Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I will wait for you till doomsday comes, May God wish for doomsday and hasten your arrival

IIPM Reviews

Hum intezar karenge tera qayamat tak Khuda kare ki qayamat ho aur tu aaye (I will wait for you till doomsday comes, May God wish for doomsday and hasten your arrival)

Urdu poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri must have longed for doomsday for sure. But who knows if his beloved ever arrived! If doomsday did come, would the poet have lived to see another day?

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, too, probably had a foreboding. Why else would she have got a time capsule buried in Red Fort in Delhi on August 15, 1973. The 'history' contained in that pot became the talk of the town.

It is 2012 and everyone is talking about doomsday all over again. What if the world does indeed come to an end this year? What would we, as a nation, want to pass on for posterity – if there is one – to remember us by?

Anand Prakash and Sanjay Srivastava draw up a bucket list of ten things/concepts/symbols that define the India of 2012, things that would necessarily make the cut if another time-capsule were to be lowered into the bowels of the earth.

For the rest of the world, the pen might be mightier than the sword. But in the Indian context, nothing can be stronger than the lathi. Via Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the wooden staff became a totem of our freedom struggle. From political firebrands battling for a cause to men in uniform staving off trouble to schoolmasters waving a firm hand at students, they have all wielded the lathi to great effect.

The juicy, crispy, yummy sweetmeat with many a delightful twist is an integral part of Indian street food. It not only satiates our collective proverbial sweet tooth, it serves as a great leveller in a mind-bogglingly diverse country, binding the rich and the poor, the south and the north, and the high and the low. Jai ho, jalebi!

Cuss words
Want to get something done in a rush? Hurl a choice gaali and see the kamaal unfold! In a land blessed with a multiplicity of languages and dialects, these colourful expletives that are used to soften up friends and enemies, and everyone else in between, emit just the right sound waves to dispel all prospective opposition. No blow is too low when a swear word is unleashed with intent and no effect that it has is too surprising! We are like this only.

The spherical, handmade wheat-bread makes the world go round in this part of the globe. In India, when we pray for our daily bread, it is roti that we always mean. The nation has its share of rice eaters no doubt, but can the roti ever be dislodged from our dietary spread, no matter which part of the country we live in? Roti-boti, rozi-roti and aatey-dal ka bhaav are inseparable from our upcountry patois. The parantha is, clearly, a neglected and limited species.

We probably hate the idea, but we are undeniably a land of snake charmers. India is home to a million superstitions and rituals. Every joy has a divine reason. And every woe is caused by God's wrath. Births, deaths, floods, droughts, lightning, thunder, happiness, sorrow, madness, delirium – everything is blamed on uparwale ki marzi (God's will). Thousands may die of snake bites every year in this country, but millions turn out every Nag Panchami day to celebrate the power of the serpents. Faith always wins even if life doesn't.

Song and dance
If literature is society’s mirror, cinema is its lens. But what this lens usually captures is a larger-than-life reality that demands a complete suspension of disbelief. Indian popular cinema peddles dreams and sugar-coated lies, but we love to lap it all up. Fashion, passion and tashan are the three pillars on which these yarns stand and whirl: India wouldn't be half as interesting a place without its 24-frames-a-second song and dance extravaganzas.

This is probably the only widely consumed edible item in the country – and the world – that is meant for nothing else but spitting out. The betel leaf juice is believed to activate the digestive system after a hearty meal, but this activity has defaced the innards of many of our monuments and other public edifices? But do we ever see red? A vital part of India's mass culture, we live with it in absolute harmony.

Joint family
The storyteller grandparents have become stories themselves. The joint family was supposed to be a specialty of this country. Grandparents, parents and children used to live under one roof. The oldest member used to be the head of the family. Call it the need of the hour or a modern-day compulsion, one can't live in a joint family today even if one wants to. Joint families are a thing of the past. Bring on the time capsule!

The timeless text that turned carnality into an art is India's cultural meal ticket in the West. Nothing sells like sex. In a country where moral policemen frequently dismiss any overt display of sexuality as a Western aberration, the Kamasutra, a celebration of sexual adventurism, remains the essential riposte to all the killjoys who want to reduce India to a sexless land where you would do 'it' only to procreate and nothing else. Thank God for Vatsyayan!

