Sunday, June 20, 2010


After all the hype (so typical of a Mani Ratnam flick), Mani’s ambitious re-telling of the Ramayana is finally here. Fortunately Mumbai, despite the presence of the rabid first Sena family, has a simultaneous release of Raavan in Tamil and Hindi. Mani and Priyan are rooted in their own languages and despite their attempts to be pan-India directors, cultural milieus do not translate easily. So, we decided to grab tickets to the Tamil version (additionally regional movies are cheaper in PVR!!!).

Mani’s Ramayana is set in Ambasamudram, a taluk in Tirunalveli. A ruthless Superintendent of Police Prithviraj (Dev Prakash/Rama) heads an operation to find a tribal leader and lawbreaker Vikram (Veeraiya/Ravana), a supposedly Robin Hood-like figure to the tribals, who kidnaps his wife Aishwarya Rai (Raagini/Sita). The story initially presents Veera as a brutal murderer but it is later on revealed the kidnap has been led on by the death of his sister, as a result of police custodial torture and brutal rape. Similarly, the smart and educated cop emerges slowly as a black character and Raagini slowly realizes that her husband is no saint while her demonic captor has a soft side after all.

The parallels with Ramayana are clear – the repeated references to 14 days/hours/years , Veera’s two brothers, a Hanuman-like character in Gnana Prakasam (Karthik as a talkative forest guard), a Surpanakha character in Vennila (Priya Mani) who acts as the trigger point for the conflict, the rather ridiculous idea of a polygraph test as an Agnipariksha to name a few. The analogies are forced and Mani is faithful to the epic in terms of its characters’ existence but not in terms of the story and so the characters exist since they exist in the original epic and nothing more.

The very premise of retelling Ramayana is exciting-the idea that there is a Ravan as well as a Ram in everyone and each situation brings out the Ram/Ravan in each of us is worth exploring and helps in understanding the epic in more ways than the existing tradition. But Mani has no such interest in bringing out any such moral ambiguity; he takes the easy way out in dangling such an idea initially but chickens out midway to simply do a role reversal of Ramayana, which by itself would not be a bad thing, if not for how one dimensional it becomes.

Dev has hardly any redeemable qualities- he is a hard- nosed cop who simply wants to finish Veera and he will go to any extent to do that. There are scenes written explicitly to make him a villain and you know that the director wants us to root for the anti-hero, except of course that Veera is no anti-hero. Veera has stellar qualities and there is nothing which even makes you question his actions- a trigger happy moral activist, fighting the ruthless government, incidentally using guns and bombs.

Mani has always been a supporter of the rebel though ofcourse, he never takes pains to go the full way and make the character ask whether his actions are justified in any way. We do not know what Veera represents and what is his fight against? We assume that he is probably a Robin Hood and that’s the most that Mani is willing to do to explain the political stance of his protagonist. Instead, Vikram and his men appear like grown up men who just want to enjoy life in the beautiful locations selected by Mani, rather than represent any movement. While the movie keeps harping about Ravana’s ten heads and his multi-layered character, but for God's sake, where is this enigma; he may have existed on paper but is conspicuously absent on screen. He is a rustic nobleman and belongs to a low caste which ambiguously sets up a caste conflict with his upper caste, suave and sophisticated bĂȘte noir but this thread is not explored.

The closest that a class/caste conflict arises in an interesting interaction between Veera and Raagini, in the backdrop of a splendid reclining Vishnu in the sea (reminds you of Kannathil Muthamittal) where he wants to know whether her God is flawless and handsome. This sets up the imagery of a clean and handsome upper caste God as celebrated in most visuals vis-a-vis an unkempt, pastoral low caste God who drinks and smokes; was this also an attempt to conjure the idea of a contrast between a Vishnu bhakta and a Shiva bhakta? (except of course, Mani's Raavanan is not a learned brahmin but a low caste hero)

Dev’s character begins to emerge with a sense of moral conflict but quickly descends into an amoral bloodthirsty cop, without much of an explanation- hardly a comparison with Rama. He tortures an armless man to extract information about his abducted wife’s whereabouts, shoots a messenger of peace (the Vibhishana character Sakkarai) in the back after guaranteeing non-violent negotiations and even distrusts his wife. It is almost as if the director goes an extra mile to paint Dev black and there are hints that his marital life may not necessarily be a bed of roses. The climax clearly underscores this point but it looks contrived and only succeeds in alienating his character further from the audience’s sympathies. (***Spoiler Alert--When we are told that Deva used his wife to entrap Veera, the first thing that strikes me is what kind of husband decides to trick his wife and send her into the jungle again to capture a bloody brigand-either he has so much confidence in her abilities or he just does not care- the upholder of Dharma is only interested in capturing Veera.)

