Monday, August 22, 2016

Powerpuff Girls

Image from here

It is true that our dismal performance at the Rio Olympics was as much a reflection of national health as it was a reflection of our politicized sports federations. It is true that our regression from London to Rio warrants a drastic revamp. It is also true that sports are not a part of our socio-cultural ethos. And yet, despite all our shortcomings, the terrific trio of Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu managed to etch a silver lining on an otherwise cloudy month of August.

It all began when a young Dipa Karmakar pulled off a breathtaking vault, missed the bronze by a whisker but landed straight into our hearts with her toothy grin and earnest humility. Twitter, not exactly known for its kindness, supported Dipa by reinforcing that she  was already a winner for being the first Indian gymnast to attempt the Vault of Death. Thereafter, when we saw Sakshi Malik’s opponents writhing on the mat, we wondered how an unassuming girl from a patriarchal state with a skewed sex ratio could show such aggression. And when PV Sindhu rose like a phoenix, slaying her opponents one smash at a time, the entire country was transfixed to their televisions, mobiles, laptops, and tablets. Sindhu lost the match but won a silver medal, underlining the truism that sports does not build character, sports reveals it. Harder the battle, sweeter the victory.
But the larger question remains. What exactly are we celebrating? Why are we feeling good about a brave attempt and two medals coming from a billion plus nation?
For one, there is something about sports that creates nationalistic camaraderie. Anticipation of a win by unknown players ignites unmatched patriotic fervor. Their struggle, their tears, their hopes, their pride – all become ours. And yet, such passion was hitherto reserved for cricket. To generate curiosity about other sports in a cricket crazy, Bollywood obsessed nation is no mean feat. It is telling that when it came to appointing brand ambassadors for Rio, Salman Khan and Sachin Tendulkar were the first on the list.

Second, for a nation that evinces little interest prior to the games but hopes to fill its empty medal shelves, the girls achieved something beyond medals. As the social media was awash with messages like, ‘we failed our girls but girls saved our pride’, it didn’t take long for the sub-text to become obvious. The trio did more than any lip service could do for the Prime Minister’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, the #SavetheGirlChild crusade or the symbolic #SelfieWithDaughter.

The idea is not to play the gender card because we know that our sportsmen deliver despite sporting federations and abysmal facilities, and not because of them. We know that it’s not only the lack of money (oil rich Arab nations should be churning out champions) but the lack of sporting culture that is our bane. We know that our kids excel at Math Olympiads and Spelling Bee competitions, but not as much at sports. And we also know that the barriers of societal pressure and parental obligations faced by Indian women, particularly from low income groups are almost insurmountable. So every time a small town girl like Mary Kom comes closer to an Olympic medal, she punctures the deep rooted misogyny that has become a part of our vocabulary. Don’t be such a girl. Girls in short dresses invite men. Don’t you have any balls? When will you settle down? It’s not a girl’s game. When a Whatsapp forward read, ‘Dipa’s Coach – Bisbeshwar. Sakshi’s Coach – Kuldeep. Sindhu’s coach – Gopi. It’s time for Indian men to say, behind every successful woman, there’s a man’ we realized that the trio had debunked some conventional biases.
Every smash from Sindhu, every stride from Dipa and every tackle by Sakshi discredited the narrow identity created by our societal norms. Rather unconsciously, the girls had charmed the nation. Whether their charm resided in their disarming smiles, their relentless pursuit, or earnest humility, it cannot be denied that these girls drove the nail right through the heart of ‘Fair and Lovely’ bogey. Albeit for a few days, the conventional 'beautiful' brigade was sidelined, no matter what they wore at Cannes, how pretty they looked at the Miss India pageant or how they sashayed at a  fashion show.

