Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aamir Khan : Actors as Activists...

This appeared in Bombay Times today.... look at the mess Om Puri finds himself in after his attempt to play actor-activist at the Anna Hazare jamboree on Ramlila grounds. Poor chap is going blue in the face retracting his words and apologising for calling MPs 'Naalayaks' and 'Ganwaars'. Most of India agrees with him, btw!

Amir Khan: Actors as Activists….

“The Parliament has spoken.The will of the Parliament is the will of the people.” Thus spake Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Too little, too late.But at least, Anna called off his 12-day fast and India sighed with relief.Aamir Khan made it to the most photographed dais in Indian history at Ramlila grounds, a few short hours before the impasse ended. He sang, but didn’t dance.Unlike some other opportunistic actors from Bollywood who shamelessly derived mileage from the event, Aamir sensibly skipped gimmicks , yet made his presence and position felt very strongly . Unlike those minor players, ever ready to be associated with any and every ‘good cause’ , Aamir picks his strategic battles very well. While some popular stars displayed support by wearing Anna topis and T-shirts to events , others tweeted and blogged, but the majority stayed put and remained mum. This is the way it has always been in our film industry . Taking a political stand and lending your name\presence to any movement requires a strong sense of conviction and commitment. Especially if that movement is remotely ‘anti- government’, as Anna’s protest certainly was. Actors are a vulnerable lot. It’s a peculiar damned- if –you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation that comes with several pitfalls. Most actors are scared of getting on the wrong side of the ruling party or the cops. They know they can be harassed, hounded and exposed ( raids!) by those in authority.This is why most of them prefer to play ball with the establishment, and stay out of trouble by not taking anybody’s side.While a few have taken the plunge officially ( Shatrughan Sinha, Raj Babber, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Jaya Prada), others fight shy of disclosing their loyalties, preferring to remain studiedly neutral and non-committal.
This is where Aamir Khan is different. Cynics may call his most recent Anna-outing, yet another marketing ace, perhaps a run up to a new movie he is either making or backing ( Peepli Live- 2 ?), but even if it is just that, it still requires dum to go out there and pledge unconditional support to a high profile, controversial, even explosive cause. When Kiran Bedi turned all gooey, coy and coquettish in his presence and asked a silly question (“Will you bring all your friends from Bollywood next time?”), Aamir deftly evaded a direct reply – like any good politician.That apart, his presence at the rally sent out a strong signal. It was about Aamir the individual, Aamir the citizen, taking a stand, not just against corruption, but indirectly against the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. In an age where the culture of camps continues to prevail, this was seen as a defiantly independent move, more so, because the other Khans had maintained a safe distance from a burning issue that had India up in arms for close to a fortnight.
Should actors be compelled to articulate their political positions? In Hollywood, they do. They use their considerable clout to influence public opinion during any national crisis. American Presidents, aware of the power of Hollywood, actively court big names and encourage stars to campaign for them, or speak up when required.From expressing their views on gun control laws to gay marriages, Hollywood big shots make themselves heard across international platforms. Aamir Khan, ever ahead of the curve, and never one to stick with the herd, has demonstrated once again why he more than anybody else in Bollywood, continues to command such a unique position. After all this adulation,his fans will be most disappointed, even disillusioned, if he does indeed capitalize on the Ramlila Grounds’ visit to announce his next film based on Anna and the Famous Fast. Watch this space.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

India needs Anna. ALIVE!

This appeared in the Adian Age \ Deccan Chronicle today.... aagey ,aagey dekho, hota hai kya...

Anna, Aap Jiyo Hazaron Saal…

At the time of writing ( 11th day of the Famous Fast), Anna is still alive. That statement sounds crass…. crude… shocking. It is meant to. I think we have all lost the plot. And in the cacophony of all the noises and voices, we have conveniently overlooked the one person who is at the centre of it all – Anna Hazare. He has been reduced to a side show, a mascot, as his over zealous keepers continue to exploit his frail persona and use Anna as a bargaining chip. Anna’s health is now the nation’s obsession…. its chief concern. His physical health has become the barometre of the nation’s emotional health. If anything happens to Anna… and let me put it bluntly… if Anna dies, it will lead to consequences that may be far more terrible than rejecting the Jan Lokpal Bill. But, of course, in polite societies, we don’t talk about the death of someone who is very much alive.As of now, the stand-off is on.There’s no resolution in sight. But heaven help us, if the situation suddenly deteriorates and his health fails.Hey Bhagwan! Till then we shall have to put up with a parade of assorted personalities holding forth on tv channels. Bristling belligerence getting the better of some. While other light weights opt for catchy hyperbole.An over- enthusiastic ad man described the Ramlila gathering as a Kumbh Mela! Carried away by his own imagery, he went on to declare the crowds could be still bigger than the pilgrims who gather for the Holy Dip during the Kumbh. His wild exaggerations were understandable – we have reduced the entire protest to a pathetic game of numbers (“Mine are bigger than yours…”). Awestruck tv anchors urge their camera crew to sweep cameras over the surging crowds and then rhapsodise over the spectacle. A few hand picked commentators (“especially flown in”) hold forth from the Ramlila Maidan and assure viewers they have never witnessed anything like this – the scale, the fervour, and of course, the numbers! It’s always about the numbers. An irate housewife from Noida rants about rising prices and how she has to pay bribes to get a gas connection. The anchor turns to the camera with a triumphant look and thunders, “The entire nation stands solidly behind this lady… this is India’s Second Freedom Struggle.” And then it’s back to this season’s biggest reality show… poor Rakhi Sawant will need to do something more than flash her eyes and cleavage if she wants those trp’s. While Salman Khan must be scratching his head to come up with a clever gimmick to promote ‘Bodyguard’. As of now, there is just one bona fide Superstar in India, and that’s Anna Hazare.
But what of the screechy, shrill supporters who chant ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ on cue the minute cameras cut to close–ups? Emotions are running dangerously high. When that happens…. anything can happen. It’s like a flash flood or a bush fire. Or open heart surgery. Timing is everything. As of now, the protests have been admirably non-violent. Those who have taken to the streets have done so only because they fervently (perhaps, naively) believe it is a do-or-die moment – if they let this opportunity go, another one may be a long time coming . There is hope in their hearts that the protest ( more against the scourge of corruption than a thumbs up for the Jan Lokpal Bill), will lead to seminal change. Will it? So far, the country has been governed by a succession of elected representatives ( irony!) who have ruled like history’s worst despots – no questions asked! What we are witnessing across India is a display of collective wrath. The sort of suppressed, accumulated rage that has finally found an outlet. For that alone one must thank Anna. If Anna’s patience has worn thin , it’s in perfect sync with the sentiments of the people. Perhaps for the first time in 64 years, the aam aadmi believes the time has come to aggressively challenge those who have trampled on and abused their trust for six decades. The ordinary citizen is experiencing a heady feeling of instant empowerment after years of being resigned to accepting powerlessness as their collective ‘fate’. Armed with this new weapon, trusting citizens continue swarming to different venues across India demanding to be heard. This has been the single biggest achievement of Anna Hazare. No wonder Manmohan Singh was gracious enough to honour and salute Anna during his uncharacteristically emotional address in Parliament. What we are witnessing is living, throbbing Democracy in motion… it is an image that will endure long after the impasse ends, and everybody goes home to carry on with his or her life…. the significant difference being, from this moment on, it will be a transformed life , an aware life, an entitled life. And most crucially, a life that comes with a built in assurance that in a democracy, every voice counts, even the one that disagrees with you.
For all this to happen, India needs Anna. Alive. The countdown has begun.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

