Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Great Indian Measuring Game

So the debate is no longer about whether they are corrupt or not. It’s all about who is more corrupt. No more finger pointing games then. Let’s get our measuring scales out and start a new one. If the ruling party is X on the scale of corruption, then the opposition is X+1. Or is it the other way around? The BJP is X and the Congress is X+1. No one’s less than X when it comes to corruption. They all have something to hide. We will never run short of ingredients to weigh on the scale. What fun!!!

Look at the behaviour of both parties. Raja’s indictment of Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram is being countered by an argument that they didn’t know. Hello...we follow the parliamentary system of democracy right? We are taught in schools and colleges that this system is based on the principles of collective responsibility. One for all and all for one!

Either the Prime Minister knew or he is plain incompetent. Once again we are confronted with Hobson’s choice. Do we want a leader who is smart enough to get his kickbacks from all the underhand deals or should we be happy about one who takes a moral high ground for himself but allows others in his team to be corrupt. What a good man Manmohan Singh is...he not only provides a shining example of his integrity for the rest of us but also makes us marvel at how much shinier his integrity is compared to the evil team mates he inherited all because of Coalition ‘Dharma.’

Chalo let’s also deconstruct the word Dharma to understand how the meaning of it changes when affixed to the word Coalition. Dharma is about doing the right thing. But when it comes to Coalition politics it means just the opposite. Like the leader of the ruling party and the PM asking other parties to support them in return for turning a blind eye on the corrupt practices of the ministers they induct in the cabinet from these parties. Lesson over let’s train our guns on the Opposition now.

The people of Karnataka must be numb with shock to tolerate a chief minister like Yeddyurappa. There’s a certain category of human beings that we tend to leave well alone saying Iska kuch nahin ho sakta. When evil takes on the form of a Joker, you wince and laugh at the same time but you also understand why even the Batman finds it impossible to stop him most of the time. Yeddyurappa is that animal of Indian politics. His own party president has called him unethical but ees aadmi ke kaan mein joo bhi nahin rengi. He just continues irrespective of the accusations levelled against him. I am increasingly convinced a person called Yeddyurappa does not exist. We are living in a fictional Matrix and Yeddy is a mirror for us to comprehend how low we must have sunk to tolerate someone like him.

And that brings me to the great big dilemma. Should this measuring scale be about corruption or should it be about shame? To measure who’s X and who’s X+1 on shamelessness? Who fares better
(or is it worse?)?

Nitin Gadkari or Sonia Gandhi? Manmohan Singh or Sushma Swaraj? Arun Shourie or A Raja? Yashwant Sinha or P Chidambaram?

The difficulty with changing what the scales should weigh is that it ends up implicating all of us as well. We may not be corrupt but aren't we as a nation shameless to elect the same set of politicians year after year, term after term? How do we bail ourselves out of that one?

Tol Mol ke Bol!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Pleasures of Judicial Activism and Blogging

The cash for votes sandal is back to haunt the UPA government. Thanks to judicial activism. Based on a PIL, the Supreme Court has swung into action and the Congress brigade is scurrying for cover. Sometimes you wonder about the timing of terror attacks in this country. The blasts happen in Mumbai, lives are lost, and the next thing you know Digvijay Singh is mouthing the usual rubbish about Hindu terror to hog headlines. The BJP is always a poor second when it comes to political machinations and one of their blithering leaders called a press conference to attack Singh. Tamasha time for politicians of all hues as usual! The silver lining is, this time the media has refused to pay ball. At least not to the extent they have in the past. The spotlight continues to be on Amar Singh and his aide who’s behind bars now, saddled with bribe allegations.

None of this augurs well for Manmohan Singh and his government. You don’t need an astrologer to tell you that with all this going on, he may not survive the full term. But the soothsayers are predicting doom for Singh in any case. So is he going to blame the stars or Sonia? Only time will tell. All we can be happy about is the culture of PILs that has come to rule the roost. It has made you and me, who don’t belong to the ‘elected representative’ groups, or the police or the armed forces or the media, powerful. The government of the day has to watch out for not just the opposition but also the aam aadmi who can get it to its knees by filing a single litigation. This augurs well for a robust democracy. The more the checks and balances, the more accountable those in power are going to be. The whistle blowers are free to join the party. Their time has finally come.