All said our ambition of becoming a sporting nation looks distant. But what began with Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom in 2012 was underlined by girl power in the 2016. When we don’t look at medals as our only aim, we did take a small step forward in changing attitudes and exposing conventional biases. And for this reason alone we must celebrate. Because the girls are worth it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Your Vampires, Our Snakes

Image from here

Scare them. Shock them. Keep them guessing. Television producers are on the top of the game. If you flip television channels, you will come across believe-it-or-nuts soaps where the titular character turns into a housefly. If this does not make you goggle eyed, the hero turning into a mongoose man will. Welcome to supernatural genre which is forcibly absurd, largely superstitious, shoddily animated and overtly religious in nature.
You might think that a country known for snake charmers would be more kindly disposed to shows where the protagonist is a vengeful snake woman. But city slickers are lampooning the onslaught of naagins and dayans in their living rooms. Urban folks may say that these serials are regressive and that they cannot identify with such ridiculous fantasy. But we know that success is the only truth. What sells must be popular.

Little surprise then that television producers including soap sultana Ekta Kapoor are cooking melodrama with dark shades of fantasy. After all, how many house hold dramas can the audiences endure? The dutiful bahu sorted all her domestic problems. She now knows that the laptops are not to be washed with soap and water. The malevolent matriarch has tormented the household members by poisoning enough milk glasses. The innocent child-bride has conveyed the right messages for more than eight years. As has the gutsy widow who opts for re-marriage. So, what’s next?

Themes of love and revenge now play via mythical characters with religious overtones. More than a twists of the plot, the twist of a character makes for riveting viewing. If it was the evil sister-in-law who was creating impediments, it is now her evil double. If it was plastic surgery that created twists, vardaan (boon) and shrap(curse) are more effective.
And yet, most tried and tested formulas endure. The titular characters continue to be black and white, with little scope for grey. The sanskaari bahu always wins over the evil other woman. The grass grows faster than the story and one engagement ceremony is stretched over several weeks. Thanks to re-incarnation, popular characters enter and exit depending on their dates and popularity. Dressed in faux-ethnic ensembles, women continue to live in garish homes, wear hideous wigs and oversized bindis. Above all, the drama continues to play itself out with every eyebrow twitch, lip tremble, pupil dilation and nostril flare in full camera glare. Up-close and in-your-face.

If you are cerebral viewer of Friends, House of Cards or Breaking Bad, you will perhaps shake your head in disbelief to know that Indian soap stars are household names in many countries. Balika Vadhu is running in more than 15 countries in almost equal number of languages. Frankly, you have no right to sneer if you are spending more time on your laptop and less time on television. Why should producers care for net savvy audiences who prefer Netflix over Colors, Star or Zee?
Other than saas-bahu overkill, the serial producers blame the genre shift on the popularity of fantasies like the Game of Thrones, The Conjuring, The Twilight Saga and Pottermania. Many ancient stories, as in Bahubali, are being told with modern camera effects. You have your fantasies, we have our folklore. You love your vampires, we love our snakes. All good? No. Not really. The unfortunate part is that scary can be engrossing, fantasy can pack a punch and sci-fi can be compelling but most desi soaps prove nothing of the above. When the promo of a desi soap imitated the Game of Thrones it ended up being laughing stock on social media.

And those who yearn for good old Ye Jo Hai Jindagi, Hasratein, Dekh Bhai Dekh or Sarabhai versus Sarabhai, keep dreaming. In the age of technology and Pokemons, there is no place for simplicity. Because there is no Ekta Kapoor without the viewer. Also because it is not Ekta who enjoys watching a possessed bride headbanging on her wedding night. It is her audience.
Anil Kapoor can try his best with 24, but it is not easy to beat the TRPs of the vampires, dayans and shaitans. Go get your Netflix. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Frankly Speaking

Image Courtesy

Frankly Speaking on CNBC18

The month of June triggered a great deal of market volatility. The Sensex was as unpredictable as Subramaniam Swamy. June was also about multiple exits. Rajan said goodbye the Governor’s office, Britain walked away from the European Union, Messi bid adieu to international football, Rahul Gandhi exited the country, and Arnab left behind his interruptive streak, albeit for a day.

