Monday, April 27, 2009

The unraveling of Budapest as a metaphor...

In an interesting feature on the unraveling of Budapest, MARCUS MABRY reminds us of the dangers of globalization, and how everything can all come undone.

In the years since China, then Russia and its satellites, joined the world economy, confidence has become the currency of this globalized world. One of our era’s dominant features had been a swaggering self-assurance, a sometimes smug pride in our modernity. Until it all started to come apart last year, a sense of optimism and possibility infected a border-hopping elite and, to some extent, the middle and working classes from Budapest to Bangalore.

Global trade rose as economic barriers fell, and prosperity grew and spread. More than a billion people were lifted out of poverty in the last four decades, most of them in Asia. And in much of Eastern Europe, prosperity and personal freedom arrived together.

We took that world for granted. We behaved as if it were perfectly natural to be able to travel freely from one side of Europe to the other, to withdraw money from our home checking accounts at A.T.M.’s in Africa.

An entire industry grew up around globalization, with its cheerleaders and critics, its Thomas Friedmans and Fareed Zakarias on one side, and Joseph Stiglitzes and Samuel Huntingtons on the other.

Now, the globalized world faces its greatest challenge: an economic contraction the likes of which it has never seen. As many economies shrink under the burden of bank bailouts and consumers and creditors tighten their grips on their wallets, unemployment will rise most everywhere.


Akshay, Katrina and Singapore's Billu Barber

Ever since ST Life! correspondent Deepika Shetty wrote about Bollywood film director Priyadarshan's shooting schedule in Singapore, she says that her life has become miserable.

"Since last week, my mail box has been filled with requests, my cell phone has buzzed so many times that I've been forced to switch it to a perpetually silent mode. Random folks call my office line pretending to pitch stories, when all they want is a brush with the stars" she writes in her ST blog. "Acquaintances have re-surfaced almost as dramatically as they had exited from my life. I have open-ended invites to lunches, to dinners, to drinks, even to salons to get my hair done."

Well, perhaps Deepika did not realise that there is price one has to pay for being able to be up, close and personal with celebs! I was not surprised at all at the reaction she got. "People are generally star-struck and the reaction you are getting is bound to happen when it comes to Indians and Bollywood stars" I told her.

Given the topic, I have two points to make here:

1. In the age of YouTube, when theoretically every one could be a star, why are people still so star-struck? Stars used to be demigods but in the age of Blogs and Twitter, they come across as savvy businessmen plying their trade. Let them be, folks--that's what I want to tell people! Let the stars do their job. Watch their craft, if you have to, but with a distance, and let the journalist do his or her job in peace. What's the point of basking in reflected glory by being photographed with actors?

Many actors and filmmakers now connect with their fans through blogs and other social networking sites. You can connect with Shah Rukh Khan, for example, on Twitter. Why not do that? You can even send him a direct message!

And since so many Indians are so web savvy, can't anyone do what Natalie Portman is doing for Hollywood with her social networking venture, MakingOf!

2. I have seen that some newspapers (even in Singapore) have their journalists pictured with stars (Hollywood/Hong Kong/ Musicians) and these stories (with the star struck journo standing by the side of the stars) getting published with a clear regularity. Their writings are also so fan-like. I believe that when a journalist is interviewing someone, for that moment, he or she is on par with the interviewee. The job needs certain seriousness--if you are not serious (in purpose) you are not being fair with the interviewee who is giving you his/her time. Displaying the behaviour of a fan does not suit a journalist. In private life, yes, (in a blog, yes) but not as a journalist of a serious newspaper.

Is my opinion too old school?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rubina@Slumdog Millionaire for sale/Tehelka hacked

I completely share the angst and anger of director Shekhar Kapur on the sting operation on Rubina, that little girl from the Bombay slums who acted in the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire.

"I was aghast though at the sting operation done by that British Tabloid, which instead of being condemned world wide is being heralded as a great piece of journalism !" says Kapur on his blog.

