Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Acid attacks in India: Is there a solution?

We’ve read the reports, we’ve seen the faces with horrified fascination, we’ve tut-tutted, and spoken about how over-the-counter sale of acid should be banned, and how India needs to bring in harsher punishments.
We know the names and the stories – Vidya who was attacked by her lover after his parents wanted to postpone the wedding, Vinodhini who was attacked by a man who wanted to marry her after he lent money to her father, Sonali Mukherjee who begged to be euthanised and later won Rs 25 lakh on Kaun Banega Crorepati  Season 6, Shirin Juwaley who founded the Palash Foundation to facilitate the psychosocial rehabilitation of survivors, Hasina Hussain, who was attacked by her former boss for refusing to marry him, Swapnika whose attackers were later killed in an encounter.
And there are the unnamed victims we read about everyday, like the Kashmiri schoolteacher who was attacked by a stalker, Reyaz Ahmad Nath.
These women aren’t even part of a statistic, because there are no figures available on acid attacks against women with the National Crime Records Bureau, as cases are booked under different sections of the Indian Penal Code, ranging from 307 (attempt to murder) to 320 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons).
NGOs such as the Bangalore-based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) and Kolkata-based Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI) have initiated work such as the collection of statistics. The former has compiled a list of 68 victims in Karnataka alone, over a 10-year period, while ASFI says the number of acid attack victims could be anywhere between 100 and 1000 a year.
ASFI also says, based on a study, that the most prominent causes of acid attacks in India are domestic violence, dowry demands, marital rejections and suspicion of infidelity.
Activists are pushing for legislation with provisions such as:
·         Inclusion of a section in the IPC dealing specifically with acid attacks
·         Acid attack becoming a non-bailable offence
·         Enhancement of jail term to 10 years
·         Compensation of Rs 10,00,000 to the victim
·         Regulation of sale of acid
In most cases, the perpetrators of this crime walk free after spending only months in jail, while their victims bear the effects of the acid for the rest of their lives.
Not only is the judicial process long and lenient on the perpetrators, but the victims must face probing questions both from the lawyers and from the media. In several interviews, Sushma Varma, founder of CSAAAW, has spoken about how the focus is always on the “moral character” of the victim, and what her relationship with the perpetrator was. Can an acid attack be justified if a woman was cheating on her husband? Can it be justified if she had ditched a lover?
Acid attack victims speak of the practical difficulties of living with their injuries. It is not simply about losing their looks. They’re almost always blinded, their limbs are severely damaged, and even daily tasks become impossible without extensive reconstructive surgery.
Surgery is exorbitant, and even the demanded compensation of Rs 10 lakh will not cover the cost of treatment and care.
Finding a job isn’t easy for acid attack victims either. Schoolteachers have been forced to quit because their students found their appearance frightening. Private offices rarely employ these women. And the impairments they suffer from the attack may not allow them to go back to regular jobs, even if there were no stigma against them.
In this context, is there a solution at all?
The Week conducted an experiment, sending one of their photographers to purchase acid over the counter at a hardware store. In areport, the magazine mentions that he asked the salesman whether the acid could burn a person, and he was told it could. The sale wasn’t refused.
It would be impractical to stop the sale of acid. Not only are they used as cleaning agents, but schools and colleges use them in laboratories. Even if the sale of acid were to be regulated, and inspections were to be conducted by authorities, it wouldn’t take long for a racket to start, and for acid to become available in the black market.
Perhaps it would be a better idea to regulate the containers acids are sold in, and ensure that: (a) They are unbreakable (b) Only small quantities can be dispensed at a time. This may not entirely stop acid attacks, but it would help curb them.
Of course, enhancement of prison term may be something of a deterrent, but this doesn’t always work. In Iran, the law permits an eye-for-an-eye, and an acid attack victim Ameneh Bahrami, asked that her attacker, Majid Movahedi, be blinded.
A doctor was all set to pour five drops of acid in each of Movahedi’s eyes, but Bahrami chose to forgive him at the last minute. She had arrived at the decision after an outpouring of horror from human rights organisations, including Amnesty.
However, her magnanimity was rewarded with the denial of compensation to her, from Movahedi – apparently, by forgiving him, she had renounced her right to monetary recompense.
Another problem is that attackers rarely show remorse, and are willing to go to jail for the satisfaction of seeing their victims maimed. For instance, Vijay Bhaskar, the man who killed Vidya was also reported to have been carrying a knife with him. When he missed his mark with his first attempt, he pushed her down and rubbed her face in the acid, which had fallen on the floor. According to reports, he shouted out that this would serve as “a warning to women who plan to cheat innocent men”, even as he was being arrested.
In August last year, posters appeared in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, warning that women who wore jeans would be attacked with acid. A group calling itself Jharkhand Mukti Sangh signed off on the handwritten posters. Local police dismissed it as “mischief”, though they did say they were making attempts to find the people who wrote it.
One of the reasons that acid attacks are so common, aside from the easy availability of acid and the lax laws, is that the attacker knows his – or her – victim must live with the trauma for the rest of her life. The attack is physically, psychologically, socially, and economically crippling.
We need a law that will prevent discrimination against acid attack victims. Their appearance cannot be a valid reason for refusing them jobs. And government bodies need to take the initiative in employing these victims.
This is a crime that no one can take precautions against – women are attacked in their homes, in their workplaces, on roads, in buses. While it is important to look at preventive measures, we also need to examine what we can do to make the lives of acid attack survivors easier.