Just like us bloggers. We are influencing public opinion like never before. Not only have we caused coups and revolutions in countries with totalitarian regimes, but we have also got the media worried. Seriously worried at that! I read a column last Sunday by a journalist who was sounding very distressed about what blogs and bloggers are doing. According to her, we are all irresponsible, rude, nasty and not accountable.

Is that right? Surely no blog I have come across is as obnoxious as Arnab Goswami when he gets on to someone’s case. And as for bloggers writing reviews and reports without attending an event or watching a movie /reading a book, there is many an illustrious precedence set by media professionals.

Legend has it that the brilliant English writer Ruth Rendell who writes excellent psychological thrillers and murder mysteries became a bestselling author after being sacked from her job as a journalist. She played truant on a day she was meant to cover an event. The event was cancelled at the last minute but Rendell made up a story about it and sent it to her editor. You can well imagine what happened after that. But a happy consequence of that unfortunate incident was that Rendell discovered her story telling powers.

As a professional writer, who is regularly asked to write columns, reviews and opinion pieces for leading publications, I was dubious about blogging and kept away from it for a long time. It was while holidaying with my family in Rajasthan last year that I discovered I was being an idiot. I did a lot of surfing while there and came across some extremely interesting blogs and more importantly some very well regarded writers from all over the world blogging.

We encountered racism from the Indian staff of a five star resort in one of our stops. I was livid about the incident. Imagine paying good money only to be treated like second class citizens in your own country. I knew I couldn’t write about the incident for any of the magazines and newspapers published in India. Even if they had published that piece of mine, it would have been without the name of the resort as they wouldn’t risk losing the advertising revenue. A single, tersely worded blog post had the owner of the resort sending me an apology letter. I owe that victory to blogging.

Blogs and a blogging site have played a big role in the success of my latest book. Blogadda did an in-depth interview and I consider that to be the best interview anyone has ever done with me. They also got ten bloggers to review my book and they were all really well written pieces. Much better than the reviews carried by mainstream magazines. And I am not saying this because the reviews by the bloggers were positive. Some of them were fairly critical whereas the verdict by the magazines and the newspapers on the book have been all positive.

At a time when journalistic standards all over the world are plumbing new depths because of the Murdochs and NOTWs, a well researched blog post is a treat to read, unfettered as it is by editorial and establishment pressures. Of course media professionals would get rattled by this phenomenon as it challenges their fiefdom. But that shouldn’t worry the bloggers.

I am all for judicial activism, blogs and bloggers. So should you be if you believe in freedom of speech. And also back the idea that in a democracy, the common man is the most powerful.

Keep blogging.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Murder 2, The War Zone, A Prophet, Delhi Belly, Vicco Vajradanti & the Return of the Terrorists

It’s a phase I go through. I have devoured five movies in last as many days. I wrote about ‘Amu’ on Sunday. In this one, I am going to talk about the other four.
I started with ‘Murder 2’ in the neighbourhood multiplex on Friday. It had released on that day and the late night show I went for was packed.

I watched 'Murder' in a Mumbai multiplex many years ago and liked the film. Most people are under the impression the film is plagiarised from the 2002 Adrian Lyne directed Hollywood film ‘Unfaithful.’ Few are aware Unfaithful is also adapted from the 1965 French film ‘The Unfaithful Wife’ directed by Claude Chabrol. So it’s kind of difficult to pinpoint the exact source of reference for the first film in the Vishesh franchise. But that minor quibble aside, my reasons for being fond of the film are many. I like a couple of songs from the movie very much. I thought Mallika Sherawat and Emraan Hashmi did a very good job of playing the clandestine lovers. Even Ashmit Patel was passable as the third angle. It’s a pity that Mallika Sherawat lost out on the director Anurag Basu thanks to her spat with the Bhatts. If she had done a few more films with Basu, she would have had something more to carry with her to the Hollywood casting agents apart from her stupid costumes. Basu had done an excellent job of making the scenes of physical intimacy between the lead players sexy and erotic rather than sleazy.

