Monday, December 24, 2007

Taare Zameen Par

Tears welling up and weeping is not the easiest emotion that a man can express and when the raison d’etre for the tears is a movie, it becomes even more difficult to justify (if there was ever a need to). Aamir Khan’s directorial debut Taare Zameen Par accomplishes this rather effortlessly without too much of a melodrama but with a kind of sensitivity not seen in the recent past.

The movie takes us through the heart of a child suffering from dyslexia and succeeds where Monsieur Bhansali fails. It creates a world familiar to us, which we can relate to unlike Black which exists in its own self-indulgent vacuum. The images of a paint drop falling on Ishaan’s face, the dogs sleeping on his lap and the everyday sights of the world look so beautiful through the eyes of the young boy.

TZP deals with the life and tribulations of Ishaan Awasthi, fondly called Eno by his family. He’s a dreamer, with no sense of time, who lives in his own world inhabited by nature and its glorious manifestations. He is a regular kid who fights off bullies; bunks school and spends a great deal of his time day-dreaming.

Initially, we do not realize that anything is amiss and relate his behaviour to his age and innocence. He’s sent to a boarding school where he goes into his shell further till his disability is finally discovered by an Art teacher in his school, Ramkumar Nikumbh, played by Aamir Khan. The teacher then works to put him back on track.

The movie practically lives through the child’s eyes as he struggles to find meaning in the numbers and syllables drilled through his mind. He needs to not only satisfy his parental aspirations but also work around with his disability. Parental obsession with their children’s performance is only a symptom of this larger malice- where result is the only thing that matters. Only the exceptional ones are required, the rest of us remain people on the fringe without any voice.

The kid Darsheel Safarey is absolutely wonderful as he portrays the everyday kid we are familiar with and not the irritatingly cute kid in movies who tries his best to get on our nerves. His name appears first when the credits start rolling and his performance justifies that.

Aamir as Nikumbh Sir sports a spunky hairstyle and performs admirably, with just the right amount of restraint.(Let me concede that when I saw the Khan in the movie, I wondered how much we was being paid for such a job; shit, he can’t live so comfortably in Mumbai working only as an Arts School. Agreed that’s a cruel thought in the midst of all this but I could not stop myself!!!). The father remains a bit of a stereotype but Tisca Chopra as the mother fits the bill pleasantly well only to be ignored in the second half.

TZP sees Aamir as a very sensitive person; his tears well up just a bit too frequently in the movie. Is it because society has taught us that it’s not manliness to shed tears that many in the theatre felt disconcerting to see Aamir’s tears?

His characterization was a revelation; the protagonist is shown as a very soft-natured guy whose heart pains to see the struggles of a child and who has less control over his emotions when compared to the average hero. I always did think of Aamir as a Method Actor who thinks primarily from his brain; but this movie comes straight from the heart, not just the head and you actually feel for it.

A special mention about the music. Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy and Prasoon Joshi have done a wonderful job in delivering compositions that go along with the feel of the movie. The music has a soft, lilting presence which gives it a beautiful feel. Music has been used liberally in the movie but in no way does it manage to slow down the proceedings.

But there are areas that you wish Aamir could have plugged in, so that the movie could have been even better. The parental interactions in the second half are strangely muted. Ishaan’s mother has sacrificed her career to take care of her kids and is shown to be very sensitive to her children’s needs but even after realizing that her son has a learning disorder, all she manages to do is a Google search on dyslexia.

Was it the Actor Vs the Director clash that caused Aamir Khan to take over the role of the parents too and reduce their role to mere bystanders whose only involvement with their son is to collect his progress report?

Would it not have been better if Aamir had also tried to put in a parental point of view and not paint them in black and put all the blame squarely on them. Yes, they play a pivotal role in shaping the future of their children but trying to understand them would also have helped.

For all the pains that Aamir takes to showcase Ishaan’s difficulties, his progress takes place just a bit too fast, all in the pace of a song. Even the ending has its share of melodrama but even if it were only melodrama I would not have an issue. Instead, it requires Ishaan to take part in a competition and win the first prize to regain his esteem.

After all the bravado about parental mentality and rat-race, it is a bit unfair that Ishaan has to succeed in another rat race to redeem himself. Every child is special, so any need to actually outdo others and prove his specialty?

Most characters in TZP act as caricatures but I’m willing to buy that illustration. Maybe that’s how little Ishaan looks at the world. His perception about himself drives others to look at him similarly. At the end, Ishaan stumbles as he walks to receive the prize; does this suggest that he still is dependent on Aamir?

Nevertheless, the movie worked for me at different levels and not just the parental-child angle. It also talked about listening to one’s dreams as well as one’s inner feelings. The movie is not just for kids and carries a message for all of us.

We have forgotten to admire the small beauties that nature showers us daily with but take it for granted. The fluttering of a butterfly, the rhythm of a fish, the gentle waft of the breeze and its goose pimples are no longer important to us. What is important to us is our obsession with targets and timelines; so much so that we do not have even the time to feel happy about completing our targets.

Every child is indeed special!!! Thanks, Aamir for displaying the guts to break all conventions and make such a beautifully sensitive movie…………

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wooing the Go Slow Movement

As I stand on the edge of a road watching the population hurtling across at an uncontrollable pace, it seems so uneasy watching the faces of people as they grimace and scream at everyone else and move ahead on the wild roads governing our country.

These small journeys can lead to a great road rage but at the same time can also be a lesson in building patience- after all, you realize after sometime that you cannot overcome this ocean of humanity and you have to give in. Both the Merc and the Maruti meet their destinies here and both are equal here.

Speed is a very relative concept and it gets so much more accentuated as you travel across destinations, each location in its own time clock. As I traverse from Mumbai to Hyderabad and swoop down to Kerala, I realize how painfully slow the passage of time can be.

Living and travelling in the din of the Mumbai metropolis acts as such a marked contrast to the lazy life of my town. As I sit in front of my house in Palakkad and watch the cattle grazing and clouds ambling by, I wonder when I last sat down and saw nature taking its own course.

Speed is not always a virtue and is primarily a function of our need to compress our lives into compartments of milliseconds which we cannot live without. Are we genetically programmed to want to do things faster than they should be? Is the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius relevant in our lives at all junctures? Maybe no but we do find it difficult to decelerate and go along with the flow of life.

Life has a certain flow but we always want to go faster; we do not have the time or patience or slow down and enjoy its small beauties- a case of missing the woods for the forest. Trying always to look at the larger picture has numbed our sensibilities and I can no longer strive to be the God of Small things because Size Does Matter.

As you sit in a vehicle or try to cross the road, you see this urge across to push faster and faster. People glaring and screaming at each other and trying to move swiftly but there is no smile on anyone’s face and no one willing to slow down and allow the other person to go ahead.

We have been brought up to believe that the world is always trying to move ahead and conspiring against us and we must not allow that to happen. So, we trust and care for no one; the only thing that matters is what we have done or where we go.

Try this experiment one day- Stand on the edge of a busy traffic junction and observe people moving about. But observe this as an outsider with absolutely zero involvement with the proceedings. You are merely a passive observer and looking at the scene standing outside it.

You observe the flow of life; everything is perfect just as it should be, just as life has willed it to be. It can be a meditative experience to stand outside and observe the world without being a part of it.

I am told that if we were to slow down, we will not reach our destination. But what is our destination? In this race for speed, we have no permanent destinations. Every halt is a mere pit stop in our relentless urge to cross the 100m line but then we do forget that life does not stop at the 100m finish; there are scores of marathons to go and here we are obsessed with a few 100 metres. What we are doing in the process is settling down for the smaller things in life at the cost of the larger, natural and more beautiful things in life.

Our culture puts a premium on speed and the techno world that we live in actively allows and encourages us to keep buzzing 24/7. Blackberry may be a technological marvel to keep you connected every time but the end result is that you remain connected and vulnerable to office pressures more than ever.

Multi-tasking has been thrust upon us and marketed to us as a virtue but think of it and you realize that it is such a misnomer; it is the same as zero tasking. You are there everywhere but in no single place at any time. Technology has reduced barriers and ensured that there is a greater ability to interact with people but willingness to do so is not a function of technology.

“Slow” is therefore, a dirty word and we need to do things fast just because everything else around us is going fast, without even considering whether or not it makes sense. Ever thought how difficult is to sit silently in a meditative state for a few minutes; the body starts twitching uneasily because it has never known what it is to be doing nothing. Inactivity is also required at times if we think about it. You feel like you're chasing something, but you never quite catch up with that something.