Monday, February 25, 2013

To kill a die-hard fan

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on February 24, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, and others
Director: John Moore
Rating: 2 stars
Since the Die Hard series began, Bruce Willis has lost a lot of hair, gained a lot of years, and established himself as a formidable actor. John McClane has fought a lot of terrorists, lost a lot of love, and has remained an underpaid cop. Technology’s come such a long way that almost no action sequence wows us anymore. And scriptwriting for action films has deteriorated to the extent we find the time to realise there’s no plot, even as vehicles crash and cities burn constantly. In short, A Good Day to Die Hard is a disappointment.
From past experience, you’d think Die Hard films are all about coming up with new ways to kill bad men. In all fairness, this film has some of those too, though most of the work is done by machine guns. But this is about John McClane, the Dad. Yes, again. He has another kid, Jack (Jai Courtney), remember?
You’d really think brats whose father had saved their country single-handedly, multiple times, would be more grateful. But, no. Well into their twenties, they still need long heart-to-hearts – and some heavy-duty saving – to convince them he had a valid reason for not playing baseball, and taking them to ballet classes, and buying them Barbies and GI Joes.  He was fighting terrorists, you morons. Cut him some slack, now.
Lucy’s epiphany came when her Papa rescued her from terrorists. Now, Papa has to rescue John from Russians. This time round, he says, “I’m on vacation!” so often you’d think they’ve changed the catchphrase from “Yippee-ki-yay.” But a jet-lagged John McLane is a better ally than Batman on steroids. Especially if he’s your father, and you’re an idiot. And he’s going to prove it by giving you redundant advice, and making you jump off roofs and slide down tarpaulins and garbage chutes with zero protection.
We also see John McLane’s more cultured than we thought. He warms the heart of a Russian taxi-driver by letting him sing American songs. And he does know enough about ballet to address a crazed villain with a penchant for dancing as “Nijinsky”. And I could practically hear sitar music when Jack overhears John discussing parenthood with a fugitive they’re trying to save from his evil compatriots.
For all this, Bruce Willis delivers the few genuinely funny lines in this film with his trademark sarcasm and perfect timing. What really lets the film down is how generic it is. Everyone’s a stereotype, and the plot has more holes and than an Abbas-Mustan romp.
The Verdict: Die Hard fans will be relieved if there’s a sequel, because McClane shouldn’t say goodbye like this.

Heist in the time of the Licence-Permit Raj

(Published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on February 22, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Jimmy Sheirgill, and others
Director: Neeraj Pandey
Rating: 4 stars
It was a time when Ambassadors, Premier Padminis, Fiats and Bajaj scooters were the only private vehicles seen on the streets of India. Autos switched on their meters without argument, and returned change to customers. And to make sure the slightest thing moved, one had to bribe someone in government office. Set in 1987 India, Special 26 tells the story of a gang that conducted several successful heists, posing as the CBI, and Income Tax Department. And it makes us laugh almost throughout its two and a half hour duration by pitting a straightforward CBI officer (Manoj Bajpayee) and an earnest policeman (Jimmy Sheirgill) against a gang of conmen, led by Ajay Vardhan (Akshay Kumar) and P K Sharma (Anupam Kher).
We’re led into the film through the Republic Day Parade of January 26, 1987. Akshay Kumar makes a call, and hoarsely orders a cop to meet them at Safdarjung’s tomb. As he and Sharma set off, we see SI Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill) striding purposefully forward. Suddenly, he pauses, turns to a female subordinate, and asks for his lathi. The film is punctuated by such quirky moments, timed quite beautifully by its cast. In another scene, Ajay stops to leave his footwear outside, before entering a minister’s puja room and tearing it down in a search for hidden compartments.
Everything about the film rings true, from the obvious delight government officials take in cracking down on people who make far more in a day than they will in a year, to the authenticity of the setting. It can’t have been easy to shoot at Connaught Place, without capturing a single stray shot of the Delhi Metro. Yet, the only anachronism is a glass facade in the background. The cars are of the makes and colours of the Eighties, and there’s even a Nagina poster in a functional cinema.
We meet Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) when he’s running with his toddler hoisted on his shoulders, to the school bus. When the kid says, “Bye, dad!”, he chides, “Abbu bol.” He’s that sort of guy. The sort who’ll give his wife and up-and-down, frown at her cleavage and ask, “Where’s your dupatta?” The sort who’ll chase a criminal all over the place, at personal risk, till the guy falls off a building or is otherwise apprehended. The sort who’ll sit down a policeman who’s been conned, and grin, “Kya, janaab, aap ko buddhu bana gaya?”The sort who’ll tell his boss he hasn’t had an increment or promotion in years, and ask, seriously, “Rishwat lena shuru karoon?” He knows better than everyone else. You can’t fool him.
And his adversary is a man who grunts that the person who’s capable of defeating him hasn’t been born yet. The film’s treatment of its characters is pitch-perfect – even when it puts macho lines in their mouths, it appears to be laughing at those very lines. When Vardhan has misgivings about raiding a mantriji’s house, Sharma says, “Desh ke saamne mantri kaun hai?” In another instance, when Sharma breaks into bombast to worm his way out of a situation, Vardhan trips on him later.
Throughout, there are jibes at a government which shielded itself from outside influence, and failed to build its own infrastructure. When a man approaching retirement introduces his friends to his very large family, dressed in matching print, he defends his procreative impulse, saying the TV reception isn’t very good, and there’s nothing else one can do to keep oneself occupied.
The humour in the film is layered – sometimes, it comes through in subtle puns that are apparent to the audience, but not to the characters in this cat-and-mouse game. Sometimes, it’s in the dialogue, delivered masterfully by all the main actors. Sometimes, it’s in the human weaknesses we can relate to, and still mock. Sometimes, it’s in the absolute ridiculousness of a scene – like a man dressed as the Hindu god Shiva stomping through the CBI office.
There are downsides to the film. It is weighed down by a romance that never quite fits into the fabric of the film, it has a couple of dwarfs thrown in for comic effect, it brings in a sob story to justify a character going rogue, and it banks on coincidences and questions not asked. But so cleverly is the film crafted and so convincing are the actors’ performances that we’re able to overlook most of that, and deem the film paisa vasool.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cleansed of Bhagatification

