Friday, February 26, 2010

Budget 2010. Nani ki yaad aayi !!

Looks like India is reasonably happy with Pranabda's performance. This budget has been declared growth oriented by those who 'know'. As for me...well.... this column says it all.


Nani ki yaad aayi

The most tiresome and seriously annoying aspect of the annual water torture, also known as the Budget, is the pre- and post- analysis of the damn thing! Experts all but crawl out of the woodwork around this time of the year, and give gyaan to the nation via soundbytes and quotes that nobody can decode. It’s just so much hot air and gas, that were Brothers Ambani to tap and pipe it, most of their problems would get automatically solved. After the death of Nani Palkhiwala, the one man who could effectively deconstruct the bloody Budget for the aam janata, nobody but nobody has been able to tell us what we already know - pay more! One just had to read Palkhiwala’s lips as he held centrestage on the expansive lawns of the CCI, to appreciate his genius. Take me. I am embarrassingly numbers challenged ( okay, now that I’ve revealed one secret, I may as well go the whole hog and reveal another – I can’t read balance sheets!). But even dumbo me would turn up faithfully to hang on to Nani’s every word. Needless to say nothing registered!
It was as much for the performance as for the gyaan – Nani was the SRK of the finance world. Big difference being he worked without someone else’s script and pretty much relied on memory, preferring to speak extempore - no teleprompters, cue sheets, not even a scrap of paper ( take that, Mr. Obama!). His recall for reams of data was so faultless, he’d leave even the most erudite analysts in the audience totally speechless as he reeled off numbers effortlessly, and put the Budget into a comprehensible format for informed citizens. Mind you, Nani commanded the sort of audience that today’s Bollywood stars with all their clout, muscle and p.r. power cannot! People would start queuing up bright and early to grab the best seats on the grounds, and remain rooted to their uncomfortable chairs till Nani concluded his speech ( a daunting , marathon effort extending well over two hours). It was one annual event that attracted the most eclectic crowd. I cannot imagine any personality other than Sachin Tendulkar being in a position to pull off a similar feat.But given the present generation’s shrinking attention span, I also wonder whether Nani would have been able to attract the same numbers today.
I tried very hard to comprehend Mamata’s railway budget ( no steam in this engine, alas), but promptly abandoned the exercise when I acknowledged a basic lack of interest within myself – when was the last time I jumped on a train? See?? That’s really how it works, whether we face it or not. Selfishness rules. We breathlessly await the latest Budget only to pounce on those aspects which impact our lives directly – be honest. Do you really get into a blue fog worrying about tax implications affecting kerosene prices? Do you have toor daal on your mind on Budget Day? Or even two wheeler prices? All you want to know in the broadest of terms is – what’s in it for me, if anything? Higher prices are a given. So are even higher taxes. You have already reconciled yourself to that. You want to know just one thing – where will the extra lolly come from?? And how badly are you going to be hit this time?? That you are going to be hit, has been factored in. Remember darlings - there is no such thing as a ‘good’ Budget. Every new Budget is a killer, one way or the other. Which is why it is important to ignore all those grim faced farts on tv telling us about less pain in the future. Take a walk, you guys. When will you stop bull- shitting? Spare us your ‘expert’ comments, and the cheesy, ‘no pain, no gain’ rubbish. We prefer listening to our wallets. And the story they tell is vastly different.
Each year, we generate hype just before Judgement Day. It is a particularly masochistic exercise, and no other developed country in the world makes quite such a ludicrous song and dance over what is after all nothing more dramatic than a routine annual statement about the government’s finances. We are the ones who create all the dramabaazi around the Budget and treat the entire exercise as a Reality Show, with the F.M. playing the key role. ‘‘Kaun Banega Crorepati??” You know the answer to that one – nobody! At least, not on paper, and not if Pranab can help it! Our government’s main aim, it would appear, is to make sure we stay true to some outdated socialist dream and such obscenities do not happen. But nobody actually spells it out. Instead we talk around the subject, and complicate it further. Pranab’s performance will be taken apart on several levels, since his oratorial skills, leave most Indians ( okay, make that non- Bengalis) entirely befuddled. Unlike his predecessors, Pranab does not recite shair –shairis, quote Shakespeare or Ghalib. Tagore?? But again, unlike his predecessors, Pranab believes in telling it like it is, minus sugar coating or frivolous frills. And essentially, he says just one thing – pay up! That’s the message. “Or else” , follows! The aam janata gets the message pronto. Pranab does not prescribe to painless surgery.
Whoever invented the term ‘stimulus package’ was a smart cookie. It sounded sexy. Was sexy. And the strategy worked. Unfortunately, the stimulus on offer was not exactly financial Viagra and most companies could not get it up on demand. Miracles were expected ( as unrealistic as immaculate conception). Withdrawal of stimulus is like coitus interruptus…but clearly, it is the UPA government’s call, and gives another angle to the India growth story. The dream is technicoloured and big. Like Anil Ambani’s latest venture.Analysts are claiming anything from 8% to 11% - kuch, kuch hota hai! But all that comes later, once the dust settles down, and we stop cribbing. India without perennial cribbers would be so damn boring! We like cribbing! It is our birthright. So, even as we moan and groan, sulk and sigh, the Budget ki Kahani will not last beyond this weekend. It is a little like MNIK – so much publicity before the release of the film. And then what? Money in the bank for the canny producers. But the aam janata was left trying to figure out how to pronounce ‘Asperger’s’ and whether or not to admit in public that nobody had heard of the syndrome till Rizwan came on the scene. Pranab is as big as SRK - at least at this time of the year. And like SRK, he too is used to the flack that goes with his portfolio.
I am not complaining. I am sensibly holding my tongue. You know why?? I don’t get it – the Budget, I mean. And it’s stupid to try and deconstruct anything I can’t figure out. As it goes every year, I’ll simply shrug philosophically and pay up, humming ‘Kabhie Khushi, Kabhie Gham.”