Murder 2 is sleazy and unimaginably bad. It has no connection with the earlier film unless you factor in the sex scenes in the film. I am deliberately referring to them as sex scenes in the sequel as opposed to scenes of physical intimacy that I used for the source film. In Murder, having the bedroom romps was essential as it is about a neglected housewife embarking on a tortuous extra marital affair with an ex-lover that gives her physical gratification but leaves her with guilt and regret. In the sequel the sex scenes are gratuitous. Worse Hashmi, the only actor retained from the original has zero chemistry with Jacqueline Fernandez, the female lead in the film. Fernandez is very tall and looks like a beautiful transvestite. Hashmi is considerably shorter than her. But since we are all along aware that Fernandez is a woman and not a man dressed up as a woman the film cannot even be clubbed homo erotic. And if you think I am being misogynist, please watch the film. It’s shockingly anti women and what completely depressed me was whenever the serial killer villain who’s castrated himself mouths offensive anti women statements, some men in the audience chuckled.

What’s wrong with the Bhatt clan? There are plenty of scenes to indicate the film has been inspired by ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ But in that one, Jodie Foster played the detective tracking the killer and when she won the Oscar for it, she described her character as a strong feminist hero. Here it is Hashmi who sets out to nab the killer while Fernandez gets sloshed and searches for Hashmi in that inebriated state in order to grovel in front of him and plead that he make a respectable woman out of her. There is a bit towards the end where Hashmi and Fernandez exchange their sad family history that should win an award for the most unintentionally funny scene in the history of Indian cinema.

I dozed off for a bit and when I woke up Fernandez was doing the drunken act and in that confused zone between sleep and being fully awake, I thought for a moment she was Amitabh Bachchan from one of those movies in the 80s when he used to pull off those drag acts with aplomb. Like I said the film is totally depressing and left me with a splitting headache. But from what I understand it is a huge success. We are really a depraved nation.

‘The War Zone,’ that I watched on DVD the next day also depressed me but for entirely different reasons. It is directed by the accomplished British actor Tim Roth who’s been in many of the Quentin Tarantino films including ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction.’ The other director who favours Roth as an actor is Woody Allen. What can be a better testimony to Roth’s range as an actor?

The film is based on Alexander Stuart’s novel of the same name who also wrote the screenplay for Roth’s directorial debut. The novel came in for a fair bit of controversy when it was awarded the prestigious Whitbread prize which was later taken away due to the objections of three judges in the panel. It’s easy to understand the objections to the book, based as it is on parental abuse and incest. In the film, there is a graphic scene of a father raping his daughter that was so painful to watch that I fast forwarded the whole thing. The film has stunning performances by two first time actors and there’s the ever reliable Tilda Swinton as the mother. The father, the villain of the piece, is essayed by Ray Winstone.

A number of Indian film critics are going gaga over Prashant Narayanan’s hammy performance in Murder 2. They should watch Winstone in The War Zone to understand what real menace is all about. It’s the kind of film that leaves you sick in the stomach for days on end. Especially relevant today because we have all those shameful stories of daughters accusing their fathers of rape and forcing them into prostitution, tumbling out in Kerala. But the film is unrelentingly depressing and the powerful denouement where the villain is exposed and meets his comeuppance does little to relieve the aftertaste of disgust and anger it leaves you with.

‘A Prophet’ the French film directed by Jacques Audiard, the next one I caught on DVD is also dark but not depressing. It’s about a nineteen year old French young man of African Muslim descent who is imprisoned for six years for attacking a police officer. The young prisoner must learn to survive in the brutal context and when a Corsican gang lord who is also incarcerated in the same prison forces his patronage on the young man after making him murder another Muslim, it paves the way for a complex labyrinthine of revenge and redemption.

Audiard is a genius. Given the violent background of prison life, his greatest achievement is that he manages to give his work a lyrical flavour. Much of the film is about how the Corsican played by Niels Arestrup makes the young recruit (Tahar Rahim) run criminal errands for him on the days Rahim is allowed to go out of the prison after serving half his sentence. There is an extremely poignant scene where the young man gives up an offer of sex on such an outing to walk on the beach and feel the waves. It helps that both Arestrup and Rahim are on top of their form and deliver such nuanced performances that A Prophet is worth watching just for them.

