Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

Why I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter

In Celebs, Cinema, Culture and Society, Hollywood, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm

“You are following Mila Kunis?” An ex-colleague smirked at me last week—if, that is, it’s possible to smirk in a text message. I was used to getting annoying messages from him, so I ignored it. But he later called and wanted an answer.

“I’m curious,” he said. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of me as the kind of guy who would follow Mila Kunis on Twitter.
“I am a Mila Kunis fan,” I told him. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
“Dude,” he said “Mila Kunis doesn’t have a Twitter account. Go check it out yourself.”
I did. And he was right. I hadn’t paid attention. Both of her probable Twitter accounts—@RealMilaKunis with 392,422 followers and @MilaKunisOnline with 22,957 followers—distance themselves from the ‘real’ Mila Kunis, the one you might expect to fulfil the Cartesian promise offered by the famous philosophical dictum, “I tweet, therefore I am.”
I recalled that I had decided on @RealMilaKunis as the ‘real one’ because a: it had way more number of followers than all the other Kunis accounts put together; and b: (call me literal-minded) it proclaimed itself as ‘real’.
Fine, @RealMilaKunis may not be the real Mila Kunis. But what is the ‘real’ Mila Kunis anyway? Is that even a legitimate question?
Let’s go back to Rene Descartes for a minute. “I think therefore I am” is basically a way of saying: from the truth that I am thinking follows the truth that there must be a thinker in order for thinking to happen, from which follows the truth that I, the thinker of the thought, exist. But is this test of reality—clearly inapplicable to social media—relevant even in the offline world, given that we almost never have an unmediated access to reality? It is quite possible that you may not exist even though you think thoughts simply because it is not you thinking the thoughts in your head but Arnab Goswami. Take away mass media, and the ‘reality’ of Arnab Goswami disappears in a puff of TRPs, irrespective of whether or not there exists in the universe a carbon-based life form carrying a piece of paper identifying it as Arnab Goswami. Indeed, when Descartes set down his famous hypothesis, not only was there no social media, there was no media, period.
In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”
Inundated as we are, by stories about celebs every day of our lives, and watching them perform, succeed or fail on our TV screens, we develop a relationship, and a sense of intimacy, with the image of these celebs that we carry in our heads. The Cartesian self will argue that this is a false sense of intimacy—that it is not real. But who’s to say that illusions are not ‘real’ for the one harbouring them? So we build temples for our celeb gods, turn violent when someone ‘insults’ our celeb-god (where are you, Sachin fanatics?), and follow our celeb gods on Twitter.
Social media, especially, is powerful in eliminating the existential distance between a star and an earth-bound star-gazer, and creating the illusion of a direct connection. Twitter has brought about Reformation in the Church of Celebrity: now the fan can directly talk to God, without the mediation of mass media or even Google. At least, so it seems.
A friend who worked as a journalist with me in Mumbai believed himself madly in love with Priyanka Chopra. He got on to Twitter with the singular intention of getting Ms Chopra to acknowledge his existence. The day that happened—either the diva retweeted or mentioned one of his tweets, I don’t remember which—he seemed to have discovered his inner Buddha, to put it mildly. He subsequently quit journalism to join the film industry. Would there have been any point in telling him, for instance, that Chopra doesn’t tweet, or that her social media manager does it for her?
A couple of weeks ago, Mila Kunis announced on her Facebook page that she was pregnant with Ashton Kutcher’s child. Her message read: “As you all probably know, I’m pregnant and I’ve decided to take the next nine months off with Ashton Kutcher in Hawaii. Don’t worry, my manager will be posting pictures everyday as usual so you can all see the progress and news. : ) I’m so happy. Any ideas for baby’s name? I love you all and thank you for the support. : )xx”
Reading this, as you can well imagine, I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: selfless joy at the fulfilment of her wish to become a mother, and selfish dismay that, of all people, it was Kutcher’s sperm that got to it first. I became so upset that I actually gave up the Internet for a couple of hours. I knew, of course, that this wasn’t Kunis’ real Facebook account, that it was maintained by her fans – but it made no difference—to my mood, or my sense of reality.
Thankfully, the whole episode ended happily when it turned out that it was just an April Fool’s joke, and Kutcher’s sperm still has a long and arduous trek ahead.
To come back to the original question, why do I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter?
Definitely not because I find her tweets funny or interesting. Here’s a random sample of tweets by @RealMIlaKunis:
“Stop waiting for the right moment, because sometimes it’s now or never.”
“The best revenge is to show them that your life is moving forward even though they left it.”
“We always ignore who adores us, adore who ignores us, love who hurts us and hurt who love us.”
“Hard times will always reveal true friends.”
“Spend your life with the people who make you happy, not the people you have to impress.”
You get the idea. This is decidedly not the Mila Kunis of Black Swan or Friends with Benefits or the Mila Kunis of my imagination. It is someone sitting on a vast treasury of platitudes, and releasing them to the world at a rate of two per day. But the miracle is that I find the tweets totally relevant to whatever I happen to be dealing with in my life when I read it. Just now, for instance, she tweeted, “Life is easier when you’re not complaining, worrying, or stressing about bullshit.” Soon as I saw it, I knew it was addressed to me, and I have to stop this piece right now.
So here you go. Why do I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter? Because she’s there.

I’ve seen ‘Himmatwala’ twice—can you?

In Bollywood, Cinema, Humour, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I saw Himmatwala twice. Ma Sherawali ki kasam—I’m not lying. I surrendered 300 minutes of my life toHimmatwala. Does this mean my life is empty and bereft of meaning and I have nothing to look forward to? No. Then I must surely be a friend of Sajid Khan or Vashu Bhagnani or the local multiplex owner? No, I’m not.

