Wednesday, 26 January 2011

One With God...

It is a widely accepted fact that music has the ability to soothe, calm and make a tensed person relax. Medical sciences have referred to it as a therapeutic way of reducing the impact of stress in our daily lives. It creates a relaxing atmosphere for any type of activity. Creative expressions such as art, literature, music etc. have the ability to cut across manmade boundaries and unite people.

It is one of those frozen moments. In the space of a few years we seem to have lost most of the artists who shaped a national cultural consciousness over the past six decades. Artists who drew the very contours of musical traditions, theatrical and performative practices and visual lexicons. And now, with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi's demise, over eight flourishing decades of the Kirana Gharana initiated by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan has finally returned to "sama"(tranquility). An entire musical legacy has folded into itself.

To the people who do not listen classical music, will remember the legend as the who opened the cult national integration song "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara" aired in Doordarshan. It is commonplace to lament the passing of great artists and events that usher in the end of an era. In the case of Pandit Joshi, this is true for more reasons than one. Not only he was a legendary singer par excellence, but also because he was probably among the last in a line of musicians who gave a new direction to the history of Indian classical music in the twentieth century.

The maestro was unsurpassed in his brilliant interpretations and renditions. He was the one who initiated me to listening to classical music. My earliest recollection of devotional music was a Marathi abhang by him titled "Majhe Maher Pandhari". Even today, one can imagine some boy or girl, in some corner of the country, hearing Bhimsen Joshi for the first time--on the radio, on a record, on Youtube--that slow, sonorous thunderclap of an alaap washing across the sound landscape, a mid-tempo bandish cutting through the traffic snarls and the cawing of crows, the quarrelling of neighbours and the cricket commentary; the higher edges of that timeless voice cutting through the brilliance of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd. Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar and RD Burman, through all the mediocre composers such as Bappi Lahiri at one end and the musical geniuses like AR Rahman and Amit Trivedi on the other end.

It is deeply unfortunate, but no less telling, that Pandit Joshi, did not leave behind many prominent disciples. He is believed to have attributed this failure to the lack of devotion and discipline that he noted among the current breed of youngsters. Indeed, it may not be entirely unfair to read into this symptoms the sign of classical music has, over the last few decades, gradually exerted a stronghold over the cultural life in India.

The decline of robust classical tradition of learning, especially in the arts, has finally come a full circle in the country. One of the effects of such a phenomenon is perceived in the palpable waning of standards of excellence in performing arts. It is unlikely that anyone among the current or aspiring artists would ever be able to scale the sublime heights that the doyens of the past managed to scale. With the globalization of music and its entry into the market, the stress has inevitably shifted from the need to acquire, preserve and develop a knowledge base, handed down to us by the great masters of the past, to the more attractive packaging and gimmickry. Now, with Pandit Joshi's demise, the flickering embers of that tradition of classical music have been finally extinguished.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Kamzor Pratidhwani (Feeble Echoes)

The newspapers recently carried stories and pictures of veteran character actor ninety five year old AK Hangal. I must admit I was shocked to see the condition he is in. It feels really sad to learn that he has to literally now choose between food and medication. In his days, he has played everything from an uncle to a grandfather in the staple Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s. For a man who entertained us as the unforgettable Rahim Chacha in the blockbuster "Sholay", it is unfortunate that he now leads a life of penury.

It is always been disturbing to read and learn of such occurences. There have been enough number of instances in popular culture of individuals who were idolized and revered in their prime and now remain stuck in the catacombs of anonymity. Life's stories have been overloaded with vivid descriptions of unfortunate circumstances. Well, life as they say, has the ability to equate the powerful to the level of a common man. There have been cases where circumstances have brought the most powerful to their knees.