It must have been the stress caused by the Bombay terror attacks last evening. I started laughing even before ‘Dehi Belly’ started. They showed that antiquated Vicco Vajradanti ad that goes ‘Vicco turmeric, nahin cosmetic’ with models who were young in the 80s but are likely to be grandmothers now, dancing to the ditty. That started the chuckles for me. I was imagining how flattering it must be for them that this ad that’s likely to have been shot more than two decades ago is still being shown in cinemas.

I wasn’t disappointed by Delhi Belly. Yes, it did gross me out and the wimp that I am I shut my eyes in all the toilet scenes rather than puke my dinner out. That saved the film for me. It’s not a film that we are meant to take seriously and yet it does make a point about the emancipation of women. It’s unusual for a superstar in waiting to perform cunnilingus on his nagging girlfriend and also for the woman he eventually settles for in the climax, talking about doing girls once in a while. Kunal Roy Kapoor who directed another laugh riot ‘The President is coming’ some years back is excellent and so is the stand up comedian Vir Das. And the feisty Poorna Jaganathan is a treat to watch. Imran Khan tries to match these performers but fails, showing all too clearly what the difference between actors who know their craft and a star banking on family charisma is. And the last song by Aamir Khan was totally unnecessary. Like an uncle trying to fit into a party meant for youngsters. All in all Delhi Belly is good fun and the purists who hated the film can take a walk.

On the way back from the cinema last night, I grew pensive thinking about all those who lost their lives in the terror attacks and their families in Mumbai. Before Arnab Goswami gets into the Pakistan bashing mode on his channel, we may do well to remember it’s far more important to hang the politicians and policemen who continue to fraternise with Dawood Ibrahim.

But it’s useless to bank on a weak Prime Minister and an equally weak Home minister to do anything to facilitate this.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Amu- The story that must not be told and the film that must not be shown

I had noticed the DVD of ‘Amu’ displayed at Habitat, the Mecca for the lovers of good cinema and music in Bangalore. But I gave it a miss every time, thinking sooner or later, I’ll catch it on television. It seemed to belong to a genre that is telecast repeatedly on film channels. I have watched Deepa Mehta’s ‘Earth’ twice on television in the past one year. Amu appeared to be similar.

Yesterday, while walking on Church Street I found myself in that DVD rental shop after months. I was looking for a particular Swedish movie they didn’t have and ended up borrowing four DVDs impulsively. One of them was Amu, the film on the Sikh massacre of 1984, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The film is directed by Shonali Bose who was 19 and studying in Delhi when the horror unfolded. She was living in a college hostel and went through the trauma of knowing that hundreds were being butchered in her neighbourhood and she was helpless to do anything about it.

I have never really understood why we term these shameful acts of violence riots. For me the connotations of a riot are that two equally powerful groups of individuals attack and destroy each other. This is not true in our country. Typically it is the majority that singles out the minority in a city to rape, murder and plnder with the active connivance of police and politicians. In some pockets the minorities retaliate but the scale of that is miniscule compared to what is happening to them elsewhere in the city.

Amu is a political film. It has Brinda Karat playing a crucial part in the film as a woman who adopts a little girl from a Sikh refugee camp. I am no fan of the Karats. They look too well heeled to be leftists to me. And Brinda Karat always gets my goat when she is on television talking in that shrill uppity voice of hers. But she endeared herself to me in this film. She is the director’s aunt and may have bagged the role solely on grounds of nepotism but she has justified her niece’s faith in her as an actor. Her care and concern for her adopted daughter is evident even in the scenes where she doesn’t have any lines.

Amu is played by Konkana Sen Sharma, an actor I am ambivalent about. I liked her very much in ‘Wake up Sid’ but disliked her interpretation of the south Indian wife in ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer.’ That Tamil accent she affected was extremely off putting although Konkana seems to be rather proud of the fact that she sounded exactly like a Mylapore housewife, whatever that means.

