Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why I Boycotted Martin Scorsese


“And as I've gotten older, I've had more of a tendency to look for people who live by kindness, tolerance, compassion, a gentler way of looking at things.”
Martin Scorsese 

Martin Scorsese is not a very imposing man at 5’ 4” but few will deny the towering influence he has had on global cinema since the early 1970’s. In fact I doubt that there is anyone in the world over the age of thirty who has not seen or heard of a Scorsese film. Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and most recently The Wolf of Wall Street, to name just a few of the phenomenal movies and enduring movie characters he has created over the years. 

The biggest movie stars in the world line up to be cast in one of his movies, new directors would kill to have made one movie from his long resume, in their entire career, and moviegoers flock to his latest creation in droves. Apart from the films he has directed, he has also produced countless classics and served as mentor and inspiration for a few generations of filmmakers. 

Being a movie fanatic myself, he has long been a hero of mine. No matter the subject matter or the cast, I used to be one of the faithful who would gladly pay to watch the next Scorsese film with blind devotion.

This is a man whose every film I would run out to be the first to see; a man for whom I had a great deal of respect. A man whose pain I personally felt, each time he was cheated out of a Best Director Oscar; amazingly he has still won ONLY one Oscar for The Departed in 2006; but I digress. The point is that in an industry filled with shallow, self-absorbed and feckless people, this was a man I admired for being the opposite. 

He is someone I believed held values and principles that were made of sterner stuff in the midst of an often morally bankrupt profession. This was a man who in my mind had not drunk the Hollywood Kool Aid of self-importance. Instead of using his fame to preach to us, off the camera, he spoke purely through his art; staying true to his vision and not succumbing to chasing the box office numbers and studio-driven bottom-lines. 

To be clear, I am not comparing him to Gandhi or Mandela but within Hollywood he was someone who stood out from the rest of the big studio sell-out pack, with his humble, gentle and self-effacing demeanor. Why then you might ask did I take this drastic step and boycott a genius and someone whom I clearly held in such high regard?

In September 2009, Roman Polanski was detained on a U.S. arrest warrant related to a 1977 child sex charge while trying to enter Switzerland. He was on his way to attend the Zurich Film Festival, where he was to be honoured. Polanski has been on the run since 1978. 

He was 43 years old when he pled guilty “to a single count of having unlawful intercourse with a minor acknowledging he had sex with a 13-year-old girl.” It seems there “have been repeated attempts to settle the case over the years, but the sticking point has always been Polanski's refusal to return to attend hearings. Prosecutors have consistently argued that it would be a miscarriage of justice to allow a man to go free who "drugged and raped a 13-year-old child." (Source: CNNarticle). I would be inclined to agree with the authorities. 

Mr. Polanski not only committed a crime but actually admitted to it. After he was arrested a section of the Hollywood community led by Harvey Weinstein started a petition to ‘FREE POLANSKI’ because they claimed "it seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him" (Source: ONTD article). The petition called on every filmmaker we can to help fix this terrible situation," (Source: CNNarticle). Martin Scorsese was one of the signatories to this petition.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious; it seems to me that these petitioners are suggesting that due to Mr. Polanski’s greatness as a filmmaker and based on his tremendous contribution to the arts, he should somehow be forgiven for raping a 13 year old girl; or worse that perhaps the laws of the land that apply to the rest of us mere mortals do not apply to Hollywood greatness. It would be one thing to request that the authorities arrest him after the function (personally, I don’t believe a child rapist should be afforded even that courtesy) but to suggest that he not only not be arrested but that he be allowed to remain a free man, is abhorrent and an insult to the rights of women and every daughter, sister, wife and mother. Also, I am aware that the girl he raped famously forgave him in 1997 and requested that the charges against him be dropped; she did so to find closure and move on with her life. Irrespective, her forgiving him should change nothing. Mr. Polanski committed a serious crime and must face the consequences for his actions. It is for the Judge and jury to weigh the victim’s forgiveness when Mr. Polanski faces them in a court of law. If we start to determine criminality and sentencing based purely on a victim’s forgiveness of the perpetrator, we may as well do away with the criminal justice system.