SPARROW needs you!

Waiting and watching on the momentous 9th day of The Fast. Enjoyed reading historian Ramachandra Guha's scholarly comment on the subject this morning (Hindustan Times). If interested in an objective analysis, do read "A Diffenrential Calculus" where he states, "There are pivotal differences between Jayaprakash Narayan's and Anna Hazare's movements.As there are between Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh."

This appeared in The Week.

SPARROW needs you….

Look at the irony of it all. The common, household sparrow is about to disappear from cities and is on the list of endangered birds.If we aren’t more vigilant, SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives For Research On Women ) may face the same fate. C.S. Lakshmi, the feisty founder of SPARROW (along with two other founder trustees) is uncharacteristically worried ( she always projects such an upbeat personality), as she struggles to keep her organization afloat. Started 23-years-ago, with the sole purpose of recording women’s histories in a systematic way, SPARROW provided an important space for documenting and chronicling the changes taking place in our lives – often, without our even realizing what was going on. I have known Lakshmi since her early days as a writer (she earned her doctorate from the prestigious JNU in American Studies) . And we met again recently, for this update. We discussed the importance of archiving women’s lives in a more meaningful way, and she laughed! Lakshmi admitted that talking to government agencies for the much needed support and funding has become a waste of time, since babudom’s idea of ‘help’ for women’s causes generally does not extend beyond “providing 20 sewing machines for widows.” How aptly Lakshmi summed up India’s official attitude towards women’s ‘development’! Lakshmi’s vision has always gone well beyond the sewing machine approach. It was a blueprint that earned attention, respect and - most importantly – money. This support was provided mainly by foreign agencies which came forward with monetary aid meant for specific projects, such as the publication of books (Paper Dreams) with titles like “Hot is the Moon : Poems and Stories of Women in Kannada,Tamil,Konkani and Tulu.” Or ‘Feminism as Experience: Thoughts and Narratives.” These are but a few of the varied and rich titles available at a modest price. In 1997, SPARROW attempted to create a video documentation of women’s lives after conducting a series of visual history workshops with various artists representing the Arts. This series was followed by Women in Theatre and Women’s Activism, which saw ten significant films on pioneering women activists like Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, Shajehan Appa ( who was part of the anti-dowry movement), besides several others. In eleven years, SPARROW made twenty-five films, plus documented a five-day writer’s camp: “From Silence to Words,From Words to Silence’. These are just a few important initiatives….what happens to SPARROW’s future plans?
Lakhsmi’s eyes still dance with enthusiasm as she continues the narrative, undaunted and far from discouraged at the prospect of shutting shop unless the situation improves. She is sure the money will come somehow, even though with the precarious state of the economy in most of Europe and America, funding priorities have changed considerably. As she points out accurately, funds readily flow in for high profile initiatives like AIDS-related projects. But for anything else, it is a huge struggle. Investing in women’s lives , it would appear, is pretty low priority. Convincing fat cat donors to set aside funds for something they do not consider vital, is Lakshmi’s toughest challenge. But what can be more vital to the health of society than the health of its women? Physical, psychological, spiritual? What is so obvious to the converted, is clearly not so for the majority. Lakshmi’s idealism and belief in what SPARROW does so effectively and well, keeps her motivated and upbeat. But, for how long? Lakshmi’s personal story is equally inspiring. Married to her ‘best friend’, the two of them decided not to have biological children of their own, preferring to adopt three underprivileged kids of their building’s Nepali watchman and his wife.I met Lakshmi’s poised and lovely foster daughter at an art raffle last year, and was thrilled to know how well she’s doing at college. Her siblings are attending a good school as well, and chances are, they will continue on the path carved out for them by Lakshmi and Vishnu. How hard has it been assuming the responsibility of these children, who share their home…. their lives… their difficulties? Pretty! With Lakshmi’s impressive academic qualifications, she could so easily have moved up the academic ladder and acquired an array of awards. That was never the objective, Lakshmi smiles. But times have changed. She is aware of the years ahead, dealing with shrinking funds, worrying she may not be able to pay staff salaries. With that basic concern in mind, Lakshmi is keen to set up ‘Friends of SPARROW.’ I have signed on. Why? Because there is much more to women’s development than donating 20 sewing machines to widows. If you feel the same way, you can sign on , too. Check out the website: www.sparrowonline.org. Email: sparrow1988@gmail.com.
Because our voices… our lives… count . And we must be heard.

Monday, August 22, 2011

'Bol' - Open you mouth ... and speak up!

I am giving myself ( and you!) a much needed 'Anna Break.' But this much i can't resist adding: bring media into the Bill, as well. If the P.M. is to be included, why not the media? Media must be accountable, too.

This appeared in Bombay Times today...

For God’s sake – open your mouth. Bol!