Nani Palkhiwala…. where are you when we need you the most???

Monday, February 22, 2010

I love Kokilaben...

I really do. Love Kokilaben, I mean. I have been attending a "Gopi Geet' organised by this remarkable lady at the Ambani residence, and marvelling at her composure ( nothing put on about it), as the Ambani spiritual guru, Bhaishriji mesmerises Sreenathji devotees and other invitees with his spell-binding discourses on love and bhakti ( interspersed by his melodious singing). Kokilaben presides over the grand proceedings with enviable dignity and calm. Her sons, the two warring brothers, deftly avoid one another, while their heavily bedecked wives play perfect bahus without treading on each other's toes. It is as well- synchonised as any ballet - not a false move or note. Kokilaben's expression remains impassive and regal, as she micro- manages every little detail, from the splendid shringar ( it changes daily), to the aarti thalis that are lovingly decorated by Rajan,a faithful family retainer.
Hema Malini was Radha personified on the first night as she performed the divine ras leela with a handsome Krishna played by Rahul DeSouza ( well done, Rahul ). Equally impressive was the dance troupe called Prince, two nights later - these are tribal boys from Behrampur who won some dance reality show and have since procured some great gigs, like this one at 'Seawind'.But beyond the grandeur and dazzle, it is the quietly assertive presence of Kokilaben that keeps the five day festival going.
It will be Kokilaben's birthday two days from now. I am sure, nothing will please her more , nor give her as much joy as her sons announcing a reconciliation.... as a special gift for their wonderful mother. It is my sincere prayer that this should happen. Like I said.... I love Kokilaben.
This is a column I wrote for Bombay Times.......

"Ever since those horrific images of Qasab with the infamous backpack and that insolent expression on his face, strolling through the CST, casually gunning down innocents, I have developed a strong aversion to that ugly contraption – the backpack. And now after the tragic Pune blasts, the anti- feelings towards this particular piece of luggage have been doubly reinforced. I loathe backpacks – always have. They alter posture, are ugly and ungainly, and most people who prefer them over regular carry- alls, resemble over burdened coolies. What’s worse, since the ‘bhoj’ is strapped to their backs, leaving their hands free, they are often oblivious to the inconvenience that enormous, bulging bag causes to people behind them. I have nearly had my head knocked sideways on aircrafts with the passenger right ahead of me swinging around abruptly without thinking about the potential impact of that ruddy backpack hitting someone right across the face.I wish someone ( P. Chidambaram – are you listening?) would ban the bloody backpack. Chids has already exonerated his own chaps over the ghastly Pune blasts by saying it isn’t possible to check every backpack floating around …. or even those left unattended in public spaces! Forget the audacity of such a remark or the fact that India had received sufficient warnings about the imminent attacks, it was the lethal backpack that once again ripped a place apart. Mujhey backpacks se sakat nafrat hai.
After watching George Clooney delivering several fascinating discourses on backpacks in the hugely entertaining and clever film, “ Up in the Air’’ ( well deserved Oscar nominations for two terrific performances), I was forced to meditate on the subject yet again. Ryan’s character in the movie is far from likeable, but entirely identifiable. He is the Pink Slip guy, whose job it is to fire people – as unenviable a job as any. He is also a motivational speaker whose talks centre around backpacks! He uses an empty backpack as a prop and a symbol to push his audience into rethinking their lives and priorities. That hateful backpack becomes a metaphor for failure and frustration as he graphically demonstrates how it strains shoulders and generally weighs people down. He urges his listeners to review what they stuff into the imaginary backpack without thinking….do we really need all those things? He then pushes them to empty that over- stuffed backpack and lighten their lives. His audience invariably hangs on to every word in rapt attention…. till one fine day Ryan’s own backpack does him in!
Watching Clooney deliver his lines seamlessly, smoothly and with just the right touch of sardonic humour, I wondered when and if any of our celebrated young directors will be able to reach this level of cinematic sophistication. Or even if even one of those big ticket Bollywood producers would have the confidence to back such a project. ‘Up in the Air’ is a fairly depressing and very realistic film about how the aam aadmi in America is dealing with the staggering recession and loss of jobs. Clooney’s character is far from heroic – would any of our top heroes have the guts to attempt something similar? We constantly hanker for international recognition, and while our technicians and musicians are the best in the world, just look at the embarrassing content of our blockbusters! What is the point of boasting about how many crores a film has made, when the film itself is so mediocre? Thank God for regional cinema. Never mind the fate of ‘Harishchandrachhi Factory’ at the Oscar’s. It is still a far, far better film than anything Bollywood has come up with recently – including ‘3 Idiots’ and ‘My Name is Khan.’
Oh come on, Tiger Woods. Stop being such a wimp!! Save those apologies for your wife and kids ( where were they when you addressed the world?). What a shame about Woods and his sex addiction. The man had to go public and crawl in front of the media, when the whole fracas should have ended in private and he should have let his golf do all the talking at this critical point. His fans really don’t give a damn about anything else. Is he out of the woods yet?? I think not.He’ll need more than a superior swing to get him out of this mess.True celebrity means never having to say you’re sorry. Tiger’s agents\minders obviously forgot to tell him that."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Lonely is our planet....??