To begin with, we have never had any forum where actors speak as one voice in such circumstances. The famed "My Name is Khan" debate is an example in itself. It is in such situations where the industry gets split into camps. We also don't have an organization which looks after the needs of such actors. His frail condition reminded me of Nalini Jaywant, one of the top leading ladies of the 1950s, who passed away recently as a loner. A very tragic end for a lady who was voted one of the prettiest actresses of the 1950s. It is unfortunate to note that many yesteryear actors today live life like a recluse.

It is sad that in a diverse country as ours, we leave actors to fend for themselves in their twilight years. Part of the problem arises from the fact that actors never plan their careers in a way that will look after their needs once the cameras desert them. As a society in general, we do not give them due respect they truly require. It is absolutely unfortunate that we tend to recognize the contribution of an artist posthumously. The 1957 Hindi film "Pyassa" is one example where the poet Vijay's greatness was recognized after his death. Real life imitated reel life in Guru Dutt's example. Dhrupad exponent Asgari Bai, who lived on a government stipend of Rs. 1500, to be repaid in installments, took the extreme step of returning back the awards conferred to her by the Madhya Pradesh Government. Barring a few artists, other artists have to bear with the peanuts they receive.

Bollywood has been replete with one-film wonders and actors disappearing into the catacombs of anonymity. To be really honest, I grew up watching Sadhana walking aimlessly on a snow-clad hillock in a saree singing "Naina Barse Rimjhim Rimjhim" but I even didn't even know she was alive till the time the news came out that a top builder threatened her and it appeared as a front-page news.

The present state of actor A.K. Hangal reminds me of an incident which was chronicled by film journalist Rauf Ahmed which is one of the most heartbreaking stories I have read. In 1938, Rauf Ahmed said, grand celebrations were underway to commemorate the silver anniversary of "Raja Harishchandra", India's first full-length feature film. A hall was booked and important dignitaries were invited to deliver talks of significance from the dais. The only glitch: no one thought of inviting Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who made the film. Nobody thought of inviting him to sit up on the stage where positive words were being showered. Suddenly, filmmaker V. Shantaram spotted a decrepit old man sitting on the last rows of the hall where the function was being held. It was indeed Dadasaheb Phalke. A deeply embarrassed V. Shantaram led Dadasaheb Phalke to the stage.

Four years later when Dadasaheb Phalke died, he was alone, poor and forgotten. Today, I wonder how many of us even acknowledge his contribution apart from having an award named after him and a Marathi film showing us how he struggled to make Raja Harishchandra. It's heartbreaking that he died a tragic death.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The New Lifestyle Problems

We live in a world where change is a major player and change is rapid. It is happening in and around us by making our lives more interesting and challenging. I have, over the couple of years, noticed many interesting things that have arisen from this continous change and some of it is definitely worth sharing. So, here it goes the list of top six lifestyle diseases:

* Mobile-ites: Mobile-ites is a disease that has knowingly or unknowingly inflicted a large majority of the human population across all ages. The symptoms of this lifestyle disease are fairly recognizable and evident... constantly looking at the phone, the itch to dial and to text.. it's endless.

* Twitter mania and Status Message Generation: There is surely no denying in the fact that we are citizens of the "Status Message Generation". It is a double whammy. It is more like a virus that spreads rapidly and we're most definitely not immune to it. The virus-cum-obsessive compulsive disorder takes over the brain completely and compulsively update across all social networking platforms on a minute-by-minute basis. "Woke up... had coffee... driving... it's raining.. fought with boyfriend and then cab driver... crying... preparing to die... Please RT!"

* Beverage-holics: I have to admit that I need a cup of tea every morning. Statements such as "Caramel Macchiato with a double shot of espresso, decaf, with soy milk, extra foam and no sugar!" are so common. I also cannot survive without water. Let us not forget the Nilgiri or Assamese versions of Green Tea, sports energy drinks, diet versions of all beverages and the long list of healthy alternatives to everything mentioned above. We are Indians, we love our beverages and how!!

