Sunday, April 08, 2018

Blackmail (2018) a bad movie made with good intentions

Perhaps, bad movies are good because you try to unravel the mystery of why the movie was bad. You are trying to find out reasons. And a bad movie sometimes reminds you of other bad movies you have seen. So when I saw Abhinay Deo-directed Blackmail at Rivoli in a crowded upper stall -- the lower stalls were empty --it reminded immediately of two other bad movies -- Juari of 1968 starring Shashi Kapoor, Tanuja, Madhavi, Nanda and directed by Suraj Prakash, who had also made the successful Jab, Jab Phool Khile starring Shashi Kapoor and Nanda in 1965 and Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading (2008). Of course, there are some mindless admirers of Coen brothers' movies and they would be offended immensely if I were to class Burn After Reading along with Blackmail as a mindless movie. The reason I lump these movies together is because there seems to be a lot happening in them and each scene makes sense in itself though it does not connect with the other scenes. Each scene promises that the film could turn out to be a good one but the other scene which passes muster in itself again raises hope and so all the hopes raised by each of the scenes is left hanging in the air.  It could be argued that this kind of a splintered movie experience offers an aesthetic pleasure of its own. It really does not however much one tries to do it.
Abhinay Deo, son of veteran character actor Ramesh Deo, has been praised by the cognoscenti for his Delhi Belly (2011), which I did not see and which I think I would not have liked if I had seen it, promises a dark, intense and complicated movie in Blackmail and fails to deliver on the promise. Something like that other much talked-about Iranian movie, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman (2016).which was bad. Blackmail disappoints because it had competent players in Irrfan Khan, Divya Dutta and Kirti Kulhari but their roles are reduced to those of caricatures, lacking in dignity and meaning. Deo's tries to turn Blackmail into a black farce and it does not work. He seems to have been carried away by the cleverness of the plot and loses the plot of good film-making, which needs a good story, that is with a story that has a credible sequence, and characters which provoke curiosity as well as respect. The characters in a movie cannot be treated as pawns or props to be moved around at the director's whim and pleasure even as the director is absorbed in the maze of the plot. It is a good thing that Abhinay Deo took the risk of making Blackmail into a bad movie because he was experimenting with idea and plot.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

L'Enfance du Mal (2010), or Sweet Evil, a twisted, convoluted tale of misandry told with admirable brevity

This is a French film, and therefore the unexpected is to be expected. There is the delinquent under-aged teenager, who cleverly traps a wanderer, a fellow-teenage conspirator and boyfriend and an overaged judge. She has a sad story to tell, especially to the judge and his wife, which changes in details. The judge believes in law and rules, and he is aware that all that one can do while delivering a judgment is to be as fair as possible. His wife is the daughter of a clockmaker and she fixes clocks and she is a member of an association which fights for the rights of women. There is the usual sense of European loneliness beneath the orderly life in the judge's house and the teenage intruder causes enough ripples right from the beginning. The girl's mother is in prison. The girls wants to get her out.
Director Olivier Coussemacq handles the narration with great dexterity. It is supple and there are moments of psychological violence which are kept on leash.
Anais Demoustier plays the role of the young girl, Celine, Pascal Greggory is the judge and Ludmila Mikael, the judge's wife. It is the tense interactions among the three that holds this 120-minute plus movie. There is also an underlying theme of misandry but a triumphant one at that. At each stage, the girl outguns the men through sheer cunning and subterfuge. This is indeed the interesting part of the movie. But it is never out in the open. One can infer it only after seeing the movie and ponder over it.
It is a crime thriller in one sense, but there is the complexity of the social situation, the war of the classes and the sexes.
This movie was shown at the Bombay International Film Festival in 2010, and it has done the festival circuit, including Karlovy Vary. 

Majoritarianism and illiberalism

RSS, BJP, caste panchayats and AIMPLB exemplify politics based on group identity

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking of125 crore people of India poses a challenge to any political scientist who wants to deconstruct the nationalist rhetoric, as does Mr Modi’s slogan of ‘Sab Ka Saath Sab Ka Vikaas’. The Prime Minister has been careful not to mention the name of any caste, including Dalits. He praises Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, the icon of Dalits but never utters the word, ‘Dalit’. He does not refer to Muslims and Christians in his public utterances though in his election speeches he would not hesitate to hit out against the Muslims without mentioning their name as he did during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections when he referred to land being made available to burial grounds and not for crematoria.

