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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The American Idea

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
United States of America Declaration of Independence 

Why was America not completely outraged by the charades that were played out at both political conventions in this last election cycle? Why are the American people not taking to the streets and demanding their country back from these feckless, disingenuous and negligent politicians. Kick all the bastards out is what I say, because there is no difference between them. They are both equally content making hay while taking the country on a reckless joyride off a dangerous moral and fiscal cliff. 

The GOP and the Democrats have both been effectively operating a convenient revolving door policy, ratcheting up the ideological rhetoric every so often, to keep the country deeply divided and completely distracted, so that we never really pay attention to the real issues anymore – the ones that affect ALL of us and our children; irrespective of gender, race, wealth or religious belief.

I have always thought of America as an idea; an idea born out of the belief that if all men are free (and not beholden to anyone) then they might one day also be equal.  This equality is not about being uniformly rich, poor, male, female, or possessing some God given talent, but one born out of the ability to make something of ourselves, no matter what our starting lot in life may have been. This is an equality built on success that comes from hard work, integrity and determination; and that is something any man or woman can attain. 

This success is not measured by the size of your bank balance or the size of your house, but by how you much you changed the hand you were dealt and the circumstances you were born into and what you managed to accomplish, in your lifetime, both by seizing and building on the opportunities afforded to you by this country. Every son was meant to build on the success of his father and every daughter reach higher than her mother. And yes, it did take a few generations to achieve tremendous success, and not everybody does or will, but the point was that you tried. 

This American ideal was also never just about just me, me and me, but also about my country, my fellow man and most importantly about the greater good. It was rooted in a belief that every American was merely a small part of a much greater and more powerful whole. 

While each of us is encouraged, to individually reach for the stars, we are also meant to help our fellow Americans along the way, especially those who are less capable, less able and less gifted. It was never meant to be a survival of the fittest, fastest and strongest; that philosophy can never lead to a truly great society or a wonderfully prosperous nation. 

However, it was also never about creating a welfare state, where we encouraged those less fortunate and less capable to rely on hand outs for their subsistence. It simply goes back to the old adage of teaching a man how to fish. Keeping with this same analogy, consider that in order to help him learn to fish we may need to extend him a loan to buy equipment and a boat, but that he will repay the loan once he has secured his livelihood.

This is where both Republicans and Democrats have it so completely wrong today. It is not a choice between one and the other. It is very easy to say that everyone should pull himself up by his own bootstraps, get an education and earn an honest and decent living without any help along the way from the government or anyone else. Equally, it is easy to create a system where we encourage people to become dependent on government assistance for life. Poverty does not create laziness; I know many more rich kids who sit around doing nothing. Lack of opportunity and lack of being challenged (or having things come too easily) both create different but equally bad dependencies. 

A key to any nation’s future success is based on two basic fundamentals; a path to a good education or skills and parenting that instills the ethic of honest hard work, in our children. No amount of government, big or small, or legislation can fix these two problems. We all need to start by embracing good old fashioned values and once again take on the great responsibility of parenting much more seriously. 

Fixing the education system is harder, but what we do know is that throwing money at the problem does not work. I would wager that putting every school back in the hands of a great principal, and fully empowering them to hire and fire teachers and determine their own curriculum, will go further than any effort in the last few decades. 

And finally, there is also a role for government and for every individual - only a better and more responsible combination of these two things will guarantee America’s future success. 

This is what once made America the greatest nation on earth; this along with the fact that when it really mattered - Americans of all colours, viewpoints, religious and political affiliations, consistently managed to rise above their differences, and cable news divisions, to unite under one flag in pursuit of a higher purpose. 

However, much of this seems to no longer be true of the America we live in today. The politicians, media and pundits (who masquerade as newsmen) are in large part to blame for the vitriol and divisiveness that exists today. One that has opinion makers taking sides and digging in for sound bites and ratings, rather than working to help offer solutions to some of the big problems this nation faces. 

But it is all too easy to blame the powers that be and forget that we too are all complicit in reducing this to an America of two extremes; depending on which ideology we aspire to. 

