Thursday, 24 March 2011

Movie Review: The Great Indian Butterfly

The Great Indian Butterfly is a typical arthouse film in Indian English which is far removed from the standard Bollywood fare. Though it doesn't have any of the usual exotic dance, drama or action, yet the evocatively titled film possibly has more relevance than most of the other films today. The Great Indian Butterfly tracks the turbulent married relationship of a young, upwardly mobile couple as they battle the usual problems most urban couples would identify with. The film is well-paced, the acting is realistic and the debutant director Sarthak Dasgupta keeps the screenplay flowing briskly, with the story jumping back and forth smoothly.

Sandhya Mridul and Aamir Bashir are a DINK couple who work in corporate jobs, own a fancy car and an apartment but have lots of stress. To take a break and resolve their problems, they decide to take a vacation. Except that Aamir messes up again and they miss their flight, which immediately leads to scrap. Thus, in this foul mood, they end up driving and bickering to Goa. During the journey, we learn of Aamir's quest for the great Indian butterfly, mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Puranas, which is supposed to bring "love, peace, luck and happiness" to whoever sees it. It is supposed to float in the "Cordiguez" valley and the couple decides to look for the butterfly, in an elusive search for their own inner peace. Ah, metaphors. Unfortunately, the director stresses the metaphor once too often in the form of Barry John, who keeps popping up in the film at regular intervals, delivering expert diatribes on the great Indian butterfly. Extremely irritating.

Then, there is Koel Purie, Aamir Bashir's former flame, with whom he still has some kind of relationship. As the couple reach Goa and begin their holiday, their life in Mumbai keeps intervening. Sandhya has troubles at work, while Aamir seems to be disturbed by something even as their aborted child returns to haunt them. In the midst of all this, they try and find their lost intimacy, but the atmosphere is badly strained. A misunderstanding leads to Sandhya walking out, while a distraught Aamir sets off alone to find the elusive butterfly.

The Great Indian Butterfly doesn't have much of a story to tell and tends to get clever and intellectual in parts. However, what keeps the film going is a sharp screenplay and the chemistry between the lead actors. Sandhya Mridul is kickass as the modern Indian woman, firm and sexy to boot and makes no bones about displaying her bare back in a scene. Aamir Bashir puts in a nuanced performance as a metrosexual husband, the mamma's boy trying to be brave. Koel looks sultry and bohemian and except for the Barry John bits which tend to get ponderous and philosophical, the film makes for an easy viewing. The one big problem with The Great Indian Butterfly is, however, the entirely English dialogue, which seemed a bit artificial to my Indian ears. However, it is worth a watch because it's worth a watch, especially if you're a Sandhya Mridul fan.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Angry Cabbies

Mumbaikars would vouch for the fact that the city's landscape is incomplete without the taxis. More so because it is a known fact that Mumbai cabbies are an institution by themselves. Mumbaikars would be lying if they say they don't prefer the city's new taxis over the battle-weary yellow-and-black Fiat taxis.

Recently, my friend ran into a cabbie of one such Fiat who looked on bemusedly after a bevy of beauties rejected his taxi in favour of an Alto. The rejected cabbie spoke with apparent hurt about the "phoren taxi" craze. He mentioned a man with two children and wife preferred to wait at the Marine Drive promenade at around 1 am on a December night than hail the only two Fiat taxis at the stand. As an hour ticked by, the man ventured into the angry cabbie saying he wanted to go to Bandra and the cabbie flatly refused by citing that he had a prior booking.

To cut the long story short, the cabbie said his passengers, who trooped out at around 2:30 a.m., offered to take the family along to Bandra. At the drop spot, the man held out a note of Rs. 100 as "baksheesh" for the driver, who rejected it. "I told him that I could afford to do charity worth that much," he said.

My friend made sympathetic noises against the ageist society that was edging out spacious Fiat taxis as well as the mannerless hitch-hiker. But then again, who wouldn't be a wee bit happier when given the option of zipping a wee bit faster in a newer machine?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Sins Catch Up

The Hindu Business Line

Given its size and diversity, not to mention the complicated nature of its federal arrangements which make coalitions unavoidable, India surely is not an easy country to govern. Even in the more mature democracies, apart from the technical requirements laid down in the Constitution, two intangible ingredients play a major role. One is credibility and the other is moral authority. Unfortunately, the UPA-II Congress government appears to have lost both. The credibility disappeared when it was repeatedly caught being "economical with the truth".

