Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rise. Resurrect. Rejuvenate.

If the Batman can overcome a fatal mortal threat in the most primitive fashion, who are we not to try? A sonata, to punch on the keyboard. 

If you grow up in small-town India, getting access to Phantom and Mandrake was a darn side easier than the adventures of the DC and Marvel heroes and heroines. Those daysthe Marvel posterboy Spiderman was brought in to our lives courtesy the Saturday afternoon airing on Doordarshan.  Even now, when I have access, the international publications seem unaffordable. It is actually the digital medium and the smart handheld-device explosion that has been a boon. The ability to download comics for a couple of dollars (or even free) is so much more convenient than the six hundred rupee paperbacks available in book stores.

Over the course of seven years and three films, Christopher Nolan has paid a tribute to Batman which Bob Kane maybe have never dreamt of, but would surely have been very proud of. In fact, if you analyse Nolan's entire portfolio of the four films (including Inception) in the given timeframe, it is only the first and last that are possibly comic superhero movies. The Dark Knight and Inception (the interluding two which really created Nolan's legend) are more psycho-thrillers exploring the (destructive) capabilities of the human mind. It took the brilliance of the late Heath Ledger's Joker to relegate the protagonist to a glorified extra in his own flick, refer my earlier love paean.

Please do read an excellent review by Mark Hughes in Forbes magazine (thanks Svety). If you discount his Oscar predictions (I am sure none of the Acting Performances will even get a nomination), I quote him. "Christopher Nolan changed everything when his Batman Begins brought to life the Batman I’d always dreamed of — no, actually, that’s not entirely correct, because the truth is that the Batman films I dreamed of were nowhere close to as good as what Nolan created. But what he created was the Batman I had been waiting for all my life, even though I didn’t know precisely what it was I was waiting for. Batman Begins made me feel, “This is Batman, this is what Batman was always meant to be, what he has for 65 years been journeying toward, and now he’s made whole at last.” So it was a shock when, in 2008, magic happened and Batman got even better on film. The superhero in cinema was redefined, the simple notion of “comic book genre” rendered obsolete, by The Dark Knight. It was a crime thriller, a police and gangster drama set in a world we could recognize as very close to our own, and in which the main character happened to wear a Batman costume. After seeing it, I had the feeling that “my” Batman, the one I’d been waiting for, was now fully formed, and I admit I didn’t know if it would be possible for any future Batman films to live up to what The Dark Knight delivered."

The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's most compelling completion of the trilogy, is cinematic intelligence at its most subtle. Comparing this film to The Dark Knight is foolhardy. With his trilogy, Nolan has created on celluloid a world full of intricate and exciting details, not too dissimilar to what JK Rowling did, but the task made more difficult by the nature of the medium. I have seen the earlier two flicks sufficient number of times, and marveled at some of the trivia in the last film being hinted at earlier (remember the flying Bat hinted at in The Dark Knight).

In his finale, Nolan captures many potential influences. The sighting of the Batman is a straight lift from Frank Miller's seminal novel. Blake's identification of Bruce Wayne as Batman is actually the way Bane does so in the comic (do try and figure out how Bane would have done so in the film). The Gotham revolution is A Tale of Two Cities meets Doctor Zhivago. And finally the rise is Rocky training as he gets a challenge similar to Superman II. We Indians can take immense pride in the Rise literally happening at Jodhpur.

How difficult would it have been for Christopher Nolan to make The Dark Knight Rises. And honestly, while the brilliantly run marketing campaign did its job in building anticipation, it could raise the expectations sky-high only to shatter them. I had to go and watch the movie twice, because the first time round, I was too busy predicting the plot, before I got sucked in to the climatic crescendo. I can not think of a better climax for any movie in the recent past. And to mull on another symbolism, was that the first time we actually saw the Batman in daylight?

With an iconic Joker to replace (who as an act of great respect is not mentioned even once in the movie), the villain would have been the most difficult choice. If Heath Ledger was alive, he would surely have got a run at the Batman again (the prison-break? remember he does not die). Initially, Johnny Depp was rumored to play the more popular Riddler, but to settle on a relatively archaic Bane buried all potential comparisons. I am still wondering how exactly did Tom Hardy bulk up for the role, to have a neck the size of most people's waists. Anne Hathaway as the Cat Burglar (never referred to as the Catwoman) plays the spiciest character. And Bruce-Alfred conversations kept giving the series progressively better moral fibre. 

