Showing posts with label diversity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label diversity. Show all posts

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Hollywood’s Glass House


(Image: g4sfacts.org)

“Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made!"
Groucho Marx

I am no fan of President Trump but I am a movie fanatic. I can quote lines, recite entire dialogues and even rattle off names of obscure directors and screenwriters. Ever since I was a child I have been enamored of movies and their power to connect people, build empathy, change attitudes and be a force for good - a force that can change the world in positive ways.

I also used to enjoy watching the Oscars back when it was still a celebration of the art and its greatest auteurs. It is true that Hollywood has always been a liberal bastion that championed a variety of issues, from famine and genocide to civil war, but for the most part their causes pertained to humanity and were not blatantly partisan; after the last election the mask came off and every awards ceremony has been hijacked by tone-deaf, selective lecturing and hypocritical finger pointing.

It is one thing to use your art as a valid and powerful way to protest something. I am all for making movies and documentaries that champion causes and wade headfirst into divisive political issues; however, it is entirely another thing to abuse the microphone at a non-political event meant to celebrate this art. Putting aside the fact that awards shows are not the right venue to bring up politics, the reality is that Hollywood is also the last group of people in the world who should be preaching morality, diversity and equality based on the facts within their own industry.

A study of 900 popular Hollywood films over the last decade by USC Annenberg School forCommunication and Journalism found that despite the industry's preaching diversity to the rest of us, “there has been little year-on-year rise in inclusion in films released in 2016”. Across the board the industry fails on inclusivity when it came to minorities, LGBTQ and disabled people. As recently as 2016, the same study found that 70.8% of speaking roles in top 100 films were still being awarded to white actors. Even behind the scenes their record remained appalling with women making up a measly 4.2% of directors, 13.2% of writers, 20.7% of producers and just 1.7% of composers.

Further, another 2016 UCLA study found that film studio heads are 94 percent white and 100 percent male. Management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male. Film studio unit heads are 96 percent white and 61 percent male. TV network and studio heads are 96 percent white and 71 percent male. TV senior management is 93 percent white and 73 percent male. TV unit heads are 86 percent white and 55 percent male.

As a result, the recent award show protesting and preaching comes across as a disingenuous PR stunt designed to distract us and prevent shining a light on their own industry. Even after the shocking revelations about Harvey Weinstein, as the New Yorker put it, “A few of the mighty have fallen,a few of the less mighty have been embarrassed, but the institutions that protected them remain unshaken, their potentates still in power.”

Oprah spoke eloquently and passionately about “speaking your truth” at the last Golden Globes, and while Hollywood seems willing to point fingers, it is entirely unwilling to introspect or make meaningful changes to the predatory atmosphere it has nurtured within its ranks. Hollywood seems to have forgotten the wisdom about glass houses or perhaps they assumed we would not hold them to the same standards they rightly want to hold the President and his administration to, when it comes to women, minorities and the disabled.

I laud the release of 'Black Panther' but we cannot ignore the fact that it has taken one hundred and eight years, ninety Academy Awards and the election of Donald Trump to create the first black super hero movie. This year, Jordan Peele became only the fifth black man to be recognized in the Best Director category, and the first to win for Best Screenplay. Greta Gerwig was only the fifth woman to ever be nominated for Best Director. Only one woman has won this category in the Oscars 90-year history. I hope we won’t have to wait another hundred years for black, female and minority studio heads.

Interestingly, I am not the only person feeling this way about Hollywood’s now shallow and incessant preaching at award shows since the last election. The 2018 Oscars were the least-watched in history, scoring a 19% drop from 2017. To give you an idea of the magnitude - the Oscars have never fallen below 32 million viewers and 21 metered markets household rating before, making this year’s ratings the lowest since they started keeping records. Even among the coveted youth audience, social media mentions were down a whopping 28% from last year. The Golden Globes witnessed their lowest TV ratings in six years. Even the Grammys, where Hillary Clinton showed up, suffered a precipitous decline to amass its lowest tally since 2008, a 24% drop from the previous year.