Our political leaders are a breed so apart that they could put Marie Antoinette to shame. They are the butt of constant mass ridicule but they continue regardless, powered by the ballot. More than 60 years after Independence, their greed and incompetence have ensured that India languishes at the bottom of the human development index. Time was when the neta would hide under a Gandhi topi. Today, he has discarded all vestiges of purity. So, why would we want anybody to remember them? Simple. So that history isn't repeated!


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The world may or may not come to an end, but the doomsday industry will always be alive and kicking

IIPM Reviews

Fear is the key. The world, we are always told, is hanging by a string that could snap without warning. In 2012, the doomsday industry will probably go into overdrive like never before. Living on the edge and imagining the dire consequences of that reality holds limitless fascination for mankind. The fears have certainly not remained confined to just folk tales and apocalyptic legends of the past but have continued to the present day as a compelling subject of literature and film-making. The dread of the unknown fires the human imagination, and writers and filmmakers conjure up cataclysmic scenarios to scare the daylights out of us. Cinema started experimenting with the subject very early. One of the most interesting early apocalyptic cinematic tales was the 1974 short film, A Boy and His Dog, produced and directed by LQ Jones.

The film depicts a war-ravaged Arizona in the year 2024, where all the survivors are men. Opposing forces have bombed their houses and killed the women and children. It is a moving story of a teenage boy, who is divorced from faith and morality and, with the help of his dog, is in constant search of food and women to satiate his physical needs.

Though the film was not a commercial draw at the time, it is today regarded as a cult film underscoring the degrees of destruction that an apocalypse can bring. Appleseed was another interesting science fiction which was adapted into two films and two popular video games. Released between 1985 and 1989, Appleseed depicts the 22nd century after a non-nuclear war has decimated the earth. Olympus is now the most powerful city in the world, with Great Britain, China and the US facing testing times in the effort to maintain law and order.

Among more recent films, Resident Evil (2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), War of the Worlds (2005), and Transformers (a series of films released in 2007, 2009, 2011) are the most notable ones.

The year 2009 saw blockbuster maker Roland Emmerich springing 2012 upon the world. Starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet and Thandie Newton, the film is an epic adventure set in the year mentioned in the title. A global crisis triggers the end of the world and the survivors of the catastrophe wage a heroic battle to the save the species.

Apocalypse has inspired songs as well. In the Dog Eat Dog album, the band Warrant had sung a powerful song called April 2031, depicting a world where life is sustained by artificial means. Similarly, Edwin Muir composed a poem, The Horses, which shows our society back into the days of pre-industrial revolution. Video games too have exploited the subject.

Novels perhaps have covered apocalypse in the biggest way. Among the pre-twentieth century novels, After London by Richard Jefferies and H G Wells'

The War of the Worlds have been very successful. Among the 20th and 21st century novels, too many works came out in this genre perhaps influenced by six decades of the Cold War. Notable among them were Richard Matheson's I am Legend, (1954); The White Plague (1982) by Frank Herbert; M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901) and Empty World (1977) by John Christopher.

It is not nuclear conflict alone that has been shown as the cause for end of the world. There have been other reasons, such as poisonous cloud, deadly viruses, meteor strikes, volcanic eruption, earthquakes, alien attacks etc. The list is endless.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Venezuela is probably the most unsafe place on earth

IIPM Reviews

Despite some hiccups, the Bolivarian Revolution looks all set to hand President Chavez another term in office, reports Saurabh Kumar Shahi from the heart of Venezuela

A casual look at the headlines in the international press suggests doomsday in Venezuela. Read Wall Street Journal and NYT and it appears that the country is going, if it has not already gone, to the wolves. According to their version of events, Venezuela is probably also the most unsafe place on earth to stroll in with the possible exception of the Taliban-held territories in Afghanistan.

But a week in Venezuela would be enough to tell you why the western press has lost its credibility even faster than its governments. Venezuela is far from what it is portrayed to be by the American media. In fact, it is dramatically opposite.