Something wonderful is going on in Pakistan’s ( Pollywood?) movie industry. There is a name attached to this phenomenon – Director Shoaib Mansoor. Yes, the same man who gave international audiences the much-discussed, much-awarded ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ ( a far, far superior take on terrorism than our own super-hyped but essentially shallow efforts). His latest film ‘Bol’ speaks about the unspeakable ( the birth of a eunuch in a traditional Hakim’s female dominated family) and raises several touchy, super sensitive social issues without turning preachy. It’s really pretty remarkable how Mansoor manages to negotiate political and cultural barriers in his country and tackle such bold themes which expose the terrifyingly regressive attitude towards women that still pulverises society. He does so within the framework of a poor family struggling to hang in there, emotionally and physically , unable to come to terms with the ‘indignity’ of producing a string of daughters who are virtual prisoners inside a joyless, dark hovel. The oppressive atmosphere is heightened by the presence of a powerless mother made to feel guilty by her autocratic husband ( Manzer Sehbai) for not giving birth to a son. The women cower inside the bare walls of the shabby home, living from one meal to the next, while the world outside is throbbing with opportunity and adventure. Saifi (Amr Kashmiri), plays the last child, born with ambiguous genitals and a simple, trusting mind. Afraid that this terrible secret will be discovered by neighbours, Saifi leads a sheltered , claustrophobic existence within the four walls of his home, playing with his sisters and being molly coddled by his mother. It is the father who cruelly shuns him even at meal times.
The tragedy that unfolds once Saifi is smuggled out of his home and exposed to the savage world outside, defines the rest of the film ( Shoaib has written the story and screenplay as well). It’s a relentlessly grim narrative, plus, a tad too extended ( over 2 hours), but it had me riveted, more for the searing, brutal glimpses it offered into the ‘ordinary’ lives of our neighbours. The scenes of mundane domesticity involving the lovely young girls of the family dreaming of a world they may never experience, were very poignant. The fiery portrayal of the rebellious daughter ( tv star Humaima Malick ) who takes on her sadistic father and pays a huge price for her daring, was nuanced, convincing and astonishingly moving. As for Iman Ali ( the heroine of ‘Khuda….’) as the courtesan from Lahore’s notorious Heera Mandi, with a touching Meena Kumari fixation ( She constantly quotes ‘Pakeezah’ dialogues), her fine featured, luminous beauty would make anybody go weak in the knees ( who can blame the Hakim for succumbing?). Definitely worth a watch. And Shoaib’s message about the pathetic state of women who are denied an education gets through loud and clear – it detonates as powerfully as kilos of rdx. Let’s call ‘Bol’ a cinematic exploration of another form of terrorism – against women in ultra conservative societies.
Compare the powerful telling of ‘Bol’ to the disappointingly tepid narrative of ‘Aarakshan’. Both can be called ‘message’ films. ‘Bol’ gets it across forcefully, while ‘Aarakshan’ flounders and flops with its heavy handed treatment and clumsy approach. Amitabh, Saif and Manoj soldier on… but even these three seasoned actors couldn’t save the film.And hello! The Nawab playing an oppressed Dalit? You got to be kidding!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

More on Anna... as promised. Plus, more...

Binalakshmi Nepram is an extraordinary woman from Manipur, who gave up lucrative assignments in London and New York to come back to her home state with a one point agenda - "Get the guns out of Manipur''. That has been her impassioned campaign since her return.Manipur , one of our most neglected and demoralised States is dominated by guns in the hands of trigger happy cops and army men, accountable to no one.... a law unto themselves. Locals have been terrorised and brutalised for decades.. with nobody daring to speak up against this oppression. Binalakhmi has launched 'Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network', and is the Secretary General, 'Control Arms Foundation of India'.Beautiful, articulate and committed, she is also a published poet. Check out www.cafi-online.org. www.neiwip.blogspot.com. I am more than willing to fast for her and with her....
This appeared in the Sunday TOI....

Why I’d hate to be in Anna’s Chappals….

It’s scary being Anna Hazare. Here is one man who has been compelled to carry the collective hopes of over a billion countrymen on his 74 year-old-shoulders. No matter how sturdy those shoulders are, that’s a lot of weight. So far, the situation is tense but not grim. How much longer will the ‘Main Hoon ,Na?’scenario last? Important question. If emotions dry up and nothing concrete comes out of the shrill protests ,who takes care of the disillusioned and desperate Anna followers waiting for the miracle to happen?Ironically, the Anna Phenomenon has divided, rather than united India. Instead of the aam aadmi focusing on the C- Word and backing Team Anna in its valiant fight against India’s Emperor of Maladies – corruption ( as malignant as the worst form of cancer), much-needed energy has been dissipated on finger pointing and name calling. Anna now finds himself in a bit of a spot, and how he negotiates this challenge will determine not just his own future but the fate of tomorrow’s India.Martyrdom is an attractive, seductive option. The thing is, Anna has been appropriated and converted into a talisman. His followers chant his name like a mantra. Some of them believe if they chant it often enough, and observe fasts, their wish for a corruption free India will be automatically granted. Just like Manmohan Singh does not possess a magic wand ( and has foolishly admitted it), neither does Anna.But we the citizens do! It’s called a ‘vote’. But passions have reached such a feverish pitch ,Anna devotees refuse to acknowledge basics(Anna alone cannot rid India of corruption).The solution to India’s myriad problems is not Anna. And this is where the faithful flock is making an expensive mistake.
Anna Hazare is no Jayaprakash Narayan. He most certainly cannot be described as the 21st Mahatma Gandhi. He is Anna - a simple man with a simple mind . Which is his biggest trump card and also his biggest liability. It is his simplicity that has attracted thousands of people to him. But it is the same simplicity that can become his undoing. A great man’s silence is open to interpretation. A diehard fan can read whatever into it. But when the same great man opens his mouth he risks everything if the content doesn’t match expectations. For all his other attributes, even his most ardent admirers will admit, Anna is no intellectual heavyweight. He is not a statesman , nor has he pretended to be one. What has touched so many people’s lives is his courage to take on the mighty, combined with a childlike obstinacy. Is that enough to ‘save’ India? Or are we being a bit too gullible, a bit too naïve pinning all our hopes on a single individual and his Jan Lokpal Bill? An Anna wave is what we have right now.Can it become a mass movement?
That the Congress-led UPA government has enough egg on its face to make a gigantic omelet, is obvious. The Big Boys have bungled and bungled badly. The Prime Minister managed to find his voice a bit too late into the fracas. By the time he spoke up, the Anna show was well on the road, with enough support to shake up India’s Debating Society ( read: ministers who waste precious time scoring debating points on television instead of engaging in smart politics). This debacle has added to the confusion, and worse, caused major rifts within the government. Anna’s decision to carry on fasting and stay put in jail was the master stroke that the Debaters had not factored in. Nor had they paid close attention to the mood of the nation, which was indeed clamouring for change.Unfortunately, what the mood also revealed was a growing sense of intolerance – and this is the frightening part. You had to take sides in a childish way – be fawningly pro-Anna or get labeled anti-Anna. Like we were playing kho-kho. Dissenting opinions were damned.Those who didn’t gush over Anna were dubbed unpatriotic. All this , while discussing the power of democracy!It is this divisiveness that will cost Anna eventually.Hate and condemnation of those with a different point of view can hardly be described as Gandhian thinking.Anna loyalists will require more than Gandhi topis and trendy tees to keep up the momentum, now that we have admitted there is an elephant in the room. Poor Anna Hazare. Who said a folk hero’s life is easy?