(Published in The New Sunday Express, 24 February 2013)

Cast: Rajkumar, Sushant Singh Rajput, Amit Sadh, Manav Kaul, Amrita Puri, Digvijay Deshmukh, Asif Basra
Director: Abhishek Kapoor
Rating: 4 stars
Honestly, my expectations from Kai Po Che were zero. First up, the trailer looked almost exactly like Dil Chahta Hai, and I didn’t like that film. Second, I’ve always felt it takes – or should take – less time for Chetan Bhagat to write his books than for people to read them. However, Abhishek Kapoor’s adaptation shows what fine acting, good direction, and a well-crafted screenplay can do with a novel that I cannot imagine having been well-written.
When the film opens to Govind Patel (Rajkumar) making a presentation on the achievements of Sabarmati Sports Academy, I sighed. When, in the film’s next scene, a man takes down photographs from a wall and leaves prison, my interest was piqued. When Omi (Amit Sadh) asks Govind if Ishaan hasn’t come, and we go into flashback mode on a car ride, I decided the film was all about a misunderstanding between friends, which will eventually be ironed out. I was to find out it gets far more complex, mainly because of the layers the actors bring to it.
We’re drawn back into this film by a small, hilarious gag involving a pen and Govind. That Rajkumar is an excellent actor was evident from his small roles in Gangs of Wasseypur and Talaash. In this film, he steals every scene he’s in, reacting even when he is off-focus and bringing so much conviction to his character as the grounded, pragmatic, socially awkward, ambitious one that no praise will suffice for his superlative performance.
The casting is a key factor in the appeal of this film. Debutant Sushant Singh Rajput as the cricket-crazy Ishaan, and Amit Sadh as the prospective heir to a political party have challenging roles, and their capacity to portray intense emotion, without hamming, is severely tested. Both are equal to the task. And then, there’s Amit’s Bittu Mama. After wondering why the actor looked so familiar, I was shocked to discover during the credits that it was Manav Kaul, a poet-playwright I’d interviewed after his directorial debut Hansa. That the soft-spoken, thoughtful man could turn into the rabble-rousing, hate-spewing politician here is testimony to his skill as an actor.
Everyone in the film, including the child actor Digvijay Deshmukh, emotes with the eyes. And it is because we sense the flicker of hope, the shock of betrayal, the hurt over an old wound in their eyes that we grow fond of them. These aren’t characters, these are the people we know, the people we are. And they’re not part of the story, they lead the story.
Yes, there are some holes in the plot, but we hardly notice them because of subtle directorial touches that nudge us towards larger questions of right and wrong – like the survival instinct of a peace activist who stabs someone to save himself; like the tender smile on the face of a father who makes up with his son as he leaves on a pilgrimage; like the guilty sobs of a man who murdered someone by accident, when he meets the victim’s sister.
The end comes as a twist, thanks mainly to a clever line up front, but never strikes us as gimmicky. And while the final scene is somewhat predictable, occurring as it does in the kitschy surroundings of a cricket match, it works because it’s juxtaposed so well with an earlier scene.
The Verdict: With incredible acting all around, and a restrained storyline, this film is a must-watch.

A sad day for Die Hard

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on February 23, 2013)

Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yuliya Snigir, Rasha Bukvic    
Director: John Moore
Rating: 2 stars
An action movie that has its stars jumping off skyscrapers and breaking through glass windows, to come out unscathed, pausing only to dust themselves down, mandates a willing suspension of disbelief. But does that mean a film can be held up entirely by stilted dialogue and loud noises? Perhaps John Moore should have taken a cue from the first couple of Die Hard films. Those had stories, entertaining if impossible. And those had characters, whom we got to know. This film has neither.
I sighed when I saw this was going to pit America against Russia yet again. Unless there’s a rom-com involving the presidents of the two countries, I doubt anyone wants to see those them slugging it out on screen anymore. We’ve had it for, what, forty years now?! This time round, we go straight to Russia, where two men are talking tough to each other. One of them is in a cage, and this is pretty much how the conversation goes:
“Give me the file, I’ll give you your life back.”
“I don’t want my life back.”
“I own everyone in that courtroom.”
“You don’t own me.”
Naturally, someone gets assassinated next. And we find out where John McClane (Bruce Willis) is now – back at the Police Department, despondent about the disappearance of his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney). When he discovers where Jack is, he flies 8000 miles to make peace, and ends up making war. Vintage McClane. “The things we do for our kids,” he mumbles. He’s given some time to relax, with predictable, but nevertheless amusing, gags involving his attempts to speak Russian.
Next thing we know, cars are flying all over the place. Don’t you love how the good guys have no problem with collateral damage when they’re doing their chases and burning up things? The first villain we meet is Alik (Rasha Bukvic), whose childhood baggage over not being allowed to tap dance somehow led him to guns and bombs. Then, we find out Jack is not only a spoilt brat, but a stupid one too.
In all fairness to the film, and to McClane’s character, Bruce Willis does get some nice one-liners, and he carries them off well. But there’s little else of interest. The set pieces get boring, and though the action scenes are nicely choreographed, everyone appears too dispassionate to be convincing in character. The humour is often laboured, with elaborate jokes whose punch-lines we already know. The rest of the film follows the rules: (a) Guards are always looking the other way during crucial moments (b) All tough guys, except our heroes, are dumb (c) Our heroes can hurtle through space unharmed (d) John McClane says “Yippee-ki-yay, m**********!”
The Verdict: This Die Hard film does little to flesh out the frame, and the only reason to watch it is continuity, if you’re a fan of the series.