It honestly does not matter to me that there were other famous Hollywood personalities like Woody Allen, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson and Jonathan Demme who also signed the same petition. But it troubled me deeply that Mr. Scorsese did. Perhaps, naively so, but I had never equated him with the rest of this industry and had held him to a higher standard. His signature and support to free a confessed child rapist felt like a personal betrayal and I chose to show my indignation by boycotting his movies from that day.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Narendra Modi: India’s Saviour or the Devil in Saffron?

(Image credit: listaka.com)
“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Mahatma Gandhi 

At the outset I want to be very clear that I hold no love for the Congress Party. Under Sonia Gandhi, it has raped and looted India like no other party or single-entity since our Independence; of that there is no question. I for one cannot wait to see the back of the UPA and am also desperately looking for an alternative to lead India. Today, the Congress party comes across as apathetic, complacent, autocratic and completely blind to the day-to-day hardships and realities of the majority of our country. I will give the Congress credit for liberalising the Indian economy and ushering in a hitherto unseen era of wealth and prosperity. But it now feels like the only beneficiaries of this economic largesse have been the politicians themselves and the politically connected classes. The majority of Indians have not seen any returns from the economic boom other than vote buying sop’s and poorly distributed government handouts that appear around election time.

Meanwhile, all the ruling politicians have become completely shameless in their own pursuit of ill-gotten gains, behave like they are all above the law and have also deluded themselves into believing that we are deaf, dumb and blind to their looting and selling of our country. Furthermore, they seem to believe that passing more toothless ordinances and feckless laws are the best way to obfuscate and placate the growing cacophony of voices that are sick and tired of their never ending scams, blasé corruption and endless indecision - that are now also destroying our economic growth rate and global reputation.

This government has also routinely used their reach and powers to protect their own while persecuting anyone who disagrees with them. Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister and father of the original economic reforms, has been totally ineffective and, frankly, more compliant than a well-trained lapdog. Now Sonia Gandhi and her Congress cronies are threatening to replace Dr. Singh with a man who not only makes wallpaper look sexy, but also has the ability to make watching paint dry feel like an invigorating experience. Rahul Gandhi may be many things but he is no leader. He lacks charisma, vision, gumption, drive, a point of view, a grip on complex issues and ability for original thinking. What India needs is a leader who has balls, one who offers a vision for India’s future and is not deaf to the needs of the majority. So far the Congress party has failed to put forward such a candidate.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, offers the only other alternative at this time. They are the political arm of the Rashtriya Sang Samaj (RSS) which was started in 1925 as a Hindu Nationalist movement that gained fame when one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948; after which it was declared a terrorist group by the Indian government and banned for two years.  However, this did not diminish the RSS; it has expanded vastly and grown stronger and more powerful over the last fifty years. 

The BJP has only been in power at the center for eight of India’s sixty-six years since independence. A large reason for the BJP’s lack of national following and political clout has been their ties to the RSS and their extreme right-wing philosophies and fundamentalist views, that includes combat training camps across the country for Hindu youth (Source: “RSS combat training camps to woo youth”Indian Express article). In the last two dozen years the BJP worked hard to soften their image and champion leaders within the party with moderate views. However, now they sense a real opportunity based on the Congress’s inability to govern and rampant corruption. They see that the vast majority of the country is beyond sick and tired of the never ending scams, the endless vote buying handouts and institutional bullying tactics.

So confident is a resurgent BJP (and RSS) that they were willing to put forth an extremely polarizing figure for their Prime Ministerial candidate. Narendra Modi is a man with a chequered past including his ties to the RSS and the 2002 communal riots that happened under his watch in Gujarat, where many Muslims were massacred by retaliating Hindus as the police and state apparatus turned a blind eye.