This fast obsession manifests even in the food that we have – Fast Food is something we have started living in. There’s no time for proper organic living and so we need synthetic substitutes pumping higher calories in a faster amount of time. As we click and punch keys in an attempt to connect to the world faster, it seems a small mercy that the sun still rises and rises as per its nature and not by the whims and fancies of engineers trying to screw up nature in the name of breakthrough innovations.

Slowly but steadily we may just be close to reach that Tipping point after which it may just be too late to slow down and start living all over again. If we haven't already reached a breaking point, we're close.

In this hyped-up world, we need to keep an eye on our personal speedometers- it's very easy to do things fast just because everything else around you is going fast, without even considering whether or not it makes sense- courtesy

This thought primarily struck me thanks to this beautiful forward sent by Simrat; I personally would not like to do a copy-paste but I do think that this forward is quite meaningful now.

It's been 18 years since I joined Volvo, a Swedish company. Working for them has proven to be an interesting experience. Any project here takes 2 years to be finalized, even if the idea is simple and brilliant. It's a rule.

Globalized processes have caused in us (all over the world) a general sense of searching for immediate results. Therefore, we have come to possess a need to see immediate results. This contrasts greatly with the slow movements of the Swedish. They, on the other hand, debate, debate, debate, hold x number of meetings and work with a slowdown scheme. At the end, this always yields better results.

Said in other words:
1. Sweden is about the size of San Pablo, a state in Brazil.
2. Sweden has 2 million inhabitants.
3. Stockholm has 500,000 people.
4. Volvo, Escania, Ericsson, Electrolux, Nokia are some of its renowned companies. Volvo supplies the NASA.

The first time I was in Sweden, one of my colleagues picked me up at the hotel every morning. It was September, bit cold and snowy. We would arrive early at the company and he would park far away from the entrance (2000 employees drive their car to work). The first day, I didn't say anything, either the second or third. One morning I asked, "Do you have a fixed parking space? I've noticed we park far from the entrance even when there are no other cars in the lot." To which he replied, "Since we're here early we'll have time to walk, and whoever gets in late will be late and need a place closer to the door. Don't you think? Imagine my face.

Nowadays, there's a movement in Europe named Slow Food. This movement establishes that people should eat and drink slowly, with enough time to taste their food, spend time with the family, friends, without rushing. Slow Food is against its counterpart: the spirit of Fast Food and what it stands for as a lifestyle. Slow Food is the basis for a bigger movement called Slow Europe, as mentioned by Business Week.

Basically, the movement questions the sense of "hurry" and "craziness" generated by globalization, fueled by the desire of "having in quantity" (life status) versus "having with quality", "life quality" or the "quality of being". French people, even though they work 35 hours per week, are more productive than Americans or British. Germans have established 28.8 hour workweeks and have seen their productivity been driven up by 20%. This slow attitude has brought forth the US’s attention, pupils of the fast and the "do it now!".

This no-rush attitude doesn't represent doing less or having a lower productivity. It means working and doing things with greater quality, productivity, perfection, with attention to detail and less stress. It means reestablishing family values, friends, free and leisure time. Taking the "now", present and concrete, versus the "global", undefined and anonymous. It means taking humans' essential values, the simplicity of living.

It stands for a less coercive work environment, more happy, lighter and more productive where humans enjoy doing what they know best how to do. It's time to stop and think on how companies need to develop serious quality with no-rush that will increase productivity and the quality of products and services, without losing the essence of spirit.

In the movie, Scent of a Woman, there's a scene where Al Pacino asks a girl to dance and she replies, "I can't, my boyfriend will be here any minute now". To which Al responds, "A life is lived in an instant". Then they dance to a tango.

Many of us live our lives running behind time, but we only reach it when we die of a heart attack or in a car accident rushing to be on time. Others are so anxious of living the future that they forget to live the present, which is the only time that truly exists. We all have equal time. No one has more or less. The difference lies in how each one of us does with our time.

As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans".

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Om Shanti Om

OSO is a Farah Khan movie – if you do not keep that in mind and condition yourself accordingly, you’d miss the point of the movie. Ms. Khan and party are out to have a ball and whether you like it or not, it does not matter or as SRK says, in the movie, in his tribute to Gone With the Wind - Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. There is a scene in OSO when a wannabe Bengali director says that the cameras are ready from the Satyajit Ray angle and the Bimal Roy angle but the producer asks him to focus on the Manmohan Desai angle kyonki wahin kaam ayega.

This philosophy exactly reflects Farah Khan’s mind as she sets out to make a pot boiler with no arty pretensions. For a lover of serious cinema, this can be a difficult experience – akin to a true blooded South Indian reading the Times of India after years of digesting The Hindu. But after the initial period of indigestion, it can also spell fun in a different form of way; of course, this feeling has to be a more conditioned one rather than natural.

Comedies/spoofs suffer when they start taking themselves seriously; and then you wish they’d stick to the comic plot instead of weaving silly melodrama- Check any Priyadarshan’s movie for that. Farah’s Main Hoon Na was a pain whenever the story tried to take upper hand over plots like the Sush-SRK romance; OSO also charters into such a terrain occasionally but for some reason the seriousness never sinks in.

There is not much of a story to mention, except that boy loves girl but girl loves someone, that someone kills her and boy and girl die in the process. They are reborn and the hero takes revenge with a little help from the girl’s ghost – a Karz meets Madhumati and then The End, finally!!! The story of re-incarnation and revenge is old enough and there is no real intent to recreate with a different perspective (we’ll leave that to RGV).

The pre-incarnation story of the 1st half is set in the 1970s while the second half moves into the current world of cinema. So, you have spoofing right from the days of Rajesh Khanna to Abhishek Bachchan. The movie meanders into seriousness occasionally but Farah Khan does not intend to continue the serious element for long. So, the seriousness stays put for a brief period before things again become hunky dory.

The good part about such movies is that they ask you to sit back and just watch, with a sense of abandon - keep your cerebral part out of it. Let’s not discuss the plot and the futility of it in the entire scheme of things because that is not relevant – Damn, we have a topless SRK emerging from the waters and bringing forth the quintessential metrosexual male (he could try the Daniel Craig style next time), a beautiful Deepika Padukone who manages to keep our attention on her face throughout and a whole lot of actors gyrating to foot tapping music!!! And you dare to ask for more????

OSO mocks at many in the industry- Sooraj Barjatya, the Kapoor family (Overacting hamari khandani beemari hai), Manoj Kumar (wonder what was there to be upset over his depiction here???) and many others but it is all in good fun. The clichéd dialogues and the performances (especially in the first half)) are clearly over the top but that is partly Farah’s tribute to the good old world of Hindi cinema.

Only the villain played by Arjun Rampal is underplayed; Baradwaj Rangan has a point when he says- an “unabashedly old-fashioned, over-the-top approach would have been more appropriate” for the antagonist of a self-respecting masala movie.

The songs are good, pleasantly hummable but for some reason they fall short when you watch it on screen. Where is the “Aankhon Mein Teri Ajab si” song; slicing and serving it in parts destroys Vishal-Shekhar’s wonderful score. And the title song is an HAHK type family get-together song- where the idea is “I scratch your back and you scratch mine” (Witness Govinda and SRK scratching each other’s back literally in the song).

The song went on for too long and I was waiting for the song to complete. But the songs still remain a plus point in the movie- Maybe Farah should try her hand at a musical where she can take more liberties with the script.

The best part of the movie is actually the rolling of the credits. It is done pretty innovatively and everyone gets a part in the credits, including the spot boys- Now that is good work and I’m sure that it would have pleased the entire team to no end. Moreover, Farah Khan entering the final stage of the credits and being welcomed to no applause is pretty symbolic of the hold that directors have on audience – none at all!!!

At the end, the movie remains just an occasional spoof – an attempt at parody with a story thrown in bits and pieces occasionally for the discerning guy in the audience to pickup if he wishes to. Too many wisecracks can make a half an hour serial but a 3 hour movie can be a bit of a stretch and that’s where Farah Khan stumbles.

Honestly, I don’t think there is anything much in the movie but if you want to while away a couple of hours and more and you have nothing much to do, go for it. Either way, there is nothing to lose….

Friday, October 12, 2007

My Farewell Mail

I had no intention to post my farewell mail to my company on this blog. However, looking at the overwhelming response that I have received from colleagues and several others who have read it, I have posted it here. The idea is not to sound very pompous about the entire thing but to share my feelings with a larger audience. It was Sudarshan's idea to post it here, though intended half in jest but I decided to take his point seriously!!!

I have always hated reading exit mails since most of them go overboard praising and thanking everyone-working in a dream company and the greatest set of colleagues etc. Why can't people just be honest atleast while moving out?

The idea was to be honest but at the same time not sound very bitter while leaving - after all that's the easiest thing to do, rail against everyone while leaving. Joining a company is a conscious decision that we have made and need to take responsibility for our actions instead of blaming the rest of the world for any misfortune that we may have faced.