Friday, August 19, 2011

No more Anna .... till Sunday!

Got back a while ago after an hour long panel discussion on 'People Power' - Rajdeep Sardesai's cnn-ibn prime time show, feeling reassured that a civilised debate and discussion on the day's explosive topic is still possible without anybody bursting an artery or taking cheap pot shots. It was sober, erudite, informed and nuanced, with several points of view and interesting perspectives being accorded enough space and respect. Nobody interrupted, shouted, screeched, cursed or sulked. And like somebody on the panel pointed out, this protest is longer about Anna or even the Jan Lokpal Bill! I am sure you can catch it on the cnn-ibn website if you are interested. This is really how it should be - there was nothing shrill about Rajdeep's anchoring, and nobody became apoplectic when views didn't match. It's come to a ridiculous stage otherwise when Anna fans accuse dissenters of being worse than traitors!Enough said. Let a thousand opinions bloom... eventually, it is only truth that prevails.
This appeared in The Week....

Lolita is alive and well…

At a time when the Police Commissioner of Delhi is compelled to advise women not to travel solo at night , it does seem terribly odd to read reports of 11- and 13- year-old girls who are being used as models for decidedly grown up ads. The peculiar part about this arrangement has to do with the fact that they are not endorsing teen products. These pre-pubescent girls are being passed off as young adults with a few clever flicks of the make-up brush, high heels, and entirely inappropriate clothes. When I read the report titled, “Twelve going on twenty-two” in HT Café recently I did a double take.These are not girls from underprivileged or uneducated background doing it to keep from starving.These girls are modeling for the dosh. And fame, of course.Read what the mother of 11-year-old Malvika Hoon has to say about her kid posing seductively for a photo shoot, “Since she didn’t have a real cleavage then, a tight top made sure she passed off as a 20 year-old.” Another mother (Dolly Chakra) boasts about her tween daughter Aarti, who started modelling at the age of 3, “Her height is an advantage and we make sure she looks years older through make-up.” The 167cms girl is seen in bridal shows and has done jewelry campaigns as well. A photographer named Rahul Dutta is quoted as saying, “Skin care brands prefer young models as their skin is supple and flawless.There’s a fresh appeal to their face.” Child rights’ activists may knock the trend, but the way it works is simple – the market gets what the market wants. And the market wants ‘taaza maal.’ Others in the glam business insist it’s an acceptable trend given that it is popular in the West where agencies specifically ask for pre-teens and a model’s career peaks before she hits 18! But then, are we in India also ready to accept transsexual models like Brazil’s hottest cat walk queen Lea T, who is one - and proud of it?
Each time I catch a kid gyrating provocatively on tv in those awful dance shows, I shudder to imagine what life beyond that garish set is like for these precocious children. When I spot the faces of their beaming parents cheering them on, I feel even more revolted. Do they not see how blatantly their kid’s sexuality is being projected and exploited for the hungry eyes of countless voyeurs? Does it not scare the hell out of these idiotic, misguided people? Or is the lure of making a quick buck out of an innocent child powerful enough to blind those greedy mothers and fathers? Do they really want their nubile daughters to send out lurid signals to the audience? Or have they just not thought about possible repercussions down the line? Is it ignorance or avarice that drives such folks? I recall talking to a shining example of parental exploitation – Rakhi Samant – just before she arrived on the big ticket circuit. She wept big, fat tears recalling the days her mother would throw ghungroos at her and command her to dance for ‘rich people’. Rakhi eventually struck gold ( well… at least in material terms, forget emotional damage). Not every little girl shaking her booty for the cameras is as lucky. Given the times we live in, teen models being coerced into role playing by painting their faces and squeezing their budding breasts into tight tops, makes for a sickening story. No matter how lucrative the deals, or how prestigious the campaign. In fact, each time I spot pictures of Suri, the gorgeous daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, I cringe at the imagery. Here’s a cute kid of high-profile parents being projected as a style icon, if you please! The kid’s been wearing high heels and carrying designer bags virtually since she was a toddler! Now we are told she’ll be launching her own fashion label since her fashion sense is so damn sharp that she provides valuable style checks for her parents!
A society that actively encourages and endorses this sort of sexual objectification of minors through mass circulated ads, reflects a scary , almost schizo attitude towards sexuality itself. When Nobokov wrote Lolita, he was branded a dirty old man, and the book was banned in several countries for promoting child pornography. Today, as millions of women across the world take to the streets to protest against sexual violence, here we are foolishly promoting tween fixations through girls like Aarti and Malvika. Their mothers need heavy duty counseling. Were it not for these women pushing their bachchas into growing up in a mad hurry… forcing them to slap on war paint and create fake cleavages… in other words, persuading their kids to sell their garden fresh wares to a panting audience, those girls may have actually got a life. A less twisted one.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A venue at which two Indias met....