There is a successful and rich half that believes everyone should find their own way, without any help from government and without access to the same opportunities they had. The other half seems to have convinced themselves that people born into poverty cannot break the cycle; so it easier to let them resent their luck for being born on the wrong side of the tracks, and live on welfare. This rather than making sure that our government and each of us work to provide them with opportunities that will allow them to one day make their way over to the other America.  

It almost feels as if the poor segments are being told (by both parties) that they are entitled to government assistance in lieu of access to opportunities that will help them improve their lives and enable them to stand on their own two feet. 

Meanwhile, the cumulative effect of all this is that the principles, values and work ethic that were once at the heart of the American Dream are being reduced to a fast disappearing middle class, along with the idea that was once America.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review of the 2013 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

“Everything I learned I learned from the movies.” 
Audrey Hepburn

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Wow! Rarely, do I use the word spectacular to describe a film but if there is one must watch movie in this crop of Oscar nominees, then this is the one. I had no idea what to expect when I walked in, other than it being recommended by a number of people, online. Nobody I knew had seen it. The film is a stark, gritty and powerful portrayal of a slice of America that exists but is rarely ever seen by most of us who reside in the other, more sanitized America. What I loved most about this film, other than Quvenzhané Wallis, the six year old lead, is how beautifully and simply it has been directed, by Benh Zeitlin (making his first feature length film). It is a completely fresh and un-jaded piece of filmmaking where the audience is left feeling like someone is simply rolling a camera as life transpires. It is as if there were no script, no actors and nobody we see has any idea that there is a camera around. It is this rawness that makes it such a powerful, hopeless, beautiful, sad, and magnificent piece of storytelling. The young six year old Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, steals the movie with a performance that would put every Hollywood actress to shame. This girl was born to act and the camera, and audience, cannot help but fall hopelessly in love with her. You can walk out of this movie feeling depressed, or you can find hope by opening your eyes and heart to the simple joys through these characters lives and their outlook and perspectives. In how they choose to live their lives within the circumstances into which they were born, and have no complaints. The best thing about this film might just be its greatest Achilles heel when it comes to winning the Oscar – it is real – and not in the way Hollywood portrays reality, even when they claim to be doing just that.


When Ben Affleck first directed Gone Baby Gone, I was both surprised and impressed, but everyone can have one hit. Talent takes more than that. Then came his second, The Town, which was also impressive and well directed, but it is really with Argo that he has come of age as and shown the type of mettle and magic that few directors have. The hardest thing for any director is to take a subject matter that is well documented, and whose outcome is well known, and make that exciting for an audience. It is always hard to turn such a subject matter into an interesting story, leave alone a compelling one. Most times such topics are better suited to documentaries or executed so poorly that they never rise to become great films. Argo is one of the exceptions. Ben Affleck not only manages to build three-dimensional characters, but also keeps the audience gripped and often on the edge of their seats, even when they all know how the story will end. The casting is also brilliant. None of the actors ever dominates or overwhelms the film, but each one adds a little unique fabric of memorability, the sum of whose parts deliver a wonderful cast of characters with whom the audience can both relate and build empathy. Funnily enough, Ben Affleck’s performance is also one I would rate as among his best. This movie is also a must watch and my second favourite for best picture.

Zero Dark Thirty

Shot almost like a covert documentary, Kathryn Bigelow delivers a gripping and thrilling piece of filmmaking, even though we are aware of the final outcome of this hunt. What she manages to do through her characters is to take us into deep into the heart of a thankless job that unfolds in the obsessive underbelly of a world that we all know exists but cannot begin to imagine. She shows us the nameless and faceless men and women all over the world who belong to this elite cadre of covert operatives, living on the fringes and operating in the shadows of society to hunt and kill people who are often nothing more than mere shadows. Ultimately, the film forces each one of us to very seriously think about the price we are all willing to pay for our safety. Because it is pretty clear that the further we progress down this path, chasing after these men and operating purely in the darkness, the harder it will be to come back. One day we may no longer be able to differentiate between these two worlds.

