Monday, December 31, 2007

The year that was

We are saying goodbye to 2007 today. So far, things were going fine--despite the subprime crisis in the US, the news was good for Asia. The Asian economies have been doing well. Things were looking up. Though there were some immediate issues that bothered us all--Modi's win in the Gujarat elections, Pakistan's and Thailand's political turmoil, the Indian discontent in Malaysia--we were hopeful that in time the issues will be resolved. People will learn to live with them or create better conditions.

Then came the news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

That evening I came home after watching Wang Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights. I had enjoyed the movie and thought that it was such an assured work. Wang Kar Wai's earlier films had a lot of energy in each and every frame, the stories were so pulsating--but here, with this film, he had shown to have matured a bit. The characters seemed to deal with their situations in a calmer manner (even though some scenes betrayed the director's restlessness). Was it because this was a film about American characters? And in many of the scenes and characters, I could see how there were overlaps with what we had seen in some of his earlier films. But I was generally happy with my experience.

My wife was watching the BBC World and Benazir's news was just being broken. I was suddenly engulfed with a sense of grief. My immediate reaction was to share it with others I knew. I sent out some smes. Some of my friends expressed dismay at the news. "Oh, don't tell me this," said one. What?!, said another. Those who were aware of the news sent me cold, resigned smes.

I remembered, when Benazir was Pakistan's PM, she was regularly connected with India's then PM Rajiv Gandhi--both were young, descendants of slain national leaders and were now they were leading two big countries. Who had imagined both will die the same way, as victims of terrorism.

There are many things to talk about today (like how I recently took my two-year old daughter to watch the film The Golden Compass and how she got bored within half an hour in the theatre) but I leave you with these questions from filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, and I will talk to you again next year:

Who killed Benazir ? Suicide bombings were unheard of in Pakistan before 9/11. And before the US ordered Musharraf to send his army against his own people in Pakistan's western regions to flush out the Taliban. Why ? The supposed reason was to look for Osama Bin Laden. But that was EIGHT years ago, and Osama could be dead of natural causes by now. No one talks about him anymore in any case, and the Keyword has become Al Quaeda, about whom no one knows very much. Because Al Quaeda has now becomea 'philosophy of terrorism ' as an acceptable tool of warfare, rather than a cohesive organization anymore. It is the usual construct of the Western World looking for simple answers to vastly complex problems of cultural divide, religious divide and harsh economic disparities......

And if Al Quaeda is now a philosophy of warfare, then how is it helping that Musharaf sends his troops to fight his own people, and causing huge alienation by killing civilians and calling it collatoral damage ? The philosophy of suicide bombings is merely being exported out of the region by alienating people and encouraging them towards terrorism.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

The "unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts"

I wanted to call attention to this passionately (as ever) argued piece by Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian where he takes issue with Ayaan Hirsi Ali's and Martin Amis' recent fulminations against Islam/Muslims. Hirsi Ali has said that the west is "actually at war, not just with Islamism, but with Islam itself". Amis has maintained that "moderate Muslims, if they ever existed, have lost out to radicals in Islam's civil war," and that Islam is "totalist".

Mishra says that all this noise against Islam is largely bumkum, arising out more of ignorance than of clairvoyance:

Never perhaps in history has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet's billion-plus Muslims. Within the past decade an Islamic movement has led Indonesia towards democracy, while market reforms in Turkey have created a new and religious middle class that now challenges the power of a secular elite.

Mishra goes into the past and briefly in one paragraph shows how the world has to come to be what it is today:

The most recent paranoid obsession with Muslims, which has a long history in Europe, dates back to 2001, when the violence once unleashed on places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the "free world" began to penetrate even the highly protected societies of the west. Almost every day newspaper columnists berate Islam, often couching their prejudice in the highly moral language of women's rights: it is not due to oversight that Indian women murdered for failing to bring sufficient dowry - a staggering 6,787 in 2005 - occupy a fraction of the print acreage devoted to the tiny minority of veiled Muslim women. Rather than engage deeply with the imperial and postimperial histories of societies hardly ever discussed in the mainstream western media, many respectable writers and intellectuals seem to have decided that selectively reading the Qur'an, along with the conveniently pithy exegeses of Hirsi Ali and other neocon pugilists, is the easiest and quickest way to figure it all out.

Then he argues why should we take anything said by the likes of Amis seriously:

The question "Why take Martin Amis seriously?" has kept many dissenters uneasily passive. But Amis's generalisations are amplified from one of the tallest soap boxes erected in the wake of 9/11, and he has a bigger audience than some of the other commentators in the British press who claim melodramatically to be apostate liberals. Whether Amis or any other individual is racist is barely relevant. We should be more concerned about this fact: that ideas regarded as intellectually null and morally abhorrent in any other context are not only accepted and condoned but also celebrated as bold truth-telling.

The italics used above are mine. There, Mishra makes a major point and he rightly cautions the readers to be careful when such generalisations about a community are made by people whose voices are recognised.

Finally, Mishra rounds up his essay with a sigh--not of relief but of disappoinment:

It is a depressing spectacle - talented writers nibbling on cliches picked to the bone by tabloid hacks. But, as Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, the "men of culture", with their developed faculty of reasoning, tend to "give the hysterias of war and the imbecilities of national politics more plausible excuses than the average man is capable of inventing". The "public conversation" about Islam proposed by Amis should not be avoided. Its terms have already been set low, and the bigger danger is that it will be dominated by an isolated and vain chattering class that, rattled by a changing world, seeks to reassure us by digging an unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts.

Anyone who has read Mishra earlier, especially his latest collection of essays, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, would vouch for his sincerity and serious scholarship. I have just finished reading that book and the rare insights that he brings to the reader through those essays cannot but make you feel humble in your knowledge about the problematic socities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, among others. For example, though I have read hundreds of articles on the Kashmir problem, I never fully understood the issue. Perhaps the truth was never bought out in full naked view in the media with the right right kind of information, insights and interviews. But after reading Mishra's essay, I had the feeling that I had finally understood the Kashmir problem. Somebody had finaly got to the heart of the matter. You can write to him at kannauj@gmail.com.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Home Truths

Book Review
The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone by Shashi Tharoor
Arcade Publishing (New York); $29.96

In the wake of the recent Tehelka expose of the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, very few Indian writers braved the danger of inviting ridicule (from the hardline Hindus) by penning commentaries or speaking out on this issue. Shashi Tharoor was one of them (He spoke on the issue through an interview; novelist Kunal Basu wrote a powerful piece), who is the author of the book under review. The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone is a collection of Tharoor's recent columns.

Columnist Tharoor, who until recently was associated with the United Nations for a long time, is also a novelist. Though widely read throughout India and in many parts of the world, some don't see Tharoor as an exciting colmunist, whose writings are full of "ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms."

Whatever one might think of Tharoor's writings, one thing cannot be dismissed about him: His love for India (that too, a secular, pluralist India) and Indians.

"My views have, over the years, earned me more than my fair share of belligerant emails and assorted Internet fulminations from the less reflective of the Hinduvta brigade," writes Tharoor. But he has learnt to take this criticism in his stride. "For Hindus like myself, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts," he says.

In this book, Tharoor cautions that though the Indian elephant is turning into a leaping tiger (the cellphone is the symbol of progress here), he hopes for an inclusive growth, where the rural and underprivileged Indians (of all faiths and regions) have a share in the building of a new 'superpower' India. Otherwise, the tiger's stripes will vanish again, and it will turn back into its pachiderm form.

The first part of the book, its kernel, if you will, deals with the ideas of Indianness. It is the richest part of the book where Tharoor looks deeper into India's past, its Hindu ethos of inclusiveness, and the current threats to those ethos by a politically inspired Hindu extremism movement.

Tharoor takes interest in defining what it means to be an Indian Hindu--and how the "Hinduvta" brand of Hinduism does not go well with the idea of India. He writes about the universally serene and accommodative nature of Hinduism (as a civilization, not a dogma), quoting Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: "Sen is right to stress that Hinduism is not simply the Hinduvta of Ayodhya and Gujarat; it has left all Indians a religious, philosophical, spiritual and historical legacy that gives meaning to the civilizational content of secular Indian nationalism."

In the essay, The Politics of Indentity, Tharoor underlines the difference between himself and the hardliners: "There are some like me, who are proud of Hinduism; there are others including much of the VHP (Vinshwa Hindu Parishad), who are proud of being Hindu. There is a world of difference between the two; the first base their pride on principle and belief; the second on identity and chauvinism.My Hindu pride does not depend on putting others down. Theirs, sadly, does."

The part five of the book deals with the transformations that have underpinned India's globalisation and its rise as an economic power. In this part, his essays explore the rise of the Indian middle class and urban developments (call centres, IITs, IT companies, etc) that are shaping a new India.

Between these two parts of the book, there are four other parts that comprise essays on variegated themes: Indians that have done the nation proud, Bollywood, NRIs and even cricket. The well-read might find some of these essays tedious, but over all, the book is an enjoyable read, in parts intellectually stimulating and witty (at least to me). The last part provides a compendium of Indianess, an A to Z of being Indian. More than Indians, foreigners will find this part interesting which throws light on topics ranging from bidis and cows to dacoits.