Sorry guys. I'm not talking about the grounds outside Tihar Jail, Azad Maidan or the RamLila grounds. The venue at which the two Indias met was posh - very 'elite' ( how that poor word gets over used, abused and flung around as a gaali!)and the crowd provided a fantastic overview of the controversial two Indias - the richest and the lowliest. And yet, not a single person was made to feel uncomfortable, guilty or apologetic. The occasion was the celebration of Real Heroes, a cnn-ibn initiative, partnered with Reliance Industries.On stage was the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, along with the poorest - a scavenger's son, who was one of the 24 awardees. It was such a powerful, emotionally charged moment when, without any barrier or self consciousness, the two interacted, shook hands and for at least those few minutes, wiped out the vast chasm which separates their respective lives. That such a thing is possible in today's India is momentous in itself. This is the big change... and no matter how cynically one deconstructs it, those 24 award winners are true representatives of this churning - each and everyone of them. Their lives, their stories are more compelling than anything that is going on right now under the name of India's Second Freedom Struggle.
I feel sorry for all those misguided people who are busy pointing fingers and spewing venom at anybody who does not toe the Hazare line and shout slogans lauding Anna.Rooting out corruption is on every right thinking citizen's wish list.But surely not through clumsy dadagiri that does not tolerate dissent. After the Arab Spring, an Indian Autumn? Who knows. Tomorrow is another day. I think it rightfully belongs to Bezwada Wilson,the man who made the shocking discovery as a child that his parents worked as manual scavengers, and decided to set up 'Safal Karamchari Andolan' , a movement that has spread to 5 States besides his native Karnataka.
I would support any Bill proposed by this man. Campaign and vote for him if he ever decides to jump into the political arena.
Oh... ooooops! Forgot to post my 'elite' pics, wearing red lipstick and drinking champagne in a swish Brussels' bar. Tch. Tch.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jail Bharo! Rasta Roko! Uske Baad....?

BlogDosts, I am in no mood to share bright and happy pictures from some distant land, when there is so much going on in our own backyard. But this image is apt - and it isn't Dharavi. The slums outside Mexico City stretch for miles and miles. And yes, corruption rules there as well. Guns do all the talking. Right-minded people are waiting for a Messiah to save them from venal politicians. The story is pretty simlar. And an unlikely poet has managed to inspire the youth... just as Anna Hazare seems to be doing in India. The poet, who was virtually unknown till he took on the powers that be after his young son was shot dead by trigger happy cops, has since devoted his time to demanding change , but in a peaceful , law abiding manner. So far, his campaign has worked brilliantly with thousands of young people supporting him as he travels from city to city, village to village, demanding change and transparency.

Has India reached the Tipping Point? Not quite.

Anna is the messenger. Not the message. The cause is far bigger than the individual. Take away those TV cameras, and front page coverage, and see what happens. Everybody is jumping onto the Anna bandwagon, even those who don't quite know what this is all about. Let's not confuse issues and personalities. Let's leave Mahatma Gandhi out of this protest. Why not demand a National Referendum and ask the people of India to vote directly? Does anybody have the guts \ political will to go for this option? Of course, not! Dramabaazi gets more eyeballs. And which person today is above and beyond encouraging a personality cult?

Corruption is a national evil. That's a given. But a politician by any other name, is still a politician. Let us resist the temptation to deify an individual and bestow instant sainthood on the person, because it makes us feel more virtuous. Millions of our people starve... yes, starve! What stops us from giving up a meal for them? Candle light vigils look good on TV - they don't fill those hungry stomachs.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Vastly encouraged by your positive response to my last post, I have gone a bit overboard in my enthusiasm today. Couldn't resist sharing my 'Sombrero moment' ! The food was sooooo inedible in this joint , and I was sooooo hungry, the only way to cheer up was to pose for this fun shot.

There is something about those mariachi men ( they look like Keralites, na?). This guy and his musicians serenade ladies at a really marvellous restaurant called Villa Maria in Mexico City. I tasted my first Tamarind Margarita here..... and it must have been potent enough for me to sing CuCuRuCuCu ( the Cockroach song) with this dude. Charming chap. He had all the old biddies swooning!

Aah.... the magnificent Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan.I would have loved to clamber all the way to the top, but better sense and bad footwear discouraged me that hot, steamy afternoon. Besides, I felt spooked after hearing the guide's vivid accounts of human sacrifices conducted on top.... followed by his even more vivid description as to why the broad street along the pyramids is called the Avenue of the Dead.

Isn't that a beautiful altar? All gold! With gold prices being at an all time high worldwide, one could only gape at the splendour and not put a staggering number to its worth. There is gold in dem hills, amigos. And silver, too. I bought a bold, huge silver ring and convinced myself it was for good luck - still waiting for a windfall!

Wow??? Definitely. And a double wow after Pope John's visit. This is one of the most important religious centres for Catholics the world over. I got lovely rosaries to gift our devout staff at home .

A mass is said every hour in this gigantic area next to the old cathedral, and it has been designed by a famous Mexican architect. I was lucky to be there when mass was on. I felt uplifted and moved by the transparent faith and deep devotion of the congregation. I prayed with all my heart.... and I am sure at least one special prayer will soon be heard. If it is, I shall post the good news here first.

There are more images coming up - like the Frida Kahlo Museum , which is as vivid as her life and work. Now that my BlogDosts have given me an unambiguous thumbs up, I shall make the most of the opportunity. You know why? Because it is OUR space, and I value what you say!


For the first time in my life I have felt totally blah about India's Independence Day. For the first time, too, I felt discouraged and disheartened. In fact, I turned down every single request to appear on those meaningless TV Shows that are created to 'celebrate' the occasion with talkathons galore. It would have been a hollow, futile exercise for me. Who needs hollow?

Then there were several attempts to get me to talk about the Big Fast scheduled for tomorrow. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. As Rhett Butler famously said to Scarlett O'Hara at the end of 'Gone with the Wind."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Happy (Independence) Days Are Here Again!

HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY! I loved the totem and the cactii - just so Mexico!

It's the first time I touched obsidian - a glossy, jet black stone, peculiar to the region. Would have loved to ship some of this back, but settled for a tiny turtle instead. Turtles and frogs symbolise fertility and water . Love both.