It might appear rather na├»ve to ask the question: When he talks of 125 crore people, is he or is he not including the 17 crore to 18 crore Muslims and the crore or two Christians? It appears that the phrase “125 crore people” for Mr Modi and the ideological mentor of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), stands for the Indian nation, and by implication different identities are homogenised in the rubric of “the nation”.

Pressing forward with the logic, if Muslims and Christians are part of the nation, then will they have equal rights with everyone else or are they to be treated as a class apart? RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s argument that Muslims – he avoids mentioning the Christians – are Hindus though their religious faith may be Islam is enough to raise the hackles of Muslims, secularists and liberals. But visceral reaction to Bhagwat’s dialectic is to walk into the RSS trap of a nationalism that is confined to Hinduism as religion.

The words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are meaningless. Hinduism is a word that does not make sense to Hindus except to the few who are members of the RSS. The various Hindu sects – and we can leave out the castes for the moment – are not at all comfortable with this pseudo-term called Hinduism. Social reformers from south India like 12th century Ramanuja, a Vaishnavite from Tamil country, and 11th century Basava, a Veera Shaivite from the Kannada-speaking region, and their followers in the subsequent centuries, would not consider themselves as belonging to the same group called Hindus. People who have been labelled Hindus do not consider themselves Hindus. The differences between the sects are rooted in philosophical and theological concepts. They may all be drawing from a common pre-Vedic, Vedic and post-Vedic pool of gods and goddesses but they do not subscribe to the common identity. It is true that modern Hindus have begun to worship all gods and all spiritual gurus without discrimination because they are totally overwhelmed by this compulsion to conform to the imposed label of the Hindu.

But even today god-fearing Shaivites and goddess-regarding Shaktas from eastern India have no interest in a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Of course, they all love the Ramayana story as told by Valmiki and those who followed him, but when it comes to the question of godhead, Shaivites and Shaktas politely withdraw. Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, does not inspire them. Of course, in the complex and confusing theogony of the so-called Hindus, Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Kali and many others interact and there are sufficient piquant situations when they are juxtaposed. Usually, each of the gods and goddesses remains the master or mistress of their respective universes.

Syncretists, and there have been many through the centuries, may argue that Vishnu is Shiva is Brahma is Kali ad infinitum, and that there is an undifferentiated godhead called Brahman does not wash with old believers. All modern temples in cities and villages and among Indian habitations abroad have niches for all gods, mainly Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, followed by Ganesha, followed by Shiva and Parvati. And most of the 20th century temple-goers have no sense of theology, and bow before all the idols. It does not deepen their religiosity in any way but then they are not bothered.

So, the BJP and the RSS are grappling with this protean Hinduism, which cannot be contained, which cannot be identified with a god or goddess. How are they to unite the Hindus? It looks like they have given up the attempt because they know that once they are sucked into the religious sphere they will sink in the quick-sands of the multi-headed, multi-armed Hindu faith. Hindutva without the Hindu religion is a safe proposition. And Hindutva for them is a geographical tag, which in modern political terms becomes nationalism. It is for this reason that Mr Modi refers to 125 crore people, and Mr Bhagwat slips through the cracks by resorting to Hindu as a geographical term, which in fact it really is ever since the times of Achaemenid Persians in the fifth century Before the Common Era (BCE).

The Central Asian tribes, the Yueh-Chi, which came into India at the end of the first millennium BCE and established the Kushana empire, and the other Central Asian tribes, the Sakas and the Hunas, who destroyed the Gupta empire in the fifth century of the Common Era, who later became the Jats and Rajputs of northern India and became followers of Buddhism, Shaivism and Shaktism, too did not think of themselves as Hindus as understood by the Islamised Turks. The Islamised Turks did not understand the bewildering complexity of the religious practices of the people of the country and they used the portmanteau term, Hindu.

Following Modi and Bhagwat, what we have then is majoritarian nationalism, which is part of the logic of democracy in its crude form. The delicate and subtle liberal democracy is a phenomenon of recent origin, where individual is the basis of society and individual rights are sacrosanct. Most people may enjoy the freedoms that come with liberal democracy and its privileging of individual rights, but they do not hesitate to return to group identities, whether it is of caste or of religion. So, the Jats want privileges for Jats but they would not concede privileges to the individual Jat. Muslims want protection as Muslims but they will not allow freedoms to individual Muslims.