The pic is of Saigon's busiest street, all prettied up for the Chinese New Year. I bought myself a gorgeous croc bag at a boutique here - relax - they farm crocs in Vietnam, issue certificates, and it's perfectly legit. Okay??
Strange, how certain destinations manage to capture the collective imagination of world travelers and become magnets for those in search of the asli experience. Pune’s German Bakery was one of them. It still beats me how it got to that position, considering what was on offer. But there is no doubt in my mind that GB was up there on most lists as a ‘must visit’ hang- out for anybody who wanted to get the Pune vibe, take pics sipping coffee at one of those rickety tables, and immediately upload and post the images on face book. When I saw the tv coverage of the devastated café last week and heard the shocking details of how effortlessly it had been reduced to rubble by cowards hell bent on killing innocents, I immediately called up close friends who lived in the vicinity and with whom I had frequented the place over so many years. Yes, they were safe. No, they had not lost a loved one. But they were furious, and hurting.
The German Bakery attracted all types. It wasn’t for the food ( indifferent ), it wasn’t for the service (interminably slow), it certainly wasn’t for the comfort ( God! That awful seating). And yet, there it was prominently featured in top international travel guides, including the Lonely Planet. Perhaps, that is what did it in – its immense popularity. To say the German Bakery represented Pune, would be entirely misleading. Which Pune are we talking about? Did the average Punekar from Shaniwar Peth even know about its existence? Or are we talking about the Koregaon Park-ers – the smart set, and the Osho residents – the even smarter set?? Who makes a destination rock? It’s the same question one can put to the high visibility enjoyed by Mumbai’s Café Leopold – also targeted by terrorists in order to create global outrage. Like the German Bakery, Leopold’s has always attracted a floating crowd of back packers in search of local thrills. But at least Leo’s has good food at sensible prices ( the chilly beef!! Oh, for a mouthful of that amazing chilly beef! ), and the service is brisk. Both cafes shot to stardom thanks to word- of-mouth publicity. They were dubbed ‘cool’. They were considered hip. People went to ogle ( OMG!! Did you see who’s at that table? Is it…? Could it be…? It is!!!). To be seen… and later, to talk about it. This is the power of unpaid testimonials. This is precisely what makes or breaks places.
Unfortunately, it is also this that attracts the attention of terrorists.
The terror attack on Pune ought not to have taken us off guard, given all the prior warnings. But it did. Pune staggered back to ‘business as usual’ mode almost as swiftly as Mumbai invariably does ( what choice does anybody have?). The shocking part of such tragedies is just how soon people are ready to shrug, and say, “ Oh well… terror happens,” and resume their normal activities. Punekars reported that bar and club owners in and around Koregaon Park waited for no more than a couple of hours after the blast, before sending out reassuring text messages informing those who had paid a hefty charge for Valentine’s Day celebrations the following evening – ‘The party’s on! No cancellations!’ So much for shock and sympathy for those who had lost their lives. It’s a bit too late in the day to rewind what happened at the German Bakery and wonder whether it could have been prevented. It is also a bit absurd to defend security lapses and say it is impossible to check every back packer who strolls in and out of popular joints. What is the solution in that case? Should the owners of the German Bakery take their cues from the owners of Leopold’s Café and put the place back together without camouflaging the ghastly reminders of the attack? Leo’s has deliberately not plastered over the bullet holes of the 26\11 attacks and those in turn now provide fresh, almost macabre photo- ops to tourists flocking to the place. It is a perverse sign of our times that we seem to be fascinated by events and destinations that remind us of tragic, terrifying calamities we would be better off putting behind us. I asked myself, “ Will you visit the German Bakery on your next visit to Pune?’’ The answer is , ‘Yes’. And , Like I said,it won’t be for the food or service. Will I be wary of the backpacker at the next table? Perhaps. Will I look under my own table to see if there’s an unattended package? For sure. Will I be doing this to show some sort of weird solidarity… to prove a point?? Ummm… I dunno. But, visit German Bakery, I most certainly will. I won’t sigh, “ Just like old times,” because those old times are over for good. These are the brand new times. And they are seriously nuts.
Terror tourism has come to stay. We may as well come to terms with it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Jaya O Jaya....In praise of the other woman

First, a little note on the pics. Those pitch black elephants you see aren't born black - they are painted black!! Why? " To look better in tourist pictures," our honest guide in Angkor Wat confessed unself-consciously, adding sweetly, " If you rub them hard, they are grey-brown - just like your Indian elephants." But let's face it - black is beautiful - and these guys do look a whole lot better. More photogenic for sure!
Those gorgeous bachchas are as used to the cameras as the elephants. Not only do they pose like absolute pros, they charge like them, too! No money, no pics!
The Jaya Jaitley column evoked mixed reactions.... but the one I cherish came from Jaya herself. So.... for whatever it's worth, here it is.....