Just to clarify, I have not faced any such issues and I'm leaving the company without carrying any baggage from the past. Of course, it is ironic that more people know me now that I have left the company than while working there.

Dear team,

After a brief stint of 17 months through the corridors of *******, I am moving out of the company today and going ahead in life to pursue my career in another company, infact another industry. It's been a bit of a mixed bag, with much more time at my personal disposal than in my previous job. Except for a few hectic months when in Kuala Lumpur , it's been a slow drive on an empty road.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Facilities, Canteen, Travel and Transport departments for the excellent support that I have received during this period. People may inundate the BB with complaints on these aspects but trust me, there are not too many companies who provide these kind of facilities. Laterals like me may understand this point but freshers and those born and brought up in ******* may not appreciate it.

I'd like to offer a special thanks to the entire *** team with which I have been associated during the entire period of my stay here. And a special word for my ex-PM, RC, who's been a wonderful support and guide throughout this period. One of the better aspects of my life here was the ****** pre-sales trip; it was a difficult phase but worth remembering, especially for the friends that I made in those few months in Kuala Lumpur .

Job satisfaction is not a company perk; it comes from doing quality work and with due respect to everyone, I do a feel a tinge of regret that this did not necessarily happen. This is no reflection on the company but on many other factors, both external and internal. There comes a time when you realize that there is a mismatch between your vision and that of the company, and then it is time to move on. Living in one’s comfort zone for the sake of stability may not be the best way to live, at least during early years of one’s career.

There are no regrets or sadness in leaving the company, however, at the same time, it is not exactly a gung-ho feeling. I realize that there is no dream company or dream job; we work because we need to do something and the month end SMS sent by ICICI justifies our efforts. My regards to everyone here; best of luck in the successful completion of all your endeavours. Also, there may be people whom I have consciously or sub-consciously hurt/disappointed during my interactions; my apologies to all of them.

I am available at my personal id - ******** - and also blog at - one of the legacies of bench management in *******.


P.S: The sentence in bold is not an original thought; that was taken from an ad released by Microsoft as part of its recruitment campaign. I have masked a few names for the sake of confidentiality.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

GoodBye, IT

Oct 10th-Wednesday will be my last day in my current job. After 17 months of spending my work life in a premier IT company, it is time to bid adieu to it and move to the industry of my birth-banking. Well, the industry and company shift has been a relatively easy decision but not the change in location. Moving from Hyderabad back to Mumbai needs a certain mental preparation and I still need to prepare for it.

These 17 months have been a mixed bag, really, as it probably happens for most people. It gave me an opportunity to travel abroad (referring to 'abroad' as 'onsite' is a feel food factor and another exercise in branding) and work at unknown areas like pre-sales and direct client interaction.

It has given me enough time in hand to rethink my priorities both at the career and personal front. Now time is not something that was available to me in my previous job but it was plenty here except for a few hectic months in Kuala Lumpur.

I must thank my company for the excellent infrastructure and facilities provided. The canteen, transportation and other miscellaneous facilities (gym, swimming pool, book stall among others) are something that went beyond what the company promised to deliver to its employees. There may be a second opinion about this amongst many but I don't have any complaint at all about it.

But then there are things that go beyond all this, don't they? What about your nature of work? Considering the fact that most of us spend close to 10-12 hours daily at work, it is imperative that we feel good about our work. The remaining time is anyway spent in gossiping, entertainment and sleeping.

The inherent nature of the IT industry facilitates the creation of a large bench strength (something the Indian cricket team badly needs) but then bench management is no joke. This problem is more acute for laterals who keep comparing their nature of work with their previous job.

Having the fastest growing bench strength may sound good on paper but not necessarily so in real life. With a growing emphasis on global offshore model and a rising rupee, onsite opportunities may also be shrinking, adding to the chagrin of employees.

Most IT companies recruit en masse from colleges and have a huge fresher strength. It brings in a certain sense of camaraderie amongst them but this is not the case with laterals. With due respect to the freshers, I have felt that many of them are pampered (atleast in my company) and so, they have so many unreasonable expectations from the company. Look at the complaint boxes in these companies and you'd realise what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I did feel like a fish out of water here. One reason could be my natural aversion towards technology; that clearly slackened my willingness to adapt to work in an IT company. For a functional person like me, technology was only an enabler, not the driver which was at odds with my company philosophy.

On many an occasion, the client and I were at sync with each other but to explain this to technical folks was always a headache-the kind of things that happens when you have scores of people who have never thought outside data tables, Java and codes. Again this is understandable; after all, that is why functional personnel are recruited.

Working on onsite projects also means working with different sets of people and probably never meeting your boss, except when you have a concall to discuss your appraisal; contrast this with my previous job where my boss and I spent more than a month preparing my appraisal form. But with due respect to the company, I do not hold anything against it. The reason for this amicable split is just that my vision and that of the company are different.

Whenever you leave a company, people keep congratulating you and for all such people, the only thing I have to say is there is no dream company. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but simple reasoning says that if I were to love my job, my company would not need to pay me. The pay is the reason we are all sticking to jobs we want to run away from. Knowing myself, it may not be long enough before I get tired even with that job and start cribbing. So, no false hopes for me.

Finally, moving out of Hyderabad and abandoning a life with zero costs currently (advantage of staying with parents) and throwing myself into the din of Mumbai life may not be everyone's idea of progress and I agree. Parents obviously do not understand but then we can't explain all decisons to them, right? After all, gut feeling decisions are best left unexplained.

Hoping that Mumbai will be kind enough to me to ensure that I have a decent piece of real estate for stay, at an affordable price, when I land there in less than 10 days time. And for my Mumbai friends, please open your doors and keep inviting me for dinners; my culinary skills are extremely suspect!!!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Perfect 20

The 20-20 World Cup is over and against all odds, India actually pulled off an amazing victory. The triumph was well deserved and we beat all the teams in the competition to emerge victorious. This is something that Dhoni and the boys can be clearly proud of; after all, 20-20 or 50-50, a World Cup is a World Cup.

There have been many cynics of this format (me included). My father used to call it the Gilli Danda version of cricket and we both cursed the administrators for coming up with another slam bang idea. But far from being a slogger's game, the game has actually shown bowlers in better light.

After all, victories were pulled off by teams due to the bowling prowess of Umar Gul, R P Singh, Clarke and the rest, dispelling all the notions of this being a Batsman's game. Even, somebody like Afridi did so much more with the ball than the bat!!!!

There is no doubt that cricket won more than anything else. Spectator patience is low and producing a result in three hours is definitely a great USP for the format. The game is not very different from the regular ODI format, except for the free hit rule, possibly.

Nor are the boundaries any shorter, as it was assumed it might be before the tournament began. The only thing that has actually changed is the ability to take risk, which increases dramatically in this version.

The 20-20 version has seen the most accurate bowling in recent times and yorkers being bowled regularly (Recollect the number of batsmen bowled in the tournament). It requires greater accuracy from the bowlers and many of them have shown the ability to deliver.

The overall strategy has not changed much; the Indian strategy remained keeping wickets within the first 5-6 overs and slogging at the end. The best team still won the tournament and it did not result in any bunny cricket.

Will this affect the other forms of the game? I don't think so. A three hour format is a greater threat to movies than to the one day form. Test cricket has a niche audience and they will not be weaned away by this. One day cricket is exciting and still remains a sponsor's dream, with the large number of advertising spots available.

What this could do is to increase the chances that cricketers get to play the game. How about 3 different sets of teams now? There have been other experiments with the game like double wicket which have faded but 20-20 is clearly to stay, primarily because it does not interfere with the actual fabric of the game.

The one day format when introduced in the early 70s was scoffed at but it has survived all the criticism. Gavaskar may have scored 36* in 60 overs but just before retiring he scored one the fastest hundreds in the World Cup (of 82 balls, a far cry from Afridi's record of 37 balls,of course). Even, the traditionalists can come around if the game provides all the thrills which seems to be the case, as initial evidence shows.

Yes, we have won and the country is celebrating - well almost, except for the hockey team. The BCCI can provide $3 million to the cricketers but should the state generously award these cricketers from the money we pay in taxes. With the funds there in the game and outside it, does it actually have to splurge it on cricketers?

No wonder the hockey team is upset to receive this form of state sponsored neglect. Also upset are the people who were stuck in the traffic jam on Thursday because the team was dancing its way to glory!!!

One thought on the finals - Shoaib Malik's comments during the awards ceremony was in bad taste. I don't believe he actually said - Sorry to all Pakistanis and Muslims in the world for losing the match. I did not realise even the current Pakistani generation is so short-sighted, considering the team as a representative of Muslims worldwide.

