Sunday, June 25, 2017
"A Death in the Gunj" explores in a subdued manner the mildly dark undertones of many of the characters beneath the veneer of cheerfulness. Everything that happens in a distraction from the real issue. It concerns Shutu, played well by Vikrant Massey,the failed graduate student who is mourning the death of his father, and who seems to be on the edge of regression as well as depression. Then there is Mimi, and Kalki Koechlin at last gets the role where she can showcase her acting talent, who is a jilted lover unwilling to let go. The family, Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), their daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), their parents, the Bakshis, played by Om Puri and Tanuja, form the fulcrum of the story.
What Sen harma manages to do is to get the nuances of a middle class Bengali family, which lives away from Koljata, as many Bengalis do, and retain much of their Bengaliness in terms of middle class values and anxieties.The story unfolds slowly, and the details fill the scenes.It is a 1970s art-house movie -- the story is set in 1979 -- made in 2016. Of course, it is charming. The camera captures the misty loveliness of the hills and the forests. The tragic note is embedded in the lap of gentle wilderness around. Unhappiness becomes memory, which can be recalled without experiencing the trauma.
Sunday, May 28, 2017
It would be futile to fault Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his grand gestures, rhetorical flourishes and yen for drama. Theatrics is the calling card of politicians, but Modi has cultivated it assiduously to outflank the liberal media in India and in the world which pinned him down for his acts of omission and commission during the Gujarat 2002 post-Godhra anti-Muslim rioting. Though the Indian media in general, including the liberals, were betting on Modi in 2013 and in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the then Gujarat chief minister barely acknowledged the media doffing its hat to him.
And when he became the prime minister in May 2014, he focused on the grand gesture. He started off by inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) leaders for his swearing-in ceremony on May 27, 2014. The media hailed it as an act of generosity and good will, overlooking the fact that it was both loud and crude. Modi’s swearing-in was no emperor’s coronation, and Saarc members were not vassals. But India’s foreign policy experts were only too thrilled as what they saw as a liberal’s declaration of faith in friendly neighbourliness. Remember, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seen as an ultra-nationalist right-wing party, and any gesture it makes to mark friendship with neighbours is acknowledged with a sigh of relief. But calling in Saarc leaders for the swearing-in was undiplomatic and impolitic, if anything.
He followed this with visits to Bhutan and Nepal, and he hectored in Nepal’s parliament as to how they should govern themselves. Then came the surprise friendly stopover at Lahore on December 25, 2015 to greet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday at the venue of Sharif’s daughter’s wedding festivities. The naïve foreign policy watchers at home were ecstatic about this friendly overture, without waiting to see what if any was the fallout of the goodwill visit.
It turned out that 2016 became a testing year in the relationship between India and Pakistan. There were two terrorist attacks at Pathankot on January 3, 2016 and at Uri on September 18, 2016. This was followed by India’s strike against the terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on September 29, 2016, which was termed ‘surgical’ by the government, by the BJP and the media.
When he visited the United States end-September, 2014 to address the UN General Assembly session – the address itself carried the self-assuredness of the self-made man -- what marked the visit was his post-election victory rally in Madison Square on September 28, 2014, where he addressed the non-resident Indians, most of whom turned out to be Gujarati businessmen, including a large number of Bohras. He addressed Indians who made the United States their home as though they were the voters back home. There was no doubt that US-based NRIs were indeed the uncritical supporters of Modi, but it was again an undiplomatic thing to do on the American soil.
On November 17, 2014 he addressed another rally of non-resident Indians at the Sydney Olympic Park. Modi was quite unabashed when connecting with the overseas supporters of the BJP. The last big rally of non-resident Indians he addressed was at the cricket stadium on August 17, 2015. It seems that US President Barack Obama, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Rashid took Modi’s engagement with the NRIs in good faith, and despite the nationalist fervour displayed by both Modi and the NRIs at these events, the bilateral relations remained on an even keel.
In contrast, Modi addressing the Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka, at Norwood in the Central province after the inauguration of India-financed hospital on May 12, 2017 there was nothing similar to what it was in New York, Sydney and Dubai in 2014-15. Modi while lauding the hardships endured by the Tamils, expressed the view that they were part of the warp and wood of the Sri Lankan society. The nationalist rhetoric at Norwood was muted compared to what it was in New York, Sydney and Dubai. Modi is to travel to the United States and have another festive hangout of the NRIs in Houston. But the end-of-June Houston event comes at a time when the Indian diaspora is not experience the high it did in 2014 under the Barack Obama’s second presidency and two terms of George W Bush. The Donald Trump White House does not hold much cheer for the NRIs and they cannot be expected to revel in Modi’s presence. He may want to give them a pep talk instead of a victory speech.