In praise of the other woman…

I don’t want to beat around the bush with this one – my subject for this column is Jaya Jaitley – why resort to silly alibis or anonymity? Jaya is not the garden variety ‘other woman’ in any case. She is a special woman with several extraordinary talents. It is indeed a pity that she has found herself in the eye of an ugly storm that focuses on just one aspect of her multi-dimensional life – her over three decades long relationship with George Fernandes. Come on, all you moralists out there. Jaya never made a secret of their friendship, so what’s the fuss about? I’ll tell you what – money and property. George is too frail and feeble ( physically and mentally) to be in a position to conduct his daily, routine affairs.But there is a lot of lolly at stake – more than 12 crores in assets if one goes by the records.All eyes are on Jaya, his faithful companion, and most fingers are pointing at her. Why? Because she is the ‘other woman’, and there is a wife on the scene. Never mind that the wife was nowhere to be seen for all these years. I won’t go into the reasons for her absence , mainly because I don’t know them! Does an outsider ever really know what goes wrong in a marriage , or, for that matter , even what goes right! The factually accurate position is that George was wife-less all this while. But all of a sudden, he is not. While he struggles to stay alive, his estranged wife has chosen to come ‘home’, along with a son who has lived overseas for a long, long time.
These things happen. Especially when twelve crores are involved. George, the old socialist\trade unionist who was rarely seen clad in anything more fancy than shabby pajama-kurtas in coarse khadi, is now being viewed as a wealthy landlord! What irony. And it is Jaya who is being castigated, even though she has challenged her critics to prove a single charge of misappropriation or manipulation. Nobody wants to hear this. Jaya has been pre-judged and condemned as a conniving female out to exploit a weakened lover, now that he is in no position to clarify or defend his lady. Yup, the same one who has been by his side and seen him through thick and thin, while his legit family was busy elsewhere. Those who have witnessed this awful drama in Delhi, are shocked at the viciousness of the campaign launched against Jaya.Yet, legally there is little anybody can do at this stage. Jaya is a strong, capable woman with her own set of loyal supporters. But given our hypocritical society, the odds are stacked against her – she doesn’t stand a chance in hell of exonerating her tattered reputation, once her detractors are through with her. For starters, nobody even knows her exact status vis-à-vis George. Were they lovers? Or just ‘good friends’ ? It really shouldn’t be anybody’s business, but you know how it goes. Assuming they knew each other intimately, the only person who had the right to object would have been George’s wife Leila Kabir. Perhaps she did object – but that’s another story.
As of now, it is not a fight over a man – but a fight over his money. And he doesn’t even know it!Jaya has been denied access to the residence that was as good as her own home for such a long period of time. I am sure, as and when the time comes, Jaya will not be given the chance to say her final goodbye to the man she looked after and by whose side she faithfully remained. Once he’s gone, the vultures circling overhead, will descend ferociously to attack the rich pickings.
Jaya Jaitley really doesn’t need George Fernandes’ money. But she alone can claim the right to his legacy. I doubt she’ll be allowed even that.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two faces.... both beautiful

Just look at the contrast! I shot both images at Angkor Wat. The young monk's face mirrors innocence and calm. The superbly lithe Caucasian model is doing her job.... and doing it well. Both are 'meditating' in their own fashion. Both are beautiful.
It's official. India ranks 8th in the world as a country of beautiful people. Shockingly enough, America tops the list. But what do 'Americans' look like??? Does one follow the Barack and Michelle Obama model? Or is it Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Back home, most newspapers have gleefully reported this nugget, and nearly every paper has used Aishwarya Rai's image to illustrate the story ( fair and lovely, light- eyed and slim ). More the pity that a leading tabloid ran a story this morning supposedly based on the Big B's blog ( I haven't read it) in which he has apparently expressed anguish the 'rich man's TB," which was taken as a reference to his bahu suffering from TB of the stomach (since denied). I found that most troubling. Was there any need for the tabloid to speculate or to reveal something as private and disturbing? Aishwarya is a gorgeous young woman - an epitome of grace and beauty. With this revelation, there is an attempt in the media to link her delayed pregnancy to the medical condition. Not only is this highly intrusive, but also irresponsible.
Hamera Aish ko nazar lag gayi hai....please spare her such torment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Ammi Rules.... okay?"

That's the mystical Halong Bay in Vietnam. I took this picture at dusk .... and love it.
Since you guys were keen to know what I thought of MNIK - here it is.....
‘Ammi’ rules!
Rizwan Khan’s ammi in MNIK is the universal ammi – wise, loving, virtuous, philosophical, giving, caring, nurturing. The sort of ‘ammi’ kids these days can only fantasise about. A near-mythical ‘ammi’ who doesn’t tell her children to be grateful for the ‘quality time’ she has studiously reserved for them, but gives them all her time without even thinking about it. She even dies at the right time! But only after ensuring her disadvantaged son ( Shah Rukh Khan ) has understood the power of love and peace in our troubled world. Her precious gift sees him through all the traumas he is forced to endure later in life because his name is Khan! It is a powerful premise to base a story on – but powerful enough to create brilliant cinema? Not quite. However – and this needs to be stated strongly – it is still a film worth making and watching because of the sincerity of its intentions.An obvious and transparent sincerity that comes through even in the most clumsy and maudlin’ sequences ( particularly post-interval ). One willingly overlooks the gaucherie (those horribly embarrassing sequences of the floods in Wilhelmina ), even the triteness of the treatment, because somewhere at the back of all the confusion, is a mission statement – and that statement is moving enough to forgive the obvious gaffes.
Cinema as an instrument of social change has its limited use, for sure. But at the end of the day, cinema is about touching your heart. From that sole perspective, MNIK succeeds. And let’s face it, it succeeds because of one person alone – Shah Rukh Khan. When he as Rizwan, takes every word his ammi has ever uttered to heart and believes unconditionally in those truths, he convinces the audience to believe along with him. Goodness is the core message of the movie, and goodness it is that shines through - t
hanks to the Shah Rukh – Kaajol – Kjo magic combo. This is one of Srk’s most accomplished performances, mainly because he surrenders to the actor in him and forgets about the star ( as in a few sequences from ‘Rab ne bana di jodi’). His eyes shine with a light that spells faith – faith in his ammi, faith in his religion, faith in the world. It is almost impossible to separate Srk the man from Rizwan the character. Convincing, consistent and supremely competent, Shah Rukh Khan lives the role of a tormented, puzzled and emotionally devasted individual who genuinely believes it is possible to live by ones convictions and change the world. This is no small feat given the patchy script and slightly wonky storyline ( come on…. the guy criss-crosses such a huge country at top speed with meager resources and a severe psychological problem) . Shah Rukh Khan manages to rise above these limitations in scene after scene, taking audiences with him adopting the sort of effortlessness that only extraordinarily gifted actors can conjure. Credibility and plot flaws become secondary and unimportant as one is swept along on an emotional tidal wave that eventually overshadows all else – glitches included. Ammi’s noble, simple and compassionate words are what stay with you in the end – there are only two kinds of people in the world – those who believe in goodness and those who don’t. It is a message worth remembering before we cast the first stone.
Our hearts are with those who lost their lives in Pune.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Indian Intelligence Agencies or Dumbos??