So what should Irfan Pathan have said when he won the Man of the Match - I am thankful to all Indian Muslims for supporting me??? That one second, I felt so glad that we remain Indians at heart and that victory for Dhoni is not a Hindu victory, whatever Malik may think...

We have a tough Australian series coming up and I hope the audience and the media support them just as they did now. It does not take much of an effort for a fickle audience to change its feelings; Dhoni would do well to recollect that his house was stoned and effigy was burnt when we crashed out the 50-50 World Cup.....

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In The Name of Ram

Religion’s a funny business, alright. My site meter tells me that my posts on Religion have traditionally done a better job than my other poorly performing posts. So, just to liven up things here and boost the sagging fortunes of this blog, I am posting one on religion.

Watch any news channel now and you know who are the attention grabbers currently - Ram Sethu, DMK and the BJP and their stallions, the VHP and other rag tags. Wonder how come Shiv Sena has not entered the fray- after all; it is the Madrasi Dravidian Karunanidhi who has been making these anti-Hindu comments.

It all started with the ASI making an ass of itself with its uncalled remarks, in a petition to the courts hearing the Ram Sethu issue. The affidavit claims that there was no historical evidence that Rama and Ramayana ever existed.

There is a lot of literary work that talks about the Ram Sethu and its origins. Should we conveniently ignore all that because the ASI thinks it is unscientific to consider literature as a source for historical veracity?

I am not questioning the ability of the ASI to judge these issues but surely, they could have stuck to plain engineering and economics for their stand, instead of bringing Rama into the picture.

Judging the evidence of the Sethusamudram bridge is fine but questioning the very existence of Rama is not their prerogative. Why would the ASI make such a claim and create a controversy when none existed, atleast from a historical angle? Beats me.

Whether we like it or not, religion is an integral part of all our lives and plays an important role in moulding us. It is a sensitive issue and the government could have shown greater tact. Sonia or Ambika may think that Rama is a figment of our dreams and there is nothing wrong if they think that way.

After all, this is a matter of faith and everyone has his or her set of beliefs which needs to be respected by others. But to put that in a government affidavit and make a fool of oneself is a simple case of committing political hara kiri.

Karunanidhi’s arguments do not even merit a discussion but they do make for decent juvenile reading.

Does Rama have an engineering degree and where did he graduate from???

Did the Tamil Nadu CM actually make such a remark? Imagine asking what Kamban’s authority on Ramayana is; after all, has he done his BA in Tamil from any college?

This is no atheist blogger venting out his spleen against religion and God but the Chief Minister of a State. Is it acceptable for a public figure and that too the head of a state to make such comments? Surely, there are better things to argue about rather than the veracity of Rama’s existence? Matters of faith anyway cannot be decided by logic and are best left to the people who care about it.

DMK cannot raise the bogey of freedom of speech here. After all, you could scarcely imagine them questioning the existence of Jesus and the marine engineering skills of Moses in splitting the sea or probing through the Koran for any non-scientific material?

There are many Hindus who are not too particular about religion but even they are bothered when their religion is selectively mocked at by the highest leadership but in the same breath, nothing is mentioned against the other religions because of the fear of being branded “communal”.

Shouldn’t the political class think that their comments may alienate a certain set of people, simply because of religious bias while taking potshots at religion? Of course, my point is not that they should rant against all religions and thus prove their secular credentials.

India is a religious cauldron and there are people waiting for an excuse to go berserk with their beliefs. What is the need to vitiate such an atmosphere by coming up sensitive remarks that would offend any community?

I do not have any issue if such a feeling were expressed by someone in his personal capacity but public figures must be sensitive to other’s feelings and not just scream over roof tops to claim a point.

What happened after all this mud-slinging is ofcourse highly deplorable. A bus of the Tamil Nadu State Transport was torched (killing 2 persons) and Selvi, Karunanidhi’s daughter, was attacked – all in the name of Ram. There are thousands who are willing to die and kill for religion but no one it seems who wants to live for religion.

Such acts of vandalism have no place in any civilized setup and it is extremely painful to see such acts of democratic hijacks. There are so many of us asking this question repeatedly Is our faith so narrow that one person’s statements can make us behave like barbarians?

To me, the entire issue is a debate of ecology and economics. There will be always be conflict in this area but we need to sit across a table, discuss this out and close it. There is always a solution but it can happen only when there is a give and take and tolerance and acceptance of different sets of values.

As a democracy, we are making rapid strides but where we seem to be caught in a time wrap is our level of intolerance. Forget it, it is not even a time wrap; I’m sure we have been more liberal in the past but as we progress we just don’t care what someone else wants to say.

Considering the complexities of running this nation where the only uniting point is nationalism, we must tread very carefully. A small scratch and the entire fabric holding this idea will tear apart.

I strongly believe that religion divides people but it can also be a great unifier. It teaches us to forgive and forget; the true value of our religions has been conveniently forgotten in the din of intolerance that we have come to practice.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Do we have a Transport policy???

A few days back, I came across Karan Thapar’s interview with Ratan Tata in CNBC TV-18. Among the various issues that were discussed, one of them was the Tata’s 1 lakh car. Ratan Tata was confident that they would be able to deliver the Rs 1 lakh car by mid-2008; a few more months to go before the world’s cheapest car hits the roads.

The showroom price may not be one lakh but somewhere in the range of 1.2-1.3 lakh, nevertheless, it still beats the lowest price in India by a huge margin. The Maruti 800 sells at about 2.3 lakhs while even its second hand model (with 2 years usage) comes at about 1.5 at least.

As a business model, it makes perfect sense to launch such a low priced car targeting a segment waiting to indulge itself. The Indian car industry is growing at more than 15 percent compounded annually since 2001 and we are expected to be one of the top 10 countries in terms of vehicle sales by 2015.

Anyway, I’m looking at this post not in terms of the business strategy of Tata Motors but in terms of the larger picture of how we commute in urban centres. Whenever I try to picture city life, the first images that strike my mind are traffic congestion, pollution and chaos.

When I moved out of Mumbai (16 months back) and came to Hyderabad, I was expecting a saner city but now, I have given up on that idea. The idea of a clean, organized city remains a mirage – sometimes, it takes me more than 2.5 hrs in the evening to commute from my office to home by the company bus (the distance to be covered is about 32 km).

Everyday, as I sit in the bus and look out at the ever bludgeoning traffic, I feel so relieved that I am not subject to the torture of driving to and fro for my work. But imagine, what a 1 lakh car will do – two wheeler houses will start investing in it and you will have many households with multiple cars at home. Can our roads and environment sustain all this?

There are two primary ways that the government can look at handling road congestion – expanding the scope of the public transportation or increasing the roadways in the country. Most governments are hell bent upon ignoring the first strategy (at least in most cases) and are going full throttle on the latter one. While expansion of road infrastructure is required, will it solve the problem?

More roads will mean more automobiles on the road, strangling whatever public space is still available. Ask a Hyderabadi the pain involved in navigating through Ameerpet and finding parking space there.

Funnily, the only solution that a government can think of is towing vehicles instead of regulating uncontrolled construction. Public transportation as a policy is notoriously under debated, primarily because we live under the fallacy that everything that is private is perfect and government should be avoided as much as possible. To ensure free flow of traffic, we need to evolve a combination of strategies, including discouraging citizens from using their own vehicles.

What can an efficient public transportation system do? Very clearly, reduce the traffic congestion problem and lower the health hazards that we face after being dumped with tons of carbon monoxide – a visible manifestation of the booming economy. The system should provide a credible alternative that encourages people to move from the comfort and convenience of their vehicles to the public transportation system.

The Hyderabad MMTS provides the comfort but no convenience (very few trains and poor connectivity to the city) while it works the other way for the Mumbai local trains (good connectivity and frequency but zero passenger comfort). From whatever I have heard, Delhi, has got this balance right.

The concept of a Metro Rail that a few governments in India are floating is a step in the right direction. It is a non-polluting medium and can help immensely reducing traffic (Thailand has seen a 4% reduction in traffic after introducing trains in the city).

Hopefully, the gestation time of the projects will not be too high otherwise by the time the first train rolls out; our traffic would have seen a quantum leap. Moreover, during the entire period of the project, the traffic could be badly affected; the Project mangers would have to tread carefully to prevent the chaos from spurting further out of bounds.

One very important thing that needs to be done is to have an integrated transportation policy and not just a rail policy. One of the main criticisms of the MMTS system in Hyderabad is its poor connectivity with the state’s road transport system – something that could have been learned from the successful model in Mumbai.