While the markets are recovering from  Brexit jitters, Indian media is rattled by the aftershocks of Arnab Goswami’s interview with the Prime Minister. Frankly speaking, a direct interview of any sitting Prime Minister is of great relevance. And I am glad Modi decided to talk to Arnab Goswami and not Rajat Sharma. However, like the markets, there was a huge correction in Arnab Goswami’s notorious adversarial style of interviewing. The sharp decline in frequent interruptions ensured that it was a buying opportunity for rivals. Sagarika Ghose, tweeted, ‘Dear@PMO please hold an open press conference rather than bestow favors on individual journalists.’ But the unbiased champion of free speech deleted her tweet when the interview appeared in the newspaper she works for. 
While most channels were victims of Monday’s bloodbath, a tweet from Aaj Tak called Arnab a chamcha of the Prime Minister. The channel tried to recover lost ground by deleting the tweet and blaming it on human error. The slump in media commodities was obvious when another editor questioned the absence of embers from the Times Now ticker. Shekhar Gupta took it on the chin saying that it was a case of sour grapes for fellow foxes. Whatever be the case, the interview ensured that Times Now indulged in huge profit booking. 

Shattering the aftermath of the interview, the opposition stood afloat by condemning the interview, the interviewer and the interviewee. Arvind Kejriwal felt that Arnab was acting as Modi’s propagandist and not a journalist. One is tempted to ask if Arnab was AAP’s propaganda agent in 2013 when Mr Kejriwal was the guest on the same show. For one, Arnab had adopted a similar non-disruptive pitch and many had called Arnab an AAP stooge. Second, Mr Kejriwal himself prefers a shoot and scoot press conference where no one can ask him any questions.

And finally, Congress stocks tumbled when they said, “Modi ji, let our journalists ask you questions." OUR journalists matlab? If there ever was a medal for axing your own foot, the gold medal goes to the Congress party. 

So, was this media bloodbath because Arnab didn’t ask relevant questions about Kanhaiya Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Intolerance and Award Wapasi? Perhaps, Arnab should have asked Prime Minister if it was the bounden duty of a dutiful Hindu woman to pop out quintuplets as suggested by a Yogi!
If you saw the interview, the Prime Minister clearly said, “I request you to not create controversies out of this interview but use it for the larger benefit of the country.” Memories of the puppy analogy must be hounding him before facing the camera. But the national dailies went ahead and picked up the juiciest bone - Swamy. Who wants to talk about Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna?

As for me, the government stocks would have risen if the loud mouths were reprimanded strongly and timely. While the Prime Minister’s defense of Rajan was welcome, it came at a time when Shanghai, Kospi, Nikkei and BJPei were grappling with uncertainty over who the Swamy was. Moreover, doesn’t look like the loud mouths are in a mood to listen. If the BJP wants to build on recovery, it is time for action and not words.
So even after the closing bell there is an awful lot of turmoil among the under performers. The trading for rival channels has temporarily halted. However, their stocks can zoom if Rahul Gandhi decides to give a tell-all interview about where he was, and what he was doing. I'm bullish on NDTV, Headlines Today and CNN. Unless, of course, Rahul decides to grace Times Now again.

Arnab answers his critics in this article.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What's Simmering?

Image from Here

The kids play area in my apartment is buzzing with excitement. As it happens, most kids are accompanied by grandparents and maids carrying water bottles. Enthused by the frenzied excitement, I sit down on a nearby bench. Just then, two African toddlers come rushing towards the swings. Almost instinctively, the grandmother accompanying the Indian kids says, “Let’s go to the other swing.”

There are moments when trivial incidents lead you on a thought trail. The following day, when my house-help narrates stories about why she doesn’t want to work for the new African residents, I am intrigued. Being a writer, after all, is about observing people and paying attention. Sensing a story, I tentatively ask, “What happened?” She promptly replies, “They speak a different language. And there’s a lot of kitch-kitch for payment.” I try to dig deeper. “So what? You’ve worked for expats earlier?” To which she says, “Didi, in logo se darr lagta hai (I’m scared of them). And their fridge is over-stuffed with meat.”
During the last few months, we have witnessed a surge in unfortunate incidents of violence against African nationals. What exactly is behind these violent incidents? There are, after all, three sides to a story. Your side. My side. And the truth. The truth, as always, happens to be a complex grey muddle that requires introspection.