How many more terrorist attacks are we going to endure in the near future before citizens wake up to the tragic truth that our elected government is sleeping on the job??Do we need 'hints' from army experts that rdx was used to blow a crater into Pune's German Bakery?Do we need the Americans to remind us that they had warned India about the possibility of terrorist strikes in Pune more than a month ago, right before the visit of Robert Gates? Now we are told Nagpur, Nashik and other Tier-2 cities are on the hit list of our 'Good neighbours' ( SRK'S certificate of 'good conduct' to Pakistan).Despite the horror of the tragedy,P. Chidambaram is still making excuses for the abject intelligence failure and desperately trying to cover his department's exposed a**. Sorry dude, it's too late to make lame excuses. What took place in Pune was a disaster foretold - even the locations ( German Bakery, Osho Commune, Chabad House ) had been identified as targets. Yet, nothing was done to protect innocent lives! Our over- worked and underpaid cops were rushed from their absurd and unnecessary movie theatre duties to the spot at Koregaon Park where a powerful explosion killed 9 people and injured several more. All this carnage took place despite prior warnings and a discernible pattern to such attacks, which we are told are a part of the dreaded 'Karachi Project."
Citizens want to know what went wrong this time? What is the weak, unconvincing alibi for such a monumental intelligence failure? Who needs post-mortems and excuses? The stupidest part of our response is that we always step up security at the very location that has been devastated by a bomb, instead of anticipating and preparing for the next attack - an attack which is inevitable, given what soft targets we have reduced ourselves to. What is the point of beefing up security at the German Bakery after the deed is done and the place has been reduced to rubble?
What is the point of bringing in David Headley ( same guy who roamed the length and breadth of India freely till the Americans caught him!) each time there is a crisis? Why keep retracing his recces if nothing emerges from those trips? If our cops knew Headley's plans as they now claim, why couldn't they prevent the attack? Whether Headley stayed at Surya Hotel behind the bakery etc etc is a matter of zero interest in the context of what happened.Turning the Osho Ashram and Chabad House into fortresses now, also has little relevance. As for Chid's banning press interviews with the injured, it is such an obvious sham. What will it achieve? It is the right of journos to have access to the survivors struggling for their lives in city hospitals and file reports. How does that impact investigations? Chidambaram is nonchalantly saying it is not possible to check every student and every back packer. True. But it is definitely possible to follow leads provided by foreign agencies and take some preventive action. All our government posturing is reserved for 'later' - all explanations are given post-attack. All those amazing theories surface after the tragedy. Our ministers routinely pass the buck and trot out pathetic excuses for their own failure. Let me quote Chids again: " There is no intelligence failure, but please remember this is not an overt attack by gunmen. This is an insidious bomb that had been planted by what appears to be a backpack. It is practically impossible to check each backpack..."
This is our Home Minister talking !
In that case, why not abandon all efforts to enforce security at airports, hotels and other sensitive locations?? Why bother? Why not just sit on our butts and wait for the next attack since the government has all but thrown up its hands and conceded its helplessness in the matter?
Dumbos performing in the Jumbo Circus display higher levels of intelligence. Shame!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Name is Mumbai....!

Let's call it the curse of newspaper deadlines. I wrote this column on thursday afternoon, when the sabre rattling of the Shiv Sainiks was peaking. Dramatic events took place between that time and the compromise that was arrived at a few key hours later, by noon on friday. A compromise that was clearly constructed in Delhi and executed in Mumbai. Whatever deal was struck doesn't matter any more. Unconstitutional conduct was successfully contained, movie goers got the chance to exercise their fundamental right, and nothing else is as important. Not even the backroom machinations that ensured a safe passage to the film. We may never know the real trade- offs, but let us be thankful Mumbai was spared the ignominy of having to cope with wanton violence and senseless destruction. Bollywood's newly established Tweet Factories were in overdrive all of yesterday. This new form of direct communication is likely to jeopardise the jobs of all those p.r.-driven filmi hacks who make a living out of being the mouthpieces and full -time chamchas of their favourite star-patrons.


Sigh! It's Valentine's Day tomorrow. My heart is going dhak -dhak. Any defiant display of the colour red has been banned in some regions of the Middle East. Love is in the air....but it has to remain colourless, tasteless and odourless. I plan to watch a super cheesy movie ( no guesses - 'Valentine's Day', but natch )wearing a bright red outfit. I may hold hands with my husband and daughter - but that's an option.

