Thursday, May 28, 2009

Video: Satyajit Ray on his life and works

Shyam Benegal's famous documentary on Satyajit Ray is now available on Youtube. You can't miss it if you love Ray movies.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why shutdown a lit fest?

Israeli soldiers tried to shut down a Palestinian literary festival, reports Matthew Rothschild in The progressive. The festival was supported by British Council and UNESCO, among others:

The Israeli government sent in troops on May 23 to try to break up the opening of the second annual Palestine Festival of Literature in East Jerusalem.

Stephanie Saldana, an American writer living in Jerusalem, went to the Palestinian National Theater for what she thought was going to be the opening of the festival.

“We arrived and the place was swarming with the Israeli army, with trucks and huge guns,” she wrote in an e-mail to a friend. “I am still in shock. To ban literature? To ban reading? How is this possible?”

Here is another report from The Guardian:

"We're so taken aback. It's is completely, completely independent," Egyptian novelist Soueif, who is chairing the Palestine Festival of Literature, said.

"I think it's very telling," she told the crowd at the French centre. "Our motto, which is taken from the late Edward Said, is to pit the power of culture against the culture of power."

For more videos, go here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ingmar Bergman on filming

As I have been reading the autobiography of Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, I have been taking notes from it. For many purposes, my blog is also my diary. Short but interesting snippets from the book are also being posted on my Twitter account (

I also want to say, at least for me, this is one of the best autobiographies that I have read, ranking with those of David Ogilvy's (Confessions of an Advertising Man) and Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi's (Yadoon Ki Baraat).

In chapter 6, Bergman talks about his learning the craft of film making. Here he goes:

"He (Oscar Rosander) also initiated me into the secrets of editing, among other things a fundamental truth --that editing occurs during filming itself, the rhythm created in the script. I know many directors hold the opposite view. For me, Oscar Rosander's teaching has been fundamental."

"The rhythm in film is conceived in the script, at the desk, and is then given birth in front of the camera. All forms of improvisation are alien to me. If I am ever forced into hasty decisions, I grow sweaty and rigid with terror. Filming for me is an illusion planned in detail, the reflection of a reality which the longer I live seems to me more and more illusory."

"When film is not a document, it is a dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He does not explain. What should he explain anyhow? ...All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. Only a few times have I managed to creep inside. Most of my conscious efforts have ended in embarrassing failure--The Serpent's Egg, The Touch, Face to Face and so on.

"Fellini, Kurosawa and Bunuel move in the same fields as Tarkovsky. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness. Melies was always there without having to think about it. He was a magician by profession."

"Film as a dream, film as nusic. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul. A little twitch in our optic nerve, a shock effect: twenty-four illuminated frames a second, darkness in between, the optic nerve incapable of registering darkness..."

Eerily, I came across this news item in NYT: Ingmar Bergman’s Island Muse for Sale! My heart skipped a beat.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Swine flur or hog-wash?

Indian environmentalist and editor of the magazine, Down To Earth, has penned an effectively argued editorial on the pandemic-in-the-making swine flu, which is currently spreading very fast in Japan, as well as in many other places. Sunita asks, "But what are the origins of this virus, winging across our air-travel interdependent world? Why is this question never asked?"

True. The corporate media will not discuss it in great detail. There are reasons behind it. But to be fair, I saw an article in Today (Singapore), just a few days after the flu's outbreak, how it all started from a village in Mexico. But the story, as far as I remember, did not discuss the pig farm next to the village in Mexico. What was the secret? What was the connection? Sunita takes the lid off:

The influenza A(H1N1) virus is not transmitted to humans by eating pork, that much is now known and said. But what are the origins of this virus, winging across our air-travel interdependent world? Why is this question never asked? Why are the big doctors of our world looking for a vaccine for all kinds of influenza without checking on what makes us so susceptible to pandemics, year after year? Is there something more to the current contagion?

Yes. The current pandemic is linked to the way we produce food—in factory farms, via vertically integrated business. Experts say the global food industry, like the global banking industry, is too big and out of control. It needs to be fixed.

Take swine flu—now renamed. We know it started in La Gloria, a little town in Mexico. We know a young boy suffering from fever in March became the first confirmed victim of the current outbreak, which, even as I write, has claimed some 42 people and affected 2,371 in 24 countries. What is not said is this ill-fated town is right next to one of Mexico’s biggest hog factories, owned by the world’s largest pig processor, Smithfield Foods. What is also not said is people in this town have repeatedly protested about water pollution, terrible stench and waste against the food giant.

