Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Malaysia Diary: Part 1

As it happens in life, we plan something and it takes another turn. So, all of a sudden I find myself boarding a Malaysia Air flight to Kuala Lumpur (as usual at an odd hour). My blog writings have taken a beating and I’m searching for time to do my daily jobs, just because my company thinks that I can be of some utility in some alien country, without enough knowledge. To give that feel good factor, we are housed in a comfortable service apartment, from where we can see Petronas Towers.

(A view from my room)

My first impression of the city is fuelled by the cab drivers here. Tourists be warned that very few taxi drivers believe in using a meter and most of them ask for any rate that they want. That gives it a very Indian feel – I know that’s a very generic statement, after all, some places in India do not follow a meter while many do. As a company representative, this is not too much of an issue as I get my taxi bills reimbursed but as a tourist, that may be a cause of concern. You can try out the bus or rail services but without local knowledge, it may not be that easy.

Be careful while crossing roads here – the drivers seem to have a foot constantly on the accelerator here. Statistics on traffic accidents show alarming figures and the Govt. is looking at means to curb this, including launching an operation called Ops Sikap, to ensure safety on all roads in Malaysia during festive seasons. But the death rate in traffic is still a healthy 15 everyday.

Another crisis I have in life is in terms of food. I am served non-vegetarian food twice and return it twice mid-way in the meal. Now, why would egg fried rice contain chicken? Beats me, but the waiter informs me that egg biryani contains small chicken pieces while chicken biryani contains big pieces and asks me whether I am a vegetarian or a pure vegetarian? Egg consumption makes me an impure vegetarian, I guess. After reading Jabberwock’s tirade against food fundamentalism, I decide to experiment with food, albeit in a vegetarian way. So, in the previous week, I try out spicy Thai Green Curry and then Lebanese vegetarian fried rice (not exactly quintessential country food but then sometimes, vegetarians do have to pay a price).

Next on the anvil are German and Brazilian restaurants to ensure a global feel. Nevertheless, I must confess that the life of a veggie is not very cosy outside India. I feel an outcaste at dinners but I’d like to recommend a small Tamil hotel named Printha near Raja Chulhan Road (next to Maybank’s corporate office) for authentic home made South Indian food. It’s a daily banana leaf unlimited vegetarian meal for me at RM 4 (non-veg is also served there).

I land in Kuala Lumpur on an on-entry visa, which means you get the visa once you reach Malaysia but you need to show them your return ticket, otherwise, it’s no entry. I make a friendly personal trip to Singapore last week in a bus from here by bus. You can travel by bus or train but bus reaches faster and it is quite comfortable. It costs me RM 35 (about Rs 450) for a 5 hour trip from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore and it is a beautiful lush green sight. You need a Singapore visa before hand to reach there which can be arranged in 3 days time here by travel agencies.

I have a valid existing visa and land there but do not reckon for what would happen while returning. There is no bus or train that processes an on-entry visa to Malaysia from there and I am forced to return via a Singapore Airline flight which costs about Rs 5000 – 6000, though budget airlines like Tiger Airways and Air Asia may provide services at lower rates. There’s one way ofcourse, if you can reach a place called Tuas and cross the border and secure the visa. But I’m no adventure freak and without knowing the country, I’m no mood to experiment with international boundaries, so I stick to the safe option of an airline.

Last week was the Chinese New Year. A really wrong time to be here, I must say. Almost all establishments are closed making life difficult during holidays. You’d think that such celebrations will bring in more shoppers but the logic is turned on the head here. Singapore takes a step further by closing down even restaurants, so please ensure that you do not find yourself in these parts of the world during the Chinese New Year, unless you have a well-stocked up kitchen. Of course, there’s one more way, find your steps to Little India and you will be spared the agony of being a hungry tourist in an alien place. Our service apartment arranges a show of the traditional Lion Dance for us, where a group of persons dressed as lions move across poles, erected for the purpose. We also get an orange each – a token gift during Chinese New Year.

Malaysia, a nation of about 25 million people, will celebrate its 50th anniversary since independence this year. The state religion is Islam (60% of the population) and it has three distinct ethnic groups comprising the Indian, Chinese and Malay population. Religious conversion and intolerance are issues here that many do not want to talk about and the Prime Minister has asked people not to discuss sensitive religious issues in public. There has been a lot of debate in recent times over a case in which a Muslim woman converted to Christianity but the state has refused to accept the conversion. This kind of religious intolerance is nothing unique to the world it seems and is not a problem in any one particular geographical setup. I guess some things never change wherever you go, the only that changes is the extent to which the feelings persist.

It’s almost 3 weeks now and I still haven’t ventured beyond Kuala Lumpur because of my work. Need to visit a couple of places at least and behave like a good tourist and make up for last time. So, maybe the next article will focus on any travel spots that I manage to visit.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Parzania: A Cry in Anguish

There are movies and then there are movies. Some of them make you laugh and enjoy while some others, like Parzania, make you cry(Yes, I did feel my tears), think and wonder where we are all going. In the midst of several dumb movies which are regularly screened, here comes a movie like “Parzania” which forces you to think and think really hard. Have we forgotten or buried our past sins amidst the euphoria of “Shining India”? The crown that Modi wears on his head may shine but let’s not forget his avatar of the mad emperor Nero who fiddled when Rome was burning. The sins of such people cannot be washed off that easily by media stories of prosperity.