So why this rancour? Why this viciousness? Well, the answer lies 12 years back in 1999, when an ex-military man and a charismatic socialist Hugo Chavez took power in an election where he had been discounted by everybody else. Without logistics, media support or finances behind him, Chavez defeated the pro-American elites fair and square. As he introduced his “Bolivarian Revolution”, named aptly after the great Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, panic gripped the West. The western media upped its ante.

Far from these doomsday predictions, as I enter the premises of 'Ciudad Caribia', a rehabilitation city launched as part of the 'Gran Mision' project of the Bolivarian revolution, it becomes pretty evident why in spite of a ruthless international campaign, Chavez comfortably holds the masses with him. 'Ciudad Caribia' is a kind of social dream that the current, post-1980s generation might fail to comprehend. It is simply because projects of such social impact and on such magnitude are not launched these days, leave alone completed. And that is why 'Ciudad Caribia' parallels what was once termed as a “Socialist Dream”.

Spread on thousands of acres at a serene location outside Caracas, the rehabilitation city is one of 150 such projects currently going on in Venezuela. Meant to house 30,000 people either displaced from landslides or who have been shifted from slums, these cities are nothing short of a dream. Spacious three-room flats, landscaped roads and parks, medical clinics, schools, colleges, a sport complex, a community centre and neighbourhood markets; these are things its inhabitants had never dreamt of before Chavez came to power through democratic means. Today, as Venezuela is on the path to achieve the 'Millennium Goals' of United Nations, the impact of such social initiatives on the economic indicators is not lost.

Bolivarian Revolution's economic policies have managed to halve the poverty rate from 49 per cent of the households in 1998 to close to 23 per cent last year. Meanwhile, the extreme poverty rate plummeted from 21 per cent of households in 1998 to close 6 per cent last year, in line with the Millennium Goals.

"These indicators have been achieved because of a mix of social initiatives as well as economic programmes that led to the dramatic decrease in unemployment which fell by nearly half, from 14.5 per cent in early 1999 to around 6 per cent this year," Temir Porras, vice minister of foreign affairs, tells TSI. “This dramatic decrease in unemployment generally leads to increase in 'Gini coefficient' but we managed to reduce this from 0.49 in 1998 to 0.39 last year. This figure, let me add, is one of the most impressive ones in a region (Latin America) that has historically remained unequal,” he adds.

The role of a wide variety of new social programmes, known as “misions”, of which 'Ciudad Caribia' is a part, becomes extremely important. It has led to tripling of the rate of university attendance and increased the enrolment rate in primary education by almost 50 per cent.

“These have been achieved through the sharp increase in government spending on education. Similarly, health indicators are also in line with and sometimes better than the Millennium Goals. Also, one of the greatest achievements has been to integrate the previously excluded indigenous population that has been provided with new rights, such as the right to their own languages, cultures, and territories, as well as three guaranteed representatives in the National Assembly,” explains Porras. The Bolivarian Revolution's driving philosophy remains the Marxist motifs that President Chavez has borrowed from neighbouring Cuba. However, having said that, it should also be mentioned that unlike in cash-strapped Cuba, in Venezuela the revolution has proliferated its agenda on to the regional and global stage with the use of its great wealth in the form of petroleum. Naturally, it has catapulted Chavez to the top of the list of Latin American brand of leftists.

But it was not easy. When Chavez started his social and economic programmes, he needed huge amounts of money. Naturally, he wanted the oil sector to fund it. The elites rooted in this sector, who had tacit and sometimes open support of the United States, responded vehemently.

Chavez managed to regain state control over the previously quasi-independent oil industry but not without facing a coup in 2002, engineered by elites and officers of PDVSA, the Venezuelan oil corporation. Chavez lost his power briefly, but masses loyal to him occupied the major TV station and cordoned off the presidential palace. Witnessing the mood, the section of the military that was rooted in Bolivarian Revolution and came from economically deprived backgrounds, began to mobilise. By the next day, Chavez was back in action.

