Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Open Letter to Aamir Khan on AIB Roast

You can only be offended if you choose to take offense.
Nikhil Vaish 

Dear Aamir,

We met one time for a business meeting almost two decades ago. I doubt you will remember, but there were a few things about our meeting and the impression you made on me that I never forgot.

The first thing that surprised me is that you asked your manager not to join our meeting. Every Bollywood star we had dealt with had insisted that we communicate with them through their managers. I guess seeing the surprise on our faces you explained that you liked to speak for yourself and manage your own affairs. You believed all your professional decisions were yours to make and added that, being the ultimate decision-maker, you would also be wasting our time by making us go through a manager. Both my creative head and I respected you for this professional courtesy.

The second thing that impressed me greatly was your no bullshit common sense and clear understanding of the fundamentals of marketing. We had come to talk to you about a big national ad campaign that we were developing for a multi-national company.  Other stars we had spoken with cared mostly about negotiating their fees and discussing travel arrangements, asking if family could accompany them at our expense. But you spent all of your time quizzing us about details of the script, insisting you would need final sign-off, and then proceeded to drill us about the media strategy. No actor had ever asked about any of this information, or even seemed to care. I know my creative director was glad he had brought this account man along!

Sufficed to say, while I will not divulge the details of our meeting, your logic was sound and demonstrated an innate understating of building and managing brands. It was also in complete contrast to the immaturity, emotional histrionics and self-absorption we were warned to expect from Bollywood. Yet, this is not what impressed me most about you. It was that everything you said, you did with a wry smile. Almost as if you only half-believed or were half-serious about the all fundas and logic you were sharing with us to weigh your decision. It left me feeling that while you took your art and the business of movies very seriously, you had not succumbed to the superficiality and transient nature of stardom and success – and did not take yourself too seriously. You had a healthy dose of reality, common sense and a clear, rational head on your shoulders. I left there with greater respect for you. You were never preachy, sanctimonious or condescending.

So naturally, I was shocked the other day to read about your comments on the AIB roast, even after you admitted that you had not seen the whole show, just a clip or two. I was not bothered by the fact that you were offended by it, or that you thought it puerile, juvenile and in poor taste. What troubled me greatly was that you equated it to violence. You said, "I felt it was a very violent event. Violence is not only physical; it can be verbal and emotional too. When you insult someone, you perpetuate violence…" (Source: “Aamir Khan, be a Responsible Celebrity”, NDTV). You did say that you were not advocating a witch hunt against those involved, but also went on to say that they should be punished if they broke any laws and you called them irresponsible; adding that celebrities need to be more responsible.

I will not get into the double standard, based on your own defence of Delhi Belly or more recently for PK, as many others have written about this. I want to re-iterate the point about your responsibility, as a celebrity. A blogger named Vidyut also made this point quite passionately. You are a super star and that means you have a super mega pulpit. Based purely on your celebrity, people listen to you with rose-tinted glasses when you speak about any issue, versus ANY other prominent public figure. And people tend to try and rationalise emotional issues in emotional and irrational ways. As Vidyut puts it: “When a large voice like yours tells people that people speaking must be careful, and people who get offended can ask them to stop, a thousand voices like mine get raw throats trying to talk sanity on the issue and explain why it is not okay to shut people up just because you don’t like what they say. “but even Aamir Khan agrees…” (Source: “Open letter to Aamir Khan” by Vidyut).

The Aamir I met might say with a wry smile, something that I know my father would have said, that “the AIB Roast is not my idea of intelligent humour and in my mind the jokes went beyond a sense of decency and decorum that I strive to uphold BUT this is a free country; and Karan, Tanmay, the AIB gang and their audience were all adults. If they can find an audience for this type of puerile and juvenile rubbish (and people are willing to throw away their hard earned money to watch it), then all the power to them; just don’t ever expect me to condone it or be part of it.” 

Now more than ever, India needs the Aamir I met all those years ago. We need him to come down from his perch and talk sense, so that cooler heads can once again prevail in this important and necessary debate.