Boy, am I glad to live in the times of Christopher Nolan. So far the best film I had watched this year was Martin Scorcese' Hugo, took me back to an innocent age. Nolan, narrating the story of a man with a cape and a cowl, actually helped me grow up. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Harry Potter and Neo Skywalker

Once upon a time, on a planet pretty much here..

There lives a gentleman called George Lucas. He wrote a very good story (on paper in long-hand), could not direct them very well, sort of invented CGI, and along with good friend Steven Spielberg (a more accomplished movie-maker), changed the face of Hollywood and global cinema as we know it.

For me (and maybe more of my ilk), used to the kind of cinema which the critics call kiddie stuff for grown-ups , studios call blockbusters, and we call thrilling fantasies, Star Wars is an engima. All the movies I have enjoyed since, ET, Superman, Spider Man, X-Men, definitely Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, can potentially be attributed to Lucas Inc. He is supposed to have sounded the death knell for Martin Scorsese and his Raging Bulls. At a time when in India, Amol Palekar and Nasseruddin Shah were winning Filmfare awards at the expense of ruling deity Amitabh Bachchan, Rocky trumped Taxi Driver for the Oscars.

From the movie and the path-breaking technology point of view, the closest cinematic phenomenon I have seen to Star Wars in our times is possibly Matrix, more of Gita (the self-discovery of Neo) to Lucas' Mahabharata (the space fights and the clan feuds were supposedly borrowed from oriental mythology). However, the merit of Lucas' story is proven by how badly the Wachowski brothers tripped with their sequels. Lucas himself was then making relatively ordinary prequels, but the way he had twisted his original stories to marry the good against the Dark side with father versus son, also kept pace with the box-office acceptance of the characters (the sibling relationship of Luke & Leia makes their kiss in Empire Strikes Back so incestuous).

For my generation, against the power of the force of the 70s, we had the Pottermania, a combination of the Chosen One in a fight against the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters. Books are a far more evolved, and demanding form of popular art. I have hardly been a consistent reader, and my jobs have further eroded the little habits I had.

Harry Potter as a phenomena took off when I was still studying. I first noticed when a faculty member I held in some esteem mentioned that Rowling writes quite enchantingly (how apt). My initiation happened only through the movie, directed by Chris Columbus (his Home Alone with Macaulay Culkin was a huge childhood favourite), by when the best book of the series Prisoner of Azkaban had been released (ensuring Goblet of Fire was a pre-sellout), Pottermania had taken full effect, and JK Rowling possibly had the lucrative deal with Warner Bros in mind when finishing the remaining three books. With the successful release of the film, and to cater to the wider grown-up audience, the books kept getting darker. While in Chambers.. conveniently no one dies, Harry progressively starts losing one major character in increasing importance in every book since Goblet... (before the body-bags pile up in Deathly Hallows).

The Potter world, with its quidditch, transfiguration and magic, is made for the cinemas. The film series also takes a turn towards the eventual darker tone when the superb Azakaban was filmed as competently by Alfonso Cuaron (the child Emma Watson also turned in to a teenager and caught my imagination the first time). However, I was totally hooked only when David Yates' filmed the most voluminous Order of Phoenix so well. It introduced the 'prophecy' which fascinates me, of mutually assured destruction, of there being no winners in the battle between good and evil (dare say, the prophecy gets undue importance).

The release of the Order of Phoenix film coincided with the release of the final volume by Rowling, Deathly Hallows. And just like three decades ago, all rumours like Luke Skywalker betraying the Jedi cause and joining Darth Warder were laid to rest when Potter did not meet his end at the hands of the Dark Lord.

Though we had an early bird copy of the Deathly Hallows, I was strictly advised by competent authorities to read all the novels in sequential order. To be fair to Rowling, one could have picked up any novel from the middle and sort of followed the story. However, the excitement of figuring out a minor detail in the larger context (and admiring her imagination) would have been missing. Again to prove a point for books, one cannot say the same about the films. The film Half-Blood Prince will be impossible to follow to the rare uninitiated.

For me personally, Harry Potter is the latest addition to my quirky list of fascinating heroes: Arjun, Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, and James Bond. Rowling did not create high literature (thankfully, it was not Da Vinci Code either). What she did do was create a fascinating world, a world possibly not dissimilar to Frank Baum's in Wizard of Oz (another childhood favourite). To give it a dose of realism, the canvas she paints has an uncanny resemblance to our part of the world. Order.., with the lurking menace of Voldemort and the denial by the Minsitry, resembles India. Half-Blood Prince, with the Ministry out of control, is like Pakistan. And by the final ..Hallows,where the Ministry has fallen, the scenario is like Afghanistan.

