Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pandora vs Orissa

The Cameron film Avatar has overtaken the Cameron-epic Titanic as the highest grossing film ever with global box office receipts of £1.15 billion. (Titanic’s takings had finally petered out £1.14 billion.)

The news has arrived even as I am still digesting the meeting I attended yesterday on how the nexus between the Indian government and international corporations is leading to a plunder of the rich mineral resources of the Indian states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand. The talk was organised by a bunch of activist students of SOAS at the university itself.

So this is what is happening: Mining companies have found a region with mouth-watering minerals in the middle of India. They’d love to get their hands on it. All’s well except for some pesky tribals who have been living there for centuries. Yes, they want development but one that is sustainable and in which they have a say. The corporations think otherwise. Struggle ensues and abuse of the tribal community follows.

Sounds similar? But not quite. Apart from the fact that the Indian tribal communities are not bioluminiscent blue and are evidently tailless - there will be no decisive war between the evil corporation and the innocent tribals (with some timely help from three-horned rhinos tipping the scales in favour of the latter). Cameron made his job easy by taking us to a foreign land inhabited by aliens. The tribes owned that land, and a company from elsewhere wanted to plunder it. It was neat banal binary.

But what we are experiencing in India is more complex. It isn’t just some alien company arriving out of nowhere taking away the lands of the tribal communities. These foreign companies are coming in with the express permission of the Indian government, which technically represents the tribes as well. It has the authority to decide what kind of development it wants for these regions – and it has decided, rightly or wrongly, that industrial development is the way to go. And we cannot deny that other parts of India, other communities, other classes, stand to benefit from this growth (at least in the short-run).

The struggle in India, unlike the one in planet Pandora, is one about different people in the same country having a different vision for development. It isn’t just a question of throwing one or two British corporations out of Orissa and West Bengal. The government will bring in others, perhaps Indian companies, for the job. Will that be somehow better?

The question is not about corporations. It is about what vision of development do different communities and classes of India have, how to make sure that all voices are heard in the discussion, how do we arrive at a consensus, and when the final decision is made who is asked to sacrifice.

Unfortunately, no timely appearance of three-horned rhinos will help us arrive at an answer to this one.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

News of the day

The most popular stories now section on the BBC News' site makes for a fascinating study.

The headlines on today's website pertains to Haiti's death toll, sex offender alerts in the UK and the death of the 251st British soldier in Afghanistan since 2001. By contrast, the most shared news on the site at the moment is Untidy Beds may keep us healthy and Experts stunned by 'swan' divorce (no, no kidding).

And this is why, journalism is in so much trouble.

I am guessing someone forgot to tell the poor swans that David Cameron intends to hand out tax breaks to married couples.

BBC goes to Mumbai

BBC News decided to explore the Mumbai street food culture this weekend. And its journalist Ben Richardson really pushed the boundaries on the subject by taking us all the way to (yawn! yawn!) Chowpatty and Bade Mian’s in Colaba.

Of course, street food is hugely popular in Mumbai. (It is cheap and easily available in a city where nothing is cheap and easily available.) But what Richardson failed to mention is that so are chronic stomach ailments.

Be careful as you take your mouthfuls, Richardson. Be very careful!

Friday, January 22, 2010

She's got a ticket to ride

I have won the very first lottery of my life. No, I won no money. I won a ticket to attend Tony Blair's questioning before the Iraq Inquiry on January 29, 2010 (though through the additional viewing room).

I must preserve this ticket. Who knows? My grandchildren might make a small fortune of it someday. There might be some money to be made of the lottery win, after all!
PS: I was reading Oscar & Lucinda the day I put in my ballot. And I won. Life is so rum.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Art & Soul

The moment we stepped out of the National Theatre last evening, Sid asked, “So what was it about?” And it took me a full five minutes to figure out what was the Alan Benett play The Habit of Art about. It was about a day in the rehearsal of a play about a meeting between the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the fag ends of their lives where they discuss art, fame, old age, the fear of being forgotten, their homosexuality, and how the two of them dealt with it in their lives and in their art, as imagined by their biographer Humphrey Carpenter.