But the book is not all about serious punditism. There are some essays that are quite entertaining. If you are looking for something illuminating yet light (on the mind), I will leave you with one nugget to let you decide if you want to read this book. In an essay, "India, Jones and The Temple of Dhoom," Tharoor talks about Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg's cinematic sucsess: "It has been just over two decades since that blockbuster (Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom) swept the world's movie screens, taking boy-wonder Spielberg (who'd already gone from the dental--Jaws--to the transcendental--Close Encounters of the Third Kind) into the cinematic stratosphere."

Manoj Kumar syndrome?

At the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival, I did not ask anyone to shoot pictures of the participants during my sessions, even though I was carrying my camera with myself. However, a friend of mine took this photo while I was sitting on the blogging panel. I must be paying attention to what Deepika or Sharon or Ivan was saying but looks like as if I was coming down with the Manoj Kumar syndrome.

Here are some more pictures from the same session.

Serious bloggers! (L to R: Ivan, Sharon and Deepika)

Sharon, the Virginia Woolf of Malaysia, holds forth on her blogging habits...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bollywood in America

In the world of media, content is supposed to be the king. Increasingly, however, distribution of content across a bursting sprectrum of media platforms is becoming the king maker.

Despite the hullabaloo of the new media eclipsing everything else, distribution of content, any content, still remains a powerful function in the game of media delivery to the end consumers. Referring to this year's MIPCOM at Cannes, The Screen Daily noted: "For most of the studios, distribution rather than film-making is what they do best. If the rest of the world makes great movies that their markets want, and Hollywood is a partner in ensuring they are seen, so much the better."

Bollywood has already made its way into Western popular culture over the past few years, frequently cropping up in American movies, television programs, and commercials. The emerging power of Indian content was clearly in evidence at this year's MIPCOM where the keynote speakers were from India - Mipcom's focus country this year - UTV founder and CEO Ronnie Screwvala and ZEE TV's founder and head, Subhash Chandra. In the event, Ronnie Screwvala reminded delegates that dealing with India was not one-way traffic.

And sure enough, as Bollywood's content (films, television software and music) looks westward in a bid to corner many more millions of eyeballs and a neat packet of revenues, there is one company in the US that is at the forefront of this jaggernaut, forging ties with America's powerful distribution engines.

That company is Saavn. It is playing a key role in bringing South Asian content to American consumers. Saavn has relationships with leading South Asian content producers such as Yash Raj Films, Adlabs, UTV, and T-Series and key distribution relationships with companies such as Time Warner, Cox, Rogers, iTunes, Amazon Unbox, and Verizon Wireless. In addition to packaging programming for these cable, Internet and mobile carrier companies, Saavn also runs media and marketing programs to help them serve the passionate audience for Bollywood and other South Asian content.

Its most recent move was to make Bollywood music available on Apple's iTunes in October. It came after the fact that even though Bollywood music is becoming more and more popular in the US, but it’s still not readily available. Until now, it could mostly be found in small, neighborhood Indian shops or through low-quality clips of videos found sporadically on the Internet. With Saavn’s content being available through iTunes, everyone can enjoy Bollywood music on their own iPods or computers.

To explore the issue further, I spoke to Mr. Vinod Bhat, General Manager of Saavn (formerly BODVOD Networks), the largest digital distributor of South Asian content in the world with exclusive rights to movies, television shows and music videos from the premiere movie producers, television networks and record labels in India and other parts of the world.

How popular is the Indian entertainment content--Bollywood and television software from India--in North America?
Bollywood movies are the second best performing ethnic category on Time Warner Cable behind Hispanic content. Given the size of the Spanish speaking population is greater than 50 million and there are several other foreign genres of content, Bollywood has a stronger appeal across a wider audience group.

How is Saavn trying to leverage on this popularity of Indian entertainment content?
We’re not trying to leverage per se, but rather correct what we see as a supply-demand imbalance in the marketplace. Many people have heard of Bollywood content, but the problem more lies in their inability to purchase it in traditional retail locations. Unlike India and other parts of the world, Bollywood content is not readily available in mass market retail stores like Wal-mart, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, etc. Digital and mobile media delivery methods are ideal approaches to correct this problem and serve interested audience segments.

Is Hollywood too interested in marketing this content within the USA, which in effect is a chunk of its domestic market?
Yes, as evidenced by Sony’s first production, Saawariya. The marketing power and sales force of a studio’s distribution arm is critical if Bollywood is to ever have a hit in the U.S. by Hollywood standards.

Which medium is the most popular (among Cable, online and mobile) one in the distribution of this content? What are the trend?
It depends on the content category. For movies, it’s cable VOD. Movies are long form and require the comfort of a couch to view. Music purchase, on the other hand, is all online and mobile. Full length audio is short duration, portable content that is in the sweet spot of online usage. For mobile, music ringtones, wallpapers, etc. are more about handset personalization.

Saavn has recently tied up with itunes for the distribution of Bollywood songs. How is the response?
It’s going very well. We’re working on ways to increase the profile of Bollywood for all iTunes customers.

What is the future of Bollywood content worldwide? How well it may perform on the mobile medium as all future media is said to be converging on that device?It will be several years before we see an “all-digital” distribution of Bollywood content. As they say, the general public overestimate what will happen in 2 years, but underestimates what will happen in 10years. There are also major infrastructure, consumer behavior, and incumbent business hurdles to overcome in certain markets.

Coming to the Hollywood-Bollywood relationship, what's brewing right now? Sony's first Bollywood production Saawariya released in November. Many more Hollywood studios are getting into Bollywood film production. Why is Hollywood interested in Bollywood?
Hollywood is interested in Bollywood because India as a market has the largest and fastest growing middle class in the world. As more wealth is spread among its population, more people will have disposable income to spend on entertainment. Furthermore, the infrastructure to properly support and market theatrical releases is in place. First, multiplexes are now commonplace in all the major tier I and tier II cities. Second, mobile phones have become a very effective means to promote new releases.

Will Hollywood's entry in Bollywood change the equations in Bombay's film industry?Will it break the stranglehold of filmi families (powerful production houses) and provide new filmmakers more platforms to express their vision?
Yes and no. Yes, because similar to the way Hollywood works here, it will back people and projects that have less risk associated with them. If filmi families have demonstrated success and a proven track record, then Hollywood studios will prefer to back them and the strong will only get stronger.
However, there are two definitive positives for independents: 1) if there are independent filmmakers that have had a breakout hit(s) prior to Hollywood’s arrival into India, they (and those associated with them) will get legitimate opportunities from these studios to direct feature films. 2) Because the budgets for Bollywood movies (avg is $3mm) are much smaller than Hollywood (avg is $45mm), the studios may be more flexible in backing emerging filmmakers that have demonstrated success in another medium (i.e. television shows, ad films, etc.). This is the classic portfolio approach in which if you back 10 unknown filmmakers, 5 will likely lose money, 3-4 will breakeven or produce marginal return and 1-2 will be substantial hits.

This interview also appeared in the December issue of India Se magazine.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Net is dumbing us down?

The MSM has picked up this new hook: Nobel laureate Doris Lessing has "used her acceptance speech to rail against the internet, saying it has "seduced a whole generation into its inanities" and created a world where people know nothing."

Reports The Age:

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers," she said in the speech read out by Lessing's British publisher as she was too ill to travel to Sweden for the Nobel festivities.

She compared her visits to resource-deprived schools in Zimbabwe, where students begged her for books and taught themselves to read using labels on jam jars, to a trip to another school in North London where teachers complained that many students never read books at all and the library was only half used.

Lessing said no one had thought to ask how our lives would be changed by the internet, "which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc".

Similarly, author Andrew Keen argued in his new book, The Cult of the Amateur, that the internet was killing culture and assaulting economics.

"[Anyone] can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels," Keen wrote in the book.


That's true but what's the big deal? It is up to us to choose what crap to waste time on.

She also noted that "In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the tradition." This one I agree with.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writers in cross hair

On Sunday, Crossings, the Singapore Writers' Festival 2007, came to a close. For me, the entire festival was an exciting mash-up (ah, scenes from events are intemixing in my memory) of scenes from writers' lives, off and onstage. It was an opportunity to see many players in action: moderators, writers, bloggers, festival organisers--everyone played cool and I did not see any fretful faces. Or did I miss something?

There were many international writers. The queues were the longest for the famous Chinese writers such as Jung Chang and Bei Dao. There were enough NRI and Indian names in the marquee to make the whole festival a Rang De Basanti. David Davidar, Kunal Basu (photo, above), Madhur Jaffery, Anita Nair, Sharanya Manivannan and Deepika Shetty (as the energetic moderator with a difference). I was also there, connected with two events, but was miraculously not listed anywhere (website, booklets) but I am not blaming anyone. When such big names are around, where do I stand? And frankly, I don't care. I'm happy enough just to be an audience in such events.

