Tuesday, July 04, 2017

From making arms to selling them

Scorpion of US' Textron, the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT)

India has to move towards arms exports to sustain a viable domestic defense production sector

It is quite a relief to hear the sober assessment of Defence Minister Arun Jaitley saying that “defence preparedness” is the best way to ensure stability, and that no country can continue to win wars and battles by importing arms, which is in contrast to the maverick pronouncements of his predecessor, IIT-educated Manohar Parrikar, who has now gone back to his home state of Goa as chief minister, the place and position he came from. Jaitley made the remarks while giving away the Defense Minister’s awards for excellence to Defense Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) at New Delhi on Tuesday (May 30, 2017).
The crux of the new thinking on turning India into a hub of arms manufacture is however quite ambiguous. It is stated that it will be a joint venture between Indian and foreign manufacturers of fighter planes, helicopters, armoured vehicles including tanks, war-ships and submarines.
There is the realistic assessment that India is not yet in a position to become an indigenous arms manufacturing hub, and that there is the embarrassing need for foreign collaboration. Of course, the logic is that in course of time, Indian arms manufacturers should be able to shake off the foreign collaboration and become wholly indigenous. But this premise may not prove to be too promising because foreign armament manufacturers would be thinking ahead too, and they would not want to become redundant in the future. What it would mean is that the foreign arms companies would not share their state-of-art technologies with India.
The alternative would be for India to think in terms of becoming a manufacturing hub for armaments on a multi-national corporation (MNC) basis, where the business strategy would be to become arms exporter. As a matter of fact, this is indeed the unstated vision of many among the security as well as business strategists in the game. It would be simplistic to believe that it is enough if India learns to make armaments for its defence needs. So India needs to think in terms of being an arms exporter if it wants to have a sustainable arms manufacturing base.
There are many examples around the world where the ability to be a competitor in the global arms bazaar is seen as a sign of national prowess. The carping critics of United States’ global cop role argue that the Americans thrive on conflict zones across the world which would help boost the sales of arms they manufacture. There is also the searing critique that the day Americans cannot sell their guns then their economy would collapse. Indirectly, Americans, and the capitalist economy in general, is portrayed as merchants of death.
So, there is a moral dilemma to the whole question which should not be shirked. There might arise a need to construct a rhetoric that the arms exports will only be meant for self-defense of the countries that are buying them from us, and there might have to be clauses restricting re-export as is done by the United States when it sells armaments to Israel and other countries. Most gung-ho strategy experts in the country might scoff at the idea that there is any need to offer a moral defence for the export of arms.
But India has not yet reached the commanding position of arms exports. According to Ministry of Defence (MoD) figures, India’s expenditure on capital procurement from foreign vendors stands at rs 22, 422 crore in 2015-16, which has declined from Rs 35.082 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 24,992 crore in 2014-15. The comparative figures for defence exports are Rs 1,050 crore in 2013-14, Rs 1,682 crore in 2014-15 and Rs 2,014 crore in 2015-16. There is a huge gap between defence imports and exports. It can be said that moral dilemmas of arms exports can be deferred for the moment.
There is however a red herring in the way. There has been talk, even intense lobbying, and justifiably so, that the Indian private sector should become a major player in defense production. And there is the implied criticism that it is the government monopoly that had arrested the growth of the private sector participation in defense production. The reason as to why defense production in India remained with the DPSUs is a historical one. At the time of Independence, the Indian private sector was too weak to even take up the burden of meeting the economic challenges of the country. As a matter of fact, it is the captains of industry who had vigorously argued for the active role of the state in the economy. It is only in the 1990s, it seemed possible to wean the Indian private sector away from protectionism and expose it to global competition.
Secondly, the Indian private sector cannot hope to be at the forefront of research and development in weaponry. The Indian private sector generally has been in the habit of buying off new stuff off the shelf as it were in the global marts. The same logic cannot be easily extended to defense production. There is of course the example of the Boeing-Tata joint venture in Hyderabad which is tasked with producing Apache helicopter fuselages. But Boeing has an enviable R&D in place, which is not the case with the Tatas or with any other Indian private sector conglomeration.
It has also to be noted that even in the United States, the ostensible free market paradise, weapons and other frontier scientific research is done at government-funded laboratories as well as at the universities. India’s R&D spend will have to increase if the country wants to meet its own defense needs as well as hope to increase its footprint in the international arms market.
Therefore, it would be simplistic and even foolhardy to dismiss government-funding of R&D, especially in weapons systems as well as in basic science. India’s strategy experts who want to strut about as pragmatists do not recognise the umbilical cord that connects basic science research with technological spin-offs in the defense industry. There is then need for sensible debate on the issue of arms manufacturing and arms exports in this country. And it has to avoid the extremes of moral squeamishness on the one hand, and cynical swagger on the other.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The asymmetry of India-Israel relations

Prime Ministeer Narendra Modi wwith his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu at their meeting in New York on September 28, 2014 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assemnly session.