* Stress: I agree that this sounds fairly simple enough but there seems to be just one solution. We work so hard and hence we deserve a holiday and not just any kind of holiday but an extreme one. An extreme holiday which will see us bungee jump off a cliff or just vegetate on the couch the whole day. Going to places such as Matheran, Ladakh or Leh is passe, New York or Australia is the new thing. Extreme options for extreme situations.

* Click-upload-share syndrome: A recent development as to the moment someone clicks a photo which is presumably of yourself or anything abstract, it has to be uploaded on Facebook or Twitter. It doesn't matter whether if you are just eating dinner or licking an ice-cream but it's necessary for those photos to land up on Facebook or Twitter. Privacy and intimacy be damned.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Reality Bites: No One Killed Jessica

No One Killed Jessica, the first movie release of 2011, is a film that unleashes a myriad emotions in you. The hard facts of modern India's most written about case are well-known by almost everybody but the director Rajkumar Gupta's dramatic handling of the crime, the criminals, the crusaders and the victim creates a storm.

The film makes you feel angry, sad, frustrated, bitter about the umpteen flaws in our administrative and legal machinery. But more than all this, it fills you with hope and confidence. No One Killed Jessica reaffirms the power and the efficacy of the ordinary man who can--and must--make the difference in a dismaying world. Unlike superhero sagas, the film doesn't just showcase two feisty women--Sabrina (Vidya Balan) and Meera (Rani Mukherjee)--who take on the might of the powerful. Instead, it throws light on the fact that the whole nation came together, joined the "Justice for Jessica" crusade and displayed how power actually resides in the hands of the people than politicians and their puppets. That's the heartening message the film throws out loud and clear at a time when the nation is scam-tainted which isn't edifying.

The pitfalls in making such a film that draws its drama from real life are many. The film could have easily been unspooled like a soulless documentary that cuts and pastes newspaper headlines in cardboard collage fashion. But kudos to the filmmaker and the actors for infusing whole lot of soul and the body in the film which races across like a hard-punch thriller. From the first phone call which informs a sleepy Sabrina of her sister's death to the candle-light vigil at India Gate, No One Killed Jessica is a racy crime drama that relentlessly draws you in. When its not the rivetting screenplay and dialogues written by Rajkumar Gupta, it is the actors who grab eyeballs with their power-packed portrayals.

Rani Mukherjee's rendition of the bitch Meera Gaity--a balsy, cuss word-spewing newshound--is sure to give you an adrenalin high. Newcomer Myra's Jessica act is full of life and endearing. But it is Vidya Balan's subdued performance as Sabrina Lall who steals the show with her quiet courage, her absolute ordinariness and her complete disbelief at how someone with a pistol in his hand and power in his head could shoot down somebody for a mere drink. Vidya's body language and her aimless commutes in Delhi's blue-line buses, cycle-rickshaws etc. and you will understand how the common man survives in India; against all odds, albeit with courage and dignity. Rajesh Sharma's cop act is poignant and brilliant. He's the cop who unabashedly takes a bribe for not beating up the politician's son in custody and yet does any and everything to fight for justice.

Everyone in the film puts in an impressive act. Rani is impeccable as the hard-talk journalist and Vidya's common girl act is stupendous. The rest of the ensemble cast fit in perfectly in their respective roles. Rajkumar Gupta has taken newspaper headlines and added heart and soul to them. It is a typically Delhi-centric film with the betel-stained police station walls to the high-heeled social circuit, the lingo has no false ring. Delhi looks beautiful, ominous, heartless and all-heart thanks to the amazing cinematography. The heavy metal tracks form the right tone to the hard-hitting film. Rani Mukherjee's garb as a fiesty TV journalist and Vidya's ordinary dress sense are totally in sync with the story.