I take a train from Secunderabad to Lingampally station (to commute to my office) but there is hardly any connectivity from the station to the rest of the city. Why would people want to pay hefty rates and travel by autos from the station when bus transport is so much easier?

The AP government is finally implementing a long delayed proposal of having a combined pass for railways and buses in the city. This would clearly help passengers who have to otherwise take a ticket separately for the MMTS system. But there is more required to be done in terms of infrastructure building. Frequency needs to be increased and connectivity issues need to be addressed to enable more and more people to use these systems.

Any traveller who arrives in Singapore the first time will be able to commute his way through easily because of the user-friendly approach of the government in having clear signals, sign boards everywhere. Contrast this with the confusion in Dadar in determining on which platforms the Western and Central Line trains arrive. This might seem a pretty innocuous point but these small steps do go a long way in easing congestion.

There could be other ways to tackle commutation woes as tried out in London and Singapore. London has tried a harsh £8 congestion charge for motoring through some areas such as Central London while Singapore has not only a peak-hour tax but also a surcharge on the sale of automobiles (a step clearly out of favour with the automobile industry and other ancillary industries). However, the point to be noted is that they have a robust rail network to get the city moving and no such measure can be taken in isolation.

Our consumption rates are increasing dramatically but can the Indian infrastructure handle all this???

Friday, August 31, 2007

Phorpa - The Cup

Going ahead with my newly found interest in World cinema, I would like to draw the attention of readers to Phorpa (The Cup), a Tibetan/ Bhutanese movie directed by Khyentse Norbu, a Lama, better known under his religious title- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche - an eminent teacher and practitioner of the non-sectarian tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and the recognized incarnation of a great 19th century Buddhist saint.

The very idea of a monk in the world of entertainment sounds weird, but then such a thought is a tribute to our sense of stereotyping more than anything else. After all, art has no boundaries – then, why not an ascetic entertaining us? Norbu not only manages to make a movie but also weaves a surprisingly charming tale using a set of non-professional actors and real life monks.

The Cup was a surprise hit at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival; it tells a story of football crazy monks, obsessed with the idea of viewing the 1998 World Cup – torn between spiritual enlightenment and their love for the game.

Based on a true story, it takes a delightful look at the world of Tibetan monks and refugees staying in India. To outsiders who imagine that Tibetan monks live an impossibly austere life, the film comes as a surprise. The youngsters under the control of their strict taskmaster, Geko, are mischievous and playful.

You have scenes of the monks playing football, singing, sleeping during prayers, secretly reading magazines etc. – everything which enables us to look at the monks just as they are, sans their halos. His lens not only gives us a peep into the various Buddhist rituals happening but also the normal day-to-day activities in their lives.

Most of the youngsters in Dharamshala have escaped from Tibet and come to India to stay under the aegis of the Dalai Lama. But this does not mean they are automatically attracted towards religion. Two boys are sent, with much hardship and danger, to a monastery in exile in the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas to be ordained into a monastic life.

They have other things on their mind and football is a top priority (in the film), but staying within the walls of the monastery means that they cannot watch their stars in action. Led by a young trainee monk, Orgyen, a few of them make plans to watch the World Cup by sneaking across outside the monastery but are caught by their supervisor, Geko, and punished.

But Orgyen, a Ronaldo fan, is not willing to give up and makes a last ditch attempt by requesting Geko to allow them to bring a television to the place so that they can watch atleast the World Cup final. They promise to work harder and plead to be allowed this one chance.

Surprisingly, they are allowed permission to bring a television but the next challenge is to raise funds for it. The monks pool in money to rent out a television and satellite dish so that they can watch the finals.

The narrative is slow, sparse and does not have any specific events that drive the plot but it sashays its way across effortlessly as a monk navigates through time. It is not didactic or preachy and takes us into the world of Tibetan monks at a leisurely pace.

The humour is warm, sweet and not forced. The bewilderment that the senior monks have when faced with this “non-spiritual” challenge is genuinely funny. Like the scene where Orgyen and his friends consult a soothsayer monk to predict the result of the matches; the soothsayer is left wondering what the fuss is all about.

Witness this conversation between Geko and the abbot:

Abbot: What is the World Cup?
Geko: Two civilized nations fight with each other to gain possession of a ball.
Abbot: Is there violence involved?
Geko: Sometimes.
Abbot: Sex?
Geko: No, you do not have to worry about that.
Abbot: What do they get after the war?
Geko: A Cup.

This exchange can be seen as a critique of modern sport also where two countries battle it out for something as simple as a cup or a trophy. Contrast this to the Tibetan struggle where the hope of a country itself is in shreds and sport has no meaning.

It looks at what home sickness and nostalgia means to the monks in exile, who are so cut away from their homelands. It also presents the attitudes of the new generation of monks who have always tasted freedom and portrays a streak of rebellion in them, unlike possibly their predecessors.

The movie could as well have been set anywhere in the world and the incidents would still have remained just the same. But when the same story is juxtaposed against the ethereal and slow world of the monks in Dharamshala, the movie has a different hue and the layers demand more meaning to the flow of events.

A movie on Tibet could easily have been a blatantly political movie but Norbu allows the theme of political independence to be embedded in the script subtly and does not permit it to dictate the flow. There are hints to the Chinese occupation and Indian and American support for their cause but these are thrown at a few places here and there and do not form a central part of the plot.

Modern sport is a curious mix of entertainment, raw passion and nationalism. The director uses football as a symbol of this nationalism to convey the Tibetan sense of loss. Sitting on our sofa set when we cheer the Indian cricket team, we do not merely support eleven men in blue but we associate that feeling with a sense of pride in the nation.

Sports, probably, more than anything plays this role of arousing nationalism and so, Norbu uses this is as a powerful allegory to feel what it is to belong to a nation.

The entire Tibetan affair is a serious business but to look at their world in a light hearted way which is appealing is a clearly an ingenious act and full credit to the director for this serene and lyrical movie which gladdens all our hearts and still scores cerebral points. Who says soccer and religion cannot mix!!!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Chasing Daylights

Death is not annihilation; it is the flowering of life
- Mata Amritanandamayi

A few months back I chanced upon a book- Chasing Daylights -in one of the book reviews in Business World. The premise of the book- How my Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life – seemed interesting and I promptly bought it.

I started off in a hurry as I generally do with all the books that I buy but after a few pages, I lost interest and the book found itself scattered all across the house- at different locations, in different rooms, lying in an unwanted heap of books and papers.

And then, suddenly, last week, for some unknown reason, I decided to pick up the book and give it a try (Thank you, Amma). My journey to office takes close to 1.5 hrs daily and I had the time to read it. Now that I am through with the book, I wonder why I did not finish it in one go earlier.

Chasing Daylights is a new age philosophy book written by Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO and Chairman of KPMG, one among the Big Four Audit firms. Calling it a New Age probably does not do it justice – New Age is a much abused terminology. This book is an account of his final journey towards death.

It starts from the time he is diagnosed with the disease- glioblastoma multiforme - and concludes with his death four months later. The final chapter of the book is written by his wife as he is too sick by that time to pen down all his thoughts. It is an intimate, thought provoking account of the last days of a man who realizes that he was “…blessed. I was told I have three months to live”.

Death is undoubtedly the most personal moment of one’s life(!!!) – a phase which one has to handle alone - all alone. The grief that surrounds this transition affects not just the person but the surroundings, making it a rather morbid feeling. Eugene, however, decides (rather realizes) that death need not be so bad at all and that the pain of it can be lessened by being ready for the last day and embracing it full heartedly.

He decides to unwind himself from all that he is associated with – his colleagues, his business associates, family members and finally self. He reckons, very rightly I realize, that the pain is much lesser when both the related parties agree to move apart.

I guess, in many ways, the problem with death is not that it comes one day inevitably – we all know that- but when it comes, it jolts us rudely from our slumber of mortality. Most cultures do not discuss death because there is a fear and anxiety about it but how about facing it with a smile or even welcoming it by being ever ready for it?

Welcoming death does not necessarily mean running away from life but it means looking at death as yet another milestone that needs to be covered in our ever changing state of consciousness. We are all scared of Death because no one has ever returned from there to tell us how it is to die; if someone could return, things could have been very different.

Most Hindus would agree, at least theoretically, that death is not the annihilation of our souls but a mere signpost in our long journey. But are we ready for this journey?

I distinctly remember reading the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche where he says that the best form of meditation is to meditate on one’s death. Sounds ghastly, right? But it is so only because it is a radical thought; after all haven’t we all been brought up to look at death as something hideous and grotesque? He says and I quote -

Death is a vast mystery, but there are two things we can say about it: It is absolutely certain that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. The only surety we have, then, is this uncertainty about the hour of our death, which we seize on as the excuse to postpone facing death directly. We are like children who cover their eyes in a game of hide-and-seek and think that no one can see them.

