Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why attack a 'Makdee''.... and spare the snakes?

A Frazer and Haws Ganeshji. One of my all time favourite images taken at the showroom in New Delhi.

                 Why attack a ‘Makdee’… and spare the snakes?
I was really, really aghast to read the entirely unfair publicity given to a vulnerable young actress, driven to prostitution after experiencing abject failure in Bollywood, despite a promising start. And what a start it was! 11-year-old Shweta Basu Prasad won a National Film  Award for Best Child Artist in 2002, for her performance in Vishal Bharadwaj’s film, ‘Makdee’. Twelve short years later,  at age 23, the poor girl is splashed across national and regional newspapers after she was “ caught in a compromising situation” in a Hyderabad hotel.Arrested by the over-vigilant cops and packed off to a Rehabilitation Home, Shweta faces a minimum of  ten days in custody while the cops frame a charge sheet. Effectively, her life and career are both over. And I fear for her  safety. Going by the abysmal track record of how all such State run shelters and Homes function, with rampant sexual abuse, torture, starvation and worse, Shweta is likely to face a whole host of nasty problems while she is being ‘rehabilitated’ at  government expense. Meanwhile, the media will sadistically pounce on the juicy story and torment her further… till the next scandal… and the next.
Shweta’s sordid experience in showbiz is not new or unique. There are thousands of Shwetas out there, struggling to survive in a heartless industry, which is more a meat packing factory than a provider of legitimate entertainment. The real tragedy of girls like Shweta kicks in after they taste early success, and then nothing happens. Buoyed by praise and misled by avaricious agents, they start dreaming big and expecting too much. Since image is everything these days, they often end up living way beyond their means, frequently borrowing money to subsidise their jumped up lifestyles. Movie business the world over functions in exactly the same way, when it comes to women.  It works on a demand/supply principle. The supply always exceeds the demand. There are any number of alarmingly young girls waiting for a break and willing to go to any lengths to get it. Shweta had it better than most, having worked with established directors like Nagesh Kuknoor and Ram Gopal Varma.  Despite such a huge advantage, Shweta, when she was busted in the staged raid, was broke and jobless. In her brave and upfront statement, she stated she had a family to support and was lured into prostitution by an agent who set her up with a Mumbai businessman.
Why pick on a comparative non-entity like Shweta, when there are hundreds of high profile, prominent, top bracket stars indulging in exactly the same  ‘dhanda’? It’s an open secret in Bollywood as insiders snigger about the ‘rate cards’ doing the rounds. Some of the featured names would make most people roll over and die of shock! One wonders where Shweta went wrong. She blames her flop career to picking the wrong roles.A lot of actresses pick wrong roles, but not all of them become prostitutes. The problem is different. Bollywood  refuses to acknowledge the levels of poverty and desperation that drive young aspirants ( male and female) to seek other avenues to pay their bills and stay alive. Some of these strugglers take to drugs and alcohol ( a brave admission by ‘Mary Kom’ Director Omung Kumar Bhandula, that his FTII trained father died an alcoholic after failing to get roles), and that path  often leads to prostitution or…. suicide.
Shweta is a victim of a sting operation conducted by a Telugu television channel. She was easy bait. With no powerful patrons or backers, Shweta turned out to be just the thing a TRP- obsessed media organization could effortlessly exploit.But why have Shweta’s clients been shielded from media glare? Why aren’t they being named and shamed ? Why pick on Shweta?  Her story got the cops what they were looking for – attention. And the channel  got its eyeballs. Where does that leave Shweta? At the bottom of a pit… still poor… and now shunned as well. ‘Balu’, the pimp who booked her for a fee of one lakh a night (keeping 15k  as his commission) allegedly assured her she wasn’t the only actress indulging in this racket, and several other actresses also free-lanced as prostitutes in order to keep body and soul together. This was Shweta’s  third ‘assignment’ and possibly her last. At 23, her future is looking scarily dark and grim. If anything happens to this young woman , who will assume responsibility? The State? Bollywood? Society?

We need to take better care of the Shwetas we may know in our own lives. We certainly owe a desperate, hungry, young person that much.