What has happened to our sense of morality? Newspapers should direct their resources and investigative skills at unearthing corruption in government and military and not on poor folks. India's Tehelka has shown it time and again, hasn't it?

Shekhar goes on:

Not a single thought was given to the trauma that the little girl would go through with world wide publicity that her own father was trying to sell her. And what was the tabloid trying to do ? Trying to push a father to name a price for his daughter's adoption ? To go to a poor man in a slum who has spent his life not knowing where the next meal is going to come from, and then dangle a few hundred thousand pounds in front of him to entice and entangle him into a negotiation for the adoption of his daughter ? By enticing him to say those words that would make headlines all over the world ? How dare they judge and manipulate other people and their moral predicaments from their comfortable colonial point of view. I would rather have them arrested for obscene suggestions and offers than the father for coming to the negotiating table.


On a separate note, looks like investigative newspaper website Tehelka has been hacked! Does anyone have any clue?

Monday, April 20, 2009

W./Road to Guantanamo

It has been a while now since I wanted to talk about Oliver Stone’s W. and Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s Road to Guantanamoo. Stone recently screened the film in Singapore. As I had suspected, he told the audience that he had found it difficult to raise money for the 25 million dollars film (Why would mainstream Hollywood want to bankroll a project like W.?). Help came from various quarters, most importantly, from Hong Kong. Josh Brolin walked in when Christian Bale walked out at the last moment as he thought the make up was not working for him. Brolin is good in the film. Difficult to say it is the same guy who was in No Country for Old Men (2007).

What I loved about the movie was its straightforward narrative—a crooked man’s tale simply told still remains a crooked man’s tale. The bookending of the narrative with stadium scenes works amazingly. The film starts with a confident though wayward Bush and through the movie his character is transformed—he is “born again”. By the end of the movie, he leaves the scene confused and jaded.

Loved the way Richard Dreyfuss plays the wily Dick Cheney. If you see the war room meetings, you will know why Iraq was attacked. For vendetta and oil. Cheney’s character actually says there is no exit strategy from Iraq as there will be no exit. Permanent occupation. Is that the Neocon’s big plan—permanent occupation from Afpak to Iran?

Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s Road to Guantanamo is a different ballgame. It is as searing and intense as it could get. And yet it is playful when it deals with a group of innocent guys from UK visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bombing scenes are so real that you feel that you yourself are getting bombed—you feel dazed after watching those scenes. Some scenes (dehumanized Afghan prisoners, hungry, weak, over packed in little spaces) are so powerful, they seem like the perpetration of another holocaust—the only difference this time is that the victims are Muslims.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

State of Play

State of Play is a new film by Kevin Macdonald, the director of The Last King of Scotland (which I loved). One of the themes is old vs new journalism, as pointed out by the this NYT review.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Social networking and the Indian elections

Are Indian elections boring? How Web-savvy are the Indian politicians and how some of them are using Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to connect with the electorate. From my MIS Asia blog:

The world isn’t concerned about Indian elections, complained an Indian TV channel.

The complaint is partly understandable. Starting April 16, the world’s largest democracy will be voting a new government to power. In a country of 1.1 billion people, about 700 million voters will decide the fate of more than 1,000 parties. These are humongous numbers by any standard.

Still, the world does not seem too keen to watch the Indian elections the same way that it was ardent about the recent American presidential elections that threw up Barack Obama as the celebrated winner.

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria told CNN-IBN that the world is not paying much attention to the Indian elections but that is happening in a very positive sense because everyone believes that India is a matured democracy and there would be political stability after the polls.

No drama

Perhaps underlying the argument is the fact that Indian elections lack dramatic tension. Also, there are no charismatic leaders like Barack Obama in the fray to whip up an electoral hysteria for the world to watch and follow. Not just the world, even people in India are not that excited about the elections so much so that Bollywood stars such as Aamir Khan have to come out and ask people to cast their vote.