Friday, February 22, 2013

For the love of dance

Today, I met the man who loves dance more than anyone else I know. And I realised one’s heart can break from happiness.
I knew we would have a substitute teacher at the part-time dance class I go to in Kalakshetra – it was the Repertory’s turn to perform at the annual festival held to commemorate the birth anniversary of the founder, Rukmini Devi Atthai.
What I didn’t expect to find was three classes combined into one. And a stocky man with a receding hairline, and his black hair tied back in a bun, standing in a half-sleeved vest that was giving way at the joints, in the last row.
I assumed he was a senior teacher, until I saw him dance – sincerely, diffidently, and tiredly.
Our substitute teacher was a student doing her first year in the post-graduate diploma course.
When we ran out of adavus we all knew – which was pretty quickly, since we were a mix of first, second and third-year students – we did a round of introductions.
Everyone except he and I was in school. When our teacher asked what he did, he told her he is in the gurukul at a Shivan temple. He was studying to become a temple priest.
All of us snapped around, stunned.
“Vellore? Angeyndhu vareengalaa?” she asked. (“Vellore? You come all the way from there?!)
Angeyndhu oru one and a half hours dhaandi irukku, ooru,” he smiled. (“Actually, the village is an hour and a half beyond Vellore.)
Varaththukku evvalo naazhi aardhu?” (“How long does it take to come here?”)
“Six hours each way. Naan kaalaile 3 manikku ezhundhu, velaiyellaam pannittu, bus pidichindu vandhuduven. Inge oru 12-1 manikkellaam iruppen. 5.30 mudichuttu thirumba aathukku porthukku 12 mani aayidum.” (“Six hours each way. I wake up at 3 am, do all my work, catch a bus, come here by 12-1. Once I’m done, at 5.30, it takes me till midnight to go back home.”)
He added, “Oru problem ennanaa, aathulaiyum practise panna time ille, ingaiyum practice ille, straight-aa class dhaan.” (“One problem is, I don’t get time to practise at home. And here also, there’s only class, no practice.”)
And he did this three times a week.
Since none of us knew how to react, our teacher decided to make us do the adavus again. Maybe she thought a rigorous class was the least she could give a man who travelled for 12 hours a day, and slept less than two, only to find out his regular class had been cancelled.
“Kaiyye ippadi vechukkongo. Adavu azhuthamaa pideengo,” she said, after some time. (“Keep your arms like this. Hold the adavu firm and steady.”)
Kai inge nadungradhu,” he replied, with an apologetic laugh, “Valaiya matteyngradhu.” (“My hands tremble at the wrist. I’m not able to bend them.”)
She showed him a few exercises to increase flexibility, and then asked us to sit down and do the hasta viniyoga.
His sonorous voice as he recited, “Pathakas tripathako ardhapathaaka...” had the resonance of a temple priest’s, while his plump fingers struggled to bend into the shapes that came so effortlessly to everyone else – to all those of us who hadn’t had to wait till we had the financial independence to fund a course in dance, to all those of us who whined about evening traffic, to all those of us who wouldn’t dream of travelling 350 km a day, thrice a week, leave alone waking up at 3 am to do so. But his eyes had more bhava than any of us could produce, and his smile was delicately coy, almost feminine.
“You know something?” the teacher told the younger ones in our class, “You shouldn’t just do the moves. Think about it. Nishaayamcha. If you go out at night, how will you feel? Raathiri le veliyile pona eppadi irukkum?”
Konjam bhayamaa irukkum,” the temple priest said, bringing his hands to his chest and looking cautiously around him. (“You feel a bit scared.”) He smiled when the rest of us giggled.
As we finished our namaskaaram, he asked the teacher if she knew anyone who would teach nattuvaangam. “There may be some people here who teach outside,” she said, “But there’s no course.”
He gathered up his things as the teacher left, and I reached down for my bag at the same time. He smiled and nodded at me, as if he was used to the pity I knew was apparent in my own half-smile. He then trotted off behind her, possibly to ask if she could give him the numbers of those who taught outside.
In his quick gait, there was something of embarrassment, as if our collective thoughts on his incongruity in a group of schoolgirls had been vocalised. But there was triumph too, and joy – for this hour, the disparaging remarks he must hear back home didn’t matter. For this hour, people only had admiration and pity for a man who would journey so far, for the love of dance.