If we want to hear political speeches, we will attend a political rally. 
If we want a lecture, we will find a college professor.
If we want to a sermon, we will go to church.
If we want to be chastised about our lack of morals, we will visit our parents.
We come to Hollywood to be entertained and the industry seems to have forgotten its place in society.

As long as Hollywood uses their art to make us laugh, cry, inform, broaden and challenge our thinking, we too are willing to overlook the fact that they are mostly well-meaning but grossly overpaid and completely out of touch elites. The air around them is so rarefied that Jennifer Lawrence is lauded for picking up her dog’s poop, and Gwyneth Paltrow argues that moms who have office jobs have an easier life than an actress making $9 million a movie.
 
Movies have the power to connect people, build empathy, change attitudes and become a force for good - a force that can change the world in positive ways. I hope Hollywood remembers to wield this great power by letting their art speak for them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi; I certainly hope so.


(Image: NME.com)

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” 
-Yoda

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this before seeing the movie.

I am a big Star Wars fan. I was one of those kids who had everything from the light sabers and action figures to the outfits. I even knew the dialogues to the point where Han and Luke and Leia were like a second family. That was then.

We have all written off the three prequel films George Lucas made, and while I enjoyed the JJ Abrams reboot with the Force Awakens, it largely felt like a rehash of the original franchise with younger stars and not the reboot that is required to make it relevant for another generation.

Star Wars needed re-invention and a new perspective akin to what the James Bond franchise did by casting an atypical Bond in Daniel Craig and offering us a complex, vulnerable and gritty new character. My expectation with The Last Jedi was that it would do something similar and offer audiences a new hope with complex new characters, re-imagining the franchise for another generation.

Let’s start with the one positive aspect. It was an enjoyable movie with magnificent locations, stunning sets and some great action sequences which would have been great for the average superhero film, but not for Star Wars. Pretty much every other aspect of the film was a total and utter disappointment.

I guess my biggest criticism is that it felt like a happy Disney movie that completely lost the original grit, complexity and coarseness of characters and nuances in the storyline and plot that made it a work of genius. These characters felt simple and one-dimensional with a storyline so dumbed down that it felt like laziness on the part of the filmmakers.

To begin with, none of the characters had any convincing conflict or complexity in their make-up. Flat and cardboard and sadly unmemorable were they. Even when they tried to add a layer of complexity, it felt lazy and unconvincingly bad – like in a kid’s cartoon (where it works wonderfully).

The new evil super villain Kylo Ren is a disappointment. He comes across as an angry and bellyaching teenager, much less a dark foreboding and haunting force like Darth Vader before him. He spent most of the movie breaking stuff in anger, or looking like he was trying really hard not to break down in tears because someone called him a sissy. Also, I am not clear if he is meant to be an androgynous character. This is not explained and does not add interest to the storyline, and feels more like checking a box for political correctness, making up for previous lack of diversity in casting blockbuster films.

This brings me to the rest of the casting.

There is a white female lead, alongside Black, Hispanic and Asian co-leads. I spent the entire movie waiting for the Indian character to show up, but alas this United Colours of Star Wars was left incomplete for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for diversity, but it has to be natural, feel organic to the story and lend something to the plot - not merely become a box that needs to be checked that makes it feel contrived and totally superficial.

Then there were the inexplicable unrealities in the story - everything from our heroes escaping unscathed after earth shattering explosions (where all the bad guys die), to Princess Leia flying through space without a spacesuit, to a completely misguided attempt to add a romantic love triangle to the plot. The scene between Rose, the hitherto shy and crying Asian mechanic (who also suddenly learns how to become an ace fighter pilot) and Finn the black ex-storm trooper was so bizarre that it felt like an oversight.

The issue is not that there cannot be a romance between an Asian woman and a black man, but that there was zero chemistry between these two characters that established any sort of potential love interest prior to her confessing her love for him. In fact, they spent a large part of the movie running around like brother and sister without any hint of romance brewing between them.

Similarly, when Luke Skywalker’s reason for his self-imposed exile and endless torment are revealed, it is completely underwhelming. It is hard to believe that an otherwise intelligent, emotionally mature man, who incidentally is also considered the last hope for the Universe, would fall apart in such spectacular fashion over something so trivial.

