Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In Defence of You, Pranabda!

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 March, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/investigation/in-defence-of-you-pranabda)

Image Courtesy: Sunday Guardian, illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu)

Dear Pranabda,
It was with the mien of a martyr that you said you weren’t concerned about Saturday’s headlines, as long as your budget helped shape headlines a decade later. And those won’t be “MNREGA beneficiaries to pay 50% tax”. As Will may have said, “You are Sir Oracle, and when thou ope thy lips, let no dog bark!”
I write this partly because I don’t think you were cruel enough to be as kind as you must, and partly because, as a student of science, literature and journalism, I’m as qualified to advise you on economics as most of your government’s ministers are to run their ministries, and I pray you take me as seriously as you expect us to take them. Hence, I suggest you bring in the following levies next year:
Defiance Tax
Your newfound love of Shakespeare must have taught you that “They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing.” In your wisdom, you’ve ensured that most of us will pay more to go to work than our companies can afford to recompense, by making cars, cycles and footwear more expensive. Of course, there are those fools who’ll walk barefoot to work, and the likes of me, who work from home, staring at their laptops all day. Under the Defiance Tax, the former lot can be sorted out by increasing service tax on pedicures and VAT on foot creams. The latter must be cured by fixing VAT on prescription eyewear at the fourth power of the lens power.
Seduction Tax
Now that your excise on platinum and gold has made proposals and weddings more expensive, we must work under the assumption that people will simply date. You’ve effectively killed long-distance relationships by hiking mobile bills, air fare and train fares. Eating out has got more expensive too, which means couples are left with fewer options to amuse themselves. Therefore, Seduction Tax. Since the prices of lipstick and lubricant have gone up anyway, do carry this to the finish. We all know lingerie begs a rise. I mean, people who have the time to undress before fornicating must be affluent. Also, as matchsticks have got cheaper, we must compensate by increasing taxes on scented candles.
Protection Tax
Just in case these “dissentious rogues” decide to “rub the poor itch” anyway, let them “make [them]selves scabs”. All means of contraception must have VAT placed at 200% of MRP. Hehe, talk about a copper-T-bottomed plan! (Incidentally, every time you mentioned “UID”, in my optimism I heard “IUD”.)
Special Labour Tax
Now, we know there are those who will cross all those hurdles, and go-forth-and-multiply. For these, I say, introduce the Special Labour Tax. The first baby a couple has must be taxed at 50% of their combined CTC, and every subsequent baby at an additional 25%.
Malodour Tax
Pranabda, I congratulate you on making basic hygiene high-maintenance by pushing up the costs of soap, cosmetics and washing machines. But there are those who will “fall into the unclean fishpond” of their body odour, and they must pay a Malodour Tax. You know, to “bid them wash their faces, and keep their teeth clean.” This will naturally require you to bolster the police’s sniffer dog force, but surely this can be factored into your defence budget?
Digestive Tax
And still, there are loopholes that enable tax evasion. For instance, with adult diapers getting cheaper, people can simultaneously strike lingerie off their shopping lists and put their partners off sex. The diapers will also help them brave the effects of cheaper coffee, and as long as they sit home watching their gigantic TVs, which are now lighter on the pocket, sniffer dogs can’t get at them. This can be fixed with Digestive Tax, which will be calculated in accordance with the sewage production of each neighbourhood, and footed equally by its residents.
I hope you will implement these next year, and not “remain as neuter”. Thus shall we turn churches into chapels, and princes’ palaces into poor men’s cottages.
P.S.: I left out the Wikoogle Tax for internet research. You know, I got all the Bard’s quotes from...oh, you know, you clever man, you!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

World Tour Meets Spy Romance

(Published in The New Sunday Express, 25 March 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/agent-vinod/375622.html)