Cinematic homicide

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on February 17, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sara Loren
Director: Vishesh Bhatt
Rating: 1.5 stars
Not since the Ramsay Brothers’ spate of low-budget horror porn has anyone in Bollywood combined sex and suspense with success. And then, the Bhatt family got into the act, with higher budgets, more exotic locales, better-looking actors, and more skin show. In Murder 3, the “official” remake of the Colombian film La Cara Oculta (The Hidden Face), the scion of the family proves that the Bhatt penchant for sleaze and sentiment can ruin even a tight thriller.
The film is an almost scene-by-scene copy of the original. However, the hero of the film isn’t a violinist here – he’s a wildlife and fashion photographer. Yes, wildlife and fashion. Only the Bhatts could marry those two. So, Vikram (Randeep Hooda) lives in South Africa, where ostriches, zebras, cheetahs and all manner of animals obligingly gather together and tamely pose for his camera. Despite all that, and his claims of being a brilliant photographer, he’s always broke. Challo Mumbai, where he shoots white-skinned women climbing all over each other. Suddenly, he can afford a creepy house in the middle of a forest.
The rest of the film follows the Bhatt house rules. There’s a grand misunderstanding, a practical joke goes wrong, and then things get scary. Throw in the revenge of several lovers scorned, and the protectiveness of a jilted lover who can’t let go, and you’re left with the ashes of a potentially engaging thriller.
Perhaps in an attempt to shed their sleaze tag, the Bhatts have cut down on the erotica here. Sadly for the viewers, the heaving and panting is replaced by weeping and wailing. The dialogue is as asinine as usual, but now, there are random avowals of love and impromptu lovers’ fights and the obligatory makeup sex.  Sara Loren, playing a masochistic waitress, has no qualms with taking off her clothes, and this allows the filmmakers to put in several bathtub and shower scenes.
One feels sorry for Aditi Rao Hydari, who puts more effort into her acting than this film deserves, and ends up hamming her way through her role. Randeep Hooda does what he always does in the Bhatt films – he plays Vikram with a stoic face, exercising much restraint with his histrionic skills and none with his amorous.
There are pluses in this film – for one, there’s no Emraan Hashmi. For another, the storyline is stronger than usual, supplied as it is by another film.
The Verdict: We’ve seen worse from the Bhatts, but that isn’t saying much, is it?

Disconcerting mix of fact and fiction

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on February 17, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and others
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: 3 stars
Maybe a story that everyone knows, and remembers, doesn’t make for a very good thriller. Maybe a spy film that isn’t thriller material needs to spend more time on actual intelligence-gathering methods than gruesome torture. Maybe it veers too often between documentary and drama. Or, maybe we’ve seen too many films that elevate people to heroes simply for doing their jobs. Of course, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a shoo-in for the Oscars, as most painstakingly shot movies based on real events, and starring a woman, are. But it niggles throughout.
There are times when chunks of this film, which claims to be based on first-person accounts, are lost in jargon. At other times, the script troubles us by squeezing the grey areas out into black and white. I felt this most strongly when a detainee who’s been subjected to waterboarding, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, and confinement in a tiny box chats away about the Al Qaeda’s operatives over a hot meal.
Aside from moral objections – and there are many of those – there are several grouses a South Asian could nurse against the film. For the large part, it gets the ethnicities of its cast wrong, expecting us to believe an Algerian can pass for a Baluchi, or a Lebanese for a Pakistani. Second, except for the dialogue in Urdu, it gives them all a generic, thick, Middle-Eastern English accent.
The film doesn’t stand scrutiny in its telling – there’s little plot, and no characterisation. The camera often lingers on CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), leaving her expressions to convey her hard-headedness, loneliness, relief, disgust, and pain. While Chastain does deliver, she’s limited by the weakness of the structure. Several good actors, among them Jason Clarke, who plays an interrogation expert, are wasted in a film that doesn’t make time for them. On the other hand, it makes a big deal of showing us Maya lifting the veil of her burkha to sip juice, munch fries, and rest her canvas shoes on the table. Okay, she’s an American in Pakistan, we get that. She hasn’t gone native but uses the conventions cleverly, we get that too.
There are glimpses of Bigelow’s filmmaking skill – one of my favourite scenes is that of operative Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) waiting eagerly for her big catch, an Al Qaeda doctor who’s willing to be America’s mole. The evolution of the relationship between the two women, of competitiveness leading to camaraderie, is traced expertly. But on the whole, empathy with the film eludes one.
The Verdict: If you followed the news in the days after May 1, 2011, this film may not sustain your interest.

A staple from the Bhatt stable

(Published in The New Sunday Express, February 17, 2013)

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sara Loren, Bugs Bhargava Krishna
Director: Vishesh Bhatt
Rating: 1.5 stars
There are some things you take for granted in a Bhatt production – women are vindictive; men are cheats; cops are idiots; love is obsessive; lust works in the box office. This time round, they cut down on the sleaze quotient, so we only get a glimpse of a topless Sara Loren. And the story is more entertaining and less gimmicky than the usual fare, taken as it is from the Spanish language film La Cara Oculta (The Hidden Face).
However, the film is layered with red herrings and loaded with subplots, and is largely unconvincing. This, of course, anyone who’s familiar with the Murder and Jannat series is prepared for. The film opens with a video from Roshni (Aditi Rao Hydari) to her boyfriend Vikram (Randeep Hooda), saying she’s leaving him. After wallowing in self-pity and alcohol, Vikram decides to get his act together, and encouraged by his boss, D K Bose – yeah, D K Bose, and just in case we miss the in-joke, there’s a gag in the film about that – he decides to pick up the first girl he sees (Sara Loren).
The film is soaked in kitsch from the start, introducing its titles with a drop of blood in a washbasin morphing into horror-friendly font. Naturally, we’re first taken to a foreign locale – in this case, South Africa. The fact that we start off in South Africa has no relevance, except that Vikram is a failing wildlife photographer. Somehow, he becomes a sought-after fashion photographer in Mumbai, with enough money to buy an isolated, spooky house. This gives us the perfect setting for a psychological thriller spun around a love triangle.
Perhaps the filmmakers should have borrowed the dialogue from the Colombian film too, because this is what really lets the film down. It’s watchable as long as it’s breaking into songs at the slightest excuse. It’s watchable when windows rattle and taps whisper and electricity flickers. But when the characters begin to talk, one wishes one didn’t understand the language. Stuffed with macho lines and loaded statements, the dialogue is distractingly laboured.
Unexpectedly, some of the minor characters are memorable. Bugs Bhargava and Shekar Shukla are flawless with their comic timing. Randeep Hooda, who has, unfortunately for an actor of his calibre, starred in more than anyone’s fair share of Bhatt films, does what he can within the limitations of the script. However, the few thrills in the film are ruined by some terrible acting from the female leads. Pakistani actress Sara Loren is the comic relief, often unintentionally. Her screams and feints induce more giggles than either empathy or fear. Aditi Rao Hydari struggles to fit into a character that has not only been badly written, but burdened with silly lines.
The Verdict: To its credit, Murder 3 keeps us entertained throughout – when we’re not involved in the plot, we’re laughing at it.