Left to myself, the first Potter, or even the second one, was so usual that I would have never followed it up had I just read the books. However, Prisoner.. had me hooked. What sets Rowling's apart are the emotional high-points of her story. The basic theme is simple, 'to choose between what is easy, and what is right' (Dumbledore tells the students after Cedric's death; SRK used the same lines to his mother-in-law in DDLJ). While Potter's initial misfortunes sound like a Cinderella, when he finally visits his parents grave and the plaque at his cottage, you feel the pain of his uncontrolled tears. The stories rarely drag (except for some portions of the Quidditch World Cup, or the futile on-the-run camping in Deathly..). The saga does culminate in Harry's improbable triumph, with as much simplicity as Luke felt the Jedi force. But the real message is in the other famous line from the books, 'it is our choices that define us, not our abilities' (again Dumbledore in Chamber..).

The films have sort of measured up to the book, especially those directed by Cuaron and Yates. The later volumes meant lots of details needed to be skipped, or tinkered with, but overall added to the story. The romantic sagas were deftly handled (though must admit, in the latest ..Prince, Hermione's love comes across as a lot more one-sided, and Ginny's kiss a lot less spontaneous than in the books). If anything, the deaths of Black and Dumbledore do not really capture the loss for Harry as well. The book ..Prince ends on a despondent and hopeless note (as Baradwaj put it, how will Harry take on the real world experience of Voldemort). In the film, by doing away with the climatic duel, the futility and Harry's helplessness at Dumbledore's death is absent. I am sure in the final movie, some of the deaths (like Dolby's sacrifice which showcased Harry's unusual-ness as a wizard) would not even make it to the big screen.

The single biggest difference between Star Wars & Harry Potter films are the acting. In the former, apart from the then new Harrison Ford & well-established Alec Guniess, no actor managed to make his mark (Mark Hamill was particularly bad as Luke). However, Harry Potters have managed to get together an ensemble of fine British actors. Established names like Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter have taken on crucial though low screen-time roles. Alan Rickman as Snape has been the stand-out performer. In the latest, Oscar winner Jim Broadbent is superb as Slughorn.

What has been fascinating to watch is the child actors grow, all of them including Draco & Neville. The leads were initially recruited only for the first three films, as they would supposedly have grown too big for their respective parts. However, thankfully, the filming over a decade has allowed the child actors to grow in the role suitably.

For me personally, a huge flaw in Rowling's romantic pairing was Ron & Hermione. They just seem too unlikely. In the latest film, the suspicions on Harry & Hermione' are cast again, only because they seem more obvious. The brilliant acting of Emma's Hermione and Rupert's bumbling Ron further adds to the disbelief in their long-term chemistry.

The problem with starting off as child actors is that one is not sure what would one grow up in to (the cute Kevin Arnold or Winnie Cooper from Wonder Years never really made it). As Burberry proves, it is difficult to believe Emma Watson (the best actor and the most reluctant star of the three) as the careless Hermione of the books. Rupert Grint, with his comic timing, is perfect as the reluctant Ron. If nothing else, while Daniel Radcliffe is the right Harry Potter, his weeping appears too wooden.

Rowling created a fantastic world, better than Lucas. In a couple of years, Yates will end it again. However, just to give me another memories of a Doordarshan era gone by, JJ Abrams came up with his Star Trek, taking me back on an enterprise to 'where no man has gone before'. Sigh, for childhood nostalgia!

P.S. For better reviews of Star Wars & Harry Potter, please read http://www.desipundit.com/baradwajrangan/.

P.P.S. Even by my standards, this post has been unusually long. Because of a mix of personal and professional reasons, I do not think I will manage to cope up with this blog too long. I will like to thank all readers for their patience. I hope to re-surface, sometime, in some form or the other.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire****

It is very difficult to be objective about the phenomena called Slumdog Millionaire. The Golden Globes and then the Oscar nominations have easily made it our own Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon (no disrespect meant to Awara, Pather Panchali, Gandhi, Salaam Bombay, Lagaan and Monsoon Wedding). From my own worldview, the story of the underdog succeeding against insurmountable odds has already been told quite well by Nagesh Kukunoor in Iqbal, or even by Ashutosh Gowariker in Lagaan.

