Sunday, October 31, 2010

Third time lucky, Mr. Khan?

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 24: Producer Mahmood F...Image by Getty Images via @daylife

There’s something about Aamir Khan, isn’t there? Whatever he’s touched in the last few years has turned to gold. And given where gold prices are at these days, that’s a rich haul, at least metaphorically. Be it ‘Lagaan’s’ dream run at the Oscars in 2001, the massive critical and commercial successes of ‘Taare Zameen Par’, ‘Ghajini’ and ‘3 Idiots’, or the backing of first time director Anusha Razvi’s indie vehicle ‘Peepli Live’. Most observers are convinced he’s mastered the balance between content and commerce. It is perhaps no coincidence that his latest production, the dark yet enjoyable ‘Peepli Live’ is India’s official entry to the 83rd Academy Awards to be held in 2011, the fourth Aamir Khan film to represent India in the last nine years (including ‘Rang De Basanti’ where his contribution was only in the capacity of actor. Speaking of actors, this is Raghubir Yadav’s sixth film to be sent to the Oscars, second only to Kamal Hassan’s seven. Yadav, however has had two of his films ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Water’, make the final five). But is it a convenient choice? Or one simply made given Khan’s prior Oscar experience? India’s entry to the Oscars cannot be about pandering to certain egos or Bollywood cliques and cabals. The best film must represent the country and all other criteria must be cast aside. But given India’s failure to bag a single statuette thus far might prompt a thinking based not entirely on merit alone.

With these questions being raised, the film’s selection as India’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category has not been beyond controversy. This has once again been seen by some quarters as an attempt to play the poverty card, to showcase the worst of India to a gloating western audience. BJP’s LK Advani, no less, has expressed regret at this tendency of filmmakers to repeatedly serve up the worst kind of poverty porn for commercial and critical benefit. As if ‘Slumdog Millionaire’s insensitive dignity-denying portrayals of the poor weren’t enough, we now have a homegrown version to pander to the same exploitative and voyeuristic urban nouveau riche, who have no connect whatsoever with the devastatingly deprived and unfortunate heartlands. Perhaps a mockery was being made of the farmers’ genuine plight. Cinema is a powerful representative of country’s image and questions are being asked if a resurgent and growing India needs to continue to be represented by films such as these. Other allegations include favoritism shown to the film’s powerful and savvy producers and the consistent overlooking of regional cinema, come Oscar time.

While it is indeed true that the three Indian films that ever made the final nominations in the Best Foreign Film category (‘Mother India’, ‘Salaam Bombay!’ and ‘Lagaan’) were films that were decidedly set amongst poverty (rural and urban) and deprivation, but pronouncing judgment that similarly themed films have the best bet at getting noticed at the Oscars is perhaps too simplistic a conclusion. One must understand that the Oscars are an embodiment of an essentially a western perspective on cinema. To win there, you have to play it by their rules. One has to present cinema with universal appeal, with real stories – make believe is one thing, but singing and dancing, melodramatic monstrosities such as ‘Henna’, ‘Saagar’, ‘Jeans’ and ‘Devdas’ as entries have been a waste of time and energy. A western audience finds no connect whatsoever with this particular brand of cinema and our collective rancour at a trophy-less cabinet only finds likeness to the forlorn countenance of the sourpuss at the birthday party, stubbornly spoiling it for everyone.

‘Peepli’ is in this regard a smart and confident film, a story succinctly and poignantly told to devastating impact. It has an appeal which transcends boundaries and lack of typical Bollywood treatment will only enhance its chances. ‘Lagaan’ probably lost out due to it being at its core, a big Bollywood musical. Rizvi’s film has no such trappings. Many point to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as an example of the westerner’s love for all things poor in India. Indeed, while the film reaped a huge haul of statuettes, it was more because of the quirky and gimmicky screenplay and the freshness of the story rather than the supposed interest it generated on account of it laying bare Mumbai’s dark and deprived underbelly. The film also offered hope in a difficult time, and with the world reeling from the aftershocks of a depressing economic crisis, this small film’s roaring success mirroring its rags-to riches plot captured the popular imagination. It all came together nicely. As far as Mr. Advani is concerned, it is perhaps pertinent to remind him that ‘Peepli Live’ does nothing to mock the farmers' pitiable conditions; it mocks our indifferent and voyeuristic response to it. Perhaps the purpose of satire is a concept lost on him. Cinema and other forms of art, as a medium of comment, are possibly at their most penetrating when the reality is so pitiable that it defies belief. Years ago, Satyajit Ray's ‘Apu’ trilogy was widely criticised in several quarters for exploiting poverty. Nonetheless posterity has shown why his films have outlived him. They are timeless because of a certain enduring and rich human quality which is beyond an immediate setting of destitution and paucity. For if impecunity and deprivation were the only criteria then ‘Bandit Queen’ had no business losing out in 1994.

Sure there will always be talk of other contenders. Makers of the edgy ‘LSD’, the inspiring ‘Udaan’ and the heart wrenching ‘Angadi Theru’ might feel shortchanged. But in the end it is the incredibly smart ‘Peepli Live’ that will perhaps connect best with a universal audience for its intelligence and incisiveness, for it being simultaneously entertaining and serving as a powerful human document. Poverty has nothing to do with it. India is country where extremes of wealth and deprivation coexist. Our cinema has reflected both these realities. And both kinds of films have been sent to the Oscars. For those of you who are overly sensitive about India’s image, the film does not reinforce the ‘poverty’ stereotype. It just tells a novel story well. So let’s wish Mr. Khan well; one never knows, it could well be a case of being third time lucky.