Wide of the mark

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on February 16, 2013)

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and others
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: 3 stars
If you took Zero Dark Thirty as insight into how the CIA works, this is what you’d walk out with: (a) If you don’t have evidence to back up your claims, hysterics will do nicely (b) If you use expletives, chances are you’ll be taken more seriously by your bosses (c) When you’re a woman, you’re allowed to ask for the impossible (d) CIA operatives look pleased with themselves every time they use the F-word.
Look, maybe the CIA does work that way – trading dialysis machines and V-10 Lamborghinis in return for phone numbers. Maybe Arabs will risk their lives as long as they’re supplied women and drinks. But, to fit all that into a plot that relies on the lone-gutsy-woman-in-a-man’s-field appeal is a show of amateur filmmaking unbefitting of a director of Kathryn Bigelow’s stature.
When the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is shoved into the mould of an action thriller, the storyline was always going to be thin. But with more than two and a half hours at her disposal, one cannot help but feel that Bigelow spent her time on all the wrong scenes. The film is engaging, albeit disturbing, when it opens to a blur of 911 calls as the World Trade Center is attacked. This is followed by more discomfiting scenes of duress, as CIA man Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures Ammar (Reda Kateb), a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
While it may be argued that the film is non-judgmental in the view it takes of the “war against terror”, one does detect an American jingoist element. There is no reference to America’s role in nurturing Osama Bin Laden to thwart the Soviets. Barack Obama’s decision to clamp down on torture is seen as an almost insurmountable hurdle, as if all intelligence was gleaned from waterboarding hardened terrorists, and not slipping money to more pliable informers. In fairness, though, the film does show us one detainee who refuses to break down, irrespective of what they do to him.
My main problem with the film is that it projects Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the hero whom no one will dare stand in the way of, without showing us what she has done to earn that respect. There’s no back story. She obsesses over a hunch, and is indulged by her superiors, discounting a few disparaging remarks. As justification for their acquiescence in her decisions, they tell each other – and her – how they’ve learnt not to go against her. But we don’t see where they learnt that from.
Unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this film offers us virtually no insight into the workings of a secret agency. We see nothing that we haven’t already read about in the news. Between taking us to the sites of the last decade’s biggest terrorist attacks – 9/11, 7/7, the Marriott Hotel bombing, the Times Square blast – the camera rests on exotic Asian markets, with sugarcane vendors, bun sellers, and betel juice spitters. Some laboured symbolism, involving monkeys, is thrown in.
The final undoing of the film is that, though it’s so carefully made that the settings are completely believable, the climactic chase actually gets boring. And, as an audience, we feel no sense of victory when the “good guys” gun down the bad ones, complete with a wife or two.
The Verdict: Thanks to its set pieces and macho lines, Zero Dark Thirty never lets us forget we’re watching a movie, with actors trying to play real people.

Is India getting a good deal with Cameron?

