Sunday, March 11, 2007

Water: Movie Review, and the politics!

About the film..

Water is a beautifully shot film which holds a mirror to the Hindu Society whose laws and customs condemned women to a closeted and colorless life. It traces the life of an eight year old girl, Chuyia (Sarala) in India of 1938, who after she becomes a child widow, is abandoned by her parents in a widow Ashram. In the Ashram she is taken under the wings of Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who acts as a check against the excesses of the domineering House Mother.

The film revolves around the life of its oppressed inmates who are bound together by misfortune. Chuyia also befriends Kalyani (Lisa ray), another child widow whose astonishing beauty now turns out to be her curse in youth. Forced into prostitution to support the Ashram, Kalyani finds love in a young law student Narayan (John Abraham) driven by Gandhian idealism and willing to offer her a second chance in life. The story of the lovers predictably ends in a tragedy. Gandhi and the social change that he symbolizes remains a recurring theme for the characters in the film. The story ends fittingly with a defining moment where, Shakuntala hands over Chuyia to Narayan traveling with the rest of Gandhi’s followers in a train carrying Gandhi himself.

Water manages to showcase the fury of women against the unjust patriarchal tradition with beautiful performance by Seema Biswas and the child actress Sarala. Lisa Ray fills the screen with her ethereal beauty even while playing a demure widow and performs adequately in the role of a dignified woman wronged by fate. John Abraham plays his role with conviction. The background music by Mychael Danna and songs by A.R.Rehman lift the movie to a higher level. In all, this a good film recommended for those who like meaningful films.

and its Oscar nomination glory!...

Western media has dwelt at length about how the film was not allowed to be made in India. For the film maker eager to sell her film to a foreign audience, stories of such opposition and of mentor George Lucas ensuring the Film’s completion, helped to add to the film’s appeal. Any westerner, who watches this powerful film, after reading in the deservedly positive movie reviews about how the film was banned in India, may understandably leap to a conclusion that India is governed by Manu’s laws.

In reality, most of the so called vocal opposition was by right wing parties and activists who inhabit the societal fringe. The ranting Cameraman conveniently skips the pertinent question raised by the RSS head about why Deepa Mehta picks up only those issues with potential for sensationalizing the ills of Indian Society. Deepa Mehta displays no eagerness to look at the evolution of India and understand issues from a perspective. Rather she comes across as someone who hand picks (and in this case lifts!) stories that cater to the sensibilities of her target audience in US and Canada. This, along with the Canadian Director’s Punjabi roots, offer clues as to why her next film is on the Komagata Maru incident. Unfortunately, she is not the first or will even be the last to earn her reputation by packaging the pathos in India. This makes her, despite her directorial skill, prone to be criticized as a “creative hit (wo) man” eager to reinforce the western stereotypes about India.

It also explains why other issue based films like Provoked, Bandit Queen and Fire (which coincidentally condemn patriarchal traditions or India, depending on your perspective) achieve greater visibility there than the well meaning efforts from mainstream Indian cinema like Rang De Basanti or Lage Raho Munna Bhai. After watching this film I am convinced its Oscar nomination tells more about what the Americans like to watch than about great cinema.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Dowry and the Indian Society

The Census 2001 statistics reveal that there are 35 million fewer females than males. Female feticide is particularly rampant in rich states like Haryana and Punjab. The recent Economist blog sums up the attitudes of those indulging in female feticide in the words of a good doctor as follows

"Of my 10 first cousins in Punjab, no one has had a daughter in 10 years," he says. "You hope someone else would be stupid enough to produce a girl but not you."

What drives people to kill the female fetus? One of the respondents to that article offers an economic analysis

“The problem is quite simple - children are an investment. You put some money into raising them and when they grow up you get some return out of them, whether this be financial or in terms of caring for you in your old age. As described above, when you raise boys, they bring you dowry when they get married and also stay at home to take care of you in your old age. When you raise girls, you have to pay for their dowry and since they go off to live with their husbands when married, they are not able to take care of you either. As it currently stands, boys offer a positive rate of return but girls offer a negative rate of return. Not surprisingly, investors (parents) are dumping all their assets of the latter and piling into the former.”

Another reason is that it is the son who performs the last rites in the Hindu ritual system. However, this “dumping of liabillities” logic is leading to a future that Manish Jha’s film “Mathrubhoomi — A Nation without Women” portends. The other question raised by that article is

“Given the growing scarcity of women, how can the parents of boys continue to demand such high fees (dowry)?”

Dowry is not unique to India. One of the famous instances of dowry was when King Charles the first of England was given the fishing villages of Bombay as part of the dowry by the Portuguese, a case of marriage as a union of nobility and colonial dominance.