First up, on Dec 3, I had the chance to moderate a session with Tan Twan Eng, the Booker longlisted South Africa-based Malaysian novelist, who shot to fame with his debuting work, The Gift of Rain. The session was well-attended. Many had turned up to listen to Twan and get their copies of the novel autographed by the man himself. Contrary to what I had been warned of, Twan wasn't shy at all and he spoke very confidently and eloquently. I would spare you the details as Deepika Shetty has summarised the session in her blog post here.

The other was a session on blogging, again moderated by Deepika. Malaysia's top literary blogger Sharon Bakar and Singapore's Ivan Chew were in the panel. While Sharon I knew as a friend, Ivan was a revelation. I enjoyed the proceedings and discovered that Sharon and I had started blogging at about the same time, Sept 2004! What a coincidence! And Deepika was humble enough to acknowledge how she was inspired by bloggers like Jai Arjun Singh (another friend of mine) and Amit Varma to start her own blogging journey. Both Ivan and Sharon have blogged about this event, so I am skipping the details once again (lazy me!).

I regret not attending the sessions of my friends Sharanya and Chris Mooney Singh who released his poetry book, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. Sharayna, as it happens, has been making waves in Indian media talking about the Indian discontent in Malaysia.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rainbows in Braille

Yesterday evening, the Blue Room in Singapore’s Arts House was packed with fans of Elmo Jayawrdena who had turned out in huge numbers to celebrate one of the honest and most down-to-earth voices from Sri Lanka’s literary world. The occasion was one of the highlights of the Singapore Writers Festival. Elmo was launching his collection of short stories, Rainbows in Braille .

Captain Elmo, as the author is lovingly called, is not an ordinary Sri Lankan writer. A lit fest favourite, he is now known the world over for his simple tale of Sam, whom he immortalized in his novel, Sam’s Story. The novel, set in the twilight years of the last century, is about a village bumpkin who comes to work in a Colombo mansion. The novel’s comic façade and the charming simplicity of the text hide the dual core of anti-war and anti-racial prejudice messages that form the only turbulence in this smooth flight of imagination. The book won him the Gratiaen Prize for best Sri Lankan work in English in 2001.

Captain Elmo, now a pilot trainer, has been writing novels and short stories when he has not been flying jets or working for his charitable foundation, Association for Lighting a Candle (AFLAC). After his first novel, he penned a hefty fictionalized history of the Sinhalese kings, which won the State Literary Award for best book in 2005. Rainbows in Braille is his third book and as with all his previous works, proceeds from this book too would go toward AFLAC.

Selling at $10 a copy, the book was seeing brisk sales even before the launch and Captain Elmo was graciously autographing copies for his fans until Deepika Shetty, the event's moderator, dragged him inside the room to start the launch session. I got a copy autographed for my daughter.

"Every copy that I sell feeds a poor Sri Lankan family for a week," he later told the audience.

Elmo has got the volume published in Sri Lanka. "Why did he go the self-publishing route this time," asked Deepika. "Because I want the maximum profit to go the poor with whom I work through AFLAC," he said candidly.

Ubud Writers' Festival founder and director, Janet de Neefe, and novelist Kunal Basu spoke in praise of Elmo before the actual launch.

Kunal became a fan of Elmo after meeting him in Ubud this year. "As the Ubud festival was drawing to a close, I was sort of getting sad as I thought that I might not be able to see Elmo again, as we writers hardly meet each other and most often keep in touch only through emails" he said. So, Elmo's killer charm had worked on Kunal!

"We writers love adulation, we love our readers and fans and we love festival directors...but we hardly can stand other writers...but Elmo is a huge exception," he said.

"In writing, nothing--technique, style, language--matters more than empathy...the ability of a writer to empathise with his characters, and in all of Elmo's writings, his empathy shines through," said Kunal.

Kunal also narrated an anecdote from the Ubud writers and readers festival. Whatever books he had collected in Ubud, he gave it to his mother (an '85 year old, widely read, active Bengali writer with strong opinions') in Calcutta to read before he left for London. A few months later, he asked his mother on phone if she had read all the books. She talked about only one writer. "Who's this Elmo?" she aked.

"Elmo, that is the biggest compliment I can ever give to you," Kunal said.

Elmo talked about the origin of the stories in his collection and how almost all of them were based on real life people and events. He talked about a story, Tsunami. "It is based on an old man who lost his entire family except his two grandchildren in the Sri Lankan tsunami," he said.

Deepika said she loved his short story, The Detergent Salesman. I love it too, Elmo said. But I love all my stories, I love whatever I write, he added.

Despite writing 3 books, Elmo does not have an agent.

"I thank Kunal (Basu) for introducing me to his agent," he said, "but I didn't need an agent for this book. All, my life I have had my own literary agent in my wife Dill." We all laughed. "She is my agent and my editor," he added.

"We all write because we love to write," he said, " and I am sure Kunal will back me up on this, and once we have got the book out, we just let it travel--who knows how far it will go."

During the talk, a charming Captain Elmo acknowledged his debt to all those who had helped him write the stories in this collection. He especially acknowledged his wife’s contribution to his writing life. "She has not just been the air beneath my writerly wings that helped me soar the literary heights but the wings themselves."

Seguing from this, Deepika asked Dill (I hope the spelling is correct) to comment on how life had been with this multi-dimensional man, Elmo. Dill seemed to be taken aback at this unscripted turn of events, the limelight falling on her, all eyes fixed at her but that is the fun of an evening like this, especially when there is a spunky and intelligently unpredictable moderator like Deepika.

"Well," said Dill, "Elmo has been doing many things apart from flying. He started AFLAC and now he has become an author. Sometimes when things become too much, I tell Elmo: Hello, I had only married a pilot!" Aha, so wit runs in the family.

In a gesture that can be only called Elmosque, the author presented the book to his grandson, Navik. These stories are for my grandson’s generation, declared Elmo, whose love for people, especially children, is ever effusive. “Through these stories, I want to show to the coming generations how life used to be in Sri Lanka, so that they too know how simple but beautiful life was before it got lost to the world,” he added.

Captain Elmo’s friends also shared some thoughts at the launch. Top security and anti-terror expert Rohan Gunaratna paid tribute to this writer for his empathy for others, especially the less privileged, and his strong power of observation and the ability to chronicle human life. "I was once having a debate with Elmo over good people and bad people, and at the end of it, Elmo concluded that there are no good or bad people in the world; there are only good and bad circumstances," he said.

Finally, Elmo thanked everyone for coming to the event. "This (Arts House) is an opulent place and all of you here are literary and affluent people and I am deeply honoured by your presence here," he said. The way Elmo said it, the glint of gratitude that shone through his eyes while speaking these lines, were so honest and deeply felt that I almost had goosebumps. His words, truly emerging from the bottom of his heart (as many say it but how deeply they mean it?), made such a strong emotional connection with me (and am sure with others as well) that it would be impossible not to be moved by such heartbreaking modesty in a man who, through his work, had soared to such towering heights that all of us in the room could only aspire to in a lifetime.

(All quotes in this post are from my memory as I hate to take notes during such events; I apologise in advance for any inadvertant misrepresentation)

John Abraham: Beating Bollywood's odds

This outsider made it big ... without a 'godfather'

Weekend • December 8, 2007

Zafar Anjum

EVERY year, thousands of young men and women flock to Bollywood with stars in their eyes. Most end up as debris on the footpaths of Bollywood's dream factories.

It seems you either have to be the child of a star or a well-heeled model to get a break in Bollywood. Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar are perhaps the only outsiders who have it made it to the top in the last 20 years or so.

Among the dozens of struggling models-turned-actors, it seems only John Abraham (picture) got it right. Today, he is a Bollywood A-lister, working with the industry's biggest names.

How did this 35-year-old Mumbai-born actor buck the trend?

John had been a supermodel and was runner-up in the 1999 Manhunt International. But this was no guarantee of box office success — as many models who tried the transition would testify.

Though he started his career with steamy roles in films like Paap, he realised his sex-symbol image was not helping after a string of box-office duds.

John began choosing films that were offbeat. Films like Dhoom (where he played the villain), Water (an Oscar-nominated picture for Best Foreign Language Film by award-winning director Deepa Mehta), Viruddh ... Family Comes First (a small role playing the son of Amitabh Bachchan), Kabul Express (as an Indian journo in war-torn Afghanistan) and No Smoking (as a chain-smoker in one of Bollywood's most bizarre films) helped John carve a niche for himself.

Playing these roles — some meaty, others less so — has endeared John to the public. Most critics would not consider him a serious acting talent but his performances have kept improving. In an industry where star appeal still matters more than acting prowess, this was a leap of faith for the model-turned-actor.

Though his last release, No Smoking, bombed at the box office, Indian cinephiles have appreciated his gutsiness for acting in this crazy, genre-defying surreal film which was so dark that superstars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan turned down the role. But John was confident in his choice. "After No Smoking, films will be called No Smoking kind of films. It will create a genre," he said.

He now wants to tread the path of doing meaningful cinema, despite the risk associated with such films. He said: "You start doing different kinds of films when you start believing in them. I did Water because I loved her (Deepa's) films, 1947, Earth and Fire … I selected No Smoking when it didn't have a producer."