This little Aztec dancer sure knew his moves.


BlogDosts, I am in a bit of a flap. Do you think this space is like Tripadvisor? Should I be paying attention to Big B's blog and taking tips from it??? These were the two comments last week that got me thinking. Let me address the first - I enjoy travel. I like sharing images and experiences. I have asked you guys in the past and most of you have given me a thumbs up on posting both. Are we still on the same page? Do you want me to keep a travel diary here or not?

About Mr. B, there are basic differences. He is a superstar with a gigantic fan base across the world. He has a constituency to nurture. That is what stars, politicians and performing artists do. Nurture fans. Feed them regularly. Perhaps his blog is monetised... it doesn't matter. We are different creatures with different motivations for blogging. Shall we leave it at that?

I love this space because it belongs to us - both , you and me. We meet here to gup shup - no agenda. No strings attached. I am not peddling anything. I have nothing to push. Nobody pays me to be here. Just as nobody forces you to visit. That's the best part of blogging. It is so democratic! I wait to read your comments and I'd like to believe you wait for the next post with as much eagerness. But... it's time for some straight talk. And I'd like to get it from you directly...

I'll be leaving for Pune tomorrow. The camera is sulking and stays home!

Happy Independence Day.... and please Anna, forget that fast.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Shravan Ka Mahina and all that....

I am still in BMM mode, as you can tell! This is just to give you some idea of the scale. Bhojan for 4,000 people in one go is quite a feat.... and what a bhojan!

That's our regular Blogdost ( and my good friend!) Aparna Velankar. She is the erudite person who opened up the Marathi world for me when she translated my first book ( she has translated three so far, and is working on the fourth). As a very successful author and journalist (Lokmat Group), Aparna enjoys a wide readership, not just in India but overseas as well. Here we are at the BMM dinner. I can't resist telling you about Aparna's Paithani tunics, which were so smart and attractive, she was constantly stopped by delegates wanting to know the source! I got it out of her, but am not telling!


I love Shravan with all its rituals. I feel chaste and 'pure', observing strict monday fasts and eating shudh vegetarian for a month. It makes me feel terribly virtuous! But more than that, I enjoy the discipline. This monday, I went to the historic Babulnath Temple at Chowpatty for the evening aarti. I was delighted to see how well organised the whole thing was, with young volunteers to keep the surging crowds moving along briskly in orderly lines. It was just the sight of the pumped up security at the temple premises that disheartened me. Well... this is the real state of the world today. Who knows which crazed person is lurking in the shadows armed with explosives? Babulnath has been a favourite haunt since my college days. It continues to retain its old magic, particularly the darkened lair where sadhus with matted hair play the dumru vigourously and the air is thick with 'that' smoke ( one can get high just by hanging around and breathing!). Post-aarti, appropriately uplifted in spirits, I took my children for a Faraal Feast ( it's a Shravan special), to my all time favourite vegetarian restaurant - Soam. 10,000 calories later, we rolled home, happily satiated - no, 'trupt'! Like I said - I love Shravan. Even if it makes me gain, not lose kilos , while I fast!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chicago Calling! And Kween Kat, too!

Someone, please tell me - does Chicago's most famous resident live in this apartment or not? It's a great looking building, and one of the priciest, thanks to its waterfront location. I was told the real estate developer convinced investors he'd sold a flat to Oprah - and boom! went the price. That's the power of true celebrity!

Chicago retains its unique position as the most dramatic city, architecturally speaking, in America, and even the rest of the world. The Sears Towers may have been renamed, but nobody remembers or cares . They are a symbol of the city, just as much as the early Anish Kapoor 'Bean' in the Millennium Park, that reflects not just the city's sleek skyline, but the sky, too. This picture was taken by desi tourists from Kolkata, who walked up for a quick chat. Speaking Bangla in Chicago was fun!

Legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright would have been proud of today's Chicago. I took a canal tour from the bridge across the famous Wrigley's building. It was informative and enjoyable, including the guide's asides on the Magnificent Mile closeby. Did I shop there? Yes. But only at Macy's, where I bought some terrific 'jeggings' that saw me through the rest of the long trip.


This appeared in Bombay Times last week...

What Makes Kat the Smartest Actor in Bollywood?

From a ‘Goongi Goodiya’ to a female superstar is no small achievement, especially for a foreigner who did not speak a word of Hindi when she got her Bollywood break. It is really quite an extraordinary story, and one must hand it to Katrina Kaif ( shall we start calling her Kween Kat?) for pulling off a major coup. Today, there is nobody in her league. And not a single person in the extra critical, highly competitive, super bitchy world of Bollywood has anything nasty to say about the desi Barbie Doll. How did she do it? Well, if one discounts the Salman factor, I’d say she’s got to where she has because she happens to be extraordinarily smart! Plus, hardworking, disciplined and pleasant at all times. Had that not been the case would she have been able to juggle her career, all those besotted men in her life, her fans and family…. why her daily routine which by by standards is exceedingly punishing? All this, minus stress , minus tantrums, minus attitude, minus scandal. Managing Salman is in itself a major feat. That she has done so even after the break –up of their intimate relationship ( something she refused to acknowledge publicly) says a lot about her capacity to handle her emotional life very shrewdly displaying rare maturity and grace. It’s amazing and amusing that she kept three guys happy on her birthday eve, with a hop, skip and jump across studios and party venues to greet ( separately, of course) SRK, Salman and possibly Ranbir. Juggler Kat and her jadoo, gasped admirers !Despite years and years of being identified as ‘Salman’s girl’, she stayed miles away from any camp. She cleverly projected herself as a ‘friend of the Khan family’ and was very visible at all the major Khan do’s in the past. To give the entire credit for her success to Salman would be wrong. But this much is true, Salman’s support for any young actress ensures two things – a great break and total protection from other industry wolves. As Salman’s lady love, Katrina had to deal with just one guy – Salman himself. Since nobody wants to mess with this Khan, Kat became instantly out-of-bounds for other heroes circling around for the kill.
She worked strenuously to learn even a few basic sentences in Hindi. Her ‘speech’ in ‘Rajniti’ was nothing short of a triumph. More recently, she managed a few , simple baby sentences in Hinglish for ‘Zindagi…” relying more on her flirtatious chemistry with Hritik Roshan ( the kiss could have lingered some more!). As of now, Super Kat has no rivals. Her personality is a big plus – whether on-screen or off it, Katrina projects a certain wholesomeness that provides a sharp contrast to the other slightly trashy, definitely fixed up rivals. And those girls can actually act!! Good one, Katrina

Monday, August 8, 2011

When in Chicago.....

