Friday, March 19, 2010

Fashion ka Tashion

#WARNING: This post is a rant. Feel free to ignore!

I always thought Madhur Bhandarkar to be a wannabe movie director trying too hard to be different. Then I saw Fashion. I now think he is also a narcissistic individual replete with vanity. This is how he defines himself and his movie Fashion right in the movie itself -

Did you hear that? Yes, he does research to make a realistic movie. I have never seen a more self-indulgent, self-referring and self-absorbed 15 seconds by a director. This 15 seconds destroyed any chance I had to complete this movie in my second attempt and with the leeway that a Bollywood flick gets by default. Agreed, that such self-references and signature-style movie making is common among some directors. Inglourious Basterds comes to mind among the recent ones. But even when Tarantino indulges himself by referring to his previous movies or explicitly naming his movie styles, he does not so much as exploit the medium to satisfy his attention seeking disorder. If you remember the last dialogue of the movie, he almost edged towards conceit but again, not tasteless and rather intelligent and humorous. Other directors too, like Subhash Ghai and Shekhar Kapur in Bandit Queen, who couldn't resist appearing on the screen themselves chose to make only cameo appearances. And as if this wasn't enough, Madhur Bhandarkar hits another self-eulogy:

Poor Mr. Bhandarkar - he's so much concerned with the social issues and the dedication to the movie art that he can't look beyond realistic cinema, with the quotation hand gestures. The trivialities of world shown in the glamorous mainstream cinema is for lesser mortals like Yash Chopra.

Well, right now, this vulgar and in-your-face display of conceit makes me feel he is Mayawati of Bollywood.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A new movie award

This is a season of movie awards. Some have just concluded while others are anxiously awaited. Some reassure that you are not a mutant with deviant movie interests while some others make you cringe. However there is one category of actors who I believe are never recognized for their worthy contribution to movies. Therefore I have decided to create this award myself, and do the nominations and offer it to one I consider best. This is called FAADU award, or Fame Acquired As Dramatics Underdog awards. As the name expresses it so eloquently, this award recognizes those actors that appear on screen only for few moments, aren't listed among dramatic personae but still leave a lasting, and sometimes the only, impression of a movie. Here are them from some of the movies I have seen.

5. Charles Durning for Hudsucker Proxy

Charles, who play Hudsucker in the movie, graces the screen for only few minutes but the impact he leaves is much longer. This sequence always plays in my mind at work during one of our weekly meetings. As the meeting rambles on in a very similar conference room and even though I don't sit where Mr. Hudsucker sits, I imagine how liberating a free-fall like that would be. But, ahem, the price tag for that feeling is a bit too high!

4. Rajiv Gaur for Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!

This movie has enough FAADU actors to inundate these nominations. It could be the pissed off guy at parking lot, the Paan-wallah near the end of movie or the Haryanvi constable searching through Lucky's stolen collectibles but I think the waiter of New Amar restaurant has the most wicked grin I have ever seen. This grin sabotages jr. Lucky's authoritative manner ('Haan ek butter chicken le aa') to a meek kid out on his first date ('Khane pe bhi tax?').

Digging through web, I found this ZEE News journalist Rajiv Gaur who also looks suspiciously similar to him ;-)

3. Unknown for Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda

Notice the person on whom bridegroom falls upon from horse. Also notice how he, after lifting up the groom from ground, also lifts the spirit of band company by his hand gestures.

This FAADU actor has the longest screen life among his competitors as he keeps re-appearing for a while in the movie. He's also hardest to justify as a nominee for he has some definite contribution to overall movie story. However, he's also the inspiration behind this award. Some of his other scenes are also just as interesting, like when he is next seen carrying luggage, or giving an advice to his master while riding taanga. There are no extraordinary dialogues for him except a frequent use of word 'mijan' but his manner and gestures make sure that he stays on in mind even after end credits start rolling.

2. Another Unknown for Haasil

I owe this to a friend for bringing it to my notice. This movie, Haasil, also has a menagerie of FAADU actors but the rickshaw puller's sequence of 5 seconds takes the show hands down. He is also the most adulated and discussed of his competitors among a group of my friends.

