Monday, May 28, 2007

Sydney-based Indian to make movie on witch hunt

Witch hunt, the dark underside of India’s development thesis, will be captured on celluloid by Sydney-based director-cinematographer Simon Kurian.

(In the photo: Ismail Merchant ( standing), Simon Kurian (sitting), Madhur Jaffery (sitting) and in the background (standing) looking on is the Producer Richard Hawley.)

Set in contemporary India, the movie examines the widespread practice wherein women are abused, persecuted, exiled or killed. In mainly superstitious tribal societies of north India, witches are blamed for drought, floods, a stroke of bad luck, or ill-health. But some sociologists say the superstition is only a convenient excuse to harass women.

“The Witch Hunt is a dark and dramatic tale, of the unequal battles that are often fought in the Indian landscape unnoticed by most and ignored by many,” says Simon Kurian who has co-written the script with his wife Geethanjali.

“The story is based on true events, which Simon researched and developed over 10 years, after travelling to northern India and at one point living for several weeks with the tribals who are trapped in this practice,” says Geethanjali. “Over the years we have continued to follow the stories. A decade has passed, but our story remains as tragically relevant as it did when Simon first began researching the subject. Simon and I wrote the screenplay based on the diary he had written during his research.”

The film will be released internationally with part of the proceeds going towards the rehabilitation of women who have been victims of witch hunts. “For us this is not just a feature film, it is a cause to which we are deeply committed and we hope through the film to bring it to light and force people to sit up and take notice and do something concrete and sustainable to support the victims and also to stamp out the practice once and for all,” says Geethanjali.

The film was originally to be produced by Ismail Merchant and will now be dedicated to his memory. Merchant died in 2005. “It was Ismail and James Ivory to whom I first gave the screenplay to read. They both loved the script and Ismail asked me in 2003 whether he could produce it. He remained deeply committed to the project ever since he read it,” says Kurian

With a cast of prominent Indian and western actors, the key crew for the bilingual (English- Hindi) film will be drawn from Europe, and India and it will be post-produced in Sydney. “Casting will commence in India shortly,” said Kurian. “This is a film that requires committed performances from actors who can understand the cause behind the story and elevate the roles with the empathy that can convey a harsh issue in an uncompromising and real way.”

Simon has been associated with Merchant Ivory ever since he assisted Ismail on his film ‘Cotton Mary’ which was filmed on location in Kochi; they went on to become close friends. Simon, who is originally from Kerala, has been making films for international television since eighties; his credits include films for BBC Television and Channel 4 UK.

(Published in Sunday Times of India, Bangalore on May 27, 2007)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Are expletives okay?

Apparently British TV shows are so full of them that David Munk, deputy foreign editor of Guardian, wonders whether we are overdosing on expletives.

"In context it sounds natural - almost needed,"
he says. "But the way it seems to be thrown into casual conversations about anything from courgettes to croquet seems to me a bit odd. But then again maybe I'm getting old; or maybe our TV shows have been too old for too long. Maybe it's just television catching up with the society it is supposed to reflect..."

"... Our language has moved on. Words that once shocked and surprised have become standard expressions.... Try expressing your surprise/joy/anger using other imaginative descriptions.
There could then come a time when the word will once again regain its power to shock," he suggests.

The other day, I heard a 8-year old boy in my apartment complex say, "I don't like Shakira's a**." I was initially startled, but then I wondered: Why be so surprised and shocked? Times have changed, haven't they.

As David Munk says, what used to shock us, no longer do.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Manmohan springs a surprise

Don't pay huge salaries to CEOs, that was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's advice to corporates at a meeting of CII in New Delhi yesterday. (See below link to the full text of the PM's speech.) This was the fourth point in the 10-point social charter that he suggested to the Indian corporates which are riding the crest of an economic boom.

This seemingly Leftist turn by the architect of India's capitalist revolution is a surprise, and what led him to formulate this charter will be a topic of specution for long. Was it politics, social concern or worries about a malfunctioning economy?

Let us go to the speech where he spoke of the fat salaries that corporates pay:

    "Four, resist excessive remuneration to promoters and senior executives and discourage conspicuous consumption. In a country with extreme poverty, industry needs to be moderate in the emoluments levels it adopts. Rising income and wealth inequalities, if not matched by a corresponding rise of incomes across the nation, can lead to social unrest. The electronic media carries the lifestyles of the rich and famous into every village and every slum. Media often highlights the vulgar display of their wealth. An area of great concern is the level of ostentatious expenditure on weddings and other family events. Such vulgarity insults the poverty of the less privileged, it is socially wasteful and it plants seeds of resentment in the minds of the have-nots."

