been “thrown out like garbage.” He also hit out at Narayanasamy, saying, “I don’t know where he got his basic education.”
Two days after the row broke out, Nair was said to have told friends that he intends to focus on the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), headquartered in Paris, which he is now President of. Incidentally, he is the first man outside the US to hold its Presidency.


G Madhavan Nair, former chief of ISRO
K Bhaskaranarayana, former scientific secretary at ISRO
K R Sridharamurthi, former managing director of Antrix
K N Shankara, former director of the ISRO satellite centre


January 28, 2005
A deal is signed between Antrix and Devas, granting the latter almost exclusive use of S-band spectrum through satellites GSAT6 and GSAT6A.
October 31, 2009
Madhavan Nair retires as ISRO chief, and is succeeded by Radhakrishnan .
February 9, 2011
Radhakrishnan announces that the Devas deal has been scrapped, following a decision made in July 2010 in the interest of national strategic and social priorities.
February 10, 2011
PMO constitutes a 2-member committee to review technical, commercial, procedural and financial aspects of the S-band allocation.
February 17, 2011
Cabinet Committee on Security announces the annulment of the contract.
March 12, 2011
The 2-member committee submits its report.
May 31, 2011
PM constitutes 5-member high-level team under former CVC Pratyush Sinha.
January 13, 2012
DoS sends a secret order asking for a ban on the re-employment of the 4 scientists, and termination of their current involvement in any assignment or consultancy with the government.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Delhi Diary: Of Rushdie, Republic Day and Cycle Rides

(Published in Sify.com, on 29 January 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/delhi-diary-of-rushdie-republic-day-and-cycle-rides-news-cities-mb3mnkajbae.html)