John's forthcoming films testify to his new commitment. His most important new project is Exclusion, again to be directed by Deepa Mehta.

The film centres on the real-life drama of 375 asylum-seekers from India, who were fleeing British colonialists and arrived in Vancouver aboard the Komagata Maru, in 1914. Most were forced to return to India to face the British. Their plight became one of the most notorious incidents in the history of exclusion laws in Canada designed to keep out Asian immigrants.

John is also slated to act opposite Hollywood actress Rachel Weisz in Deepa's Luna, based on the life of American environmentalist Julia Hill, who lived in a small shelter atop a 180-foot tree for 738 days to protest tree felling.

Choosing to do such challenging international projects bodes well for John. Take the Pepsi commercial he has done with Shah Rukh Khan — the cool duo share the same frame, as if screaming to viewers: Here's your next superstar!

So, is he the next superstar?

British academic and film buff Lord Meghnad Desai certainly thinks so. He wrote, in his review of Shah Rukh Khan's biography: "... a new generation is already crowding the Khans out — Hrithik Roshan, Abishek Bachachan and John Abraham."

Yes, this one-time sex symbol is indeed very much in the reckoning.

Published in The Weekend Today dated Dec 8, 2007.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Coetzee’s recurrent themes

I find J M Coetzee's recurrent themes in his later novels--"the aging protagonist, the attraction to a younger woman, the presentiment of death, the physical and emotional isolation from the modern world"--as identifeid by Siddhartha Deb in this review--quite fascinating, as facinating as a thriller's plotline. Siddhartha says that these themes "have been no less than the vital signs of a culture, one possibly in its death throes."

Coetzee's works are short and his language too is "deceptively simple". I like this writing style so much that I have developed a disinclination toward reading anything that uses flowery language, or expresses emotions in hysterical tones.

Here's Siddhartha's analysis of Coetzee's work:

Elizabeth Costello is structured through a series of lectures delivered by the eponymous protagonist, an Australian writer who is a fierce campaigner for animal rights. Art, politics, the sanctity of life, the aging human body—all these come together in that book, culminating in a brilliant final section that reworks the “Before the Law” episode in Kafka’s The Trial. But what makes the novel particularly idiosyncratic is the fact that every one of Costello’s lectures has actually been delivered by Coetzee. In his next novel, Slow Man (2005), Coetzee begins straightforwardly, writing about an elderly photographer injured in a traffic accident. But a third of the way through, a character called Elizabeth Costello shows up, claiming that the photographer is a character in a novel she is working on.

By the time we come to Diary of a Bad Year, then, it is possible to see that its formal play and many of its themes—the aging protagonist, the attraction to a younger woman, the presentiment of death, the physical and emotional isolation from the modern world—have been presented to us by Coetzee for a while now. This has not always been a successful approach—Slow Man, especially, is a slim novel weakened by its experimental diet—but no one can accuse Coetzee of being caught up in the trivial.

The books have all been short, the language deceptively simple, but Coetzee’s recurrent themes have been no less than the vital signs of a culture, one possibly in its death throes. Diary of a Bad Year may be his most successful diagnosis yet of what we are suffering from, one that even offers hope in the form of resistance, critical thought, and the odd, imperfect humanity that emerges in the story of Anya and Señor C. In other writers, such hope would appear trite, but we know that Coetzee is no sentimentalist. His humanism has always been hard-won, wrested from those early lessons in authoritarianism and opposition, and this brilliant novel shows how much better prepared Coetzee is than many Western writers to come to terms with our new age.

(Thanks Prof Amitava Kumar)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rushdie on Anita Desai and Urdu

Decades ago, when a fledgling Salman Rushdie was starting out as a writer, one of the hands that guided and encouraged him was of Anita Desai's. Now, the superstar writer pays his debt to her in a foreword to Anita Desai's novel, In Custody:

When I think of Anita Desai I see her most clearly as a figure standing, as an equal, beside Jane Austen, that other great Indian novelist, creator of brave, brilliant women trapped by conservative social mores into becoming mere husband-hunters, women who would be very recognizable to denizens of, for example, the Delhi of Clear Light of Day. And because while she is wholly Indian she is also half-European I think of her in the company of other insider-outsiders such as the white Caribbean novelist Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, or the half-Sikh, half-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil. Nor should Anita Desai be placed in exclusively female company. As In Custody makes plain, she has cared as much about, and been shaped as deeply by, the great (male) Urdu poets as by any woman’s poems.

Here, Rushdie holds forth on the decline of his mother tongue, Urdu:

In Custody was, therefore, a novel of transformation for its author, a doubly remarkable piece of work, because in this magnificent book Anita Desai chose to write not of solitude but of friendship, of the perils and responsibilities of joining oneself to others rather than holding oneself apart. And at the same time she wrote, for the first time, a very public fiction, shedding the reserve of the earlier books to take on such sensitive themes as the unease of minority communities in modern India, the new imperialism of the Hindi language, and the decay that, now even more than when the book was written, was and is all too tragically evident throughout the fissuring body of Indian society. The courage of the novel is considerable, and so is its prescience. The slow death of my mother-tongue, Urdu, is much further advanced than it was twenty-three years ago, and much that was beautiful in the culture of Old Delhi has slipped away for ever.

Choosing a school in New Delhi

Mukul Kesavan in his new book, The Ugliness of the Indian Male:

When I went looking for a school for my son a decade ago, I used to stroll up to noticeboards outside classrooms and school offices hoping to find class lists. If I found them I’d browse through the names looking for clues. If there were no Muslim names (and there were schools where there weren’t any) my enthusiasm for the school would wane. Was this an excess of political correctness? No, not at all. If a good school in Delhi could get by without Muslim students despite the city’s substantial Muslim population, it either meant that Muslims didn’t apply to it or the school didn’t care to do what the NGOs like to call ‘outreach’, and both implications, as far as I was concerned, were bad signs.” (from “Good Omens”) If more parents of privileged children — and the middle class is privileged, even if we moan a hell of a lot about bearing the burden of taxation — did that, we would not be faced with the ghettoisation of the Muslim child, which naturally continues into adulthood.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Indian discontent in Malaysia

The harsh reaction by Kuala Lumpur’s police Sunday to a protest organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a pressure group established to further the cause of Malaysia’s 2 million Indians, turns the spotlight on the country’s third largest ethnic group and the problems it has faced for decades.

Tensions have been inflamed recently with the accelerated destruction of Hindu temples by the government. Although many have been built without permits on government land, they have been in place for decades. Three have been bulldozed this year to make way for road construction and a housing development and another three are due for demolition over the next few months.

Read on...

On Prakash Jha

There are very few film directors in Bollywood who are not only critically acclaimed filmmakers but are also commercially savvy entrepreneurs. Prakash Jha is one of them.

From Hip Hip Hurray (HHH, 1984) to Apaharan (2005), Prakash Jha's cinematic journey has been long and varied. Jha, who made his directorial debut with HHH, a movie featuring youngsters focussing on sports, has wowed audiences with his politically sensitive films like Gangajal (2003) and Apaharan in recent years. Both the films have been commercial and critical successes.

But Jha is not the one to rest on his past laurels or limit himself to the director's chair. Today he is charting a different path, shaping a new future, not just for Bollywood but also for his home state, Bihar.

Jha, who has recently floated his own production house, Prakash Jha Productions, after more than three decades of independent filmmaking, was in Patna when I spoke to him. "We are building multiplex cinemas in Bihar and Jharkhand," he said. "We have just started building four. We have acquired 16. We intend to build one multiplex in every district which is totalling about 30."

Writing, direction, production and now distribution--Jha has done it all with a great impact.

From Bihar to Bollywood

Prakash Jha was born on February 27, 1952, in Patna, Bihar. After finishing school, he migrated to Delhi. In 1970, after graduating from the University of Delhi, he moved back to his native place to work on family farms. But the love of cinema drove him to the learning portals of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune in 1972. Ever since he came out of the film school, he has spun celluloid dreams. He has been working independently since 1974.

Jha began his career as a director with Hip Hip Hurray (1984), starring Raj Kiran and Deepti Naval. He got instant recognition with this film. His next film, Damul (1985), further strengthened his reputation as a director. Damul's theme was socioeconomic and political exploitation. It depicted the caste politics of rural Bihar. This announced the arrival of a new voice in the offbeat movie genre. The movie bagged six National Awards and a couple of international honors, which added to his prestige.

Post- Damul, there was no looking back for Jha. The following years, a number of films came from this talented filmmaker and he started making sensitive films keeping an eye on the commercial elements of cinema. These included Parinati (1986), Bandish (1996), Mrityudand (1997), Dil Kya Kare (1999) and Rahul (2001). Apart from features, he has made 42 documentaries till date. He also contributed to the genre of Hindi sitcoms on Indian television with his comedy series, Mungherilal Ke Haseen Sapne (1990), which became very popular.