In 2014-15, Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and everyone else in the government that there has been a turnaround in the ‘market sentiment’ about India, and it was attributed to Modi magic. India remained the fastest growing economy in the world with a seven per cent plus annual growth rate, and the Bretton Woods twins, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), praised India as the bright spot of the flagging world economy. But the encomiums did not boost Indian economy. It seems to have stood where it was – unable to do better than the seven per cent growth rate, which would be equivalent to the old Hindu rate of growth of 3.5 per cent annum of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Make in India (September, 2014), Skill India (July, 2015), Digital India (July, 2015), Startup India, Stand Up India (January, 2016) initiatives were ambitious ventures which are going nowhere like all government initiatives anytime, anywhere and which remain public relations campaigns. What seemed to have impressed people are the good old welfare measures like Jan Dhan Yojana et al. But the economy is not in a happy position that it seemed to be two years ago. And the government does not have any plans to counter the periodic low tide of the Indian economy.
Modi government in May 2017 looks a little tired, a little more cautious and much less sanguine than it did in May 2014 and in May 2015. The only tonic for the government and the BJP was the victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The prime minister and his party are basking in the sliver of light of that success.
To use a Western classical music description, the Modi movement started with an allegro, the emphatic and faster rhythm, and it has settled into a slowed-down andante phase. There are as yet no signs of a complicated and graceful adagio in the Modi musical passage. This is a government that has not shown any grace or magnanimity because it feels that it cannot let its guard down, that it should forever remain on the alert, keep a sharp look out, and it should remain suspicious and aggressive. With the 2019 Lok Sabha looming on the horizon, there is just frenetic activity ahead.
Her second novel in two decades, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, likely to unleash political slugfest between shallow liberals and uneducated right-wingers of Modi’s India.
It is both dangerous and unethical to form impressions of a book by reading a short extract. It is almost like judging a book by its cover. There can be one of two reactions to an extract. First, the hope that the whole book will be as exquisite as the extract is. The second is the misgivings about the book that the extract triggers and the hope that the book would not be as bad as the extract.
Then there is the interview, which gives a glimpse of what the author thinks of her own work. In serious terms, the author’s views on her work should not be taken too seriously as many serious students of literature would know. The book will stand or fall on its own merits, and it has nothing to do with the views of the author on her own work. But it is too much of a temptation not to let the author’s recommendation of her own book enough importance.
The book-extract of Roy’s second novel and her thoughts about the novel in the interview tickle your curiosity, and sometimes they might even provoke in however mild a fashion.
So here are some hastily formed impressions about Roy’s second novel, about her views on fiction and the cultural milieu of the book and the author, with its inescapable political connotations.
Roy exudes elfin charm, which is quite spontaneous as well as a well-executed ballerina performance. She is an unassuming celebrity who will smile radiantly and talk to anyone, even to those with whom she has only nodding acquaintance. But her views are not as innocent. Her views traverse a different line. When she says in the interview, “Everyone thinks I live alone, but I don’t. My characters all live with me.” This is interesting, mostly true and charming as far as it goes. The other two statements are slightly more exaggerated, surreal even. Roy says that it is her characters – she refers to them as “the folks in my book” -- who chose the publisher though the money was much less. She also makes the romantic-metaphysical pronouncement: “The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.” Or her impish confession: “To there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves.”
With that last statement of hers, we enter the slightly phoney world of the modern liberal India artist, etherealising the calling of the art, indulging in empty universalisms. Without meaning to do so, Roy represents the type. Perhaps there is something to that thing called “the collective unconscious” which that Sigmund Freud disciple-turned-rebel-and rival Carl Jung coined. In many ways, like many other modern artists and writers, Roy is an Arnoldian – the mid-Victorian failed-poet-and-respected-literary-and-culture critic Matthew Arnold – who has lost faith in the old religions and old gods and seeks refuge in this new thing called art and literature as the new god and as the new religion.