We, Africa and India, have gone through the pain of subjugation and the joy of liberation. Given our shared history, and also given that a large Indian Diaspora lives in Africa, political dispensations have worked towards strengthening the Indo-African ties. With so much in common, what is it that is making us drift apart? Is it because the African way of life is different from our conservative ‘Indian way of life’? Well, African nationals do have a distinctive style that is not a facsimile of Indian style when it comes to what clothes they wear, what music they hear or what food they eat. One could also argue that people from different cultures including Japan and Korea co-exist peacefully with the ‘Indian way of life’, so, what exactly is simmering in the Indo-Afro curry bowl?

Blame it on cinema or a handful of real-life incidents, people hang on to the perception that Africans deal with drugs and wild sex. Remember how Priyanka Chopra, in the movie Fashion, squirms when she discovers that she slept with an African national after a wild night of drugs and sex? Or how Kangana screams when she spots a French African in her dorm? When Sushma Swaraj, in all good faith, tweeted, ‘I appeal to fellow Indians. Next time you meet an African citizen, pl shake hand and say ‘India loves you’, Twitter exploded with jokes, taunts and memes. It was hilarious how South African cricketers were tagged by their fans telling them ‘India loves you’. However, what remained with me was a tweet that said, ‘Say India loves you before asking them maal hai kya’.
All said, Indo-African relations cannot be viewed without addressing the R word - Racism. Our boast of not being racists is deflated by the sale of skin whitening creams and the problems faced by Africans in renting a house. My own matrimonial ad, I’m told, mentioned me as a gori girl. Before I could create a fuss over this chicanery, the advertisement was in the newspaper.
One reason for what appears to be our contempt for dark skin could be because of the colonial domination and subservience to the West. It could, perhaps, have something to do with being protective about our patriotic and cultural identity. Recent Brexit vote has shown how xenophobia plays a role on our psyche. Any foreigner, a Bihari in Maharashtra, a North-Easterner in UP, or an African in Delhi is viewed as an outsider who is likely to dent our socio-cultural fabric. The thing with racism is that it is more felt than measured. Not necessarily in acts of violence but in understated ways like the incident in the kids play area.

All said, ignoring the undercurrents is unlikely to resolve misunderstandings. Acknowledging them will. And indeed, respecting mutual sensitivities will foster better understanding. Come to think of it, how many African friends do we have? What do we know about their culture? And most importantly, do we even want to know them?
Whether it is a student from the North East, Bihar, Middle East, or Africa, our differences don’t divide us - it is the inability to accept the differences that creates friction.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bachelor Boys

Back in 1963, when Cliff Richards sang, ‘Son, you’ll be a bachelor boy and that’s the way to stay,’ he didn’t know that he was singing for the Indian political album, 2016. Whether it is Jayalalitha or Mamata, being ‘single’ is a killer qualification. With Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal joining the bachelor brigade, the political dividends of having a spouse are diminishing. So much that Nitish Kumar is now hoping to say, ‘I Do’ when it comes to tying a knot with the Prime Minister’s office. After all, being the quintessential Kumar, Nitish does have the requisite qualification.

A politician, they say, should be born an orphan and die a bachelor. But worldwide, people prefer a family man as their leader. When it comes to electing a President in the United States, the stature of the First Lady remains a topic of debate. A recent satirical cartoon captioned ‘Make the First Lady Great Again’ portrayed Michelle Obama as angry and masculine, and Melania Trump as feminine and attractive. While the cartoonist received flak for his sexist portrayal, he forgot that the First Spouse of the United States could very well be a man! Nonetheless, first spouses in most countries are political celebrities.

Closer home, in a country where Karan Johar’s films are successful because ‘it’s all about loving your family’, a politician is successful because he is bereft of a family. Bollywood gave us a glimpse of how having a spouse is a shortcoming in Aandhi. Remember how Suchitra Sen (Aarti Devi) tried to hide her marital status fearing an electoral defeat? Yes, since ages, our neta log have treated their ‘single but refuse to mingle’ status as a virtue. Much of India has moved on, but politicians remain forever betrothed to the nation. And don’t even mention romance! It is as alien to them as giving birth is to a man.