The Opening Ceremony was kicked off with an audio visual that traced the rather touching journey of early Maharashtrian immigrants to America and Canada. These are some of the participants.

This is our dynamic, articulate and ambitious Senator Swati Dandekar from Iowa. In addition to all her impressive political credentials, Swati is a great cook - she gave me a fantastic recipe for the humble 'begun bhaaja' that is kind on the heart and low on calories.

This image is just to give you an idea of scale. Over 90 performers on stage and not a single missed step, bungled up cue or off-key singing for over two breathless hours!

I swear this should be on Broadway! I loved every dazzling minute of this professionally impeccable show put together by Ashok Hande ( the troupe is booked all year round and across the world)titled Marathi Baana. It is rich in colour and texture. Very lively... and ummmm.... deliciously parochial. I love it!


This appeared in the Sunday Times yesterday...

When in Chicago, do as the Maharashtrians do…

The elaborately dressed, sherwani-clad gentleman on the huge stage inside the gigantic McCormick Place in Chicago politely requested the 4,000 delegates attending the bi-annual BMM (Brihan Maharashtra Mandal), to stand up for the ‘rashtriya sangeet’. Two demure young girls dressed in fairy clothes came on stage with hand held mikes and broke into the national anthem. Only, it was not ‘Jana Gana Mana’ they were singing, but the ‘Stars and Stripes’. Initially,I was slightly jolted. Wait a minute, this has to be a mistake, I said to myself. Why are they singing the wrong anthem? I stared in utter disbelief as several lovely ladies draped in exquisite Paithani sarees and wearing the unmistakable Maharashtrian ‘Nath’, stood on the dais like Michelle Obama, right hand over the heart, mouthing the words of the American National anthem ( which was followed by the Canadian one ). Finally, we came to ‘our’ anthem, the Indian one, and the same ladies promptly switched gears, covered their heads with the saree pallav, to resemble Pratibha Patil on Republic Day. Surrealistic? For sure. But this is a contemporary slice of America that is worth examining. After recovering from my initial culture shock, I thought about the impressive opening ceremony and the rather moving sequence in which three national anthems were sung. Appropriate and perfect.Here I was with 4,000 bona fide, card holding American - not Indian citizens … and how stupid of me to forget that.Their allegiance to the adopted country is complete and transparent. As it should be. Then came some more confusion - the strange accents – Shivaji Park meets New Jersey. Most of these highly successful , first generation immigrants had studied at Marathi medium schools ( very proud of that factoid, too). Their spoken English was more ‘Ingreji’ than anything else, while their adopted names (Steve, Debbie, Patty, Dave) reflected freshly-minted identities. The same ones needed at competitive workplaces which viewed these super smart professionals as hard working careerists out to make it in the country they now called their own. That they have made it big, was evident from the confidence and swagger displayed by them as they net worked, showed off and generally behaved like any other upwardly mobile Americans , undaunted by the debt crisis ( raging at the time) or even by the many contradictions in their current lives. I marveled at how easily they negotiated cultural differences without losing out on their core identity. Though, even after the first few rounds of introductions in shudh Marathi to meet ‘‘Aapla Mike from Mahim”, I was left feeling a little disoriented and incredulous.
The fact that such organisations in America are rapidly growing ( Bengali, Gujarati and Telegu representation is vast and impressive), shows a new assertiveness that is finding its voice as a political force to reckon with. One of the prominent delegates at the BMM, was a dynamic senator from Iowa, a sprightly lady called Swati Dandekar who wants you to know she means business . She stood out for more than one reason – she being the only woman dressed in a pant suit, just like Hillary Clinton. Plus, she was also the only person who preferred to make her speech in American- English, not Marathi. Smart move.As a rising star in the Democratic Party, Swati is well aware of her exalted position. She is in politics to represent her constituency, and not just Maharshtrians from back home. She wants you to know, she is an American first and everything else next. She is certainly on the right track as she focuses her attention on core local issues and prefers to steer clear of Marathi Manoos politics. When some of the organizers appealed to her to use her clout as senator in order to push for visas denied to some performing artists from Mumbai, she flatly refused. “I cannot compromise my ethical standards,” she stated even as frantic committee members wondered how to make up for the absence of a noted theatre company – ‘natak’ being the highlight of such conventions . Shreyas Talpade filled in sportingly and beautifully. Even so,perhaps to compensate for any shortfall in the cultural feast, the enthusiastic members of the Food Committee had roped in a local caterer to keep delegates in puran poli heaven. The other delicacies on offer included an outstanding array of traditional Maharashtrian cuisine - asli ‘pakwana’ painstakingly sourced by an enterprising Gujarati caterer and transported to the venue in refrigerated container trucks. The non-stop feasting began with breakfast specialities at 6 30 a.m. and ended with an eight course banquet at night. All of this, pulled off with clockwork precision, so as to catch the much looked forward to after-dinner entertainment which included a spectacular show by Ashok Hande, a former fruit merchant, who now heads an entertainment empire that showcases the best of Maharastrian folk traditions all over the world. Yes, there was a great deal of bonhomie, bonding and Marathi Pride on parade during those three amazing days, but none of it appeared phony. Not even the energetic dance performances presented by children who had yet to visit India, but somehow stayed connected to the matrubhumi through desi music and dance . These kids know their baseball, not cricket. They celebrate Thanksgiving and X’Mas along with Holi and Diwali. But there is no confusion in their minds as to where they belong. They belong to America. Period. America is unambiguously their homeland and they are very proud of it. They also know that if they work as hard as their parents, they will make it big here. Really, really big. Like a teenager jauntily told me in American-Marathi, “We will have a Maharashtrian President in the White House by 2050.” Now that’s what I call true American ambition. What fun. An ‘Aapla President’ in USA. I totally love the idea of puran polis being served to world leaders at State Banquets. Let’s raise a glass of the best ‘aamsolachi kadhi’ to that.