The extract gives the impression that Roy’s new novel is an allegory, a political allegory. And it has disturbing echoes of a Salman Rushdie fantasy, but unlike in Rushdie Roy’s imagination is finely sketched and it does not indulge in epic comicality as Rushdie does. That is the saving grace. But it seems to hint at the limitations – no fault of Roy’s – of the liberal imagination. Many of the liberals, including writers and artists – in India are incapable of looking reality in the face. The only exception is another Book Prize-winning author, Kiran Desai, who showed rare maturity in dealing with a complex world where the political and personal impinge on each other in her 2006 novel, “The Inheritance of Loss”.
The allegory is escapist fare where one is allowed to indulge in Oriental excess and turn one’s back on grimy reality. Reality makes an appearance in an allegory but it is presented in the mythical form of evil. Roy’s book-extract suggests that it is about the nightmarish Indian political reality and she is going to deal with it as some fiction writers to do: in the form of an allegory.
It appears that the besieged Indian liberals in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing India will find solace in Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, and going by the ululations on the Facebook after the reading of the book-extract in The Guardian, it looks like the Indian liberals will go into a swoon over the book. The uneducated right-wingers in the country will rant against the book. Roy’s book is all set to unleash a political slugfest, and interviewer Decca Aitkenhead has hinted that the book is likely to be controversial in the public sphere. Roy is demure about the prospect.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Asghar Farhadi's Salesman, an understated complex movie that fails to come to terms with its own ccomplexity
The film is a tightly scripted one, and it shows the fraught life of near-insignificance of Emad. Miller's Death of a Salesman turns out to be some kind of a sounding board for Emad's own life. It might appear to be an over-interpretation to see any kind of connection between the play in the film and the life of the film's protagonists. But to see no connection between the two makes the film merely tawdry tale.
But in spite of the connections, the character of Emad remains fairly diminutive in moral terms.
The movie could however be seen as a small episode in the life of a couple, which could have taken a serious turn. The ending is open-ended. We do now know whether the old man dies, whether Rana walks out on Emad as she threatens to do if Emad were to reveal the old man's misdemeanour to his family. What is the state of Emad's mind after he humiliates, and quite nearly kills, the old man who stalks his wife? Asghar Farhadi keeps it open.
The film tries to be a morality play, and the director beats around the bush to make, and even not to make, the point. On this score he succeeds. The matter-of-fact delineation raises expectations without fulfilling them. The director is reluctant to make the connections, to make the big point. For this viewer, the aesthetic and moral teaser is the failure of the movie because it leaves the characters in the movie hanging, except for Rana when she threatens to walk out, and the family of the old man who reveal their unquestioning faith in the goodness of Emad and Rana, and that of the old man as well.
Monday, April 10, 2017
It shows the injustice of the unequal power relationship, where the petty tyrants lord over it unhindered, and it needs an almost unhinged person -- and it needs an unhinged person to do so -- to throw down the gauntlet as it were, and that indeed frightens the powers that be. One of the supreme moments of the film is that last dance that Anaarkali/Swara Bhaskar performs, the macabre, death dance as it were, whipping up anger, wreaking vengeance. It is the cathartic moment for Anarkali, for the VC, played brilliantly by Sanjay Mishra, as the character reaps his just desserts, and for the audience.
The film could have taken a realistic and unhappy ending with Anaarkali returning to Aarah and taking her exploited place in the small town nightmare. But director Das opts for the leap of imagination that a creative channel offers and injects a moment of superior truth, which provides emotional and aesthetic satisfaction, and depicts the denouement of poetic justice. This is what films.plays/stories/poems should do and Das accepts the literary/aesthetic norm.
In many ways, Anarkali of Arra overthrows the emotional beauty of that story and of that movie in order to state the hapless position of Anarkali in the ruthless world of today. It would appear to be a conscious rejection of that imagination.
One would not call the aesthetic rebellion of Das, where the tawdriness of the small town is invested with a fleeting beauty of its own, a misplaced one. But as he goes on to make other movies, he would get back to the imaginative and aesthetic equilibrium of Teesri Kaasam.
Bhaskar's performance is true to the character, with Anaarkali's unexpressed love for Anwar (who played his role?), and with her rage against the predators.
