Monday, January 26, 2009

Republic Day

It is the 26th of January. On this day India celebrates "Republic Day", marking the adoption of the constitution and the transition of India from a British Dominion to a republic. It is a day of great national pride. It is a national holiday and the country is awash in flags and all that symbolizes nationalism in the most overt way. Growing up as a boy in India in the 80's, what I remember most is waking up in the morning and turning on my Dyanora black and white TV (one of two brands sold in India in the 80's) to watch the live broadcast of the parade from Rajpath in Delhi. The muddy gray images of the crowds gathering on the bleachers in the cold Delhi winter waiting for the parade to begin are vivid in my mind. Then the presidential horse carriage gently drives down the majestic colonial road. The president descends and shakes hands with all the dignitaries and the celebrations begin. The whole event lasts for half the day with endless army, navy and air force battalions marching in unison and floats displaying India's vast cultural colorful diversity forming an impressive pageant.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Indian republic.The economic down turn and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai have not deterred the government from putting on an impressive show. Republic day is also the day the country shows off its military hardware. The tanks, the missiles, war planes and a plethora of killing machines are on grand display. This year the nuclear weapon carrying missile "Agni" was on display. The chief guest at this years celebration was the Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaye. A controversial leader who has been in power since 1990 and has constantly undermined democracy in his nation. A dictator hiding behind a suit.

As a child the images on television always instilled a sense of pride. I always dreamt of being on those bleachers one day taking in the foggy Delhi morning. Much like dreaming of attending the Olympic games or the Wimbledon. But now as an adult I find those dreams misplaced. Even though America is the largest supplier of weapons to the world, the public display of military hardware is always shunned. A double standard, effectively managed for the world and the nation. The last time a presidential candidate was seen wearing a helmet in a tank, it ended his career. I do not understand why India, which is a democratic secular nation feels the need to present itself in this manner. It seems like a vestige from the time when it was aligned with the Soviets. I always associate military parades with repressive regimes. India feels the need to show its neighbors once a year that it has the fire power, so shoot at your own risk. The age old deterrent theory.

The most ironic aspect of the Republic Day parade is that the majestic road that it marches down is flanked by a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on one end. In fact from where he stands, he gets a clear unobstructed view of all the weaponry. I wonder what he must be thinking as he sees a nuclear warhead pointed at him. It is what it is.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Obama Factor

It was August, 15, 1992, I was speeding down an empty highway with a stranger at the wheel. All I can remember is a disorienting feeling looking down a dark highway lit by headlights and trying to have a conversation with the driver who was so gracious to give me a ride. We were driving through corn fields in the middle of Ohio. I had just got off a small plane at Toledo airport, and was being driven to a small town called Bowling Green. I was to start a graduate program in Mass Communication at the Bowling Green State University. This was the first time I had left my homeland, India, in search of change, I was 24.

The first few weeks at Bowling Green were extremely disorienting, foreign and stressful. While I settled down and dealt with my anxieties and inner demons, one thing I knew was certain, there was no turning back. I had come very far. I had two hundred dollars in my pocket and a promise of a scholarship and no return ticket. My parents had high hopes, they had mortgaged their house for this trip and the pressure was immense. There was no question of failure. Quitting was not an option.

For the first time in my life I was a foreigner in a foreign land. I was the "minority". I was one of the few people on campus whose skin color was not fair. Up until then I had grown up a part of the ruling class. The middle class educated Hindu. This new identity I had acquired made me grow up many fold and opened my eyes to the history of the American civil rights movement, and the sacrifice of Martin Luther King and all those who followed in his foot steps. With out them I would not be standing in America shoulder to shoulder.

For a campus town Bowling Green was unusually homogeneous. It was a small town with a mile long downtown surrounded by blue collar families. One night a couple of Indian friends and I were walking home from downtown. We saw a car drive by and saw something fly by and land on the grass next to us. It took us a moment to realize that someone had thrown an egg at us. We were shaken. A few days later, I was walking down main street and someone shouted out"Why don't you go back where you came from?". For a moment I could not understand what this young boy was trying to say. It did not take long to figure out what he meant. I was a victim of physical racism. I had never faced something of this nature ever before. Racism exists in India in the form of caste-ism, but as I had grown up in a city and belonged to the elite class, I was immunized. My parents made sure we were never subjected to it. Racism based on the color of ones skin is much more subtle in India as the shades are too many. Even though these were the only two racial epithets I ever faced, they did leave a deep scar. I could not bare to imagine what black America went through in the depths of segregation.