Kashmir: A flood of memories...

                 The nation weeps for and with the people of  J & K…

All of this week, I frantically tried to contact three men – Yousf  Bhai, Naqvi and Sajjid .They are my “Kashmiri friends.”  I  have known them for a few years now. Over time, we have established a warm and wonderful friendship.  Sadly, so far I have not received a response from any of them. Are they safe? Are they even alive?Like me, there are thousands of people who are deeply concerned about friends and relatives they have not heard from.There are thousands  more who are mourning the loss of loved ones.  Ironically, it has taken a grim national tragedy to bring one thing sharply into focus  -  we can jointly challenge and fight the mightiest of enemies within and outside the country, but there is nothing we can do to halt nature’s fury. Even as the water levels come down and some modicum of ‘normalcy’ returns to Srinagar and other severely affected areas, those of us with emotional connections to the State will continue to keep our hopes alive… till the actual news arrives and we get to know for ourselves whether it’s good or bad.
The three men I mention are traders of the finest shawls and carpets from Kashmir. For four generations their families have been engaged in the pursuit of beauty and excellence through their exquisite, hand crafted wares. During our chats, I have asked the younger men whether they’ve thought of doing something else, something more ‘modern’, and they’ve shaken their heads, “ This is our legacy… this is our life.”. Their deep knowledge and fine taste have illuminated our exchanges, regardless of whether I was buying anything. Just watching them remove each precious shawl from its soft mulmul covering, and gently open its folds to reveal indescribable beauty, has been a matchless experience I will always treasure. It is at once a richness and a rare education to hear them speak passionately about family traditions going back  a century and more. And to share stories about wealthy patrons from overseas who have tried in vain to entice them to ‘step up production’ and market their shawls to international luxury stores. “How do we explain to these people that it is impossible? We cannot insult our inheritance and weave mechanically in order to meet market demands!”
Each time they visit, they bring  kilos of freshly shelled walnuts and apricots from their garden, honey from the wild flowers of their region, delicate saffron stems from the fields they tend, hand embroidered  silk firans for the girls, and pashmina scarves as presents for close friends. Such generosity! Such refinement! So much pride in their craft. Like them, there must be countless families struggling to cope with this monumental tragedy, their looms washed away, their precious shawls and carpets destroyed by the furious waters, their homes completely submerged, along with any hopes of  recovering what  is irretrievably lost in the deluge.
It is at a time like this that India truly shines. Not all of us have a personal connection to people affected by the floods in J & K ,yet we are bound together as a nation by the devastation that has already claimed over 300 lives . It is the men of our armed forces we need to express our deepest gratitude to. Over 1,081 sorties have been undertaken so far and over 1,10,000 lives saved under extremely hazardous circumstances . The combined efforts of  our men in uniform have seen the successful evacuation of  countless trapped citizens. The newly installed Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh has led 30,000 of  his men from the front, earning the blessings of  innumerable marooned J&K  denizens.  But where was Chief Minister Omar Abdullah? Or his ministers? Busy using their VVIP status to rescue their own people, according to reports.Shockingly enough, Abdullah was callous enough to state, “People are alive to shout slogans, I have no problems.” Really! The problems are right there, right now. And the irate people of your State are ready to deal with them… and you. Watch out, Omar!
Perhaps, an overdue and vital turning point has finally been reached between the people of the beleaguered state and the Centre. If this crisis does lead to a truce of sorts, both sides should seize it immediately. All efforts should be made to build on the goodwill generated by the intervention of  the Indian Army. Yes, there is rage. And frustration, too.  Faced with local administrative indifference, arrogance and apathy, denied access to food or water, with poor or zero data available about missing people, a backlash is inevitable. The real challenge begins now. The waters will soon recede. But the floodgates of public anger  have been opened.Winter is round the corner. There are bereft families out there who have lost everything…. loved ones, possessions, homes. A shroud of sorrow covers the valley.

As for me, I am praying hard while waiting for the phone to ring with good news about my three loving  brothers from Kashmir -  Yousf  Bhai, Sajjid and Naqvi -  wherever you are, may God be with you.

