Friday, August 29, 2014

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi, Blogdosts...

                       Smriti could learn a thing or two from Sarika…
Sarika , the talented, light-eyed actress of yore (“Humraaz” 1967), has always but always been her own person. She was one of the first leading ladies in Bollywood to openly break a cardinal rule or two when it came to acknowledging romantic relationships. Without going into too many personal details, let it be said that it took guts to leave her home, take charge of her career, and move in with Karan Kapoor ( Shashi Kapoor’s photographer son). Subsequently, she fell in love with a much married Kamalhassan, moved South, produced two daughters (Akshara and Shruti) with him, took a backseat from acting, and immersed herself totally in her husband’s world. Till, that carefully built universe collapsed…  and she found herself  back in Mumbai, ready to begin a new life yet again, minus any discernible support system. Rather than allow such a traumatic mid-life crisis to bog her down, Sarika quietly picked up the pieces and soldiered on. Today, she has slipped back seamlessly into Bollywood and more recently, into commercial television (“Yudh”). Sarika continues to remain an outsider in the glamour world, sticking to handloom sarees, sporting little or no jewelry, her luminous face devoid of make-up.Her daughters are doing reasonably well in a hard and cruel business that’s showbiz. And Sarika sensibly makes zero reference to Kamalhassan.
What interested me about her present life was her candid confession in a recent HT Brunch interview. When asked about her educational qualifications, she stated simply that she’d never been to school and college ( “ never went to any. I studied on my own)! And yet, here was a woman who picked Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ as her all-time favourite book and answered most of the other questions in a mature, straight-forward fashion. Sarika sounded far more educated than many so-called well-educated celebrities, in and out of Bollywood ! While her admission(self-schooled) came as a surprise to me, I thought to myself how refreshing it was for a high profile actress to not shy away from an inescapable fact of life. Sarika could have fibbed. That she was so upfront about her lack of a formal education was at once endearing and heart breaking. I am sure Sarika won many more fans after that interview. Just like Smriti Irani lost several after her Yale boast.
No matter what level of damage control Smriti now undertakes, it is a pity one careless claim will permanently mark her political track record. Smriti has been positioned as one of the brightest stars in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. She started off her political innings on a high note. Her being appointed the minister for HRD ( under which Education forms a key responsibility), was critically scrutinized by Modi-watchers, but given Smriti’s other abilities, everybody was willing to give her a fair chance. Yes, there were glaring discrepancies in earlier declarations about her educational credentials, but they were glossed over, as Smriti took charge of her portfolio and briskly got down to work. No matter what she says today about the unfortunate Yale boo- boo, it is one major faux pas, she won’t be able to wish away. Had she only been more transparent about her educational antecedents, nobody would have bothered all that much about specifics and technicalities ( correspondence course? Degree or diploma? In which subject? When? From where?). By misleading people and talking about a ‘degree’ from one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, Smriti Irani dug her own grave.

The thing is, we live in far less opaque times these days. It’s virtually impossible to concoct stories or suppress information. Politicians, in particular, need to be super cautious before opening their big mouths and making tall claims. They really ought to know better than to believe they’ll get away with lies. It takes under two minutes to corroborate/ cross-check practically any information about public figures. How could Smriti Irani have imagined that she of all people, would get away with such an absurd  declaration. Did she really think nobody would double check? Or did she really not know the difference between acquiring a legitimate, bona fide ‘degree’ from college, after studying for it like every other student, and getting a certificate after attending a 6-day leadership programme? If it is the latter case, it is time to worry. A Cabinet Minister heading a ministry that is supposed to be in charge of young minds ( 50% of India’s 125 crore population is under the age of 25), is a monumental responsibility. One hopes Smriti Irani is aware of the task she faces at this critical juncture. Nobody cares a damn whether or not she studied at Yale. But we sure as hell care that she lied about it. That was the real ‘unpadh’ move…

