February 24, 2009

From Slumdogs to Supergods

The 81st Oscar Awards presentations yesterday ensured that all film enthusiasts woke up early and spent nearly five hours glued to their TVs. Indians had a special reason to rise early since it was for the first time that fellow countrymen were nominated in such a manner, all for one film ‘Slumdog millionaire’, A R Rehman for ‘Best original score’, A R Rehman for ‘Best lyrics’ for ‘O Saya’, A R Rehman and Gulzar for ‘Best lyrics for ‘Jai Ho’, and Resul Pookutty for ‘Best Sound Mixing’.

The whole country rejoiced in the stupendous success of the Danny Boyle directed story of Jamal Malik, (played by Dev Patel, an NRI actor settled in England) the slum dweller who strikes it big in a game show to change the course of his life, ignoring the temptations to take a short cut to wealth and a better life by choosing a path of crime that his brother Salim, played by Madhur Mittal, another promising young actor, chooses. That he manges to win over his girl Latika, played by another little known Bombay girl, Frieda Pinto, is what holds the audience spell bound. In this wonderful tale you want the good guy to win all through. It is as if the elements and God himself conspire to make him succesful. It is this wonderfully simple message that has had the global film audiences enthralled.

But one pauses to ask, was it a victory of Bombay Film Industry in anyway ? I dare to say ‘NO’. If at all it was a victory of good cinema over the usual mediocre stuff that the Hindi (rather Indian) film Industry churns out week after week, year after year. It was a thumbs up sign to those who want to achieve excellence in every aspect irrespective of whether or not anyone notices.

I am reminded of the story of a sculptor who was working on a statue in ancient Greece. An observer saw that there was an identical statue lying nearby and asked him why he had made two identical statues. He said he needs only one but had to make the second one since he had accidently chipped the nose of the first one. The observer asked where it was going to be installed and the sculptor replied ‘on top of that pillar’ pointing to a pillar about 5 meters high. ‘At that hieght who would know that the nose is chipped’ said the observer. The sculptor replied ‘I would know’.

The pursuit of excellence is what earns laurels and increasingly commercial success too since audiences have become so discerning that anything that is irrational, illogical and shoddily produced doesn’t last beyond the first two days at best in this age of instant nirvana with such rapid dissemination of information. A movie or a book might as well be dead by the first Sunday after release if it is shoddy. Those who have realized it and make the effort continue to rake it in while those who think they are smarter than the audiences and can take a short cut to fame and fortune are seen sobbing hysterically when it is all over and the audiences abandon their movies on day 2 if not on day 1 itself.

Rehman epitomises excellence in ones work, treating his work as worship. It is his humility that people talk about. His humble beginning and his ability to stay grounded even after achieving such magnificient height of success is what gets written about. His quality of film music is something that has become a kind of hallmark for film music in the last fifteen years or so that he has been on the horizon. Who can forget his excellently composed numbers be it from ‘Roja’ or ‘Bombay’ or ‘Dil Se’ or ‘Lagan’ or ‘Rangeela’ or ‘Swades’ or ‘Rang de Basanti’. Who can forget his rendition of ‘Vande Matram’ and ‘Maa Tujhe Salam’.

Even his signature tune for ‘Airtel’, India’s leading telecom company, is testimony to his musical genius. I am sure many artistes would willing trade a lifetime of ordinary work to author a composition such as the Airtel signature jingle.

Every Indian, from all walks of life be it films, music, politics, sport or public life are gushing, tryng to place on record their feelings for the genius that is A R Rehman. In this moment of glory one needs to pause and ask, Where were Sukhwinder Singh, who sang Jai Ho in the movie and was slated to perform live at the Oscar awards ceremony and Gulzar, who wrote those excellent words that captured the minds of the global audiences, ‘Aaja aaja dil ke shamiyane ke tale, aaja zariwale neele aasmane ke tale, ‘Jai Ho’?? I hope the allegations that are flying thick in the Indian media about A R Rehman sabotaging their visits are untrue because I wouldn’t want to see my Idol with feet of clay.

A R Rehman has produced such great compositions at such a young age, he is only 43, that one can selfishly wish that he lives for a hundred years to enthrall us for our remaining days on this earth.

image courtesy ; Mark J. Terrill / AP

February 14, 2009

Judicial overreach

The infamous Nithari killings of 2005-2006, in which Moninder Singh Pandher, a Noida businessman and his servant Surender Koli, were accused of raping and brutally murdering 19 young slum children, dismembering their corpses and disposing off the body parts in the sewage drain close by, rocked the whole nation. Surender Koli was further accused of Necrophilia (making love to corpses) and Necrophagia (eating corpses). The whole country was left speechless as gory details emerged in what can only be termed as ‘media frenzy’ at best and ‘trial by media’ at worst.