Though an element of truth in what he said can't be ruled out, the ills he referred to are nothing but inevitable realities of the near-capitalist society that we live in. The earlier socialist governance model did address some of these points, but the way it collapsed makes us only ponder over any available alternatives.

Manmohan Singh was the one who in early 1990s dismantled the bleeding socialist economy and replaced it with free but regulated market economy. Quite rightly he himself has now done a reality check as to where the new economic model has taken us. The speech is an indication that the economic growth that India has been trumpting is largely confined to cities.

Forget villages, look at the underbelly of our premier cities. Small islands of luxury are surrounded by nothing but misery and deprivation. The infrastructure for basic necessities -- water, power, housing, health, medical facilities, education and transportation -- is in a shambles inspite of the booming economy.

How much has the goodness percolated down? If it hasn't why?

It's commonly believed people have lots of money. Though disputed, some economists say, even the poorest is now less poorer. Let us assume it is true. But then, where are these people spending their money? Has the system enabled them only to get more consumerist? Do we have enough other avenues where money can be more wisely invested?

A society cannot rest merely on glittering malls; Only knowledge and intellectual wealth can provide a solid foundation. Many developed nations, especially the US, has been able to achieve it. That's the reason why the US attracts even people who are opposed to it.

The current boom which the corporates exempify is only one side of the story. Manmohan Singh's speech points to the other incomplete side of Indian economy. The charter will have more cerdibility only if Manmohan Singh succeeds in convincing his colleagues in politics and bureaucracy on the need to let go the unmonitored government control on key infrastructure areas, and allow increased partnership with enterprising invidividuals, and private institutions.

The poor and middle class depend on the government. As long as our government institutions are synonymous with inefficiency and corruption, what hope the real India will have?


-- Full text of Manmohan Singh's speech

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Helvetica is 50 years old

Who is that? In pre-computer era, only people associated with printing or publishing knew Helvetica. Today, anyone who has been using Word Document will know this character whose 50th birth anniversary is being celebrated in many ways across the world.

Much ado about nothing? Not really. In the world of communication, the way words are written or printed conveys as much if not more than the meaning of the word itself. Especially in advertising the fonts are very carefully chosen to subliminally reinforce the message.

Helvetica typeface was initially released as Neue Haas Grotesk and was designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger for the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland. Its name was changed to Helvetica (an adaptation of Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland) by Walter Cunz around 1960. It soon became popular mainly found in subways of New York and in logos of BMW and American Airlines.

While Apple introduced Helvetica on its computers in 1984, it was soon rivalled by the font Arial which was used by Microsoft on its computers. The two look very identical, may be Helvetica is slightly more well defined.

The 50th anniversary is being celebrated with a film as well. Helvetica, by Gary Hustwit, explores today's urban life and how typeface affects it. It is also about designers and their work. Read more abour the movie here. The movie is currently on a world-wide special screening tour. See the schedule here.

-- Article on Helvetica on Star Tribune
-- Article on Helvetica on Typophile
-- Helvetica at 50 on BBC
-- Different Helvetica fonts
-- The Helvetica movie

Monday, May 21, 2007

21st Sainik School

India's 21st Sainik School is in Punglwa in Nagaland. It was inaugurated by defence minister A K Antony on May 12.

The school is the third in the North East, other two being at Goalpara (Assam) and Imphal (Manipur) established in 1964 and 1971 respectively. Spread over an area of 300 acres, the school is located in the scenic foothills of Pauna Range Peren district of Nagaland, about 47 km from Dimapur.

-- Report in Assam Tribune
-- List of Sainik Schools

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Gujarat and Indian democracy

Gujarat has been at the centre of Indian politics right from the time of Mahatma Gandhi. It's a beautiful state with a rich historical legacy, populated by extraordinarily affable people. The six years I was there, from 1990 to 96, are most memorable: the goodness of people outweighing the troubles of post-Babri Masjid demolition.

I always wonder how can such a state be so caught up in violence and radical ideology. Violence there is an inexplicable abberation for me. I haven't understood how such a state where people of all relgions, especially Hindus and Muslims, are so dependent on each other, mainly for business, could nurture within itself violently divisive tendencies. Inspite of all this, interestingly, people, especially women, feel much safe at night, crime rate is low!