With its destiny-led story, happy convenient ending (with no thoughts on the after-effects) and a Bollywood style end-credit number (rather tame by our vigorous standards), Slumdog.. is a quintessential Indian film. What Danny Boyle (and Vikas Swarup actually) do to give it an international halo is getting the context of the Bombay slums right (just like Crouching.. had Oriental mystique about it)! Poor Amitabh Bachchan has been unnecessarily dragged into a 'poverty-porn' controversy by the marketeers posturing as journalists at The Time of India (similar to how late Nargis Dutt accused Satyajit Ray).

I am not going in to the authenticity of what is depicted (I felt the most squeamish when Salim was shown re-sealing a mineral water bottle, it questions an entire bottling and packaging industry). Critically, none of our ilk is in a position to actually confirm or deny what is shown in the movie. Moreover, as Hindi film buffs, if we start seeking reality in our cinema, we might as well stop watching anything made here. As I have believed, Tarantino and Karan Johar are in a strange way similar, it is just that they choose to give their wings of fancy in dramatically different directions.

Danny Boyle has been a celebrated British director for his cult-classic Trainspotting (have not seen it). In fact, before Slumdog.., the only flick I have seen is possibly his only conventional Hollywood drama (in the spirit of things, lets play a quiz: the movie stars Leonardo and the answer can be checked on imdb). Because of Danny's international sensibilities, and attempt to adapt the product to the local context, Slumdog.. pervades the best of all worlds, marrying the seamier side of Bombay shown by Ramu and Anurag Kahsyap, to the relatively rosier aspects of life as captured by Mani Rathnam (the obsession of Jamal with Latika is so Dil Se) & Karan Johar. If nothing else, Danny Boyle possibly resembles our most international director, Vishal Bharadwaj. Moreover, the cinematography used to capture the Bombay locales is superb (Anthony Dod Mantle aptly has got an Oscar nomination).

Performance wise, apart from Dev Patel (as the grown-up Jamal; taking nothing away from Dev, I wonder why they could not have cast an Indian actor for the same), no one gets sufficient screen-time to score an award nomination. Freida Pinto (Latika, the love interest) is in real life six years older to Dev, but looks good with him, and otherwise (in fact, the scar makes her even more attractive, and real). Shah Rukh Khan had refused the manipulative crooked quiz-master's role (he claims he thought the character in the book was modeled on a real Bollywood personality; I think because it would have been too much grist for the mill to see him villainizing Amitabh's avuncular friendly quizzing in KBC). Anil Kapoor took on the role quite well. He is especially superb on the last question, where he is distraught with Jamal's winning, but has to still congratulate him in a celebratory style. Irrfan Khan has nothing much to do.

However, the real show-stealer for me was Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, as the youngest Jamal (there are 3 of him in different stages of life). All the three youngest characters are played by actual slum-kids, hence the most authentic use of the real language. The dancing of the kids Jamal and Latika in the end-credits easily outperforms the entire grown up crew. It just goes on to show that in any walk of life, if India needs to actualise its potential, it is necessary to drag all this hidden talent on to the mainstream (Brazil & Argentina do this very well in football).

The single biggest contribution of Slumdog.. is to bring our biggest world-class entertainer, AR Rahman, on to the global stage. Illaiyaraja might be more classical, RD Burman might have been more evergreen popular, but the genius of Rahman has been to fuse it all together, and more. His first album, Roja, was radically different from anything anyone of us had ever heard, and he has never looked back since. He has probably given better numbers. If nothing else, his first collaboration with Gulzar, Dil Se, is easily my personal best score. Delhi 6 also sounds very promising (the other album he was working on along with Slumdog..). However, I am not sure the West would have ever been exposed to the explosion of varied musical instruments they got here. And it sure is catchy!

is a celebration of life, of living, against all odds! Jamal is just after his girl. Instead of using guns like in a conventional flick, he uses brain-power, to impress, to succeed. Along the way, he gives us practical life lessons, on secularism, on morality (his elder brother's character easily was the most grey), on keeping the faith. It just goes on to reaffirm my belief that no education can compensate for actual worldly experience. Jai Ho!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Random Notes on a Demented Year

2008 was a crazy year. My professional career hardly gave me any time to breathe, lots to learn & grow, and nothing much to show as the end-result. It also was a year where the entire world caught a housing-related chill, soon to become an endemic economic & financial flu. India was supposedly insulated, but honestly, tough and turbulent times lie ahead. It will take a thick skin to keep faith in the India story.