The media threw caution to the winds and made no provision for preserving the sanctity of the dead and went about the whole sordid saga without any concern for the basic tenet of jurisprudence ‘innocent till proved guilty’. They had already made up their collective minds about Pandher and Koli’s guilt. All sorts of legal experts and former police officials were brought in to sentence the guilty without the police, and later the CBI, having even filed the charge sheets. If the media had had their way Pandher and Koli would have been dead and buried a long time ago.

Ms. Rama Jain, the special CBI judge in Ghaziabad sentenced both Pandher and Koli to death in a landmark judgment announced yesterday. That the CBI had not even sought death for Pandher since he was not even in India at the time when the victim, Rimpa Halder was killed did not stop Ms. Jain in handing out the sentence. The CBI had ample evidence of Pandher’s philandering and debauchery but none whatsoever of his involvement in either the killing or the concealment and destruction of evidence.

What Ms. Jain said in her pronouncement about the ‘stench of a slaughter house’ pervading the Pandher residence being palpable a mile away to which ‘Pandher could not have been oblivious’ Is not enough to term this case ‘the rarest of rare’ to hand down a death sentence. By the same logic all residents of adjoining houses were guilty of the crime for which Ms. Jain handed a death sentence to Pandher. The stench did not provoke anyone to file a police complaint for over 18 months when the crimes were said to have been committed. Ms. Jain forgot that no one can be held to account for the criminal acts of another adult.

I feel this is a case of judicial over-reach and the sentence would be overturned by the Allahabad High Court in case of Pandher. He may be guilty of many other crimes but none so serious as to hang him. Pandher’s son Karandeep said that the matter of Pandher’s debauchery was between Pandher and his wife and even he would not like to comment on that. I think he had a point there.

Philandering or engaging in sexual acts with someone who has accepted some compensation is not an offence, unless that victim is a minor or the act is done under duress. That is not grave enough to hand out a death sentence. Pandher’s debauchery had already cost him his marriage and even his son was not living with him. He deserves to be punished for his criminal acts of enticing innocent girls and raping them.

I think Pandher has already realized that he can not lead a life that is anywhere near normal after what he has been accused of and as such asked his family members not to file an appeal and let him fade away. That would be an easy way out for him. His biggest punishment would be to sentence him to a term in jail and then live in a hostile atmosphere thereafter. The public memory, that is proverbially touted to be very short, is not that short so as to forget his gory crimes. I sense no one would come forward to embrace him or have anything to do with his family hereafter.

The house in Nithari would neither find a tenant nor a buyer. Nor would any member of Pandher’s family find the courage to ever spend a night there. As such it should be acquired by the administration and demolished to build a befitting memorial to those children who were brutally assaulted and killed within that house.

February 10, 2009

Travelling back in time - The Patiala Re-union

Einstein’s theory of relativity postulates that no body can travel faster than the speed of light. However the human mind defies all logic and allows one to travel back and forth in time in split seconds. Recently I undertook such a journey, some thirty years back in time, at the behest of Dr Arvinder Singh Chawla, the Director of The Punjab School of Management Studies, my alma mater, to attend a re-union in the thirtieth year since we passed out in 1979, from what was then called The Department of Business Management, Punjabi University, Patiala.

The ball was set rolling when Dr Chawla sent the invitation in early January. Since I did not wish to be alone in such a gathering, I went about the pleasurable ordeal of re-connecting with all old batchmates, spread across the globe. I came to know that Rahul Sharma & Resham Singh had died in the interregnum. Of the twentyone alive, I was in touch with only one, RVS Minhas who happens to live close by in New Delhi. I had no clue about the others. However to my pleasant surprise it just took a few long distance calls, a few searches on Orkut, Facebook and LinkedIn, help from some really nice people in some company offices and some emails to re-establish the network.