1. Couple of Unknowns for Mr. Hulot's Holiday

OK, I am not doing this because movie awards are supposed to be controversial but I seriously found the woman and his son in the first 15 seconds of the movie extremely hilarious.

This is undoubtedly the best slap that I have ever seen in a movie. When I first saw it, I had to hit the rewind button a few times to make sure this was not an actual slap accidently getting captured on camera. It's a real piece of acting on what looks like a real railway station. Also notice how effective the slap is - her son immediately knows how to behave and stop being a nuisance anymore. A great opening to a good movie. So, hereby, I proclaim this women and boy joint winner of FAADU awards whose names I couldn't find even with my best googling techniques.

Usually it's the director who is given credit for introducing such FAADU actors in a movie. Therefore FAADU actors, though deserving in all respect, lose out in the race of any award, any recognition and sometimes even notice. It's like cinematographers losing out on their awards just because they are only capturing a director's vision.

Lastly, a confession of a hidden agenda behind this post. If I could get one FAADU role in a movie, something similar to that foppish rickshaw puller in Haasil or that irascible parent in Hulot's holiday, I would meet my childhood ambition and die content!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Life of Contradictions

Whenever I hear of real life examples of caste brutalities or homophobia, like this recent one, I am almost always reminded of these prophetic words of Dr. Ambedkar spoken to the Constituent Assembly while discussing our new found polity:

"On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value."

As inclusiveness becomes the new buzz word, making noise from Davos to Bihar, I wonder how much of that would would turn out to be music!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A for Applicability

In the newly independent India, a satyagrahi and his wife arrived at a dusty village set around an arid landscape. Pt. Nehru, on being turned down on his offer to join his government, had instructed him to spread education in a village that he had recently visited. The visitor's first challenge was to set up a shack that would serve as classroom. Selling some personal belongings helped him do that. His next challenge was to bring village kids to classrooms from reluctant parents's home. He persuaded them and was able to form a class of boys and girls, students from upper and lower caste, and Dalits. It was nothing less than a social revolution under that shack. One of his student, a woman, went on to become a prominent politician of Haryana and, later, Lt. Governor of Pondycherry. Others became officers in public departments. Another of his student became a school teacher himself and his grandson, yours truly, received one of the best education in India. This working paper on education improvement techniques in rural India, recently cited in Economist, made me remember this story and I wondered what would have I been had that satyagrahi not come to my village.

I was lucky. And so was my village. But most of the other villages were not. About six decades on, so much has been done but quality education still evades rural India. This paper experimentally proves how a novel technique of monetary incentives for teachers can improve the quality of educated imparted in rural India. This paper, IMHO, would largely be a disappointment for policy makers as it lacks any 'actionable' information, if I may borrow a term from diplomatic parlance.

The authors of the paper observed performance of students in two sets of government run schools in rural Andhra Pradesh. In one set, they introduced a scheme of performance bonus to teachers of science and language in primary schools. The other set was left untouched to serve as a control for comparison with the first set. After a period of two years, authors observed a much higher performance of students in the first set as compared to second set in independently administered tests. Now, who didn't see that coming!? Further, authors argue that "performance pay might not only increase effort among existing teachers, but systematically draw more effective teachers into the profession over time". This is a naive conclusion that I would want to differ with. The paper lack thoughts on many implementation issues that can derail author's noble intentions.

Authors have ignored the difference in performance of schools in rural settings as compared to urban schools. Urban schools perform better because (a) parents are more conscious of the importance of education, and (b) urban lifestyle allows time for study as compared to rural places where most of the families are associated with labor intensive agriculture, and (c) teachers are regular in discharge of their duties due to higher visibility in cities. While the proposed scheme may create more diligent teachers in rural area, it leaves the first two factors unchanged. It's also more important to bring quality education to rural places because they don't always have a luxury of private school as an alternative. Private operators find it tough to invest for low student population in villages. Coming back, since scheme leaves first two factors unchanged, it will push teachers to seek postings in urban places over rural places. As the number of teachers is always low than required, this can create a negative bias towards rural schools. This might be corrected by additional policies that enforce teachers to serve in rural schools for a certain period of time but this would then engender use of influence to get the desired postings by a teacher. This can also result in teachers leaving rural schools as soon as their terms get over. Teachers protesting against such a harsh policy is a different matter altogether.