As I hardly had any time to write, I thought I will put in some words about things I thought about during the year, but never managed to deliberate upon.

The Year of Terror

I still do not know what was the final victim count of the Bihar floods (possible the worst tragedy of the year in terms of accounted/unaccounted casualties). However, there is no denying that 2008 belonged to the terrorists, from the amateurish (Mehrauli bomb-blasts in September) to the spine-chilling deadly (26/11). What this did was bring the 20-200 million-strong Indian middle class (dependent upon which study you want to go by) back in to the mainstream. Tehelka published a lovely article, primarily as an obituary for Rohinton Maloo, but very well articulating why the Indian middle-class cannot live in a vacuum independent of the Indian political & administrative-class.

The Pakistan Conundrum

What 26/11 also proved is however much we want to leave behind our Pakistan fixation, it catches up with us, directly or indirectly. The world does not know what to make out of this nuclear-armed fast-failing state. And in spite of the hullaboo, while our response has been fairly measured, Pakistan has simply been caught in a war hysteria. For those who might propogate a tougher Indian response, just check out the tragic happenings in Gaza.


There was no stand-out Hindi film in the year. As I missed Welcome to Sajjanpur & Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, I thought Jodhaa Akbar was the best, followed by a personal quirk, Tahaan (superbly shot in Kashmir and directed as a fable by Santosh Sivan). I also thought Dostana was quite okay, proving that unlike his good friend Adi, KJo is at least finding new niches in the candy floss genre. Rock On got a lot of hype, but apart from some super music, and Farhan Akhtar proving himself to be the most complete entertainer (not necessarily the greatest actor, at least on current evidence) since that genius Kishore Kumar, I thought the movie was just about okay (definitely not another Dil Chahta Hai).

However, in English, The Dark Knight stood out bigtime, followed by the superb Kung Fu Panda (scoring over the other much celebrated animation film, Wall-E). Kung Fu Panda pretty much achieves the heights of animation - a quirky feel-good tale of the triumph of an underdog, superbly told. The one lesson I learnt for life, 'there are no secrets'.

Daniel Craig also came back with his second Bond outing, Quantum of Solace. As Vir Sanghvi put it, Craig is the only Bond after Connery who looks capable of murder (not to forget he is a superb actor to boot; he does capture the drabness of the book Bond best). However, the problem with Quantum.. was that it made James Bond in to an extension of Jason Bourne. The movie was a montage of superb action shots, interspersed with rare & few Bond moments (the escape from the elevator, the tribute to Goldfinger). However, Bond's continuous mourning for Vesper got grating after a while. Sadly, even the sex looked reluctant. Since he seems to have sort of exorcised his demons at the end, they might present Bond as a Tintin now.

Clash of the Titans

For the first time since 2001, when Lagaan and Asoka were apparently competing with each other for the nod to be the official nomination from India for the Oscars, the two big Khans of the Bombay film industry: Shah Rukh & Aamir, clashed at the box-office in December (totally unlike the other clash SRK had with the third big Khan, Salman). Aamir had upped the ante in the year with some uncharacteristic taunts, and our Hindi news channels had a field day. SRK, after his physical brawl, refused to bite the bait. My personal take is both wanted to have a good laugh at the rest of the world's expense, although Aamir just might be giving SRK a taste of his own often-biting humour.

The country's premier production house, Yashraj Films, had an exceptionally tough year. And Aditya Chopra took up the directorial reins after almost a decade to bail it out. While SRK did launch the Haule Haule song on his birthday, RNBDJ released with out any of his customary all pervasive media interactions (was it because of Bombay?). However, Aamir went on his usual PR over-drive (seen earlier in the year during the launch of his home production, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na). Moreover, from the promos, RNBDJ looked stale (with pedestrian music), while Ghajini looked cutting-edge (hummable AR Rahman numbers shot in exotic locales like Namibia). However, both Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Ghajini turned out to be damp squibs.