                                        Alia Bhatt as Albert Einstein: It’s her way or the ‘Highway’…

“Genius of the Year” is clever,clever,clever. But clever is not always enough. The reason why ‘Genius…” has worked brilliantly and gone viral, is because it uses its own cleverness to explore a universal anxiety about appearing stupid in public. Every single person watching this video will instantly connect to his / her own stupidity and ignorance. It is designed to make you squirm at the recollection of something dumb you’ve said or done at some point in your life. And most of all ,it taps into every person’s ‘Alia Moment’. Who hasn’t had one? Or several? The best thing about the video , of course, is Alia Bhatt herself, as she goes along with the running gags and sends herself up. Now that may just turn out to be the smartest thing she has ever done in her young life. In one stroke, Alia  has managed to change her image of being the dumbest doll in Bollywood, to that of a spunky, spirited, sporting girl who can laugh at herself and come out on top of her game. Now it’s the turn of her critics and detractors to look totally stupid. Well done!
The video also makes viewers review their attitude to GK and IQ. The two can be mutually exclusive and often are. Alia’s talent on screen has been unambiguously established , and there’s a good chance she’ll walk away with the Best Actress award this year. Talent of this caliber generally goes with a high IQ. About her abysmal GK – come on, she exposed that during her Koffee interview and ended up becoming the butt end of some pretty nasty jokes . She took them on the chin. So, let’s hand it to her for two reasons  1) Alia had  the guts to agree to the spoof that is entirely based on her low GK quotient 2) She had the brains to figure out such a risky decision would work in her favour.
The subtext of the video is equally compelling. Take Karan Johar’s line : “ Of course we have hot and clever heroines in Bollywood – they are called HEROES.” Meeoow! Truer words were never spoken, and one wonders how many heroes ducked for cover after that dig! It’s Karan again who , when talking about the Black Hole theory, adds a naughty, self-revelatory aside when he mumbles, “ Black Hole… something I have not entered recently.” Ooooops! Confession time on YouTube, Karan? These swipes, demonstrating throwaway panache by one of Bollywood’s most successful producer-directors, also show an admirable coming of age all around. To  be able to mock yourself… to indulge in  self-parody… to make fun of the humourless geeks out there who relentlessly tormented Alia for months, is an inspired move… one that has paid rich dividends to everyone involved in the project. Eventually, it is Alia Bhatt’s triumph and redemption. Particularly, the last staged joke when Alia states her ambition to become “India’s First woman Prime Minister”, till she is reminded India already had one – Indira Gandhi. Alia squints, looks bewildered, goes blank and asks, “Who? Who? Who?” What a masterstroke!
Thank you, guys for coming up with this genius idea. And if Alia does not bag a well-deserved award for ‘Highway’, let’s give her one for this superb performance!

                I don’t want ‘mardaani’ – do you?
I am staring at Rani Mukherjee’s face in a prominent ad as I write this. The headline says, “Be the woman you were born  to be…” And I  feel worried. Was I born to be hard? This hard? Yes, we know Rani plays a cop in the film. Her character is described as “Tough. Fearless. Independent.” Like millions of other Rani -watchers, I am wondering whether Mukherjee is playing herself. She has been promoting her film in innovative ways.  Her latest effort was to flag off the Women Beat Marshalls on behalf of the Mumbai Police. Presswallas have referred to her loose clothing and obvious weight gain, while concluding the newly-minted ‘maalkin’ of  Yash Raj Films is expecting her first child with Aditya Chopra. Perhaps she is. Perhaps she isn’t. What does it matter? In my head, I am comparing her promotional efforts to Ajay Devgn’s (“ Singham Returns”).  That makes it two cop films back-to-back. With one major difference – the gender of the cop.
Going by the trailer of ‘Mardaani’ , Rani probably pulps as many bad guys single handedly as Ajay did in his movie. She also gets a bloodied nose, which is more than what Ajay suffers after  breaking countless bones ( not his own, of course ) and shooting dozens of   nasty toughies. Ajay walks away without a scratch on his face, or even a  blood stain on his spotless ganji. His  trendy aviators stay firmly on his nose through most of the action, and he also finds the time to sing a love duet with his ditsy girl friend. Ajay is the quintessential Bolllywood cop.  I would love to get our CP Rakesh Maria’s take on the portrayal and ask him what he thinks of  cop films in general, and Bollywood  masala cop films in particular. Does a supercop like Bajirao Singham enhance the image /credibility of our cops…  or do such projections mislead the public into thinking our friendly neighbourhood cops aren’t doing enough if they don’t bash up at least fifty armed goons, blow up twenty vans, and also find the time for romance – all in a day’s work.
Rani’s character is tougher to play, going by early reports. And I wonder how women will relate to it. With movies that are determinedly breaking old moulds and projecting female characters as  made-of-steel  superwomen, capable of  taking on the most brutal adversaries, physically and emotionally, are we, in fact, creating a brave, new role model for the desperate-for-change, impatient-for-justice women of India? If our real lives continue to be as vulnerable, perhaps what we need for our survival is an escape into fantasy storylines that show women in full charge, undaunted by and unafraid of anybody or anything?  The very concept of ‘mardaani’ is troubling, because it suggests we have to clone aggressive male behavior in order to hang in there.It was used by Hindi poet Subhadrakumari to describe Rani Lakshmi Bai  and means “Like a man’. Not all of us can be Rani Lakshmi Bai. Not all of us have access to police training. How many women know how to use guns… ? Or even fists? After Rani’s macho act, we will watch Priyanka Chopra as iconic boxer, Mary Kom.
Rani and Priyanka are representative of today’s generation of accomplished professionals in Bollywood. By choosing these unusual roles, both of them are indirectly reflecting contemporary concerns that plague women.  Uncompromising competitiveness being one of them. The very notion of beating men at their own game, is a loaded one. The message that women have to outperform, outshine, outdo men, if they decide to step out of their comfort zones and fight for legitimacy, is in its own way, most unfair. Why should women have to expend extra energy being more like men? Why should women have to change so drastically in order to win respect? Why should women have to gate crash a Boy’s Club to fulfill their dreams and ambitions? There are millions of women out there who may not possess the required ‘mardaani’ to cope with society’s demands. Will they be in a position to cheer Rani? Applaud Priyanka / Mary? Will these portrayals inspire lesser women?Or discourage them?  The message being sent out, is a little dodgy. What it suggests to me is this : Women live in tough / dangerous times. If we want to make our way through picket fences without getting molested, beaten, raped, murdered, maimed, we’d better start toughening up.  If we don’t tap into our own ‘mardaani’, we will be vanquished. Our popular movies are saying , “Get ready for war.” Whereas, real life is crying out and pleading, “Give peace a chance.” Tough choices. Have you made yours?