The one line that came to mind time and again during the movie was "The state is the enemy of the people". It felt so because of the impunity of many of the right-wing governments across north India. But it should be remembered that the situation shown in Anaarkali of Aarah has nothing to with Hindutva politics. The roots of the evil lie in a decadent and impoverished society of an underdeveloped north India.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
It is 24 years since the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished by a violent mob of kar sewaks. The estimated figure ranges from a few thousands to a two hundred thousand. The leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were sitting on a dais in front of the mosque as the monument was razed to the ground by an irate crowd. Among the leaders were L.K.Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, the now marginalised elders of the party.
There has been a change of guard in the BJP, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the new brigade and comfortably ensconced in power at the centre after a historic win in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The change in leadership was not a smooth affair. The clumsy and bitter battle of succession was fought between June and September of 2013, when Modi was named the chairman of the campaign committee and then declared the prime ministerial candidate of the party in the teeth of opposition from Advani.
The drama that unfolded in the court-room of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Rohinton Fali Nariman on Thursday was riveting because of this background of the internal and inter-generational feud inside the BJP. The differences have not been buried and peace has not been made between the warring factions. Advani, who was once the master manipulator of party affairs, is now a lonely man with no followers and very few friends in the party. Joshi has always been a non-competitive man who gained the top rung at a time when there were not enough claimants for leadership in the party.
If the Supreme Court allows for the revival of conspiracy charges against Advani, Joshi and others in the Babri Masjid demolition case, and the judges indicated that they are inclined to return the two leaders along with 12 others to the dock, then what is of consequence is not so much the legal outcome, which would include possible conviction of Advani and Joshi at the special court in Lucknow that would come back to the Supreme Court in the form of an appeal, but what it means to the inner peace of the BJP. The internecine strife will leave the party with difference with bruised memories, and which would leave a bad taste in the mouth. It is quite evident that the faction led by Modi has undisputed advantage, and Advani and Joshi are literally down and out, defending themselves standing on the ground.
Modi has shown greater political cunning than his opponents have given him credit for. He could turn the case against Advani and Joshi to score decisive political brownie points. On the one hand, he would prove to his detractors outside BJP that he is the man bound by rule of law and he would not use his position as prime minister to bend the law and rescue his party elders from legal perdition. And he would use the opportunity to exclude the faint prospects of either Advani or Joshi for the upcoming presidential election in July this year. It will be readily argued that as an unchallenged leader of the BJP, Modi does not need a ruse to outmanoeuvre either Advani or Joshi. He can overlook their claims and choose person of his own liking.
Quite a few disagree that Modi is the monarch of all he surveys. According to sources he is not really his own man in the party, and he has to respond to pressure groups inside the party as well as in the extended Sangh Parivar. The example cited is that of the choice of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. He was not Modi’s first choice. Apparently, he had to bow to pressure, especially from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and agree to the name the mahant from Gorakhpur for the job.
This being the case, he would need a strong reason to overlook the claims of either Advani or Joshi to the office of the president, and the two facing a conspiracy charges in the demolition case would serve his purpose perfectly.
The other argument is that Modi wants the Babri Masjid demolition case to be taken to its logical, legal conclusion so that his party could with clean hands facilitate the construction of the Ram temple on the site of the mosque in Ayodhya.
There is no doubt however that both the BJP and Modi are burdened with the legacy of the Ayodhya mosque-temple dispute. It was easier for the party to inflame passions when the party was in the opposition but the temple issue is a liability for the Hindutva party when it is in power. Modi sees himself, rightly or wrongly, as the post-Ayodhya-dispute BJP leader, who wants the party to win elections and rule the country on the basis of a nationalist and developmental agenda. He sees himself as a modernist and a nationalist and not as a devout Hindu. As a matter of fact, even Advani looks upon himself as modern, rational nationalist. When BJP was in power from 1998 to 2004, Advani displayed no great enthusiasm for the construction of the temple. Modi has moulded himself in the Advani mode. And in a tragic-ironic sense, Modi has to take a call whether he would use his powers to protect his mentor-turned-rival, or leave him to the harsh blows of the legal system.
The issues of the case are based more on technicalities rather than legal subtleties and intricacies. The first issue is whether there should be trials in separate courts about the same episode – the demolition of the mosque. The judge of the special court had separated the case involving the act of demolition by “unknown karsevaks”, about a 100,000 of them, from that of the conspirators. Justices Ghose and Nariman are of the view that there should be a single trial of the conspirators as well as that of the arsonists. And they are sure that Article 139 empowers the Supreme Court to merge the separate trials and assign to a single special court.