Ah, then I must certainly be a Ajay Devgn fan! Well, if anything, I’m the opposite of a Devgn fan. I once got lynched online by Devgn acolytes when I did a piece for a national newspaper comparing his nipples to bonsai cherries.
But I saw Himmatwala twice. Why? Because I enjoyed it. There you are—it’s out in the open now. Think what you will of me and my cinematic discernment.
I’ll admit one thing though: if I had read any of the reviews first, I would not have had the himmat to go for it the first time.
I am not a film critic, and don’t claim to know more about films than practicing critics. But speaking purely as a film lover, I would say Himmatwala has got a raw deal from the reviewing community. One reviewer, calling it “a seizure-inducing montage of everything that was wrong with our movies from the ‘80s,” warned, “if you have to sit through this movie for reasons best left unexplained, know that you, sir/madam, are the real himmatwala”. Another critic wrote, “When Himmatwala ended, I felt like I had aged a few years. Honestly, you need real courage to brave this one.” And a third one dismissed it as a “yawnfest”.
I’ll confess that I did have a moment of self-doubt on reading all this. Was it possible that I liked the film only because I was a Himmatwala—gifted not only with extraordinary courage but also extraordinary insomnia because I didn’t feel sleepy even for a second of the 18-hour-long film (one critic insists it has a run time of 18 hours because it “felt like” 18 hours)? I think not.
So why did the critics hate the film?
It’s one thing to pan a bad film. But it’s another to pan a film for wanting to be bad, and succeeding. The first is fair, the second is not. Himmatwala belongs to the second category. A film review ought to judge a film on what it sets out to do, and see how well it keeps its promise. Just as you cannot criticise an apple for being a poor orange, you cannot criticise a film that’s neither serious nor spoofy, for not being either serious or spoofy (which basically seems to be the grouse of the reviews I happened to read).
Khan’s Himmatwala is a remake—not just any remake but the “official” remake—of the 1983 film of the same name starring Jeetendra and Sridevi. It has no story—it has a formula. Its characters, already reduced to caricatures in 1983, are stand-ins for stand-ins in the 2013 version. The dialogues were already over-the-top in the original—that was their appeal. In this remake, they are over-the-over-the-top. Himmatwala has everything that a typical, mediocre 1980s potboiler had, but in industrial quantities.
Why would a presumably sane man invest so much of his time and resources to make a film like this? There can only be one reason: he loves such films. And that is the reason Khan has been giving to a sceptical media: he loves the idiotic 1980s entertainer so much that he decided to make one.
Back in 1964, before Khan was even born, in her Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag made a revealing observation about a culture that’s like a snake eating its own tail—which is what Bollywood (or at least influential sections of it) is today, given its ongoing love affair with retro. She wrote, “The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness—irony, satire—seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.”
Himmatwala is not camp—you cannot ‘try’ to be campy. But it is made from a campy sensibility, and seeks to appeal to the campy sensibility. Its only miscalculation lay in assuming that, in 2013, audiences and critics (or enough of them) who claim to love 1980s Hindi cinema would treat it as ‘camp’ and watch it with an ironic, playful distance—as a game. But the reality is that the “worst of the 1980s” is too close for many viewers. And without distance, you cannot enter the camp sensibility a film like Himmatwala resides in.
So when the vengeful Ravi (Devgn) tells the villainous Sher Singh (Mahesh Manjrekar), “Kasam hai mujhe apni maa aur apni behen ki, teri zindagi ki maa behen kar dunga,” or when Narayan Das (Paresh Rawal) tells his jijaji (Manjrekar), “Aap gutter hai to main uska ganda paani hoon” or when Ravi’s mother (Zarina Wahab) says, “Aaj ek maa ek bête ke pair chooyegi”—are they tacky dialogues? Yes, but they are as good as the tacky dialogues of a 1980 film can ever be, and therein lies the appeal ofHimmatwala.
Himmatwala is not a spoof of the 1980s potboiler. Humour is not its objective. Nor is it a straight remake. It is simply a playful remake of a bad movie. It is an act of love (seriously but playfully). It needs to be judged on two counts: its playfulness, and its love for, and faithfulness to, the 1980s cinematic ethos.
Khan takes pains to tick mark every one of the ’80s staple, which is easy if you remain faithful to the original. The orphan-hero with a question mark over his identity, tick. The shrew-turned-demure heroine, tick. Pleading with God in temple scene, tick. Annoying, over-smart animal that helps the hero, tick. Near-gang rape of sister, tick. Cruel landlord, tick. Hero’s dying best friend, tick.
If Khan’s faithfulness to the atrocious original (redeemed in retrospect by our learned reverence for Jeetendra and Sridevi) is not in question, neither is his whimsy. The Psycho scene where Mahesh Manjrekar is attacked in the shower, and the ‘fight scene’ where Devgn speaks in five languages are so supremely nonsensical that mere suspension of disbelief is inadequate—you have to suspend whatever else you have that you haven’t suspended yet.
The ‘homosexual’—either as a taste or as a person—is central to the camp sensibility. And Paresh Rawal’s character, Narayan Das, with his effeminacy, his dandyish curls, and his physical clinginess (he keeps wanting to kiss the male characters, and succeeds in kissing Devgn in the last scene), is the campy mascot of this admirably dreadful film. He is the gutless, himmat-less feminine Other who underscores the ultra-macho himmat of the eponymous Himmatwala played by Devgn.
Not surprisingly, after Devgn, it is Rawal who gets the maximum screen time. I am not sure if homosexuality was a recurring motif in the original Himmatwala, but in this remake, it leaps out at you, gelling neatly with the campy tenor of the film. It reaches its own narrative climax (pun intended) in the spooning scene between Paresh Rawal and Mahesh Manjrekar, where it is hinted that Rawal had his fingers in a certain nether portion of Manjrekar’s anatomy.
So on both these counts—faithfulness to the original, and frivolity—Khan’s effort deserves a 4.9 at the least. One critic got it partly right when he tweeted that this was an “audacious” film. It was audacious in its bid to remake an awful film keeping intact all of the original awfulness. If the film is awful, it is meant to be so. So, watching the one of the best awful films of the 1980s in 2013, and expecting that it would somehow be superior to, if not better than, the original, is to totally miss the point of the film.
The second time I went to see Himmatwala, there were more children than adults in the auditorium—and they laughed at every one of the puerile jokes. Maybe Himmatwala is a film for young adults, for those old enough to see a film but not old enough (physically and also otherwise) for their pleasure-taking to be circumscribed by expectations and cinematic values endorsed by the high priests of low (mass) culture.