Raagini has the best perspective on the two protagonists because of her proximity with them but this is not clearly spelt out. As the movie progresses, she realizes that her husband is not perfect and this view helps her in grasping the moral ambiguity of the situation better. But when the camera is so besotted with her and the equally captivating surroundings, it is difficult to understand her feelings. As she jumps across waterfalls and rocks, she suffers bruises but through Santosh Sivan’s lens, they adorn her face, making us forget her pain. She is desperate to flee herself from Veera’s clutches but slowly, she begins to see him in new light – something that can be explained more from a Stockhlom’s Syndrome perspective than anything else. A couple of scenes and a song establish her love for Dev but the climax hints that all is not well in God’s paradise but is that good enough to warrant falling for Veera?  

Raagini is shocked when she learns that Veera was shot at during his sister’s wedding; come on, was she expecting the cops to wait for the marriage to be completed before they attacked ? Of course, you’d wonder how the most wanted man in the place decides to make his presence so evident in the marriage that even the cops find him easily. When Gnana Prakasam gets Dev’s approval to approach Raagini, he immediately locates Veera’s hideout, while our poor cops have no idea where he is!!! Similarly, when Dev suspects her, she lands straight at the villains's den, without any difficulty (stop the train midway, catch a bus and lo behold, we are in Raavanan territory). The final fight happens on a Ramar Sethu bridge and as the battle finishes, it becomes increasingly clear that while Dev is fighting a battle for the establishment, Veera is simply seeking revenge. Veera strikes only when his own people are attacked but Dev, even after reclaiming his wife, wants to put to sword the legend of Veera (possibly the only moral spin).

Vikram definitely steals the show with his powerful performance (quite a contrast to Abhishek in Ravan, I guess) and though there are scenes where he goes overboard , that's more of Mani's doing. Prithviraj is subtle but has limited work to do which he does convincingly with ease. Aishwarya manages to stay afloat but the camera’s fascination with her makes it difficult for us to dwell more into the character. Prabhu as Vikram’s brother is delightful while Priya Mani and Karthik make a mark despite limited screen space.

The movie works in spurts and these are times, you’d expect the movie to take-off but the MBA takes over the auteur and we are left wondering if the story in more capable hands could have been more appealing. I have never been a fan of Mani Ratnam School of Cinema and find it extremely shallow but then, every movie of his generates enough hype to force you to watch it. Enjoy it for the visual spectacle that it is and it becomes easy to digest but a different perspective on Ramayana, it is definitely not.

Director Mani Ratnam is inherently an armchair liberal who likes to take up political issues after sugar coating the script with protagonists who are generally caught up in the midst of an upheaval or who become sympathetic negative characters. Raavanan is no different in the sense that Ramayana merely serves as a backdrop for Mani Ratnam to show his love for breathtaking camera work. Like most of his movies, these masquerade as arty cinema but are eventually technical props – Raavanan, even by his standards, serves as a great ad for the National Geographic Channel and Valmiki is merely a tool in the story telling. 

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Second Bhopal Tragedy

Karl Marx had once said - History repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, the second time as farce. The quotation cannot have been more aptly applied than to the Bhopal Gas Disaster where the farce in question is the so-called conviction of the perpetuators of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which makes a mockery of the Indian sense of justice. More than 25 years after a deadly gas leak from a Union Carbide plant caused the world’s worst industrial disaster, which killed more than 15,000 and affected more than 5 lakh people (and many more unreported), a local court yesterday convicted all the accused to a 2 year imprisonment!!! The accused were fined a lakh each and immediately granted bail.

The sentence is not just distressing – it is absolutely shocking to see a crime on humanity escaping such a mild rebuke, under the Indian law. After years of suffering under an arrogant MNC and being ignored by that albatross called Government of India, the people of Bhopal have been delivered the final blow. The victims of the Bhopal disaster gain practically nothing from the judgment; even a moral satisfaction of seeing the big guys behind bars is missing.

The Indian judicial system does not seem to be capable of giving justice to its own people- the main accused has not even been brought to trial and seven others have been given punishments, which equates the crime to a road negligence act, instead of the actual heinous act that it is. If justice has eluded the victims, this is because the governments of the US and India have colluded to protect the guilty. Successive governments have been eager to please US business corporations in order to attract more investment rather than pursue justice.

Even by the standards of the Indian judicial system, a 25 year wait is an incredibly long wait and imagine this is the largest industrial disaster in the world. Will it be wrong to expect a speedy, detailed investigation into an even of such enormity but then we are bound by our law. The only fatalistic expectation that we can have is of Divine justice and karmic punishment for the accused!!!

Various investigations and studies show that a series of negligent decisions taken by the management lead to the explosion of the gas tank, leading to 40,000 kg of methyl isocyanide spilling over to the city. Investigations over the years have shown that the Bhopal plant design was faulty and that there was next to no emergency preparedness — issues that the parent company in the U.S. apparently knew about, according to the groups that conducted the studies. Union Carbide not apply the same safety standards at its plant in India as it operated at a sister plant in West Virginia, US but then you can do that in India and get away with it.

