Sunday, 30 December 2007

Rose-tinted Reminiscences

Tragic though the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was, it was galling to hear, amid all the outpouring of grief, those fulsome praises of her. I didn’t have a problem with the countless nostalgic reminiscences about Pinky in Oxford – people generally like to hear and read about personal stories of leaders and other famous people; such stories tend to humanize them.

But it was a bit much to be told that she was this great democrat who wanted to uplift the poor of Pakistan and had a different vision of Indo-Pak ties. This is absolute nonsense. I felt the same when she returned to Pakistan in October in this blaze of glory and was being hailed (as was Nawaz Sharif) as the democratic alternative. Two people whose regimes were marked by corruption and venality being hailed as democrats is a bit difficult to digest. Was Benazir helping the poor in Pakistan when she spent millions on importing Evian water for her family during her stint as prime minister? Or when her husband got the tag of Mr 10 per cent? Just about seven years back, the Pakistani public was bursting crackers and dancing in the streets when General Musharaff overthrew Sharif. Nobody was clamouring for Benazir then. Public memory is short. The failures of the Musharaff administration made Benazir and Sharif seem more acceptable. We’ve seen this happen in India as well, when Rajiv Gandhi was voted out on charges of corruption in the 1989 elections and was all set for a stupendous comeback in 1991 before he was assassinated. There are so many more examples. But does that mean the media and weighty commentators on public matters should also fall into the same trap? Should they abandon their objectivity in the face of a tragic death?

I find the comparison between Benazir and Rajiv also a bit odious. The only similarities are that they came from political dynasties and their parent (father in the case of Benazir and mother in the case of Rajiv) met violent deaths, which pitchforked them into the centrestage. And that both of them were voted out and were all set for resounding comebacks when they were assassinated.

But Rajiv at least had a vision for the country. It’s another matter that many disagreed with his vision and that he couldn’t help realize it. But what vision did Benazir have for her country during her first term? I have read many articles on her after her death, but nobody has talked about where she wanted to take her country.

Rajiv was really reluctant to enter politics. He was forced into it by his mother and later circumstances. Benazir, according to several accounts, often said she didn’t choose this life but this life chose her. That contradicts all the Pinky in Oxford tales from her classmates who remember how hard she tried to be Oxford University union president. Clearly she was hardly the reluctant politician that Rajiv was.

So let us mourn the tragic death of a young leader. Let us be angry about the violence that is consuming the sub continent. But let us stop idolizing someone who clearly does not deserve a halo.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Cliches Continue

I have little respect for most film critics, barring a couple. I get the feeling that they tend to bring their personal prejudices into play when reviewing. I can almost predict what one female film critic is going to say about a film. If it has Aishwarya Rai, then the film has to be bad. If Aishwarya happens to be in a film directed by a crossover film director, then the film will be good, but Aishwarya will be bad. If it’s a crossover film, it’s always good. Shahrukh Khan will always lift a film above a shaky plot and shoddy direction. Salman Khan is always to be sneered at. I now try to imagine what she will say about a movie and then read her reviews only to see if I am right. I usually am!

I find one thing common among all film critics, though – their Shabana Azmi-Naseeruddin Shah blind spot. Any film starring these two (especially Shabana) have to be raved about, no matter how bad it is. Take the case of Dus Kahaniyan, the movie which is ten movies strung together. All the reviewers gave mixed reactions to nine of the stories. Only one got a unanimous rave review – Rice Plate, starring – you’ve guessed it – Shabana and Naseeruddin. The story was sensitive, the acting nuanced. All the usual reviewing clichés were there.

Till I saw bits of Dus Kahaniyan on cable. Rice Plate quite simply appalled me. Shabana was hamming and Naseeruddin had nothing to do. People criticize Amitabh Bachchan for over the top acting in Black. Why is everyone silent about Shabana in Rice Plate. Old south Indian ladies do not carry themselves the way Shabana did. She could have taken tips from the way Konkona Sen Sharma prepared for her role in Mr and Mrs Iyer. That was authentic down to a T.

The story was a bit ridiculous too. No woman (no matter how orthodox) who has lived in Bombay for decades will sit in a taxi only because it has pictures of gods and then recoil in disgust when the driver turns out to be a Muslim. Or refuse to take back a packet of namkeen she has dropped when she collided with a Muslim man (Naseeruddin) just because he picked it up. Even village women don’t react that way, for heaven’s sake. But just because Shabana and Naseeruddin acted in this film, no one pointed out this basic problem. Clearly, for film critics, willing suspension of belief is not a malaise affecting films in which these veterans star!

Apart from this, what got me was the usual cliché about Hindu orthodoxy, a subject I’ve dealt with in earlier posts – Dixie Chicks and Parzania (16 February 2007) and Profiling and Labelling (27 August 2006). Two stories in Dus Kahaniyan made me see red (a lot of my critics would say saffron, I know but that only reflects on their prejudices).

If Rice Plate dealt with Hindu orthodoxy, another story in Dus Kahaniyan, starring Neha Dhupia and Mahesh Manjrekar, dealt with a woman saving a child from rioters. The way she tried to save the child was ridiculous, of course – she sexually assaults the sword wielding rioter! – but once again the rioter is a Hindu and the child he’s wanting to kill is a Muslim.

As if Muslims don’t have their prejudices and Hindus don’t get killed in riots!