When larger groups ride roughshod over the rights of the smaller groups, it is called majoritarianism, and when groups override the individual it is called illiberalism. What we find in the India ruled by the BJP and mentored by the RSS at one end, and dominant caste panchayats and All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIPMLB) occupying the other end, is a deadly combination of majoritarianism and illiberalism.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Economic Survey 2017-18 avoids telling lies, and does not tell the truth

Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramaniam emerges as a market economist who knows the devil in the details

The first paragraph of the first chapter – State of the Economy: An Analytical Overview and Outlook for Policy – shows the dilemma of the author/authors of the Economic Survey. They are compelled to highlight what the government considers to be its great achievements, but at the same time facts demand that the problems and roadblocks had to be stated as well. One might call it intellectual honesty, but a more critical analysis would have offered a clearer picture. The first paragraph:

The past year has been marked by some major reforms. The transformational Goods and Services Tax (GST) was launched in July 2017. With a policy of such scale, scope and complexity, the transition unsurprisingly encountered challenges of policy, law and information technology systems, which especially affected the informal sector. Expeditious responses followed to rationalize and reduce rates and simplify compliance burdens.”

 There was a lack of understanding and preparation on the part of the government. It wanted to take the plunge in a spirit of bravado, and it created stresses and strains to everyone except itself. And constitutionally speaking, the GST Council, comprising the finance ministers of the states and the Union Territories (UTs) with the Union Finance Minister at its head and consensus as its mode of decision-making, turns out to be an administrative monstrosity, and it goes against the very principle of federalism. Prime Minister Narender Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley use the euphemism of ‘cooperative federalism” to describe the short-circuiting of federalism. What the GST does is to take the away the powers of each state to tax according to its own economic viability. The government’s tendency to concentrate powers of administration is given a futuristic hint in Chapter IV with the title, “Reconciling Fiscal Federalism and Accountability: Is there a Low Equilibrium Trap”, where the financial viability of the rural local government (RLG) and the urban local government (ULG) is questioned, and especially the RLG, who depend on devolved tax revenues, and the question is asked whether state governments are doing enough on devolving the revenues, the demand which the states make on the centre. The Modi-led BJP government is looking for efficient ways of collecting the tax at one point and assuring that the revenues will be devolved each according to his need. This is fascism in governance.

There is further hint of what cooperative federalism could lead to with the caveat: “Cooperative federalism is of course not a substitute for states’ own efforts at furthering economic and social development.” The suggestion is that the “cooperative federalism technology” could be used by the GST Council to create a common agricultural market, amalgamate inefficient electricity markets, solve inter-state water disputes and also tackle air pollution. The monstrosity of cooperative federalism as frozen as in the GST Council unfolds.

The next interesting part comes in the third paragraph:

Macroeconomic developments in this year have been marked by swings. In the first year, India’s economic temporarily “decoupled” decelerating as the rest of the world  accelerated – even as it remained the second best performer amongst major countries, with strong macroecomomic fundamentals. The reason lay in the series of actions and developments that buffeted the economy: demonetization, teething difficulties in the new GST, high and rising real interest rates, an intensifying overhang from the increasing TBS [Twin Balance Sheet] challenge, and sharp falls in certain food prices that impacted agricultural incomes.”

In the second half there were “robust signs of revival” because “shocks began to fade” and “corrective actions” taken and “the synchronous global economic recovery boosted exports.” But that is not end of the story of premature and unthinking decisions taken and corrected. “Fiscal deficits, current account, and inflation were all higher than expected” and part of the blame was laid at the door of rising international oil prices ‘’India’s historic macroeconomic vulnerability.”

We now know as to why the growth rate for 2017-18 was pegged at a modest, sub-optimum 6.75 per cent, and very much less than the 7.3 per cent estimated by the International Fund (IMF). The projection of 7 to 7.5 per cent growth rate for 2018-19 is not sanguine. The situation has been aptly, if cleverly, described as “dualities of revival and risk”.

The other issue that comes for praise followed by a cautionary statutory warning is about shift from subsidies to “public provision of essential private goods and services at low prices, especially to the poor.” But this can be termed a success only if toilet building leads to toilet use, bank accounts lead to financial inclusion – the opening of bank accounts in itself is not sufficient –, cooking gas connection leads to gas offtake and village electrification leads to household connections. That is a tall order indeed. The government can claim that it has started the process and it will not be its fault if all of this does not lead to fruition. The truth that cannot be hidden is that transformation cannot be achieved through government fiat.

And there are some stark confessions about the limitations of government policy interventions. It is pointed out “that while there are significant social and economic benefits to attacking corruption and weak governance, addressing those pathologies entails challenges. In the vase of the GST and demonetization, informal cash-intensive sectors were impacted.”