So polarizing is Modi that even within his own party, there was a lack of consensus on his elevation. The announcement caused much consternation within the leadership and rank and file. The BJP also lost some close political allies in the process of elevating Mr. Modi, but given the sheer hatred for the Congress that prevails, they believed it worth the gamble. So far they seem to be right, judging by the recent walloping the Congress took in mid-terms Polls in four different states.

Unlike Rahul Gandhi, Mr. Modi comes from humble beginnings. He was the son of a tea seller who grew up poor and had a very hard life by his own admission: “I had a lot of pain because I grew up in a village where there was no electricity and in my childhood we used to face a lot of hardships because of this.”(*). Mr. Modi was drawn to the RSS at an early age and it was at their camps that his ideas about the world were formed (*).

His brother says, “[Modi] was always greatly impressed by the fact that only one person gave all the orders in the [RSS camp] and everyone followed the command.” (*Source: “The Man Who Doesn't Wear Dark Green”Boston Review article). Today, he has grown to have a cult-like status as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He is known for his take no prisoners attitude and for being an autocratic head of state. He is known to trust just a handful of people and insists on making every decision himself. He shows scant loyalty to his own people and party and a great savvy for promoting himself, even ahead of his party. 

You could not have two more polar opposite choices in party and candidates. The Congress is old, slow, incompetent, corrupt, turning a deaf ear to the needs of India’s basic infrastructure development and willing to sacrifice our pride for their own corrupt means. The BJP is resurgent and confident; riding on the wings on Mr. Modi’s growing popularity. Even though is he is known to have an authoritarian style, he is seen as incorruptible, and has effectively championed the economic development of this state; building infrastructure, creating tax incentives and favourable business conditions to successfully woo the biggest and best companies from across India. There is no doubt he has India Inc.’s vote, all of whom are tired with the Congress indecision, constant changes in policy and graft without any results. 

I can understand why Mr. Modi makes an attractive candidate for many Indians; especially among the youth and to the corporate sector. The current frustration and open hatred for the Congress over the past decade have almost started to make Mr. Modi’s status messianic, because people are so desperate for change, for some semblance of leadership to see some Indian courage on the world stage once more. As Indians, we were all sold the story of India shining, told that it was the dawn of a new age as a world economic powerhouse, but our current government never delivered on any part of this promise. Indians are tired of being pushed around and laughed at because our government only cares about filling their Swiss bank accounts, while our Prime Minister becomes the laughing stock of the world. Nobody wants another four years of the Congress led UPA. 

Yet, there is something unsettling about Mr. Modi’s brand of nationalism and his seeming apathy towards the merciless slaughter of Muslims in his state in 2002. I have no problem with his autocratic style of leadership. God knows we can use a little decision-making right now. Nor am I concerned with the fact that the BJP, as a party, is also corrupt (as they have shown in the past and in states they currently govern). What troubles me greatly is Mr. Modi’s outright refusal to apologise for the 2002 riots in his state and under his leadership. In fact, he has been known to refuse to answer any questions relating to the riots and at times even removed his microphone and walked off camera when asked about his role. Just this week a local court upheld an earlier report by a special investigation team, clearing Mr. Modi of any criminal wrongdoing. Yet, a “number of leaders and senior state officials have already been convicted and sentenced for inciting mobs and committing mass murder during the riots.” (Source: “Court Clears Narendra Modi in Riots Case” Wall Street Journal article). Nobody denies that state officials and senior policemen were complicit in inciting mobs and in some cases even leading them to kill Muslims. A landmark Human Rights Watch report published in 2002 said that the RSS that was responsible for passing out lists of Muslim-owned business and homes to mobs at the start of the violence.” (Source: “We Have No Orders to Save You” – HumanRights Watch).