So how many different kinds of artists was this play about? There was the author of the play that was being rehearsed, the play’s producer, the actors playing the different parts, the poet Auden, the composer Britten and even the biographer Carpenter. They all had ideas about theatre, acting, writing, poetry, music and the humanity of the characters they enacted. And the play was about all of that.

With so many ideas jostling for space, Bennett’s play could have easily accelerated towards total meltdown. Yet, it moved smoothly on adding layers upon layers without losing sight to the humanity of each artist – the author, producer and actors bringing their own life experiences of age, sexualities and art into the play. And it is so naturally acted that you actually feel that you are getting a peak into the comedy, ideas, anxieties, egos and intellect that come together in the making of a play.

Watching it I was reminded of another celebrated work of art on largely a similar theme – age, fame, sexuality, art, and art within art – the 2008 Charlie Kaufman’s movie Synecdoche, New York. Yet, while Synecdoche, New York left you exhausted, tired and hopeless with respect to both art and life, The Habit of Art is the opposite. It will leave your refreshed, amused, full of ideas and hopeful towards the eventual decline of life that awaits us all.

Yes, we will be old. But age will also give us the opportunity to give-in to our glorious eccentricities!

* The website of the Royal National Theatre says that tickets for the play have sold out till April. But call up at their box office number, and they are sure to have some return tickets. Our £10 tickets had us in the second row but as much of the action takes place in the central of the stage they were totally worth it.

**Here’s the only review of Synecdoche, New York that encaptured the complex feelings it left me with.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tweet for Tat

Dear Mr Shashi Tharoor,

As the Minister of State of External Affairs of India, I really appreciate the way you try so hard to stay in touch with your constituency via twitter. In the last two days, you have kept a tireless hourly reporting schedule from Bogota of your activities and all the wise thoughts to cross your mind.

On Monday, the moment you got off at the Bogota airport, you immediately informed us that your bags had arrived and a jetlag was looming over you (2:46pm); but keeping that wretched jetlag at bay, at 5:18pm you directed us to a media report on your tricky diplomatic successes at Barcelona, which you had just left behind; at 5:26pm, you retweeted a tweet about India’s blind, urging people to donate their eyes; four minutes later, you retweeted a message giving your respects to Martin Luther King; we had to wait only another six minutes before you popped up again to pay your respects to Jyoti Basu; two minutes later you reiterated your pain at his sad demise (just in case anyone was in doubts about your emotions); the next two tweets were dedicated to Haiti; and you ended your day retweeting congratulations sent you by two of your grateful and ardent supporters on your achievements in Barcelona.

The next day again, you kept us informed about your thoughts on organ donations, Indian cricket greats, you successful meetings and other achievements in Bogota, Indian investment opportunities in Columbia, Bogota’s beauty and the lack of Indian tourists there, and Kerala’s backwater houseboats through tweets and retweets.

Now if only that the High Commissions of India around the world, which are under your direct jurisdiction, shared your enthusiasm to tirelessly serve us Indians to the best of their capabilities.

All I wanted to do was get more pages for my passport. The website of HCI in London, unlike your tweeting self, didn’t believe in details so had no information for people whose passport pages had run out. The telephone helpline for passport inquiries didn’t follow your ethos of remaining in touch with the Indian base either, because instead of reaching a human being I met at automated voice that directed me back to the unhelpful website. There was a general inquiry number listed on the website – both for office and after hours – but no one cared to pick up that phone line.

Feeling helpless, I took a chance and filled up the passport renewal form and arrived at the HCI. After standing in line for hours, I was informed at the counter that I needed photocopies of my husband’s passport, of our marriage certificate, and proof of change of address as well. My protests that these requirements were not mentioned on the website were met with careless shrugs.

On my second visit, I was pushed off to a counter that handles people without token numbers. After 20 minutes of being crushed by men from all sides who didn’t believe in queuing or giving women the right of way, I decided that my 5’2” self I didn’t stand a chance of reaching the main counter and called it quits.

On my third visit, I finally managed to reach the counter armed with all documents – but the lady at the counter who believed in service with a snort still managed to find a reason to shout at me and throw my papers and money carelessly on the counter before grudgingly accepting my application.