Thursday, February 5, 2015

In Defense of Being Offensive and the AIB Roast

“A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”
Mahatma Gandhi 

I watched the AIB roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh in its entirety and finished literally minutes before it was pulled down from YouTube. I will admit that I laughed out loud, rolled my eyes and even cringed sometimes at the level of crudeness but more importantly I also swelled with pride. Yes, I felt proud to call myself an Indian; even thought I found some parts offensive and in poor taste. Not because AIB broke new ground with this roast (which is a copy of the US format) with crass, sexual, politically incorrect and offensive humour, but because we broke new ground against our own double standards. We lifted the veneer of hypocrisy and the superficial veil of so called Hindu culture that we pretend to defend. I for one have never been prouder of Karan Johar or Bollywood for doing something that was unselfish and helped lift the lid on issues that have long been buried inside every Indian home. Thank you all for your courage.

It is shameful that, due to the personal and physical threats that the participants have received, they have felt compelled to remove the video from YouTube.  Here is the official statement about why they felt the need to pull the video down from the internet. Even though this was an event organised by a group of adults who agreed to insult each other and it was viewed by a group of adults who willingly paid to watch it. Also, if it offends some people’s delicate sensibilities, then they can choose not to watch it. They have that choice, and a right to feel offended and even to be offensive themselves. Much like Ashoke Pandit, a censor board member was offensive with his tweet about Karan Johar; I personally think he is an idiot, but will defend his right to be one – this is democracy and what we need to protect.

I firmly believe that comedy should have no boundaries or restrictions, because it is meant to entertain, lighten our worldly burdens and be nothing more than a laughing matter. The only caveat is that the comedian dishing it out does so equally, and does not target a single race or stereotype. Also, I strongly suspect that there are not too many bitter, malicious, mean-spirited bigots who decide to pursue a career in comedy. Consider the fact that during this roast, all the participants made fun of themselves and each other, occasionally making significant others or family members also part of their jokes. Karan Johar's spending so many years in the closet was made fun off with equal vigor and crassness as Ranveer's being a slut or Tanmay Bhat’s obesity. Tanmay was not offended. Deepika Padukone, who is dating Ranveer Singh, was not offended. Even Karan Johar’s mother, who was sitting in the front row, did not take offence – so why are you? Ever think that maybe you feel offended because these things hit close to home? That we live in a society filled with double standards, one that is clearly sexually repressed and one where most men ascribe to dating the fun, wild women but yet want to marry only a virginal, modest bahu? Who in India has not heard worse language being used on the streets or in parliament?

Let’s spend a minute discussing the other elephant in the room – male, female and cultural stereotypes. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with me when I say that ALL stereotypes are rooted in some reality and none pure figments of our imagination. So this issue, to my mind, is not so much that someone is making fun at my expense using a stereotype about being gay, male, Sindhi, or north Indian, but whether or not the intent behind it is malicious, or coming from a light-hearted place. Think about it. There is a fundamental difference here, and a hugely important distinction that every person needs to make. It is imperative we all make this distinction in our ever-shrinking global village, if we are to ever make progress and thrive. This is not about all of us hugging and getting along, but about the need to have a thicker skin in a heterogeneous world and being able to judge the context. Sticks and stones, people...

The easiest way to explain the difference in the context is to imagine Dave Chappelle (a very famous American comic) putting on Ku Klux Klan robes and making off-colour black jokes versus an actual Klansman telling the same jokes or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making fun of Jews. There is a fundamental difference; one clearly comes from a place of genuine hatred, bigotry and anger, while the other is in jest, and therefore should be encouraged and protected since it is not intended to malign or incite hatred. If you cannot laugh at yourself, then you are the one who is not comfortable in your own skin. Most times feeling offended has nothing to do with culture or religion, only your own insecurity.

One final thought. If you are among those offended by comedians and movie stars making fun of themselves (while raising money for charity), and also feel you have been anointed guardians of some mystical, pure and holy Indian culture that you claim to defend - then why are you not outraged by the fact that marital rape is legal in India; that in 2015 we are still willing to treat fellow human beings as untouchable, and that Indian men routinely grope and touch women on every street, bus, and airplane in India?