Why Google Glass might be creepiest gadget ever invented

In Culture and Society, Popular Culture, Technology, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm

‘Don’t be evil’ is supposedly the corporate motto of Google. With their latest ‘game changer’/‘revolutionary new technology’/‘every nerd’s virtual wet dream’, Google will be hard put to live up to its motto.

So what is Google Glass? It is basically a device that you wear on your face – a device that wraps around your brow with a spectacle frame-like rim, and a display screen above the right eye. Unlike a smartphone, which you rub with your fingers (something that according to Google founder Sergey Brin is ‘emasculating’), Glass presumably turbo-charges your manhood by responding to voice commands.

Using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the Glass can receive video and audio signals from other devices, record videos and audios of everything you see, send and receive emails, make and receive phone calls, ask Google Maps for directions, get phrases translated – just do everything that a computer can. And it doesn’t need your hands for any of it – so, from touch, the input/output interface has moved to voice and vision.

To a get grip on the human and social dimension of Google Glass (as opposed to obsessing solely over the geeky, technological dimension of it), it might be instructive to take a look at this video at, where a stranger goes around recording random people without permission.


Sergey Brin in this file photo with Google Glass. AP

Most people, of course, react strongly to being recorded without permission – even though there are surveillance cameras already in public places. But what Glass seeks to do – or would have to do if it has to take off – is normalise the recording of anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere, by anyone and everyone else. This makes the proverbial dystopian scenario of the Big Brother obsolete. Rather, Glass is Panopticon made real.

Panopticon was originally an architectural model for a prison conceptualised by the English utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Its unique design feature, in the words of Wikipedia, was to “allow a watchman to observe (opticon) all (pan) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.”

Glass is an ambitious technological innovation that can turn the whole world into Bentham’s dream prison — and all of us into its inmates. It doesn’t matter what political system you might nominally be living under — democracy, communism, dictatorship, or, as in India, a majoritarian plutocracy — if you’re going to be watched all the time, and you can’t even tell whether you are being watched/recorded or not at any given time, then you are effectively living in a prison.

So any discussion about Google Glass needs to address what further ‘prisonification’ will do to a citizenry that is always already under suspicion of being a criminal/terrorist threat, and is at the receiving end of body searches and other assorted indignities every day. (Since when did it become ‘normal’ for strangers to touch/fee/ squeeze parts of your body? But today we all accept it without a murmur.)

As the on-again-off-again ‘MMS scandals’ and ‘stings’ testify, we are yet to come to grips with the social dynamic of the smartphone where, at least if you are alert, you can spot it if someone is recording you without your permission. But in a roomful or streetful of Google Glass-wearers, you cannot be sure when and whether your words and gestures are being recorded, and worse, uploaded on a cloud server and stored for all eternity – or as long as the state or Google’s marketing clients find use for it.

In what must qualify as one of the spookiest sci-fi scenes ever, there is a sequence inMinority Report where Tom Cruise, as he is walking down a street, looks up at a billboard, and the billboard, recognising him, greets him with a custom advertising message – a message that nobody else but him will see, through his implanted Google Glass, as it were.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already promised to develop apps for Glass. Facial recognition software is already in use, and Glass already uses highly evolved voice-to-text software. Combine all these with Google’s other software tools and applications – and Google Glass can simultaneously convert every human being on the planet into a non-stop input device and a captive target audience for customised, high quality marketing and advertising content.

Over the past few days, as I heard about Google’s plans to sell ‘Explorer’ Google Glasses to winners of a tweeting contest, I tried hard to think of one good reason why I would need this gadget – and I could not come up with any. For starters, I already wear glasses – and I had a hard time in school, forever being teased as a choukha or ‘four-eyed’. Now, at this late stage in life, do I really need to turn ‘six-eyed’? In my humble opinion, no, and neither do most people who still remember that the offline world came before, and not after, the online one.

Unlike what you see in Google’s promos for Glass, most people are not sky divers or runway models or ballet dancers – at least not most of the time. They lead comparatively boring lives (by ‘boring’, I mean from the content point of view), where they go to work and sit in front of a screen for most of the day, or sit in conference rooms and yak away with other interesting but boring people. Then they go home or go to a pub or go to a mall or wherever they go, to de-stress and spend the rest of the day socialising via a screen of some sort.

With the adoption of the Google Glass (and the departure of the smartphone), your connection with reality will not, as one would expect, become more direct – far from it. In fact, your own experience of reality will become ever more mediated – first, by the realisation that other Glasses are observing you; secondly, by the ever-present opportunity (and thence urge) to record everything you see or hear (have you ever come back from a holiday wishing you’d seen more and photographed less?)’; and thirdly, the presence of your Glass will affect how other elements in the reality field (such as humans) react to you (reactions of said humans towards you may be very different depending on whether or not you are wearing a Glass), thereby altering the trajectory of life experience independent of your own Glass-modulated orientation toward reality.

Glass will push you to mine the real world to feed the virtual one; it will push you to outsource your memories to a cloud server; it will train you to devalue unmediated reality in such a way that you will find real reality deficient as compared to reality ‘augmented’ by Google-tinted Glasses.