We have had many single champs from Atal Bihari Vajpayee who is considered a favorite non-Congress Prime Minister to late Abdul Kalam who was an all time favorite President, from Naveen Patnaik who has never lost an election to Nitish Kumar who is said to be ‘Sushashan Babu’ in alleged Jungle Raj! Other single champs like Prime Minister Modi and Vasundhara Raje tread cautiously across the marital minefield.

But wait. Going by the logic, shouldn’t RaGa be the only song playing in a loop? Electoral defeats aside, Rahul Gandhi’s bachelor appeal reaps zero political dividends. Having lost the initial connect with the people, dynasty has become a millstone around his neck. Moreover, when you treat dynasty as royalty with obsequious party men signing loyalty bonds, succession on the basis of birth becomes tenuous. Alas, there is little point in sermonizing. Any advice will land in the dustbin because the dynasty retreats into the comfort zone of the predictable at the first suggestion of giving up the remote.

This is, however, not to say that political dynasties are dead. Even though Lalu Prasad’s sons continue to flourish, the aspirational Indian wants politics of merit over politics of privilege. About time too. No longer can a neta demand votes - he has to earn them. Little surprise, then, that the family party DMK was rebuffed when papa Karunanidhi tried to foist his lad, Stalin. For the people of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha was the ‘suitable girl’. When Tarun Gogoi tried to impose his DNA, people went ahead and garlanded a ‘suitable boy’, Sonowal. Dressed in a crumpled sari and chappals, Bachelorette Mamata crushed anti-incumbency with focus on rural development and PDS schemes. And even as electoral cards are being printed in UP, it will be interesting to see if the Hindi heartland will embrace the Saifai son, Akhilesh, or the Ganj girl, Mayawati.

All said, when it comes to electing a leader, we prefer a tie that binds with the people and not a tie that binds with the spouse. Whoever said, ‘No life without wife’ never stood for an Indian election. A true Indian politician remains a bachelor boy until his dying day. Because that’s the way to stay.
Image from Here

Monday, May 16, 2016

Golden Goose

Image from Here

Whether the success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) resides in its format or Bollywood-isation, it cannot be denied that the IPL is a phenomenon. Neither controversy nor match fixing seem to dampen its bounce. Now that the IPL’s governing council has made a strong pitch to shift the IPL to either the UAE or South Africa, it is time to reflect.
The Indian Premier League has come a long way since the fifties when watching test matches was as leisurely as watching a glorious sunset. Back then, cricket was best represented by an old bra – no cups and hardly any support. Over the years, like films, cricket has become all about entertainment, entertainment and entertainment.

For understandable reasons, the IPL is perceived to be a Tamasha. That’s amusing, but wrong. What is touted as Tamasha is in fact, serious business. According to the BCCI, the 2015 season of IPL contributed Rs 11.5 billion to the GDP of our economy. When you have a golden goose there is a mad scramble to claim the eggs. Controversies abound. In an attempt to steady the IPL innings, the BCCI introduced new teams and removed the rotting fish. And yet, the cup of IPL woes runneth over. The Lodha Committee recommendations have ensured that playing IPL with a straight bat is not going to be easy on a spinning home turf.

One of the abiding ironies is that cricket fans love cricket but love to hate the cricket governing body. Perception rules. Consequently, every political controversy like Indo-Pak ties (Dharamsala match) and Marthwada (matches shifted out of Maharashtra) drought washes up on the shores of the IPL. A volley of PILs have stumped the IPL. Adding to the discomfort is the ED surveillance on alleged Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) violations.