Let’s start by fixing our own hypocrisy, in our homes and in our lives, before becoming judge and jury for our society.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why You Need To See American Sniper

"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." 
Dwight D. Eisenhower 

Image source: www.sofrep.com

I am struggling to understand the small but vocal backlash against Clint Eastwood’s movie, American Sniper. This movie, like many before it, is based on the real life story of Chris Kyle. He was a Navy Seal credited with the most sniper kills in US history. I have no problem with people disliking the film, or disagreeing with Eastwood’s vision but what bothers me is the unfair politicisation, seeming hypocrisy and the often one-sided arguments of many of these critics.

One critical review I read was written by Peter Maass at The Intercept (“HowClint Eastwood Ignores History in ‘American Sniper’). In this piece he chastises his fellow reviewers from the Los Angeles and New York Times as people “who spend too much time in screening rooms” because in Mr. Maass’s estimation they “are falling over themselves in praise of it.” To begin with I find his criticism rather disingenuous. He is part of the same media establishment that completely abdicated its responsibility in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq. The American media failed to challenge the veracity of every hasty, unproven claim and the numerous unverified assertions of the Bush administration for months before the invasion. I believe it amounted to the greatest failing of media in modern times.

So it seems ironic when Mr. Maass says “We got Iraq wrong in the real world. It would be nice to get it right at the multiplex,” considering he was part of the establishment that failed to question Cheney and Bush before they invaded a sovereign nation; without provocation, justification or any real or imminent threat to America. It seems convenient for Mr. Mass to again abdicate his responsibility; this time by chastising a Hollywood movie. It would seem that he wants to cleanse his conscience of all the innocent Iraqi blood on American media hands. If Mr. Maass were serious about righting the wrongs of America’s invasion, he would stop picking on soldiers who served their country and Hollywood, and work on persuading the International Court to summon Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Blair and every other architect of this illegal invasion before a war crimes tribunal.

Before I tackle some of the other criticisms that I have read in other media reviews and people’s Facebook posts, I want to clarify that it is a Hollywood film. It never claims to be a documentary, or a historically and factually accurate account of the Iraq war. Furthermore, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to say that they were not trying to make a war movie, much less present a critique of the mess America made in Iraq. Besides, the last time I checked movies are still made to entertain (and make money) by suspending reality with larger than life characters, salacious storylines and over-the-top dramatisations of actual events; even when they are based on biographies. If you want accuracy, analysis and facts, watch a PBS documentary.

Additionally, I think we can agree that no matter how brilliant a movie, nothing from Hollywood must be upheld for its historical accuracy or a realistic and honest portrayal of real-life events. That would just make for boring film. This is entertainment pure and simple; I doubt people would pay money to watch the very monotony they came to escape. So, for people to suddenly hold this movie to such a high standard would be the equivalent of saying that they get their world news from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Then decide to take these men to task for factual inaccuracies, lack of objectivity, presenting one-sided views and for dramatising and making light of serious events. Ava DuVerney, the director of Selma, after being criticized for historical inaccuracies in her film, pointed out that we will become a very sad and dangerous society if we expect our kids to learn history through our movies.

Another major criticism that people have is that Kyle, as he states in his autobiography, seems to have relished killing and referred to Iraqis as savages. It is likely he enjoyed killing, but Kyle is hardly alone in this. It is said that we must be passionate about what we do to truly excel. So why does it not hold true for soldiers, who are trained killers? I am not saying that every soldier enjoys pulling the trigger and taking a human life, but how can we discount that a small percentage of the men we train to be cold blooded killers will get addicted to and enjoy killing? To this point, I think Kyle’s character in the movie forces us to accept that war is not pretty. It is not politically correct, it is not fair and it is always senseless. The actions taken by soldiers on the battlefield will never fit into neat our little moral codes or Geneva Conventions that make us feel warm and fuzzy in the safety of our homes. War forces good and honourable men to sometimes do both evil and dishonorable things. Soldiers see what human beings were never meant to witness, and war changes everyone. Even those who make it back lose a large part of their humanity. I don’t believe our souls can ever un-see what our eyes have seen. That is the real cost of war, beyond physical injuries. Just like Taya Kyle tells her husband Chris, there are thousands of veterans who came back physically but are yet to make it back emotionally and mentally to their families. This movie does a good job of reminding us of this very real and hidden cost to our soldiers and their families. Have you ever wondered why the largest percentages of homeless are veterans? In, 2013 alone the VA served more than 249,000 Veterans who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless (Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs).