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Adil Hussain, Prem Chopra, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Shahbaz Khan
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Rating: 2 stars
Four years ago, Sriram Raghavan gave us Johnny Gaddaar, a tight, stylish action flick, whose one flaw was Dharmendra’s exaggerated Tam Brahm accent. This time, he opens with the famous quote from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Tuco’s “One name’s as good as another. Not wise to use your own name.” Turns out Agent Vinod’s nominal tribulations aren’t even a significant part of the sub-plot. And if real spies were as dumb as the ones in the film, we’d live in a world where wars are waged with paper rockets and toy guns.
So it is that we see Agent Rajan (Ravi Kishen) in some desert town of Afghanistan, playing a mouth organ, and looking around so suspiciously a goat could call him out as a spy. Agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) is first being beaten up by Lokha (Shahbaz Khan), and then given a polite hearing, where he denounces innocents, and stages an improbable escape. You know he’s been cast in the mould of heroes of the 1970s when he rescues Pakistani courtesan Farah Faqesh (Maryam Zakaria). You know the film’s been cast in the mould of the 1970s, when she does him a good turn later.
As the agents and courtesan drive off, the title track Govind Bolo, Gopal Bolo, Jo Chaahe Bolo, Bolo Hari Hari rings out. Okay, so Govind, Gopal, and Hari will be pitted against khuda. Thankfully, we’re spared the staple of a patriotic Indian Muslim who stands firm as evil Pakistanis try to lure him to the dark side. Instead, we have the good Pakistani High Commissioner who parts with sensitive information for the greater good of the subcontinent.
But, if you’re looking for kitsch, you won’t be disappointed. All the bad guys are into drug dealing, sex trafficking, and terrorism. And trailing Hollywood by 40 years, Bollywood’s begun to travel to Russia these days. After PlayersAgent Vinod gives us a fight sequence on the Trans-Siberian express.  There are chicks with guns hidden in their bikini tops or catsuit pockets. Girls in tiny skirts gyrate to Hindi remixes at casinos. Progressive dancers have already mastered the robot dance from the 1980s. Homophobia brings in cheap comedy.
Iram Parveen Bilal a.k.a. Ruby Mendes (Kareena Kapoor) makes her entry administering Agent Vinod with narcotics, when he gets caught yet again by yet another badass. (Seriously, Vinod would’ve botched up every operation he’s trusted with, if his rivals had had double-digit IQs.) Iram is representative of those Pakistanis who aren’t evil – whaddya know, spies can be good people too. They can also be sophisticated enough to be moved by a performance of Swan Lake in Latvia.
And you know who can be evil? Indian businessmen. And Sri Lankan Tamils who frolic to Rakamma Kaiyya Thattu. And ISI agents. But thatwe knew, duh. No, wait. Some ISI agents are kindly enough to allow their hostages to pick up reading glasses, even when they’ve got several guns trained on them. Awww!
My favourite part was the end, which showcases a fascinatingly horrifying display of acting by Kareena Kapoor. I hoped in vain that she’d weep, “Tere liye meri jaan qurban hai!” But equally enjoyable are the gunfights, where the hero’s pistol beats the villains’ machine guns, and the movements are choreographed to music.
The Verdict: The film is never halfway intelligent, but never boring. If you leave your brains at home, you’ll be fine.

A Family You'll Smile With

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 March 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/a-family-youd-smile-with)

Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Colin Ford
Director: Cameron Crowe
Rating: 4 stars
When a kid begins the narration with a round-up of his father Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon’s) daredevil preoccupations, I groan. However, the narration ends with the prologue. What follows is the incredible story of a family buying a zoo, charmingly told and convincingly played.
Far from being a hero-worshipping son, the narrator Dylan (Colin Ford) turns out to be a rebellious teen, who misses his mother and resents his father. He rolls his eyes, bites out high-flown vocabulary, and draws disturbingly dark sketches. His 7-year-old sister Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) fluctuates between being the little child who believes in the Easter Bunny and the girl who’s trying to replace her mother around the house, packing sandwiches, and cancelling play dates because “there’s a lot to do around here”.
Coming to terms with his own bereavement, Benjamin struggles to deal with his children. He has it easier with Rosie, who giggles when she’s tickled, and reaches out to “catch the spirit” of her dead mother. Maggie Elizabeth Jones outshines everyone else in this film, delivering insightful lines about Dylan’s behaviour as comfortably as she cheers, “We bought a zoo!”
Matt Damon, fine actor that he is, brings out the subtext of the film with a nuanced portrayal of an adrenaline-addict-turned-clueless-zoo-owner. There’s one lovely moment, where he frowns at the rear-view mirror, after explaining to his daughter that “pernicious” means “causing damage”, as if he’s just realised how pertinent that word is to their lives. In a film that’s somewhat reminiscent of The Descendants and Stepmom, the confrontational scenes between Benjamin and Dylan are especially powerful.
The movie has its pace spot on, and Crowe has chosen, wisely, to trust his actors. Head zookeeper Kelly (arguably Scarlett Johansson’s least glamorous role) only functions as Benjamin’s sounding board once. His exchanges with his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) are light-hearted, and his emotions are brought out by expression, rather than speech. The narrative isn’t so much structured as pieced together, and feels more authentic, more like our lives, comprising episodes that aren’t particularly significant in themselves.
The whimsical lampooning of the nasty zoo inspector and the talkative real estate agent feels quirky, but not out of place. The cliché of soccer moms lusting after Benjamin is balanced out by a bizarre interview with Hugo Chavez. True, there are character archetypes, and rosy touches here and there. But the film doesn’t get saccharine.
The Verdict: An immensely enjoyable film that may have you reaching for tissues a couple of times.