(Published in, on February 21, 2013, retrieved from

“This was a deeply shameful act in British history. We must never forget what happened here.”
That was what British Prime Minister David Cameron had to say about the horrific massacre of April 13, 1919, one of the ugliest events in three centuries riddled with ugly events to demonstrate British dominance over the subjects of a land they had taken over, by cunning and force.
And he refused to apologise.
Now, an apology would mean nothing. This is not the British government that was in place at the time, and the British government that was in place at the time was more forthcoming about the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre than Cameron.
Winston Churchill, Secretary of War at the time, called it an “outrage”. Churchill was the sort of colonial who said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
He was the sort of racist who said: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”
He was the sort of Prime Minister whose draconian policies led to the terrible Bengal Famine of 1943, for which he refused relief.
And yet he called it “An extraordinary event, a monstrous event, which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”
David Cameron has brushed off the demand for an apology, speaking of India and England’s “shared history” and “economic ties”.
He finds it easy to forget that this history was not one that this country wanted to share. And that it crippled us, and robbed us of riches that are stowed away in museums in England.
On Cameron’s last visit, he was, in fact, asked about the Koh-i-Noor. He refused to return it, saying it would lead to a demand from other countries for England to return the jewels stolen from their lands too, which would leave their museums “empty” – essentially admitting British museums were storehouses of loot.
This time, too, he reiterated the refusal, saying he doesn’t believe in “returnism” and doesn’t think it sensible.
In Kuldip Nayar’s book Beyond the Lines, he speaks of how as envoy, he raised a demand for the diamond to be returned, and as MP in Rajya Sabha, he collected signatures of other MPs to ask for its return from England.
In an interview I did with Mr Nayar, he quoted the then-External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh saying, “Don’t press for this. This will spoil the relations between India and Britain.”  Mr Nayar added, “To hell with it, what do you care if relations are spoilt? We should get the Koh-i-noor back. But nobody now is doing anything about it. You know, when we went to the Tower of London, they were very much on the defensive. They said, ‘This is yours, really, sir.’ But I was High Commissioner then, maybe that was the reason. And there was a very pertinent remark by my servant on that trip. He said, “Babuji, jab jaayen toh is ko le jaayen. [When we go back, let’s go back taking this with us.]”
David Cameron also appears to forget that it was economic ties with England that enslaved this country in the first place.
And in today’s world, the benefits of “economic ties” with England remain as one-sided. For a long time now, there has been speculation about British universities’ plans to set up branches here, which will charge the same fee to give Indian students degrees in India, on foreign paper.
Meanwhile, the rules on visas and work permits for Indian students in the UK are getting stricter. Cameron’s message is clear, and not very different from that of Britons three centuries ago: We want your money. We don’t want you taking our jobs.
During his visit to India to discuss trade and commerce, it appears we’re skirting the real issues. Students are being invited to British universities constantly, but there are no jobs available once they finish their studies.
I’ve seen for myself how the immigration and work laws have tightened since I studied in England, in 2005-06. At the time, we students were allowed a one-year extension on our visas, to look for work. Once a job was secured, it was far easier to arrange for work permits than it is now. I chose to come back to India, but I needn’t have. Today, students rarely have that choice.
Last year, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith plainly asked businesses based in the UK to “give a chance” to unemployed Britons, rather than to foreign workers. He also said “a realistic promise” or work formed part of the “government’s contract with its people”.
If we are discussing economic ties, it has to work both ways. And if Cameron intends to make a token gesture of friendship to India, an apology shouldn’t suffice. India must press for the jewels plundered by its colonisers to be returned. And as one of the fastest growing economic powers in the world, and one in which people don’t necessarily have to leave the country to make money, India has more bargaining power in this case. Whether our leaders will actually talk about the things that do matter remains to be seen. And if they aren’t, we’re really getting nothing out of Cameron’s visits.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rahul Bose on Vishwaroopam, Midnight's Children, and being called a lizard

(Published in, on February 17, 2013, retrieved from

It isn’t often that Rahul Bose does even one mainstream film a year. Suddenly, and almost simultaneously, two big-budget, highly-anticipated films he has acted in have had worldwide releases. As Vishwaroopam and Midnight’s Children continue their run in Indian cinemas, he speaks exclusively to
When asked about the back-to-back releases, he grins that he doesn’t do too many films a year because, ‘I don’t get that many!’ Cast as Saleem Sinai in 1997, for a BBC mini-series that was subsequently shelved, he now plays the delightfully over-the-top General Zulfikar in the film version of Midnight’s Children. Bose has received positive reviews both for his portrayal of Zulfikar, and the menacing militant commander Omar in Vishwaroopam, a role for which he had to speak chunks of dialogue in Tamil.
The actor-director-activist-sportsman, who’s as well known for his detailed research into the roles he plays as for his witty retorts, looks back on his career so far and speaks about the filming of his two big releases.