I met more people in Bowling Green who were nice, gracious, tolerant and understanding of me. Intolerance and ignorance can show its ugly face anywhere, but I truly believe it has become the exception than the norm in most parts of the country. At least there is a modicum of civility around race unless you are a black man driving down an interstate highway.

The phenomenon of Obama is being marked as a turning point in the ugly legacy of racism. It is truly an historical moment for many reasons, but in no way does it mean that racism has been banished. By the act of becoming president, Obama has given people of all races and origins the power to walk proudly with their head held high. By the nature of his progeny he has also asked us to have trust and faith in the humanity of all people. Today, I can walk into an upscale restaurant in Manhattan and expect to be treated like everybody else and not be judged by the color of my skin because Obama is president. I can make that argument in my mind, no matter what the reality is and feel good about myself. This is truly historical. America may not have turned the corner when it comes to race, but in its people's mind that corner is on the verge of being turned.

Tomorrow Obama becomes president. It also happens to be my birthday. I became a US citizen a few months ago. I had mixed feelings about it, but Obama's ascendancy gave me hope. I actually began to feel proud, and for the first time in my life made a campaign contribution to a political party and actually made phone calls for Obama. The alternative was just not acceptable to me.

And so we celebrate a change tomorrow. But I fear Obama's cult of personality is pushing its limits. He is being portrayed as "The Messiah" who is going to deliver us to the promised land. He is being compared to Martin Luther King and I am afraid that the bar is being set unreasonably high because of the historical nature of his presidency. If he falters, he runs the risk of being judged unfairly. Washington D.C. is a behemoth, and to move and shake it is going to be difficult. So let us treat him like one among us. A president is always a citizen first. He is a rock star lets not make him a rock god prematurely. He has the most difficult job at hand. Let us be fair and critical. That is what people do in a free country. It is what it is.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Take on Slumdog Millionaire

September 2008 was when I first heard about Danny Boyle's new film Slumdog Millionaire. It had clinched the best picture prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then the film has been steadily gaining momentum steam rolling its way through the hearts of critics and audiences culminating with a big bang at the Golden Globes. Now it stands poised to make even more noise at the Oscars and I would be surprised if it does not bag some of the major awards.

What makes Slumdog stand out is the fact that it does not fit a mold. It is a genre bender that truly transcends categories mainstream cinema is so comfortable with. It is a comedy, documentary, art house film, serious social drama, suspense thriller, adventure, and straight out love story. Even though the film is partly subtitled, it does not fit the foreign film category as well, as for the most part it is an English language film. A movie like this comes around once in a while, when producers really take a risk with a small film and allow the magic of cinema to rise to new heights by pushing the envelope. As Simon Beaufoy, the screenplay writer put it, Danny Boyle took the script and really made it "fly" and that is why it resonates the way it does.

Slumdog Millionaire at its core is a straight out underdog story. A story about a boy who triumphs against all odds, making his way out of a dreadful and hostile Mumbai slum to become a "man" and win a TV game show all with a single purpose - to win his true love, his childhood sweet heart. The basic premise of the film seems to be plucked straight out of a Hindi film from the 70's. Two brothers are separated from their mother and left to fend for themselves, with a girl thrown into the mix. One grows up to be good and the other bad. The good one prevails, gets the girl and saves the day with an uplifting feel good ending. This theme was very common in the films of Amitabh Bachchan, who is paid homage to a few times in the film. One of the most unsettling scenes in the beginning of the film is built around Amitabh's helicopter landing by the slum, as a mob runs out to catch a glimpse of the super star. For those who do not know, Amitabh Bachchan is the biggest movie star Hindi cinema has ever produced. Bachchan topped a 1999 BBC News website poll to find the greatest star of the millennium, beating the likes of Marlon Brando and Charlie Chaplin. His influence on the popular culture of India is beautifully woven into the film, through dialog and visual juxtaposition.