Nothing happened then. Nothing is happening now. Smithfield has done what all biggies do when nearly caught: deny any wrong-doing and claim ‘their science’ and ‘their tests’ show their herds, always kept in pristine conditions, are just fine. Interestingly, when The Guardian’s special correspondent, Felicity Lawrence, wrote to Smithfield asking for test results, she got no data, only the usual corporate response: “These are unfounded opinions and unrestrained internet rumours”. Simultaneously, all the food giants have ganged up to ensure the World Health Organization changes the name of the contagion and exhorts people to eat more pork, manufactured in their mega-swine factories. Business as usual.

(Letters in bold done by me)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Domestication/Fiction vs Nonfiction

Should a writer allow himself to be domesticated? What are the consequences? Better to ask other writers. It is a tough choice: to be a normal human being or to be a writer. A writer has to stay on the margins of society to observe what goes on in the centre.

David Foster Wallace warned his wife, Green, that if he killed himself she'd be "the Yoko Ono of the literary world, the woman with all the hair who domesticated you and look what happened."

David Foster Wallace to Don DeLillo: "I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing non-fiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I'm Supposed to Do..." (The New Yorker, March 9, 2009)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Ramin Bahrani/Goodbye, Solo

Thus writes Aravid Adiga on his filmmaker friend Ramin Bahrani (whose latest film is Goodbye, Solo)...

I’ve known Bahrani since the mid-1990s, when we were undergraduates at Columbia University in New York. Tall and thin, owl-like in his gaze, deeply knowledgeable about Dostoyevsky and Kokoschka, and full of tremendous plans to write and direct movies, he was so far ahead of everyone else at college that he seemed to us a creature beamed in from Mars to accelerate human civilization. Then we discovered that he had come from some place even stranger than that: North Carolina. The idea that the South had become cool and multicultural wasn’t really bought by anyone in New York back then, and his classmates settled scores with Bahrani by teasing him for his Southern twang. He has lost it now—but he remains, in many ways, a creature of the American South: in his easy-going manner, his ironic humor, but above all, in his ingrained resistance to the idea that America is defined by what its powerful or successful citizens do. America is central to Bahrani’s vision of his work, but this country, for him, lives (as it did for Faulkner, one of his literary heroes) at its margins; taxi drivers, old men without families, street-side vendors, prostitutes, and petty thieves challenge, expand, and enrich America in his films. The idea of an America defined at its fringe is again at the heart of the new script he is working on—called Ship of Fools—which promises to give birth to his best film yet.

I'm in office now but after reading this piece, I wish I could be transported to a theater and watch Goodbye, Solo.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Billu Barber/Delhi 6

Billu Barber

I look for something remarkable in every movie that I see. Something novel or something different. I don’t always succeed. However, if I do, I am happy with the filmmaker, even if the movie in entirety is a big let down. That little thing can compensate for the overall disappointment with the film.

In Billu Barber, for example, apart from the last scene where Shah Rukh Khan gives his speech in school (very emotional, like Al Pacino’s in The Scent of A Woman), there is this scene in the beginning of the movie when Billu applies for a government grant to refurbish his barber shop. Great way to introduce and reveal the main character. Of course, the government grant is never made. Billu has no money to grease the palm of the bureaucrats to get his loan sanctioned. Later on, we learn from an angry Om Puri (the rich moneylender in Billu's town) that Billu was the only one who had refused a loan from him and hence his shop was in a bad shape.

This is a micro level example of the debt trap that Billu perhaps was aware of. This brings me to the subject of debt-led growth model. India was not growing at a blazing rate before the economy's liberalization in 1990. Reason? Capital was not available for borrowing. Then everyone got access to easy credit. Since fiat money is created out of thin air, there is no dearth of it. But is this model of growth sustainable? Even before the Wall Street crisis and global recession that we are witnessing today, I knew something was wrong with this model. At that time, I didn't know about finance, fiat money, the inverse pyramid model of debt-based growth.

Will the whole of humanity be enslaved by the financial institutions (Master/Visa/bank mortgages for individuals and WB/IMF for countries)? That's what Billu's little act of defiance reminds me. Any way, in the old Hindi movies, the villains were the village moneylenders.