The latest issue of The Chronicle Review carries an article Fears for Democracy in India by Martha C Nussbaum. She is a professor in philosophy at the University of Chicago and has authored The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. The book is due for publication this week by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

A good portion of the article is devoted to the troubles in Gujarat post-Feb 27, 2002. That was a decisive turning point for Gujarat. She says:
  • "He (Narendra Modi) was later (after the Godhra carnage) re-elected on a platform that focused on religious hatred.... What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world."

We have heard this point before. But what is interesting is this observation of Martha:

  • The real "clash of civilizations" is not between "Islam" and "the West," but instead within virtually all modern nations — between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

  • "What we see in Gujarat is not a simplistic, comforting thesis, but something more disturbing: the fact that in a thriving democracy, many individuals are unable to live with others who are different, on terms of mutual respect and amity. They seek total domination as the only road to security and pride. That is a phenomenon well known in democracies around the world, and it has nothing to do with an alleged Muslim monolith, and, really, very little to do with religion as such."

While on an intellectual and academic plane Martha makes a lot of sense, on a practical level we need to understand the current spate of violence. Hasn't it gone beyond issues of "clash of civilisations" or "clash within civilisations" as Martha would like to put it? Specifically, let us take yesterday's explosion inside the Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad. Earlier such incidents used to trigger a cycle of violence like the Babri Masjid demolition or the Sabarmati Express fire did. But the Hyderabad blast and earlier similar ones in Malegaon, Mumbai, Delhi, have stopped at that.

Are people (politicians included) in India getting fed up of stoking communal embers? Are we finally seeing an end to pan-Indian communal conflagrations at the slightest provocation?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Anyways, it's best avoided

"I am going out with a friend at 5 pm and should be back in 30 minutes. Anyways, I will call you." - A typical sentence spoken or written today.

I knew of only anyway, until recently I began to hear sentences similar to the one above. Now I get to hear and read more and more of anyways, prompting me to find out the legitimacy of its usage anyway.

Merriam-Webster dictionary tells me that anyways is a colloquial expression to mean anyhow or anyway or anywise; or in other words in any manner whatever. I am told it is found in some dialects in the United States.

Paul Brians of the Department of English, Washington State University, says: ... anyways is best avoided in formal written English: an advice today's college students would do well to heed. He says, "The two-word phrase any way has many legitimate uses, however: Is there any way to prevent the impending disaster?"

Kevin Drum wrote in Washington Monthly says: "... there is no such word as anyways. It's anyway. ... anyways is listed in standard dictionaries... as... nonstandard, archaic, colloquial, or dialect versions of anyway. I think I'd still argue that this makes it unsuitable for standard written English, but then again so are "heh," "um," "er," "gotta," and "dunno," which are all blogosphere favorites for capturing conversational tone."

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language are quoted in defining anways as non-standard.

Anyway, avoid anyways at least on formal, official occasions.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Mayawati has a chance to clean UP politics

Mayawati's victory yesterday must rank as one of the most emphatic ones in India. But more than that what struck me most was how socio-political equations change.

Pundits are attributing the victory largely to the way Mayawati, who till now despised upper castes, courted them. The old slogan of her party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party, was "tilak, taraju aur talwar, maro unko jhoote char" (Beat up Brahmins, Vaishyas and Kshatriyas). This time round it was "Haati nahin Ganesh hai... Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai" (It is not the elephant but Lord Ganesh, symbolising all gods and communities).

We only know the number of people who voted for Mayawati. We will never why they voted. That's always a matter of debate. Pity if a lot of upper caste people voted for Mayawati because she gave tickets to workers belonging to their caste.

Caste rather than development parameters, decide winners in India. We have perpetuated an illusion that a segmented growth pattern on caste lines can see the nation develop. Whatever progress we have made is not because of anyone's caste but because individuals -- of all castes -- have striven against odds and put their talent to good use.

In India, it is not "development" that's the poll plank, but "lack of development". So much so that "lack of development" has become one of the most entrenched vested interests. This is the reason why any development plan is stridently opposed by the political class. This could also be the reason why no one understood young Rahul Gandhi's development pitch, and also why very few voted for his party, Congress.