What makes the film truly fly is its narrative structure. The film begins with Jamaal, the protagonist, being interrogated by the police as he is suspected of cheating on the popular game show, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Jamaal is the most unlikely candidate as he is a "Chai Walla" (a boy who serves tea at the office) from the slums and is on the verge of winning the highest prize ever. And so the story begins as Jamaal begins to explain to the police inspector how he came upon the correct answers. The explanation of how he was able to arrive at the answers reveals an episode in Jamaal’s life. The film is essentially a collection of incidents in Jamaal’s life all tied together and inter-cut with the progression of the game show. It follows the transformation of Jamaal from a feisty and industrious little boy in the slums to a young man on a game show. In that journey Danny Boyle drags us through the filth of the worlds largest slum to the high reaches of the underworld and modern India of game shows and call centers, deftly capturing the complexity, energy, intensity, vibrancy and humanity of Mumbai. The film exquisitely reveals the different layers on which India exists and thrives. An idea as an Indian I have always found hard to communicate to somebody who was not born there.

The gritty and intense world of the slums in Slumdog, is reminiscent of the Favelas of the 2002 Brazilian hit City of God. While City of God was mostly preoccupied with the violence and crime of the Favela's and the children caught up in it. In contrast Slumdog while showing the violence and the unforgiving nature of that world, tries to show the humanity of its characters, and how they are able to rise above the harsh world that is dealt to them. India has one of the most appalling human rights records when it comes to religious violence, its destitute children and poverty. More children in India go hungry every day, than in any other country in Asia. Child labor is out of control and the trafficking of children is at an alarming level. The film deals with these issues in a shocking way, but never to a point where it bogs you down. And that balance it strikes keeps the viewing experience fresh, energized, entertaining and thought provoking at the same time.

It is an often expressed view that films that deal with poverty and those that show the underbelly of India always do well with Hollywood and western audiences. These themes are provocative, challenging and foreign and therefore very engaging. Amitabh Bachchan, who ironically was the first host of the highly successful Indian franchise of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, levied a criticism of this nature on Slumdog. He later retracted his statement but this is not a new sentiment. Similar criticism was expressed about fifty years ago when Satyajit Ray, India's most celebrated filmmaker, made his master piece Pather Panchali. This film dealt with rural poverty and the abject nature of it. Which was too real for some Indians to digest as Slumdog in many ways is. Indians are always irked when images of India's underbelly are portrayed on the world stage, especially by western filmmakers. It becomes a matter of pride.

While there is some truth to the fact that the "Third World" is always portrayed as being either exotic or downtrodden, when seen through the eyes of the "westerner", Slumdog defies that stereotype. I have seen many films that exoticise India all the time, through what I call the "National Geographic" POV. Where everything looks golden, colorful and bright all the time, with snake charmers and colorful village folk in soft focus, the “orientalization” of India. Slumdog does the opposite. It shows India the way it is. Films like Gandhi, A Passage to India and the Merchant Ivory productions, all big award winners, have always been fascinated by "The Raj" element of India and as a result set a standard for how the west views India. Danny Boyle on the contrary is able to get into the skin of India and show it in the most frank and honest manner. Sometimes it takes an outsider to capture that essence as they bring a fresh and untainted point of view. Slumdog exposes India in a very non-judgmental way, almost saying this is the way life is here, but you can still rise above it.

In a recent BBC interview Danny Boyle was asked if Bollywood could ever make a film like Slumdog. And his response was, "They do not have the Balls". I could not agree with him more. Bollywood to a large extent is preoccupied with formulaic film making. A kind of film making whose sole purpose is to help the audience go to a place where people always look fair, dance on a drop of a hat and communicate in an unreal hybrid dialect which only people on the silver screen speak. Bollywood is not set up to take risks and is more preoccupied with kitsch than reality. Another reason Bollywood will never make a film like Slumdog, is because it is serving an audience that is trying to get away from the sort of things that are addressed in the film. The argument that people want to go to the cinema to escape from reality is a commonly held belief. There are filmmakers within the Bollywood system who make films that are a reflection of society, but they are too few. For the most part, in the Indian context reality has to be sugar coated that is the only way it’s going to go down well with a mass audience. India makes more films per year than any other country in the world. Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Japan are some Asian countries who make a fraction of what India puts out, but are able to create films that are far superior in production value and content. Slumdog at the end of the day is an entertaining film, and proves that a film can have both artistic and entertainment merit, if the right talent is put into motion.