India’s right-wingers have to shed their illusions about a militarily strong Jewish state

There is much excitement and expectation in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s July 4-6 visit to Israel, greater than his visit to Washington last week. India’s right-wingers, the Hindutva ideologues as well as the strategy hawks, consider the Jewish state to be a prized friend, and even now rue the fact that India kept away from Tel Aviv for more than 40 years. The other side, comprising mainly of leftists, liberals and secularists, have been opposed to India-Israeli links because in their view, it meant letting down the Palestinians, the Muslims in India and the Arab and Muslim world. Of course, both sides are hugely mistaken in their presumptions. The reasons are really complex and no one wants to disentangle many of the strands behind the mushy perceptions.
The right-wingers wrongly believe that closer India-Israeli defence and security relations are to the advantage of India. In their enthusiasm for the Jewish state, which they think is heroically defying the Arab and Muslim world with its single-minded sophisticated defence dragnet, they forget that the differences in size between India and Israel are of such magnitude – the asymmetry is stark – that Israel can benefit from the India connection because India is a huge defence market for Israel but India has little to gain from the deal. Secondly, Israel can never alone meet the defence requirements of New Delhi.
India’s defence needs and strategic compulsions are vastly different from that of Israel. Tel Aviv’s strategic neighbourhood is confined to Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It does not extend even to the larger Arab world. India’s strategic neighbourhood stretches from the Straits of Malacca to the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean, and from South-East Asia to West Asia and into Central Asia. In terms of sheer size, India is a giant and Israel is a midget in very objective terms. This mistaken importance given to Israel in the India-Israel equation is akin to the enthusiasts comparing Singapore and India in terms of economic efficiency and standards of living, and popping up the absurd question, “Why cannot India be like Singapore? If Singapore can do it, why cannot India?”
Israel has admirable achievements in the fields o agriculture and science, but there is very little that India can borrow from it. The much acclaimed drip-irrigation has had its day even in Israel, and India’s farm challenges are far more vast and complex.
It would be wrong-headed to think that Israel’s military technology, in spite of its heightened excellence, is of any great importance for India. The Indian military needs and strategies cannot depend on Israel’s experience deriving from a mini-theatre of conflict where it is pitted against a non-military entity like the Palestinian territories and the simple military setup of many of its Arab neighbours. India faces a China that spends far more than India on its defence and a Pakistan which imports all of its military ware from the United States. It should not come as a surprise if Israel would want to sell defence technology to Pakistan. Israel is only too keen to establish diplomatic and political links with Pakistan, and in the last decade, when Pervez Musharraf was calling the shots, the two countries came very close to establishing links through Turkish mediation. Even as the United States sells its military ware to one and all, Israel too is keen to sell to everyone and anyone. So, the strategic hawks are wholly mistaken about Israel’s importance for India in security matters.
The HIndutva ideologues are as far off the mark as the strategy hawks with regard to Israel. They simply misread the Israel issue. The Jewish state is not fighting an ideological battle with the Islamic world. It is not a clash of civilisations of the regular Huntington kind. Islam and Judaism have had smoother relations with each other than Western Christianity of Europe and the Jewish Diaspora. Israel is as a matter of fact an outgrowth of the disturbed history of Western European Christian and Jewish Diaspora relationships, which culminated in the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The Jews in Europe were the archetypal religious minority. The Jewish Diaspora felt that a Jewish state is its ultimate refuge in a world, especially Europe, divided into nation-states.
Israel just wants to hold on to its present territory, and it is fighting every inch of ground against Palestine because of the gnawing sense of fear and insecurity that any compromise with Palestine would ultimately make it vulnerable. All its military build-up is to save the territorially small state of Israel. It has no plans to spread its territory beyond the larger area of Palestine. Israeli security experts see the emergence of a Palestinian state as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. Even if it wants to settle for a two-state solution, Israel wants Palestine to be as militarily weak as possible. This innate fear derives from Israel’s experience of the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars. Here it is not a question of fairness, rationality and legality. And it is necessary to recognise this: Israel desperately wants to be accepted by its Arab neighbours as a legitimate state. It seeks legitimacy and its military belligerence is due to the fact that it has not got it so far. Israel is not a secure state in existential terms.
What Israeli leaders, especially the moderates, expect India to play the role of the trusted mediator between the Jewish state and the Arab states. India’s hesitancy is understandable because this is treacherous territory. The insecurities on both sides are so deep that no one of them would be easily assured by the other. That is why, India has been fighting shy off playing the honest broker, and perhaps rightly so. But it is necessary that India should maintain its trustworthiness with Israel and with Palestine. It would be a folly to play a partisan role in terms of sheer strategy. If Israel has US-derived military technology to offer, the Arab states too are ready to invest with their billions of petro-dollars in the Indian market.
There is need for India’s right-wingers to think right and straight about the shaky position of Israel.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Konkona Sen Sharma's very Bengali directorial debut with "A Death in the Gunj"