Now, after the WikiLeaks expose in The Hindu of a cable sent by a US Diplomat describing how some MPs were bribed when the Indo-US Nuclear Deal came up for a vote on July 22nd 2008, the moral authority has also gone. As a result, the Government is ruling only because of the technicality that it has a majority in the Lok Sabha. Indeed, in that sense it is not unlike Mr. P.J. Thomas, who was recently removed as the Central Vigilance Commissioner--technically everything was fine, in that he had not been convicted of any crime but the fact that there was a chargesheet against him suggested that he was unsuited in every other way.

Likewise, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee is no doubt technically right when he says that the sins committed in the 14th Lok Sabha cannot be discussed in the 15th. But surely, the sins committed by the Congress then can be visited upon it now? Mr. Mukherjee and his party are also right when he says that there is no evidence admissible in a court. But why does no one take his argument seriously? The answer lies in the stoic silver silence of the two Congress "innocents"-- the party President and the Prime Minister. Both are supposed to lead the party at least, if not the country. Neither of them address the nation sending out a feeling like Indians are not worth talking to. They leave it to the Finance Minister, who must now hold a record of sorts when it comes to rescuing the lambs from slaughter.

But even he is now flagging. Such has been the damage to the Government's reputation that even repeated assertions by the Prime Minister that his is not a lame duck government, moral authority diminished, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has made a fine art of looking forlorn, today merely cuts a sorry figure. The Indo-US nuclear deal is beginning to look like a pyrrhic victory, something bought at too great a cost to the country, its institutions, the Government and the party.

Had all this happened a year or so before the next general election, it may not have mattered very much. But there are still three years to go before the next general elections. A Government under seige for such a long time cannot govern--as was seen during 1987-89. The consequences for the economy can be very damaging, not least because, when the Congress gets into trouble, it turns populist and starts raiding the fisc.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Umrao Jaan: A Poetic Portrayal of Pain

The presence of courtesans which are deeply entrenched in popular culture has been time and again fascinated Bollywood filmmakers and it has been reflected in the movies as well. "Umrao Jaan" is a stunning piece of art which beautifully captures the time period of the 19th century Lucknow. The story of Umrao Jaan is adapted from the Urdu novel "Umrao Jaan Ada" written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa which was first published in 1899.

The Hindi/Urdu film "Umrao Jaan" tells the story of a courtesan set in Lucknow of the early 19th century. The film begins as a young girl known by the name as Amiran in 1840 when she is kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Lucknow. Amiran is brought to Madam Khanum Jaan's brothel in Lucknow, where her name is changed to Umrao Jaan. Umrao Jaan (Rekha) now grows up to be a very talented singer, an exceptional dancer and a brilliant poet. She becomes a much sought-after tawaif (courtesan) known purely for her dancing skills and poetry.

The movie follows the tragic life of the courtesan Umrao Jaan who is uprooted from her family and brought into a completely different world where her only purpose is to make others happy. She assumes the role of a lonely soul in a crowd and poetry becomes her channel to express her pain, love, longing and disappointment. The ghazals by the Urdu poet Shahryar are beautifully penned to express these emotions and have now been marked as fine examples of Urdu literature.

Rekha simply takes acting, dancing and expressiveness to a level which only she can create. The film truly deserved her. Rekha comes out with flying colours while expressing joy, pain, love or any emotion embodied in the film. Her phenomenal acting dwarfs even Naseeruddin Shah as Gauhar Mirza comes to look like an average role and a talented actor like Farooque Sheikh touches the heart with a controlled performance as the Nawab.

The film is a ghazal on celluloid and it beautifully expresses the pain, loneliness and passion without touching the extremes. Urdu mehfils, timeless ghazals, eloquent shers, hookahs, dazzling costumes, elaborately done houses and brilliantly choreographed Kathak performances take you back to the 19th century Lucknow. A lot of credit goes to the art director, costume designers and make-up artists for recreating that time period so wonderfully.

Umrao Jaan will make you leave with a very heavy heart. The hypocrisy of the society which uses prostitutes for satisfying carnal pleasures but refuses to acknowledge their presence and feelings which is sensitively and subtly depicted in the film. Umrao Jaan is one of those few rare movies which will survive even after a million years. It is a movie that takes art to a celestial level. It is a movie that will leave you with a very heavy heart without a trace of melodrama. If filmmaker Muzaffar Ali were to recreate the movie again, I doubt if he would get it as close to perfection as he got it the first time. Umrao Jaan has a right blend of poetry, pain and pleasure. If you haven't watched this movie, you're definitely missing a classic.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The "Wrong" To Die

Anil Dharker

The case of Aruna Shanbaug in the Supreme Court, which has brought the subject of euthanasia into public debate, is in one way typical of such cases and in another way, not typical at all. It's not typical because her family is not involved in any decision-making process on her behalf; apparently members of her family (sister; niece and so on) stopped visiting her four years after she was admitted to hospital in a vegetative state; since then none of them have been to see her any time. In a sense, therefore, she has been dead to them for the past 33 years.