Even though Slumdog is a British production, in the talent department it is truly a collaborative endeavor. Based on a book by an Indian writer Vikas Swarup it stars Bollywood veterans, Anil Kapoor as the host of the game show and Irfan Khan, who uncannily finds his way into every Ameircan or British film about India (The Namesake, The Darjeeling Limited, A Mighty Heart, to name a few), as the inspector. The co-director Lavoleen Tandan, is an Indian who has worked with Mira Niar on the casting of her films. The music is composed and scored by A.R. Rahman, the biggest and most prolific name in Indian pop and film music. In 2002 A.R.Rahman made his West End and subsequently Broadway debut with "Bombay Dreams". He became the first Indian ever to take home a Golden Globe. With his win the Indian media has co-opted the film as though it is a Bollywood production and has been singing high praise. Winning international accolades is a huge deal for a billion strong nation. Other than cricket, Indians seldom do well at the olympics and other international competitive events. Only two other Indian's have ever won an Oscar. Bhanu Athaiya shared for best costume for Gandhi and Satyajit Ray was give an Honorary Oscar on his death bed, thanks to the Martin Scorsese lobby. Slumdog releases in India in January. It will have to be seen how the Indian audience warms up to a film that is creating so much buzz on the international stage. It will also have to be seen what kind of a release the film gets. Being that it is in English and has a rather artsy unconventional structure it might find an audience only in urban India.

The success of Slumdog has had many people thinking that it will open doors to Indian talent on the international scene. Sharukh Khan, a top Bollywood star was a presenter at the Golden Globes this year. Ironically he was also the host who took over when Amitabh left the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Probably that was the reason he was chosen as one of the presenters. Many people saw his presence as another acknowledgement of Bollywood’s influence. I beg to differ. Like Yoga and Chicken Tikka Masala, Bollywood has made inroads into the psyche of Americans and also into its movies (Moulin Rouge, The Love Guru, Vanity Fair etc., the list is long) but it’s only a fad. Musicals are no longer made in Hollywood and in a sense people gravitate to Bollywood with a sense of nostalgia. The song and dance sequence in a Bollywood film has a completely different motivation and function than a song in a Hollywood musical, but it has come to brand it. Ask an America about a Bollywood film, the first image that comes to mind is the song and dance. As a result it is never taken seriously, and rightly so.

As long as Bollywood has its head in the sand and does not take the risk in making thematically poignant films, it will always be a bubble gum industry another aberration of India. The only reason Hollywood looks to India, is for the big bucks that can be made selling kitsch. (Case in point Chandni Chowk to China, a Warner Brothers Bollywood co-production)

Slumdog for all the praise has its flaws. It is never substantially explained how the characters growing up in the slums of Mumbai, in some of the most despicable and desperate circumstances come to speak English with such flare and fluency. A privilege reserved only for the upper class who can afford an English education. As a viewer the strength of the film lets you buy into it and Danny Boyle gets away with some artistic license. The film has heart and humanity. Apply good craft and you have the makings of a great film. And that is what Slumdog Millionaire pulls off where many others fail. It is what it is.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Truth and Reconciliation

I was born in 1969. The year man landed on the moon. It was the year the world was told, the sky was not the limit and the future looked brighter then ever even though Kennedy and King were assassinated and America was yet again, embroiled in a war half way around the world.

I was born in India. The land of Gandhi and the land that was split into two over the butchered bodies of three million people. Since then India has gone to war with Pakistan several times and I grew up being told by the press and the nation that Pakistan was our enemy.

In the life that I have lived, I do not recall a time on our planet when the human race was not at war with itself, in some part of the world. After the last great big one (World War II) we have had several big ones and small ones, all when added up would almost be as big as the last big one, in terms of the lives they have taken and scars they have left. This blog would not be sufficient if I were to list all the conflicts that have passed us by. Yet there is no shortage of new ones and the old ones keep coming back to haunt us like episodic horror movies. No animal on the plant goes to war with itself like we do. Its not surprising given the fact that we as a species are at war with the planet, unlike the animals who live in harmony with the planet.