Since English, August, you haven’t really played any role that has to do with your ethnicity. You’ve been a Mr Iyer, a Pakistani General, now a Pashtun militant. Is that something you get drawn to, or just how you’ve been cast?
No, it’s obviously something you get drawn to. These choices are not unconscious, or fortuitous. They’re very, very calculated choices. So, I look for things that will make me uncomfortable, where some people will say, ‘We hated you’, or ‘You failed’. What’s the point, otherwise, really?
And have you had such negative feedback for any particular role?
Well, Maan Gaye Mughal-e-Azam was a debacle. But, thankfully, not many people saw it. Maybe four or five people saw it. So, I’m happy about that. (Laughs) But they savaged me. Otherwise, out of the stuff that people saw, I think I’m happy to say there’s largely been a consensus, whether it’s been The Japanese Wife, or I Am, or Mr and Mrs Iyer, or English, August. I don’t know whether, in any film of mine, my work has really polarised people, and made them say, ‘He was horrible’ or ‘He was really good’. I don’t think that’s happened.
There’ve always been people who have hated me and my work. But so far, thankfully, they’ve been in the minority. Also, being very self-aware, I think I’m the most savage on myself, which is something that most people who criticise you don’t imagine you can be. But what they don’t realise is, you’ve been there and you’ve done that, in terms of criticism.
However, what is interesting is when the criticism is totally unfounded. Like, I remember a reviewer who said I look like a lizard. (Pauses) That was the review of my performance in Shaurya, that I look like a lizard. So...I...(shrugs)...what do I do then? At least say, ‘He looked like a badly-acting lizard’, or ‘He looked like a well-acting lizard’. So, that’s the stuff that you just have to move on from. I think another reviewer said ‘He looks emaciated in the second half’. So, what am I supposed to do? You know what I mean? What has that got to do with the performance? So those are the kind of comments that say so much more about the reviewer than the reviewee.
You’ve been cast in a couple of Tamil-speaking roles. Not so much Tamil as Mr Iyer, but in Vishwaroopam, there were chunks of dialogue in Tamil. How hard was it to emote while speaking a language you don’t know?
Mr Haasan is the best teacher. I just mimicked him. I had no clue what I was saying. Well, I had a rough idea because he would tell me the gist, and there were some words in Sanskrit also. But, I mean, I don’t know the language. So, I just parroted him faithfully. I parroted him in the dubbing studio, he worked very hard with me. The credit, in fact, goes entirely to him. If you ask me to say any of those lines again, I would collapse in a heap of shame and inability.
You know, we did every scene twice when we were shooting. And there, I had no clue what I was saying or how I should be saying it. So, the dubbing proved to be very difficult. I had to be very skilful, because I’d delivered it wrong during the scene. Mr Haasan really saved me then. You know, I knew what I was saying, but in the middle of the acting, you sometimes lose intonation. For example, you might say, ‘What is wrong with you?’ and then at the dubbing studio, Mr Haasan would say, you can say, ‘What is [at a deliberate pace] WRONG with you [fast and aggressively]?’ and it makes sense. The pause makes sense. Otherwise, the pause wouldn’t make any sense at all.
Vishwaroop must have been a lot easier.
Yes, it was, not because of anything else but because Mr Haasan was there. And the same goes for the Tamil version. I understood the English, I understood the Hindi, I knew what I was saying, because we would do one shot in Hindi, and one shot in Tamil, so everything was done twice over. I totally understood it, but finally how to deliver, pronounce, intonations, enunciation, that was all Mr Haasan.
How about the Pashto?
We had a Pashto teacher at the shooting and the dubbing.
Have you had any feedback from Pashto speakers?
(Laughs) No, I don’t have any Pashtun friends, unfortunately! But it’s a good idea to get some feedback. But I think, well, it was passable, but it wasn’t perfect. I remember how we were pushed to do it in dubbing, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t get there!
Tell me more about your experience working on Midnight’s Children. It’s pretty obvious from the film that you were one of the few cast members who read the book in-depth.
(Laughs) Well, I read it fifteen years ago out of pleasure. And then I read it when I was cast as Saleem Sinai [in a BBC mini-series that was scrapped after protests by Muslim groups stalled shooting], and then I re-read it for Zulfi. You know, to figure out, ‘Who the hell is Zulfi?’ So, that’s three times, and I love the book. I love it. It simply aches with love for this country. That’s what I love about the novel.
And Salman and I are friends. And the first time we ever saw it with an audience in Bombay, Salman was sitting there, and when the film started, with his voiceover, I went up to him, and put my hands on his lap, and said, ‘This is what it is. This is what you lived for.’ And he nodded his head. And I said, ‘It’s come a full circle’. Because he and I had had a quiet dinner two days before, and he said, ‘I set out to write a novel about my childhood, when I wrote Midnight’s Children. And it became something bigger. So, today, I’m closing a circle.’ The movie started in Bombay, and he had closed the circle.
Aside from Midnight’s Children, a lot of the films you’ve acted in are based on novels or short stories. Obviously, you’ve read them all, you’ve got an image of the character. How do you go about converting that character into yourself?
That’s a very complex question, and it has a very complex answer. I think the best way I can explain it would be to say that I try to absorb as much as I can of the central characteristics of that particular character – the character’s basic personality – and I try and find those impulses, I try to find that streak in me. I really, really try to find the broad strokes of the character, hopefully, somewhere inside me. So if the character is angry and disrespectful of women, I have to try and find out when in my life I have ever been that way. And then, I have to try and expand that, really, take over the entire character.
Sometimes, you don’t find anything. If you’re playing a psychotic murderer, I think it would be very difficult to find that shade inside me, and I would then have to think of the character as a person in my life whom I’m very, very close to, or who I know very well, whose exhibits something like that kind of behaviour.
So, basically, the short answer is that first, you start looking for that in yourself. Then, if you can’t find it within you, then you try and find it in the nucleus of your friends. And then you try and widen the nucleus. But, sometimes, you just don’t find anyone. You don’t get to know psychopathic murderers as a matter of chance. So, then you have to look into history, into cinema, into all kinds of cultural references to bring it as close as possible to your understanding.
I’m not recommending actors become psychopaths, but I’m recommending actors live life to the fullest, so that they can extend the banquet of their experiences from which they can pull out a colour, a sliver, a trigger, and then build on it.
You straddle two worlds, with theatre and film. With theatre, the emphasis is on making everything big, projecting your voice and your expressions, so you can be heard by the deaf old woman in the last row. And with film, it’s the opposite, because you’re larger than life on screen, and every flicker of expression is caught. Is it hard to switch from one mode to the other?
No, I think acting is the same no matter where you go. The only thing that changes is the projection of voice, and a certain adaptability. I would call them external recalibrations of the basic skill. So, it’s a basic challenge, and the rest of it is really a matter of technical skill. I think it’s very unconvincing if actors blame a bad performance on the fact that they had to switch between theatre and film acting. Acting is the same, and I think any good actor should be able to make that adjustment. Either you have talent or you don’t. And if you do, you can work with any medium.
Lately, cinema’s been imbued with a lot of moral responsibility, right from contentions that pop culture encourages crime against women to contentions that drinking and smoking shouldn’t be seen on film.
I don’t think that has anything to do with cinema. You know, look at Hollywood – it’s right there, and Los Angeles is one of the cities where almost nobody smokes. I think the reason Los Angeles managed to conquer, and make smoking such a reviled habit, was because it took the onus of spreading the message in schools through rock song competitions, drawing competitions, visits to hospitals, all kinds of things. Not through cinema. So, that’s how society has to change attitudes, not by banning something in cinema. I don’t believe anything should be banned. If you don’t want to watch it, don’t watch it. But to lay the blame of smoking at cinema’s door, or drinking at cinema’s door, or crime against women at cinema’s door...well, then you could say that the incidents of motorcycle accidents have increased in the last ten years, which indeed they have, so no films should show motorcycles. But then, you know, the incidents of accidents in cars also have increased, so therefore no speeding in cinemas should be seen! I think that kind of totalitarian, draconian, narrow-minded, utterly regressive kind of thought is just that. It would be infantile and stupid if it wasn’t dangerous.
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