In fact, perhaps Rush Limbaugh calling Indian workers ‘slumdogs’ will interest more people than a news item on the Indian elections. As our publisher Andrew Smart likes to put it, sadly, the world is about clicks and ratings.

That brings us to the main point of discussion here: How Web-savvy are the Indian politicians and political parties? And how are they harnessing the power of the Web?

One would expect that India, the land of outsourcing, will have extremely Web-savvy politicians. The facts are otherwise.

In general, most politicians are not Web-savvy and only a select few care about communicating through their websites and blogs. One influential politician even suggested banning English and computers, arguing that they did not benefit India’s rural population. When the media harped on this subject, they did a volte-face.

How could there be drama when the two prime ministerial candidates, despite their wisdom and experience, are not exactly youth icons? They are unfortunately on the wrong side of 60 in a country where a large number of voters are below 30. Incumbent Congress’s Manmohan Singh, 77, (he had a heart surgery sometime ago) and opposition party BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) L K Advani, 82, might show their verbal virility in public and display their muscular power by lifting dumbbells for press cameras, but they are not able to generate the Obama kind of magic in the electoral space.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Gran Torino: A spiritual review

Walt Kowalski: [to Father Janovich] The thing that haunts a guy is the stuff he wasn't ordered to do.

Clint Eastwood plays Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (directed by Eastwood, 2008). Kowalski is a white old man (widowed at the beginning of the film) and lives in his property alone (away from his children--the lone ranger)--surrounded by immigrants (Koreans in this case). A Korean boy, under the influence of a neighbourhood gang, tries to steal Kowalski's 1972 Gran Torino. The rest of the film is about Kowalski's developing relationship with that boy and his family and how the Korean boy--an immigrant--becomes the heir to his prized possession.

After seeing Eastwood in so many Westerns, this movie too gives the feel of a western--as if the lawlessness of the frontiers has invaded the heart of America (this seems more believable given the regular reports of mass killings/shootings in America). And once again, the white man has to protect the 'right' weak against the 'immoral/criminal' strong. Also, at another level, the film shows the darkness that haunts America because of its wars on humanity--the Koreans and Viets coming to America with their war-ravaged souls (add to the list the Iraqis and Afghans and Pakistanis, among others, and remember, in the most recent shooting incident in Bennington, the victims of the unemployed Korean shooter were Iraqis and Pakistanis).

Kowalski's soul is riven with guilt because of his experience in the war. "The thing that haunts a guy is the stuff he wasn't ordered to do", he tells the father who is bent on making Kowalski confess. That confession, his wife's last wish, is Kowalski's dramatic need--his redemption. This spiritual aspect of the film makes the film rich in meaning.

Now why is this confession important? To understand this, one must understand the Christian concept of mortal sin. I am not an authority on this but let me quote author Karen Armstrong (Holy War): "A mortal sin is a major sin like murder or adultery. As its name suggests, it causes the death of grace in the soul, because it severs a Christian from God absolutely and can only be forgiven by means of the sacrament of penance, when a catholic confesses it to a priest and receives absolution from God. If a person dies with unconfessed mortal sin on his soul, he or she will go to hell for all eternity. To qualify as mortal sin, the sin must be a grave one and must be committed knowingly and deliberately and with a clear knowledge of the spiritual consequences."

That's why, before the denouement in Act 3, Kowalski's confesses and that foreshadows his death: because, if a person dies with unconfessed mortal sin on his soul, he or she will go to hell for all eternity. That turn around, from godlessness to a spiritual farewell, completes the character arc of Kowalski.