Who can blame them? Her closest relative seems to be an older sister who ekes out a meagre living her for herself. Would she be in a position to pay for Aruna's hospitalization? The answer is no. So if KEM Hospital--and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation--weren't willing to foot the bill, how would Aruna be kept alive? The particular circumstances of her tragedy--she was a nurse at the hospital, the criminal assault on her was by a KEM staffer, she was assaulted in the hospital premises--has compelled KEM to continue paying for her treatment. There is another special feature in the case, which is the extraordinary dedication of the nursing staff at the hospital that ministers to her every need day and night and has done so selflessly for the past 37 years.

But is this particular combination always possible? Discussions on euthanasia seldom take into account the people around the patient. Are they in a position to pay for life-long care? If they are not, which would be true of most families, does the debate on euthanasia then centre around only on well-off patients, or those under State care?

Apart from the financial aspect, there is the even more important emotional question to be considered: When the patient is in a vegetative state, he or she does not feel any kind of emotional trauma; it's only those taking care of the patient who feel the daily emotional burden of watching a loved one reduced to a vegetable. What happens to their quality of life? And remember, we are not talking of a trauma lasting a few weeks, but one that can go for years and years, without any interruption or let up. Yet, these important questions, questions which affect whole families engaged full-time in the business of survival are considered irrelevant.

So, what is considered as relevant? The most often invoked sentiment from doctors and others involved in such cases is that they do not want to play God and decide who lives and who doesn't. Yet, are they not playing God in keeping alive someone unable to look after themselves by feeding them through tubes and by constant medication? As medicine evolves and newer and more effective treatments become available, would doctors say they are not playing God by extending the vegetative state of a patient even longer?

Pending legislation on the subject--which the government has now promised to look into--the Supreme Court has formulated an important guideline: "passive" euthanasia is permissible. The court has elaborated that this means that keeping alive a brain-dead patient by artificial feeding is no longer necessary; doctors can simply stop the treatment and feeds and the already comatose patient will quickly fade away. But this applies only to brain-dead patients. Therefore, euthanasia in the case of Aruna Shanbaug was ruled out: she was not considered brain-dead. (Apparently she responds to physical stimuli, reacts to sound and even to changes in her feeds).

This ruling of the court has been hailed as a ground-breaking but on reflection seems to be only a small tentative step in resolving the question of euthanasia. If a patient's brain has stopped functioning, but his or her heart and other bodily organs still work, that patient is incapable of living in any real sense: the body is a mere shell ticking away to no purpose. Euthanasia in cases like this raises no ethical questions at all.

But they do in cases like Aruna Shanbaug's whose brain shows a flicker of life, though her body is completely immobile and incapable of supporting itself. The court has shirked dealing with these questions completely by decreeing that she should be kept alive. Why? At whose cost? Most important of all, to what purpose? If a patient--and here I speak in general, not of Aruna--had a brain which were functioning like a normal human brain, even say, a brain with reduced IQ, you could make out a case for keeping the patient alive in the hope that advances in medicine would enable the patient's physical state to improve at a future date. But if the brain is functioning only in the most rudimentary way, how different is that entity from a low life form, say a crustacean?

These are uncomfortable questions and which, if we are lucky, we will never have to personally deal with. But someone, somewhere, will have to face them. It's the duty of the courts and our law-makers, to think of them.

Friday, 11 March 2011

A Time to Live, A Time To Die

Harmala Gupta,
Founder President, CanSupport

In the wake of the Supreme Court's judgment in the Aruna Shanbaug case, the arguments have moved from the "potential to be misused" argument to that of "I-have-the-right-to-choose-when-and-how-I-wish-to-die". So it's no surprise that euthanasia is being viewed as a pre-emptive strike that it will prevent the "loss-of-control" or becoming a "burden" on care-givers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that "governments should not consider the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia until they have demonstrated the full availability and practice of palliative care for all citizens" (WHO Recommendations, Cancer Pain Relief and Palliative Care, 1990). This is a position that has been reiterated by practitioners of palliative medicine worldwide. They have argued that countries which have legalized (or have sought to legalize) euthanasia and/or physician-assisted suicide have inferior palliative care services. The inference is that because of inadequate care, the suffering of the terminally ill is not relieved and hence, the demand for assisted dying.