“It touched 15 degrees in Madras!” I had told my Naarthie friends excitedly, “I think I can handle a Delhi winter again!” And so it is that on a misty morning in late January, I find myself stepping out of the luxurious Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport into the choked lanes of the city I once called home, where lemon-yellow-hooded autos fight for space with black-hooded Lamborghinis.
Day 1:
My taxi driver wants to know whether I’m going to Jaipur, and that’s when I realise just what a carnival that particular literature festival has turned into. The newspapers are a reminder. For the first time in my memory, three articles on the front page are attributed to a civilian other than Anna Hazare – Salman Rushdie.
Will he or won’t he? everyone wants to know. Well, what did we expect, really? Rushdie would not make even a virtual presence at the festival, but he hits the headlines pretty regularly through the week.
Is this really Delhi? I wonder, in some dismay. I’ve got used to seeing literary events confined to the middle sections of newspapers, and it’s never occurred to me that one day, four national dailies will carry editorials on Rushdie in their Delhi editions. So, I’m rather relieved when I read an equally long article, also on the front page, about a couple that waited thirty years to get divorced, after the bride ran away on her wedding day.
Day 2:
Since the Gucci-, Fendi-, Prada-, and Christian Louboutin-sporting divas and dandies have reportedly driven khadi kurtas, faded jeans, jhola bags and oversized silver jewellery out of Jaipur, I make my way to Mandi House, with a two-hundred rupee bag that regularly gets mistaken for Fendi.
I meet some of those disillusioned discards in the theatres lining that stretch. Some tell me from the lawns, concrete steps, tree branches and gates they’re flopped against that the Jaipur Literature Festival was once a quaint little event.
“It’s two bloody tents and a hall, yaar,” one mumbles, as the smoke from his cigarette cuts through the thick winter air, “Where is the space for all these people?”
“But why would anyone want to go someplace where Oprah’s behind is scheduled to be pressed up against Scoop Lady’s lips?” another says.
I don’t know. I’ve never been to the Jaipur Literature Festival, and don’t plan to go.
“So we’ll just brave the cold and linguistic barriers and stay here. Haha...owwwww!” my chattering teeth have just made a fresh puncture in my cracked lips.
A silent, mournful alumnus of the National School of Drama offers me his lip balm.
The Smoker says, “There are subtitles in all the audis this time, though.”
“They’re subtitling the plays?!” I gasp.
“Yeah. It’s going to kill the drama,” The Smoker sighs, “Everyone’s selling out.”
Everyone looks so gloomy that I decide to disguise my delight and contort my face into a grimace. I also wonder whether The Smoker meant the plays were literally sold out, or whether intellectuals were selling out to the mass. I am not destined to find out, but I do understand the regional play I watch at the NSD festival.
Day 3:
Bhaiyya, Select Citywalk,” I say, and am about to bargain, when the auto driver nods and turns on the meter.
Whaa...? That was a rare treat in the Delhi I lived in, though unheard of in most other metros. But the Metro’s apparently made auto drivers more accommodating. The meter is actually used most of the time.
On the way to Select Citywalk, the auto takes several diversions. I’m beginning to think the meter was not a particularly good idea, when the driver grumbles about the “January 26” arrangements.
There’s security everywhere. Twenty-minute drives take two hours, and traffic jams clog the wide roads. That gives everyone plenty of time to glare at the empty BRT corridors, segregated from the other lanes when the Bus Rapid Transit System was brought in before the Commonwealth Games 2010.
Day 4:
Having been deprived of watchable cinema as mediocre Pongal releases swarmed the movie halls back in Chennai, my heart sings as I head off to watch Coriolanus, which I still cannot believe released in India.
The distributors may not make that mistake again. I am the only one in the cinema at 11:10 am, ten minutes after the film is scheduled to begin.
An apologetic manager tells me they may have to cancel the show, and will either refund my tickets or give me tickets to another film. I refuse to let that happen to Shakespeare or Ralph Fiennes, or myself, and throw a tantrum.
“I’m reviewing this film!” I say, shaking my head vigorously, “I have a deadline, and I trusted your cinemas to show it. Now, I’ll have to write that the show was cancelled.”
The manager consults with his underlings, and then offers me coffee. I tell him I’m going to miss my deadline if they delay the screening by another five minutes, and they assure me they will play the film.
So begins my first movie experience sans crying babies, singing mobile phones, screeching women, shouting men, and giggly teenagers.
Sometime after the interval, a middle-aged couple stroll in, and look at me in some bewilderment. They hurry out, and I wonder what they were planning to do in the privacy of a cold, dark, cavernous room beaming giant images of Gerard Butler and Ralph Fiennes.
I pray that my midlife crisis, when it does arrive, should not bring fantasies as kinky – and if it does, I add a clause, please let no columnist witness it.
Day 5:
I’m nearly done with my trip to Delhi. And one of the high points of that visit is an interview with Mark Tully at his West Delhi residence.
Sitting in his study, where a library of books towers over the table, I speak to the cheerful, energetic, much-adored veteran journalist who began his adult life in India as a BBC foreign correspondent, and went on to write several books that brought the real India home to Indians.
I bid goodbye at last to Mr Tully, his colleague and partner Gillian Wright, and their two large dogs, and think the day can’t get much better.
It does. I rush through the closing doors of a Metro, into the general compartment. The ladies’ compartment is too far off for me to reach and hunt for a seat. Luckily, a college student picks himself off a seat, near me, and I beat another man to it.
Four stops later, I see the college student standing near a door, still waiting for his station to arrive, and realise with astonishment that chivalry exists.
Day 6:
The chivalry of the previous day is to take a rather bizarre, borderline unsavoury turn today.
I find myself in one of those gol chakkars with signboards that seem to be designed to confuse everyone, and I decide to ask for directions.
That’s tricky in Delhi. Most people will ask you to walk straight ahead, while pointing to the left, and ask you to take a left while pointing to the right. On the rare occasion you’re given the correct directions, an eavesdropper will approach you and misguide you.
But a septuagenarian on a cycle, who looks like a retired watchman, seems a safe enough bet. I ask him where Rajesh Pilot Marg is.
“Oh, that’s near Khan Market,” he says, “There’s a bus from...”
“No, I was told it’s near The Claridges,” I protest.
“Oh, okay,” he says, and thinks, “why don’t you get on my cycle, I’ll drop you.”
Warning bells go off in my head, and a Rajnikanth song seems to be playing in his. He flashes a nearly-toothless grin at me, and I stammer that my car is parked at The Claridges, and head off quickly to the hotel.
Day 7:
As I arrive at Terminal 1D for my return flight, I pick up a newspaper and find Salman Rushdie hasn’t left the front page yet. This time, his video conference at the Jaipur Literature Festival has been cancelled; and an entire paragraph has been devoted to what its writer clearly believes to be an evocative description of the ashen appearance of William Dalrymple when the news was announced.
I drag myself, my suitcase and a bag full of books to the bottom of the stairs, and nearly trip up someone.
“After you,” he says, and I mumble, “No, go ahead.”
“No, no, please,” he insists, and to my embarrassment, I can’t push the extendable handle back into my suitcase.
The next thing I know, the person-I-nearly-bumped-into is grabbing it from my hands, and carrying it up the stairs, promising he won’t run away with it.
The second display of gallantry in a world where feminists consider the concept outdated. I’m about to fall in love, and then wonder whether I’ve been pushed into an alternate reality. It doesn’t help that I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84.
Deposited upstairs, I wait in line for coffee, still considering the likelihood of my being in a Murakami novel.
Then, I hear a woman ask a man, “Excuse me, were you before me in the line?” The man pretends not to hear her, and she says, “I was here before, I think.” He places his order, and she shakes her head vigorously, rolls her eyes at me and mutters, “Indian men!”
I laugh, and she asks, “Are you from here?”
She replies, “I wonder how the population expands if this is all you women have to choose from!”
And I know I’m in the real world. Now, where’s that person-I-nearly-bumped-into?