It is a terrific film and the screenplay by Nick Schenk is fantastic--keeps the story on an even keel. The young boy's (Bee Vang as Thao Vang Lor) character also fulfills his dramatic need by becoming aggressive (from a passive state in the beginning) and becoming an heir to Kowalski's Gran Torino. In a sense, Thao (the good immigrant) becomes the new inheritor of a multi-racial America (goes well with the Obama Presidency)-- acknowledging that the Asians are the most well-to-do group in the USA today. The other white characters shown in the film (family members, the white boy friend of Thao's sister) have either been shown as selfish or effeminate. However, to balance it out, there are other white characters in the film (the construction manager, the men in the bar, the barber)--all working class--who still have some machismo left in them.

The story structure is marvelous (beginning and ending with funerals) and all the three acts are well written. Eastwood's execution of the story is sound and masterful and thankfully avoids being overly sentimental.

Shekhar the philosopher

Went to Shekhar Kapur's blog after a gap of few weeks. Liked these nuggets of wisdom that he has shared with his readers:

On Courage

To me courage is the ability to live. Courage is the ability to be quite ordinary and yet be content, and not see life as a huge burden. Ambition or what we call drive is often driven by innate anger, which can turn completely negative.

But beyond all that true courage is the ability to be comfortable with the unknown and welcome it as the natural order of the universe. It is not just the acceptance of death, but also the acceptance of control as the great illusion. True courage is the ability live in the moment fearlessly and with immense love with no opposing force.

On passion, desire and attachment

Passion belongs to the moment and Attachment is addicted to the past or the future. Attachment is desire while Passion is pure acceptance. Desire brings with it the fear of non achievement, but Passion has no fear. Mira's passion for Krishna was not a desire for Krishna but a Pure Passion. It was not an attachment to Krishna but a love so pure and passionate that she was one with Krishna. Passion is universal and flows consistently and is limitless, the bhakti of Mira was never ending in it's force of expression.

Shakespeare wrote a great line for Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) " he is a beggar that can measure his worth". She was speaking about love. Passion is beyond measurement, it explodes through the clouds of contextualization. For it has no measure to compare it to.

Attachment and desire are contextualized and contained by measurement - they are reigned in by fear of non achievement - and by comparison, self loathing and envy. Passion is not only selfless but the letting go of the self. Passion is action not addicted to a defined result. Pure Passion leads to pure action. Attachment leads to reaction, not action".

Kazuo Ishuguro and the craft of writing

"Sometimes people base their whole lives on a sincerely held belief that could be wrong. That's what my early books are about: people who think they know. But there is no Socrates figure. They are their own Socrates.

There's a passage in one of Plato's dislogues in which Socrates says that idealistic people often become misanthropic when they are let down two or three times. Plato suggests it can be like that with the search for the meaning of the good. You shouldn't get disillusioned when you get knocked back. All you have discovered is that the search is difficult, and you still have a duty to keep on searching."

From Kazuo Ishuguro's The Paris Review interview (Spring 2008)

How was the Remains of the Day named

I was at a writers' festival in Australia, sitting on a beach with Michael Ondaatje, Victoria Glendinning, Robert McCrum, and a Dutch writer named Judith Hertzberg. We were playing a semi-serious game of trying to find a title for my soon-to-be-completed novel. Michael Ondaatje suggested Sirloin: A Juicy Tale. It was on that level. I kept explaining that it had to do with this butler. Then Judith Hertzberg mentioned a phrase of Freud's, Tagesreste, which he used to refer to dreams, which is something like "debris of the day." When she translated it off the top of her head, it came out as "remains of the day." It seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Aamir SRK unity, good for small Indian films?

Recently, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan came on a joint platform to push for a 50-50 revenue sharing scheme to end the tussle between film producers and film exhibitors in India.

"It should be a partnership of equality. Fifty percent sharing is fair. Distributors and exhibitors have to find a way to make it a viable business within their fifty percent. Within my fifty percent I have to make it profitable," said Aamir at a press conference, according to HT.

"This is one industry and we all can survive only when each sector will earn a healthy share. We are here to find a solution to this," added Aamir.

Apart from Aamir, industry veterans like Ronnie Screwvala, Mukesh Bhatt and Karan Johar were present, among others.