What worried me was that as a well educated, English-speaking Indian who is aware of her rights, I was getting HCI’s crème de la crème treatment. There were others, old men and women who could only speak Hindi or Punjabi and didn’t understand electronic forms and tricky paperwork, who were being carelessly and rudely shovelled from one counter to the other by your representatives at the HCI.

Why is it Mr Tharoor, that while you are busy putting India on the world map and giving yourself up to the service of your Indian constituency, your ministry’s footmen are busy making Indians feel helpless, angry, frustrated and keen to give up their Indian passports?

So while you are in Bogota today, I would suggest taking a break from your tweeting schedule and visit the HCI there to see whether it has the manners, infrastructure and the willingness to serve and help the Indian tourists that you wish to see more of in the country. Your ardent tweeting followers, including me, will with live with the loss for a day or two, I am sure.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Power of ranting

Hmm... a few days after I rant about the ominipresence of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, one of his London restaurants loses its Michelin star.

Gosh! I should rant more.

Diversity Bollywood-style

Trying to play catch-up with Bollywood, I watched 3 Idiots and Rocket Singh: Saleman of the Year back to back this week. And what struck me was that the narrator of 3 Idiots, played by Madhavan, was Muslim and the hero of Rocket Singh, played by Ranbeer Singh, was Sikh. And they were Muslim and Sikh for no reason other than they just were. I loved that.

Usually, Bollywood films will introduce a Muslim character to overtly and particularly refer to his or her Muslimness and use the fact to preach tolerance, secularism, partriotism etc etc – think Rang De Basanti, Heroes, Fanaa, Chak De! India.

As for Sikhs, they simply don’t exist except for ridiculous comic effect (anyone remembers that gawdawful Dil Bole Hadippa). Even in Rang De Basanti, the director gives Aamir Khan a Sikh name, family and son but not the turban and beard that would seal the fact that he is Sikh. It is simply not sexy to have a Sikh hero.

But in 3 Idiots, Madhavan is Muslim for no other reason than that surely there are Muslims studying in Indian engineering colleges. He dresses, acts, speaks, eats and behaves like his two other roommates. Sure, his parents put Kajal in their eyes and wear Salwar Kameez, but again their Muslimness has no bearing on the plot. The director even gives him a particularly devout Hindu roommate, played by Sharman Joshi. But Madhavan's Muslimness and Johsi's devout Hinduness is never a point of confrontation. Both facts exist simultaneously without any friction – as they do between me and my many Muslim friends.

Rocket Singh goes a step further by introducing us to a Sikh hero. Again, his Sikhness has no material bearing on the plot. He just as soon could have been a Christian, Hindu or Muslim. All of the three religions have the same moral code against corruption and greed that guide him through the film. His beard and turban is neither a subject of comic relief nor of any other particular interest. He has a girlfriend of ambiguous religious antecedents though we can be sure that she is not Sikh. The film tells us that a Sikh can be attractive, intelligent and the hero of a film without actually referring to Rocket Singh’s Sikhness at all.

Now, I am waiting to see the first Malayalam Christian hero of a Hindi film answering to the name of Jacob Kochumman.

After watching Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots, Sid wants to know if Aamir Khan has got some special axe to grind with the Indian education system.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Channel 4 goes slum-dogging

Slumdog Millionaire was supposed to be a fresh, bold and imaginative narrative about contemporary India. Now, it has become an easy cliché for the lazy western media to approach the country.

Why else would four of the seven programmes that together make Channel 4’s “Indian Winter” series refer to the movie in one way or the other: Slumdog Millionaire, Slumming It, Slumdog Secret Millionaire and Slumdog Children of Mumbai?

Many years ago, I saw a documentary about Dharavi: one of the gazillion films made about the slum with the dubious, and probably untrue, reputation of being Asia’s largest. In it, Bhau Korde, a 71-year-old Dharavi resident and social activist acidly observed that all his life he had seen journalists walking in and around Dharavi with their jholas and notepads, and yet, not a thing had actually improved in the slum.

Danny Boyle was not the first to make his career on Dharavi. Many journalists, writers, documentary film makers, art film directors, social workers made their name off the slum before him. And now Channel 4 hopes to join the brigade.