Sunday, August 17, 2014

68th Independence Day... and beyond!

                               Singham Returns…as  NaMo at the Red Fort.
“Darwaza tod do, Daya…” thunders Bajirao Singham, the Scowling Supercop. His burly junior kicks open a heavy, wooden door and voila! The bad guys are caught red handed. It is a perfectly pitched Bollywood moment from the distant 80s, when our movies stuck to linear storylines ,simplistic plots, over- dramatic dialogues, exaggerated body language, emotional outbursts and babyish plots that didn’t demand the slightest mental exertion . It is also a symbolic line that encapsulates the rage of the oppressed. The movies of that era were crammed with similar lines and scenes. There was always one larger-than-life hero, capable of single-handedly taking on hundreds of  adversaries. The hero believed in old-fashioned, traditional ‘Indian’ values, like worshipping the mother, protecting sisters, respecting elders, helping colleagues and destroying evil people. His love interest was generally incidental and played a largely decorative role. The hero invariably took on the ‘system’ at enormous personal risk. He was ready to sacrifice his own life when faced with moral issues . His  chief adversary was mostly  one- dimensional and heavily armed. The hero’s levels of personal pride were second to none. It was ‘izzat’ he lived for. ‘Izzat’ he died for. ‘Izzat’ was all that mattered. It goes without saying, this mythical hero always won in the end…. no matter how daunting the odds.
Bollywood was missing this brand of stereotypical herogiri for a while. Indian audiences had started to stray. Some movies featured clever canines in title roles. Others had masked men in harness fighting gravity and logic. The ‘weepie’ was virtually dead. And the high -pitched amir-garib confrontation that got all the taalis, had been replaced by amir-amir romances featuring Bollywood bachchalog of the third generation  ( some with talent, most without). With Singham Returns, the blockbuster formula is back with a bang. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Let’s call this a double dhamaka weekend for viewers. The action in both mega productions was superbly staged by technical teams that understood the mood and pulse of the nation. While one portly hero, wearing a tri-coloured turban dominated  television channels across India, delivering  catchy lines from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, another flexed his coiled-oiled muscles dressed down in a spotless white ‘ganji’. The message embedded in both performances was exactly the same : Mein leta nahin, deta hoon. Roughly translated : I don’t take, I give. The give-and-take as exemplified by Bajirao Singham  is in the larger interests of society. Each time Ajay( Singham) Devgn, utters that line in the film, audiences clap as if on cue.  It is obvious an emotional chord has been struck… and successfully exploited. There is hope for India, after all.
Since dare devilry and fearlessness play such key roles in the projection of superheroes, it is significant that Narendra Modi – the Singham of  Politics – shunned a bullet proof screen while addressing the nation on Independence Day. Since nothing he does is divorced from design, one can safely assume, it was a calculated decision to project courage and confidence. Analysts will describe it as a shrewd if fool hardy move. President Barack Obama is seen as a pretty smart  world leader  -  but even he doesn’t deliver public speeches without mandatory protection and top security in place.
Narendra Modi’s speech has been deconstructed and decoded to death by experts. The hidden meanings have been unearthed and analysed by those in search of deeper agendas. The wah- wahs for going extempore on such a significant occasion , are still pouring in. Professionallyy trained theatre artists are known to work hard on monologues. But even by their exacting standards, a one hour, six minutes monologue is one hell of a challenge. Modi, like Singham, conclusively proved he’s the boss, while pressing all the right buttons (“ I come from a poor family…and here I am addressing the country from the Red Fort’’). By displaying concern and respect for the women of India, he won over millions of female hearts. Bracket ‘women’ with ‘izzat’ and you get two buzz words that are at once inclusive and emotive. If Singham took  an ‘aie shappat’ (“ I swear on my mother’) and followed that up with a ‘vardi ki kasam’ (“ I swear on my uniform”), when he vowed to  vanquish enemies, Modi  too, didn’t lag behind in the promises he made for a stronger and safer India.
At a time when connectivity is the key, it can be safely declared that the Prime Minister succeeded in socking his message to the waiting nation, preferring to stick to a chatty, avuncular approach, using uncomplicated analogies and easy-to- get , easy-to-digest , bite-sized , home grown platitudes. No grand flourishes, no poetry, no high-flown lines. Much like Bajirao Singham. Let’s hope Narendra Modi takes the next logical step forward and translates these good intentions into real action… without stripping down to his ganji, of course.