Delhi 6

God is you…he lives in your heart. Tujh me rab basta hai. I think that was one of the messages of the film, Delhi 6. And it was made brilliantly obvious by the shots in the closing credits. In the temple, there is a mirror. All characters (actors) come to the temple and see their image reflected in the mirror, in the temple’s sanctum sanctorum. Great message!

I think the film did not work because of the principal character. There was not much background provided on him, nor was there a transformation in him--creating less empathy with him. We never see how his childhood was. What formed his thoughts and beliefs? The film did not convey that.

When I discussed the film with scriptwriting guru Syd Field, who had advised Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra on the script, he said that the main character was passive. Too many cooks (three writers in this case) spoil the broth and despite good intentions, this is what happened with Delhi 6.

Friday, May 08, 2009

First Indian Writers' Festival 2009 in Singapore‏

This was in the making for sometime! India Se magazine has announced the First Indian Writers' Festival 2009 in Singapore‏.

The date for the one day festival is June 6, 2009.

According to India Se, Loveleen Tandon (Slumdog Millionaire) and Venita Coehlo (she has written for Karan Johar) will conduct a screenplay writing workshop. Sudeep Charkravarti of Tin Fish fame will conduct a fiction writing workshop.

The gala dinner is with Shobha De, Loveleen Tandon, Anita Jain and Poonam Surie at the Tanglin Club.

The combined package for workshops and gala dinner is S$160.

For details, email or call (65) 6377 2838.

More details here:

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Aravind Adiga on Sri Lanka's own war on terror

"The world has issued the Sri Lankan government a blank check in its fight against the LTTE, and it is time now to tear up that check," says journalist and novelist Aravind Adiga, the bestselling author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

In a powerful essay in The Daily Beast (theirs is the only general daily e-newsletter I subscribe to), Aravind takes the Sri Lankan govt to task for its war on terror (against LTTE) and the butchery of innocent Tamil civilians in the process:

One of the world's oldest, best-organized, and nastiest terrorist groups is about to be wiped out in Sri Lanka. This sounds like good news, but the world may soon discover that the elimination of this particular terrorist group came at a terrible price. Indeed, in so many ways, what is happening in Sri Lanka—this small, sunny, and incredibly beautiful nation—seems like a perfect libertarian's nightmare of what can go wrong in a war on terror.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Indian Muslims condemn "jizya" tax on Pakistan's Sikhs‏

Got this one from my friend and activist Yusuf Saeed. Jizya is one of the most misunderstood concepts (remember the Mughal history and Aurangzeb!) and the Talibans, amongst the many horrible things that they do in the name of Islam, are also misusing it in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

Here is the copy of the statement from Indian Muslim leaders:

Joint Statement of Indian Muslim leaders

Pakistani Taliban’s treatment of Sikhs in tribal areas is illegal and barbaric

We, religious, political and community leaders of the Indian Muslims, are alarmed at the reports coming out of Pakistan’s tribal areas about the Pakistani Taliban’s kidnapping, extortion of huge amounts of money from their Sikh compatriots as “Jizya” and demolition of the houses and shops of those who fail to pay the demanded sums.

We would like to say that Jizya is a tax paid in an Islamic state for exemption from military service by healthy non-Muslim adults who are free to follow their vocations without restriction or fear, and that there is no other tax payable by them after paying this tax, unlike Muslims who have to pay various taxes including Zakat and have to perform military service as well.

Jizya was payable by non-Muslims only in lands conquered by Muslims like Egypt, Syria and Iraq but not in unconquered areas like Madina where during the time of the Holy Prophet no Jizya was ever imposed on non-Muslim citizens who enjoyed equal rights and duties under the Constitution of Madina. For many centuries Jizya has not been levied by Muslim states and today even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran do not levy Jizya on non-Muslims for the simple reason that non-Muslims in these states pay all taxes payable by others. Prominent Islamic scholars of the modern times like Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi are of the view that Jizya should not be imposed now as non-Muslims are equal citizens of Muslim states and pay all taxes paid by other citizens and shoulder all the duties.

We wish to make it clear that the imposition of the so-called Jizya is nothing more than extortion by an armed and lawless gang which does not constitute a sovereign government or state or even an organ thereof. Moreover, Pakistan’s tribal areas are not “conquered lands” as their non-Muslim population has been living there for centuries. These areas were part of the British India and became part of the new
State of Pakistan as a result of peaceful transfer of power on Partition.