Changing Lanes

As the art film movement began to wane in India in the 1990s, Jha tried to change track and make a place for himself in the mainstream movie world of Mumbai. His first commercial venture, Bandish (1996) failed at the box office despite having stars like Jackie Shroff and Juhi Chawla in the cast. An undeterred Jha mounted another ambitious project, called Mrityudand (1997). The film, a tribute to women, had reigning superstar Madhuri Dixit in the lead role. Set in rural Bihar, it featured two protagonists, played by Dixit and Shabana Azmi, who challenge the social mores designed and controlled by the male order. Jha's gamble paid off this time, as the film got both public and critical appreciation. He had made a place for himself in mainstream Bollywood. His next few films, Dil Kya Kare (1999), Rahul (2001), Apaharan and Gangajal cemented his position in Bollywood as a leading filmmaker.

Over the years, Jha's ouevre has been increasingly dealing with political issues, especially set in the backdrop of Bihar. While Gangajal depicted the good and bad elements of the police force in Bihar manipulated by its wily politicians, Apharan explored the complex relationship between a father (Mohan Agashe) and son (Ajay Devgan), set against the backdrop of a thriving kidnapping industry in Bihar. His next directorial venture, Rajneeti, will again deal with a similar theme. "It is a take on the India democratic system, loktantra as we call it," he told me. The film is in pre-production stage and shooting is expected to start in Januray 2008.

New Initiatives

Founding a production house of his own has marked a new beginning for this filmmaker. He intends to produce 4-5 films every year under his banner. "I will make evey kind of film which I think will work," he said.

The first film to come out of his stable is Dil Dosti etc. (2007) which has has been helmed by a debutant director, Manish Tiwari. Does it mean his production house will promote new talent?

"Yeah, I am quite open to it," he said in affirmation.

Speaking of Dil Dosti Etc, he said, "This was a first time director Manish Tewary with a cast of small time actors and it works very well for its cost."

The response to this new film has been good. "It is doing pretty well in most of India. Apart from the eastern territory which is Bengal and Bihar, the film is doing extremely well in Delhi, Jaipur, Indore, Bombay, Mysore, and the first week collections have met our expectations," he told India Se.

As a filmmaker, as Jha has changed gears, so has the filmmaking scene in an ever-evolving Bollywood. More and more corporate houses and even Hollywood studios are getting into Bollywood. What does he make of this transition?

"I don't think the variety of films is likely to change very much. The Indian market is also in transition. You didn't hear a few years ago like weekend collections of films, films recovering their cost in one week in India. So, the full texture of marketing is changing rapidly. That is what is attracting the western studios," he said.

So, is Jha afraid of these changes? Will he work with the Hollywood studios if given a chance? "Given a chance, I think, means if there is a subject which is acceptable and there's a market for it, then why not?" he said.

But Hollywood's studios have this reputation of limiting a director's creativity. Will it not upset him? "I don't know. I haven't dealt with them. And if marketing begins to dictate your content, then so be it," he said candidly.

For such a fearless filmmaker, nothing can come in the way of achieving greater success.

A version of this piece appeared in India Se (Nov. 2007). Khoya Khoya Chand, directed by Sudhir Mishra, is Prakash Jha Production's next release.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On writer's block, blogs and 'dumbocracy of news'

Married, with a day job. That could perhaps be, practically speaking, an alternative definition of a writer's block. If you throw kids into the equation, the situation could be far worse for a writer. That's the recipe for a guaranteed dry spell.

Laugh, laugh. But I cannot take much credit for this observation. I thought of it after reading this snippet in Outlook. Here it goes:
Nalini Jones, author of debut short story collection What You Call Winter, recounted her meeting with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. "How can you write?" Jhabvala asked Jones, who has a double writer’s handicap: married, with a day job. "I could because I was in India," Jhabvala went on to add. "Over there we have servants to do everything."

Next topic. Blogs. Tehelka's Shoma Chaudhury (I admire hers and Tarun Tejpal's writings in Tehelka) thinks that 'blogs are totally overrated'. Why? Becuase they lack rigour (True in most cases). And in an interview with the famous journalist and editor Tina Brown, she almost makes her agree. Brown personally does not like to blog because it does not bring her any moolah. However, she has her eyes fixed on the cyberspace as her next El Dorado. She says:

That’s what the DNA of my website will be. Rigour. I don’t want any more spouting of sloppy opinions. I don’t have the time. ABC just fired 75 TV journalists and hired 75 bloggers instead, responsible only to themselves. It’s insane to do that to your brand. This is just the exuberance of a new medium. No one wants to look uncool, but who’s reading it? People keep asking me to blog, but I’m not going to lower my standards, and why would I write for nothing? Haven’t done that since childhood.

The Tina Brown interview is excellent in which she talks about the dumbocracy of news.

By the way, did you read that news that Facebook has tied up with ABC News and Facebook members can track US politics with those '75 bloggers' recruited by ABC?

Sounds interesting? Here's Wired's take on this development:

ABC News said today it signed a deal with Facebook, which, as far as we can tell, basically entails ABC News-branded election forums where Facebook users can vent discuss politics. ABC News reports from the campaign trail will also be folded into Facebook's U.S. Politics application.

Although financial details weren't disclosed, we can't help but wonder how much cash ABC News spent to get into Facebook's exclusive club -- the arrangement sounds suspiciously similar to deals signed with AOL and Yahoo back in 1999, when dot-com startups spent millions of dollars for real estate on the portal sites. And occasionally went bankrupt in the process.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Are reviewers/critics eunuchs?

In his diary, Outlook's editor Vinod Mehta talks about British (food) critic A.A. Gill who has the reputation of being a slasher. He writes:

Gill says people often ask him that since he claims to know so much about food, why doesn’t he open a restaurant. He answers with a borrowed quote: "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem—they know how it is done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves." Gill adds: "That’s smart but not quite right. Critics may well be like eunuchs in a harem who know how it is done—but having seen it done every day, they just don’t fancy having it done to them."

So, are reviewers or critics eunuchs?

Or, as referred to by Bollywood director Farah Khan, are film critics "retards"?

(Reference: During the 'word association' segment of one of those 'rapid fire' things on Koffee With Karan not so long ago the host tossed this word out: Critics.
Pat came the answer, from guest Farah Khan: 'Retards'.)


Is criticism the last resort of the creative failures? If you can't do, teach, goes the saying. If you can't do, criticise. Can this be said about critics?

Quickly, let me say, I don't buy this line of argument. Like anybody else, critics work in a line, with some knowledge, some hindsight and foresight. And anybody who has this ability can be a critic--on his blog or in the column inches of the mainstream media if he/she can convince the powers that be that he/she can do the job. Or in the adda or on the beramda of one's own's house.

But is it that simple? I want to look at this debate more closely.

In any creative business, there are many parties involved. On the one hand, there are the creators of products (a film, a novel or a meal, for example) and their marketers and distributors; on the other, there are consumers (who consume the products for a pay or fee). In between, there is the media and its practitioners. They review the products (a film, a novel or a gadget), on the basis of their knowledge and taste (and some other factors that vary from individual to individual), and signal to the consumer whether the product is good or bad (in their opinion).

Or, as Charles Taylor put it in a 1999 Salon article, critics often act as the hype filters:

We don't need critics to tell us how we feel, or how to feel. But bouncing your own reactions off of a critic's can sometimes help you explain why you feel the way you do about movies. Critics have long been the only independent voice standing between moviegoers and the millions of dollars (today, hundreds of millions) studios use to promote movies. Like any advertisers out to push their product, studio publicists campaign to control public perception; that's one of the reasons for the current emphasis on the business side of movies, the blurring of the line between journalism and publicity. Movie journalism has become more and more dictated by hype.


However, in the age of instant communication (TV, internet and blogs), people are increasingly questioning the validity of this go-between tribe's existence and judgement on products. Anybody with a blog can now review a book or a film. And even some of the professionals have taken to the internet to publish their views (reviews).

Now, when a product receives unkind reviews, who does the creator blame? Where do they see vested interests sabotaging their creation? Where do they see well-known critics settling scores with the creators? Of course, they blame the mainstream media critics because what they say still matters.

Some think that certain reviewers are not knowledgeable enough to comment on their work. They question their credentials and get personal (if the reviewer gets personal), and all this tamasha goes on in the cyberspace with hundreds of people chipping in with their supportive or critical views. Fair enough for a democtaric medium like the inernet.

But this raises some interesting questions. How should a work of art (a product) be reviewed? Who should review it? And, sometimes, even the creator getting in the way, suggesting, after the fact, how it should have been reviewed. In case of a film, for example, how valid is the reviewer's criticism.

I'm writing this in the context of the debate that started with Anurag Kashyap's latest release, No Smoking. Hands down, NS is the most debated Indian film in the recent years (just look at the sheer number of posts and responses from Anurag and his readers at Passion For Cinema or at Rediff.com).

Khalid Mohammad, a well-known critic and a filmmaker himself, rubbished NS in his review in a national daily. Anurag, in anger, retaliated in these words on his blog:

Sitting in rome reading the extreme reactions and reviews.. I don’t mind taran’s review for he in his seven lives would not have understood why someone would like to make a film like this.. Khalid reviewed me and not the film and from his review all i can say is neither has he read “Quitter’s inc” nor has he seen “cat’s eye”.. he just read the comments on PFC.. and i will say to him is , “Chutiye tu retire ho ja , tera time khatam.”