 “Darwaza Tod Do, NaMo!” Or else, it will be the people of India who will be vociferously protesting, “Aata Majhi Satakli!”

                         Modi woos the women of India…
The single most important takeaway from Narendra Modi’s premier Independence Day speech was the concern shown for the safety of  our women. Perhaps, for the first time in India’s 68- year-old history, a Prime Minister devoted a reasonably large chunk of  his bhaashan to the importance of  dealing with one of our society’s biggest blights – rape. There will inevitably be critics / cynics who will say that  the ugly, nasty word (rape) does not belong to such a closely watched, over analysed, historic address, delivered from the ramparts of the Red Fort, by a newly elected leader of  125 crore citizens. I would argue it was high time a neta had the guts to raise this diabolical issue on precisely such a vital platform. For, if we refuse to acknowledge its deep and tragic impact on our lives, we too will be guilty of perpetuating the shame. Significantly enough, Modi transferred this very ‘shame’ to those who perpetrate the crime – men. And urged families across India, to sensitise their menfolk to its ghastly implications… starting with boys in the household. Modi urged families to “question their sons, not daughters.” Articulating such a sentiment in a patriarchal society like ours is nothing short of radical. Nobody is India ‘questions’ a son! A beta is believed to be above and beyond reproach – no matter what crime he commits. This deeply entrenched attitude is not restricted to rural communities. Look around you… there are any number of  people in your own family… your neighbourhood, who might be shocked that such a preposterous suggestion was made in the first place. Modi took a gigantic risk when he went into this tricky territory. He took another, equally major  risk when he brought up the topic of toilets for women in our villages…. and  underlined the urgency of building  separate toilets for school/ college girls .
Having tabled his concerns , and expressed  sincere anguish, it is hoped Modi will swiftly do something about both issues. I wish he had announced concrete measures towards rape redressal, for example. That would have been far more reassuring, meaningful and substantive, than the big noises made from the podium. Let’s hope Modi’s government follows up the rhetoric with real reforms and focused guidelines. He had talked about zero tolerance for crimes against women during his Lok Sabha address months ago. And then withdrawn from the arena, while rapes continued unabated. While a traumatized nation waited for immediate and stern action against rapists, there was just a frustrating and stony silence from Modi. His non-committal stand disheartened those who had expected more from him at that critical juncture.On  Independence Day, Modi tried to make up for the lapse by emphasizing the issue, and placing it alongside other national priorities. Modi finally gave rape the importance it deserves.  It is upto citizens from this point on to monitor whether or not his speech will translate into an immediate action  designed to tackle India’s monumental stigma on a war footing. If Modi succeeds in making women feel safer, he will win over the hearts of millions. And if he does indeed convert our medieval thinking that unfairly protects and favours sons, he will go down in history as the architect of a major cultural revolution.
 The Badaun incident must have been that much needed, overdue wake up call for Modi’s government.Badaun represents the sum total of all that Modi referred to –  a lack of toilets for rural women, lack of basic security, lack of awareness, and a lack of accountability. Modi also mentioned the creation of 800 model villages. Great concept. We can do it. But more than building these model villages and giving ‘izzat’ to the poor, what India needs to do on a war footing is create model mind sets. Model thinking. Model communities. Even someone as charged up as NaMo will find that a far more daunting task to  tackle.
If even a single mother (or father) starts to think more deeply about bringing up a better son after listening to Modi’s speech, it will be a major triumph. If even a single rape is prevented because of his message, it will be his biggest contribution to transforming India.
As a man who qualifies as a ‘half husband’, Modi is stuck with a double responsibility towards the women of our country. We are watching! A promise has been made in public. Keep it! There are over a billion witnesses. Deliver… or else!