Journalists, intellectuals and politicians can always propound theories and analyses in great detail about social and geo-political reasons behind every war. But few can explain coherently what drives people to hack and butcher each other for the sake of land. Especially in a world where we say the sky is not the limit. Unfortunately this saying is not true for most people in the world, and perhaps therefore there is war. Therefore there are more guns on the continent of Africa, than there are books or computers. Even though not a single gun is manufactured there.

Now that we have established that humans like to butcher each other, given the ripe conditions, the question then arises is if there is an opportunity for peace how does one arrive at it and sustain it for institution building. The only two words that come to mind are TRUTH and RECONCILIATION.

Once two nations, two tribes or two ideologies have gone so far as to exterminate each other, the only point of return is through each other. Once the insanity of killing cannot blind them anymore, they have to return to life and the sanctity of it even in the most direst of situations.
Then begins the process of coming out of denial and accepting the crimes that were committed under the guise of war. Killing is murder whether on a battle field, in a jungle or in an alleyway. It can never be justified no matter who pulls the trigger.

To accept the crimes that have been committed, takes a great heart. To look in the eye of the person who has committed the crimes and forgive them, takes an even greater heart. But that is the only path to peace. Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis - and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus. This goes down in recent human history as one of the worst genocides ever committed. That conflict has ended and by most accounts Rwanda has made a come back from the brink through the process of Truth and Reconciliation. Victims and perpetrators have looked each other in the eyes acknowledged crimes, forgave and moved on to a better tomorrow.
It is not that Rwanda's problems have gone away for good, but they certainly have taken a step in the right direction and there is a lesson to be learned. South Africa has walked on this path and has achieved a civil society they can be proud of. They by no means have reached the promised land, they have just decided to give healing a chance out of fatigue and weariness.

In my last blog I talked about the horrors being unleashed on Gaza and how it had to stop. A report in the New York Times today (January 13, 2009) states that while the world opinion sees Israel's actions to be disproportionate their citizens overwhelmingly support this offensive. I find that hard to believe. No person in their right mind can support the killing of innocent civilians as "Collateral Damage". I find it hard to accept. And the only way I see out of this conflict is through the process of Truth and Reconciliation. That process has to begin now. I do not know how but it will have to begin for the sake of the children of Israel, Palestine, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, North and South Korea, Iran, Georgia and the world.

We have to talk to everyone involved. No matter how hard it may seem. For the sake of our children common ground must be found. Diplomacy and compromise is the only way out. The alternative is just not acceptable. We have to talk to those we call terrorists and those we shun as dictators. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Some might call this a naive approach, the fact of the matter is the alternative is not working. It is what it is.

Collateral Damage

Images of wounded old men, dead women and children on my screen reveal how perverse and pornographic the words "Collateral Damage" truly are. As the Israeli forces and Hamas continue their bloodletting in the most heinous manner, it is hard to stay silent. How can you support either? There is enough blame to go around on both sides. But the ones who have the bigger guns always cause the most damage and are given the most support. This is not the time to play politics. How long can we digest images of dead babies on our screens. It has to stop.

Any war zone is hell in the truest sense. Madness and evil hides behind the barrel of a gun. When the trigger is squeezed, humanity ceases to exist and insanity takes over. No nation knows this better than Israel, having been born out of an evil perpetrated on a people. As their past haunts them their present does not let them heal. How can a nation live in a constant state of war? How can one sip soda on a cool calm Tel Aviv beach while twenty minutes away a baby lies waling next to her dead mother.

The mistrust and hatred between the two sides is deep and dark. Everyone talks about a two state solution. But it is evident that there is an immense lack of political will on all sides. While the US leans heavily on Israel's side they are seen as untrustworthy peacemakers. While there is always political will to go to war there is never enough to find a viable honest fair solution. While most Israelis and Palestinians in principal would happily live side by side devoid of violence, it is clear that they have been hijacked by their governments and its hard line, much like the US, when we went to war in Iraq and lost our moral standing becoming perpetrators of torture.