The debate has also licked the two most recent commercial releases, Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya. Unlike the latter, the former received favourable reviews and trade pundits gave it a thumbs up. In defence, filmmaker Karan Johar paid a glowing tribute to Bhansali.

On this issue, a guest blogger has this to say on PFC:

Both the directors of NS & SAAWARIYA are miffed with reviewers and really disappointed with audiences..Whatsoever their genuine reasons may be regarding some of the reviewers who could be biased but both have given generalized and sweeping statements denouncing the reviewers and lamenting the dumbing down of audience tastes..I beg to differ.

I have high regards for both the directors’ capabilities..But the issue is not about talent, vision, knowledge and skills..The issue is much deeper and affects many others in Bollywood..Both have refused somehow to accept the fate of their movies..Anuraag Kashyap(AK) has still shown some courage to come down from where- he –smoked- a –classic- mild after getting the first reactions in papers and electronic media and has gingerly accepted people’s verdict but his stance is still rebellious..He has his reasons to justify himself..And he has gone on record saying henceforth he will make movies(apart from what he is his personal agenda) that even a toddler can understand..He wants to hold a mirror to the audiences and not pander to them..Fair enough..But who decides whether audience wants a mirror or a mirage?And how one can force them to see in the mirror?.. Moreover in AK’s acceptance of audience verdict one senses ( at least I do) a taste of bitterness.

On the other side Sanjay Leela Bhansali(SLB) has lots of difficulty in coming down from his arrogant pedestal..He has a kind of paranoia..He thinks his movie has been sabotaged by the reviewers..And first time people did not go to watch it only because of the reviews...


Anyway, back to the original issue. Are we seeing something changing through this debate and online chatter?

There are signs. If you think this is just an Indian issue, think again. On the larger questions of film criticism, the debate is getting global. Here's a report from Variety:

Back in March, British film historian and Guardian blogger Ronald Bergan launched a withering attack on the state of contemporary film criticism.
In a blog entry titled "What every film critic must know," Bergan complained that modern film criticism was far too subjective and not nearly analytical enough.

"Most reviewers deal primarily with the content of a film rather than the style because they don't have the necessary knowledge to do so," Bergan wrote. "This leads me to believe that film critics should have some formal education in their subject, such as a degree in film studies."

So, what are your thoughts on this? Or as the Salon piece's blurb put it, in a culture increasingly driven by hype, who matters more? The critic or you?

PS: Great minds (or wicked minds?) think alike (wink, wink). Just spotted this on rediff.com. Columnist Bolly Woods poses some more questions on the film criticism debate. Here are the relevant excerpts:

...last night I watched Ratatouille for a second time, and the words of food critic Anton Ego (in the cultivated, cultured accents of Peter O'Toole) jumped out at me. Remember?

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little; yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

"But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

That segment in the film raised a whole heap of questions about critics and criticism -- questions I hope you can, and will, answer: What value do you place on film criticism? Do reviews help you decide which movies to watch, and which to avoid? Has a critic ever influenced you in favour of, or against, a film, and/or its maker? Has a critic ever enhanced your understanding/appreciation of a particular film?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A little break and some short notes

I got lucky to get a few days of break from work. Apart from writing some long-committed pieces, also got a chance to see a few movies. Some I have been wanting to see for quite a while now, others I saw on the insistence of family and friends. The following are not film reviews; I am just recording my impressions as I tend be quite forgetful.

I will start with Ekachai Uekrongtham's Pleasure Factory. This film, shot in Singapore's red light district Geylang, had made it to the Cannes recently. Though the reviews had not been encouraging, I wanted to see it any way. I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few people in the theatre on a week day afternoon screeing, and the good thing was that, except for a few chuckles in the beginning, they behaved quite well. They kept quiet throughtout the screening. Not sure if they had fallen asleep but some even clapped when the film ended.

The film was shot digitally, that too at night, so it showed on the screen which was visually not pleasant. The camerawork is less than professional even though perhaps the attempt was to get a documentary feel to the product. There is hardly any story (the narrative is incoherent with a few storylines going from somewhere to no where). The actors, whatever little they were allowed to do, apart from taking their clothes off and shedding tears, have acquitted themselves honorably. Some scenes seem to have been spliced in as an after thought. Characters suddenly begin to speak to someone out of the frame in a mockumentary fashion. There are long streches of bared bodied gymnastics and silences and reveries (without thought bubbles), that is sometimes artistic but mostly boring. If the director had meant to tell the story of Geylang as a visual poem, then its poetry does not sing nor does it touch the soul of the viewer.

However, I liked the symbolism in the movie. Of beautiful fish trapped in an acquarium like the fair-skinned, tarted-up girls trapped in the flesh trade. Of vending machines symolizing the flesh market with humans as cans of flavoured drink ready to satisfy your thirst for a coin.

My disapointment stemmed not from the fact that it was "amateurish in design and look" or the story was "maladroitly assembled" but from the lack of any meat in the film. I had hoped that I would emerge from the theatre with some insights on the sex trade and what fuelled it. Perhaps the filmmaker had nothing to say on this in the first place.

During the break, my long time wish to see Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland was also fulfilled. This marvellous film, based on a novel, deservedly got Forest Whitaker (playing Uganda's dictator Idi Amin) the best actor Academy Award in 2006. The film keeps a taut focus on the relationship between a chamelion-like Amin and playboy doctor Nicholas Garrigan (played by the talented James McAvoy), without going deeper into the politics of mass killings and Amin's dictatorial regime. This film makes it to my all time favourites list.

I also watched Gautam Ghosh's Yatra. I don't know if many are even aware of this film which highlihts the dichotomy between fact and fiction, between imagination and reality, between witing a story and turning it into cinema; at the same time, the film makes a great comment on the marginalisation of literature (and of moral values) in this age of commercially sponsored film and TV. Nana Patekar, playing the lead as an award-winning writer, has given a subdued yet impressive performance. The dialogues by Rashid Iqbal are amazingly witty or caustic in a literary way. If you are a writer, you should watch this film.

I also watched Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om on its second day of release. The theatre was packed and it seemed people lived every moment of the movie. Short of dancing in the aisles, people clapped and laughed with the antics of Shah Rukh Khan.

In one sentence, the film is a tribute to the Hindi film industry and celebrates whatever Bollywood means and stands for. Farah's film even cocks a snock at Hollywood through the villainous character of Mike (Arjun Rampal).

My wife loved the movie's madness and I was oaky with it. But the film reminded me of the movies of Mr Bachchan in the 1980s (and the hysteria they created among the masses), films that were especially created for him by his pet directors, showcasing his variegated talent in a larger than life way. After that Mr Bachchan's films began to flop. I hope SRK watches out and keeps making films like Chak De. For a detailed take on this film, read Deepika's post here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A remarkable debut

I had reviewed Tan Twan Eng's novel The Gift of Rain when I had interviewed him. It appeared in India Se (Nov 2007). Here's the full version:

The Gift of Rain
By Tan Twan Eng
Myrmidion, S$34.95

This year’s Man Booker Prize long list surprised many Booker watchers as established literary names were sidestepped to make way for new literary talents. Tan Twan Eng with his The Gift of Rain was one of them, about whom or whose debut novel hardly anyone had heard before.

Twan, a lawyer by profession, had struggled to find a publisher for his novel through his agent; but all that agony paid off with the Booker nomination.

Though the novel did not make it to the Booker shortlist, it immediately grabbed the attention of readers the world over and made it to the Amazon.com’s best seller list. Impressive for a little known work of fiction by a Malaysian writer!

And after reading it, I am asking why didn’t it make to the shortlist? I sincerely thought it was deserving of going further.

The novel is set in the Second World War time of Penang, then under British Malaya. The story is narrated by the novel’s protagonist Philip Hutton, a half-Chinese, half-English young man. Though in the novel’s opening scene, we meet a much older Philip who welcomes an old Japanese lady to his house, and the meeting leads to the opening of the floodgates of his memory.

As the masterful narrative unfolds, we are taken around Penang with a cast of exceptionally etched out characters who stay with us long after we have finished reading the last sentence. In the novel, the mystical Penang, with all its geography, architecture, beaches, temples, rainforests, sounds and smells, itself comes across as a solid character.

In the heart of the narrative lies the friendship between the 16-year old Philip and a much older Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo, who comes to Penang with a special mission. The friendship flourishes into the relationship of master and disciple when Philip starts learning aikido from Endo.

Like all relationships in life, this too exacts a price and both Philip and Endo have to pay that price in a manner that can only haunt and overwhelm the reader. The values of love and friendship and the steadfast courage in the face of betrayal and barbarism -- all such human conditions have been deeply and marvelously explored in the mesmerizing weave of a narrative.

Twan not just impresses you with his wisdom and grace in writing, it is his powerful sense of aesthetic description and acute observation, in splendidly crafted metaphors and epithets that make you sit up and intensely enjoy the work. Sample this: “It was a balmy night, the sea giving off a metallic sheen, the sky starless, an unending sheet of black velvet.” Almost every paragraph is embellished with such beautifully chiseled sentences.