This article first appeared in the November issue of 'KINDLE'

Enhanced by Zemanta

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Grappling with hope

Vijender Singh with Amrita RaoImage via Wikipedia
You would be hard pressed to point out Baraut on the map of India. Chances are you've never been there. Or even heard of it. Regardless, the residents of this small town in Uttar Pradesh, around 60 km askew of New Delhi, would have forgiven you your ignorance till a few weeks ago, as their favorite son, wrestler Rajiv Tomar, was well on track to realizing his medal dreams at the upcoming Commonwealth Games (CWG). But that dream has since turned spectacularly sour, thanks largely to the combined incompetence and general apathy of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the country’s Wrestling Federation (WFI), both set up to nurture sporting talent, but whose general carelessness and lack of any foresight have put paid to many a sporting dream, a result sharply in contrast to their purpose.
Tomar’s story is not only a shocking indictment of the state of general disrepair of our sports governance, but also one of hopelessness that comes from being associated with a sport other than cricket in this country. The incident was widely covered by the media, and this sporadic
coverage will eventually do irreparable damage to Tomar. Where tomes are written about our underachieving and often bratty cricketers and where Yuvraj Singh’s many romantic dalliances generate as much front page copy as food inflation or political machinations, what hope can there be for a poor wrestler? He finds mention only when he fails a dope test in the wake of a much publicized (for all the wrong reasons) international event. Tomar’s only error appears to have been to consult a doctor when he came down with flu. The medication he took for his ailment turned up a banned substance, and as per the prevailing guidelines, he stands suspended. Here is an ‘Arjuna’ awardee wrestler who is perhaps the country’s best medal hope in the 120-kg freestyle category, and what fate befalls him? He falls victim to complete negligence from a wretched administrative body set up precisely to nurture and develop him. The WFI claims innocence as does the SAI. Neither perhaps found a break from the constant bickering and internal politics that seem to run deep in any sort of administration in India, to actually have the time and inclination to guide and monitor the athlete. It is quite possible that the unfortunate wrestler did not even have an updated list of banned substances as issued by WADA, and was quite possibly met with ignorance from the sports authorities as well. The doping malaise is easily avoidable if the athlete wishes to stay clean and country’s foremost athletes have been failed by their very own. Fellow wrestlers Sumit and Mausam Khatri, also banned, are distraught as well. It is not always that they get to compete in international events of the scale of the CWG, and now they will watch from the sidelines. Worse still, history might end up remembering them for this alleged misdemeanor.
Does the name Monika Devi ring a bell? This weightlifter was declared to have failed a doping test just before departing for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, only to be cleared a few days later, but not before her dream of participating in the Olympics was scuttled. She almost gave up
the sport as a result. The media went to town with her dope test failure, but weren’t as vocal in following up with the story of her innocence. These are sportspersons who are time and time again expected only to participate and not win. These are sportspersons who walk miles to any sort of sporting infrastructure to practice, on a daily basis. These are sportspersons who brave a complete lack of opportunity during their growth phases and still win medals for the country. These are sportspersons who take up athletics and persevere, knowing full well, that the best that they can hope for is a passing mention in the back pages of a newspaper, should they win anything on an international level. These are sportspersons who have achieved success in their chosen spheres in spite of the system and not because of it. These are sportspersons who know they will disappear into thankless history, and these are also men and women who also deal with complete ignorance and indifference from the general sport enthusiast in the country. But they
continue to find the immense strength to carry on regardless. This needs to be respected. This needs to be celebrated. This exemplary courage must resonate with the rest of the country. But India seems to have moved on. The values of the post ‘91 generation seem to have been irrevocably altered. As long as we remain besotted with IPL parties, inconsequential ODIs and more burnout-inducing T20 tourneys with all their trappings of glamour, we will never stop to
notice how Monika Devi has fought her way back from the abyss of despair and depression to rise again to be regarded as India’s best bet for a medal in the upcoming CWG. The fact that no one pays any attention is the root cause of this pathetic situation our athletes find themselves in. And for the sake of sport in India, the media must also start to care more. It is time to stop
remembering Rajiv Tomar for failing a dope test; rather it is time for him to be remembered for being the holder of a record 35 Bharat and Hind Kesari titles.
It is perhaps encouraging that athletes such as Saina Nehwal and Vijender Kumar have seen some mainstream recognition in the wake of their successes. But they are exceptions to the rule. The track and field and ‘akhara’ types continue to be mainstream pariahs, forgotten and ignored by most. It is time this changed and we cleaned up our act, not only in terms of administration and governance of sports in this country, but also in terms of more positive media coverage. Talent, blood, guts, and courage are aplenty, but it needs to be given a chance. One need not reiterate that there are indeed many Indias. Indias divided by rupees in the wallet, Indias divided by language, caste, creed and community. Indias divided by religion. We don’t need an India divided by sport.


This article first appeared in the October issue of 'KINDLE'.
Enhanced by Zemanta