Double-Crossed Lovers

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 March, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/espionage-as-a-trapeze-act)

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Adil Hussain, Prem Chopra, Dhritiman Chatterjee
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Rating: 2 stars
No wonder Pakistan banned Agent Vinod. A movie that simultaneously insults the ISI, RAW, Lashkar-e-Tayebba, honey traps, captains of the industry and Noida autowallahs can’t be good news. Remember those Sunny Deol films where the azan would play every time the villain strode towards the camera, glowering at imagined heathens? Remember Contra, the video game? Now, marry those two, and throw in a disposable princess at Contra’s side. That’s Agent Vinod in a nutshell.
I’ll say this – from its beginnings in Afghanistan’s Desert of Death, where “Hindustani kuthe Agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) is being tortured, to its final collapse into an orgy of push-up bras and fantasy soft porn, the film never fails to entertain. For about an hour, you assume it’s a stylised action flick that demands willing suspension of disbelief. But then, it becomes apparent that it’s simply so bad, it’s good. One begins to delight in its illogicality, and whoop, whistle and applaud with the rest of the audience.
I’m not sure how many Tourism Ministries were involved in this, but these are the countries we travel to – Afghanistan, Russia, Morocco, Sri Lanka, England, Somalia, Pakistan, India, South Africa. Vinod has a penchant for rescuing courtesans and prostitutes. This moves him to hold hands with an airline steward whose identity he will eventually steal. For some reason, this scandalises a cabbie in Morocco – the holding hands, not the identity theft.
Anyway, all of this has something to do with the number 242, a suitcase, fifty billion dollars, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat, and nuclear warfare. Bring in a victim-terrorist-doctor mix (Kareena Kapoor), a Hindi-speaking Arab who whimpers when he has to put down wounded camels (Prem Chopra), a knighted Indian millionaire (Dhritiman Chatterjee), an ISI Colonel (Adil Hussain) and an ISI pawn (Anshuman Singh), and garnish with a mujra and conspiracy theories about businessmen perpetrating terror to influence stock-markets. Now, how can this go wrong?!
It gets better. The honey trap, like her predecessors, betrays Pakistan for love. She also has Daddy issues, and wants to live in a world where she can make babies, where the Rubaiyyat is a beautiful book (and not a player in political intrigue), and where the ISI and RAW will blow soap bubbles together. Well, something like that. Agent Vinod has a heart-wrenching back story too – he wanted to be an artist, but became an agent because a school accident gave him a taste for danger. Watch out for the maudlin at the end, where Saifeena do anavrasa demonstration.
The Verdict: Go in a large group, enjoy the slick parts, and jeer at the stupid ones. There are plenty of both.

The Hunger Games: The Story Lets the Film Down

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 25 March 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/the-hunger-games/375324.html)

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks
Director:  Gary Ross
Rating: 2.5 stars
I tried, and failed, to read Suzanne Collins’ dystopian envisioning of a post-apocalyptic world. A young adult love triangle married to a reality show where only 1 of 24 contestants will survive, narrated by a 16-year-old girl, isn’t my idea of entertainment.
However, Gary Ross cures the storyline of most of its annoying elements. For one, there is no narrator. For another, a girl who could so easily have been a vulnerable hero is played with steely earthiness by Jennifer Lawrence. And in Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, we seem to have a survivor, not a do-gooder – a real person, someone we could turn into in that implausible situation.
Now, for the implausible situation – so, there’s this country called Panem, which I think is Latin for “bread”. How pedestrian, right? It is ruled by The Capitol, some kind of metropolis that dictates terms to twelve powerless districts surrounding it. There is a yearly raffle, known as the “reaping”, through which each district contributes two “tributes” – a boy and girl, aged between 12 and 18 – to slug it out in a televised battle for survival.
This system began 74 years ago, as some kind of punitive ritual to commemorate a rebellion that led to the destruction of a thirteenth district, and none of these idiots thought to do an Occupy Capitol or Panem Spring, or whatever they call it. The people of these districts seem so listless that it appears they’re resigned to the prospect of being picked to participate in a bloody battle. Well, unless their baby sisters are in danger of being the chosen ones.
Apparently, Collins was moved to devise this premise when she was channel surfing, and caught part of a reality show and footage of the invasion of Iraq. Naturally, an author who marries those two is the kind who’d do a futuristic-ancient re-reading of Romeo and Juliet. And so, the story hampers the screenplay. There are scenes that remind one that the books – and by extension, the movie co-produced by the author – are meant for a teen audience. A case in point is a funeral-of-sorts.
Katniss and her besotted admirer Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are advised by Haymitch Abermathy (Woody Harrelson), who’s been drinking since he survived the 50th Hunger Games – they don’t have PTSD counselling in the future, apparently. Complicating matters are Katniss’ hunky BFF Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), random misunderstandings, TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and Gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley).
One feels the film is constantly striving to rise above its limitations, and make a dark statement on society with cinematic embellishments, but it is dragged down by an unwieldy plot. What could have been satire is simplified into spoof, and poignancy turns into mush. So, social commentary plays out like wannabe Leftist rant.
The Verdict: The film isn’t a bad watch, but you may find yourself glancing at yours every now and then. It may have sustained interest if it had been shorter and focused on subtext.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Prabhakaran's Last Throw