Hey Bhagwan! I am writing this a few hours before what may turn out to be Black Friday, if not for the city of Mumbai than for SRK. Fingers crossed. Shiv Sena’s legal eagle, Rahul Narvekar, with whom I shared a panel discussion on tv this morning, kept talking about a ‘mass movement’ that is sweeping over the metropolis . “You will get your answer tomorrow,” he said ominously, when asked what plans his party had for disrupting the screening of the film.If that sounded like a pretty nasty threat, Rahul Narvekar wasn’t about to give the game plan away to Karan Thapar. But, the message was loud and clear. Oh dear! There we go again, I said to myself. The same old threats, the wanton destruction of property, the senseless dadagiri – for what?? To prove who is boss??? Or even that the boss is still alive and calling the shots?? Well, after all that drama and hungama, the verdict is out – most theatre owners have ‘postponed’ screenings, claiming they were not prepared to risk damage to their property nor take the chance of patrons getting hurt. I guess Shiv Sainiks will be celebrating this great ‘victory’ tonight.Karan asked me whether I thought the people of Mumbai would actually ‘boycott’ cinemas. No, they won’t , I replied confidently. The word ‘boycott’ implies an active participation in the Shiv Sena’s programme to stop the screening of the film. Most Mumbaikars are entirely indifferent to the arguments being flaunted as the reason for the planned action. If one buys the Shiv Sena theory that citizens are outraged by Srk’s stand on including Pakistani cricketers in the IPL teams, they are certainly not confusing issues and linking his cricket statements to watching his films! They would definitely like to see ‘MNIK’ but not at the risk of losing their lives and limbs. I guess they’ll have to wait indefinitely for that now!!
Look at this absurdity - in order to enjoy ‘Avatar’, viewers were provided 3-D glasses. ‘MNIK’, will require something even more specialized - will Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Shri Ashok Chavan, give us combat gear and helmets? Since he has gallantly offered full protection to film enthusiasts, and there are more cops guarding theatres and mutiplexes across the city than there were post- 26\11, it has not just raised several eyebrows, but countless questions as well. The sweet irony is that while Srk’s fans are ready to face lathis, stones and God knows what else, to show their undying love and support to their idol, King Khan himself has flown the coop and is attending premieres in Abu Dhabi and Dubai! No security risks for him on those shores. But what about his bechara fans back in India? Are his emotionally charged tweets-by-the-minute enough to inspire their confidence?
Everybody wants a piece of the MNIK action, it appears. The Mumbai Police are at it…. giving interviews on various channels, and discussing the lengths they’ve gone to so that audiences and theatre owners can go ahead with the screening. That reassurance clearly hasn’t worked going by the decision to pull out the film from theatres. Politicians of all hues are equally busy preening and posturing for the cameras. But busiest of all are the overwrought tv anchors themselves, playing kiddish games of one upmanship, each claiming ‘exclusives’, knowing SRK is an expert at playing the media as and when he needs presswallas. Yet, they fall for it every single time, and look totally star struck in his presence, hanging on to every bon mot from the man who sure has the gift of the gab ( undeniable integrity, unquestionable patriotism,) . In all this tamasha of hogging headlines and playing to the galleries, nobody is overly concerned with actual issues. Personal freedoms form such a low priority in India, that it is a wonder we are even aware we have them. The Constitution is invoked almost ritualistically by the usual suspects, knowing all along that lawless elements out to create trouble rarely look for constitutional approval! Sponsored violence has several takers in our country, and the current agitation against an actor, is yet another example of how easy it is to manipulate those who have nothing to lose by taking to the streets and indulging in wanton destruction of public and private property.
Driving through Mumbai on Thursday afternoon, it was impossible to ignore the exaggerated police presence at every junction. But the average Joe and Jane were least bothered and going about their lives like nothing was amiss. Frankly, that is the apt response to the preposterous show of teeth. And yet, why single out the Shiv Sena for attacking a film or an individual? The Congress may well adopt a holier than thou position and condemn the Sena. But its own record has been equally pathetic. From banning Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, to more recently stalling the filming of the Nehru-Edwina love story, the Congress has not covered itself with liberal glory. The ‘MNIK’ controversy is yet another instance of opportunistic politics going a bit too far. Star anchors egging on Srk by constantly asking , “ So… you refuse to apologise? You won’t apologise?” was setting the scene for an escalation of the conflict. This is one time the media has taken it upon itself to play both judge and hangman. Prominent journos expressing their support and solidarity to SRK were proving to be more loyal than the King! The usual noises about safe guarding the freedom of expression, protecting the future of democracy etc . etc. may have been trotted out, but at the end of the day it had to do with pushing the phenomenon of a personality cult to a new level. Had it been a lesser star, say a Shahid Kapur, would we have been as incensed, as vocal, as supportive? Bollywood’s star system provides easy alibis and forges convenient alliances. This battle is being waged on a personal level and has little to do with ideology.
Balasaheb has far too much riding on popular perception about him and his party, to allow this fight to fizzle out. India is watching an aged tiger deploying every last resource to save face – and hopefully, save his party. There is a great deal at stake, and vultures are already circling the air above his den.It is no longer a childish question of who blinks first, who apologises or who backs off. Not just the film industry but all of India has its eyes on the battle royale – it has all the elements of a mega pot boiler built into it. Intrigue, money, betrayal, victory. SRK clearly has his powerful backers and supporters in place or else his stand would have been different. But it is the silence SRK’s Bollywood colleagues that says a lot. Read the subtext – sitting on the fence has never been more obvious. Scared of the Shiv Sena? Or…. secretely delighted? Is this the beginning of the end? But for whom….? We shall know soon enough.My prediction? Mumbai will win! It is far bigger than any – repeat, any – individual.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sick of MNIK ....!

Really! I have had it upto there and beyond. Such shenanigans. So much tamasha. When all along there must have been some kind of an understanding between the main players. Now that the movie is being screened and nobody is burning theatres, can we please change the subject and get on with our lives as they were pre-MNIK??
I am all for civil society speaking up and being counted\heard when there is an issue that presents a threat to democratic principles - freedom of expression, creative options. But I hate to think somewhere down the line, there has been an attempt to manipulate public opinion. This is not a good feeling. Terrorising gullible citizens into silence and inaction is unacceptable in any right thinking society. But what is worse is the suspicion that there was more to it - perhaps a tacit understanding. Or else, how does one abruptly arrive at a compromise formula or even an uneasy truce after a hostile standoff extending over days ? There has been no plausible explanation from either side so far. Which makes one believe kuch setting ho gaya. But with whom and how? Rather, for how much????
While Mumbaikars are relieved and glad that this nonsense has ended, it makes people equally wonder what the fuss was about in the first place? How are theatres better secured today than they were last night? What sort of miracles have the cops performed to reassure movie fans they won't be stoned for watching MNIK?
Thank God for saner times and all that. But was India taken for a royal ride ? If so, by whom? Chief culprit??
I welcome all theories, opinions and debates on the issue. The wilder the better.
Am I rushing to book my ticket for MNIK? Naah. Of course I plan to see it. But I'll live.
My money is on 'Toh Baat Pakki." It sounds delightful. And Tabu is an absolute gem. So is Sharman Joshi. I need a good laugh after the week's high drama. Perhaps I should go in search of Muthalik and teach him the lyrics of that old favourite, " Black is Black.' Ha ha! Boori nazar waley,tera mooh kaala!
Oh... in case you guys are interested, do catch the Karan Thapar show 'India Tonight' that aired yesterday at 10.30pm on cnbc TV18. You can guess the topic, right?? Wonder what happened to the 'mass movement' the Shiv Sena spokesperson Rahul Nirvekar was going on and on about? Where were these masses today?? He also jauntily said, " Our critics will get their answer tomorrow."
Well honey.... we are right here and waiting!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