The film has an impeccable first half and could do with some editing in the second half. But the high drama, the arresting performances and the spunky audio track by Amit Trivedi make No One Killed Jessica a memorable viewing.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Sedition Scam

We have to hand it to the Indian government. Cocking a snook at critics who have accused it of being a soft target for terror attacks and insurrectionary militias, the government and the laws have demonstrated just how tough it can be when it wants to. It has struck a mighty blow for democracy and in one stroke symbolically put paid to the so-called Naxal menace which reportedly has affected over 160 of the country's 600 districts. The Naxal menace been described by the Prime Minister as India's biggest single threat to national security, more so even bigger than the Pakistan-inspired terrorism.

The Indian government and the judiciary achieved this by arresting and giving a life sentence for sedition to a frail, ailing, 61 year old doctor-cum-social activist who has dedicated all his life to the welfare of tribal communities and other marginalized people who are too small and insignificant to be noticed by the Indian from the remote and lofty perch that it occupies.

Despite appeals made not only by 22 Nobel laureates, including economist Amartya Sen, but also by numerous human rights organizations across the world that the detainee, Dr. Binayak Sen, be released but the Indian government and judiciary have stood its ground with admirable firmness. Dr. Sen had been found guilty by a court of law for his "connections" with the Maoists, whose avowed agenda is the violent overthrow of the Indian state. As such, under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, Dr. Sen is guilty of sedition , a crime which carries life sentence. That the case against Dr. Sen is based on a highly questionable police report, which, among other anomalies, contained a "typographical error" regarding the exact locations where the alleged "linkages" took placehas not deterred the course of justice. Nor does it matter whether there is no evidence whatsoever that the accused has himself ever committed or instigated acts of violence. He has been found guilty by association; of being a Maoist sympathizer if not an actual Maoist. That is enough for the Indian judiciary and government which, tired of being called a soft target, wants to show to the world, but most of all wants to project itself, just how tough it really is. Throw the guy in jail and while you're at it, throw away the key.

Dr. Binayak Sen is not the only one on whom the Indian state recently demonstrated its toughness. Arundhati Roy and Hurriyat SAS Gilani both have had charges of sedition slapped on them for espousing the cause of Kashmiri azaadi. The Indian judiciary and government--which appears to have 100% tolerance for scams and swindles of various kinds--has zero tolerance for sedition. As interpreted by the state, sedition seems to mean not just any attempt to overthrow it but to in any way show sympathy with those who question or rebel against the legitimacy of its actions.

Dr. Sen's imprisonment has in no way helped quell Maoism (indeed P. Chidambaram recently admitted that the Naxals still had "the capacity to strike at will, giving them the upper hand over security forces") does not matter. Nor does it appear to matter that, even as the Home Minister was making his statement about the undiminished Maoist threat, Pranab Mukherjee said that the spread of Naxalism in backward areas was a "reflection of our failure in meeting the expectations of the local people." Is the minister's admission of "failure" itself liable to the charge of sedition in that it undermines the authority of the judiciary and government?

Dr. Binayak Sen's imprisonment will not in any way help in tackling the Naxal "menace". The sedition charges against Arundhati Roy and Gilani will not in any way help in tackling the 62 year old Kashmir problem. But perhaps, the real purpose of such measures is not to solve these deeply entrenched problems--born out of the chronic weakness of the state's policies--but only to show the selective toughness of the government and the judiciary. Perhaps the reality of weakness is not important; the perception of toughness is.

If this is indeed so, "sedition" is the biggest scam of all, sponsored by the judiciary and government.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

News We Can Use

For the Indian media, the past year 2010 has been almost Dickensian: it's been the best of times, but also possibly the worst. A Chief Minister resigning due to media pressure, a Union Minister stepping down, senior politicians being raided: when was the last time the Indian media could claim so many "victories" in a single year? Yet, just as we were rejoicing at the return of hard, uncompromising whistle-blower journalism, along came the Niira Radia tapes to throw journalism into a new spin. A couple of months ago prior to the year end, the media was being congratulated for taking on the political establishments. Now, it is being accused of cosying up and being co-opted by the power elite. The truth, as often is the case, lies somewhere in between.