Mr. Modi was the leader of the state when the riots occurred. Even if he did not personally direct officials to incite or seek revenge and there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on his part, it is hard to believe he was unaware of what his senior state apparatus was doing. Especially for a leader who takes pride in making every decision and without whose authority we are told nothing can happen in his state. The issue to me is less about criminal culpability and more about moral responsibility. As the Chief Minister, if he can take full responsibility for the growth and economic development of Gujarat, then he must also do the same for any tragic event that occurs under his leadership. He did issue a statement on his blog, after the court verdict was announced this week, which the BJP claims is a personal and heartfelt apology from Mr. Modi. To me it reads more like a PR release written by a man hoping to soon hold the highest office in the land, and clear the one great blemish on his otherwise perfect record. There is also the question of why a man who felt so much guilt and anguish (as Mr. Modi states he does) would wait twelve long years to speak from the heart, and apologise to families of the thousands of innocent victims, most of whom were Muslims. And why does he never once use the word Muslim in his entire apology?

Believe me when I say I too want to believe in Mr. Modi and his vision for a corruption-free and super developed India. But his roots are from deep within the RSS; it was in their Hindu nationalist brainwashing camps that he formed his world-view at an early age --- in the context of this fact alone, his seeming lack of remorse, his refusal to wear green and his lack of genuine outward warmth towards Muslims scare me in a country that is more than two-thirds Hindu, and looking for someone to blame for their current woes. Satyameva Jayate!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

We Are All Tarun Tejpal


"Money misused, money siphoned off, money wasted - these are the things that hurt us," a sex scandal "means nothing... It is basically a first world indulgence, a means to group voyeurism and artificial excitement." 
Tarun Tejpal (In a 2001 article for Seminar magazine

As an Indian man I feel we have let our daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces, aunts, wives and grandmothers down by staying silent. But rather than putting on our burkha's and hiding from this ugly truth, we must fix it by fighting for the rights of women in our society and in the workplace.

Sexism, harassment and rape exist in all cultures, as does sexual abuse based on power and position. But in India the problem of inequality is much more deeply rooted in our culture and society. It begins at birth, when boys are considered prized possessions while girls are often discarded and aborted because they are seen as burdens on families. The practice of Sati may have been abolished but the attitudes surrounding the practice are still prevalent today. We are taught that women are inferior to men; that they are weaker and dependent on men for everything. It is almost as if we are not so subtly told that they are our property, particularly if we are married to them or if they work for us. And it is this attitude among men that prevails, even among the most educated, accomplished and erudite of us. Think about the basic fact that when you and I walk around the streets of any city in India, board a train or a bus, as men we NEVER feel uncomfortable or fear for our safety. Men do not have to deal with being stared at to the point of feeling uncomfortable or being whistled at or even being physically violated by someone touching our buttocks or grabbing our penises. Men do not have to deal with these personal abuses. As men we can dress how we want, smoke, drink and curse openly, in public, and without any fear or repercussion - but what happens when a woman does the same thing? We immediately attach a label to her; if she seems drunk we say she is a loose woman. If a woman curses, we think it unladylike behaviour or again associate her with having loose morals. Are we not all guilty of thinking this at one time or another, even if not acting on it? 

Tarun Tejpal was a crusader for the little people. He fought for those who had been wronged in our society, from taking down corrupt politicians to championing women’s rights. This is a man who preached moral values and claimed to hold himself to higher principles and beliefs. Yet, it is now very clear that when it really comes down to understanding what women’s rights and true equality among the sexes encompass, he is really no better than the men on that Delhi bus that raped and killed Jyoti Singh Pandey. We can no longer pretend that rape and sexual harassment are confined to poor slum dwellers or the non educated. Tarun Tejpal is not only considered a well-educated society intellectual but part of the wealthy elite of our country. People will argue that I am being harsh to equate Tejpal with the animals on that Delhi bus, but the truth is that his attitude and lack of respect for a woman are no different from those of the uneducated man on the street. Granted men like him do not stand on street corners eve teasing every woman that walks by but his actions in the end lead to exactly the same outcome; that of humiliating, disrespecting, disempowering and abusing a woman. Perhaps, his actions are worse because at least on the streets women know to have their guard up, as opposed to the perceived safety of their workplace.