Published data also seems to support this position. A US Study of physician-assisted-suicides in Oregon suggests that 46% of patients who have received substantive palliative care changed their minds as compared to the 15% who weren't offered palliative care (New England Journal of Medicine, 2000). This was also supported by the evidence presented by the other palliative care physicians from Britain, the Netherlands and Australia.

On the other side, economic factors such as the cost of treatment, the subtle cocercion from carers--were recognized as parameters that can tip the balance in favour of opting for an assisted death. But there are basic questions that beg to be answered:

* Would offering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide as a therapeutic option further add to the burden on patients as well as signify a deleterious shift in clinical practice currently focussed on saving lives?

* Who has the right to decide if and when a life-prolonging treatment be started or stopped or when suffering has become unbearable? The patient, the family, the physician, the lawmaker or the society at large?

* Is it justified in a situation where there is limited access to palliative care to deny a person the right to end his suffering by euthanasia or physician-assisted-suicide?

* With people living longer and with diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and dementia on the rise and with reduced family and community support, is it realistic to expect people to continue to live with dignity when no outside support is available?

* Is it not better to legalize euthanasia and thus bring it under closer control and scrutiny rather than allow it to operate clandestinely?

* Do laws regulating living wills or advance directives that exist in only a few countries now have any place in this debate?

* Does moral responsibility and personal beliefs count in a discussion on euthanasia and palliative care?

The debate should not be seen in an either/or paradigm but as a step-by-step approach with euthanasia, offered only in the rarest of cases where it can be proved beyond any doubt that there is unrelieved suffering.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Aruna Shanbaug: A Life In Hell

On Monday, the 07th of March 2011, the Supreme Court of India struck down a verdict against active euthanasia referring to the case of Mumbai nurse Aruna Shanbaug filed by writer-activist Pinky Virani. Dismissing the euthanasia plea for Aruna Shanbaug, the Supreme Court spelt out the guidelines distinguishing between active euthanasia and passive euthanasia thereby revealing its ambivalence on the issue.

Aruna Shanbaug, a former nurse at Mumbai's KEM Hospital, Parel, Mumbai who was sexually assaulted by Sohanlal Valmiki, a ward boy at the hospital on 27 November 1973. He choked her with a dog chain and sodomized her. The asphyxiation cut off oxygen supply to her brain resulting in a brain stem contusion injury and a cervical cord injury apart from leaving her cortically blind which in turn led her to lead life in a vegetative state for the past 37 years.

Aruna's case opens up the floodgates for a healthy discussion on euthanasia or mercy killing. The euthanasia debate is an extremely sensitive issue which needs to be discussed in the public domain and the Parliament and the Supreme Court should not make laws on hearing the recommendations by five or six panels. Instead, the Parliament and the Supreme Court should use cases like hers as an opportunity to spell out a clear framework under which euthanasia can be sought.

The society needs to be sensitized to the issue of euthanasia. The need of the hour is educating people at the law and what medical science has made possible in terms of prolongation of life though not necessarily of consciousness or a pain free existence which prepares us to make a decision ourselves. A considered decision by a person whose life hangs in the balance needs to be backed by medical and legal consent in cases where euthanasia is permitted. Building these principles into humane legislation is called for now.

Instinctively, we might find it unacceptable to give a person the right to decide when someone's life should end. Yet, we would just as readily accept that to keep a person endlessly alive in a vegetative state is also inhuman. The humane way of dealing with it would be to allow mercy killing but in very limited situations and under strict safeguards to ensure it cannot be misused. It should be allowed only in two types of situations: One would be allowed where the person whose life is to end is not in a position to decide and where doctors and medical experts agree that there is a no hope of ever recovering to a state where he/she can take a decision. The other situation would be where the person takes the decision himself or herself and is suffering immensely and doctors agree that there is no hope for recovery.

Aruna Shanbaug has been subjected to 37 years of indignity that now even the right to die with dignity has become as hollow as a shell in her lifeless life? What does the idea of right to life, to die with dignity or even justice mean in the context of Aruna Shanbaug? The Supreme Court needs to ask itself many big questions and not forget the most important one: if Sohanlal Valmiki, the guy who sodomized her with a dog chain was allowed to walk free after just seven years in jail, doesn't his savaged victim have the right to be set free after 37 years of incarceration far, far worse? What do you think?

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Movie Review: The President Is Coming

The world shall eternally be thankful to the former American President George W. Bush. Not for his botched up policies, ideas and ideologies, but for opting to don the role of the First Joker rather than the First Citizen of the United States. Never mind, we have laughed enough so much on the crazy antics he has performed during his tenure as the President, he was certainly one of those few world leaders who chose to be goofy even in America's bleakest hours. Remember 9/11 and how he held the children's story book "My Pet Goat" upside down, while the airplanes pounded history?