And fall apart in a manner that involves renouncing the world, giving up all hope, turning his back on his Jedi religion, refusing to use his powers for the good and deciding to spend his remaining days living a hermit-like existence on an island, in a forgotten and far away galaxy, surrounded by little lady owl-like creatures.

According to Luke, the reason for his total meltdown is his former pupil Kylo’s betrayal, and turn to the dark side. The problem is that the audience is never made privy to depth of Luke’s connection with Kylo. Just like adults sometimes refuse to explain a deeply complex issue and tell children too simply to take their word for it, so too does the director seem to tell his simple-minded audience to do the same.

Then there are the failed and unimaginative attempts to give the franchise new life. We witness Luke throw the cherished light-saber over his shoulder, like it is an old useless relic. We see Yoda (who was totally wasted in the movie) burn the sacred Jedi texts, and we watch Kylo Ren bash his Vader mask to pieces in another one of his angry teenage outbursts.

There were moments of humor and light-heartedness that were used to convey the idea of letting the “old die”. The issue is that this message went beyond symbolism, and was also uttered as dialogue by a number of different characters.  Great filmmakers convey this message with a magical subtlety that demands a level of emotional intelligence from an audience. Here it is delivered like an impatient child who has yet to learn the art of subtlety would, repeatedly hitting the audience over the head until they all beg it to stop.

In closing, I will say that this would have been a great film if Disney had promoted it as a movie for children aged 6-10 years, for young minds that are at an age where things are still black and white and there is pure good or evil in the world, and minds are not yet burdened with complexity and nuance.

But selling this as a renewal of the franchise for the original devotees simply offers false hope...in the words of the immortal Yoda, “there is no try”.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bet Big on India with One Big Caveat

“A person who brings out the greatness of his friend himself gains importance.”
-Rig Veda 

Anyone who has spoken with me recently will likely be tired of hearing me say how there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this next decade belongs to India, BUT depending on how India chooses to traverse it, will decide if the next century is also ours. It is true that I have always been among India’s most vocal cheerleaders, the eternal optimist and jingoistic patriot. I believed in her potential even when I was in the extreme minority during the lowest ebbs of our license Raj. I never stopped believing in her despite the tremendous odds and the contrary viewpoints of many an expert. Today, the landscape is far different, and I imagine few people will challenge my views based on the last decade of economic data.

First, let’s discuss why I am optimistic before I spell out the major caveat. The reason for my optimism lies in two parts: one has to do with forces within India, and the other a set of external factors which squarely benefit us. It is true that in the 21st century, no country can thrive on its own because of our global economic interconnectedness and interdependence. These connections will only grow deeper in the next century and serve to further isolate economies like Russia, Iran, North Korea and others that pursue isolation over smart dependency.
Indians want innovation over idol worship and 
paycheques over pogroms

We can all agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Congress Party for ushering in an era of liberalisation, without which we would not be among an elite group of economies, the third largest in the world. However, I also believe the greater debt we owe them has to do with the unmitigatedly corrupt, greedy and dystopian second term they presided over. Their unchecked gluttony is directly responsible for shaking the lethargy of the Indian public; we would not have seen the rise of Narendra Modi onto the national stage without it. As a direct result of our frustration with the Congress, the majority of Indians were willing to give Mr. Modi a chance, and not based on his Hindutva philosophy. This combined with his promise to beat China and provide economic development for all Indians. It is why the youth voted for him in large numbers, the same youth that carries no baggage from 1984 or 2002 - a generation born on WhatsApp. Mr. Modi would do well to recognise and remember this because if he is seen to pander to the vocal minority within his base, the same winds that ushered him in will push him back into regional oblivion. Indians want innovation over idol worship and pay cheques over pogroms; they do not want a Hindu nation. 