Once you start reading, Twan’s words will fascinate you. It is his writing power that has turned the story of a friendship into sort of a mythic narrative. This is definitely one of the most powerful debuts in recent years which makes a lot of contemporary fiction seem incredibly shallow in comparison.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A gifted writer

I had interviewed Malaysian novelist, Tan Twan Eng, sometime ago for India Se. I am reproducing the full interview here for your reading pleasure. Hope you enjoy reading it.

You are a lawyer by profession. How did you decide to become a writer? Were you inspired by some other writers or you genuinely felt that you had something to express?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I began reading children’s books at the age of four or five, without realising how difficult it is to write. But as I grew older I became aware that it’s almost impossible to make a living from it, and so I decided to read Law when the time came to choose a career. I don’t regret it, because it’s given me an awareness of the importance of writing with clarity, and it’s made me a more disciplined writer. As I used to be an intellectual property lawyer, it’s also been useful whenever I have to read the publisher’s contracts.

Some of the books I’ve read were so awful that I often told myself, ‘I can do much better than this.’ But I was also galvanised into action by some writers who took my breath away with their writing: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Andre Brink, Edmund White, Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov. Reading these authors made me realise how unlimited, varied and vibrant the world of the imagination could be.

When did you start to think of writing The Gift of Rain? What motivations were at work?

I started to seriously think of writing a book when I was doing my Masters in Shipping Law in Cape Town, in 2003. At that point I had in mind of writing a massive history of Malaya and Malaysia from the late 18th century to present day. I soon realised I had taken on a heavy load and became dispirited about ever completing it. Then one day I decided I would take two of the minor characters from this work and write a much shorter novel about them. I told myself if I could finish this shorter novel, it would give me a strong boost of confidence to tackle the larger work. To my surprise this originally shorter novel which became The Gift of Rain soon grew to the size it is now.

In many ways, The Gift of Rain is a testament to the island of Penang, to what is fast disappearing: the beautiful and elaborate architecture from the 1900s, which combined Anglo-Indian elements with local Malay and Peranakan and Chinese influences. Such a combination has resulted in buildings which are unique and which should be protected – shophouses, schools, mansions, townhouses and municipal buildings. Unfortunately, they are being torn down to make way for modern apartment blocks, shopping malls and coffee shops.

I wanted to record the old way of life in Penang before it all faded away, to capture that wonderful, nostalgic atmosphere that is found only on this island.

As I’m interested in the meeting of Western and Eastern thoughts and philosophies, The Gift of Rain is also an exploration of these issues – I wanted to see how different and yet similar they are.

But most of all, I wanted to tell a strong, emotionally-resonant story that would remain lodged in the reader’s memory for the rest of his or her life.

Did you always imagine setting your novel in the Second World War era? And, was it a difficult novel to write as it deals with a historical time period?

There was never any question that The Gift of Rain would be set around and during the Second World War. It is such a fertile period for a writer: the world was changing, painfully, with great uncertainty and chaos. Something of the old order was coming to an end, and no one then knew what was going to replace it.

It wasn’t a difficult novel to write from that aspect. I’ve always been a history buff and I’ve been collecting books on that era since I was a teenager. I know my history and it was merely a question of going back to the materials to reconfirm a particular fact.

As I was living in South Africa at that time and most of my books were in Malaysia, I owe my mother a debt of gratitude for her patience in answering my questions I’d sent via email. I often asked her to get a particular book from my shelf, open it to a particular chapter, and tell me if I had gotten a name or a date correct.

The West expects a certain kind of writing or certain elements in a work of fiction from writers coming from the East. Did this consideration cross your mind while you were penning your novel?
No, I wrote with a wonderful lack of self-imposed restrictions. That’s always the case with a first novel, I feel, this total freedom – beginner-writers have no awareness of the rules they may be breaking, and that’s when truly original and exciting art is created. I was aware that there were certain aspects of lifestyle or custom which I had to explain to a reader who is unfamiliar with this part of the world, and I had to find a balance to ensure that my clarifications would not be tedious to a reader who is completely familiar with the East. This was the hardest part of writing The Gift of Rain, finding this balance.

There is also a strong element of subversion to The Gift of Rain – One of my goals when I began writing was to subvert the expectations of readers, especially readers in Asia, who’ve grown up with the same plot-structures in story-telling as I have.

Being a first time novelist, how was the journey from writing to publication to Booker nomination? Did you feel overly frustrated or overly elated at any point of time?

The Gift of Rain encountered difficulties in obtaining a publisher. The major publishing houses sent back positive comments (barring one or two which said it was dull and boring!) but the editorial teams had to get feedback from the sales teams, and quite often it was these sales teams which said The Gift of Rain would be difficult to market. I became doubtful if it’d ever be published and here credit must go to my agent, who’s an amazing woman. She’s been in the business for 20 years and she’s always been unwavering in her faith. “Don’t worry,” she’d always tell me. “I’ve never been wrong. It’ll be published.” In the meantime she told me to start work on my second novel. It’s funny, because on the day the nominations were announced, my agent had phone calls from publishers saying, “You were right!” I was glad that her faith in me had been paid off, had been vindicated.

Did you ever imagine that your debut work will make it to the Booker Long list? How did you feel when you got the news?

I never imagined it would make it to the Man Booker Long List, although like many authors I had hopes of that happening! Which author doesn’t? When I was informed that The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I was naturally stunned, elated and also fearful. I was fearful of the sudden focus of attention to my novel, I was fearful of the weight of expectation this would bring. But I was also grateful that The Gift of Rain would now be taken to a larger, worldwide audience of discerning book-lovers. It had been doing well even in the two months before the announcement of the Longlist, when it went all the way up to No. 41 on the amazon.co.uk bestseller list. Since then it’s been hovering in the Top 100, occasionally falling to the 500s. But with the news of the longlisting the sales have risen tremendously. It’s now going to be translated into Italian, Greek, and, surprisingly, Serbian.

It was also an incredible honour to be on the Longlist together with established authors like Ian McEwan. In fact the publisher is the youngest publisher ever to have a novel nominated in the history of the Booker Prize. The first thing I did was to send an email to thank my agent for her support.

I was not at home the night the announcement was issued but when I got back and checked my e-mail, I had a slew of mails from my agent and publisher. They had kindly put “CONGRATULATIONS!” on the subject heading. And since I wasn’t expecting a baby at that stage, I knew I had been nominated before I even opened the mails. For the first time in my life I could not fall asleep that night. Quite bizarre, actually. So at 3 a.m. I decided to get up from bed and begin answering the emails which had come in from friends and family.

A few years back, it was Tash Aw in the Booker long list. This year, it’s you. Do you think it is a sign that Malaysians writing in English have started to make their mark?

I think Tash Aw’s Booker nomination was in 2004 or 2005, wasn’t it? But yes, I think it’s a sign that Malaysians are starting to make their mark in the literary world. It’s exciting, but we face such strong competition from writers around the world. Especially India! Which regularly produces writers of impressive calibre.

What’s your next project going to be? Another novel or a collection of short stories?

My next project will be a novel set in Malaya after the war. I am just starting to write some short stories. It’s difficult for me to write short stories since I hardly ever read them. I prefer the extended relationship and commitment a novel requires!

Aside from writing, I will be speaking at the Singapore Writers’ Festival in December this year, the Perth Writers’ Festival early next year, and also the Asian Man Booker Festival in Hong Kong thereafter. I enjoy these festivals because I get to listen to feedback from readers of The Gift of Rain from so many places.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Impressions from a reading

I had been looking forward to Rana Dasgupta's reading ever since Deepika had informed me about it. Rana too was kind enough to drop me an email reminding me of the event. There was no way I could have given it a miss, even though I was working on that day.

Why was I interested in Rana Dasgupta?

To be frank, I have not read his debut novel, Tokyo Cancelled except in snatches. Like many other good novels, it lies unread in my list of must-read novels.

Was it the celebrity value then? The star power of a novelist? Maybe not. The star power of a novelist, seeing and listening to a writer about whom one had only read in the media and talked amongst friends, has got diluted over the years. He is among the dozens of young novelists that India produces on a regular basis year after year. He is not a Naipaul or a Rushdie, with many works and numerous awards under his belt. He has so far written only one novel. So why was I interested?

Rana is not a run of the mill author, I believed instinctively (unlike so many other young Indian writers crowding the scene today), that's why. I carried this impression after reading some of his pieces that appeared in newspapers and are available on his blog. Chucking a well-paying marketing job and globe-trotting lifestyle for the dead calm of a writerly life in Delhi is a gutsy decision for anyone to take. Rana had done that, and that impresses me most about him. "To decide to become a writer was an arrogant decision," he said during the one hour plus talk. There it is. I like this kind of stuff, when a writer says these kind of things, because when one talks like that, one knows that here is a man who understands what it means to be a writer, to decide to be a writer which comes with a certain obligation to the calling. That kind of seriousness in a writer is what impresses me most.