It ins passing that one must take note of the fact that Aparna Sen's directorial debut, "36 Chowringhee Lane" was in 1981, when the actress was 35. Her daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma's directorial debut, "A Death in the Gunj" comes 36 years later, when Sen Sharma is 37. Both are films about urban Bengalis, and middle class. In "36 Chworinghee Lane" the Anglo-Indian strand of the story is dominant, and as a matter of fact, Jennifer Kendall's memorable performance as the Anglo-Indian school-teacher is th defining characteristic of the film, and the excellent cinematography of Ashok Mehta with the perfect frames etches itself in memory. In "A Death in the Gunk", the Anglo-Indian strand is a minor one, but it is there. The Bengalis in McCluskie Gunj are quite Anglicised, like many middle class Bengalis of a certain kind.
"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

Modi movement -- from allegro to andante

Prime Minister Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan before Modi was sworn in as prime minister on May 27, 2014

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 na├»ve 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.

Book-extract of Arundhati Roy’s new novel hints at a minor literary storm

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.

There is the “exclusive extract” in the British newspaper, The Guardian of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” of Arundhati Roy, the 1997 Booker Prize winner of her debut novel, “The God of Small Things” and also an interview with her by Decca Aitkenhead, a journalist and writer of a searing account of her improbable happy second marriage and the death of her second husband through drowning in the Caribbean Sea trying to save their four-year-old child, “All At Sea”. Roy’s boo-extract is a teaser to whet the curiosity of her admirers who had wait with baited breath these 20 years for her second novel.
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

On the face of it, Asghar Farhadi's Salesman, the winner of the 2017 Oscar for the Best Foreign Language film, appears to be an overwrought film, magnifying an inconsequential event into an obsessive moment. It is reflective of Iranian sensibility. Some of the Syrian movies too display this quality, though the Syrian filmmakers are not as skillful as the Iranians in weaving a gossamer-thin tale. But thinking over the movie, ruminating over it long after the film is over, it becomes clear that in the character of Emad, played by Shahab Hosseini, displays a strange pettiness despite the fact of being a sensitive, especially American, literature teacher in a school, and who enacts the role of Willy Loman of Arthur Miller's iconic play, Death of a Salesman. His wife, Rana, played by Taraneh Alidoosti, play's Loman's wife, Linda. The tragedy of Willy Loman arises from the fact that he fails to succeed, which is what the American Dream is all about. Emad somewhere seems to be suffering from some kind of anguish, which remains inarticulate until he finds the perfect peg as it were in the form of the intruder into his newly rented place, when his wife is in the bathroom, she panics and she is hurt and traumatised. The unexpressed frustration of Emad seems to find vent in the anger against the intruder, whom he manages to track down. He metes out retribution to the old man, which verges on the fatal. He is hell-bent on humiliating the old man, and his vengeance instead of being righteous turns out to be petty. Emad falls in the eyes of his wife. The experience o Emad seems to mirror that of Loman, though in an inverted fashion. The humiliation of the old man, Naser, who is a vendor, and who ventures into the house because the previous occupant was flirting with him, seems in a way Emad's blind rage.
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

Anaarkali of Aarah: Crass and cathartic

Anaarkali of Aarah, the debut film of journalist-turned-film director AvinashDas, makes a virtue of its rough, quite jagged, edges in telling a moving story of defiance by dancing woman belonging to a lower class. There is not much rhetoric or preachiness here. The story is told without embellishments of any kind, even if some kind of fine-tuning would have made it a better film and a more compelling story. The music is quite unmusical though it is full of energy, the dancing is garish, and the language unashamedly vulgar and un-poetical. It is a raw story and a raw film in every sense of the word. But it remains a poignant tale and that is why it succeeds.

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.

For those old enough to have seen Basu Bhattacharya's Teesri Kasam, produced by Shailendra based on the story of Phanishwarnath Renu, the word 'Hiraman' of the person from Arra in Delhi in the story, is a tangential throwback, a subtle allusion of the story of another nautanki dancer in the Bihar hinterland, facing up to discrimination and exploitation of another era, which was certainly less cruel and less vulgar than the small-town cesspool of today.
In that movie, Waheeda Rehman plays Hirabai, the dancer, and Raj Kapoor plays Hiraman, the cart-driver, and there is the silent unstated rapport between the two, which can only be called love.
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.

From making arms to selling them

Scorpion of US' Textron, the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) India has to move towards arms exports to sustain a viable domestic defe...