See a video report here

Is it a good move for indie and small budget filmmakers in Bombay? Not necessarily, says filmmaker Hansal Mehta:

When Firaaq, Barah Aanaa, Straight and Aloo Chaat flunked their exams at the box-office, the gentlemen from the exhibition circuit, the trade-gurus, the distributors and a lot of producers suddenly spoke more openly. They said, “Look at all the trash you feed us. See how these films have failed. How can you expect better terms when you give us such content?”. Everybody rushing to pull down the often alienated, very marginalized and perennially nascent independent cinema of this country. Almost as if they were waiting for their imminent failure. They forgot about Chandni Chowk to China. They pretended that Drona did not exist. They forgot to read the writing on the wall when it came to 8×10 or Tasveer or whatever that was. They forgot about the failure of Victory. They grudgingly acknowledged DevD – only when nudged. They dismissed the success of A Wednesday as a freak case. The selective amnesia of the myopic whole was there for everyone to see.

I am sorry but independent cinema in this country is doomed. We can continue to live in hope but until we are ruled by these torch bearers of ‘content’, until we are always trampled by these messiahs of the mainstream, independent will remain an expletive. Nothing more. Nothing less.


Sikh anger in India/Air India 182

Watch this report at CNN-IBN:

Jarnail Singh represents common man's frustration

and then watch this trailer:

The Immortals

On Amit Chaudhuri's new novel, The Immortals:

The role of the musician in India, once central and revered, has changed much in the last century. In the wake of Indian independence and the disappearance of the old princely states, the traditional sources of patronage ceased to exist. The middle class stepped in to fill that role, fundamentally altering the relationship between patron and artist. “Suddenly”, Chaudhuri explains, “people from the middle class were themselves wanting to be musicians, wanting their moment in the musical world, and using their teacher as a facilitator.” The gurus’ position in society was fundamentally altered to one of necessary obeisance, undermining their status and artists and placing them in deference to commerce. “People like Mrs Sengupta were drawn to teachers like Shyam Lal because of their talent. They would give them the respect and reverence due to a teacher, but at the same time were really dominating them because they were in a position of power.” At one point in the book, Shyam Lal puts on a conference in memory to his father in which many of his students take part. The event becomes a kind of talent show; people are interested only in their own performance. His disciples – “from young struggling ghazal singers to businessmen’s wives, hot but bright in their saris, naked ears dressed provocatively in gold” - have paid him as a teacher for the right to perform in public.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

I'm on Twitter now

I'm on Twitter now:

Please follow me if you are on Twitter!

Umberto Eco/Kung Fu Panda

Umberto Eco in a Paris Review interview (185, Summer 2008)

“I think that comedy is the quintessential human reaction to the fear of death.”

“A secret is powerful when it is empty…as long as it remains empty it can be filled up with every possible notion, and it has power.”

When I read this sentence, I immediately thought of Kung Fu Panda’s (the animation film, 2008) plot premise.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The courage to be true to oneself

Play Review
The Importance of Being Earnest

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, NLB
When: 25 March – 11 April 2009

What’s in a name? What a frivolous question, you might say.

Apparently a lot. And if you don’t believe me, you have to read Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

I had an opportunity to see this masterpiece of English literature enacted on stage last week. Director Glen Goei of W!ld Rice has brought it to stage in Singapore.

Here one is tempted to ask if there’s any correlation between the sonic proximity of the two wilds—Oscar (Wilde) and (W!ld) Rice. But I know I digress.

Most play buffs would know the plot of the play. Two friends in London, Jack and Algernon, invent a brother each, by the name of Ernest, to woo two beauties, Gwendolen and Cecily. This leads to a lot of confusion and heart-burning, bringing out the class conflict in addition to romantic dilemmas, but all the conflict is resolved in the final act, after it is established how the habit of writing novels (daydreaming about becoming a famous writer—how relevant even today!) leads to the ruination of the future of a child in a perambulator. The credit of unifying all the threads of the story gone haywire goes not to a mortal but a lifeless black leather bag. So, if the play is a success, the bragging rights can well go to the bag!