Initially, Union carbide offered $ 5 million as a relief fund but the Indian government rejected the claim and demanded $3.3 billion instead. The original criminal case was settled out of court in 1989, when both Union Carbide and the Government sought to terminate all court proceedings by agreeing for a $470 million settlement. Consequently, Union Carbide paid 713 crore to the government as compensation – 113 crore was paid to those with property and cattle damage while the remaining 600 crore was to be distributed to the kin of the death and injured. But some victims are still waiting to receive even this share of the money.

No scientific survey was done and an arbitrary casualty figure was estimated. As time progressed, the numbers reported started increasing but since the amount was already agreed upon, the fixed amount had to be distributed among the people leading to on an average, each victim just receiving 12,410 Rs!!! As part of this settlement, all the criminal charges filed against Union Carbide were dropped but the uproar caused due to this led to the reopening of cases in 1991.

However, in 1996, the Supreme Court directed that charges against the accused be converted from culpable homicide (which carries a maximum of 10 years) to death due to negligence (maximum sentence of 2 years). So, the trail court cannot be accused of going soft on the accused; the real slackness was demonstrated by the SC Bench (including the then CJI A M Ahmedi) for allowing prosecution only under nominal ground. By reducing the Bhopal disaster to the equivalent of a traffic accident, the prison term for the crimes of Bhopal was brought down from 10 years to 2 years.

The main accused Warren Anderson, who was the Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the incident was not even in the list of those convicted. He was arrested and released on bail by the police in 1984 and since then he has turned his back to India. The Indian Government made a plea for his extradition in 2004, but it was rejected by the US Government on the grounds that under US laws, only someone personally culpable for a crime can be extradited. The American and Indian Governments claimed they had no whereabouts about Warren Anderson but Greenpeace traced him to a nine hundred thousand dollar luxury home in New York, where he still lives in ‘anonymity’.

The Indian government seemed to go out of its way to cushion the experience for Union Carbide. The various Union governments in the meantime have not taken on Union Carbide, which is now owned by Dow Chemical. Meanwhile, Keshub Mahindra, Chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd at the time of the Bhopal disaster and now chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra was even nominated for a civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 2002!!! He had to decline in the face of widespread protests.

In 1999, Raj Sharma, a lawyer based out of US, filed a lawsuit in the US against Union Carbide and Anderson, and has been litigating since. And this is what he has to say about the Indian Government - "The Indian government refused to put in even a single line or letter for us. They did not want to be embarrassed in front of Union Carbide, embarrassed to be supporting their own people. I had heard of the government's collusion with the company before I left for Bhopal. I said to myself, 'Don't be naive, this cannot be true,' until I saw it happening with my own eyes," says Sharma.

In a separate US litigation in 2002, Dow Chemical set aside $2.2bn to compensate American workers who were exposed to asbestos at Union Carbide operations but the cost of an Indian life is really not worth anything – for all gung-go talks about being at par with the West, an Indian life is not worth even a mini-percentage of the various bailouts that the US Government does for its greedy financial institutions.

This is in contrast to the way the U.S. government is now confronting BP — holding it squarely responsible for the oil spill and accountable for all cleanup costs. Eleven people were killed when British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in Gulf of Mexico, compared to 20,000+ deaths in Bhopal. The oil spill has caused extensive damage to marine life, birds and the US coastline in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In Bhopal, 26 years after the gas leak, the soil and the water are still contaminated,   with dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals, and thousands still suffering the aftereffects.

British Petroleum has already paid 69 million dollars, just as first installment for the damages caused. That figure could multiply several times, with the company's liability still being decided. In contrast, Union Carbide paid just $ 470 million in compensation for the deaths it caused.

There are disturbing echoes of this history in the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which the Manmohan Singh Government introduced in Parliament and is eager to push to please the Obama administration. The Bill not merely limits the civil liability of any company running a nuclear power plant to Rs 500 crore per accident (less than a quarter of the dollar equivalent of the Bhopal settlement two decades ago), with an overall cap of roughly Rs 2,100 crore; it also exonerates international companies that supplied the equipment and technology. No equipment supplier in any other industry has such exemption from liability, and no other industry functions with such a cap on the operator's liability. Doesn’t the Bhopal Conviction clearly expose how shallow such a Bill is and the risk that we are going to take to please the Americans?

Shobhan Saxena puts it appropriately when he says in a blog in The Times of India - Today, India proved once again that it doesn't care for its poor… Today, India proved that it doesn't really care for its people, particularly if they have been slaughtered by powerful people from the most powerful nation in the world. Instead of taking on America and fighting for justice for its poor, India is more than happy to sell its dead cheap. Today – on the day of Bhopal disaster judgment -- if there is a failed state in the world, it’s India. It’s not Iraq. It’s not Somalia. It’s not Sudan. It’s India.