Will this attention change a thing inside Indian slums? Sadly, I think not.

The Indian Winter starts tomorrow on Channel 4 with - believe this or die - Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. (When taking a break from Slumdog cliches, the series will explore another cliche, Gordon Ramsay, who will experiment with Indian cuisine this time.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Snark by David Denby

Reviewers of David Denby’s book Snark, published last September, were not kind to him. The 65-year-old’s suggestion that nastiness in the garb of humour was taking over the American public sphere found few supporters in the American or British media. They criticised Denby for not defining snark clearly enough, for being biased in his criticism, for mixing his arguments, for carping, or for simply being a bore.

However, few reviewers discuss the validity or not of his initial premise.
I got attracted to the book precisely because it seemed to ask interesting questions – is the media becoming mean, personal and unconstructive in its attempt to amuse? When you have millions and millions of websites to compete with, is getting nasty the easiest and quickest way to gain attention? Does internet encourage our nasty side through its anonymity? Can nasty and cynical humour lead to anything constructive? And what does this mean for the public sphere where attitudes, tastes and policies are formed? All avid internet users must have asked themselves these questions at some point or the other.

I think they were relevant questions to raise, and courageous ones too, considering that questioning humour amounts to immediately branding yourself as the party spoiler. The problem is that Denby failed to build his case. He spent too much time separating irony and satire from its venomous variant and too little on its scale, reach and effects. He extrapolated a few examples – Maureen Dowd, gawkers, campus website – to America’s national conversation, which is hard to accept. But the case he builds against these examples are valid.

Maureen Dowd’s vicious humour seems to serve no purpose other than caricaturing her subjects without any attempts to examine their humanity or intentions. What higher purpose can a Gawker site serve other than carp, if its philosophy is “nothing was as it seemed and nothing can really change” (pg 70) – as one of its former writers explained. What can a Gawker Media piece contribute to the public debate if its owner “is not interested in think pieces, unless they are rants” (pg 71). As for Campus site, it is an example of internet anonymity at its worst. Unfortunately, Denby does not prove that these examples are symptomatic of what is happening in America as a whole.

But if Denby’s book sparks generates introspection in other forums or inspires others to examine the subject more cogently – it might be a success still.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The witty Indian media

A Delhi-based newspaper Mail Today carried a cartoon depicting an Australian police officer in a Ku Klux Klan hood saying "we are yet to determine the nature of the crime". It referred to the murder of an Indian student Nitin Garg in Melbourne a few days ago.

All through last summer (or Australian winter depending on which hemisphere you live in), Australia was rife with protests by Indian students against a spate of attacks on them. The students claimed they were racially motivated - "curry bashing" as it was called. The police and the Australian government were sure they were mere robberies and petty crime. The Indian media went ballistic with outrage over what was happening to Indians in Australia, and has kept up its reporting on the issue since.

Sid from Oz thinks the joke was in bad taste. But as an Indian who will eventually make home in Australia, I was rather tickled by the newspaper's cartoon. I think it is perfectly appropriate to question the Australian police's actions and statements. I was happy that the Indian media and the government are concerned about Indian citizens living elsewhere. Because as I am quickly realising, no matter which government you pay your taxes to, your rights and dignity are critically dependent on which country's passport you hold. Besides, the cartoon itself was funny and punchy (though, ironically, the joke would have been lost on the Indian middle class to which most Australian immigrants belong. I doubt they would have any clue of or interest in the history of the civil rights movement).

That said, I can't help but wonder why such outrage, irony and wit is not displayed with respect to BJP attacking Muslims, MNS terrorising the North Indians in Mumbai or the Indian police which has one of the worst human rights record in the world. I wish the newspaper would save some such sharp digs for them too.

Jobless in London: Or how I got scatological over Johnny Depp?

I knew I was not going to get the job when I received an email saying:
We get a lot of stories from celebrity’s Twitter page, which often means we have to build a whole story from a quote of just a couple of lines. I’d like to see how you would go about this, so please could you write a news story from the below post on Pete Wentz’s Twitter page:

“johnny depp is the shit. he owns an island and awesome cheekbones. pkease adopt me.”