George Bush may no longer be the President of the United States but there was no other way to bid him farewell than celebrate his Bushisms with a dash of Indianism. The President Is Coming directed by Kunaal Roy Kapur is a shameless, amateurish and funny satirical comedy that not only lampoons Bush, but also takes a rib-tickling dekko at the stereotype of the Indian youth.

Set against the former US President's visit to India in 2006, the film is a behind-the-scenes of the US Consulate which has been given an arduous task of selecting one suitable Indian who will shake hands with the former US President. Needless to say, this fortunate (read: unfortunate) Indian will be the sole representative of India's burgeoning youth population and has the responsibility of showcasing the mantra of "India Shining-Rising-Rocking", all in a matter of a second.

Enter Samantha Patel (Shernaz Patel), the quirky PR agent who must select the chosen one with her assistant, the second-sexed Ritu Johnson (Shivani Tanksale). Enter the participants: an odd assortment of twenty-something Indians who have to pass a test of their physical and mental skills before they have their tryst with history. It's here the real fun in the movie begins, as the wannabe Booker winner Maya Roy (Konkona Sen Sharma) tries to outwit the rest with her snooty pseudo-intellectual airs. Of course, she's no competition for the casteist-communal swadeshi MBA pass out, the Yankee-fied accent trainer, the bimbette desi Paris Hilton (Ira Dubey), the gay geek who wants a good wife and the earthy stock broker who believes money can buy everything, even a handshake!

The film has a raw look and lacks finesse when it comes to production values. But there is a delightful tongue-in-cheek tenor running through it, which makes you overlook the unpolished feel and the loose editing. While George Bush himself is reduced to a bunch of raucous snores and a disembodied flick of the hand, India's famous Generation X are themselves a bunch of nerds who think Colin Powell is Nelson Mandela and Osama Bin Laden is Osho Rajneesh.

But in the end, despite their foibles, they're all lovable and recognizable, including the "communal" wannabe entrepreneur who ends up befriending the Muslim security guard and applauding his Urdu poetry. Performance-wise, it's the uptight and complex-ridden Konkona Sen Sharma who walks away with laurels and laughs even as the film takes a healthy snigger at the desi self.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation

The Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Palika or the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) or the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) are the few of the names that the civic body that governs the city of Mumbai is known by. It is India's richest municipal corporation which also has the distinction of being the largest organization. It's annual budget is more than the annual budget of the small states in India. 

The main motto of the BMC is the Sanskrit sentence is "यतो धर्मोस्तुतो जय" which roughly translates to "Where there is righteous, there shall be victory". The motto is inscribed in the Coat of Arms. The Coat of Arms is a four panel shield supported by an intertwining floral border in gold. A lotus in bloom, an emblem of purity and beauty is at the bottom and a lion surmounts it. The panels inscribed as the Gateway of India which signifies the position of Mumbai as a gateway to India, a symbolic factory inscribed in a cog wheel which signifies the industrial importance and the fast-paced nature of Mumbai, the three sailing ships which denote Mumbai's pre-eminence as a port while a symbolized diagram of the building depicts itself as the seat of local self-governance in Mumbai. 

The Corporation Building is a Grade-II "A" heritage building situated opposite the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus at the junction of Dadabhai Naoroji Road and Mahapalika Marg. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay was first created in 1865 and Sir Arthur Crawford was its first municipal commissioner. The Municipality was initially housed as a modest building at the terminus of Girgaum Road. In 1870, it was shifted to a building near Azad Maidan, located between Watson Hotel and Sassoon Mechanics Institute where the present Army and Navy building is situated. On December 9 1884, the foundation stone for the new building of the Bombay Municipal Corporation was laid opposite the present Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus by the then viceroy Lord Ripon. 

If city historians are to be believed, two designs were considered for the building; one was the Gothic design done by the British architect Fredrick William Stevens and the other in the Indo-Saracenic design presented by Robert Fellowes Chisholm. The Gothic design was finally selected. The building was formally completed in 1893. The building is known for its 255 feet tall tower and the chief architectural feature is the central dome which rises to a height of 71.5 metres . Records also support that at these environs where the MCGM proudly stands today was once a "Phansi Talao" or Gallows Tank, where hangings took place in full public view.

Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and Sir Dinshaw Wacha were two prominent citizens of erstwhile Bombay who were members of the Municipal Corporation. At the entrance to the BMC stands an impressive bronze statue of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta who silently now watches over the roads, the Victoria Terminus and the traffic silently witnessing the growth of Mumbai. The entrance of the BMC gives a picturesque view of the roads and the buildings in front.