(Published in The India Site on 24 March, 2012, retrieved from http://www.theindiasite.com/prabhakarans-last-throw/)

On May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that his Army had defeated the separatist movement, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and brought peace to the island nation after 30 years. The Fourth Eelam War, like its three predecessors, saw the Sri Lankan government pitted against a militia that wanted a separate state for Tamils to be carved out of the island, the majority of whose population is Sinhalese. This war had begun with the bombing of LTTE camps by Sri Lankan Air Force fighter jets on July 26, 2006, and ended with the killing of the LTTE’s long-time leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on May 18, 2009.

When he took over as President in 2005, Rajapaksa had sworn he would rout the LTTE. In the last phase of a war that stretched over 3 years, his military would crowd the LTTE – and at least 300,000 civilians in the LTTE-administered Jaffna peninsula – into an ever-smaller strip of land, as they pursued the elusive leader of the outfit. They revealed that they had succeeded on May 18, two days after the state of Tamil Nadu in India had voted in a general election.

It suits the governments of both India and Tamil Nadu to brand the rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils, displaced after the war, as well as war crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Lankan military as issues related to “Tamil sentiment”. Political parties in Tamil Nadu, by making the right noises about their “Eelam brothers and sisters”, can assert their “Tamil Pride”, which has long been a key component in election rhetoric. It was Tamil Pride that brought Dravida parties to power in the wake of the series of anti-Hindi agitations they led, to prevent English from being replaced by Hindi as the official language of India in the 1950s and 1960s. And so, Tamil Pride has in a way distanced the state from New Delhi, even while making it necessary for national parties to strike up alliances with one of the Dravida parties in order to get votes from the state. Following this logic, the linguistic ties that Tamil Nadu shares with Sri Lankan Tamils are stronger than the geographical boundaries that make it part of a country where the majority speaks, or at least understands, Hindi.

Viewing the situation in Sri Lanka as a slur on Tamil sentiment is easier for the Indian government to handle. Its statements on Sri Lanka can then be portrayed as attempts to mollify one of its constituent states, rather than as India’s stance in an international debate that will call into question the leadership role the country aspires to in the subcontinent.

Sharing borders with Pakistan and China as it does, India would be practically surrounded by hostile countries if it were to condemn the Sri Lankan government for its conduct of the war. True, it was among 24 countries that supported a resolution against Sri Lanka that was put to vote at the ongoing session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 23 (China was among 15 countries that voted in favour of Sri Lanka, and 8 abstained.) But its statement was guarded.

In the days before the vote, news reports quoted sources at the Indian Prime Minister’s Office saying there are worries that a strong stand against Sri Lanka would lead to questions about India’s own alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. And so, despite voting against Sri Lanka, India issued this watered-down statement: “One has to weigh pros and cons...We do not want to infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka but concerns should be expressed so that Tamil people can get justice and lead a life of dignity.” That seems to indicate that India views crimes against Tamils as the outcome of linguistic prejudice, and makes the statement sound like an obligation to Tamil Nadu.

The truth is, what happened in Sri Lanka during the last phase of the government’s offensive against the LTTE shouldn’t be seen so much in the light of “ethnic conflict” as “systematic genocide”. A documentary aired on March 14 by Britain’s Channel 4, Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, carries actual footage of Tamils being starved, rebels who have surrendered being shot, and hospitals being shelled. (This can be viewed here. The programme starts about 37 minutes into this streamed video.) This is a follow-up to a Channel 4 documentary televised in June, 2011, which exposed several other atrocities by the Sri Lankan military, in designated No Fire Zones. In response, the Sri Lankan government has made the bizarre claim that Channel 4 is funded by the LTTE.

To understand the conflict in Sri Lanka, the rise of the LTTE, and India’s role in the island nation, we must trace the context to tensions that began nearly 60 years ago. In 1956, eight years after Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained Independence from British rule, its Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike brought in the Official Language Act (No. 33), otherwise known as the Sinhala Only Act. This replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhala. Tamil, spoken by about 29 % of the population, wasn’t recognised. 

This, and subsequent laws that discriminated against Tamil speakers served to alienate Tamils from Sinhalese, and unite three groups of Tamil speakers, who had different ethnic origins – the Jaffna Tamils (who were native to Sri Lanka), Tamils who had migrated from India to work on British plantations (and spoke a different dialect), and Moors (Sri Lankan Muslims who spoke an Arabised form of Tamil). Calls for power-sharing and equal status morphed into demands for autonomy in certain areas, which eventually gave rise to a separatist movement.