The recruitment executive had helpfully sent me two recent examples from the magazine for my assistance. The first was about former Playboy playmate Kendra Wilkinson feeling ready to have sex again after giving birth to her first child, and the second announced the engagement of Kate Perry and Russell Brand.

Desperate as I was, I actually started investigating why certain Mr Wentz was getting scatological over Johnny Depp. Mr Wentz turned out to be the confession-happy lead bassist of the American band Fallout Boy, husband of celebrity singer Ashlee Simpson, and father to one-year-old Mowgli (that boy will grow up to have some complexes!).

The result was as follows:

Pete Wentz, the bassist of the American rock band Fall Out Boy, has his love for the Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp plastered over the internet with his latest tweet, “johnny depp is the shit. he owns an island and awesome cheekbones. pkease (sic) adopt me.”

Wentz is a long time fan of Johhny Depp, with whom he shares a love for eyeliner. In the past, the outspoken 30-year-old musician has admitted that one of his nightmares is Johnny joining his band, because he would have to stand so close to someone who is the “epitome of coolness”.

Pete’s latest outpouring could have been inspired by the fact that he has recently recorded a song for the soundtrack of the upcoming film Alice in Wonderland, which stars Johnny as the Mad Hatter. Pete collaborated with his long time friend and musician Mark Hoppus, the lead singer and bassist of the pop punk band Blink-182, for the song.

The island in question was bought by Johnny in the Caribbean in 2005.

So do Pete’s singer wife Ashlee Simpson and one-year-old son Bronx Mowgli Wentz come as package for adoption? The answer just might tilt the balance, Pete!

I felt like I had sold my soul. And 48 hours later, I was informed that my style was not suited to the magazine. Celebrity gossip journalism is “the shit” indeed.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Other Gordon

Spotting Gordon Ramsay on PhotoPeach

If the London newspapers conducted a poll on which Gordon – Brown or Ramsay – is more recognisable in the city, I’ll bet Sid’s recently recovered tailored dinner jacket that Ramsay would win the competition hands down.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pointless digital innovations: 2009

Most newspapers ended last year with the annual rounding-up of the best of 2009 – films, albums, music videos, technology, books, and television shows. But one area of culture, which is expanding its reach exponentially, eluded their beady eyes: the utterly pointless but incredibly fun digital innovations and creations of 2009.

But in our age of citizen journalism, there is always someone out there ready to plug in the hole left behind by the reviled MSM. In this case, it was a bunch of digital creatives sitting in their laidback-to-the-extreme studio space in, you’ve guessed it, Old Street.

Their list can be accessed here – and it includes such gems as Bakertweet, an application for bakeries to autotweet every time a fresh stack of breads comes out of the oven, or creation of Cockney language option for cash machines (I’m serious!), an entire music video created by digitally placing the artists on google maps, and a blog called I hate my parents to paste pictures of all those ridiculous things our parents forced us to do.

How did I zero-in on this site out of the gazillion floating around in cyberspace? Through a traditional tabloid paper they published for promotional purposes and left at a rather hideous American-style café near their office called The Diner. In fact, the paper is more fun than the website because it includes bit-sized irony-filled explanations to each of the entries. The website merely lists them.

Sigh! There are certain things that only old-style newspapers can do. Reaching out to a cross-section of people outside your little world is one of them.

Sheep & Horses

I spent most of yesterday researching for a magazine whether in Aberdeen a man owning more than 12 sheep must prove that he is not a 'pimp' (brothel owner).

What hogwash, I kept thinking all day.

Then I came across this news piece today, and decided perhaps it wasn't such an idoitic law after all.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Wright & Wrong

There was a certain kick in catching Richard Wright’s gold leaf and gouache mural that won this year’s Turner Prize in the very last hour of its existence. Tomorrow, this ethereally beautiful creation will be heartlessly painted over at the express request of Wright. It is not a gimmick. It has been the fate of all of Wright’s works in the last 20 years to be destroyed at the end of the exhibition for which they were created.

As he said in a video that accompanied the exhibition, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”. Wright also acknowledged that his art sits awkwardly with the market. It questions how the system should value his art, which though exquisite, is transient. How should the art market – the auction houses, the galleries and collectors – contend with Wright’s work, which has no resale value? Is it still worth patronising?