And about the much-touted advantages of auctioning of natural resources, the Survey points out the embedded ambiguity: “In the case of spectrum coal and renewables, auctions may have led to a winners’ curse, whereby firms overbid for assets, leading to adverse consequences in each of the sectors; but they created transparency and avoided rent-seeking with enormous benefits, actual and perceptional.” The use of the word “perceptional” is very interesting. The “perceptional” benefit could be more than the “actual”.

The Survey tackles the moot question of how much a state can do things at a time when Prime Minister Modi believes that he will wrought magic in the country through governmental intervention. The Survey notes: “But Indian is in a grey zone of uncertainty on the role of states and markets. Limitations on state capacity (centre and states) affect the delivery of essential services such as health and education. At the same time, the introduction of technology and the JAM (Jan Dhan—Aadhaar--Mobile), now enhanced by the Unified Payments Interface (UIP) holds the potential for significant improvements in such capacity.” The words to be noted are “potential”, “significant improvement”.

And as to manufacturing in India, the problem it has not made the grade of international competitiveness which is reflected in the “declining manufacturing-export-GDP ratio and manufacturing trade balance”. This combined with “real effective exchange rate appreciating about 21 per cent since January 2014” has only added to the woes of manufacturers. The government is in a fix and it is not its fault. There are too many problems, and the achievements pale before the problems!

Friday, January 05, 2018

Arun Jaitley's sober assessment of the economy

In reply to a short duration discussion on the state of the economy in the Rajya Sabha on Thrusday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley avoided political barbs and admitted that the economy faced challenges, indirectly conceded that implementation of GST has led to fall in revenues. He said after the shortfalls in the short-term, there would be long-term gains. He pointed out that the NPAs built up because of reckless lending by the public sector banks and lack of risk management. He said that the government was bound to save the banks from the burden of NPAs through recapitalisation, and it could not allow the banks to sink under the NPA burden because the money of the public was involved.
He pointed out the sanguine growth rates that India clocked between 2003 and 2011 was because of healthy growth in the world economy, and that when the world economic growth fell in the last part of UPa2's tenure, then it too faced problems on the growth front. He said that in the last three years, India had experienced two years of drought and that the world economy was in doldrums. He said that it is against this background of low growth in the world economy, that India's seven per cent growth stands out.
He said that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi India's credibility was restored and it was an important factor for the stable growth prospects in the near future. He said that the GST process began in Vajpayee's time, and it continued in the UPA tenure, and it was taken to its implementation phase by the NDA. He tried to emphasise the continuity in policy. He said that the government was continuing with the Aadhaar which was started by the UPA. He said that when Nandan Nilekani, the Unique Identity Authority of India, made a presentation to Prime Ministe Modi, he was convinced of its advantages, and he had asked the ministries to implement it and he also wanted it to be given statutory support. He said this government also continued with the Food Security Act, which was passed by the previous government.
He said that subsidies were being targeted so that the people who need them get it, and assured that there was no reduction in the money spent on the social welfare schemes.

The triple talaq bill hangs in mid-air, not on business list, not sent to select committee

Rajya Sabha's deputy chairman P.J.Kurien stated the complicated situation that The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 217 is in the Upper House. Over-ruling objections raised by Leader of the House and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's objections that the amendments moved by Congress' Anand Sharma and TMC's Sukhendu Sekhar Ray were invalid, Kurien said that the amendments were also motions, and that Chairman (M.Venkaiah Naidu) had allowed them, and therefore they are valid, and as the motions have been moved they are the 'property' of the House, and it is for the House to decide what should be done with them.

When Jaitley rose to reiterate the objections he had raised on Wednesday, and there were loud protests from the Opposition benches, Kurien did not allow Jaitley to go through his complete statement, and he explained to the House the position. He said that there is validity in the points made by Jaitley, but once the Chairman (Naidu) had taken the decision, he cannot over-rule it. When the Opposition members wanted the amendments/motions to be put to vote, Kurien said that the triple talaq bill was not listed as part of the government's business, and it was the GST Amendment Bill that was on the list and therefore he is going to take up the GST Amendment Bill. He adjourned the House as there was an uproar from the Opposition over the situation because Kurien was technically right because the talaq bill was not there on Thursday's legislative business list, which is proposed by the government.

It is clear that the government has kept the talaq bill away from the list. It cannot of course keep it away for long if it means to get it passed in the Rajya Sabha. It will have to find a way out either at the Business Advisory Committee (BAC) meeting or informally outside the House. The BJP then has to offer a compromise to the Opposition short of the bill being sent to a Select Committee. Or, it will have to yield to the demand, if not now then in the Budget Session which will begin at the end of January.