As regards the huge amounts in millions reported to be demanded, these are arbitrary and exorbitant as the amount of annual Jizya paid by non-Muslims in early Islam was merely one to one and a half dinar, which is 4.24 gram to 6.36 grams of gold. Moreover, this tax was payable only at the end of the year and not in advance.

We regard this as an act of injustice incompatible with the letter and spirit of Islam and the international covenants accepted by all Muslim states.

We demand that the Pakistani authorities must take earliest steps to retrieve the extorted sums and pay them back to their affected non-Muslim citizens and facilitate their peaceful return to their homes and properties in their traditional homelands and give them all due protection.

Maulana Mufti Mukarram Ahmad
Shahi Imam, Jama Masjid Fatehpuri, Delhi

Hafiz Muhammad Yahya
President, All India Jamiat Ahl-e Hadees

Maulana Abdul Hameed Nomani
Secretary, Jamiat Ulama-e Hind

Syed Shahabuddin
Former PM & ex-President, All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat

Prof Tahir Mahmood
Member Law Commission of India

Mujtaba Farooq
Secretary, Jamaat-e Islami Hind

Maulana Ataur Rahman Qasmi
President, Shah Waliullah Institute, Delhi

Maulana Waris Mazhari
Editor, Monthly Tarjuman, Delhi

Dr Zafar Mahmood
President, Zakat Foundation of India

Dr SQR Ilyas
Member, Muslim Personal Law Board

Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan
President, All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat

Mirza Yawar Baig
President of Yawar Baig & Associates

Shahnawaz Ali Raihan
Secretary, Students Islamic Organisation

Issued at New Delhi on 2 May 2009

Issued by the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, Delhi

For media comments only please contact or phone 09811142151

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Firaaq (2008)

I want to applaud Nandita Das to have chosen a complex theme—the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots—for her directorial debut, Firaaq (2008). As a (co)writer-director, her heart is certainly in the right place but the film as a narrative (structurally) does not work for me.

The four or five story tracks, all dealing with one or other aspect of the Gujarat riots, muddle the flow of the narrative. The problem is not with the editing or how the sequences segue into each other but with the choice of the stories and their episodic nature. Each story seems to be a stand alone piece. As the narrative progresses, they all hurtle towards climaxes of their own, frittering away the combined tension (and its resolution) that could have resulted had they all converged into a confluence. Would that be too tricky or clichéd (a la Priyadarshan)? That is certainly debatable.

The tracks themselves are fascinating on their own. I loved the Naseeruddin Shah/Raghuvir Yadav track. Naseer plays the Muslim musician’s character with so much depth and dignity. The portrayal was so poignant (especially the conclusion where Naseer finally admits: Music does not have the power to transcend such great communal hatred). To which Yadav’s character, the ever so scared and paranoid Muslim assistant, says: If you start thinking like this, what hope is there for people like me?

While watching the film, I was as aghast as Naseer’s character was when we found out that Wali Dakhni’s grave had been razed and a road had been built on that ground by the government of Gujarat. If Wali, a part of our history and heritage, is not important in India, then what place is there (in modern India) for insignificant souls like me?

The Deepti Naval/Paresh Rawal track is saved by the small boy whose haunting eyes ask all viewers at the end of the movie: what wrong did I do? Why is my present pathetic and future bleak? Why am I in a ghetto? Gosh, who can stand those innocent searching eyes?

The Tisca Chopra/Sanjay suri track (the use of a neutral name Samir in a communally charged city, Hindu Muslim marriage) was interesting. What Samir does at the end really required a lot of balls. In real life, as a Muslim, it would be hard for me to admit what he admitted. The autodriver and his wife’s track is perhaps the most muddled one. So many things happen to them on screen and yet their characters are not that well developed. The director also shows a little weakness in executing some scenes in this episode.

Firaaq means separation in Urdu. The film shows the separation of the two communities—Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. Where are the villains who are creating this communal rift, who control the mechanics of the flow of hatred in the birthplace of Gandhi? The film does not ask this question and that perhaps has enfeebled this entire project. But, honestly, I can’t even blame Nandita for not taking this route to tell her story. Till today, even after the Tehelka expose, the Godhra incident remains an unsolved mystery and many of the perpetrators of the Gujarat communal carnage still remain unpunished. Nandita Das , through the depiction of the human condition in her film, reminds us of the injustice of Gujarat, a witness to her moral strength, courage, sense of justice and noble-mindedness.