Even as Tamil political parties such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) put their faith in talks, other groups saw armed resistance as the only solution. In 1972, 18-year-old Velupillai Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), which became the LTTE in 1976. This outfit waged guerrilla war, gaining control of vast swathes of territory in the North and East of the island, where it established a quasi-government. It had a fearsome army, with sophisticated weapons, and a suicide squad called Black Tigers, which carried out political assassinations.

And here’s where India came in.  Leaders of the LTTE shared a rapport with leaders of the Dravida Movement in Tamil Nadu.  India’s ruling Congress Party, which had lost its foothold in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, needed the support of the Dravida parties. As Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi spoke out in favour of the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka. It is believed the LTTE army even received training in India.

However, India was to change sides after some shrewd manipulation by Sri Lankan President J R Jayewardane, in the course of a war between the government and LTTE that began in 1983. In 1987, India stepped in to mediate when Lanka’s Vadamarachchi operation precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Jaffna. Jayewardane and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, whose provisions included the dispatch of an Indian peace-keeping force. The LTTE, which hadn’t been consulted, rejected this pact and demanded an autonomous state. Sinhala nationalists were furious at the idea of devolution of powers.

The Indian peace-keepers were bitterly resented both by the LTTE and the Sinhalese. Army officers who served with the force have recounted how Prabhakaran repeatedly passed through their lines unharmed, as they had standing instructions not to fire at him. Crippled by poor communication and medical facilities, and outgunned by the LTTE, the beleaguered troops finally left in March 1990. The following year, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE.

His killing would prove to be a watershed in India-Sri Lanka relations. It allowed successive Indian governments to condemn an outfit that killed a former Prime Minister of their country, and support the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to eliminate it. (The Chairperson of the ruling UPA is Rajiv’s widow Sonia). It allowed political parties in Tamil Nadu to celebrate as freedom fighters people who were were conducting a brutal guerrilla war. And so, except when election speeches and party alignments demanded, it allowed India to erase the line between the LTTE and the people it claimed to be fighting for.

The Tamils in Jaffna were metaphorically, and during the war literally, trapped between the Tigers and the government. Child soldiers were drafted into the rebel army, often forcefully, and former Tigers who managed to make their escape, such as the writer Shobashakti, have spoken of their disillusionment with the methods employed by the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government, for its part, has detained hundreds of Tamils on suspicion of being Tigers or Tiger sympathisers. Both Sinhalese and Tamil journalists who have spoken out against the government’s policies in the region have been jailed, tortured and killed. A case in point is the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was shot dead in January 2009.

Tamil Nadu has been either particularly naïve, or particularly stupid, in buying into the theory of “Tamil sentiment”. Only last year, the state witnessed a vociferous campaign against the death sentence given to three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, which culminated in a 20-year-old girl, Senkodi, immolating herself in the Indian district of Kanchipuram. She was hailed as a martyr for the cause of Eelam.

If the international community were to equate Sri Lankan Tamils with the LTTE, it would let President Mahinda Rajapaksa get away with gross violations of human rights. His government has claimed that no civilians died in the war, that no heavy artillery was used on the No Fire Zones – lies that have been repeatedly exposed with video evidence. The Sri Lankan government alleges that these videos were morphed.

All inquiries into war crimes have been conducted by government bodies, but even these haven’t given the Sri Lankan government a clean chit. The final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, for instance, admitted that hospitals had been shelled, and civilians killed, albeit “accidentally”.

The government then said 9,000 civilians lost their lives in the last phase of the war, whereas the UN estimates the number to be 40,000. Relief workers told the media repeatedly that supplies were not distributed to civilians who were in desperate need of them. A UN report stated that 330,000 Tamils, displaced by the war, live under squalid conditions in makeshift camps, while the 30-year war claimed 100,000 lives. (Statistics are from the Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts onAccountability in Sri Lanka.) This clearly shows that the Sri Lankan government’s stand is implausible.

India needs to recognise the carnage in Sri Lanka as a brutal violation of human rights by a democratically elected government, and take a strong stance against the country. Sri Lanka, which has sent a 52-member delegation to the UNHRC session, has rejected the resolution, and is likely to lobby for India’s support in the coming days.

If India succumbs, the country will expose a lack of resolve that should put paid to its hopes of obtaining a permanent seat in the Security Council. India has been largely silent about events that have shaken the world, not making even a half-hearted attempt at diplomatic activism as the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. It’s bad enough when a self-proclaimed aspirant to superpower status ignores events in an adjoining landmass. It would be laughable for it to remain neutral to, or worse, supportive of government-sponsored brutality in the subcontinent. Tamil pride may have led to the inception of the LTTE. But the killing of the 12-year-old child of its megalomaniac leader, the military assault on civilians in Jaffna, and the rape and murder of prisoners of war goes far beyond linguistic prejudice.