We need only look at what ‘being under perpetual observation’ has done to those for whom this is not an option. Already, we can’t bear to look at a photograph of an actor or a model — and the actor/model cannot bear to let it get printed either — that is not ‘augmented’ by Photoshop. Forget photographs. On a red carpet occasion like the Oscars, real, flesh-and-blood celebrities cannot afford to be seen in their real bodies, in bodies unaugmented by Botox and other cosmetic enhancements. This is a given in a global celebrity culture that lives under the tyranny of the all-seeing paparazzi eye.

What Glass will do, inevitably, is to bring everyone under the tyranny of the eye, and turn everyone into paparazzi. In this brave new world, there will be no one Big Brother. We will all be little big brothers and little big sisters. The world as seen through the Google Glass can only be a techno-dystopia where algorithms will take human decisions, humans will merely be a part of the digital supply chain, and real life, reduced to an impoverished, ‘aspirational’ avatar of the virtual one, will dwindle into a source of ‘rich content’ for the ‘Googleable’ world.

Glass bears the same technological genotype as Skynet and the Umbrella Corporation. If you are reading this and you are a human being, reconcile yourself to becoming a machine, sooner or later. If you are a machine, well, rejoice – you will soon be eligible to be called a human being.

Why are male virgins worth less than female ones?

In Humour, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Last month, two virgins came to a virginity auction. A man named Alex Stepanov, and a girl named Catarina Migliorini. The man’s virginity was sold for US$ 3,000. The girl’s virginity fetched $780,000 —260 times the selling price of the man’s.

I don’t know about other male chauvinists but I felt insulted and humiliated by this disparity in the market valuation of virgins. In an era where men are slowly surrendering to equality with women in every aspect of life, how can we tolerate this yawning gap in the market price of male and female virgins? Even Richard Branson, who ought to know a thing or two about virginity, would agree that men who value their virginity enough to retain possession of it well into their adult life deserve better than 1/260th the price of a female virgin.

But the problem, as Arvind Kejriwal pointed out recently, is with the system. The system, as any feminist would tell you, is called patriarchy. And feminists, for all their cleverness in language and theory and jouissance, have never trained their guns on this glaringly obvious flaw of patriarchy— its utter devaluation of male virginity.

Male virgins should start taking pride in their virginity. Agencies

Not only does patriarchy deem male virginity worthless; it considers it a joke. Even in this day and age, when everything from water to clean air to dirty MPs has a market price, male virginity is perhaps the only scarce and limited commodity that continues to be distributed free.

Take my own case. Unlike Stepanov, I never got an opportunity to auction my virginity although, as a talented virgin, I had ample time and energy to do so. One of my life’s abiding tragedies is that I will die without the satisfaction of ever knowing what my virginity was worth in the open market.

I did try to find out, once. I asked my wife, “If, hypothetically speaking, I’d been a virgin when you first saw me, and if, hypothetically speaking, I’d tried to sell you the opportunity to deflower me, what would you have paid me?”

She thought about it for five seconds, and said, “72 slaps?”

As you can see, her answer only underlines my basic point: none of the stakeholders in male virginity, not even women, take it seriously.

In fact, as a biological male and a former virgin, I am ashamed to say that I actually felt jealous and envious and retrospectively resentful that a random sub-Putinous Russian male is getting paid $ 3,000 for his fornicatory debut while my own virginity didn’t fetch me even 3,000 paise.

But I know I am not alone in such deprivation. I believe I can safely claim to speak for all mankind (unlike other great male writers and philosophers like Aristotle and Suhel Seth, by ‘mankind’ I mean exactly one half of the human race) when I say that our parents never taught us to value our virginity.

My own mother and father, who fed me Complan every morning and Chyawanprash every evening and enrolled me in Brilliant Tutorials at the age of seven, never so much as dropped a hint that male virginity might be an asset worth preserving.

Au contraire, thanks to outdated parenting compounded by patriarchy’s regressive notions of manhood, rather than enjoy my God-given gift, I spent all my virgin years mistakenly believing it to be a burden. And I wanted to unburden myself of it at the first opportunity.

The first opportunity, in my case, was a girl named Sim (no, her parents were not service providers; Sim was an affectionate circumcision of her full name, like Sam was for Sampath. Long before Saifeena, back when Saif was still Saifrita, we were known as SimSam).

Sim and I had been going steady for 47 days when I first broached the subject of her playing an active role in separating me from my virginity. While she was sympathetic to my cause, there was a complication: she could not help me without endangering her own virginity in the process. Unlike me, she was a girl, see? And a girl’s virginity is a big deal in emerging markets like India. While I wanted to bury my virginity alive, she wanted to grow hers into a chaste and sublime lushness.

She told me (and these were her exact words), “I want my virginity to be a gift for my first husband.”

It was finally Manmohan Singh who got rid of my virginity – oh no, please put that dirty thought out of your mind – RIGHT NOW! I’m referring to Singh’s policy of liberalisation in 1991. As we all know, it unleashed all the nation’s repressed libidino-entrepreneurial energy, some of which, I am glad to report, were female and eager to gobble up a male virgin or two.

Having said that, it is still galling that the extreme gender inequality in compensation highlighted by the Australian director Justin Sisely’s virginity auction has provoked not a squeak of protest, nor a tweet of condemnation from feminists or male chauvinists (me being the only honorable exception).

Well! That is the power of ideology; the ideology of patriarchy, which bombards every man and every woman every day of their waking lives with the lie that male virginity has no value – socially or economically or emotionally or psychologically or philosophically or gynaecologically.

The biggest stage where this lie is played out is the Indian matrimonial market, where the hymen is still one of the most valued parts of the bride-to-be, if not the jewels in her anatomical crown. As Rakhi Sawant once told me, dowry is the cash component of the marital transaction and hymen is the ‘kind’ component. On the other hand, a groom who has never once taken a tour of female genitalia commands no premium over another who has.