The BJP does not want any amendments to the bill and it wants the Rajya Sabha to pass it as it was done in the Lok Sabha, with no changes. The Congress is quite clear that it wants the criminal aspect to be modified, even removed. If the criminality aspect is removed, then there would be nothing substantial left in the bill. Sensing the intent of the opposition, Jaitley in his intervention on Thursday said the select committee should not have members who will 'sabotage' the bill, and the opposition members took objection to the word 'saboteur'.

It would appear that the responsibility of allowing the amendments/motions of Sharma and Roy now falls squarely on the shoulders of Rajya Sabha Chairman M.Venkaiah Naidu. The BJP cannot express its displeasure because Naidu has been the party's candidate. And it is clear that Naidu is playing the scrupulously neutral umpire and he will not give any leeway to the ruling party. The BJP is in a tigh spot.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

BJP fidgety, belligerent in Rajya Sabha over triple talaq bill, Jailtey fumbles on issues related to rules and to law

The plain fact is that the BJP cannot push The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 in Rajya Sabha as it did in the Lok Sabha on December 28, 2017 because it does not have the numbers. The NDA has 83 if one counts in five of the nominated members, and excludes the six independents and the 13 AIADMK members. The UPA has 121 if ones includes the TRS with 3 and YSRCP's 1. As on January 3, 2018, there are 238 members in the Upper House, and both the BJP and the Congress have 57 members each. The ruling party showed its nervousness when Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad introduced the Bill and then made the statement amid loud protests from the Opposition benches.

The scene became testy for Deputy Chairman P.J.Kurien when he had to allow Congress's deputy leader of the House Anand Sharma moved an amendment suggesting that the Bill be referred to a House Select Committee and he gave out the names of the members from the different parties, leaving six for the ruling BJP and its NDA partners.

Leader of House and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley fumbled when he tried to show that Sharma's amendment was not valid because a Select Committee is only possible when the Bill originates in the Council of States, that is the Rajya Sabha, and not when it is transmitted. And he impliedly questioned the decision of Chairman and Vice President M.Venkaiah Naidu, who had apparently agreed to the amendment to be moved by Sharma at the Business Advisory Committee (BAC) meeting held on Tuesday evening. Vice-Chairman Kurien had over-ruled Jaitley's objection saying that once the Chairman had allowed an amendment to be moved, there cannot be any objection.

Another weak reason that Jaitley proferred was when he referred to the minority judgments of former Chief Justice J.S.Kehar and Justice Kurien, who had suspended triple talaq for six months and suggested that the legislature should bring the appropriate law and that it is no for the court to decide the issue. Jaitley argued that the six-month period ended on February 22, 2018 and it is incumbent on the legislature to pass the bill expeditiously. He was wrong. But the majority of three judges in the five-judge constitutional bench had held triple talaq to be untenable in law, even going by Islamic jurisprudence. And it is the majority judgment that is considered the law of the land. The minority judgment has no locus standi until the court's verdict is challenged and it is reviewed and the earlier judgment is overturned, where the merits of the minority judgments can be cited and approved. Until then, the minority judgment has not legal validity. It was surprising then that the lawyer in Jaitley had fumbled on the issue.

It is also the case that even after a bill has been passed in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha can choose to refer it to a Select Committee as it did in the Lok Pal Bill in 2011was stalled and it was referred to a Select Committee in May, 2012.So, Jaitley was wrong saying that the rules do not permit a bill to be referred to the House Select Committee after Lok Sabha had passed it.
The BJP members, including the ministers, were seen shouting down the Opposition when TMC's Derek Obrien and Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress insisted on division and voting on the issue of amendment introduced by Sharma.The BJP was not in a position to dare the opposition.

The House was adjourned when the BJP members did not concede the Opposition demand for division and voting on Sharma's amendment.

Later at the press briefing, Azad said that the Congress could not ask for a division because it did not have the numbers, which is a weak argument because he had said that the Bill as it stands is unfair, especially to Muslim women. He said there was no provision in the bill for the maintenance of the woman and the family if the man guilty of pronouncing instant talaq is imprisoned and it was non-bailable. The Congress too lacked courage of its conviction because even if it was outnumbered in the Lok Sabha, it should have insisted on voting.
Both Azad and senior party leader Veerappa Moily had pointed out that in the last three-and-a-half years, the Modi government did not allow most of the bills to be sent to the standing committee which was the convention.

Blackmail (2018) a bad movie made with good intentions

Perhaps, bad movies are good because you try to unravel the mystery of why the movie was bad. You are trying to find out reasons. And a ...