Another criticism that has been leveled at the filmmakers is that they chose to show only one side of Kyle’s character, leaving out the evil blood lust and racist overtones that come through in his book. I would argue that this holds true for every movie with a flawed hero, from a Gordon Gekko to Abe Lincoln to MLK to JFK. An essential part of great film making is to get an audience to feel empathy with its hero - to a point where we are able to forgive even their worst trespasses because all men have flaws. This may not be the reality, but it is what all brilliant directors and successful films do. I would even argue that Kyle's killing of a young Iraqi boy, barely ten years old, in the opening moments of the film is a big character flaw that creates a likeability deficit, which the rest of the film needs to work hard to overcome, in order to win back the audience’s empathy for its hero. I have never read his book, but I don’t see Kyle as a hero. I see him as another unfortunate victim of an unnecessary war.

To this point I would also add that movies, video games and other forms of entertainment cannot ever become our yardstick for reality, values, principles, and history or life lessons. Those still need to be taught in our homes and schools, so that when we consume various forms of entertainment we are able to differentiate between good, bad, fiction and reality and never the other way around. I also disagree that the film fails to show the general disillusionment with the Iraq war, and the lack of clarity of mission. In the movie there is a very powerful scene where Kyle meets his brother, who is returning home from Iraq, as Kyle arrives for another tour. His brother’s utter disenchantment and disillusionment with America’s purpose in Iraq is juxtaposed beautifully as it clashes with Kyle’s blind patriotism and unquestioning, brainwashed, jingoistic sense of duty.

Also, I think it is very easy for us to forget how one-sided and “sanitized” the Iraq war reporting was in the American media. It felt more clean and censored than daytime soap operas, so much so that the vast majority of us barely remembered there were men and women dying and being maimed daily. This, as we blissfully continued to drive to the mall and impatiently wait in line at Starbucks, while checking our smartphones for the latest Kardashian gossip. Again this alternate reality is something the movie delves into. We see Bradley Cooper’s character struggle and have a hard time processing this total lack of care and awareness among American people, the same people he had gone to die for.

Veteran care or lack thereof is another ignored aspect of war of which American Sniper raises awareness, in a very powerful way. Benjamin Franklin said that "Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later." It is this real and ongoing human cost of war we continue to underestimate, that American Sniper delves into masterfully. None of us have to deal with the long-term effect it has on children and family members of servicemen. We all saw Obama declare an end to the war in Iraq, but consider that among those who made it back there are now a million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with permanent and life redefining disabilities. They include veterans with lost limbs, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), depression, hearing loss, breathing disorders, diseases, and other long-term health problems (Source: Cost of War, Brown University). In fact, medical experts say that many of Kyle’s unsubstantiated claims, like punching Jesse Ventura and killing looters during Hurricane Katrina, are consistent with patients with severe PTSD. Let’s not forget that Chris Kyle served four tours; he witnessed the horror of war for close to a decade.

It is easy to politicise and be critical of everything, as we take for granted the very freedoms that the Chris Kyle’s were told they were fighting to protect. The point is not whether you see Chris Kyle as a hero or villain. This movie is worth seeing because it is ultimately an anti-war movie. One that forces us to recognise the human cost of war, through the eyes of a soldier who has an over-simplistic moral code, which actually makes him the ideal soldier. However, even he cannot escape what Eisenhower and Franklin understood - the ugliness and inhumanity of war; scars all veterans and their families bear forever.

If we understand this, then we might understand why everyone who witnesses war first hand says that there are no winners. Even the victors lose. This realization alone will ensure that we begin to hold our leaders more accountable and question any decisions to go to war the next time they try to pull the wool over our eyes and rush in. We must never forget that even though war is sometimes necessary, it should always be the last resort.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ethics and Journalism in the Age of Social Media

"The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses."
Malcom X

There is a fundamental issue that exists today and I want to call it the greatest existential crisis of our time; it is the choice to make money or to do the right thing. I understand that this choice is not something mankind is facing for the first time and that we have always grappled with it in capitalist societies, but my concern is that the tilt in favour of making money, today, seems to override standing on our principles and ethics. More than ever before in our history. Today, the vast majority of corporations and individuals seem to feel that bottom-line growth justifies the means, and this is something that should concern us all, greatly.