The movie tells the story of a middle class Parsi family in Ahmedabad. Cyrus (Naseeruddin Shah) is a film projectionist married to Shehnaz(Sarika),a homemaker, with two lovely little kids – Parzan (Parzan Dastur) and Dilshad (Pearl Barsiwala). It’s a happy, simple family staying in a harmonious colony called “The Mansion”. There are a few scenes shown to convey the general goodwill among the people in the neighbourhood and the feel good factor in Cyrus’ family, without getting too kitschy (too many directors try to put in an overdose of goody-goody scenes and overdo the impact). ‘Parzania’ refers to a place in little Parzan’s fertile mind where entire streets are lined by chocolate and the only requirement to be a part of the country is love for cricket.

There is also a disillusioned American, Allan Webbings (Corin Nemec), who comes to Gujarat to do his thesis on Gandhi and becomes a good friend of Cyrus and Co. He has a tragic past and is probably looking for an answer to his questions in life. Not a very-well etched character, perhaps, but trust me, I could relate to him – some of us who suffer from some kind of delusional philosophy and become rebels without a cause. There’s also a Gandhi-like character who preaches philosophy, who does seem a bit odd in the entire drama (cashing on gandhigiri???).

The peace and tranquility of “The Mansion” is disturbed by the riots sparked of in the aftermath of the Godhra train fire in which more than 100 Hindu pilgrims were burnt alive. The director, however, takes pains, to dispel the notion of this being a spontaneous outburst against the Muslim community and gives reasons to drive home the fact – the census taken by the Parishad (loosely based on the VHP), the presence of flags in non-Hindu family flags and a few other examples. As the town gets hurtled into chaos, Parzad gets lost in the confusion while Shehnaz manages to save Dilshad from the clutches of the rioters. They manage to take shelter at Allan’s place and the rest of the movie centers around their attempts at tracing Parzan.

Performance-wise, it’s brilliant. The children are really endearing and their innocence and inability to understand the situation tugs at our hearts. The scenes when the little girl is scared of letting her mom go in search of Parzan as she’s scared of losing her mother and her 13 day long wait for her brother as she checks out the calendar each day is very touching. It’s pointless talking about Naseer’s performance; it’s worth mentioning only if he were not to perform. But I’d like to single out the scene, where he sits in the theatre and finally accepts the fact that his son may not return, as a lesson in playing emotions without overdoing it (something I wish Kamal Hasan would do). Sarika is indeed a revelation; from her sultry siren days to a mother who carries the grief of losing her child makes you wonder where she’s been all these days. She grows in character throughout the film until it reaches a crescendo in the final scenes at the trial when she gives vent to her feelings and anguish at the uselessness of the entire thing.

The director uses Allen as a device to express his angst in words that you cannot get a Hindu or a Muslim character to speak – it would just be too blasphemous. As a confused American who is out in search of the Gandhi, he is a perfect fit though some of his rantings are probably way off the top (calling the Parishad an equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan) but then maybe that’s how the West perceives us. A third-party Western judgmental perspective is what he brings to the movie which may of course, carry with it its own set of prejudices which we need to live with it.

There are moments you really enjoy like when Parzan imagines himself as the captain of the Indian cricket team scoring the winning runs against Pakistan just before the carnage begins (clearly a deliberate attempt by the director to drive home the futility of viewing an Indo-Pak cricket match as a Hindu-Muslim conflict). The scene where Cyrus struggles to explain Allan what a Parsi is and how they are part of the Indian population brings a smile to one's face (but eventually it really does not matter to the rioters who the victims are as long as they are non-Hindus). The burnt down hoardings of K3G- a smiling portrait of the entire family- in the aftermath of the riots conveys a sense of sadness as Cyrus wanders around searching for his son. Though many reviewers believe that using English as a language was a good thing, I’m not too sure why it could not have been replaced by Hindi, at least in many of the places.

The movie is very powerful and conveys emotions without resorting to melodrama which is quite a temptation for most filmmakers. There are terrible scenes of a pregnant woman being set on fire and references to the hacking off of a lady’s private parts, which makes it very repulsive. But I assume the idea was to give it that raw feel – a feel that hurts us when we realize that crimes are not merely stories we read in fine print but actually happen. The film maker has given us a one-sided view which many viewers are bound to find fault with but story narration is about bringing in a perspective and not always about balancing a movie to make all sections happy (the way Mani Ratnam went in Bombay) and so, while it may be politically incorrect at places, it’s fine. Of course, you could find fault with the characterization of Raj Zutshi who plays a Muslim who gets reformed at the end, which does seem contrived, clearly driving home where the director’s sympathies lie.

You always hope for a happy ending but then maybe the impact is felt much more when the movie does not provide that happiness – it then, forces you to dig deep inside and feel the pain, which may have been lost by our relief in witnessing a happy family reunion. The film ends powerfully with the trial scenes in front of the Human Rights Commission and Sarika's anguished outpouring. What I also appreciate in the movie is that the director understands that though religion is the primary cause of the entire conflict, it is also the most important binder that we have, which can help us to forgive and forget. Cyrus’s 13-day self-purification process is partly a tribute to that.

It’s unfortunate that this movie did not have distributors and no one had seen this movie for a long time till Rahul decided to distribute the movie himself, even for free in some places. It has finally, hit the screens, but has not yet been viewed in Gujarat, where it should have been shown the first time. Such are the tragedies of Indian democracy which has its fair share of troubles in the form of leaders like Modi and Thackeray –who may bring in economic freedom but do not understand what political freedom and human rights is all about.

The solution is not shunning the past but learning from our past mistakes and for that its important, that we face our shortcomings. We have not yet created a social environment where we can be so openly and fearlessly critical of ourselves and that is part of our real challenge as we strive to build a truly democratic polity with a secular (not irreligious) fabric. Wish the government declares it a tax-free movie and ensure a greater screening of such movies.

At a personal level, Gujarat and Modi made me lose my faith in the right and so, here I am, now a centrist with neither rightist nor leftist leanings………

Verdict: A compulsory watch…Highly recommended...