One of the most beautiful things that Eugene tries to explain is how to live in the present and not bury oneself in the debris of the past or the uncertainty of the future. Now this is not an entirely novel thought and I’m sure we would have heard this umpteen times. But, he does not sermonize; instead, he tries to bring that change to his life.

He succeeds on a few occasions while he continues to struggle on many others but there is a certain peace that he feels as he connects to his true self – something that happens when you start living in the present. It is a constant struggle which takes a great deal of effort initially but slowly it becomes an effortless and painless process. Contrary to what we have been brought upto believe, it is our nature to be happy and it is only when we move away from this feeling, we become diseased – a state of not being at ease.

Being a businessman, he goes about the business of dying (as he calls it) in a very methodical manner. He lists his final goals, sets timelines and tracks his progress, all of them focused with one final target in mind – DEATH. He stumbles repeatedly as he realizes that his strengths as a business leader are probably not the biggest assets that he requires now.

Speed, efficiency and micro-management (Type A Personality characteristics) were of not much use to him at this juncture and it is then he realizes that the most important virtue in a man’s life is Consciousness.

Multi-tasking is not a virtue as many of us would like to believe. It merely means a lack of focus on any particular activity. I remember reading this beautiful Zen tale about a monk and his disciple. One day, after years of austere life, the disciple asks his Master what is the difference between the two of them?

The Master says, “I eat, I sleep, I work and I meditate. “ The puzzled student says, “So do I. What is the difference?” The Master smiles and replies, “When I work, I work; when I eat, I eat. But when you work, you think about what you eat; when you eat, you think about your sleep and so on”.

How different are we? At this moment, as you are reading this, you probably have lots of different ideas running through your head. We are all a set of muddled minds, without a focus – the ocean of thoughts needs to become a silent stream.

Chasing Daylights is not about one man’s fight against death like Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike which chronicles his struggles against all odds and less than 10% survival chances to emerge a hero. Armstrong’s effort is wonderful and inspiring but for some reason I felt closer to Eugene’s story. Embracing death is probably so much tougher than enduring it, though a happy ending always makes for pleasant reading.

The disease was at its final stages when diagnosed; probably one reason he did not fight it the way he and many of us would have wanted. Yes, snatching life from the jaws of death is heroic but there are times, when we need to accept life and death as they are. The book is more about his acceptance of his fate which some people may claim as cowardice but to me, it is as heroic as it gets.

After reading the book, I think I need to strive to live in the present; not an easy idea to implement by any stretch of imagination but it is a profoundly powerful feeling. As I write this, my mind goes back to the meeting that I had in the morning; clearly there is a long way to go before I actually start living in the present but then, I can always make a start, can't I?

We all have the required tools scattered around us to tap the energies in the world, conspiring outwardly to help us whenever we need. But let us make an attempt to reach out to it. It's never too late; we need not wait until Death stands at the altar of our lives before we attempt to change.....

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Right to Reincarnate????

Reincarnation was always considered to be something left to the faith of people and a religious issue. But now, the overzealous Chinese Government has pitched in to stop and regulate reincarnations.

We always knew that the Chinese government was scared of the Tibetan monks but isn't this stretching it a bit too far? In a new rule, Tibet’s living Buddhas have been banned from reincarnation without permission from China’s atheist leaders.

Beats me how the Government is going to identify reincarnations. Can you imagine a set of monks sitting for a reincarnation test and then an interview? Maybe the monks would have to submit an application claiming their reincarnation with required proof, duly attested by a gazetted officer (scope for easy money).

When matters of faith start being regulated and framed by governments, you know where this is all headed. Now you’d appreciate the complex responsibilities that bureaucrats have to deal with across the world, especially in such regulated democracies...

For further reading, check this space - China tells living Buddhas to obtain permission before they reincarnate...

Friday, June 22, 2007

Children of Heaven

In the past few months, thanks to the Hyderabad International Film Festival and a couple of friends (Sirisha and Prem), I have had the good fortune of being exposed to the world of international cinema, something which I have always wanted to but never could. Sometime back, I got a DVD version of an Iranian movie Children of Heaven, directed by Majid Majidi, a prominent member of the Iranian New Wave Cinema. The movie was nominated for the Best Foreign Feature Film in the Academy Awards (2003) but lost out to Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”.

Children of Heaven is the kind of movie you want to watch and recommend to others for viewing. The movie is stunningly simple and subtle but at the same time is highly engrossing and never for a second, do you feel bored with the proceedings. There is something about such movies which is refreshingly different – they are simple, unhurried and talk to your heart directly. Sometimes, in the name of art, directors complicate movies and make you wonder whether the art of story telling can be so convoluted after all.

Children of Heaven tells the story of two siblings, Ali and Zahrah. Ali takes his sister Zahrah’s shoes for repair but loses them on his way home. The entire movie revolves around their attempts to manage their lives with a single pair of sneakers. The family is poor and cannot afford to buy a new pair of shoes, so they hide the loss of the footwear from their parents. They come to an agreement where Zahrah wears Ali’s sneakers in the morning while attending school and Ali uses the same pair in the afternoon to attend noon classes.

There is a running competition in the area for kids and the third prize is a pair of shoes. Ali participates in the race hoping to come third but after a lot of effort, comes first. His coach and principal are all very happy but he is glum because he can no longer give the shoes to his sister. The film ends with Zahrah finding out that she will not get a new pair of shoes, but an epilogue explains that Ali eventually achieves the larger-scale success of having a racing career. (The epilogue in the DVD version does not carry sub-titles and I picked this part from the internet).

The story line is quite a basic one and some critics have found it just too simple. But I see this as more of a problem with the cynical times we live in. We are so desperate to complicate our lives and don’t have the time and patience to appreciate simplicity. Serious cinema is conveniently taken to comprise uncomfortable bouts of insufferable silence, long shots of unexplainable camerawork and dialogues which seem totally out of world; entertainment is confused with meaningless songs, action sequences and inane dialogues – all in the name of reaching out to the masses. But Majidi shows that there are no boundaries between class and mass cinema and that art can be both meaningful and entertaining at the same time and does not have be mutually exclusive.

The movie appeals to our heart because it manages to blend realism and beauty – something that people think is difficult to find. There are a few scenes that stand out like when Ali and his father go to the city in search of work and are wonderstruck by the urban life. The scene also shows the two disparate Irans that exist- one in the high rises and the other in the lanes and by lanes. His father fails to get work because of his communication skills (or rather lack of it) but Ali manages to get his father work by talking smartly, also possibly a generational change.

In another scene, Zahrah drops her brother’s shoes accidentally in the drain; she goes through a gamut of emotions till it is retrieved and we live those emotions, along with her. Her attempts to hide her shoes from the other kids and at the same time locate her pair of shoes are almost an ode to the world of innocence that we have long forgotten in the process of growing up.

Children of Heaven will appeal to children and the unfamiliarity in language is not a hindrance. The director manages to overcome the language barrier and bring into our midst a movie that not only enthralls visually but also tugs at our heart strings. However, classifying this as a children’s movie would be doing grave injustice to Majidi’s efforts at reaching out to a larger audience. In the cynical times we live in, children’s movies are looked as escapist fare catering to a slightly lower denomination of audience. But then, anyday, such a movie should be shown to kids rather than a “Spiderman” or a “Batman” which have nothing in it for children except the fact that they are cartoon strip characters.

The beauty of cinema lies in its ability to present a visual medium to the audience; exploring the sights and sounds can be a beautiful experience in itself. Many filmmakers do not use the power of visuals and bombard the screen with too many dialogues; you need to let the medium to speak for itself and not handicap it. However, at the same time, you must not get carried away by the beauty of the medium and subject your viewers to the agony of being thrashed with senseless visuals that do not speak anything coherent.

The movie is set in a primarily lower middle class milieu and the lens work gives us a peek into the world of lower rungs of Iranian culture, without passing judgments- something we have got used to doing whenever we think about the Islamic world. Human struggle (however insignificant) is always intimidating but it can also be shown beautifully, without allowing us to be cynical about the entire experience.

Kid movies often suffer from the problem of overplaying the cuteness of the kids (watch any Mani Ratnam movie) and irritating us but thankfully, Majidi ensures that they remain part of the medium and do not dominate it. In these days of fast paced action, isn’t it delightful to go through the small things in life in such an unhurried fashion? Finally, all I can say is – This is an excellent movie for both adults and children alike, and one that begs for further discussion with your kids.