India cannot afford to ignore this distinction.

How are NGOs Using Our Money?

(Published in Sify.com, on 23 March, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/how-are-ngos-using-our-money-news-columns-mdxmptdahcg.html)

(Picture Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

The hysteria over Kony 2012 broke out in phases – first, there was the rage over this man Kony, whom not many people seem to have heard of; second, the cynics entered the scene; third, the man behind the video and the charity Invisible Children, Jason Russell, was apprehended by police for masturbating in public and vandalising cars. He has now been diagnosed with “reactive psychosis”, attributed to the 100 million-odd pageviews the YouTube video has garnered over the last few weeks.
Each of these phases, to me, is reflective of a particular aspect of the manner in which many of these charities, not-for-profit organisations, or NGOs as we call them, are run.
I first heard of Kony a few years ago, while doing a course in international journalism that drew students from all over the world. The only film I’ve seen that has spoken of the horror perpetrated by his regime is Machine Gun Preacher, and that one, I thought, didn’t focus quite enough on the victims. As friends began to post links to Kony, and tweets and retweets celebrated the film, I realised just how many people had never heard of this monster. But from viewing sample clips, it was obvious that the film had been produced at some cost. Was that really necessary? I was to find out that the parts that truly hit home were the ones that required minimal expense – eyewitness accounts of the things Kony did.
I saw this super-slick 30-minute film only last week. To my surprise, and disappointment, the film seemed to be largely about the achievements of Invisible Children. Worse, most of the film, produced at donors’ cost, featured Russell’s 3-year-old son playing cute and hero-worshipping his father.  This outraged hundreds of Ugandans too, who had gathered to watch a screening of the film last week. Their stories had taken the backseat.
As blogger Grant Oyston points out, the film hints uncomfortably at the White Man’s Burden. As a reaction to Oyston’s post, Invisible Children offered to fly him out to Africa, to see for himself, again at donors’ cost. Yes, a blog post that goes viral, planting doubts in people’s heads, can be damaging. But is it damaging enough to warrant the $3000 it will cost to persuade the blogger he is wrong, especially when Oyston had acknowledged that it was important for people to learn about Kony?
The third phase, to me, smacks of the self-righteousness that seems to go with running an NGO. There’s a sense of “Look what you’ve done”. I mean, here’s this guy who highlighted the atrocities committed by a brutal man, and the cynics have put him under a burden of stress and exhaustion that has got him hospitalised and will put him out of commission for weeks, or even months.
It is perhaps the scale of spread of the Kony film that pushes everything to do with it, and with Invisible Children, into the news. But the events associated with the making of the film are common enough to most NGOs I have come across – the decision-making regarding the channelling of funds, the response to criticism, and the sanctimoniousness.
It must take an awful lot of effort to establish and run an NGO, and to dedicate one’s life to bettering other people’s. And that may be why those who question them are immediately frowned upon, why one feels just a little guilty even as one wonders where all the money goes. But, surely, there is something an NGO owes to the people it claims to help, and to the people contributing to that cause, with their time and/or money?
The NGO presence in my city multiplied around the time the tsunami hit. I was covering the event for a radio station on 26 December 2004, and as the sands of the long, wide beach were swallowed up by stagnant water, people ran about screaming and crying as they searched for or found missing relatives, and residents of the area brought out flasks of tea for the men conducting rescue operations, I saw people walking around with donation boxes.
Over the next few weeks, local newspapers and local editions of national dailies carried stories of survival, of rebuilding, of a city coming together at a testing time. Soon after, reports began to filter in of NGOs expanding their offices, buying new computers, and spending on infrastructure. When questioned, many said they needed facilities to cope with the volume of work they had undertaken. In such a scenario, it is perfectly understandable that NGOs would need to bolster their staff strength. There are only so many students and volunteers who will work for free. But surely computers and larger offices can wait?
When the row over Kiran Bedi overcharging people who had invited her to speak at events broke out last year, several NGOs claimed they had been sent inflated invoices by her. The Indian Express said in a report that non-profit organisation Aviation Industry Employees Guild paid Rs 31,578 for her executive class ticket, Charities Aid Foundation India paid Rs 26,386 for a business class ticket, and the Andhra Pradesh Secretariat Women Employees’ Welfare Association paid Rs 25,163 to fly her down. While the country was furious at the idea of Bedi using these means to divert funds to her own NGO, shouldn’t we also be raising our eyebrows at NGOs shelling out tens of thousands of rupees on a single speaker, however high her profile may be, and however inspirational her career may be?
I’ve found, quite often, while booking cinema or flight tickets online, that the option ‘I’d like to contribute to a worthy cause’ has been ticked by default, and I’ll have to look out for it, and unselect it if I’m so inclined. I’ve been harassed by volunteers at events I discovered were fund-raisers after getting to the venue. But one can take that kind of sneakiness, if one were sure the money was being put to the right uses.  Sadly, too often, it isn’t.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