So how do we resolve this gross undervaluation of male virginity? There is only one way: apply the law of supply and demand. Reduce the supply of male virgins, and demand will go up. Once the demand rises, the price will shoot up.

But how do we dry up demand? Well, male virgins should start taking pride in their virginity, and stop throwing it away at the first opportunity. Is that even possible? Well, the answer to that lies in the hands of every man. You could call it the power of one-handed clapping.

Third Degree: Manil Suri and the mystery of the ‘closed door’ book launch

In Literature, Management, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm


Manil Suri’s new novel, The City of Devi, is releasing this month, and the US-based author is in India to promote his book and participate in the Jaipur Literature festival, where he is one of the star attractions.

I had reviewed Suri’s earlier novel, The Age of Shiva, for this paper, and we had remained in touch sporadically. Prior to his India visit, we connected again, and when he said he had a book launch in Gurgaon, I jumped at the opportunity to meet one of my favourite writers. But strangely enough, Suri told me to hold on. He would have to get me a special invitation, he said, as this was a “closed door book launch”.

“A closed door book launch?” I was incredulous. For most publishers in India, it’s a struggle to get a decent crowd for launches, and here was somebody actually shutting the door on potential stragglers, like me.

But more surprises followed. “What’s the venue?” I asked. “Some IT company,” he said. When I landed at the venue, I had a tough time convincing the security that I was not a terrorist but “a personal guest of your special guest, Mr Suri”. When they finally let me in, I walked past a large bay of cubicles to a designated closed door, opened it, and stepped in to find Suri reading from his book to a group of about 30-40 people.

The session was being moderated by the “Programme Manager — Performance Benchmarking, Value Engineering, Chief Customer Office”. As you would have guessed by now, I knew exactly what this guy did for a living. And whatever that was, his questions, at any rate, were consistently more intelligent than the ones I have heard from the good-looking, young moderators of the Jaipur Lit Fest. Here’s a gem: “You are a mathematics professor, and a novelist. Which is more difficult? Solving a differential equation or writing a novel?” Suri gave a sensible answer: Both involve problem-solving, and are tough, but a novel is more forgiving, in the sense that you can find wrong solutions, and end up writing a bad novel. But with a differential equation, you either find the solution or you don’t — the wrong one simply won’t do.

The highlight of the programme was Suri’s power point presentation (ppt) on his novel. It was definitely the most entertaining ppt I’ve ever sat through in my life, besides being the first one by an author on his novel.

Suri had included sound effects, cut-outs of faces to represent his characters, and used visual elements such as a maze and a pomegranate to illustrate the various aspects of his novel. The most fascinating dimension of his writing process was the mingling of the literary and the mathematical.

He had actually plotted the various narrative arcs, only to end up with ‘mathematical proof’ that The City of Devi could not be written. Just as he was ready to give up, his agent/editor wanted to take a look at whatever he’d written till then. He decided to polish the draft one last time before sending it to her. And that’s when he found a way to approach his material afresh, and eventually managed to ‘balance’ the fictional equation.

Suri then went on to explain how he employed the rule of threes, or the triangle, as a device to frame his plotting issues. By the time he was done, you were left wondering why more authors didn’t give ppts at their book launches instead of reading from their book.

After the event, I got talking with the IT guys, and it turned that calling Suri to their office was a part of their “employee engagement programme”. They had a number of ‘interest groups’ – and this programme had been organised by the ‘Book Interest Group’.

Suri himself seemed more than happy to interact with the group of engineers, as opposed to the usual crowd of journalists, retired bores, and wannabe authors that throng such events at books shops.

As we said goodbye, Suri mentioned that he was leaving for Jaipur the next day. And later, reading in the papers about how big the ‘open-door’ Jaipur Lit Fest has become, thanks to corporate money, I couldn’t help wondering if the average book lover in Jaipur this weekend could hope for the kind of cosy, intimate session with a celebrated author that a typical employee at this IT MNC could enjoy. I don’t want to underline the irony in this, but then, well, here I go.

Stop insulting Yo Yo Money Singh

In Celebs, Politics, Popular Culture, Satire, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:50 pm

To call our PM a “tragic figure” is not only insulting but also inaccurate. As it turns out, it wasn’t the Washington Post (WP) as such but historian Ramachandra Guha who called him that. Oh wait, Guha said what he did, not to the WP but to an Indian publication, Caravan. And hey, he said it not now, but in 2011.

But nobody made a fuss in 2011. So why now? (Clue: name of the paper). Right! The Washington Post is a white man’s newspaper, published from the white man’s HQ. And we neo-colonials know instinctively that when the white man talks, the brown man must listen.

It is amazing how short public memory is, but hey, India was a colony till recently – it was still one when our PM was born in 1932. Here’s what that good and intelligent man Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about the political leadership of newly independent former colonies: “The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of Western culture … After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing to say to their brothers; they only echoed.”

Today, it is Sartre’s whitewashed adolescents (Manmohan was thoroughly whitewashed in the “mother country”— in both Cambridge and Oxford) who have hijacked what somebody once non-jokingly referred to as “India’s tryst with destiny”. Discarded now are the ideals of social justice and equity that informed the vision of our freedom fighters.

Reading the papers everyday makes you wonder: Why did our forefathers drive the Brits out? I wasn’t there when it happened, but here’s my guess: because the white man was looting India’s wealth, especially natural resources; they were giving a hard time to most Indians, especially farmers; and while a small class of native businessmen did well for themselves, millions starved, and thousands of political activists went to jail; the colonial police massacred innocent civilians, and forcibly evicted ‘native peasants’ from their lands, pushing them deeper into destitution.

I can’t see that things are any different now, under our own ‘brown rang’-ed PM, Yo Yo Money Singh (no relative of Yo Yo Honey Singh, but related to three mega-scams: CWG, 2G and Coalgate). Having embraced the Western model of capitalism, but without the luxury of colonial plunder on which to build its capitalist infrastructure, India is at a crossroads where it faces the prospect of cannibalising itself, eating parts of its own body politic — such as adivasis (or religious minorities). Talk to the average CEO, and his attitude to India’s tribals would echo that of the white coloniser’s toward the ‘natives.’