Meanwhile, my tryst with Iranian cinema continues. A couple of weeks back, I managed to get a DVD copy of Samira Makhmalbaf’s acclaimed movie Blackboards which won her the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2001. Hopefully, this involvement will help me in exploring the world of international cinema, which has only meant Hollywood till now. I’d be grateful if anyone can suggest avenues to explore this world. I am not very sure where I can watch foreign movies in India.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

30 hours in Bangkok- Part 1

Life is never short of surprises and so in a matter of less than a year, I am transformed from a guy who has never seen the world beyond Mumbai on one side and Kerala on the other, to a South East Asia trotter, albeit on a small scale. After spending a couple of months in Kuala Lumpur and almost winding up my job (as of now), I am looking forward to return to my native place and see my cute little niece whom I have never set my eyes on. But as fate has it, I am told I need to extend my stay for about 10 days more. My Malaysia visa is about to expire, so I need to leave the country for a brief while and come back so that I can get an on arrival visa again. Since India is far away, I and another colleague of mine with the same visa expiry problem (let’s call her V) decide to travel to Bangkok for the weekend. Now, company paid holiday is something you don’t want to give up any day, do you?

V and I go to the KL Sentral (that’s the spelling) and book a couple of tickets to and fro Bangkok for the next day. The queue for the low frill Air Asia is very high and so we settle down for a Malaysian Airlines flight. The two way return for a single person comes upto 1270 RM (the Air Asia tickets would have come at less than 200 RM). The flight is at 9 AM on a Saturday and we manage to arrive at KL Sentral two hours in advance. For Malaysian Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Air Asia, you can check in at KL Sentral itself, without having to go to the airport. There is a train service (28 min journey) which further connects the airport to this place. I believe Hyderabad is also toying with this idea – a rail corridor, stretching 30 km to connect the Begumpet airport in the heart of Hyderabad to the upcoming international airport in Shamshabad, with estimated investments of Rs 2,500 crore has crossed the proposal stage.

After an event-free flight, we land at the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok- Asia’s so-called sleaze capital. The procedure to get an on-arrival visa is, however, not hassle-free, as in Malaysia. The visa costs 1000 Baht, requires a return ticket, a photograph and proof of currency worth 10,000 Baht (in cash or traveller’s cheques). Since we do not carry a photo with us, we pay 200 Baht for each of our photos at the airport. The ladies at the counter are not very friendly and seem to bear some unknown grudge against us.

V forgets her wallet at the desk and goes to another counter. We remember it later and approach the ladies for the wallet. They seem to have no idea what a wallet/purse is, so I take out my wallet and gesture to them and after about 5 minutes, they get the message and the purse is returned. Finally, after gesticulating and speaking broken English, they give us both on arrival visas valid for 15 days. We complete the immigration clearance and move to the nearest information desk.

The lady across the counter beams at us and offers us a set of hotels. V is very clear that she’ll do the talking because she’s scared that they’ll sell me a sleazy accommodation; the reputation of the city scares her. So, we eventually settle for a hotel named PJ Watergate at a place I cannot remember (Just searched in Google- the place is called Ratchatewee). The package includes a night stay at the hotel (including complimentary breakfast for the next day) and a tour of the royal palace and a few Buddhist temples. It costs us 4800 Baht for 2 rooms and the guided tour (excluding entry fees at these places). The lady also informs that we need to take a cab to the hotel and it will cost us another 300 Baht (the metered rate starts at 35 Baht here).

In about an hour’s time, the cab transports us to the hotel, where our guide is waiting for us to start the tour. We have a quick refreshment and start off on our journey in a comfortable cab. Evidently, the King (Rama IX) and the Queen are pretty popular in Thailand and the city is strewn with their posters. The coup against Thaksin Shinawatra had his blessings and the people accept that. Our guide is a young Vietnamese guy called Yakee (his name tag says something else, though). Yakee is a nice guy but that’s the best I can tell about him. The poor guy is clearly historically challenged and does not seem to have any idea about the temples and struggles to give us any form of historical insights. His language is also not very understandable and the only thing I can understand from his language is that there are different architectural styles involved in the temples – Thai, Chinese, Indian and Cambodian.

The entry fees to the palace and temples comes to about 350+ Baht totally for each person. V is disappointed and expresses her displeasure regularly in Hindi at the inability of our guide to tell us anything at all. Incidntally, Yakee tells us that there are different postures of the Buddha, based on the different days of the week – Monday Buddha, Tuesday Buddha etc.- and shows us the statues with the various postures in the temple. I am not too sure about the veracity of this claim, though. There are many statues that we see but the most prominent of these is the Reclining Buddha- a huge statue made up of solid gold, which stretches across 46 metres. This statue is housed in the temple Wat Pho.

(A photo of the reclining Buddha)
We also manage to visit the Wat Phra Kaew temple which contains the Thai version of the Ramayana in the temple walls. This temple is very sacred and does not allow visitors not dressed appropriately. Signs put up around the entrance show you are not permitted to enter wearing shorts, sleeveless shirts, singlets or any form of open ended shoes. Sarongs and long trousers are usually available for loan. The temple also houses a miniature model of the famous Cambodian temple complex Angkor Wat. After the temple, we visit the Grand Palace which is a ceremonial palace and used only occasionally by the royal family. This is in the same compound as the temple and provides a contrast with its European style of architecture (Yakee informs us that Italian marble was used). We also visit the Wat Arun temple but I am unable to recollect much about it. Honestly, temple travel is not my forte but then V is fascinated by history and is insistent on checking out all the temples (I fancy history for its politics than art).

By about 6 pm, we are through with all our temple/palace visits and return to our hotel. We decide to go to the Floating market the next day, about 70 km from the city. A private tour would cost us about 4000+ Baht, so we decide to take a group tour which would cost us about 700 Baht each but would mean that we would travel with a group of people and with a different guide. After seeing Yakee’s knowledge and the monetary deal, we decide to take the group trip. Meanwhile, I retire to my hotel room to take a rest while V decides to take a look around the place. Instead of taking rest in my room, I end up watching the Nicole Kidman starrer The Interpreter, in HBO in the room.

V returns after some time and we head towards an Indian restaurant nearby called “Mughal Darbar”, which seems the sole eatery nearby serving vegetarian food. It is run by a Sardarji and has a set of giggling red dressed Thai girls, not too keen to serve us a meal. We are offered salad and mineral water, along with the food but we decide not to have it lest we are charged for it. Amazingly, we are charged for this free offering given and reversed only when I protest. The Sardarji looks at us wondering where these Indians have come from, refusing to pay a paltry sum of 20 Bahts but gives in and reduces the bill.

It’s about 9.30 pm now and we go around the place but most establishments are shutting down and there’s nothing to do. Rather regretfully, we retire to our rooms. Tourists going to bed by 10 pm in Bangkok- either the place is too bad or we are lousy tourists. Probably the second part is true.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The French Presidential Roulette

In a few hours from now, French electors will be voting in the second round of their presidential election. In the first round, the field was narrowed to two candidates, the Right Wing Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist Ségolène Royal. The remarkable thing about that round was the huge turnout — 83 percent; quite a contrast with the 2002 election, when there was a high proportion of abstentions.

The media spin doctors have of course gone on an overdrive, billing it as the battle between the glamorous, intelligent and articulate Royal and the hard nosed, no-nonsense Sarkozy. The glamour angle (after the rather boring faces of Chirac and Mitterand) provides a good copy for all readers. Both the leaders are born in the post-World War era and do not carry the baggage that the previous generation carries. Both were disliked in their parties as being overambitious and under-qualified upstarts but they have managed to capture the imagination of the French public.

This has been one of the most widely discussed elections that France has seen; probably a lot to do with the fact that it has never elected a woman as its head of state. The fact that Ms. Royal is not only relatively young (53 yrs) but also quite attractive has added colour to the elections. Sarkozy is also young (52 yrs), ambitious and a pragmatist and has a sharply divided opinion in France.

A few months back, photos of Royal frolicking in a beach in a bikini were widely circulated in the press. The French press is quite finicky about publishing such photos of leaders but it still found its way into the papers. But the visuals have not impeded her chances in any way. Stories have also been circulated about Sarkozy’s wife missing during his campaign. All this gossip has managed to bring about life in the rather boring world of politics.

However, what I find the most interesting aspects of this French election are the voter turnout and the woman/mother angle of Royal.

France has the fifth largest population in Europe at 63 million. Its citizens enjoy free healthcare and education. Those in work enjoy a relatively high standard of living and five weeks' statutory paid holiday. It is the most popular country in the world among tourists, receiving about 75 million visitors a year and has the third largest income in the world from tourism.

But France's economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates - 9.8% - of any European country. Public finances are coming under strain from the pension system and rising healthcare costs and the tax burden is one of the highest in Europe, at nearly 50% of GDP in 2005.