For love of machines

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 18 March 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/for-the-love-of-cinema)

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloë Grace Moretz
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: 4 stars
If you suffer from 3D fatigue, watch Hugo. If not, watch Hugo. Martin Scorsese’s foray into the third dimension celebrates film, and lovers of film. We’re pulled into frames, objects leap out at us, and we’re so totally absorbed that we’re unmindful of narrative structure, character exploration, and other intellectual mumbo-jumbo. This is pure cinema, a true spectacle.
Dizzying camera angles throw us into the heart of Paris, and pull us up into clock towers. Cinematography meets computer graphics to recreate a train station from 1931, where interlocking wheels seem as alive as the people and dogs that populate the platform. Through all this bustle, we meet the sad blue eyes of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) where we least expect to.
We’re swept along by the music as much as the camera, and are caught up in a tale so enthralling that we long for a fairytale finish. It takes us back to a time when we lost ourselves in vicarious adventures – when we climbed the Faraway Tree and met Moon-Face and Silky, when we closed our eyes and tasted Willie Wonka’s chocolate, when we sat on the Wishing Chair and staved off the vertigo, when we peeped over the edge of flying carpets at magical cities.  
No wonder Scorsese chose Brian Selznick’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret for his maiden 3D venture. Set in the period  when Scorsese himself was falling in love with cinema, Hugo has several themes close to Marty’s heart. And they’re so tightly woven together you aren’t sure what the main thread is. Is it about preserving film? About the salvation of an aging genius? About what war does to people and culture? Loneliness and companionship? Determination? Nostalgia? Is it a tribute along the lines of Cinema Paradiso? At its simplest, Hugo is about the fascination two people have for technology, and what you can do with it.
It’s a film that one must go into blind, because there are surprises both in its execution and storyline. Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz stand out among the formidable cast of veteran actors. They could be the least annoying children in film history. You actually don’t want to slap them for saying, “Being enigmatic really doesn’t suit you”. Sasha Baron Cohen in a tragicomic role as Station Inspector Gustave Dasté is nasty, goofy, poignant and hilarious when the script demands it. Watch out for his attempts at conversation. Even the minor characters, including guest stars Jude Law and Christopher Lee, seem integral to the story.
The Verdict: If trite lines make you well up at the cinema, you know the director’s won.  This is one of Marty’s best.

An Embarrassment to Bromance

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 18 March 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/embarrassing-bromance )

Cast: Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon
Director: McG
Rating: 1 star
When the end-credits began, my first thought was, “No wonder the director’s hiding behind initials.” For ninety minutes, I’d watched a British guy who works for the CIA, and a fellow-agent who clearly fancies him, court an aging Reese Witherspoon.
So, Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) attack a German robber at a Hong Kong casino where Latinas hit on them. My head’s already in my hands when the shots ring out, and Tuck runs out of bullets. I know FDR tossing him a backup magazine will become a running gag, I know the German will return to avenge his brother’s murder, I know the CIA agents will both fall for a blonde chick with a pre-pubescent voice and crow’s feet, and I know all of this will come together in a climax that’ll make me want to shoot the entire cast twice over.
What makes it worse is, these guys’ boss struts around like she’s in America’s Next Top Model, their love interest Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) has a friend called Trish, and they all live in apartments that ought to be in the pages of Better Interiors.
Okay, here’s the gist. Tuck and FDR are “grounded” because their covert operation made headlines. They go to FDR’s granny’s house, where they’re ordered to make her great-grandbabies. If you haven’t seen the trailer, you’d think this is the part where they tell her they’re gay. But turns out Tuck has already gone forth and multiplied. And he wants to have with a woman what he has with FDR. Yes, he says that. He wants her to take a bullet for him (which, incidentally, FDR hasn’t). And he’s so desperate he hits on his ex-wife.
So, you think FDR’s the sensible guy. But when Tuck meets Lauren through an online dating service, FDR gets so paranoid he wants to go along. They reach a compromise – he’ll hang around nearby. Through all this, he doesn’t ask to see a picture of the girl Tuck’s going to meet. Thus unfolds a ridiculous story riddled with retarded one-liners, and a painfully obvious end. It also involves creepy scenes where Tuck, FDR and their underlings watch each other sleep with Lauren using surveillance equipment, and snoop around her house using clumsy Capoeira moves. Yeah, Salman Khan movies are more logical by comparison.
The Verdict: Unless you’re one of those nasal-voiced men who takes squeaky-voiced women to the cinema, where you pre-empt the inane dialogues in an annoying accent to impress her, stay away.