And that's the main man himself - Ashok Hande, whose witty sutradhar took swipes at everyone from Vilasrao Deshmukh to Suresh Kalmadi!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Mexico images....

BlogAmigos, I picked this jewel of a hotel because of its history and grandeur. Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, is very special. Not because it's the priciest ( it isn't), but because it is wonderfully located, small and personalised. AND - this is important - it is right on the magnificent square, in front of the Presidential Palace. The Revolution rages on in Meh-ico ( as locals call it), as protestors camp out in the square and raise slogans all day and half the night.

These images show the hotel in all its splendour. Please note the magnificent Tiffany-style roof ( believed to be the largest such in the world), and the ancient Art Deco elevator ( which works)! The massive chandelier at the entrance dazzles all those who walk in.... and I sure am glad we did!!

It's Mumbai ... and I love it.

I love Marilyn. Don't you? I guess Chicago loves her a whole lot, too. I took this picture at the risk of my life! Marilyn ( all 26 feet of her) towers over a busy downtown square, and ever since she found a temporary home in this windy city, shutter bugs have been crowding the area beneath her billowing ( and very iconic)skirt.There is no dearth of visitors for this delicious lady whose best friends were diamonds. Voyeurs from all nationalities gaze upwards ( she wears white knickers underneath, in case you were wondering). The controversial statue has attracted a lot of flack from residents who find it trashy and frivolous. But I think it's fun and it certainly made me smile, as I dodged traffic to get a closer look at the world's most famous blond.
It's back to Mumbai and frantic writing. I had barely three hours of sleep today. My writer's wrist is acting up yet again... but it feels so damn good to be seated at my favourite spot, with a familiar laptop and the reassuring sounds and smells emanating out of the busy kitchen close by. But one big and very comforting presence is sadly missing from this scene of balanced and harmonious domesticity. We lost Kiara last sunday. It is a loss that I shall never get over - she was by far the most beautiful red head in the world. Yes, sleeker and sexier than even M.M.
Farewell, my lovely.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Au Revoir Brussels..

One good thing about being in Brussels is that I polished up my Francaise, since that is the lingua franca here, and got away more because of my attitude than my proficiency in French. Oh, I am done with the national dish, moule frittes forever. Don't these guys get tired of mussels and french fries? I guess not, but after two meals of the stuff, I am permanently done , since both are over rated. I spent the day wandering around on my own, which was a bit of a bore ... till I ran into a group of neuro surgeons from India. They were so earnest and sweet, as we posed for pictures and chatted about the conference they were attending here. It has been a drippy, wet day. I am not looking forward to a formal dinner tonight. Unless it is at La Brasserie de Bruxelles, across the street from the Jacques Brel Foundation. I used to worship Brel during my distant romantic youth, and listen to his spoken songs especially the one made famous by Neil Diamond which was called If You Go Away. I still cry each time I hear it. Brel was an iconic poet and it was great to run into his large portraits in the pretty square. Especially after a couple of glasses of Sancerre sipped at the most famous people watching cafe called Delirium.
Am I glad to be heading home tomorrow. BTW, it has to be said, our Jet Airways is a far, far better way to fly to Europe and America. It has been an excellent experience all the way. Cannot say the same about the third rate service from MATRIX, the service provider for international cell phones. Two of my chips were expired ones, and the third a dud. I shall demand my money back on my return, for sure. Ciao for now....

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Brussels and Brugge

Superb weather helps. The sun is out and so are hundreds of tourists. This is such an enchanting and friendly city, I cannot believe I waited for more than twenty years to return. Changing hotels and shifting to Hotel Amigo has been an inspired and wise decision since it is so perfectly located, just a minute away from the historic Grand Place . The cuisine here in Brussel is by far the best Europe has to offer and leaves Paris hopelessly behind in the food stakes. We have enjoyed three outstanding meals thanks to the recommendations made by the concierge. But between all the beer samplings and chocolates , each time I turned on the television set, I caught a haggard and decidedly sheepish Dhoni sounding very defensive and apologetic. For a change, cricket made it to the CNN bulletin which carried a longish clip with our Rajdeep Sardesai, who did not mince his words while ticking off our red faced Boys in Blue.
Brugge in reality looks even better than it does in the movies. Medieval and perfect, with all those canals and horse carriages. We asked our friendly waiter at the sixty four year old restaurant on the square La Civiere D,Or, about the movie and he said he had not bothered to watch it after watching the unit shoot the film in the square over five long months.
I am ready to go home... am sick of living out of a suitcase and eating strange food , gourmet or otherwise. Now for some serious varan bhaat with a dollop of home made tup.
More from Mumbai.
Au revoir mon amies.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mole and grasshoppers...

For those amigos who are wondering why I don't like Mexican cuisine, here's the answer: yesterday, I was invited to the estate of a refined couple ( the host, a lawyer, may run for President ), and fed local delicacies that included fried grasshoppers and crumbled pig's skin! Okay, the cactus I could handle.... it tasted like portobello mushrooms... but the rest??? The mole sauce was outstanding... poured over the chicken in abundance. I got the house recipe for it, from our beautiful hostess ( a former dancer). Five kinds of chillies, almonds and chocolate, of course.
Mexico had just started to grow on me, when it was time to pack our bags and say adios to our newly made Mexican buddies, who raised the perfect toast when they declared, " To old friends... and new family." Mexico City was worse than Mumbai.... but my God, the museums ( Frida Kahlo!) and the pyramids just an hour away, made up for the madness of the metropolis. Unlike Mumbai, where people do tend to be indifferent to strangers, the Mexicans were consistently friendly and most welcoming.... especially when they found out we were from India. But sorry... the food just isn't for me. And it is NOT the Tex-Mex rubbish the world associates with Mexican cuisine. It was also good to learn first- hand just how passionately patriotic Mexicans are. That explains their love-hate relationship with America. And their intense dislike for Spaniards. Viva Zapata, lives!
Well.... am off to Brussels. The place with the prettiest square in Europe, and the best chocolates on earth. More from Bruge and Antwerp in my next post... whenever that is.
Keep the comments coming. I read every single one of them. And respond to a few personally...