France has long had a high level of immigration. There are now 4.9m immigrants in France and the French Muslim population is estimated to be the largest in western Europe. Many live in the suburbs in low-standard social housing; unemployment is high among these communities and crime is a serious problem here. In France, the Presidency of Jacques Chirac has lasted many years, and in the past three or four years there have been increasing signs of discontent with the political state of the country.

France has suffered from serious economic problems, and high unemployment, particularly among young people. This has led to racial tensions in cities, where citizens from ethnic minorities have become ghettos of the unemployed and deprived. The high turnout of voters is a clear reflection of a widespread wish for change.

Royal is an unwed mother of four kids and the father is a prominent leader in the Socialist Party. This would in many places not go down well with the public but this is probably more acceptable in France and maybe Europe. It’s a point worth considering if US would be willing to accept such a leader. A country where abortion is an election issue may not necessarily appreciate an unwed mother as a Head of State - a “moral” Bush or an “immoral” Royal???

In India, Royal would stand no chance at all. The conservatives would scoff at her unwed mother status while the liberals may fume at the idea of four kids. If Richard Gere can attract imprisonment for kissing Shilpa Shetty, wonder what would happen if an unwed mother (not even of the Gandhi family) stands for elections?

The idea of a woman Head of state is not new to Asia, with the likes of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Bandarnaike, Gloria Arroyo and Shiekh Hasina covering a great deal of the political spectrum in their respective countries. Ofcourse, the fact that they belonged to prominent political families was an important point in their favour.

Ms Royal has had to do a tremendous fight to emerge as a leader within her party itself, especially with repeated sexist attacks on her personal life. She’s, however, fought against many of the odds and emerged as the leading contender for the role. Politically, she’s been accused of being naïve, with little understanding of foreign policy.

She has also been projected as a bit of a lightweight when compared to Sarkozy. While Sarkozy has won points for his assertive style, his demeanour has not exactly gone down too well with the minorities and immigrants. But as all media stories say, France seems all set to elect a president it admires but does not widely like (Latest opinion polls indicate a nine poll lead for Sarkozy).

All the rhetoric dished out in the last few months will finally culminate in that final knockout blow to one of the candidates; however, whatever the result, the high voter turnout is an abject lesson for all democracies – something that the Labour party in UK may have to keep in mind, considering the rather poor opinion that the British public now holds of Blair and Co.

I have not done any analysis on the two candidates to suggest who is better for us in India. The experts in CNN and NDTV would probably have brought about this story. Often wondered whether all this analysis even matters; after all, it is the bureaucracy that runs democracies and not the political class, especially when the leadership has no great vision. Nevertheless, you can read more on the policy differences between the two candidates here, which, eventually may not make too much of a difference.

As per the French constitution, there cannot be any media coverage in the last 48 hours of a poll. So, all analysis in France has come to a standstill and the public is keeping its fingers crossed to witness what could probably one of the closest fights to the hot seat in France. Will it be the hard-nosed Sarky or the softie Sego?

Ofcourse, some things never change. So, there are constant media references to Royal's sex, physical attributes, wardrobe, marital status etc. While Royal has managed to use the looks and gender factor to her advantage, there is always a lurking suggestion from the media hinting at the idea of a "woman president". Does a female Head of State necessarily mean a country turning progressive? Can we judge women politicians by their policies alone, keeping aside gender politics?

P.S. Incidentally, India also has a role to play in the elections. There are 5,534 registered French voters of Pondicherry who would be casting their ballot in this poll. Talk about globalization!!!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Open Up Guruvayur

The Guruvayur Devaswom Board is sitting this week to decide on whether or not to allow the entry of the legendary singer, K J Yesudas, into the precincts of Guruvayur temple or not. This was prompted due to the renewed efforts by Devaswom Minister G. Sudhakaran who has written to Guruvayur Devaswom Board chairman Thottathil Ravindran, seeking entry for Yesudas to the temple. The Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple, located in the Guruvayur town of Thrissur district in Kerala is one of the most sacred and important pilgrimage centres in Kerala, dwarfed in terms of popularity only perhaps by the Sabarimala temple. Unfortunately despite all its holiness, its image has been somewhat sullied by its refusal to allow non-Hindus entry into the shrine.

Yesudas, who has sung several songs in praise of Lord Krishna, has not been allowed entry into the temple because he is a Christian – Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, a Catholic Christian hailing from Kochi. A few decades ago, the Guruvayur temple authorities stopped him at the gate but let in the rest of a concert troupe, led by his Guru, the late Carnatic maestro Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. The Guru walked out and his heart melted at the sight of Yesudas, standing outside in the dark, in tears. The Guru then led the disciple to an impromptu venue outside the temple and held a nightlong concert in praise of Lord Krishna.

Scores of Keralites have grown up listening to bhajans sung by Yesudas, but never have we thought of him as a Christian singing Hindu hymns. The purity of his voice has enthralled all of us and for years we have been listening to hymns in praise of Lord Krishna flowing melodiously from the vocal chords of this great singer. When asked about the Board’s decision to discuss the issue regarding his entry into the temple precincts, Yesudas says:

I and my family are thankful to the Minister. But a situation should evolve on its own when temple doors will open for all those who have boundless devotion for the Lord. My entry to the temple should not be at the expense of thousands of devotees who reach out to the Lord suffering a lot of hardships. By any measure, the extent of my devotion might count for much less than those who are often made to wait their turn merely to accommodate VIPs.

Poet Yusufali Kecherry, who has penned some of the best Malayalam songs on Lord Krishna, has similarly not been allowed to enter the Guruvayur temple because he is a Muslim. A few years ago, when Congress General Secretary Vayalar Ravi's only son was married at Guruvayur, a punyaham - ritual cleansing- was performed to cleanse the temple premises because Ravi’s wife, Mercy, is not a Hindu, but a Christian.

But the temple has its share of people it is willing to accommodate, despite its avowed policy. Recently, the temple authorities allowed Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse offer a gold crown to the Guruvayoor temple and to pray for peace in his country, along with his wife. The temple put an explanation saying Jain and Buddhists are within the larger definition of Hindus. Smart thinking!!! Jainism negates the existence of God and Buddhism has been silent on this, but they can still be allowed while a devout Christian cannot!!! Even atheists and agnostics can be allowed but not non-Hindus???

In a state where there is such a substantial non-Hindu population and where religion has not been too much of an issue (at least when compared to the rest of the country), isn’t it retrograde to follow such religious practices? There have been arguments that if Yesudas so badly wants to enter Guruvayur temple, why doesn’t he convert to Hinduism? But why should he? Are we so short-sighted that our culture cannot look beyond a man’s religion? Religion is a way of leading one’s life and is not a life in itself.

There has been justified criticism in certain quarters of Christianity and Islam not allowing Hindus into their fold (except for proselytization purposes). If non-Muslims wanted to go to Mecca/Medina, would they be allowed? Since they also practice such restrictions, we are also within our rights not to allow non-Hindus into temples. Fair enough to win an argument but do we need to compare ourselves with other religions and try to do a tit-for-tat policy.

I had written about the Jayamala-Sabarimala controversy earlier and expressed my view that women must be allowed entry inside the shrine. There are different views on this with many women themselves asserting that this is not a gender issue and should not be treated from that angle. That may or may not be accurate but the Sabarimala controversy needs further debate, keeping in mind the larger cultural perspective. However, in this case, what is the justification that can be provided here other than historical precedents and cultural issues?

Certain things that have been happening in a particular way should continue in the same way, they say. But then, aren’t we moving ahead in life? Do we still need to carry such historical baggage? Popular culture is a by-product of several social and political conditions prevailing at a particular point if time. As time progresses, we need to shed many of the layers that we have been sub-consciously bearing and give way to progressive changes. Resistance to change is a basic human condition but if we need to liberate ourselves, we need to start changing with times and not cling to age old traditions which may have had relevance at some point of time in the past but no longer now.

Though not a regular temple goer, I have often felt a certain sense of peace in Kerala temples which I find missing in other temples like ISKCON (Bangalore), Birla Mandir (Hyderabad) and Siddhi Vinayak (Mumbai). This is purely a personal view and people may feel otherwise. Many people opine that this temple ethos is largely due to the efforts of the temples in Kerala to maintain their traditions and stick to many of the old rules, established in temples. Strict adherence to dress code and many of the temple rituals and traditions have managed to keep that sense of halo intact in the temple there. But as time goes, certain norms become redundant and need to be cast away, keeping in mind, the larger purpose served by temples. Can they match that fine balance between tradition and modernity, without falling victims to the whims and fancies of the people involved??

Only time will tell but till that time, we can only hope to see Yesudas singing one day within the walls of the Guruvayur temple….