In Amu too, Konkana does this ABCD accent initially but decides to give it up somewhere in the middle. Apart from that jarring note, she’s very good in this one. She even underplays the confrontations and that is brilliant. It makes it that much more powerful. When she asks another actor in the film in a confused, matter of fact manner ‘Come on, you are saying 5000 people were killed in three days. That’s more than the 9/11 count and you mean to say the police didn’t do anything about it,’ it makes for one of the most compelling moments in an Indian film.

The massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 is as shameful a chapter in the history of independent India as is the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat after the Godhra incident. In both cases, an entire community had to pay the price of a crime committed by one or two or a handful of miscreants. For the massacre of the Sikhs in 1984, the Congress politicians drew their daring from their leader Rajiv Gandhi whose reaction to the violence that followed his mother’s assassination was ‘If you chop off a giant tree, there are bound to be tremors.’ The rogue politicians of Delhi took that statement to be a battle cry against all Sikhs and engaged in the kind of senseless bloody orgy only politicians understand and unleash with the connivance of the uniformed men who are meant to protect the citizens of this country.

A film that depicts this reality was never in any danger of finding favour with the establishment and the predictable happened. Despite winning accolades in film festivals across the world, the censor board in India found a lot of faults with the work. The primary one being that the film depicted a shameful chapter from our history that all of us would much rather forget.

Is that correct? We may not want these wounds to fester but forgetting them or wiping them out, sounds like a very Nazi response to me. Like saying we will own and showcase everything that’s grand and beautiful in our country like the Taj Mahal or the 11% growth, but not these shameful episodes as we don’t want anyone to stop us from having another bloody orgy in our backyard the next time we feel like it.

What is interesting is the film was made in 2004 and was released in 2005 when Sharmila Tagore was the chairperson of the censor board. Three years later, Nandita Das’s ‘Firaaq’ came out, an equally powerful indictment of the Gujarat genocide and no one saw that as an unacceptable depiction of modern India. This whole mess has one message for me and it is that the Congress is as communal as the BJP and Sharmila Tagore who’s always trying to talk like an intellectual is a big fraud.

Next the Censor Board made the telecast of the film in India impossible by demanding that the film chop off any reference to the 1984 violence to get a U/A certification that’s mandatory for a film to be shown on television. Apparently films with an A certificate cannot be telecast. How can a film that’s all about a young woman coming of age in the context of her discovery that she was adopted not because her parents died in an epidemic but because they were victims of a state backed massacre not have any reference to the violence? The film makers gave up at this point of time and released the film on DVD. If you haven’t watched the film as yet, please head to the nearest store and borrow it...better still buy it. The film is by no means perfect and has the excessive earnestness many films by first timers have but it appeals to the heart. It’s the sort of film first timers should be encouraged to make. The funny thing is they also gave two national awards to the film but made sure it didn't reach too many people.

Shonali Bose also turned her screenplay into a novel and I plan to read it. However what surprises me that the media largely ignored the film and the book. But then the Indian media, especially the ones who work in English publications and channels have not grown up as yet. They only value the big brands or those who come hyped from the west. Since Amu adhered to neither of these types, they didn’t have much to say about it.

Bose didn’t have an easy time making the film either. The Indian production house that backed her initially, deserted her at the last minute. When she approached the American studios, they wanted it to be a story about an American girl. None of Bose’s reasoning that the film was about an American girl with Indian origins cut any ice with them. Maybe they felt if Anne Hathaway can’t be cast as the protagonist, the film wasn’t worth it. Finally she made the film from the money her husband who is a scientist at Nasa, had earned by getting a patent on the smallest camera he had invented.

Bedabrata Pain, Bose’s scientist husband has also made a film ‘Chittagong’ based on the Chittagong uprising. He had approached Jaya Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan with the script and apparently Jaya Bachchan loved the script. The next thing we knew is that Ashutosh Gowariker, who had earlier made the historical ‘Jodha Akbar’ with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, swung into action and made a film on the same subject with Abhishek Bachchan . He claimed he had based it on Manini Chatterjee’s book. Anurag Kashyap left a disgusted note on FB about how the Bachchans were influencing the distributors not to release Chittagong before Gowariker’s film, even though it had been completed earlier. I am sure you can put two and two together like I did and figure out what really happened behind scenes in this sorry mess.