Agneepath: Hrithik Overshadows Big B

(Published in The New Sunday Express, dated 29 January, 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/agneepath/357976.html)

Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Sanjay Dutt, Rishi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Zarina Wahab, Kanika Tiwari
Director: Karan Malhotra
Rating:  4 stars
Okay, I’ve a confession to make. I don’t remember much of 1990’s Agneepath. I do recall Amitabh Bachchan being given life lessons by a cop who looked younger than he. And I know I was on Danny Denzongpa’s side because I was a huge fan of Ajnabi .
What I’m trying to say is, when 2012’s Agneepath opens to a chorus of “Masterji!” and a man who could be advertising Ujala marches up to the crowd, along with an aging woman in a sari, I assumed they were mother and son. Turns out Zarina Wahab isn’t Chetan Pandit’s plump Ma, but his pregnant Biwi! So, all right, I spent a decade watching Nirupa Roy deliver babies in huts and lose them in fairs, but at least her husbands didn’t look like they’d stepped out of ads where they delight in the coffee their svelte wives make.
But the film goes uphill from there. When the crusading Masterji Deenanath Chauhan takes on a contraband ring run by Kancha (Sanjay Dutt), the dark elements of the film come into play – the manner in which Chauhan is made out to be an enemy of the people is horribly unsettling, and its outcome fills the viewer with a sense of foreboding that lasts right through.
Despite its three-hour duration, there’s no time for idyll in the film. Every time our hero Vijay (Hrithik Roshan) is touched by hope, a reminder of the past haunts him. His unwavering adherence to his mission is echoed in the focused storyline.
There are no good bad guys here, not even Vijay. He seems to have no problem with the child prostitution racket run by his mentor Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor), as long as his childhood friend Kaali (Priyanka Chopra) and sister Shiksha (Kanika Tiwari) aren’t targeted.
Having cut off the fat of complicated parallel stories, the movie concentrates on characters and quirks. When Vijay’s long-lost sister comes to the chawl she left as an infant, hordes of neighbours expect her to recognise them. As Kaali does a hasty aarti with smoking coals for Vijay, she curses whoever’s thinking of him enough to cause him a coughing fit. A beauty parlour board reads ‘We specialy in bridal makeup’.
While Agneepath has been marketed as a tribute, Hrithik Roshan plays a completely different Vijay. He breaks into sobs, he seethes with rage, he remains calm even as his nerves recoil, he takes several beatings. He brings in so many shades to the character that the viewer is left guessing whether he’s being calculating, callous, or loyal. When Rauf Lala declares, “Ab mere do nahin, teen beten hain”, he smiles “Lekin teenon mein se ek shaheed honewala hai” on the day of Lala’s son’s wedding. In retrospect, the line takes on sinister tones. When he wells up, as he does several times, the tears are blinked away rapidly, and their remnants glisten in his eyes. His intense scenes with Kancha are exquisite, and he looks so good that one sort of gets why Sanjay Dutt has a penchant for fondling him. The slow morphing of his nervousness around his sister to devotion in the face of her open trust is portrayed in a nuanced manner.
The natural acting is aided by screenplay that accommodates spontaneity. For instance, the shy Shiksha turns to her brother for approval before dancing in step with the boisterous Kaali. Priyanka Chopra is likeable as the rustic, impulsive Kaali, giving her all for the man she loves, and yet strong enough to let him go when the time comes. I can forgive her propensity to overplay her cuteness. What I find hard to look past is the incongruity of a village belle coming up with, “Get moving!”
While using the kitsch of symbolism – Vijay literally fills Rauf’s shoes – the film sidesteps several clichés. It’s over the top at times, and dispels with the laws of physics when guns are fired, but I suppose that’s part of the tribute. The film could have done without some manic ranting from Kancha about his looks, though. And some below-par graphics. And an awkward Katrina Kaif whose jiggles and thrusts are rather too vulgar. Instead, Vijay’s relationship with Inspector Gaitonde (Om Puri) could have been fleshed out.
The Verdict: It’s not often masala and art make a miscible mix. Here, it clicks.