The second factor that helped put the wind in India’s sails (around the time of Congress’s demise and Mr. Modi’s rise) had to do with the course that the other much vaunted BRICS economies took. In a word, they are all in the shit hole with the exception of China, which is a little different. I don’t need to spend time explaining how Russia has faltered, but will point to one thing worth nothing with regards to Brazil's and South Africa’s demise. Without question both suffered from poor leadership, institutionalized corruption and flimsy economic policies that were based on riding the global financial bubble, not on investments in domestic growth. We can argue that India had many of the same problems with corruption and lack of strong leadership under Manmohan Singh, but there is one major difference; we have a much stronger democracy. One that can withstand medium-term failures, and has the ability to course correct when things go deeply wrong. Look no further than the decimation of Congress, the rise of AAP and the BJP wave.

The fundamentals of our democracy are strong, not just in terms of people and ideas but also civil institutions, our judiciary and bureaucracy. We are better equipped to withstand bad government for a term or two and bounce back than any of the other BRICS. China is the only other BRIC standing, and here I will argue that it is our democratic values that will help us win the day against them. While China’s economic growth has been sputtering of late, I believe the final drain on their storied growth will come from a social implosion. Simply put, you cannot give people a little taste of capitalism and then expect to continue to control their thinking and freedoms, certainly not in a world where there is a world wide web and the ability to travel. Once people taste freedom of thought and expression, they tend to want more, not less.

There is no question that the demise of the BRICS has been another major gift for Mr. Modi. Now he must make sure he does not waste it. Their demise has made us the cynosure of all global investment for the foreseeable future. This, before Mr. Modi did anything to prove himself, or have time for his policies to have a substantial impact on India’s economy. It has provided him with a one-term carte blanche of sorts but he now very quickly needs to start putting this foreign investment where his development (mouth) is.
Capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology

Now the big caveat I mentioned. What made America the greatest economy and strongest nation over the last century is the fact that the majority of Americans found a way to rise beyond petty politics, religious rabble-rousing and superficial differences, to unite under common cause. As a society they understood that capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology. For this reason their leaders have always embraced inclusiveness (slavery aside) and not for some other higher altruistic purpose. It is why they have encouraged freedom of thought, expression and strived to build a homogenous melting pot of diverging cultures and viewpoints.

Diversity makes a nation richer and more powerful, as long it can find a common capitalist cause to rally behind (not a political or religious one). The American motto “E Pluribus Unum” can be found on everything from their coins and currency to their Presidential seal; it means “out of many, one”. Americans have rallied behind this motto and worked hard to attract the brightest and best minds from every corner of the globe; this diversity has paid great dividends with world-beating innovation, and years of economic growth and military dominance.
We need a society that convalescences around education and economic opportunity, not Hindutva
India’s veins are bursting with rich and diverse talent. Mr. Modi must now strive to create an even more open-minded and inclusive society, one that convalescences around education, skill development, economic opportunity and growth, not around Hindutva. Now is the time to stand united, not to divide further. This alone will allow Mr. Modi to deliver on his promise of the Indian dream. However, if he continues to allow the forces of Hindutva to hijack his agenda, then he will very quickly squander the Indian century that is now finally, and firmly, within our grasp.
 

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Real India


“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday’s bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
Mark Twain

All my life I have believed in an India that increasingly exists only in my mind’s eye. Perhaps, this India of which I am so proud to be a citizen is merely an idea that has not yet been fully realized. Increasingly, it feels like this great vision of India rarely matches the reality that I see.

My India is rich with diversity, the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions (friend, guide and philosopher to the other three) and home to every religion practiced by man. In this India, it is our diversity, and not our divisions, that make us stronger, richer and more powerful. In my India, I am always proud to be Indian first; then Bengali, Tamilian, Gujarati, Malayali, Punjabi or Jain. 

In this India, I am also proud that India is still home to the second largest Muslim population in the world; in spite of the creation of two Muslim states on her borders. This is what makes the fabric of my India so rich and her cultural mosaic the envy of the civilized world. No other country in the world can claim to have this breadth of heritage and depth of diversity running through her veins.  

As long as each of us clings to being a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain then we will remain only a very small and totally inconsequential part of this India.

In this India, Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy for a way of life. It is an accumulation of ideas, beliefs, traditions, philosophies and cultural practices that were collected and shaped over centuries. Unlike other religions, Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into a specific belief system. 