Not that Gowariker’s film helped anyone including him. I can’t recall the film’s name but I know it sank like the Titanic and doomed the Junior Bachchan’s career forever. It flopped so badly that it has had a reverberating impact on every film Bachchan has come out with subsequently. They have all bombed. Now no producer is likely to invest money on either Bachchan or Gowariker unless Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan decide to fund the film from their personal wealth.

But all this must be of small consolation to Pain whose film is still stuck in the cans.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Doped Athletes, the 2G Scam and the Band of Singh and his Men

It has unfolded like a Greek tragedy. This whole scandal of the gold medals turning into dust. And for the first time the UPA government has me frightened. Narendra Modi and the NDA government used to spook me at one time especially after Godhra and what happened in Gujarat subsequently. Now I feel like that about Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the heir in waiting, Rahul Gandhi. The violence they have unleashed in the system is far more dangerous and potent than a riot engineered by the Hindu right wing fundamentalists.

The BJP brand of violence is explicit and we can easily condemn it...take out protest rallies, slam the party in our writings and in our films but the Congress brand of manoeuvring is far more lethal, more dangerous and when the sorry spectacle of their manipulations unfold we feel we can’t do anything about it, because unwittingly we have been party to it. Like we too cheered the athletes who won the medals in the commonwealth games last year and now it is like what right do we have to ask any of the sports officials how did the timings of the athletes improve so dramatically for the games? They can always turn around and tell us like you did, we also got carried away, and never asked them this question. See how implicit they have made us in their crime.

I am sure everyone in the system knew what was going on including the Prime Minister. We live in times when one minister is tapping the office of another so it would be foolish to believe that the PM comes to work just to read files. I am sure he is briefed on a daily basis about what is going on with his cabinet mates and he has clearly instructed his colleagues to adhere to three basic norms.

1. So long as they are contributing to his one point agenda of ‘growth’ he doesn’t care what they are doing to get there. Much like a CEO who barks ‘Get me results. I don’t care how you get them.’

2. The individual citizens are unimportant in the larger scheme of things as long as our cities look like Singapore or Hongkong with plush malls and roads that seem they will burst with all the traffic on them.

3. He wants history to record that he is the one who laid the foundation of this new affluent India and Rahul Gandhi can take off from where he left. Nothing should be allowed to taint his personal ‘brand’ or the brand of the government he heads.

No wonder Suresh Kalmadi looked so smug during the Commonwealth Games despite one scandal after another tumbling out against him. He had adhered to the brief...pumped all the athletes with steroids and uppers so that they ran, jumped and did cartwheels like they were possessed and scored more than a century when it came to the medals. He had delivered in the end, never mind the means and the only time the PM had sounded annoyed was when the venues looked as if they couldn’t be completed on time. But he had more than made up with the Indian victory laps. He was expecting to be hugged by the PM. But unfortunately for him and Singh, the Supreme Court decided to play party pooper.

Now we are given to understand that Kapil Sibal has behaved just like Kalmadi. He should have known that with all the media glare on the 2G scam, anyone who took over the telecom portfolio would be under constant scrutiny but that did not stop him from doling out all that largesse on Anil Ambani. Everyone else in the system was screaming, teach the man a lesson no Ambani will ever forget but Sibal did not listen. He must have thought he didn’t need to, as long as he was on Singh’s good books. After all Sibal took care to dress the part of the suave politician who’s equally at home air kissing in a socialite party as he is reciting bad poetry to Barkha Dutt. But once again the courts have turned into kabab mein haddi.

As for Dayanidhi Maran, I feel sorry for him. His rotund frame and a rounder face make him look like a character from a Charles Dickens novel but that may be only be for the well read Singh. For the rest of us he looks like a man who loves his thair sadam. From what we have read and heard, Tihar serves only North Indian food like roti and dal. How will our man survive there? Besides with Raja also present in Tihar, Maran will have to constantly watch his back.