To freshen up an old text (whether for stage or film) for a new audience, there’s that old trick in the book: add a twist to the tale but hey, not in a literal sense.

This is what director Glen Goei has cleverly done here with the inclusion of an all male cast (and believe me, the wit is still intact). How could one not laugh (when watching the play) when this thought itself makes one chuckle. But there is a serious background note that needs insertion here (if you don’t read play booklets, you can skip this part): In his message, the director mentions that he was inspired to stage this play when more than a year and a half ago there was a campaign launched in Singapore to repeal 377A and ‘the response from the straight as well as gay community was lukewarm’.

From that standpoint, the play becomes a celebration of the creative contribution of the gay community. “They are a source of fresh new ideas which create new energies and opportunities for this society,” he says. “Yet they are labeled criminals and many have to deny their true selves and live under the oppression of assumed identities.”

In his time, Oscar himself was such a man who dared to be different and dared to be true to himself.

Since the play’s text or plot itself is not under scrutiny here (‘an excuse for Mr Wilde’s ventriloquism), the performances and production qualities warrant an appreciation. While the acts one and two were well laid-out, it was the play’s denouement in act three that was the most dramatic. Act one was a little stretched (you don’t need such an elaborate set up these days) but perhaps eloquence, not economy of words, was the norm when the play was originally written.

For me, it was Lady Bracknell (Ivan Heng) who rescues the act one. In similarly detailed act two, it was Miss Prism (Hossan Leong) whose clever lines and style of delivery soup up the act. Chua Enlai in Gwendolen Fairfax’s role is good but predictably so. Brendon Fernandez in Algernon Moncrief’s role looks the part but is clearly mismatched against the most competent Daniel York (playing John Worthing). Gavin Yap in Cecily Cardew’s part looks the most feminine (among all the competition I would say, and this should be taken as a compliment, and is advised to be shared with Gavin’s hair stylist) but shows a schizophrenic duality in her acting—nevertheless, making it into a delightful performance. Zahim Albakri in his short but sensible role as Rev. Canon Chasuble does not look out of place.

On the production side, the sets (the backdrops were aesthetically appealing) and costumes are appropriate and add to the atmosphere. The music by the T’ang Quartet is first rate.

If this play’s message is about being true to oneself, the audience shows it right then and there at the end of the play—with their clapping and catcalls.

Reviewer’s note: The play’s review has been written keeping in view Wilde’s advice—“In matters of grave importance (such as reviewing this play), style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

Published here:

Friday, April 03, 2009

On "Solo" by Rana Dasgupta

Alok Rai on Rana Dasgupta's latest novel, Solo:

The sense of a lost wholeness haunts modernism. And what is distinctive about postmodernism is a loss of that sense of loss – the loss of a framework against which the experience of loss might even be registered. This comes either in light, celebratory flavours – polymorphous perversities, the unbearable lightness of being. Or, sometimes, in darker, bewildered forms – haunted by a sense of loss, but deprived also of the freedom to mourn – the tragedy that cannot speak its name.

The odd combination of talent and pointlessness that characterises Solo seems like some kind of potlatch – the bizarre custom identified by anthropologists wherein status is demonstrated by the magnitude of what one can squander and waste. At one level, Solo is an exploration of "failure", and contains the suggestion that it takes a lot of failure to make some signal success. It is an interesting thought, and also a curious advertisement for Dasgupta’s next book.


I like it when Rai mentions about potlatch: the custom wherein status is demonstrated by the magnitude of what one can squander and waste. Reminds me of the excesses of the Wall Street, and of modern lifestyle itself. The more you waste, the more you squander, the more successful you are and vice versa. If that is Dasgupta's key theme in this novel then I must say it is extremely insightful and relevant to our times.