Authors have also kept quiet on how to administer exams fairly. Would teachers not be tempted to assist students when they proctor them during exams? Even if teachers are not proctoring students from their own class, what stops him or her from helping students in return of the same favor from another teacher. How often should this exam be administered and in which grades? What happens to a teacher who is recently transferred to a class that will take this exams? What about cheating during exams? I have myself seen scores of family members and friends throwing answer notes (chits as they are called) inside examination room to their dear ones despite presence of teachers and police around. In fact, looking from outside, the examination centre looked like a fallen fort with the 'ravaging army' attempting to enter it from every possible inlet.

Would this policy not be unfair for other subject teachers if it is made applicable for only science and language teachers, as authors did for their experiment? A potential of protests of huge intensity would make any government rethink this part of the scheme. If all subject teachers are made eligible for the bonus compensation, would it still carry the same value? Another of the paper's finding was that students did better in all subjects and not just for the subjects for which teachers were paid extra. This spill over benefit would be tough to use through a government policy.

It has usually been remarked that services run good when government pays and private organizations provide. It's hard to envisage a situation where this could be applied to education in India. There is less incentive to open private schools in small villages with small student population. It's therefore more effective to build the right infrastructure that would make commuting easier to nearby town. It's also important for majority of population to move from labor intensive agricultural practice to specialized skilled labor. This would in effect increase priority among parents to see their children get quality education. This priority can also increase if the state run institutions become fair in providing employment and other opportunities to youths. A sense of nepotism and corruption lowers incentive for parents to seek quality education for their kids and promotes throwing chits to their wards during exams. If things were fairer, increasing pay and not bonuses to teachers would attract the right talent into teaching. Of course, this is nothing less than a social revolution and we also don't have any more satyagrahis around!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Serious Man

"What is TRUTH?", replied Pontius Pilate, when Jesus Christ affirmed in an ever-certain manner “Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice”. Coen brothers bring the same ambivalence to life and set it in Judea philosophy. & I am moved to write this because it's giving tough competition to Fargo as my favorite Coen's movie (Sorry, Lebowski fans!). I think I have a thing for mild comedies, characteristic and accentuated manner of dialogue deliveries (of the likes one can see in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye too), and a bunch of quirky characters out to create a mess everywhere. A Serious Man gives me just that, with an icing of contradictory situations raising doubts to everything around.

I would have missed many Judea connections in movie, but this cultural distance didn't stop me from enjoying so many of its scenes. The creepy but funny short dybbuk tale that starts movie, provides almost a perfect setting for what follows. Some of the scenes in movie stand out. In one of them, a young kid walks into a senior Rabbi's office and in the hallway's gallery sees Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. His expressions change to fear from uncertainty as he approaches desk of Rabbi staring at him, only to find him reciting a couplet of 'Dont you want somebody to love'. This kind of unexpected and uncertain events are spread throughout the movie. No wonder, the protagonist Larry teaches Schroedinger's cat experiment in college.

& the best of all is the way movie ends, again, totally unexpected and uncertain. Just like the dybbuk story.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Behenji

In India, temperature is soaring. While the sun is doing its bit, the election season is pushing up the mercury too. One of the leader that has suddenly caught the fancy of media in this election heat is Behenji - Mayawati. From the scholarly magazines like Economist [source], to feature pages of BBC [source] and to tabloid media of India [source], she is being biograph-ed, analysed, debated and usually hated in the comments section. This is in complete contrast to the last election in her home state - Uttar Pradesh, when she silently crafted the biggest electoral victory in UP in last two decades. This post is dedicated to her!

Leaving the arduous task of predicting her place in the South Block of Lutyen's Delhi to electoral pundits, I would just mention some things that had long crossed my mind for her and her nature of politics.

She is the worst nightmare of India's English speaking, 'The Hindu' reading and metro dwelling intelligentsia. She signifies to them everything that is wrong with Indian politics and her rise to national politics has left many of them sleepless. To me, personally speaking, politicians like her are a bulwark against class wars. This is also where, I believe, democracy plays out better than other forms of government. Her rise to power gives voice to the most marginalized section of the Indian society. A society that keeps a section of itself deprived of resources, dignity and power for centuries always risk facing a revolution or armed conflict from them. Democracy gives voice to them, and leaders like Mayawati helps ease that pressure.