It took Naipaul five books to writer whenceupon he became sure of the fact that he had actually become a writer. To believe that you have become a writer, that you are a writer, is a big leap of faith. It is not a hollow pronouncement. It comes with certain givens that you have to respect and live with. That is very important to realise and I believed Rana was that kind of a Writer, a writer with a capital W.

Whatever passages Rana read from his forthcoming novel, tentatively called "Half Life" (a term taken from atomic physics, bears no connection to Naipaul's Half a Life), were mesmerising to say the least. In the reading, a retired, over 100-years-old, nearly blind methusaleh in Bulgaria takes in the view of the city from his window. The tapestry of images and sounds that Rana has woven is marvellous and reminded me of the prose of Borges, Marquez and Coetzee. It was sheer pleasure to hear him read those passages.

During the talk, peppered with innocuous yet perceptive questions from some of the students, Rana talked about many things. Why he decided to settle down in Delhi (love, conversations with a set of creatively-inclined friends), why did he name his novel Tokyo Cancelled (he didn't and it could have been NY Cancelled or London Cancelled but he wanted to shift the focus to an Asian setting for his tale of globalisation), how cinematic images inform his sense of setting a scene in his works (he mentioned a little known movie that showed New York's highways and bridges completely empty of people or vehicles, I forgot the name of the film), how he admires the short stories of Roald Dahl (when a kid asked him about his fav children's author) and what he was trying to do in his next novel (Half Life), due out in early 2009.

For a view from the other side of the table, read Deepika Shetty's post on the event. You will enjoy reading it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

On Bergman

There is this saying in Hindi: Yeh moonh aur masoor ki daal!

I was reminded of it when I saw my interview on Ingmar Bergman in Sarah Buck's column in Academia. More than anything else, it was an honour to talk about Bergman who will be remembered as one of the towering figures in international cinema.

You can read the interview here.

If you have something to say about it, please drop me a line.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bollywood Hollywired!

A few years ago, India's crossover queen Aishwarya Rai made it to the cover of the Time magazine. In India, it was then considered a nod to Bollywood's emerging international clout.

But recently, when Newsweek put Ronnie Screwala, a relatively newcomer Bollywood producer, on its cover, it signalled the marking of a new faultline in the world of entertainment business. More than a nod, it was a screaming acknowledgement that Bollywood had remarkably arrived on the international entertainment scene. It was time Hollywood, the world's richest and most influential film industry, took its minuscule contender, Bollywood, the world's largest producer of films, seriously!

On the other side, the news has brought a fresh bout of enthusiasm and excitement to Bollywood's upcoming directors, especially those who do not belong to the established film production houses such as Yashraj Films (Run by veteran filmmaker Yash Chopra and his son Aditya Chopra who produced India's biggest blockbuster ever, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), Dharma Productions (of Karan Johar of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kahbhi Khushi Kabhi Gham fame) or Factory (of filmmaker Ramgopal Varma, the maker of hits such as Satya and Sarkar), just to name a few.

Emerging Bollywood writer and director Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, 2007; No Smoking, 2007) cried on his blog: "Believe me, there is going to be a change in order in this Hindi film industry. There definitely is a new wave, I have seen it coming, the world is also seeing it which is why Ronnie Screwwala is on the cover of NEWSWEEK and not Aishwarya Rai or Yashraj or Amitabh Bachchan."

For upcoming filmmakers like Anurag, entry of Hollywood symbolises the end of the tyranny of the status quo in Bollywood, for Bollywood's new blood wants an end of the dominance of the few "mom-and-pop" variety of filmmaking houses in the Hindi film industry.

Aiding them in this endeavour are the Hollywood studios. Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt once said that Bollywood is connected to Hollywood by some invisible umbilical cord. He was talking in terms of Hollywood's influence on Bollywood. Well, in the new century, the umbilical cord is becoming increasingly visible. And there are some cold reasons for this.

Bollywood has been seeing domestic and foreign boom in its reach and revenues. In 2006, India's film business grossed about $2 billion, up from $1.5 billion in 2004, reported The Newsweek. Revenue will leap to more than $4 billion over the next five years, forecasts PricewaterhouseCoopers. Bollywood’s gain in the overseas market is stupendous. Some Indian producers are realizing up to 30% of their total earnings from the overseas market. In Europe, Bollywood has increasingly taken the centrestage, getting quite popular in Germany, Poland, Russia, and England. The USA, Canada and UK are the major export destinations. Other territories such as Japan, South Africa, Mauritius, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East are fast becoming important markets for Indian films.

The game is getting global, the pie is increasing but Hollywood is not getting any of it.

For despite its presence for a long time, Hollywood could not increase its box office share in India's entertainment sector. In fact, Hollywood's market share on India's box office has been swinging between 5 and 8%. The only way it can increase its box office profits in India, they reckoned, is through financing Bollywood films. So, if you can't beat them, join them seems to be the idea behind this jockeying. That's why all these Hollywood giants are flocking to Bollywood.

But why now?

"Apart from the business angle which is the main angle," says Prakash Jha, a veteran Bollywood director and producer (Gangajal, 2001 and Apaharan, 2005), explaining the factors that is drawing Hollywood studios to Bollywood, "the Hollywood studios are also sort of trying to look at the consolidation of Indian production and distribution outlets, corporatisation and some kind of fiscal discipline. They are now surer of taking advantage of this."

With 11,000 domestic screens and millions of eager eyeballs, it is this whopping domestic and foreign success of Bollywood that is inspiring its filmmakers to thing big, think global. So, buyoed by Bollywood's success, when Indian filmmakers like Screwala start gunning for even Hollywood, the world takes note of them. It is remarkable that The Newsweek dubbed Indian film producer Ronnie Screwvala as "the front runner in the race to become Bollywood's Jack Warner—the man who began the transformation of parochial U.S. cinema into its modern global form." Screwvala, the man behind the super hit Rang De Basanti (2006), produced Mira Nair-directed The Namesake, and is now coproducing The Happening, a new sci-fi thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan with a budget of $57 million. "Our ambition is to be a global Indian entertainment company—there's no reason we can't make big-budget Hollywood movies, too," Screwvala told The Newsweek.

Srewwala's rise has been spectacular. An impressed Disney has bought a 15 percent stake in his UTV for $14 million in 2006. UTV already has forged coproduction deals with Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures, as well as with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment.

But other players are also getting into the game in a big way. Sony Picture was the first to step in and its first film Saawariya, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali is releasing in November during Diwali. Viacom has inked a 50-50 joint venture deal with Raghav Bahl, head of Network 18. The venture, called Viacom 18, will produce and distribute TV shows, digital media and (eventually) 10 to 12 movies a year. Together, they have raised $112 million from a London Stock Exchange flotation. Also, three Indian studios held IPOs in London this year, raising a combined $220 million.

Before Viacom jumped into the fray, Disney made a deal with Yash Raj Films in June to take both companies into India's growing CGI animation business. The deal is to make one cartoon film budgeted at $4 million-$10 million each year.

The latest Hollywood studio to gamble on the Bollywood game is, as Variety recently reported, Warner Bros. It is backing its first India production, the action comedy Made in China, to be directed by Nikhil Advani. At a budget of US$12 million, it will be the most expensive Bollywood film yet.

So, where would Bollywood go from here? Will it affect the nature of Bollywood's narratives that is the hallmark of Hindi films? "I don't think the variety of films is likely to change very much," says Jha.

Will then Hollywood's entry in Bollywood shake up the established production houses in Mumbai?

Jha does not think so. "No, they will continue to dominate because most of the times these collaborations would be with these corporate houses. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is collaborating with Sony Pictures. He's got a brand which is acceptable to the western market. Yash Chopra is also collaborating with them for animation films and multiple products. So, collaborations with big Indian production houses are bound to happen."

Unlike Kashyap, Jha is not sure if Hollywood studios will promote new talent in Bollywood. "The new talent is getting promoted by the India corporate houses anyway," he told Today. "You are seeing Percept Pictures or Adlab Films or Reliance Entertainment are working both with tried hands and also the new hands. All kinds of films are being made because now there are possibilities of exhibiting these films in terms of limited shows in multiplexes. That was the sort of thing which was not available previously."

Agrees Gitesh Pandya, the editor of United States-based BoxofficeGuru.com and a film commentator on CNN: “As more companies from both countries tie up and make films together, we will probably see bigger and better films, especially if the projects involve the most talented filmmakers. New filmmakers will have more opportunities, but those who have been making films for generations will still have their place in the business.”

Whatever way the ball swings, it is great time for Bollywood filmmakers, for they would make hay (and some good movies too) while the sun shines. And most importantly, Bollywood might not barter its spicy grand narrative style for Hollywood’s money. Who can put it better than the king of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan himself: “My point is I do not want your money. I want your knowledge and technology. I am glad Sony, Columbia and Warner are all here. I like the tie up Yashraj has done with Walt Disney for animation. You tell me how to do it and I will tell my own story. I would like to collaborate with scriptwriters from there. They speak the international language better than we do. I would like to learn that. But the story would be mine and I would shoot it the way I want to.” (Outlook, Oct 22).

An edited version of this article appeared in The Weekend Today (Oct 27).