'My Name is Guts....!'

Gosh!How very rude of me! The first thing I should have done on my return to matrubhoomi is to thank you guys. Pourquoi?? Welllllll.... for running such a super efficient news agency! The updates were fantastic! Far better than catching up with stale news from a gigantic pile of old newspapers. I took one look at the heap carefully kept aside for me and decided to stay miles away. Stale news is even worse than a stale samosa. What were those newswallas going to tell me that I didn't already know .... from all of you.... masala included?? Having acknowledged my sincere gratitude.... let's move on.

D-Day or SRK- day is upon us. I am told the city is 'tense', but frankly, I don't have a sense of that at all. I am hazarding a guess - nothing too dramatic is likely to happen tomorrow when the film opens to the public. Some ritualistic dagad-phek, a few torn posters, perhaps a lathi charge. Then it will be back to business as usual - big business. Early reviews suggest a mega hit in the offing. I'm sure both Kaajol and Srk have delivered top class performances. And KJO is a master of the 4-hankie weepie. Full paisa vasool. As to who blinks first.... who cares? It is not a national calamity, merely an ego clash between super egoistical people. The sky isn't about to fall down, folks. So.... relax.

Am I going to risk my skull to watch the movie - first day, first show? Hell, no. Maatha kharab na ki? as the Bongs would say.

All in good time. Don't feel like holding forth on the subject across channels either. Vikram, Sonali, Karan..... I love you. But....kinda sick of the whole naatak. Apologise or don't, yaar. Just stop yakking so much.
The movie I really want to watch is 'Nine'. I hear Penelope Cruz is super delicious in it. But then, can she be anything less??

But as and when I do watch, " My name is Guts..." I shall rush to my laptop and 'do the needful'.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


how unimportant news from and about india really is was driven home strongly on this trip. tv channels barely carry a 20 seconds clip every third day, and that too if the story has something to do with economic developments in this region or involves a bomb blast in KASHMIR. SINCE ENGLISH IS BARELY SPOKEN IN VIETNAM, THE FLIMSY local TABLOID ONE SEES IS DEVOTED TO EARTH SHAKING NEWS ABOUT THE NUMBER OF NEW 'TET' FLOWER MARKETS SET UP in the city TO ACCOMMODATE THE DEMAND FOR PEACH TREES OVER THE NEW YEAR (14th feb). it is impossible to make oneself understood even via sign lingo, since their signs seem to be very different from the rest of the world's. khair, i am not complaining - just feeling out of the loop and slightly confused. i did watch a fleeting news item which showed srk arriving at the mumbai airport and referring to the INDIAN constitution, with kaajol and karan walking away grimly and briskly to avoid newswallas. srk did ADD something about every word of his getting 'misconstrued'. HELLO! since when??? srk is a genius with his bon mots and immensely articulate AT ALL TIMES. he hasn't had any problems earlier while delivering off the cuff dialogues and dishing out quotes galore. ab kya ho gaya QUOTE- MACHINE KO ? IRONY! while i am attempting to key this in, there is a group of talkative PAKISTANI GUYS CLOSE BY - THE 'GOOD NEIGHBOURS' SRK WAS TALKING ABOUT. I AM SORELY TEMPTED TO ASK THEM WHAT THEY THINK IS THE REAL ISSUE HERE? is it the ipl imbroglio involving pakistani players or something else? but things in BANGKOK ARE TENSE ENOUGH. WHY ADD TO THE HEAT?
would i recommend VIETNAM AS A TRAVEL DESTINATION? without hesitation! there is nothing particularly pretty about HANOI ( and i certainly did not want to go into those scarey war time tunnels), but the people are warm, friendly, welcoming and the food's terrific. I THREW AWAY THE ANTI BIOTICS I HAD BEEN PRESCRIBED FOR A SINUS ATTACK AND CONCENTRATED ON PHO BO - THE TRADITIONAL BEEF BROTH WITH NOODLES. I SWEAR IT FIXED MY COLD AND CONGESTION. I slurped it up AT B'FAST TOO, AND IT KEPT ME GOING LIKE NOTHING ELSE COULD HAVE.
AAAH - I HAVE KEPT THE BEST FOR LAST - HALONG BAY! it is like being a part of 'Avatar' - MYSTERIOUS, MISTY,mystic ISLANDS - HUNDREDS OF THEM, entice you to explore the emerald green waters of the bay . WE TOOK A LANGUID CRUISE ON THE REPLICA OF AN OLD STEAMSHIP - 'EMERAUDE'. THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE was ETHEREAL AND DREAMLIKE. AT NIGHT, THE CAPTAIN SCREENED 'INDO-CHINE', THE 1993 MOVIE starring CATHERINE DENEUVE WHICH I BELIEVE HAD WON THE OSCAR IN THE BEST FOREIGN FILM CATEGORY. IT WAS SHOT IN AND AROUND HALONG BAY. AN EERIE LINE IN THE FILM GOES, " Those who get into the labyrinth of these islands are never seen alive again." WELL..... HERE I AM. LIVING PROOF! which only goes to underline something we OFTEN forget - a movie is just a movie. watch and forget!! that's what i said to the owner of one of the most comprehensive dvd stores i have ever been to. this was in the old quarter of hanoi, and we spent nearly two hours talking movies with thien. from rohmer to goddard to kurosawa, he had them all!! and we nearly bought them all!!