The Descendants: Farce in Tragedy

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 29 January, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/when-farce-turns-tragic)

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Patricia Hastie, Nick Krause
Director: Alexander Payne
Rating: 5 stars
The opening scene of The Descendants wouldn’t be out of place in a documentary on Hawaii. Neither would the voiceover. Until Matthew King (George Clooney) tells Paradise what it can do with itself.
“How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating?” he wonders, looking up from the work he has brought to a hospital.
This is a film about loss – of people, of land. When someone dies, s/he wins. However that person has let you down, you’re the one feeling guilty, you’re the one wishing you’d done all those things you could have. And what if there’s someone left, someone who represents the departed? Does the person left behind become the target of your anger, or the symbol of your forgiveness?
What seems to be a simple family drama about a father trying to reconnect with his daughters is, on another level, an allegorical tale of the bond between man and land. An impending death, an affair, a substance abuse problem and a taste for explicit vocabulary are at the heart of this dysfunctional family’s story. Meanwhile, a larger family, descended from a banker and Princess, must figure out what to do with 25,000 acres of inherited land that will soon be tied up in a legal mess. The parallel is brought out in a brilliantly-worded confrontation, where each party picks up on a different layer.
The story follows King, his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra’s goofy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) on a mission they hope will resolve the family’s issues. And throughout, you never know whether to laugh or cry.
Skirting maudlin with irony, the film takes a quirky look at the hilarity surrounding tragedy – the stifling concern, the cold pragmatism of organ donations, the eulogising of the sinful, the laying of blame – which could drive you into seeking advice from someone you labelled “retarded”.
What do we get attached to when we lose the things we thought were ours? the movie makes one wonder. Alternating silence with yodelling, Hawaiian songs and American classics, the texture of the film contrives to weave nostalgia and hope together.
The characters are rounded, and the acting nuanced. Clooney’s mastery of his craft shows in his willingness to be directed, his ability to deliver lines as if he’d thought them up. It’s hard to believe this man once wore a purple bodysuit and indigo chastity belt, as he dashed around Gotham City with his...ahem, rainbow ally.
Verdict: I can’t think of a single drawback. This film is, to me, perfect.

Agneepath: Darker, Stronger, Sleeker

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 29 January, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/roshan-revels-in-remake)

Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Sanjay Dutt, Rishi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Zarina Wahab, Kanika Tiwari
Director: Karan Malhotra
Rating:  4 stars
Vijay, the Angry Young Man, is back. And this time, he’s no aging superstar. A perfectly-toned Hrithik Roshan exudes both power and vulnerability, redefining the Vijay Deenanath Chauhan Amitabh Bachchan played in 1990.
In an era of shoddy remakes, Agneepath adapts itself to a contemporary audience, and is bold enough to speak of CSA and underage prostitution. Where the original had Masterji lynched for visiting a brothel, the implication is darker here. Yet, it’s aware of its temporal setting – 1977 to 1992 – subtly portrayed through movie posters in the background, costumes, and telephones. No nods to international events, no allusion to politics.
This is a film meant for the theatre – the surging crowds, pulsating music, elaborate dance routines, and artfully choreographed fights make for a spectacle. There may be a song or three too many, but debutant director Karan Malhotra does well to intersperse these with combat sequences.
The fleshing out of minor characters gives the film a strong foundation, and the story is cleaner for the lack of sub-plots. Nope, no Krishnan Iyer – presumably, Bollywood’s figured out educated Tam Brahms don’t typically sell coconuts in Bombay. Rishi Kapoor excels as Rauf Lala, a creepy underworld don who mentors Vijay.
The character of young Vijay (Arish Bhiwandiwala) is perfectly in keeping with the avatar donned by Hrithik Roshan. They don’t have the same light eyes, but they share fiery expressions. And it comes through beautifully in a photograph with his childhood friend and to-be-partner Kaali (later played by Priyanka Chopra) – he stares into the camera as she beams at it.
Sanjay Dutt is a sinister Kancha: his hairless face with its nasty smile is chilling. The horror and bewilderment of the mute, autistic Azhar Lala (Deven Bhoja) at the ugly events he witnesses make for understated social commentary. Chetan Pandit stands out in his brief appearance as Masterji, determined, kind and inspiring.
Hrithik’s gaze is so intense he doesn’t look ridiculous even when he’s commanding an army of hijras. Unlike Bachchan, he delivers his dramatic dialogues with restraint that doesn’t lend itself to meme. He only barks out his name on one potent, memorable occasion. The only real tribute to Bachchan seems to be a flutter of sepia leaves that’s reminiscent of Toofan.
What didn’t work, then? The final fight stretches too long to be plausible. The Ma sentiment is a misfit in the fresh template. The glamour quotient is contrived – the chawl Vijay lives in seems to run a midriff-exposing contest, and Katrina Kaif makes a poor Chikni Chameli. And yaar, don’t ask us to believe Zarina Wahab’s pregnant. Really.
Verdict: Version 2 beats the original.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Descendants: The Loss of the Land

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, dated 28 January 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/the-descendants/357800.html)

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Patricia Hastie, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges , Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Director: Alexander Payne
Rating: 5 stars
The laughing woman in early middle-age, helming a speedboat, as The Descendants opens, could be a representative image of Hawaii. Turns out she will be the most important character in the story, a potent absence.
In the sardonic tone with which he speaks of his missionary ancestors who bought islands, or married princesses and inherited theirs, Matthew King (George Clooney) tells us his friends in the mainland think Hawaiians are “all just out here drinking mai-tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves” and snorts, “Are they nuts?”
It is this “place of contradiction”, this land whose language they don’t know, that the Kings who have descended from a Princess must reconcile their relationship with. And as lawyer Matt King – the sole trustee of their fund – guides his cousins through the legalities of disposing of vast tracts of inherited land, he must re-evaluate his ties with his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and his daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
In a story that revolves around impending tragedy, you may laugh far more than you expect to.  How can you not, when the matter-of-fact narrative drawls, “Don’t be fooled by appearances. In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen”? And the film is all the more poignant for its humour.
Forced to be a single parent while his wife is comatose, a man who didn’t “blow [his] share of the trust money”, a man who doesn’t want his “daughters growing up spoiled and entitled” and believes in the adage “Give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing”, must be their friend and minder. And these daughters are the kind who’ll swear like sailors, drink like fish, and party like Paris. They’ll also bring home idiots like Sid (Nick Krause), who moves Grandpa Thorson (Robert Forster) into punching him in the eye minutes into their acquaintance. They’ll give people the finger, they’ll stuff their bikini tops with sand, and they’ll surf porn.
The Descendants makes us wonder: Do we realise our responsibility towards what is ours only when we’re pushed to it, when we’re tested, when loss draws near? The film's evocativeness lies in its idiosyncrasy. And its heaviest messages are carried through quirky scenes – a calf loitering about on a lawn, a friend spelling out the name of a paramour, a sheepish glance from a father who mumbles, “You act like you don’t respect authority” to a glowering daughter.
The black and white photographs of stiff ancestors in severe clothes are placed in contrast with the hearty chatter and constant motion of their descendants in flamboyant outfits; their missionary zeal, and their concentrated efforts to stop the Hawaiians from surfing and doing the hula, in contrast with their descendants’ beach hopping and willingness to sell their land for less if the money comes from a Hawaiian firm.
How does one safeguard a memory? How does one preserve what’s lost? How does one recast the beginning of a relationship gone sour? How does one channel rage into reconciliation? Whom does one blame for the loss of something, or someone, one treasures? Those questions, which figure so often in the dynamics of love and trust, which so deeply affect our regard for someone, or something, we’ve taken to be our love, our friend, our pain, our joy, may never before have been asked in such a gossamer-light narrative. The gentle notes of the eclectic musical score may never before have been mixed into a track with so many expletives. And the idea of morality may never before have been stirred through such petty desires.
Verdict: It says something about the story that even a cinema full of people who giggled at the nudity of Greek statues could fall silent for the seconds it takes to hear the wind and waves on an island. It says something about George Clooney that, going in with a tabula rasa as I did, I was startled to discover he had neither written nor directed the film. Don’t miss this one.