Modi can afford at the moment to remain a passive spectator as the legal process unfolds, and weigh his political options with regard to Advani and Joshi, and with regard to the construction of the promised temple in Ayodhya.
Amit Shah, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wasted no time after the party’s stupendous victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election early last month. He went over to Gujarat, where assembly elections are due in December this year, and told the cadres that he wants to win 150 seats for the party out of 180. This was to keep the magnitude of victory at the same level as that of UP where the party got 304 out of 405. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a step ahead of his protégé, Shah. In his meetings with the party’s members of parliament (MPs) from various states last week, he told them to start work for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and advised them to use social media more aggressively to reach out to the people. The Modi-Shah duo seem dedicated to fighting elections and winning them. Much like the Indian cricket team now, the BJP too is focused on winning games. Nothing else matters.
The change in temper and mood of the party is nothing less than radical. Of course, Shah’s predecessors, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, too talked of booth management and strengthening of the team at the booth level. There has always been a strategy of deployment of the cadre, and there has always been a sense of discipline, something that the party has inherited from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) oraganisational principles. What has changed under the Modi-Shah dispensation is that the cadres are deployed in a more efficient way, in greater numbers and in a sustained manner. While the other parties prepare for the elections a few months beforehand, at the most a year before the date, the BJP workers are preparing for the next election the day the present one ends. It is a rigorous regime of preparation and practice.
There is nothing unprecedented or unique about the BJP’s cadres fanning out for the election. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its other Left Front allies had done it successfully in the West Bengal for the 35 years they were in power in the state. As a matter of fact, it was common to describe the BJP and the communists as ideology-bound cadre-based parties which did not win elections. The CPI-M broke the spell of being a loser in West Bengal and managed to maintain its success strike for three decades. The BJP is looking to a long success run as well.
The question that arises, and it might seem a naïve one, is whether the BJP and the communists lose their ideology, or whether they abandon doctrine and dogma, when they taste electoral victory. There would be analysts who would argue that these parties sacrifice their ideological integrity at the podium of success. But the issue is a little more complicated than that. The Left Front in West Bengal during its long reign had systematically infiltrated the governmental system, the educational and cultural institutions where the party faithful were given the key posts and with the mandate of spreading the ideology. The BJP has done so too when it was in power last at the centre under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani dispensation. Prime Minister Modi is doing it at his own pace, placing the ideologically committed people in places of power across the system. It would be futile to cry foul at this working of the spoils system. The answer to the question is that the BJP and the communists do not sacrifice ideology, but that they use power to infuse the system with their ideology. The genuine difficulty that arises in this kind of a situation is that the ideologue who is inducted into the system has to display sufficient intelligence and an ability to adapt and to find reasonable solutions to problems that crop up in the work situation and which essentially lie outside the ideological compass. The ideology-oriented parties willy-nilly become pragmatic while continuing with the illusion of adhering to the dogma.
The other existential question that rears its head is whether the electoral success is to be attributed to the super-efficiency of the party structures and the ingenuity of the leaders who deploy the cadres in a way that defeat seems unthinkable, or is there something else that has to be reckoned as well. The feeling seeps into the party, both among the leaders as well as the rank and file, that it is the party that is winning the elections and all that needs to do is to maintain the peaks of performance. The truth is slightly different. The party wins an election because people vote for it and against others. The party is not winning because of its superior tactics. This is the rule of preference in democratic politics. It would be folly for a party to believe that it is unbeatable as long as it has its tactics right. It is the people who decide and not the party as to who the winner should be. It is crucial to remember that the BJP and the communists had been in political wilderness for decades despite ideology and cadres. Of course, communists are once again in the wilderness though this time round the cadres have disappeared.
Modi and Shah are aware of the fact that it is not sufficient to maintain the party’s electoral machinery in top order. Elections are fought on programmes and slogans. But programmes and slogans may not work at times. All that the party managers can hope for is that there is a right combination of cadres and programmes. There is a possibility that programmes might sometimes work and the cadres may not be necessary. But the converse does not hold good. Mere cadres will not help to win elections.
The BJP looks a formidable and unbeatable team today, driving all the other players into a state of despair. Modi, Shah and the rest of the BJP might be experiencing that inevitable sense of complacency which is the natural outcome of victory, and they may even be slipping into the false belief that tactics are supreme, and they may be tempted to focus on tactics alone. The people have the ace up their sleeves and they can shock political parties out of their wits.
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