What Mr. Tejpal did was violate a sacred trust between an employer and employee. Mr. Tejpal has already admitted to as much in his email correspondences with the woman. An innocent man does not say things like; “My punishment has already been upon me, and will probably last till my last day." Or “I must do the penance that lacerates me.” That he is guilty of sexually assaulting this woman is not in doubt, but I suspect he has done the same or worse to many other women, who have yet to speak out. It is their silence that has emboldened him and deluded him into believing that he has done nothing wrong. Mr. Tejpal, like Moishe Katsav and many other men with great power, began to delude himself into thinking that he can define his own moral code. If you read the victim’s letter to Shoma Chaudhury, and then read Mr. Tejpal’s response to her saying things like - I had no idea that you were upset, or felt I had been even remotely non-consensual” – you will begin to see how deluded men like him can become. Powerful men are used to getting their way, all the time, and not accustomed to hearing the word NO. I think men like Tejpal begin to believe that because of the great good they have done in society, it somehow forgives them their trespasses, and that they can conduct themselves in a way that does not apply to the rest of us mere mortals (or perhaps they are just sociopaths).

What should trouble us more in this instance is that there are still many people (including a number of women) who are trying to argue Mr. Tejpal’s defense by questioning the victim’s motivations. Even after it is clear that this is not some attempt to malign his reputation or a political smear campaign, as Mr. Tejpal now claims. Are we all programmed to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the rich and powerful and mistrust the word of a nobody? Perhaps, this is what predators like Mr. Tejpal count on. They pick on victims they believe are weak and who will not fight back or speak out. And if the victim does say something, then someone like Mr. Tejpal believes it will be easy to discredit her because his word will hold more sway over a nameless, faceless person. However, this time the victim has spoken and her predator has acknowledged that the events transpired. Mr. Tejpal even admits to "twice attempting a 'sexual liaison' despite the reporter's 'clear reluctance'." (Tarun Tejpal's informal apology – NDTV). This issue also goes back to the root of the problem of inequality in India. What can we expect when the President of India’s son calls anti-rape protestors “dented and painted.” We are trained to vilify victims by ostracizing and further humiliating them in a very public way. Instead of supporting them we question their motivations, this after the woman has just experienced not only a traumatic event but been the victim of a serious crime. Also, consider that recently in response to a legal intern writing a blog about a Supreme Court judge sexually harassing her (she is still too scared to file a formal complaint), judges have announced that they will stop hiring female interns as the solution to this allegation. And people are asking why she took so long to report the incident; why she continued to party after he attacked her and still fulfill her job duties?

Rape and sexual assault is the most underreported crime in the world. There is a sense of humiliation, a loss of dignity, powerlessness and severe physical and mental trauma and shock associated with such a violation of a person’s body. Additionally, as in this case, there is also a real fear of retaliation by a powerful and wealthy perpetrator. The victim would likely lose her job and fear for her future financial security. She had to consider that Mr. Tejpal might decide to ruin her life with his power, money and connections in order to protect himself. He has already shown willingness to smear the victim’s character. So it is not surprising that she waited a week to formally file a complaint but laudable that she actually found the courage to do it. We must now support and protect her, and in doing so encourage all the women who have been abused by Mr. Tejpal to also come forward.

This is not about being holier than thou or about fighting for feminism and women’s liberation; I am simply talking about ensuring that women have the same rights in society as men and can walk down the street or wander their office halls without any fear of humiliation or physical molestation. We must give the thousands of women who have suffered these crimes, in silence, a voice. We need to create an environment where women can come forward and report these offenses, without fear of reprisal or retaliation. If this happened to your daughter, sister or wife - would you be questioning her timing, her motives or doubting what she says? We can no longer afford to stay silent. If we remain silent and let men like him get away with these crimes, then we will all be equally complicit and no different from Mr. Tejpal.


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