Life of Pi

A beautiful story told simply and with great élan. Ang Lee will one day be counted among the greats for his ability to deliver movies with subject matter as diverse as Woodstock to Pi. I have not read the book, but am told most people thought it would be impossible to turn into a film; I don’t think they will be disappointed. This is a glorious piece of filmmaking about life and the journey each one of us must undertake from the time we are born, and remain on until the day we die. The message at the core of the film is not a new one, but one that is at the core of every religion, as Pi learns. I am not sure about what your take will be about the message, but mine was that we all have to ultimately choose through which lens we view our lives. The good, the bad and the hopeless events that unfold - we can choose to see only the worst or try to find hope and see light, especially when none exists. But the beauty of the film is that this is never thrown in your face. Ang Lee leaves it each of us to interpret. Delicious is a word I would use to describe this movie. Everything from the sublime soundtrack, to the idyllic settings and the perfectly understated performances leave you feeling joyful and elated. I do believe Suraj Sharma deserved to be nominated. I thought his performance as Pi was brilliant.

Silver Linings Playbook

I walked in without any expectations and walked out with quite a bit. Silver Linings is a charming little film with an ensemble cast filled with really big name actors, playing small town characters. This seems to be a hallmark of director David O. Russell’s; the ability to get great performances from A-list actors that surprises an audience. He does it with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence this time. I will admit that she steals the movie a little bit but Cooper most certainly holds his own and shows some acting chops he has not demonstrated in the recent past. Of course Robert DeNiro and Anupam Kher are brilliant as always. The movie actually deals with the type of serious and heavy subject that could have gone horribly wrong and turned into a dark, depressing and dreary slice of blue collar America. Instead Russell delivers a delightful and uplifting film, with raw, real and three dimensional characters that we can all relate to and empathize with.


Some people describe this movie as a boring history lesson. Well, I love history and Daniel Day Lewis. I read that Steven Spielberg spent twelve years researching Lincoln before making this movie. There is no doubt that it is a vehicle for Daniel Day Lewis to disappear, yet again, into another great onscreen character and completely mesmerize us with his performance (I do feel sorry for all the other Best Actor contenders this year). Another noteworthy performance is one turned in by Tommy Lee Jones playing the radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. I felt that Sally Field’s character, not her performance, lacked dimension and was came across as flat and predictable. Perhaps, the film is in some parts a lesson better suited to PBS. But in the final count I think because it is a great and defining moment in America’s history, it is a story that must never be forgotten; and Spielberg tells it brilliantly. The one solid criticism I have is the ending. There is a moment in the movie when Lincoln leaves for the Ford’s theater which I felt was a strong and moving ending to the film. For some reason it did not end there and it was almost as if Spielberg bolted on a cheesy and contrived, second ending; one that I fear was demanded by studio research driven by the fact that many people today do not know how Lincoln died.

Les Misérables

Hugely disappointing. Perhaps it is because I am tired of Hollywood casting people who cannot sing in roles that require singers. Or that after seeing the original musical, with the original cast including Colm Wilkinson, on stage in London’s West End, I felt the actors in the movie made a great effort, but in the end massacred a brilliant score. There were moments when I cringed seeing Hugh Jackman and his fellows cast members trying to hit high or low notes. It is amazing what technology can do, but even technology has only advanced so far. One last point on this. With movies like Moulin Rouge, Mama Mia and Rock of Ages, also performed by actors with little or no singing talent, I feel it is easier to get away with it because they are doing renditions of mere pop songs. Most of us have grown up hearing karaoke versions of these songs, so the bar is very low. In the case of the masterful original musical version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, well there is a totally different bar; one that could only be reached by performers who can sing brilliantly. One final note Anne Hathaway is a great actress but this role was not one I would have thought worthy of a nomination.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The New Social Revolution

Howard Beale (in Network)