RNBDJ proved that there are not enough permutations left for telling a love story in Hindi cinema (although Jaane Tu.. did tell an old tale rather okay). The movie was possibly Bhansali's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam meets Shrek. While the wafer-thin story was narrated in a rather convoluted manner, SRK as Surinder Sahni became the redeeming factor. He out-acted Aamir in Ghajini, and his introductory romatic flirtations and end-credit honeymoon are hilarious. And while Surinder's alter-ego Raj might come across as irritating, I thought it was a quirky take on SRK the star. I could not really get the dilemma Surinder was posing to his bride (maybe just to get his feet touched, the MCP). It might have been much more fun if Raj actually was a different person, but then we have had enough of love triangles too.

Ghajini was Aamir having fun; at the risk of being racist, Tamil style. The movie is an old-fashioned 80s style revenge potboiler, apparently with elements borrowed from Nolan's Memento. Aamir hams it up, and while his fake-identity romance with Asin was too unreal, they did have decent chemistry (their last meeting where she gives him money for his mother is possibly the best cinematic moment, with the super melody Kaise Mujhe). Aamir has performed well in that particular scene, but still did not reveal the truth of his identity. In fact, if Asin would have survived, she should have broken up just for his treachery.

Possibly to justify his subsequent transformation into a killing machine, Aamir is shown as a corporate hulk through out. However, the climax is ridiculous to say the least (Sunny Deol should sue for copyright infringement). The gruesome murder of Asin easily pales Ghajini's demise (a rather tame villain, whose goons believe in no revolvers). Moreover, the real interesting (and cutting-edge) bit would have come from Aamir's initial plotting of his revenge. He is not shown as having any accomplices, and how he remembers Ghajini (when it was just whispered in his ears before he lost his memory) is coveniently left to the imagination.

As Uncle Ben told Peter in Spider-Man, 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

Cricket: The Passing Over of the Titans

India had a good promising year in cricket. The momentous occassion was the retirement of Anil Kumble (who was terrible throughout). Ganguly also bid a timely farewell, when he was playing his best. Sachin Tendulkar answered a lot of the tough questions asked about his match-winning abilities by two superb centuries, one against Australia in the first VB Series final at Sydney, and another against England at the Chennai Test. He might not have the style of old, but the substance more than makes up. The redeeming factor was that Jeff Crowe still had the sense to award the Man of Match to Sehwag at Chennai.

While India have been continously challenging Australia since Calcutta in 2001, the real blow was given by South Africa. Remember, India somehow lost 2-1 to pretty much the same bowling attack last year, and also faltered against a debutant Mendis in Sri Lanka. India deserved to win 2-0 against the Aussies at home, but would have never got it if the Aussies had not decided to go after the target on the last day of Nagpur.

While India has become a terrific ODI team, we still need to win more (like against the Aussies in Delhi or England in Mohali) to be called the No.1 Test team. The key would be the promising Ishant Sharma to go the way of Dale Steyn rather than Irfan Pathan, and for Rahul Dravid to possily elongate his career at No.5 (swapping with VVS). If only we can replace the dead Ranji Trophy with an IPL format now!

Sports: Inspiration from Beijing

China truly established itself on the global stage by successfully holding the Beijing Olympics. Thankfully, Abhinav Bindra chose the venue of our global rival to win India's maiden individual gold medal. However, the real challenge for the billion-strong Indians' Olympic paradox would be transform the 3 medals of Beijing to 30 at London.

The other key moments were the crowning of the World Chess Champion of Vishwanathan Anand for the third time (in three different formats), and the qualification of the Indian football team for the 2011 Asia Cup.

Yes We Can

As a balm on the tough year gone by, and for the tougher times lying ahead, Barack Obama came in from nowhere as an 'agent for change'. A new-age digital leader, Obama could not put a foot wrong. He proved his magnanimity by appointing once bitter rival Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State, and unprecedentedly, retaining President Bush' appointee Robert Gates as the Secretary of Defense. To further justify his credentials as a global role-model, he unveiled a flat-pack abs when on vacation in Hawaii. His economic policies are still unproven, but somehow President-elect Obama inspires hope in a fast depressing world like noone else.

Happy New Year to All!

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Mighty State

I saw Michael Winterbottom's 'A Mighty Heart' on Saturday, just a few hours after the Mumbai Siege had ended. An apt movie to see after the incident, more so at it depicts the capture and killing of the Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl quite authentically, and Angeline Jolie has captured the grit and agony of Mariane Pearl superbly. Maybe, it is also good for India's morale; it just showcases Pakistan on its way to be the failed state it has become.