With all this going on, a friend has found time to share a morphed picture of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi on FB with the caption ‘Hep Couple.’ Singh is in a psychedelic T Shirt and jeans and Gandhi is wearing a mini-skirt. He may have meant it as a joke but like every piece of fiction this too may have its roots in reality. They say Nero fiddled while Rome burnt. So what’s wrong if Singh and Gandhi party while all this havoc is being wrecked on the nation? I have only one question. What does Rahul Baba throw a tantrum about when he joins the party?

Does he demand they dance only to the songs of Justin Bieber?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Caravan and Arindam Chaudhuri- Pot and the Kettle

Last one month has been exhausting. I feel I have taken on too much. Twice a week, I volunteer in my son’s school, teaching theatre to little children, there were daily rehearsals for Lucky Lobster; one day of the weekend goes in the creative writing workshop... I am doing the first edit of my second novel due in December, there is the usual corporate stuff and the unfortunate consequence of all this is that my reading time has been cut down drastically...I have to do something about that.

I missed out on the Caravan -Arindam Chaudhuri fracas for a long time. Managed to read the magazine’s fiery defence against Chaudhuri’s law suit that was on their website yesterday because of a link a friend had mailed sometime back. This morning when I checked before sitting down to write this piece, the angry rebuttal by the magazine, that among other things reproduced an excerpt from the judgement by an Assam court, presumably to highlight and make fun of the wrong English used, seems to have disappeared much like the cover story on Chaudhuri that was withdrawn following the injunction.

What stayed with me after reading that enraged defence is that the counter threats issued by Caravan are as daunting, cleverly cloaked as they are behind the freedom of speech argument. One of the threats was that they would publish all the court proceedings in their sister magazines that collectively have a formidable circulation. I couldn’t stop laughing when I discovered the sister publications were Sarita, Mukta and Grihashobha. More about these magazines later. Let me first share my views on Arindam Chaudhuri and also Siddharth Deb’s ‘researched’ piece on Chaudhuri.

I went to a Business school that is ranked to be in the same league as the IIMs and share the misplaced disdain of my institute mates towards Chaudhuri and IIPM. I have more in common with a Bansal or a Sabnis and deride and hector Chaudhuri and IIPM whenever they crop up in conversations with friends. But while I may laugh with my peers at the pony tailed self styled management guru, I don’t see him as a huge social malaise.

Yes, IIPM charges fat fees but as Deb’s essay points out, only from those who can afford it and the students pay the seven lakhs willingly. Many who enrol in IIPM may be doing so because they write the CAT and the entrance exams of other premier management institutes like XLRI, Bajaj, S P Jain and don’t make the grade. They are desperate to acquire the management diploma label and settle for a second or a third rung institute. Chaudhuri uses that desperation to his advantage. But this is not something he pioneered. Much before IIPM came into the picture, we had numerous engineering and medical institutions in India that were charging hefty capitation fees and were certainly not in the same league as the IITs or the NITS or AIIMS. Many corrupt politicians are involved in this education racket and no one writes about them. How about schools that were making a killing by using the desperation of middle class parents by taking donations until Kapil Sibal intervened?

At worst, Chaudhuri can be accused of not paying his taxes if what Deb implies is true. But Deb is being naive if he thinks Chaudhuri is the only business man who is evading taxes. If he cares to do his research more thoroughly he would discover that many of the respectable organizations that employ alumni from premier institutes don’t lag behind in this respect, and their marketing line is always about how they are contributing to the growth and development of the nation. We don't need to go beyond the fraud perpetuated by Rajat Gupta with his insider trading while he was at Mckinsey to understand this.

Because Chaudhuri is so in your face and tackily so, we find it easy to ridicule him. But those of us who live in Bangalore know the poster boy of Indian IT industry is as tacky. If you come across him in the Bangalore airport while taking an early morning flight, you will invariably find him making himself as conspicuous as possible, talking loudly and relishing the fact that he is getting attention from all those gawking at him. His writer wife is embarrassingly loud. Once she walked into a bookshop while I was browsing. Suddenly she screeched startling the rest of us ‘Don’t you have that book on Lagaan? I am having dinner with Aamir Khan tonight.’