The reasons for terming our PM a “tragic figure” are predictable: one, corruption has proliferated under Singh, and guess who’s to blame – the degenerate natives; and two, the PM has slowed down on economic reforms, meaning that he’s not taking proper care of the white man’s money, which should be freely allowed to come into this former colony and profit from its resources.

One of the worthies quoted at length by the WP article is Tushar Poddar, a Mumbai-based managing director of Goldman Sachs, that illustrious standard-bearer of destructive capital which had a starring role in the 2008 financial crisis. WP quotes Poddar as saying “[The 2009 election] was a victory for him, but he did not step up to claim it — [Manmohan’s] lack of leadership, that lack of boldness, lack of will — that really shocked us. That really shocked foreign investors.”

That’s what it’s all about: foreign investors. FDI in retail, anyone? Yo Yo Money Singh is a “dithering”, “ineffectual” and ultimately “tragic” figure because, in recent times, he’s been a disappointment in his assigned role. And pray what was his assigned role?

In The Wretched of the Earth, the great post-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon showed how the national middle class’s “historic mission” is that of the intermediary. “Seen through its eyes,” he wrote, “its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism.”

Singh’s designated role, as the chosen (but never elected) representative of the national middle class, was to function as an intermediary between the nation and foreign capital, in Fanon’s words, to be “Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Seen from this perspective, it’s obvious that Singh has done a terrific job, but the greedy white man and his native brown counterpart want more, and they want it now! Though Singh has done a lot, he cannot do everything because, well, India is a democracy, you know? It’s not his fault, really.

So let’s not insult the PM any more – he’s just a child of history. He’s served his masters well. Now he has to move on – hence the timely nudges from the CAG, Team Anna, and of course, the white man’s press (Washington Post, Time, The Independent et al).

He has to make way now for another man, someone less likely to be hindered by democratic forces, someone who will not display the “lack of boldness” or “lack of will” that so “shocked foreign investors”; someone who’ll show “leadership” given the tougher tasks ahead – such as crushing revolting natives with an iron fist, showing no weakness; see issues only from the investors’ point of view; and show the working classes and minorities who’s boss. Something tells me this man is already here. Clue: he has a beard too.


G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He’s reachable at

10 questions you wish somebody would ask Sachin

In Celebs, Cricket, Humour, Popular Culture, Satire, Sports, Uncategorized on July 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm

There is only one thing more boring than a Sachin Tendulkar interview, and that is a self-proclaimed Sachin fan ‘defending’ the man from the 0.00001% of the media that dares to criticise him.

The past week has seen newspapers excreting massive interviews with the selfish gene-cum-genius. And the general format remains the same as always: cleverly flattering questions followed by seriously vapid answers.

Since I am in the enviable position of never having to call Sachin for a quote ever again, and never having to ingratiate myself with the numerous cockroaches that survive on the branded crumbs that drop off his table, I would like to share a list of 10 questions that I have waited for somebody to ask him, in vain. If anybody can get him to answer these questions, I hereby publicly undertake to buy anybody a drink.
So Sachin, here are my 10 questions:
1. In 1999-2000, Indian cricket was rocked by the match-fixing scandal. You were a key member of the team that was captained by Mohammed Azharuddin, and Ajay Jadeja was your teammate. But you didn’t say a word. When asked why you remained silent, you said: “The only reason I did not speak about it is that I didn’t know anything about it. I would have given a statement if I knew something.” So are you lying, or are you being a cretin when you say that you had no clue about match-fixing going on?

2. The whole world knows that you (and subsequently MS Dhoni) are the reason the BCCI has been stonewalling the ICC’s move to make DRS (Decision Referral System) mandatory in all international fixtures. What exactly do you have against the DRS? Is it that, without technology, the benefit of the doubt (especially on LBWs) goes to the batsman, and you, knowing that there will be far more LBWs with DRS than without, don’t want technology messing with your averages and milestone-hunting?

3. You are richer than anybody can ever want to be. Why then are you forever, and shamelessly, asking or accepting favours from the government? Be it having to change the law (Customs Act) so you don’t have to pay duty on an obscenely expensive luxury vehicle, or petitioning the government to relax the FSI regulations for your bungalow in Bandra, why can’t you just graciously accept the rules that apply to everyone else instead of cashing in on your celebrity status to seek favours?

4. For most, nay, all, of your adult life, you have been a very influential person, with access to the highest corridors of power. Yet, not once in your life have you ever taken a stand on any issue — not even on sporting ones. Do you then seriously expect to make a meaningful contribution to any of the debates in the Rajya Sabha? If not, why did you agree to become a Rajya Sabha MP?

5. And having become a Rajya Sabha MP, you say ‘cricket comes first?!!’ What were you thinking? That being a Member of Parliament is a nice hobby or what?

6. Why is your captaincy record so abysmal? If your cricketing intelligence is so great, and if you are a thorough professional, and if you are a nice guy, how can you not be even an average captain, like, say, Anil Kumble was? You’ve got to have something that the other guys don’t have for you to be such an extraordinarily poor captain. What could this be? You ever think about that?

7. Against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup this year, you crawled to your 100th hundred (114 in 147 balls on a flat track against a bovinely gentle attack) at 4.5 runs an over, and actually slowed down in the slog overs when the team’s interests dictated that you score faster. And it was because of your milestone obsession that we lost the match to Bangladesh, which cost us a place in the final. This is not a one-off incident, but the culminating irony of a long career marked by the relentless deployment of individual talent for individual glory, though last I checked, cricket was a team game. Now that you’ve got every record in the book, will you, at least in the last remaining matches of your career, either stop playing for records, or stop paying lip service to how you are a team player — because it’s too brazenly hypocritical to do both?