Questioning art and commerce is not new. Another Tate exhibition – Pop Life – is filled cheek-by-jowl with artists questioning this rather murky relationship: from Andy Warhol to Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst. Almost all of the works did the same with a sense of cynicism, irony, starkness and in-your-face shamelessness that unfailingly ensured that the artists’ pockets are lined with gold. So while you definitely came out enjoying their joke on the system, you couldn’t help but feel that somehow the joke was also on you.

I prefer Wright’s style of questioning. It doesn’t just poke fun at the system, it boldly challenges it. His works also challenge us as a society to question our consumerist covetousness and fascination with youth. But Wright does it with a sense of almost spiritual beauty. For in order to destroy your own exquisite creation, you must first let go of the vanity and conceit that accompanies its creation. That Wright does it, gives us faith that so can we.

Wright’s work is gone forever. But Pop Life exhibition will be on at Tate Modern till January 17.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year's resolution

A worrying thought entered my mind as I looked up and found Transport For London again preaching to the public. Is this TFL's new year's resolution?


All right, so the 1980s theme party that Sid and I attended on New Year’s Eve wasn’t as scandalous as the “Prostitute & Pimp” party thrown last month by one of Sid’s friend. But dressing up in George Michael gear or Madonna’s Who’s That Girl-attire didn’t make anyone look better than prostitutes and pimps.

Of all the English cultural quirks – read, kidney pies and Katie Price – it is this predilection for mass ritualistic fancy dress parties that I find most peculiar.

Now, for us Indians, it is a simple equation. If we are going to a party, we try our best to look our best. We are too conscious of not being good looking enough – not tall enough, not fair enough, not thin enough, not blonde enough – to treat our looks with any sense of humour.

But by corollary, does it mean that the English are so confident and bored of their good looks that they are ready to spend so much time, energy, money and effort into making themselves look ridiculous? (Now if it were Italy or Spain, I wouldn’t find that confidence questionable. But England?)

Or is it that they are so convinced of being irreparably ugly that they see no point in dressing up? Their act of looking silly is rebellion against the French and Spanish pressures to look good, which they know they simply can’t achieve, so why try!

Or perhaps, as Sid says, they are just interested in have fun!

Bread like an Indian

Dear little Anjali,

All you thought you were doing was putting that peculiar, white, chewy-looking thing into your mouth (much like that dirt-filled plastic giraffe off the floor the other week). But little did you know that in that tiny act of eating your first piece of Indian food what a gigantic rite of passage you’ve crossed.

For that was no ordinary peculiar, white, chewy-looking thing. That was naan, the finest gem of the great Indian cuisine. And as one-half of your skip ancestors will agree, it is the most splendid gift given to the world by your other-half of Indian ancestors.

Yah, yah… I know. Some will tell you that it was zero. Others will try to convince you that it was the Gandhi’s non-violence, and still more will whisper that it was actually wireless technology that Marconi stole from Dr JC Bose of Kolkata. (Bloody Italians, never trust them!)

But..but.. little Anjali.. don’t let that fool you. Think for yourself. So without the zero, we wouldn’t have had computers. Without wireless, the world wouldn’t have had cell phones. And without non-violence, we wouldn’t have had… well, nobody really practices it anyway, so it is a moot point. But without the great Indian cuisine, we wouldn’t have had dal makhnis, navratan kormas, matar paneer, shahi kebab, rogan josh, biryani and of course that tasty piece of naan in your mouth. Life wouldn’t have been worth living really: cell phones or no cell phones.

Why else do you think the English turned up at our doorsteps with guns and canons? It was the mysterious, aromatic curries that we laboured over for centuries to perfect that seduced them from thousands of miles away. And even as they left kicking and screaming, they took away enough Indian chefs to their cold, icy homeland to have all the Chicken Tikka Masala they fancied.

Can you think of anything else from India that the world has shown such remarkable interest in? Which is why, while others will want to dunk you in holy water or make you read the Hebrew To’rahs, we Indians keep it simple. Chew and gulp, chew and gulp – and there won’t make a better Indian than you.

Always ready to enlighten you on your Indian heritage
Chetna Auntie