The world did not end on 21st December 2012, but something amazing has started to happen this past year, and it is happening all over the world. It is not something I have witnessed in my lifetime or, I suspect, my parents in theirs. The youth all over the developing world have found their collective voice and are starting to use it to fight social injustice. They are even willing to take to the streets and stay until things really change. One could argue that perhaps the greatest generation was like that too, but they faced much greater adversity with two world wars. However, there is still one other fundamental difference from any other time in history. Every other great movement of the people has been led by a single charismatic leader or been galvanized by some government. The youth today are nameless and faceless, but rally around a cause that they believe in, not behind a personality or party. There is something rawer, authentic, grassroots and democratic about the way these spontaneous protest movements are erupting all over the world from America to Egypt to India and even Russia. Governments have never faced this type of opposition and most of them have no idea how to engage with it, choosing instead to deal with it through police and riot gear. This is the ultimate vox pop and all of the governments are missing the writing on the wall.

Technology may have enabled and does help facilitate the rapidity of these movements, but they are fueled by something much more powerful than a Twitter or Facebook account. For our leaders to discount them as such would be foolhardy and perilous to their existence. These movements are fueled by a feeling of gross social injustice, and government’s failure to be for the people; not by words but by their actions. It is for this reason that they are not like the seventies age anti-war demonstrations. They are much bigger because they are about society and their rights, as a whole. And they are directly related to issues that a government is meant to deliver and solve for its people from public safety to every citizen’s right to free speech. Simply ignoring them will not make them go away or lose steam. Making speeches filled with platitudes and promises might placate them for a few minutes but they will still not go away until there is follow-through. Politicians the world over have not yet understood this. Passing a few new laws will also not extinguish these fires; it will only fan the flames. Only real and meaningful change that the average person on the street feels the impact of will make a difference.

Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, learned this the hard way and had to annul a constitutional decree that would have given him wide-ranging powers and made him accountable to no other government authority, including the judiciary. Even the new Egyptian constitution that was hurriedly passed only garnered votes from one third of the population, making it unacceptable to the majority of the country. You need to look no further than Tahrir Square tonight to see if the youth and people of Egypt are satisfied.

In India, our politicians are used to never being questioned or required to deliver on their promises. Scam after scam has been uncovered this past year, and yet not one single politician or bureaucrat has been prosecuted. In fact, the ruling party seems to believe that silence is the best weapon against protests from the people. However, the number of instances and the sheer egregiousness of government excess, corruption and apathy have slowly been reaching a boiling point with the youth of India. From the Bombay police acting like moral guardians of society; arresting teenagers for holding hands in public parks after dark, or a girl for opposing a Bombay bandh to the nation witnessing the horror of human bite marks on baby Falak. The final straw has been the barbaric rape (even wild animals are better than these men) of a twenty-three year old girl, nicknamed Brave Heart, in the middle of South Delhi at nine-thirty in the evening. The Indian youth are saying that they too are mad as hell and that they are not willing to take the same old same old anymore. The reaction from our politicians has been laughably predictable. First there was complete silence, then riot police were called in, and then an effort was made to discredit the protestors as nothing more than a bunch of miscreants. But this time the people did not disperse or quietly fade away with the last flicker of the candles. This time the people have called our out of touch political elite's bluff. This time they have not been placated by words or more empty promises. This time they are demanding action and will not leave the streets until they believe there will be some real and meaningful change, and they start to see it implemented.

The thing our politicians need to realise is that while it may be the youth in these countries that are starting and leading these movements and protests, they are managing to achieve something that no generation has before them. They are starting to wake up the rest of us. This is a global revolution underway, and every country will be in the cross hairs, mark my words. China, USA, Russia and UK beware. Our youth are stirring the same passion and patriotic fervour across generations, from senior citizens to parents to teens; from the middle class to farmers and to the poorest segments of society. From big cities to tiny villages, the lights are starting to come on and people are starting to come out. Until now my generation has always complained about the problems we face. We bitch and moan about all the issues, but then we quietly sink back into our comfortable armchairs and sip on our aged scotch. But this time I feel like something is different. Our youth are waking us up from our accepting and lethargic slumber because now


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.