8. Why is it that when the chips are down, and India is chasing, you never (save the Sharjah hundreds way back in 1998 on a flat track) ever take India home? Don’t say, ‘check the records’ — because the records tell me very clearly that you’ve never single-handedly (like Dravid did in Adelaide or Laxman did while batting with a number 11 to take India home against the Aussies) taken India past the finishing line in your 22-plus years of international cricket. And what kills me is that you had the ability to do exactly that — if Yuvraj could, Laxman could, and Dravid could, so could you. But you never did. You just cannot bat for the team under pressure, is that it? Or is it that you never cared for the team as much as you claim to?

9. I’ve been pondering this one for ages. How did you become such a boring person — open your mouth and everyone goes to sleep?

10. This is an easy one. Do you like journalists who suck up to you?

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi

Why not make Arnab Goswami Prime Minister?

In Celebs, Humour, Popular Culture, Satire, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:49 am

G Sampath | Saturday, February 18, 2012

First published in DNA
No, I am serious. I don’t watch his debates every day, but whenever I do, I am struck by his absolute and unimpeachable commitment to national interest, his love for the people of India, and his fearless examination of every issue to its last possible TRP.
Nobody, not even the BCCI, which denies everything, can deny thatArnab Goswami is the only person in the country to whom every Indian is answerable.
Our politicians, at any rate, hold him in higher regard than Parliament. Which is why you will see them in his channel’s studio more than you see them in Parliament. Whether or not they take part in parliamentary debates, they dare not bunk the debates conducted nightly by Arnab Goswami. And no matter how provocative the questions posed to them, they won’t dream of staging a walk-out from Arnab’schambers like they do every 13 minutes in the Lok Sabha.
Besides, India today is a nation full of outrages — inflation, malnutrition, scams, rapes, the Indian Test team’s ridiculous performance Down Under, SRK becoming brand ambassador of a state whose name I can’t spell anymore, a minister watching porn in a country where nobody watches porn — the list of outrageous phenomena is endless. AndArnab has mastered the art of being outraged. He is the only person I know who can be more outraged than outrage itself.
And that is a talent that our current crop of politicians sorely lack. Nothing fazes them. Poverty? Nothing new. Corruption? Ho-hum. Army atrocities in the north-east? Nothing new. Inflation? Well, let them eat soap. But Arnab? He can extract outrage from a dead cockroach. “Who is responsible for the mysterious death of this innocent cockroach, Mr Prime Minister? The nation needs to know. Was the cockroach really a member of the Indian Mujahideen, as is being claimed by intelligence agencies, or was he another loyal follower of my TV show who spontaneously combusted in uncontrollable outrage?”
Besides, if not Arnab Goswami, who else? Sachin Tendulkar, you say? Well, Sachin is not a bad choice for Prime Minister. His impressive selfishness, his distinguished track record of putting his own interest above that of the collective’s, and ability to amass massive personal milestones will gel perfectly with the prevailing ethos among our Parliamentarians. But one thing that may not work is his voice — sweet as it may sound to his trillion fans, it will get drowned in the well of the House before he can say ‘100’.
My mother thinks Rahul Gandhi should become PM because he is less ferocious and more handsome than Arnab Goswami. But honestly, looks aren’t everything, are they? After all, who does the PM have to woo? Only foreign investors, not Sunny Leone. And foreign investors hardly go for looks, and neither does Leone, on available evidence.
In any case, what are Rahul Gandhi’s credentials? His biggest achievement to date is to grow a beard, which, to his credit, he has done with superb skill, foresight and political acumen.
His beard is a metaphorical representation of his profound grief at the plight of India’s malnourished millions, the Dalits, the adivasis, and the suicide-committing farmers, all of whom have been waiting for 60 years for the barest essentials of life, like FDI in retail, lower taxes for corporates, and fiscal discipline, which any day are more important than utopian, outdated, commie ideas like food, health and education for all, even for those who can’t pay for it.
But the other, much-discussed alternative is also a beard, but one attached to the face of a man named Narendra Modi. This year — this month, next week, in fact — marks the tenth anniversary of the singular event that propelled Modi to power, and today has him being spoken about by respected industrialists and journalists-turned-party intellectuals as the ideal PM for India. To be sure, Modi would be no more communal than the Congress worthies who kept Rushdie out of the Jaipur Lit Fest and presided over the 1984 Sikh riots. But still, if you are a pseudo-secularist, you’d expect at least appearances to be kept up, andModi’s track record, combined with his calculated, unrepentant, humourless anti-secularism is — I won’t deny it — infinitely scarier than even Arnab Goswami at his scariest.
So that leaves only Rajinikanth, who, with his newly acquired six-pack abs that you surely could not have missed in all the Kochadaiyaan posters, is more omnipotent than ever before and can demolish every obstacle in India’s path to superpowerdom with a flick of his little finger or a click in Photoshop, whichever applicable.
All said and done, he is the only real contender that Arnab needs to worry about. I would settle the matter by calling both of them to a duel on Juhu beach one Sunday morning. But the duel will be fought using only words and gestures, without bodily contact. Whoever wins will, I am sure, be the best Prime Minister India’s ever had.
While Rajini might vaporise Arnab with his laughter, Arnab might pre-empt it by unleashing on Rajini his finger-wagging verbiage of infinite outrage. In which case, Rajini, whose compassionate heart melts at even the tiniest, teeny weenie injustice, would collapse instantly into a heap of sand, and Arnab would emerge the winner. But it would be a close call.

