Friday, June 24, 2016

What's Simmering?

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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

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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!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Jewel in the Crown

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 Just when we thought that the cries to bring back the Kohinoor diamond were fanned by the aftermath of the Royal visit, it seems, looming Punjab elections could be the trigger. How, you ask, will the return of a diamond help the people of Punjab? Just as the return of Tipu Sultan’s sword bolstered Kannada pride (even though the proud owner of unpaid loans fled to the UK), the return of Kohinoor is believed to restore the rightful legacy of Punjab.

According to the extra-long and dotted legend of the Kohinoor, the 158.6 gram (793 carat) gem was originally mined from Kollur mines in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh was initially owned by the Mughals, Shah Jahan is said to have used it as a prism to view the Taj Mahal. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, the diamond went back to Persia, only to be procured by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In the aftermath of Ranjit Singh’s death, the Sikhs fought two wars with the East India Company army. Duleep Singh, the minor son of Ranjit Singh and the then Maharaja in Lahore, was defeated in the second Anglo-Sikh war. Punjab was thus annexed by the British, and the Kohinoor presented to Queen Victoria. Blimey, but the Kohinoor now rests ensconced in a crown in the Tower of London. 

As it happened, Indians filed a petition in the stiff upper court demanding their sparkle back. Friendly neighborhood, Pakistan joined the party, ‘Why should India have all the fun?’ ‘Humein Bhi Chahiye Kohinoor’.
No pressure, no diamonds. In response to the political pressure, the Indian government cited a law that does not allow it to bring back antiquities taken out of the country before Independence. They reiterated the stand of the previous governments that Kohinoor was a gift. And presents, they say, are for the pleasure of who gives them and not the merits of who receives them. Right? Wrong. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) said, “It is not possible for a young Duleep Singh to have gifted the Kohinoor unless he was tricked.” 'Humein Chahiye Kohinoor', they said.

After the morality foreplay by the media, the culture ministry said that they will try to bring back the pleasure, err, treasure, amicably. Meanwhile the Congress jumped in the revelry by saying, ‘Humein Chahiye Azadi. Err, Kohinoor.’ They forgot that playing politics with history is a dangerous game. Wonder why the gem of their crown didn't remind his friend David Miliband about Kohinoor when both had spent a long night with cows. What is it that they say about covering your stump before you hump, eh?

But polemics aside, in what is considered as a bad omen for men, the politicians should think twice before demanding the Kohinoor. Given that the curse of Kohinoor dates back to ancient texts, and also given that the history of rulers who owned the diamond is mired with torture and treachery, the Brits played safe. Our prissy colonizers ensured that the diamond goes to the wife of the male royal heir. And no woman ever hated a man enough to give back his diamonds. So much for pleasure, err, treasure.

Whenever a British celebrity flits by, we fete them with our Bollywood royalty and fawn over their flying skirts, but the prickly demand resurfaces, ‘Humein Chahiye Kohinoor’. When asked about the Kohinoor, David Cameron provided us with a gem of a different kind, “If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I’m afraid to say, it is going to stay put.” 

The idea of expecting a return gift is fatuous. And what we fancy isn’t always a reality. Regardless of how we try to dress up history - with emotions or summons, the Brits are unlikely to provide us with the pleasure of owning the treasure. And that’s the extra-long and short of Kohinoor. The diamond, of course. 

What else did you think? Kohinoor Basmati rice? Well, wokay! Good to know I have sanskari readers. 
Meme from Here

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Horsing Around

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This article has been published in my column Alka-line in a magazine called Diplomacy&Beyond

Has it happened to you? There you are, paying your outrageously high electricity bill, and wham - a sinking feeling envelops you. You wonder how Vijay Mallya could walk away with crores of unpaid loans when a single unpaid bill can render you to darkness for eternity. Your misery doesn’t end. Because when you are debating dinner choices, Vijay Mallya is perhaps debating which plane to board - a Hawker or a Gulfstream. Let’s face it, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

So you blame your fate and switch on the television to watch a game. But the only game being played is a sport where the CBI, SEBI, and ED are chasing the owner of a defunct Kingfisher Airlines. Once upon a time, Mallya, a Rajya Sabha MP and entrepreneur extraordinaire, straddled the corporate and the sporting world with practiced ease. His passion for all things royal, including horses, was evident at a stud farm in Kanigal where horses are bred for Mallya’s United Racing and Bloodstock Breeders (URBB). Talking of horses, a horse, they say, never runs as fast unless there are other horses to outpace. In February 2016, when banks realized that they had bet on a wrong horse, an unbridled Mallya galloped away to London. He left with multiple bags, equivalent to the luggage of seven passengers. “For 2 people, 7 bags aren’t much. I pack heavy. That’s how I travel,” Mallya neighed.

Once the stallion had bolted, opposition members climbed on a high horse. A Congress spokesperson said, “Mallya has run away from India using the ‘Fair and Lovely’ scheme of the BJP.” The BJP horsed around by saying, “Mallya is Congress’s baby. The UPA pushed banks to give him repeated loans.” Having closed the door after the horse had bolted, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley argued that the government couldn’t have put a cart before the horse because, “that day (March2, when Mallya left) there was no order of any agency to stop him from leaving the country. He left before the banks moved the Supreme Court for seizure of his passport.” The finance minister also gave a stern warning to defaulters to settle their dues or face ‘coercive action’. Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink, right?