The war in Mumbai (yes, unfortunately with the trained Fidayeen terrorists around, it is that only; that is why our ill-trained police or private security will never stand any chance) has ended, and I tried doing all my good concerned citizens bit. I went for a candle-lighting 40 kms from my place, wore black the next working day, observed a minutes silence when asked to, etc. etc. Now what?

The political class has responded. The Congress, fearing rout in the impending General Elections, finally sacked the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. BJP's Advani, after a failed attempt to show solidarity, could not take time off from his campaigning for an all-party meet. And apparently a few more heads are expected to roll in Maharashtra and the Home Ministry.

I have always maintained that most of the terrorist related problems (Kashmir, North-East, Palestine) do not have military solutions. I agree the Punjab militancy was crushed in the 80s, but the tide possibly turned when the local population withdrew logistical and emotional support to the Khalistani militants. In fact, good economics usually is the best bet, when people are too bothered to make an honourable and successful living, rather than thinking of relatively more abstract concepts like political, religious or cultural rights.

The problem with the Al Qaeda and its war is that it has beaten my rudimentary theory hollow. The recruits are usually the well-educated (not some illiterate incapable of having their own minds), even second generation immigrants (in Britain during the 7/7 bombings) who should have had no exposure to the genuine prejudices faced by their parents. In fact, I am not even sure if I understand what Bin Laden wants, apart from proclaiming the USA, Israel and India as the public enemies number 1.

It is obvious we need to do something. The problem is all of us are angry, but do not really know how to take it out. We have blamed politicians, but we have to live with them in our democracy. Critically, there is no leader who actually inspires confidence. Mobilising troops on the International border (like we did during Operation Parakram after the Pariament attack in 2001) a second time round in a decade would look stupid, especially as we did not fire a single bullet last time round. Critically, I do not think the Pakistan Government actually controls anything anymore. All leaders, be it Musharraf or Benazir, faced assassination attempts, to different degrees of success.

Israel is considered the world's hardest state, which does not negotiate with terrorists at all. In fact, the very creation of Israel and subsequent military expansion is considered the ultimate in hard state tales. Obviously, the single-mindedness unity of a fractured polity (not too dissimilar to India) helps. The Munich Massacre (where the Mossad apparently hunted down all perpetrators) , the successful storming of the hijacked plane at Uganda (Operation Entebbe), and the supposed bombing and crippling of Iran's nuclear facilities further added to the aura. However, in the new century, a younger Israel is also realising that Palestine needs to have a different political solution. The withdrawals from Southern Lebanon, Gaza and West Bank, however flawed or incomplete, drove in the fact that the military, however efficient and hardline, cannot achieve results beyond a point.

India has supported the Palestine cause since the times of Nehru. In fact, it is one of the rare causes which had the support of the Congress and the Left. India never even established diplomatic relations with Israel. However, BJP, the party with a difference, always looked up to Israel. PV Narasimha Rao, often called the first BJP PM, finally opened embassies in 1992. Since then, much to the Left's discomfiture, India and Israel, unjust victims of Islamic terror, have grown closer.

However, for all its admiration and its 6-year rule at the Centre, the BJP (with Advani as Home Minsiter) did nothing remotely smart, or hardline. If India were Israel, we might have liberated PoK in 1948/71, or at least established a 5km. non-militarised buffer zone either side of the LoC. Critically, we would not have tested the nuclear bomb in 1998, a losing proposition. Without doubting the technology requirements of Dr. Kalam, it ensured we were faced with economic sanctions for half a decade, and lost our conventional military edge against Pakistan. Kargil was a failure, as we would have never lost so many brave soldiers, if we had just broken off the enemy supply chains. However, our mutual nuclear armaments ensured both India and Pakistan stayed put in their designated territories.

Most of my ilk also aspire India to be an Israel. However, as the Big Fight on yesterday's NDTV 24x7, we actually do not know how to go about it. Some want to destroy Pakistan, some want to ban politicians, some democracy.

I have just one take. I know we are a nation of billion plus, and hence possibly can afford to lose a lot more. You become a hard state only after you get soft with the inhabitansts inside. Our administrators - leaders or policemen - have a mentality to rule rather than serve. So a bit of collateral damage, or indifference to those who do not count, does not really make a difference.

We lost 150 lives during a religious stampede in Jodhpur a few months back. We lost 50 people during last year's Gujjar caste-led agitation. We also lost 180 people in the Mumbai terrorist attack. The key question to ask, as someone had put it so well to me, do we want a mighty India, or mighty Indians?