a few hours from now, i'll be back in aamchi mumbai. work awaits - aaaaargh. lots of it - double aaaaargh. but memories of my last supper in hanoi will linger. it was at BOBBY CHINN'S SUPER TRENDY RESTAURANT . BOBBY IS HALF VIETNAMESE AND HALF EGYPTIAN - A LEGENDARY CHEF OFTEN CALLED THE ENFANT TERRIBLE OF WORLD CUISINE. HE LOOKS AMAZING AND COOKS AMAZING.AUR KYA MANGTA???

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Surprising Saigon!

Biggest surprise?? Saigon, sorry, Ho Chi Minh , is alarmingly like our Kolkata! It even smells the same. But getting into Viet Nam is a bloody ordeal - the customs and immigration guys are rude and awful, make you feel unwanted and like criminals. Is it just a coincidence that only Indians were told to step aside for additional questioning?? We were asked the most absurd questions, despite having all our paperwork in place. " Show us the money," ordered a cop! Ridiculous. But... that's how Commies run their countries and states - it's all about authority!
The locals are less friendly than the sweet, smiling Cambodians, and not interested in us Desis. Aha - but if you are American, they fall over backwards! Strange, given the history of the war. Our cabbie was a major in the army and could recall the most horrifying stories of American brutality. He boasted with relish about shooting Yankees! " But now we are friends... we want to do business with America," he candidly admitted.
I know I am missing out on some really exciting action back in India, but this is important too. One can see the rapid strides of globalisation in this country. They are coping the same way as India - with confusion and a little fear. Traditional societies are slow to respond enthusiastically to these dramatic changes. KFC is right here, but the Vietnamese don't want McDonald's! Make any sense?
I am enjoying the local cuisine and the motorcycle taxis that whizz around manically, ignoring any traffic rules. To call Saigon congested would be an understatement. Like I said, it is Kolkata minus the mishti! Shabby, decaying and yet forging ahead somehow. The buildings are uniformly ugly - except for the Opera House and the remaining French Colonial structures still standing. It is also crazily expensive - we walked into a Gucci store and asked the price of sneakers. They were marked at close to a lakh of rupees!
The good news is that trade ties are looking up. And Communism here is a lot more relaxed. I refuse to visit the tunnels which are reminders of the war. I am happy enough wandering around the different quarters and striking up conversations with locals - very daunting - their 'English' needs an interpreter!
Dying to rush back. Please do fill me in on all the details - who said what to whom etc. I particularly want to know about the Rahul Gandhi - Balasaheb Thackeray spat. 'Aham' I am counting on you!!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Underwhelmed by Angkor Wat... a little jealous, too!

Come on, guys. This is just 990 years old, and we , coming from India, are supposed to be impressed?? Blame it on the heat and dust ( an abundance of both here ), but when I checked in to the Bodia Spa for an hour long massage, I found myself saying, " Been there, done that." Meaning, I was seriously jealous! But one can't stay jealous for long with a people who are just so genteel, kind and sweet! Angkor Wat??? Errr.... yessss... if you don't have Khajuraho and Konarak ... and ....and... Ajanta and Ellora....
I received a text message from Nandana Sen ( same one) urging me to read Amitava Ghosh's account of 'Dancing in Cambodia.' I love Nandana. I love Amitava. But Nandana darling, I promise you I shall get around to reading it -- soon. But hey - this is my discovery of Cambodia. I am ready to dance! But to my own music. Okay??
As a matter of fact, I did just that ( DANCE!) at Pub Street tonight, when the bill came. It was 20 USD. And for that princely amount, we had enjoyed a local feast, plus my husband had had a shot of Black Label and a draft beer. Don't ask me how the math works. I paid $2 for the ride back to Raffles in a tuk tuk, and I am not complaining.
Jackie Kennedy 'discovered' Angkor Wat .... and Cambodia has never been the same again. MAybe India needs a 21st century Jackie O to make it hot and sexy to tourists. Enough of the 'Incredible India' campaign. It has had its day. After hours and hours spent temple- hopping in sweltering heat, I am all templed out! We leave for Saigon tomorrow afternoon. But not before enjoying yet another massage . YEAH!!! It's a hard, hard life. But someone's got to live it, right?? And here I am ... sharing my sorrows with you. Did I tell you about those croc bags at bargain basement prices???

Oh.... will someone back home please tell me what the hell is going on?? I am being bombarded with requests from Arnab, Karan, Barkha to be on various panels. It sounds awfully boring! Same old 'Insider\Outsider' nonsense.
Aur ab tera kya hoga Kaliya... err... Khan??

Monday, February 1, 2010

Siam Reap Se....

I am totally in love with Cambodia and all things Cambodian ( throw in Amok fish curry, for sure!). I got here late this afternoon and love happened instantly! Went off to the Old Market and found BARGAINS!!! Went to the French Quarter and died! It is quaint, charming and cheap!!!! The tuk tuk driver looked at me and asked , " Indian?" I nodded an enthusiastic 'yes'! He went into raptures over Govinda! Not the Big B, not Sallu,not SRK. A man after my own heart. I adore Govinda.

I avoided the Tomb Raider cocktail at the seedy bar we went to on Pub Street ( what a street - every city should have one!!). The menu said it was inspired by Angelina Jolie. Well..... she don't inspire me much! However