In a sense, the rise and fall of the Indian media was almost inevitable. Over the past two decades, the Indian media has grown exponentially. In 2000, the government cleared just one news channel. Today, there are now more than 500 channels being beamed into several homes across the country, one third of which are news channels, with over a hundred more waiting for permission. Add over a 100 million newspaper copies that are sold on a daily basis, more than 8 million Internet users and the image of a news-driven society is complete. When consumption reaches such mammoth proportions, the media is bound to play a larger-than-life role in our lives.

At a public discussion with a veteran journalist two weeks ago, a student from a rather angry audience: "Do you people in the media think you're God?" The senior journalist hastened to emphasize his mortality, but realized that he had little chance. At one level, the viewers expect the media to solve problems plaguing the nation today: from uprooting corruption, ending terrorism, to even clearing the garbage in the neighbourhood. At another level, the same media is being asked to be a little more humble, less opinionated and less caught up in their new-found celebrity status. A new God of the masses or a faceless slave to the vast multitudes of news viewers? That's the uneasy choice which is being thrown at the new generation of media today.

Some journalists have fallen into the trap which these contrasting expectations now pose. Every night, it is not unusual for television news anchors to play judge, jury and executioners. From being neutral and detached observers of the news, journalists have arrogated to themselves the right to speak for the "nation", never mind if there are others who might have differing views. The guru of chat shows, Larry King, put the new mantra of television news rather succinctly: "If you look at the media now, all the hosts of these other shows are interviewing themselves. You see, the guests are a prop for the anchors."

Once the media wears the garb of self righteousness and begins speaking from the news pulpit, then the media is asking for trouble. For when the "media-as-God" fails to deliver, then a backlash is inevitable. Which is precisely what has happened in the aftermath of the Niira Radia tapes. The anger one senses in the blogsphere and beyond is partly a sense of feeling let down by those who were seen to be the conscience-keepers of the nation. After all, if the media is speaking for the anonymous masses, then the same audience believes it has the right to hold the media accountable. No matter then that most of us would be embarrassed in varying degrees if our private conversations were made public. The media, which holds the rest of the society to a higher standard of accountability, is expected to adhere to those same rigorous standards.

In a way, this is a positive development. During the media revolution in the past decade, there is little doubt that rules and norms of journalism have been cast aside amid the frenzied competition. Loose allegations, often made without even basic verification, are broadcast and published with little fear of defamation. When today's news is the next hour's history, then truth can lose out to sensationalism with worrying consequences for media credibility.

We sometimes need a media trial, if only to shake a corrupt system out of its deep slumber. But if the media trial becomes an end in itself, if news becomes an expression of personal biases and reversing the basic jurisprudential principle of being innocent till proven guilty, then we again run the risk of shrinking our long-term professional integrity.

Which is why some of the criticism of the media that has followed the publication of the Niira Radia tapes forces a course correction then we must welcome it. The rise of the media has almost made us starry-eyed and disconnected with ground realities. The media even forgot their institutional responsibility: that they are nothing but servants of the institutions known as the free press and they exist to further its cause, not their individual ones and certainly not those of political or corporate India.

Yet in this connection it is very important to note that although there are several ills that can be laid at the media's door, the media as a whole must not be judged by the flawed behaviour of a few. The media is made up of hundreds of committed journalists, reporters and news gatherers all of whom do a tough honest day's job in bringing the news to the ordinary Indian without fear or favour. It is they who have brought down the mighty 2010 and it is these unknown faceless people who uphold the spirit of journalism.

Post Script: A recent poll conducted by the Hindustan Times-Cfore survey suggested that 97% of those polled did not trust journalists in the aftermath of the Niira Radia tapes. Another poll conducted by The Week ranked the media just above real estate agents and politicians in the trust factor. Restoring the trust deficit must become our new year resolution for the year ahead.