“We nationalised private sub-contractors in the oil industry and included them in the state-owned company giving the labourers a much better package. To avoid transnational monopoly, we made the law where they could not control more than 40 per cent of any given production site. However, most importantly, we increased royalties from as low as 1 per cent to a minimum of 33 per cent,” explains Ivan Orellana Alcala, vice minister of Energy and Petroleum while talking to TSI. Oil, among other things, has also helped Venezuela to catalyse its foreign policy. Along with Cuba, Venezuela has initiated a regional integration programme called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA). Petrocaribe S. A., an arrangement where nations with an oil alliance with Venezuela are allowed to purchase oil on conditions of preferential payment, has generated massive goodwill for the country. In fact, economists consider such an alliance based on fair exchange as a potent weapon against the concept of free trade that is always tilted against the impoverished partner. Prior to Chavez, all the oil money used to go to Miami and the likes. No prize for guessing why the West is furious. So how is it all going to shape the up-coming elections? To start with, one wonders why the West did not discredit the previous elections that bought Chavez to power time and again. They tried to do it in Iran, for example. Well, they simply could not do it because Venezuela put in place one of the most rigging-proof voting technologies in the world, with dual electronic and paper ballots – something that got rave reviews from election observers from around the world – that even American electorates dream off. So, any election would be above board. And all stories about the clamp on opposition media is just that, a story. On the contrary, for example, it took me three days to locate a pro-Chavez newspaper or a TV channel. The market is flooded with elite-controlled anti-Chavez and pro-American media vehicles.

There are areas of concern as Chavez enjoys reduced popularity from what he achieved in 2007. People mostly attribute it to rising inflation and inability to drastically bring down the crime rate. But which predominant factors will drive masses from the cerros and the barrios to the polling stations? In a slum located on a hilltop in Caracas, I met people who had not gone downhill for decades as there was no other way but to step down and then climb 1500 flights of stairs before Chavez's government constructed cable-cars for them. Before that happened they had lived and died on that hilltop without as much as walking through the city they lived in. Who do you think they will vote for as they come out en masse in October next year? Again, no prizes for guessing. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Patiala House: Pitching for perfect emotions

Imagine a cricket match – the winning runs need to be scored of the last ball with one wicket remaining. Akshay Kumar and Nikhil Advani find themselves in a similar state after the spate of their recent box office duds. Patiala House is akin to the last ball of their innings and they manage to scrape through with the skin of their teeth and not anywhere near in spectacular a manner as a last ball six.

Gattu, a gifted cricketer has to cut short his dream of playing for the England cricket team because of his father who is dead against his son playing for the British. How Gattu manages to break free and pursue his dream for the sake of his extended family forms the crux of the story.

The premise of the film seems a bit outdated if one were to look at it purely from the perspective of the overbearing, overindulgent, British bashing father. The format is quite linear and the viewer knows in advance what to expect at the end. However, what works in the movie’s favour is the high emotional quotient that it carries throughout.

Akshay Kumar as Gattu delivers a restrained performance while Rishi Kapoor does the exact opposite as the father. Anushka Sharma plays her part as the spunky catalyst with refreshing maturity. Rest of the supporting cast adds to the riot of colours on screen. Other technical departments do a competent job. Overall it’s a movie with its fair share of flaws yet fair enough to merit a watch.

No Strings Attached

No zing attached

The so called ‘friends with benefits’ or ‘sex friends’ has been a concept that has received a lot of press in lifestyle magazines and newspaper sections in India, but never really talked about much on the big screen. That way, Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached is a refreshing take on the matter as it tells the story of a busy doctor, Emma (Natalie Portman looking awesomely good!) and her TV producer friend Adam (Ashton Kutcher) who get hooked just for the physical part of it. However, the script’s raunchiness overawes its comic potential and the lack of conflicts and swift plot developments makes it a slightly boring watch. Predictable, love or something like it intervenes and throws the strictly physical relationship out of gear for our lead pair and that is where Reitman loses the cool and calculated touch he had shown with the superb Up In The Air. Portman is quite good, though obviously not Black Swan good while Kutcher plays just another version of what he’s played countless times in other rom-coms. Adam’s conflict with his dad (played by Kevin Kline) after he finds out that his ex-girlfriend is sleeping with his father is an angle that is not cut neatly enough into the story. A fairly original concept thus gets mired in the cloak of ordinariness and your search for any punch in the jokes is sure to be futile. You may still want to watch it though, in case you wanted a ‘sex friends 101’ class.

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