                         Twisting two words – ‘Love’ and ‘Jihad’.
It is really unfortunate that our creepy- crawlies ( read: politicians of a certain hue ) have deliberately concocted a dangerous and ugly term (“ Love Jihad” ) and given a bad name to both words. In fact, the random and reckless overuse of LJ, has spawned an entire industry of haters and baiters, busy ‘outing’ couples they hold guilty. The media, too, has fallen for this nonsense, and readers have been subjected to reams and reams of  LJ stories, some with a positive spin, but most, minus a modicum of sensitivity or tact. It is that time of the year when we feel obliged to display ‘communal  harmony’ at its most self-conscious. So, newspapers will feature Hindu-Muslim celebrity jodis ( the usual suspects), and carry pictures of  Bollywood stars from  different faiths, celebrating Ganpati “with fervour’’… as if there is some other way to celebrate festivals. Get ready for more such cheesy coverage during Durga Puja, Navratri and Diwali. Perhaps, these reminders are essential at a time when a crass female politico from Gujarat is talking about banning Muslim boys from attending Dandiya Raas evenings, because she fears an epidemic of ‘Love Jihads’ . What sort of rubbish is this! And why don’t more citizens show people like her their place?
Interfaith marriages work on exactly the same principles as same faith ones. And fail for the same reasons. Chances of  ‘no faith’ marriages surviving or collapsing, are also the same. At the end of it, love marriages (as opposed to arranged) are about love. And love involves commitment. Commitment, like the clever ad famously reminded us, is like Lycra – either you have, or you don’t. When two young people take the plunge, they do so in good faith. That faith does not come with religious strings attached. Mischievous politicians are deliberately misusing words like ‘Jihad’ to scare and confuse people. Any form of  coercion is unacceptable.  Any forced conversion, is awful. Yes -  both happen. Sensible people condemn them, regardless of which religion is involved.  Faith is personal. And should remain personal. It is humiliating to force citizens in a democracy to flaunt or deny it. Which is why, we need to exercise great caution before blabbering about ‘Love Jihad’, without bothering to examine its wider, trickier implications.
Here’s a charming story I heard during a recent trip to Hyderabad. A cheerful  restaurant manager struck up a friendly conversation with me over breakkfast, as I attacked a gigantic paper dosa. He was the original Bandra Boy ( though,a Catholic from Kerala, and not a Goan, as he hastily clarified). He couldn’t marry the girl he loved, since he didn’t own his own house. The broken- hearted fellow moved to Hyderabad and got a good job as a waiter in a 5-star hotel. Soon, he met lovely local girl and they got married. Sensing that his wife was the bright star in the relationship, our man willingly and shrewdly rejigged his identity, plus his prioritities. He promptly changed his name and adopted her surname and religion. They have two kids today, who follow the mother’s faith.  The lady is going great guns, pursuing higher education, while her husband continues to work regular hours at the hotel and takes care of the kids. Once his wife has an MBA degree under her belt, she plans to apply for a better job after which the family will move to a bigger place,preferably  in an area where they don’t have to buy expensive drinking water from a tanker. In other words, here’s a family that is fully sorted. After 22 years at the hotel, the guy still has amazing levels of enthusiasm, as he looks after guests with a broad smile and genuine involvement.  He is happy with the choices he has made and looking forward to an upswing in his life after his wife clears her exams. He proudly showed me her photographs from his phone and said, “No tension. No ego. It has worked out. I speak Telugu fluently, eat local food, and participate in community life.” I pumped his hand before leaving the restaurant. I am sure there are countless couples across India like this happy chap.  While petty politicians create enmity and rifts between people, there are those who go about their lives quietly and in peace. The only way to combat the ‘Love Jihad’ controversy  is to mock it, and mock those talking about it. Who better than Yo Yo Honey Singh to do that for a mass audience?   After giving us the catchy, stupendously successful ‘Baby Doll’, may we suggest an irreverent take titled ‘Love Jihad’ that exposes Netas who manipulate the gullible with this loaded term?