Nonetheless, the IPL is a home grown brand that needs to be nurtured even if it requires regular weeding. Worldwide, sporting leagues have contributed towards their respective sport. Like football and basketball, Indian cricket players are making more money by participating in the league games instead of playing international games.
You could shrug and say, how does the venue matter? After all, the IPL had moved to South Africa and UAE on two occasions. Fine. But would English Premier League (EPL) be as popular if it was, say, played in Singapore? Will someone in South Africa be as proud as apna Delhi-ite watching Delhi Daredevils walk in? An average middle class Indian was stingy when it came to shelling big money to watch a game. IPL changed that in one straight drive. Financial backing by big brands added to the brand value of the tournament. Let’s face it - sport thrives on sponsorship and money.

If and when the golden goose flies away, TV contracts and sweetheart deals with owners and the BCCI might benefit cricketers, but will it benefit an average cricket fan? More significantly, should we ignore that IPL was the trigger for various sporting leagues in Kabaddi, Tennis and Badminton? Should we forget that IPL is a fertile breeding ground for young talent? Should we disregard that IPL has ensured the maintenance and upkeep of many stadiums? Should we not care for what IPL does for tourism in tier-two cities?
It is unfortunate that ‘Indian Peoples League’ has become controversial punching bag. A brand that debuted with a bang in India shouldn’t go out with a whimper.  
(Full article in Diplomacy&Beyond)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hum Aapke Hain Goodwill Ambassador

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I’m Stumped looking at my Twitter feed that tells me that Salman Khan is the new good will ambassador for the upcoming Rio Olympics. All the righteous outrage begins to ooze out from my index finger on my phone. Hello, how can a Baghi, an alleged Partner in crime, be appointed as the Sultan of Olympics? I tweet like a sparrow in a tizzy, “Who the hell appointed Bhaijaan as the good will ambassador for Olympics?” Soon enough, when relentless Bhai fans Kick my Judwa ass in Andaaz Apna Apna, I have a Jagruti moment.

Much as there is little point in tweeting if you can’t annoy people, there is little point in being a brand ambassador if you can’t create a buzz. With all due respect, if PT Usha was appointed as a good will ambassador, no feathers would be ruffled. Peace. But it could well end in Nil Battey Sannata.
Right or wrong, Salman controversy ensured awareness about the fact that Olympics are round the corner. At a time when the country is suffering from IPL syndrome, if that ain’t an achievement, what is? Deservedly, the gold medal goes to Salman. And so, in that moment my outrage attained Veergati. 

So what’s the hullabaloo about? Well, it is more than a coincidence that Sultan Khan plays a wrestler in his upcoming movie Sultan. While the sport fraternity is crying foul, Salman’s appointment has ensured that Aamir is writhing on the mat even before the wrestling match has begun. Given that Aamir too plays a wrestler in his new movie Dangal, Raja Hindustani will now have to think of a novel way to promote his new movie.

Once the controversy was alive and kicking, it was the usual spectre of taking positions across the fence. Why can’t we have Rajyavardhan Rathore or PT Usha as our ambassadors, people raged? Track legend Milkha Singh joined the chorus when he said, ‘Salman has no contribution in sport, so why make him the ambassador?’ Wonder if Milkha Sir Ji would have felt the same way, if it was Farhan and not Salman. But the IOA said, Hum Appointment De Chuke Sanam. Go outrage.

Given that the controversy demanded views of the two important ladies, Katrina Kaif and Aishwarya Rai, the media was quick to oblige the nation. Katrina Kaif rebuffed the reporter by saying that Salman Khan has long been the very definition of controversy. Kat done, the microphone wielding fidayeen rushed to the other post card perfect ex who has been suffering from Panama-itis. The nation heaved a sigh of relief when Mrs B supported her ex Sanwariya. We now wait for an enthusiastic reporter to get us the views of Somy Ali, Sangeeta Bijlani, Zarine Khan and other Sanam Bewafas.
To judge Salman’s appointment by the yardstick of sport, rather than his popularity is to miss the purpose of appointing a goodwill ambassador. If the idea was to popularize upcoming Olympics and bring sponsorships, the controversy ensured that Salman had scored a goal.
The sad reality is that we live in a world where popularity and glamour bring sponsorships. We live in a world where selling a product is the only moral. So, how do we popularize sport without crass commercialization? Well, therein, my friend, lies the dilemma.

Bye, Phir Milenge!