After so many years, Uttar Pradesh, has a single-party government. The last time was when N D Tiwari headed a Congress government from June 25, 1988 to Dec 5, 1989. Congress never recovered after that; not even now. After that, we have had so many experiments in coalitions: governance by coalition getting overshadowed by governance of coalition.

Hopefully, now Mayawati will not be under coalition compulsions, and will be able to raise politics from its shameful standards to respectable heights. Don't underestimate Mayawati. She has an impressive biodata.

-- Mayawati's biodata
-- Mayawati's social mix

Thursday, May 10, 2007

DMK at crossroads in a charred Madurai

Madurai has always had a spiritual ring about it. Not without reason: it's the Meenakshi temple that comes to our mind first. A visit to that majestic structure has incredibly soothening influences on not merely the religious among us. Unfortunately, the city on the banks of Vaigai river was burning yesterday.

(Photo credit: Yahoo News photo. Fire and smoke are seen after a petrol bomb was thrown into the offices of the Dinakaran newspaper office in Madurai on Wednesday.)

A newspaper, Dinakaran, publishes the findings of a survey which says that of the two sons of M Karunanidhi, Stalin, and not Azhagiri, is the most preferred heir. The latter and his supports are enraged. Madurai is his stronghold and if conjectures are given any credence, with his tacit compliance, the hoodlums let loose a reign of terror. That three people died and property worth crores was destroyed is bad; but worse is the knock that Dravidian politics and social tolerance have taken.

This is not the first time Madurai is witnessing Azhagiri-related violence. As far back as Sept 2000, seven buses in the city were torched by his supporters in protest against DMK's directive to partymen not to have any truck with Azhagiri. (Source)

By design or otherwise, the Dinakaran survey and the violence came during the runup to tomorrow's grand function in Chennai to celebrate Karunanidhi's 50 years in politics. He is among the seniormost politicians in our country and his views and his party's policies have had a profound impact not only on Tamil Nadu politics but of the nation's as well.

The violence the temple town saw is symptomatic of the erosion of tolerance which ironically is so much ingrained in our civilization's spiritual legacy. If Azhagiri felt the survey results proclaimed a falsehood, the right recourse would have been to contest it in the multifarious options that are available. Violence is akin to sinking one's own boat in highwaters. More than the volatile grassroots workers it's the leadership which must take the blame.

Succession issues are common: from little-known community organisations to political parties and business houses. Smart ones devise strategies to prevent unseemly squabbles; and those who don't unwittingly script the organisation's decay and ultimate doom.

There was a struggle for MGR's legacy as well, between Jayalalitha and Janaki. We know who prevailed. But mercifully a city didn't burn. It was nevetheless ugly to the extent that for the first time police resorted to lathicharge inside the Assembly in the days after MGR's death; if I remember right, when Janaki was the CM for a brief while in the end of 1987. (Readers may correct me if I am wrong.)

It's bad for Indian poltics that a major political party is riven by violent family feud at a time when it is celebrating the golden jubilee of its patriarch entering politics. The common man is not as much bothered about survival or exit of DMK, or any other party for that matter, as the strength of the political process that ensures a good life for him.

- Three killed as newspaper office is set afire

- History of Madurai city
- A 2004 article on 'Karunanidhi, the Giant of Dravidian politics'
- Mukund Padmanabhan's piece on TN's politics of retribution

Friday, May 4, 2007

Marketing executives

What would happen to the marketing industry if most people were like me? It could probably collapse.

Why? Because I get very sceptical when marketing executives appoach me and try to sell their product or service. The more they push their product, the more will be my reluctance to give in.

It's not so bad for me with advertisements, because they don't force you -- with a gun on your throat as it were -- to buy the product. Ads that combine information that I can cross check impress me a lot.

Some marketing executives can be too pushy. I won't blame them, because that is their way of perseverance. And, a lot of people give in when pushed. I feel harassed mainly because the product that is being sold to me is not what I am thinking of buying.

I often ask the executives, "Do you have a info booklet? Why don't give me some time to think it over? Shall call you back when I have taken a decision." This approach, all marketing executives know very well, doesn't work, since no one usually calls back; by the time the decision to buy has been taken, the contact phone number would have been lost.

The executives who will have absolutely no luck with me are those who say, "Sir, you will need to buy this today itself, since today is the last day of the offer."

Discounts also make me suspicious. When prices are dropped so low, instead of the temptation to buy the product, it prompts me to guess what could be the actual cost price!

All this, probably because I prefer to buy something rather than have something sold to me.