Israel and Palestine are like a divorced couple who refuse to patch up. In the process making the lives of their children a living hell. Israel is going no where and Palestine has been there before Israel arrived. While both have dealt with amputation, they just cant get over the fact that they are amputees and have to learn to live that way for the rest of their body to heal and survive. In the process they keep cutting themselves even more.

Peace disrupts status-quo and status-quo benefits the powers involved. It makes way for the commerce of weaponry and everything else that goes with it. The US has to support Israel no matter what as they are premium pentagon clients and share historical ties that are constantly bolstered. The argument that they live in a part of the world where they are surrounded by hostile Arab nations eager to eliminate them, therefore they need to have nuclear weapons and a strong defense force has been debated often. The old "deterrent theory" the arms business thrives by is the basis for the status-quo. The theory of true peace has become a mirage and is entertained only for the media it seems. It has become an idea powers play with to gain legitimacy but do not truly believe in.

During the so called six month "cease fire" Hamas launched rockets unabated into Israel while Israeli armed forces killed their share of Palestinians and pretty much reduced Gaza into a walled prison camp choking all its civilians. While this did decrease suicide bombings in Israel the consequences were devastating to the Gazans. Feeling the pain, the hope was that the civilians would boycott Hamas. That clearly did not happen. While it is known that civilians suffered terribly, it is also a fact that their support for Hamas grew stronger. Not because they held Hamas in high esteem, because they had no choice. Hamas facilitated relief that was desperately needed and used it as a tool to gain support. A very effective strategy used by many militant groups around the world.

The tunnels that run between Gaza and Egypt which Israel is using as one of the pretexts for this offensive, have been used to smuggle arms for the Hamas but have also been used to bring essential supplies like food and medicine which Israel has denied the Gazans. It does not matter if the west and its allies see Hamas as a terrorist organization. The fact is that the people of Palestine elected Hamas, in a free and fair election. They were elected as a reaction to the west and Israel and they could not stand to support a weak and corrupt Fatah party. When Hamas' legitimacy was undermined they violently hijacked Gaza and have since operated like a militant mafia government using their usual hard line rhetoric of denying Israel its legitimacy. Now the attempt is being made to eliminate them, at a cost that is unacceptable. Much like the cost of eliminating Saddam has been and continues to be unacceptable. At the end of 14 days, 800 Palestinians have died in this current Israeli offensive. 40% of them women and children. 13 Israelis have perished, 10 of them soldiers. Another grim tally, revealing an appalling dis proportionality. A life is a life and terrorism is terrorism whether it is committed by a suicide bomber, tank shell or a missile, if the dead are innocent civilians.

When Israel attacked Lebanon, they made Hezbollah more powerful and the same is going to be the end result of this incursion. When the ceasefire is declared, Hamas will provide the social relief and proclaim itself the benevolent patriot and regain its grip even more forcefully. Mahmoud Abbas has already been rendered impotent by being silent and soon will become irrelevant as a result. Any peace in the middle east has become more elusive then ever. Another monumental challenge for the Obama administration.

American politicians as expected have been largely mute or have predictably shown their unwavering support for Israel's actions by providing some reprehensible analogies. Rhetoric like "What if rockets were being launched from Tijuana into San Diego would we respond with restraint", "If Vancouver launched rockets into Seattle would we sit back and watch", "Israel has a right to defend itself". These absurd ideas unfortunately drive policy decisions. There is no regard for the human toll wars take. The UN has yet again proven to be defunct. When the US can ignore the UN and do what it pleases why can't we, is the sentiment. We have the right to a preemptive strike. What better time to do it, but before the guys who pioneered it leave the White House. This way they can be sure of their firm backing.

Hamas and Israel have both refused to respond to the Security Council's call for a truce. They will face no consequences as a result and people will continue to die.

This is not the first time we have seen disturbing images of bloody innocence on our screens. It always happens in far off places, in foreign lands to people who do not look like us. We have bigger fish to fry. The economy is in a tail spin and people are loosing their jobs. Those Israelis and Palestinians, they are at it again. It is what it is.