Besides being a dalit, she is also a woman. Somehow, her gender has never been used like her caste to show her inability to govern or to gain sympathy from women voters. In fact, in Indian politics, gender is never a major electoral issue . Women in India do not particularly rally for a woman leader or men do not particularly shy away from voting a women. In western world, however, gender is always an issue in politics. There was a huge mass of women supporters behind Hillary Clinton when she contested the primaries. The fact was repeated many times that a women has stood for primaries for the first time. Many newspapers, likewise, came up with a biased coverage of her due to her gender. It was also mentioned in some news channels discussion that an awful number of people will not vote for her due to her gender, just as some others will not vote for Barack Obama for his race. Given the far more social independence that women enjoy in western society as compared to Indian society, this comes as a suprise. My take on this is as follows: In western world, especially in US, an individual is celebrated unlike in India where the caste, community or family is. In US, where caste and strong community bonding does not exist, it's the individual that is evaluated on their personal traits. Coversely, in India, the community and the family of that person is given more importance than the individual qualities. Thus, the baggage of her caste is so much more for Mayawati that her gender would not figure in electorate's mind while casting their vote. Corollary: She would be just as much despised by a Yadav woman in UP, as she is respected by a Dalit male.

The media used to hate her for her ostentatious display on her birthday bashes. Her diamond studded earings, mountain-sized cake were a focal point of derision by the columnists of many dailies. Agitated, they would ask - Why doesn't her voters get offended by these displays when they know they could never be as rich as her? There hasn't been any tangible evidence that shows that dalits fare better in her rule in terms of employment rate or financial status. Lately, she has also bonhomied with the upper most caste of Indian society - Brahmins. Her candidates in the current election are also mostly from non-dalit caste. She has diluted her stance of hatred towards upper caste, lacks any major developmental works in her current tenure, also hasn't done too much for the upliftment of dalits, whose cause she most vociferously espouse. Yet, her vote bank is said to be non-transferable! Why do dalits still vote for her, even though there are reasons for them to believe that she is using them to fulfill her political ambitions? The truth is - instead of getting offended, dalits love to see her display of wealth. Even if she never changes a single thing for them, they would still vote her to power. The reason is symbolism. For them, she symbolises everything that they had been denied for centuries. The sheer fact that somebody from their community could go on to reach this stature is enough of a good reason for them to vote.

Reading through the barrage of hate posts emanating from the urban youth in the comments section of most of the online media reports, I am surprised to see that many of them think of her as an uneducated and an illiterate person. I wonder where this misconception has come from. She holds two degrees, was a primary school teacher in a school in Delhi and was preparing for the civil services exams when his mentor Kanshiram spotted her furiously debating with Janata Dal leader Raj Narain and then walking out of that meeting in the constitution club of Delhi.

Dr. Ambedkar, while exhorting to his followers once said, "Political power is that master key to unlock all your problems". His statue of holding constitution in one hand with the other hand pointing towards Lok Sabha symbolises his message to his followers to educate themselves and gain political power. Dalits have given a lot to Mayawati and she has vigourously followed Dr. Ambedkar's statement of gaining political power. But what has she given back to dalits in return? Laloo Prasad Yadav gave a lot of voice to the socially backward Yadav community in Bihar but he didn't do any developmental work that would help them feed their young ones, or let them send their kids to school. In a same way, Mayawati may have given an iota of voice to dalits who can now sit in the main chaupal of the village, but she has still not started the developmental works for dalits. She has gained the master key but she is yet to unlock all the problems that beset Uttar pradesh and members of her own community. Instead, she is eyeing New Delhi. Personally, I think her ambitions for being a national player is well justified but it should have been supported by her work in UP. Just like Bihar's CM Nitish Kumar and Gujarat's CM Narendra Modi have a made a name for themselves for good governance, she should have followed suit. But she is more busy planning her next moves to check mate players in delhi. Like Sahir Ludhiyanvi wrote in one of his poems, "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?", I ask of Mayawati - What if you even become the Prime Minister of India? What would that change? Would that uplift a community from the centuries of burden that they had to bear? Would that help a dalit to gain better education and compete in open market? Would that make India a more tolerant nation? Would that in anyway change this nation except some new parks and statues of yours and Dr. Ambedkar?