A chance encounter with Somnath Walia while strolling in Connaught Place one lazy afternoon in January 2009 led to Rajinder Bhandari and Rakesh Singla, who in turn led me to Ms Sadhna Saini (now Sood) and Sanjiv Sachdev, who mentioned that Jagdish Chandra Sodhi was in JCT, Phagwara and Hazari Lal Singla till 2002 was with Fujitsu which led to another round of emails and telephone calls ending with success in locating JCS & HLS. A lucky break led me to Rajendra Prasad Pandove (Pikka), the younger brother of BCCI and Punjab Cricket boss M P Pandove. Pikka by chance mentioned that Iqbal Singh was in PRTC till a few years ago. This prompted another series of telephone calls and web searches culminating in Bhatinda where Iqbal is curently located.

LinkedIn opened the gates to Gurcharan Singh Woodwal, now a solicitor in Canada and Rakesh Chawla, now in the US, who offered me Harinder Singh Sahota’s contact details. “Red Skeleton”, the decades old tailoring shop in Patiala provided Rajinder Singh Nagi’s whereabouts in New Jersey, US where he owns convenience stores. A lead from Rajinder Bhandari about Narinder Kumar Saini led to another chain of telephone calls to Vikram Cements offices in Neemuch (MP), Delhi, Chandigarh, Gurgaon and Bhatinda but with no trace of NK. However seeing my enthusiasm Bhandari deputed someone to go to Balachaur, NK’s village and obtain his contact details.

Iqbal mentioned that Kulwant Singh was last in Jalandhar with the Punjab Co-operative Department and Suresh Kumar Agarwal in Haryana Financial Corporation, Chandigarh. From there it took was some persuasiveness on the telephone to contact Kulwant and Suresh. It’s a wonder that they manage without an email ID in these days and Suresh doesn’t even need a cell phone. It must rank as the eighth wonder of the world.

A visit by Deen Dayalji, a good friend to R-9, Rajouri Garden, the one-time residence of Rajesh Sethi in Delhi led to his brother and then to Rajesh’s wife, Bindu who provided Sethi’s contact details in Thailand. About Harjinder Singh Goodwal I always knew he was from Jagson Paul Pharma, the makers of the famous ointment ‘Ringcutter’. A search on the internet yielded their office address in Hauz Khas, which led to their new office in Okhla where a telephone operator told me he had left ages ago and joined AIMIL Pharma in Gurgaon. Another web search and telephone call ensued. The guys at this place told me he had quit ages ago and started business but gave me his number. This led to an extremely surprised Harjinder on the phone when I called. He is at present recuperating from major surgery.

When I called up all these guys they were surely surprised but I am sure they were as glad to re-connect as I was. Regrettably no amount of research so far has yielded any information on Amrik Singh, the tall and lanky beared boxer, who I gather is settled in Canada. I haven’t stopped trying though. NK has assured me that he would help locate Amrik.

The journey to Patiala with RVS Minhas on the wheel on the beautifully laid out National Highway took around five hours on Saturday morning, but the mind had already raced back three decades to that day when I first landed at the university gate with my bags in tow. The neighbourhood of the university, be it Bahadurgarh, where one used to go to fetch the occasional bottle of booze for some celebration or the other or the tea shop at the main gate brought back many memories of those youthful days of recklessness.

The venue, ‘Kala Bhawan’ is a new addition to the campus. Tea and sandwiches started as soon as we arrived, on dot, at the appointed hour of 10:30 AM. Seeing RVS Minhas, Somnath Walia (with wife Sangeeta), Rakesh Singla, Rajinder Bhandari, RP Pandove, JC Sodhi, Iqbal Singh and HL Singla after ages was really heart-warming.

The function which started around 11:30 was an energetic song and dance affair with a large number of boys and girls chipping in with their efforts to welcome us all. What pleased us all was that the present batch strength of 140 has almost an equal number of boys and girls, a situation far removed from our times when a group of twenty three had only one girl student in Sadhna. Was it any surprise then, that we were always chasing after the girls from the English Department?

Lunch had to be in the town since alcohol can not be served on the campus. But in any case who was interested in eating. Guys just want to soak it in. So ‘100 Pipers’ played along as we went on this delightful journey back in time. Iqbal still can't resist singing if there is an opportunity and he enthralled us all with his excellent Punjabi Sufi renditions.

Meeting Dr B S Bhatia, Prof U C Singh, Dr R K Sehgal and Dr S K Bansal brought a torrent of fond memories and a few eyes were left moist. We also came to know of Dr P K Kapoor and Prof K C Singhal’s passing away in the intervening period. We reluctantly departed from there around 6:00 PM after assuring Dr Arvinder Chawla that we would return to our alma mater as and when called.