But maybe Deb does get it. Because he mentions in the piece he is baffled by the fact that despite acquiring all the trappings of wealth including a plush Bentley, the respectability that comes along with financial success continues to elude his subject. But the claim by Caravan that Deb’s piece is well researched is nonsense. The essay is extremely malicious and quite readable. There are some very intriguing bits in it. However Deb didn’t write the piece for Caravan. The magazine has reproduced an entire chapter on Chaudhuri from a book that Deb has written for Penguin. I am not sure but I think it’s a commissioned work.

Deb manages to drag Chaudhuri’s father in the piece and paints him as a trickster and fraud too. After reading that bit it made perfect sense to me that Chaudhuri has taken legal action. We Indians have this big thing about Mujhe jo bolna hi bolo. Lekin ma-behen, baap ki gaali di to phod ke rak doonga. That's what Chaudhuri is doing and you can't blame him. This essay is too personal to pass off as an objective piece of ‘researched’ reporting. And the funny thing is, this research on Chaudhuri by the author seems to happen only in restaurants and in the conferences where his subject is invited to speak and where Deb appears to have spent an inordinately long time staring at Chaudhuri’s ‘smooth hairless chest’ because he leaves his top shirt buttons open. I am mentioning this because open shirt buttons always seem to catch Deb’s fancy whether he is interacting with Chaudhuri or his managers.

For all the time Deb spent in shadowing his subject, he seems to have not read any of the books Chaudhuri has written and neither has he watched any of the films his company has produced barring Mithya that is dismissed as a film that had actors who are paid poorly. Rajat Kapoor , Ranvir Shorey, Suhasini Mulay are among the most committed and serious theatre and film actors we have in the business today and this is Deb’s enlightened take on them. Also it becomes imperative for Deb to add that he watched the film on a flight from Delhi to Chicago. That’s very wannabe and the narrator and the subject seem to blend into the same persona at such moments in the narrative.

In an essay that is full of nasty and snide comments on Chaudhuri, ‘his English was uncertain and pronouncedly Delhi middle class in its inflection,’ (Really? What’s Deb’s in its inflection, Chicago?), ‘but little cultural or intellectual capital’, Deb finally redeems himself in the last paragraph where he narrates his experience of having lunch with one of the managers his subject employs and the scuffle that ensues about who will pay the bill.

‘As I cornered the waiter again and forced him to bring the bill, I found myself wondering why I didn’t have a suit, designer sun glasses and car keys, I wondered why I wasn’t making money at a time in India when money making opportunities seemed everywhere for the asking. Like Arindam’s students, I was an aspirer...’

Thankfully after writing most of the essay in the arrogant style that’s typical of most of the self styled Indian literary writers Caravan patronises, Deb concludes by hitting the right note of self awareness.

Not so Caravan and those who work there. If Chaudhuri’s claims of equating IIPM to a Harvard is ludicrous so is Caravan’s attempt to position itself as India’s New Yorker, considering their sister publications are Sarita, Mukta and Grihashobha. I am not deriding these magazines because they are in Hindi or because they are meant for women. Having grown up in the north I am familiar with these rags and I have to say they cater to the lowest common denominator. I won’t be surprised if some of the script writers Ekta Kapoor hires for her soaps had their first works published in Sarita and Mukta. If Deb can scoff at Chaudhuri’s attempts at producing meaningful cinema because of the allure of low budgets, are we not right in concluding the foray of a publishing house that’s been in the business of trashy pulp for decades into serious journalism in another language is also motivated by considerations of ROI.

I can’t get over it. An Indian New Yorker with the marketing strategy of Sarita Pakshik- Sugud grihaniyon ka pasindida patrika. This is so funny. No wonder every time they have a selling crisis they need a Chetan Bhagat or an Arindam Chaudhuri on their cover to peddle ‘India’s first narrative journalism magazine.’ And we are meant to swallow that their stance is all about freedom of speech.

Let the pot and kettle have their thing on the side. Why try and drag the rest of us in the mess by mailing us links as though it is the great social cause of the year. Do they think we are that cuss word in Hindi that starts with a C?

Sorry Caravan...that’s you!