One of the reasons dowry persists despite several legislations is because, the ability to marry the daughter to a superior male from the same jati or caste, is a matter of social prestige for the bride’s father. If the intention to gain a higher social image through marriage motivates the bride’s family, for the groom’s family, dowry denotes the value of social prestige and honor they wield in their community. This resulted in a vicious cycle, where most Indian males adhere to dowry practices even if they don’t admit publicly. Even in cases where dowry is not demanded, it is because there are greater economic and personal benefits than dowry to be had from girl’s parents (say “an influential father in law”) than because it is a social evil.

A change will only happen ,after the sacred status of marriage gets diminished, and modernity, education and new economic realities push people to look for spouses outside their castes, resulting in marriage becoming more of a social contract based on compatibility of individuals, rather than the economic contract it is now.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ghost Rider:Movie Review

(Pic: NYT Movies)
This one is a strong contender for this year's Razzle awards. The story of a motorist with a burning skull for a head, eliminating demons by using iron chain as a lasso, is a complete non-starter. But this film achieves a higher purpose, of making the audiences empathize with the plight of the hero with the flaming head, by packing stupid dialogues, dumb stunts, most lousy special effects, undecipherable plot and a terrible climax in two long hours. Fittingly, the film reaches an end, with the Ghost rider killing the Villain by looking deep into his eyes and a short while later, delivering the clear threat of a sequel. If you are a bike lover, like the friend who came with me to PVR Priya in Delhi, appreciate the Harley Davidson on display outside, and skip the film.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Between Federer and the French Open Crown

When he won Australian Open so authoritatively, the pundits were convinced that Federer will get his grand slam should he win French Open this year. But is the Swiss player really unstoppable? I prefer to think not! Generations of Spanish players have successfully denied players like Sampras and Courier, their chance at the Grand slam. Federer himself was thwarted twice by the young and muscular Rafael Nadal at the Roland Garros. So I think this year will be no different.

Here are some reasons

  1. Rafael Nadal
  2. The last 8 of 9 French open winners were players who did not win any other grand slam. Federer is more vulnerable here than at any other Grand slam.
  3. Every year the clay court season produces new players, who bump off the big names; for many of them knocking off Federer will be their ticket to fame. He will be sort of a "trophy" to win in every tournament he enters.
  4. Some formidable opponents like Baghdatis, Ivan Ljubičić and Safin, on their good days can stop the Federer Juggernaut; they will have their best chance here.

All said and done, the way Federer rolls over the opposition, as he did with Roddick and Gonzalez recently, bestowed him a certain aura among his contemporaries. Whenever someone becomes so dominant in any sport, there are complaints that he is killing interest in the game. This may be true, but if Federer somehow wins this one, I don't see anyone stopping him from emulating Rod Laver. Personally, I am sick of him already, so I wish that does not happen.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Black Friday: Movie Review

Be warned, Black Friday is not your regular Friday bollywood release with all those mandatory stars and song sequences. It is a gripping account of a city and its people wreaking havoc on themselves in the name of religion.

The 1993 Bombay blasts brought terrorism into Indian lives much before the western countries had to face this problem after 9/11 and the London blasts. Black Friday relased after 2 years of “postponement” by the Government, brings alive the conspiracy and events, of that story. The film, based on Journalist S.Hussain Zaidi’s book by the same name, brings alive a Bombay, where a Maruthi 1000 cc was the major symbol of affluence. Despite the long delay, the technical values are quite good. The band “Indian Ocean” which scored the music for their first full length feature film does a wonderful job with the background guitar music. The background song “Bharam Bhaap Ke” which depicts the plight of a fleeing Badshah Khan stays in the mind, long after the film.

Director Anurag Kashyap exhibits a wonderful command over the cinematic medium and fine balance in treating such a sensitive issue. The story unfolds in a series of chapters, in which the Director weaves a tapestry by skillfully integrating all the plot threads. Though most of the actors turn out good performances, Kay Kay Memon and Pavan Malhotra stand out in their roles as the cop Rakesh Maria and Tiger Memon. Made in a documentary format, this film never goes overboard with violence or rheotoric, but successfully depicts human fallibilities in its many dimesions

The film begins with a police interrogation, where Gul Mohammed tries in vain, to inform the police about the impending tragedy. The first half of the film focuses on the blasts and the systematic police investigation which unravels the conspiracy and the people involved. The lengthy chase sequence where one of the suspects, keeps trying to escape getting caught, is both realistic and funny. In the pre-interval scene, the cop Rakesh Maria’s dialogues bring out the helplessness of a police force, trying to enforce the rule of law in an imperfect democracy. The post-interval portion focuses on the motives and events that culminated in the tragedy and places the issue within the larger context of cross border terrorism, hindu bigotry and muslim alienation.

By striking at the heart of India’s financial capital, Tiger Memon tell his co-conspirators, he will evoke fear and respect for Indian muslims in hindu minds. Since then, Gujarat riots, the 2nd Bombay blasts and so on, only reinforce the film’s central message that wanton killing of innocent civilians will evoke nothing but revulsion and hatred, and result in a vicious cycle of violence. This is a must watch for all those who like good cinema.