The party however carried on at the Punjab State Electricity Board’s VIP Guest House in Power Colony in Patiala which was arranged by Pikka, who is the PSEB's PR Boss. This was only for the 1979 batch. The day finally got over at around midnight. HL Singla’s wife Saroj, his daughter Rashi and Pikka’s wife Sangeeta joined us for breakfast on Sunday. After a liesurely round of stuffed paranthas and endless cups of steaming hot tea, we went over to Pikka’s house to meet his lovely children. It was my pleasure to get to meet Divya, Tanya and Akul. The family photograph of the Pandove family in their front lawn on that sunny Sunday afternoon shall continue to remind me of our re-union at Patiala for the rest of my life.

February 2, 2009

Millionaire Slumdog

‘Slumdog Millionaire’ the film by Danny Boyle, is about the lives of an orphaned boy ‘Jamal Malik’, his older brother ‘Salim’ and their childhood companion ‘Latika’. Deven Patel, a first time film actor from England, who plays the protagonist’s role, is ably assisted by Frieda Pinto as ‘Latika’ and an amateur young man from the Mumbai slums playing ‘Salim’. It has veteran Hindi film stars like Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan and Saurabh Mishra in beautifully scripted, short but meaty roles.

The film is stark and holds a mirror to the reality of life in the slums. Its theme is provocatively violent though there is very little violence actually shown. It is full of police brutality, entrapment of slum kids for prostitution and organized beggary, roadside gambling, illicit liquor trade, communal flare-ups, hoodwinking of foreign tourists and various assorted petty crimes. It actually shows the filthy underbelly of Mumbai but it could well be any other big Indian city.

The multiplicity of experiences that Jamal goes through in life before he plots his way in to a game show as a participant prepare him well for winning a large sum in the game. However at the end of the day one when the show gets over, Jamal is ahead by ten million rupees but decides to ride his luck. Sensing that something is out-of-place, Anil Kapoor, playing the game show host gets Irrfan Khan and Saurabh Mishra, playing cops, to check him out. They resort to the usual brutal police methods to make him confess to cheating at the game. That is when he narrates the story of his life.

There may be nothing new in the story per se, but the treatment and the presentation are something one was totally unprepared for. Boyle has done well in taking unknown actors since any big star in the key roles would have glamorized and thus reduced the impact of ‘Slumdog’.

Amitabh Bachhan writing in his blog raised questions about the poor depiction of India in such films and about the morality and necessity of hawking poverty in Mumbai slums. While there may be some merit in what he says, one must not forget that film-making is essentially about story-telling. If you feel you have a good story that you think will provoke all right-thinking people in to action in some way, you should just go ahead and tell the story as you visualize it. Film is essentially a director’s medium.

Yes, it is true that the movie at times is too crass, like the 1973 scene where Amitabh Bachhan, the movie star’s helicopter is about to land and Jamal, who is an ardent devotee of the star, is locked inside a crude ramshackle toilet on the fringes of Mumbai airport. To escape from the imprisonment and to meet his idol, Jamal jumps out of the toilet, landing in a heap of sh*t. Then in that sh*t-laden condition he runs to greet the star and take his autograph. That scene should have been done a bit more aesthetically. Again that is my perception and I guess the director is free to present it as per the demands of the script or as he sees it.

However the highlight of the film would have to be the scene in which the older brother, Salim, who has become a gangster, forces Latika, whom Jamal, who has joined a call center as a chai-wallah (a tea boy), manages to locate after an extensive search, to sleep with him. It is an extremely touching scene where the sheer helplessness and rage of Jamal comes through as does his extreme affection for ‘Latika’. That he yearns to ‘protect’ her rather than ‘have’ her like ‘Salim’ is what distinguishes the two characters.

Danny Boyle has churned out an engrossing ‘masala hindi movie’ where the characters happen to speak in the English language. One only wishes the language was a little less profane, but such transgression is permissible, given that this is about the underbelly and no one from a Mumbai slum can be expected to have gone to a finishing school and speak the Queen's English.

Whether it deserves to win ten Oscar nominations is likely to be debated for long. It would, in all probability, end up winning three, may be four Oscars. The Bombay film industry ardently hopes that list would include an Oscar for our very own A.R.Rehman or at the very least Gulzar Sahib, for their excellent work in the song that comes at curtain call, ‘Jai Ho!’

That ‘Jamal’ ultimately manages to win twenty million rupees and gets his girl is what appeals to a large majority of the viewers. It is this fairy-tale ending that inspires euphoria.
image courtesy the producers of the movie