Media is the most powerful communication tool. In fact, I would argue that with the advent of social media, where anyone with an internet connection can spread news, the role of the mainstream media has not diminished but become even more important. The internet is filled with rumours and falsehoods, and social media in large part fuels stories that are unverified but popular and trending due to their sensational or gossipy nature. In such a world, the role of established media outlets as the arbiters or truth and fact checking, takes on much greater urgency. And it requires far more responsibility from editors and publishers than ever before in history. Yet driving eyeballs and making money has become an equally important goal for all these media houses that are struggling to survive in the digital age; a situation that has created a serious dilemma between chasing revenue and applying ethics in journalism. The question is whether to break news first (to drive maximum eyeballs and revenue) or wait to check the facts and risk being an hour late to the party - which in social media standard time is roughly a decade late.

Even though the reality is that speed and being first count for more eyeballs than being factually correct, it does not absolve so-called reputable media outlets of the greater responsibility that they have to society. With great power comes great responsibility. Granted, mainstream media is no longer our only source of information. For that reason, it is even more important for them to be sources of trusted and reliable information. Here, I make a distinction between cable news and mainstream news; the former is largely opinion, gossip and entertainment, while the latter needs to be the opposite. However, both should aspire to greater truth, based on some of the ethics and principles that have driven responsible journalism for centuries. They both wield tremendous influence over the masses and our minds.

Money can be made, but a reputation cannot be regained or fixed (with all the dollars in the world) once the trust between reader and institution has been broken. There should be absolutely no place for the sensational half-truths and lack of fact checking that we see from even the most venerable media institutions today. In the race to break a story or get retweeted into becoming a trending topic, they are all willing to put principles aside. Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on the horrific UVA campus rape, and the Fox News interview with a Seal Team Six member who was part of the Bin Laden raid, are both examples of the lack of ethics to which I am referring.

Rolling Stone clearly chose to run with a story based on the “sensational” aspects and in doing so chose to forego the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. None of this is about disrespecting the victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Equally, Fox News did a disservice to our country by agreeing to give the Seal Team Six member a platform on which to speak publicly. There used to be an unbreakable code of honour among men who serve our country in the shadows. They did it knowing that nobody would ever know their sacrifice by face or name; there is no greater honour or valiance. I believe these men were the bravest of the brave because they were driven by a sense of duty, honour and the noblest quality in humanity, not by fame, fortune or personal glory. For this reason, Fox should have turned down the Seal Team Six member, even knowing that other news outlets like CBS or CNN would likely jump at the opportunity to do the same exclusive interview with him. If Fox News had done this, they not only might have won my and many peoples respect, but also would have set a very important precedent that is much needed in journalism today – doing the right thing.

Equally, I was shocked by the number of media outlets that jumped to disseminate the embarrassing Sony Studio emails and other private and personal information of executives and employees.  Everyone was aware that this information was stolen and released to the public by hackers. We live in the age of WikiLeaks, but there is a fundamental difference between a whistle blower and a hacker. The latter is always theft and extortion. I have no problem with media reporting the hacking, even debating the state actors behind it and investigating the fingerprint of the hackers, but institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post should have stopped short of sharing the stolen information. They can and will probably justify their actions using “Bartnicki vs Vopper,” where the Supreme Court ruled that “...the playing of illegally intercepted material under these circumstances was constitutionally protected, at least when the broadcaster wasn’t involved in the illegal interception...” (Source: Washington Post Article). They are legally within their rights, but my point is not about legality. It has to do with guiding principles and ethics; things that used to be the cornerstones of our society and journalism just a few decades ago. My expectation would have been for these outlets to refrain from publishing any of the stolen information; leaving that to less reputable sites. A refusal to publish would also have sent a very strong message to future hackers and served as a great disincentive to take the risk. It is notoriety, through widespread exposure, that drives these cowardly criminals.

Media outlets who want to be regarded as respectable should consider hacked information off-limits, much the way eBay considers stolen goods listing unacceptable or how Sotheby’s will not try to auction a painting for which the provenance is in serious doubt. Doing so will draw an important ethical line in the sand which is so desperately missing in journalism today - integrity. They may also gain our respect and their eyeballs, as others start to follow suit.