Contraband: A Drug-Induced Heist Fest

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, dated 28 January 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/contraband/357797.html)

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Ben Foster, J K Simmons
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Rating: 2.5 stars
We’ve seen movies like this. Mostly, they starred Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and other Italian-origin actors with stilted drawls and a penchant for swearing. Thirty years on, someone decides to film a good old gangster movie remade from the Icelandic original, with the German-sounding Mark Wahlberg, playing a guy phonetically named after a British scientist, who’s thrown into Latin America to smuggle currency and drugs. Predictably enough, the film is predictable.
It all begins when Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) proves himself inept at running drugs. After the bad guy Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) nearly kills him, tough guy brother-in-law Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) steps in to save his wife Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale’s) little bro. Now, Farraday and all his smuggler buddies have settled into nuptial bliss, making an honest living from plumbing, carpentry and sundry odd jobs. The fact that they have to work for a living at all would seem to indicate they weren’t great smugglers to start with, but the movie would have you believe otherwise.
In fact, it calls for a willing suspension of disbelief from the word go – I mean, how do you explain someone as lovely as Beckinsale having a brother who looks like Jones?! Or why the odd job men would put their necks on line for a friend with a nutjob brother-in-law? Yeah, that’s what they do – a bunch of them join Farraday on one last sea adventure to run contraband and save the bro-in-law, while his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) is assigned to protect the missus. Eventually, you’re not sure whether to treat it as comedy or as thriller.
To its credit, the film doesn’t get boring, and manages to introduce several twists at the right moments. But what annoys me is the complete lack of logic through all the narrow escapes. People seem to turn into ether on cue. There is that stretching and compressing of time that begs spoofs in which cars hurtle towards their prospective victims five times, before the victims are rescued by acrobatic women in catsuits. A group of incompetent drug-runners and moneychangers suddenly acquire the ability to recognise a Jackson Pollock painting.
Somewhere between the random shootouts, and juggling games with gigantic containers, and crashes involving armoured cars, and people sniffing out their way to secret warehouses in crowded, unfamiliar cities, I began to wonder whether some of the cocaine used so liberally in the film hadn’t begun to mess with the director’s head. Then again, the director is Baltasar Kormákur, the population of whose country is a third that of Panama City.
The humour hinges on double entendres involving furry animals and male kitsch that comes off as some kind of homophobic machismo. There is the odd well-timed jibe, and Ribisi’s high-pitched voice goes well with lines like, “You got your grandma selling cocaine?”
What else does the film do? In a nod to Beckinsale’s hotness, everyone wants a piece of her. And yet, there seems to be a lesson somewhere in there – smugglers can be gallant husbands, good daddies and even give up drinking temporarily if they join AA. They can occasionally stop cement from setting, especially if someone’s being buried alive, but never mind.
As the film flirts with a gruesome ending, the viewer’s treated to an unexpected twist, which is largely funny thanks to J K Simmons. Mark Wahlberg doesn’t have much to do, and that made me wonder whether Kormákur, who played the lead in Reykjavik-Rotterdam, was trying to make some sort of dark statement. But then, I began to fantasise about a Bollywood remake directed by Wahlberg, starring Saif Ali Khan as the smuggler, Priyanka Chopra as the wife, Johnny Lever as the brother, Arjun Rampal as the villain, and Boman Irani as the Captain. I’d watch that, I think.
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