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Republic's Voters

India celebrates its 60th Republic day today. This day also, in my opinion, puts to rest the doomsday prophecies of certain world leaders and writers like Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling that saw balkanization of India soon after its independence. Situated amidst countries in South Asia that are ruled by monarchies, dictators, army rulers or a weak parliament, India has indeed emerged as an unexpected beacon of democracy for the region.

On the other hand, there are multiple reasons that call for an introspection as well. Has democracy really worked in India? I agree with Ramchandra Guha when he answers this as - yes, but 50-50. I was watching a panel discussion on CNN-IBN network [video link] today. The network also conducted a poll on various questions related to efficacy of politicians, government bodies and the overall results of democracy. The findings, as expected, were dismal with majority having lost their faith in the integrity of politicians and governmental bodies. I am sure the sample set for these polls would have been just as much a biased selection as the audience was in this show. But I agree that it is overall representative of the general mood of the public in India. So what is lacking in the "system" or the polity of India that most of us are losing faith in this?

Among a lot of gibberish that was said on the show, some of the comments stayed with me. One of them was by Salman Khurshid. He says that he finds it hard to win an election if he only does the right thing. He needs support from people who also force him to help them do illegitimate activites. Having seen elections and the political process from close quarters myself, I know how true Mr. Khurshid is when he makes that point. To elaborate, a candidate needs support from a lot of "workers" that usually belong to the candidate's party or are personally associated with him. These workers campaign for the candidate to the constituents, create a sellable image of his to the electorate and uses their relations and connections to improve a candidate's prospects. In the words of a two-time assembly elections contestant, it is the worker who actually fights the election. Indeed it seems so, as the most important duty of worker comes during the election day. He sits in the election booth as an agent of the candidate and overlooks the voting to make sure it is going on fairly or in the favor of his candidate. The real difference that he makes is in the votes from the electorates who skip the voting i.e. do not come to vote on the election day. An overzealous worker will liason with the polling officer a day before and get some of the unpolled votes poll for his candidate. He would also get some people to make sure that the unenthusiastic voters are encouraged and helped to come to the polling booth to cast their vote. So, a smart or a strong, in the literal sense, worker helps to improve the chance of a candidate significantly if not drastically on the election day.

This does not augur well for a democracy as it creates multiple problems. One of them is that it makes even more difficult for a newcomer without any workers to win election. The other is what Salman Khursid said - it forces the elected representative to be more representative of his workers than the electorate, thereby making a mockery of democratic principles. How can this be resolved?

I have known this factor for a while and thought over it a few times. Election commission of India has done a splendid job by releasing the affidavits of the election candidates on its website [link] since the last few elections. The affidavit contains the complete assets declaration and ongoing police cases, if any, of the candidate. This brings a greater transparency to the electorate and its easy access gives it a wider reach. ECI also releases further data like the number of votes polled at each booth, candidate-wise percentage etc. I would like to suggest to ECI, through this post, to also release the list of voters who voted on the election day. The voters are required to sign in the polling booth before casting their vote so the data is already being maintained by the commission for all the elections. As we have a closed ballot system in India, ECI does not keep a record of who voted for whom and this should continue to stay like that. Releasing this list of voters who polled does not compromise any of our democratic principles as far as I can see. I would also imagine that since election is a public exercise and a cornerstone of Indian democracy, the electorate would welcome such a move instead of raising privacy concerns. This list could potentially raise a hell storm when the voters will see that their votes were cast even though they did not visit the polling booth! A series of litigation might well follow and bring the ECI under a higher pressure to minimize such anomalies. This, in turn, will reduce the impact that the worker has on the election day thereby limiting the dependence of a candidate on the worker. The effects of this data could be similar, if not greater, to the effects of the Right to Information Act.

I might be naive in my thinking or projection here. I might even be totally misplaced on the legalities behind such a move. And thus, I wouldn't mind other's opinion!