In order to squeeze the last pip of our outrage, the television channels showed us old clips where Mallya is canoodling with bikini clad girls and pretty air-hostesses but there was little talk about the bank officials who horsed around with Mallya. Why did they bet on a sick horse? How were the valuations done in a sinking aviation environment? When most airlines were losing money, what business plan was accepted as gospel? And why?

Given that Mallya chase has entered its last leg, Mallya got off from his high horse and offered to pay back Rs 4,000 crores by September,16. He claimed to be an Indian to the core who wants to return home. If buying Gandhi’s wire rimmed spectacles for $ 1.8 million wasn’t enough, Mallya can always say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ to prove his patriotism. Alternatively, he can take a return flight and bring Lalit Modi along.
Let’s not play ponies, but who wants the Trojan to return? He could reveal sleazy details about politicians, bureaucrats, banks and the media being together in bed.

So how do we win the Derby? Well, there is no point outraging in the Parliament when it does not lead to reforms in the financial sector. Bank distress is an old wound. There are many wounded horses listed by Credit Suisse in its report ‘House of Debt’. While the banks are contemplating a response to Mallya’s recent offer, the system will breed more Mallya’s unless the rot is addressed. Moreover, if the banks bargain for less than what is due, it will set off a dangerous precedent. When you and I can't get a small loan approval, imagine the audacity of negotiating with the banks via video-conferencing while sitting in London! What is clear is that Mallya horsed around not because he couldn’t pay but because didn’t want to pay.

That said, the only thing shorter than public memory is public enthusiasm. Once we are done with ‘Mall-liya Bhag-liya’ jokes, we could happily queue up to watch a Bollywood movie called ‘Mallya Returns’. My choice for the title role would be Anil Kapoor. What say?

Also on the Huffington Post.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Knotty Affairs - Kapoor and Sons

Image from here

Judge me. But I am the kind of movie goer who enjoys scenic locales, good looking star cast, contemporary setting and warm characters. No crime thrillers, violent sagas or sob stories for me, thank you. Is it any surprise, therefore, that I was looking forward to Kapoor and Sons.
Watch the trailer here.

As we know, stories are about protagonists, their goals, the obstacles they face and actions taken to overcome the obstacles. Talking of obstacles, a wicked villain mouthing dialogues like, “Tumhari maa aur behen meri kabze mein hai” is so eighty-ish. Khaandaan ki izzat is outdated. As is ‘parental dushmani’. Today, when parents are encouraging children to find love, when dacoits are missing and dons boring - hindrances come from the regrets, mistakes, quirks and obsessions of characters. Remember Piku? Or Dil Dhadakne Do? Both were about quirky characters and human fallibility where characters had created their own demons. Plus, of course, the magic of small moments. Likewise, Kapoor and Sons is about a flawed family where fault lines get exposed when characters come together.

Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah are struggling to save their marriage when their sons, Rahul (Fawad Khan) and Arjun (Sidhartha Malhotra) arrive to visit their ailing Dadu (Rishi Kapoor). The simmering acrimony between brothers and parents unfolds as Tia (Alia Bhatt) gets caught between a handsome Rahul and an embittered Arjun. While the elder brother, Fawad is weighed by a personal secret, the younger brother, Sidhartha, is desperate to emerge from the shadows of his successful brother. And then there is a dirty old Dadu (Rishi Kapoor), obsessed with a wet Mandakini of yore.
While every character is endearing, the holy bubble that encapsulates them keeps getting punctured as secrets tumble out. Several parallel tracks merge to unfold a tale. Set in picturesque Coonoor, the story is soaked in limpid showers of love, moist clouds of emotions and ominous rumblings of resentment.

Any engaging movie has to be about the seductions of magical moments. Like when Ratna cooks bhindi and Sidharth makes a face, when Fawad finds cigarettes in a cassette, when Dadu asks for a credit card to watch porn on I-Papad(I-Pad), or when Alia helps Dadu cheat while playing cards.

I have to admit that while watching Fawad Khan in Khoobsoorat, I felt he was overrated. In Kapoor and Sons, I stand corrected. His debonair looks and sheer presence lends oodles of charisma to the screen. Sidhartha Malhotra, as a second-best son in the film is equally impressive, if not more. With her impish smile, unbridled charm and glowing freshness, Alia Bhatt lights up the screen. She tugs at your heart when she narrates the story of her parents. 
Ratna Pathak Shah as the new age mom is perfectly at ease with taking care of the family and wanting to be an entrepreneur. She is in sync when she is with her sons, but strikes a jarring note with Rajat Kapoor. Just a bit.

Much like Amitabh in Piku, and Anil Kapoor in Dil Dhadakne Do, Kapoor and Sons belongs to Rishi Kapoor. Towards the end, you wonder, how a porn obsessed dirty old man can be so affable. However, I felt his prosthetic make-up could have been toned down. The thick layers hide the twinkle of his eyes when he says, "Itne bade bade bhi hote hain" and the torment of his emotions when he requests the boys to return.

This is not to say that Shakun Batra directed Kapoor and Sons is devoid of unpalatable moments. The film hinges on emotion but oftentimes the bickering between Ratna and Rajat gets over-the-top. Like in the scene when 90th birthday celebrations get hijacked by Ratna's knee-jerk reactions. But then, the story is about a dysfunctional family. Not a Sooraj Barjatya-ish perfect sweet family.

Despite minor flaws, the film succeeds in leaving a merry wink and a moist eye. And, yes. In the film, 'Ladki kar gayi chull' doesn’t sound as nonsensical as it does on the radio. It just blends like the imperfect yet warm characters. The film might not be Oscar worthy, but it is definitely fun worthy. I had a tripping good time.