A Lovely Concept Falters in Execution

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 18 March, 2012)

Cast: Victor Banerjee, Roopa Ganguli, Arundhati Nag, Nedumudi Venu, Zeenat Aman, Soha Ali Khan, Suchitra Pillai, Ankur Khanna, Shayan Munshi, Kiera Chaplin, Karthik Kumar

Director: Rajshree Ojha

Three years before she directed shopping-partying-dating orgy Aisha, Rajshree Ojha made an intense, moody film that has seen light of day thanks to PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare initiative for independent cinema. Chaurahen (Crossroads), fortunately, doesn’t have to do with teenage angst, as the title may lead one to believe. There are three strands in the story, each of which deals with the idea of coming to terms with loss.

In Kolkata, Dr. Bose (Victor Banerjee) and his wife (Roopa Ganguli) play a middle-aged couple in a childless marriage, which could be wrecked by the young Frenchwoman (Kiera Chaplin) who’s befriended Dr. Bose. (Ever since he was cuckolded in Ghare Baire, Banerjee seems to have been avenging himself against his screen wives.) In Kochi, retired Army man Mr. Nair (Nedumudi Venu) and his wife (Arundhati Nag) are overcoming the loss of their soldier son Keshy (Shayan Munshi), in the looming absence of their two other children (Suchitra Pillai and Karthik Kumar). In Mumbai, writer Farooq Vacha (Ankur Khanna) has converted his house to a memorial for his parents.

The movie feels like the work of a film student. It has a slick opening, and intelligent cinematography by Tobias Datum. But the assumption that a multiplex audience won’t “get” stuff without explanation works to its detriment. For instance, the effect of the heavy silences is dampened when three characters speak of “the silences”.

In the process, things that actually need explaining are forgotten. When did Keshy die? In Kargil? How long has it been, exactly? There are times when it appears to have been a few weeks (the parents consign his ashes to the river), and others when years seem to have passed (the brother goes swimming, heads out to drink with a friend and discusses the Viennese orchestra with his father). What happened to the Bose couple’s daughter? And why does Soha Ali Khan put on a horrendously fake British accent (really, who says ‘Nepp-ahl’ and then accuse her boyfriend of acting like a tourist)? And when is this set (no one uses mobile phones)?

Based on the short stories of Nirmal Verma, the film has a solid foundation. But it’s let down by some of its dialogues, the odd miscasting, and clumsy execution at times. A line about a girl being “like a flower, waiting to be relished, adored, plucked” will make you cringe. The soft down on Ankur Khanna’s face makes him look too young to be a writer – or Soha Ali Khan’s boyfriend. That said, he’s the only one of the younger lot who has truly grasped his character. But the family friend in Kochi looks more Arab than Malayali, and seems to struggle with Malayali phrases too.

Some of the lines are evocative. I especially liked this, spoken naturally by Khanna: “The worse her memory got, the more concerned she was about mine”. But several of the other actors – including Zeenat – tend to recite their lines, rather than think them. In the case of the Kochi family, there are too many instances when they’re cheerful and suddenly get morose. So delicate a switch requires fine acting, and Nedumudi Venu is the only one who delivers. Brilliant stage actress as she is, Arundhati Nag doesn’t handle the emotional transition too well here. However, there is one touching scene, where Mr. Nair gives his son the jacket he’s been wearing. “I already have one, Achan,” the son says. “It’s okay, have one extra also,” the father smiles, welling up.

Roopa Ganguli and Victor Banerjee are wonderful, saying far more with their expressions than their dialogues during uncomfortable exchanges. There’s one particularly beautiful scene where she tells him that among the books he has disposed of was one he had gifted her when she gave birth to their daughter, inscribed ‘To the mother of my child’.

There are a few marks of the amateur filmmaker. One is the music – the constant play of Rabindra Sangeet in the Bose household and Carnatic music in the Nair household gets cloying. Especially because I don’t know of any Nair family that wakes up to the Suprabatham. At other times, mournful music  gives us the cue to feel sad. There is considerable stereotyping. The end appears contrived, as if Ojha felt compelled to use a cinematic device.

And some scenes could have done with a fuller explanation. Here’s one: How would you react if your brother were to tell you he’s gay? Maybe you’d grab his cigarette. Maybe you’d ask if your mother knows. But, would you grin, hug him and wish him luck without any more questions? Wouldn’t you want to know when he knew he was gay? And whether he’s ever dated girls? Who is the lover, what does he do?

The Verdict: There’s promise in the film, and I’d like to see what Rajshree Ojha could do with this genre in a few years.

NOTE: Chaurahen is being shown at select PVR screens. In Chennai, it’s playing at Ampa Skywalk.
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