It is a Dharma, or a set of philosophies that are meant to govern our personal beliefs and worldly actions. Interestingly, it is the only religion in the world that cannot be traced back to one single individual or book. And the only religion that does not require a person to “convert” or have a religious affiliation to it in order to receive its teachings. 

The word “Hindu” cannot be found in any of its scriptures. In fact, it was first used by invading Arabs to describe al-Hind, or the land of the people who live across the river Indus; and it was only toward the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus (source: Wikipedia). 

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity and Islam by a few thousand years. If you look at its practices, unlike other religions, it does not tell you who to worship, what to eat, which day or how many times to pray, but instead offers things like Yoga, Ayurveda and Vastu. At its core it is about self-awareness and the idea of “live and let live;” with an underlying belief system based on truth, honesty, non-violence, cleanliness, austerity and perseverance. Perhaps, this is the reason it is often referred to as the “enlightened religion.” This is the true nature of the religion we today call Hinduism.

The Hinduism that is preached, practiced and used as a tool to create communal strife and manipulate the voting public today is barely recognizable, and not part of my India. It has been bastardized by Hindu fundamentalists and hijacked by self-appointed chieftains and politicians as a way to divide the country and buy votes. But it is too easy to blame just the power hungry; for individuals too it has deteriorated into regular offerings of millions of rupees in gold, silver and precious gems to their Gods – purely as a way to atone and wash away all the worldly sins they commit outside their temple walls. 

These offerings lie collecting dust in temple vaults while 830 million Indian’s live on less than Rs. 20 per day ($0.44c or UK 0.27 pence). A person going to the temple with bags full of gold or cash can pass a starving child on the way to their deity, and look the other way. However, he will have no qualms about handing over all his possessions to fat, corrupt temple officials as an offering to an inanimate block of stone. This is what we have reduced Hinduism to, a worthless transaction that does nothing to help us live better lives, become better human beings, help our fellow countrymen or even our own country.

In my India we celebrate and hold dear our heritage, not simply because it is thousands of years old, but because it is responsible for our wealth of diversity, today. Which other non-Muslim country in the world can claim to have so many different successful Muslim figures across every aspect of society, even though they are a minority in a country whose population is more than four-fifths Hindu? 

We have had three Muslim Presidents; the Khans still rule Bollywood and Azim Premji is one of the richest men in the world. We can also proudly lay claim to Javed Akhtar and A.R. Rehman and feel great pride in the fact that one of our most patriotic and well-known songs “Saare Jahan Se Achchha,” was a great collaboration. It was penned by Muhammed Iqbal, a Muslim, and the music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Hindu. In fact, in this India we don’t just blindly recite the lyrics, we hold them dear.

“maz’hab nahīn sikhātā āpas men bayr rakhnā
hindi hai ham, vatan hai hindostān hamārā”

“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among us
We are Indians, India is our homeland”

We take their meaning to heart and reflect this in the way we live our lives. And we hang our heads in shame at the fact that we all stood idly by and watched one of our greatest national treasures, the late artist M. F. Hussain, die in a foreign land where he felt he needed to seek refuge (and accept citizenship) because thugs in saffron made sure he would never feel safe in his own home again. 

This even after the Supreme Court threw out all the completely frivolous lawsuits against his nude paintings of Indian Goddesses; refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. The court also called out the clear anti-Muslim motives behind these cases, by stating the fact that Hindu temples are filled with much more graphic depictions of nude Goddesses in pictures, paintings and sculptures, and it seems that this never hurt Hindu sentiments in a few thousand years.

This India is not about all hugging and getting along. I doubt man will ever be able to do that, but it is about accepting that we are not all the same; that we will never look, dress, think and pray alike, but that each of us has something to contribute and much more to learn. It is about recognizing that this learning is what makes us all stronger, richer, greater and more successful as a nation. 

It is only once we are all able to embrace this notion that we can stop our leaders from dividing us based on the inconsequential differences that exist between us. Until then, I will treasure this India in my mind’s eye.