O kayar, tera Rockstar tu hi raq

In Bollywood, Popular Culture, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:29 am

G Sampath | Saturday, November 12, 2011

First published in DNA
Nothing is funnier than an Indian pretending to be a rock star. At some level, we all know this. Which is probably why India hasn’t produced a single genuine rock star till date.
We have produced world class musicians, and truly great singers, but not a rock star.
But we keep making films about rock stars. Recently Katrina Kaif was a rock star in a film about finding a wife. Now Ranbir Kapoor is a rock star in a film about, I am told, love.
Well, we must love rock stars if Bollywood thinks there is money to be made in films about rock stars. But being a rock star is not only about the music. An integral part of the rock ethos is rebellion. All the drugs and alcoholism and free sex and wild parties synonymous with rock began as acts of rebellion against a prevailing social order that was as socially straitjacketed as it was morally claustrophobic.
But rebellion is also a good pose. We all adopt it at some point in our lives — usually in our teens — but rarely when it matters. This is because today all social, cultural, and even moral norms — all matters of principle — have been re-engineered and made contingent on the demands of the new god — Lord Market.
Therefore, any rebellion worth its name will have to be a rebellion against the Lord Market. Rest assured middle-class India is not going to be at the forefront of this rebellion. But all the same, they still want to experience the emotion of rebellion. Because it’s so cool, you know?
And for a nation of conformist blatherers whose basic instinct is to suck up to power rather than defy it, the rebellion implicit in the persona of a rock star is a delicious fantasy. For urban India’s middle-class youth in particular — who will lap up Imtiaz Ali’s film, I’m sure — it is a rebellion app they can download and daydream about freely, at no cost to their MBA dreams.
Indeed, the controversy surrounding Ali’s Rockstar is a perfect case study that illustrates why India has never seen a true rock star outside the silver screen.
Here’s the plot summary: An influential Bollywood director wants to shoot in a Tibetan monastery near Mcleod Ganj. It’s not just any scene that he wants to shoot — it’ll be a rock star singing about freedom, and demanding your haq. The Tibetans want to know whether they can place ‘Free Tibet’ flags in the backdrop, since the song is about freedom anyway. Ali gives them his word that the flags will be displayed in the song. The trusting Tibetans don’t ask him to sign a contract stating he will do so. They just let him shoot in their monastery without further ado.
After the film is made, the censor board suggests to Ali that the Tibetan flag be either blurred or deleted. Ali, if he had wanted to, could have easily appealed against this suggestion, and most probably he would have got the film passed with the flag intact.
If his appeal had failed, he could’ve called a press conference and lambasted the censor board for curbing freedom of expression, and kowtowing to China, perhaps without even being asked — for last I checked there wasn’t a Chinese representative in the Indian censor board.
One would have expected Ali to have at least expressed his anguish at this cut. That would have meant something. He could have used this opportunity to highlight the Tibetan cause. But that would have required him to do something no Indian businessman or professional or celebrity ever does — take a political stand.
In fact, not only did Ali not take a stand, when contacted by DNA, he said something dumb. He said, “The song (Sadda Haq) was more about personal freedom rather than any geographical or political issue.” Hello! Try telling that to a Tibetan, or a Kashmiri, or a Manipuri, or an Iraqi, or an Afghan. Or even a Dalit. Or even your gay or lesbian friend. As they would clarify, freedom is always a political issue. The only kind of ‘personal freedom’ that is not a political issue is the freedom of a consumer, which is apparently the only kind of freedom Ali is concerned with.
Perhaps it’s not fair to pin the blame on Ali alone. By all accounts, the director is sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, and his next film is apparently on this very subject. But his good intentions aside, Ali is a cog in the wheel of showbiz. Had he appealed against the censor board’s cuts, it would have delayed the release of the film, screwing up the marketing and distribution schedules, resulting in losses running into crores of rupees. And there goes your principled stand. But what are these losses compared with the ‘losses’ the Tibetans are toting up: 11 fatal self-immolations in the last 8 months, and a generation lost to imprisonment, torture and executions. Ali did not (perhaps his financiers did not let him) think of this when he chickened out from contesting the censor board’s cuts.
I haven’t seen Rockstar yet. I am sure it will be a successful film. And Ali is certainly a good director. But he needs to publicly apologise to the Tibetans for breaking his promise, and for letting them down. Until he does so, as far as I’m concerned, he can stuff his Rockstar.

Why the book is always better than the movie

In Hollywood, Literature, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

G Sampath | Saturday, October 29, 2011

First published in DNA
Last week, after a long time, I read a novel that I’d seen as a film already — Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.
One problem with this is that your experience of the novel is pre-filtered through the cinematic rendition.
So I imagined the main characters, Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and Anton Chigurh as Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem respectively. But you also find that the novel evokes a far richer experience of the story than a film ever could. I guess you can put it down to the limitations of the medium. When made into a film, a novel gains in terms of spectacle and reach, but loses out on depth and complexity. This is partly also due to the nature of the reading process, which is not as linear, and passive, as watching a film.
For those not familiar with the story, here’s the plot summary: one day Moss, a welder, while hunting antelope in Texas, stumbles on the scene of a drug deal gone bad: dead bodies, guns, a stash of heroin, and a satchel with $2.4 million in cash. He could either walk away, or grab the money and run. Moss chooses the latter, setting off a chain of events where Chigurh, a killer, is hired by one of the drug bosses to track Moss down and recover the money, while Sheriff Bell tries ineffectually to investigate the drug-related killings and protect Moss and his wife.
Unlike the film, the book resonates with multiple layers of meaning. For instance, it explores the endlessly fascinating question of whether a human being can take what is not his, and expect to live without consequences — his life unstained by that crime. Moss only attempts to take what is anyway illegal money, and it does not belong to him. Is this then, an allegory about the American nation itself — which stole the continent from native Indians, and yet has always believed itself to be destined by god to be a leader of the Free World (the doctrine of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, etc)?
Will the theft and genocide on which America was born, and continues to live off — the theft of land from the Indian peoples, the theft of the lives of millions of slaves trafficked from Africa, and today, the theft of oil from the Middle East, not to mention innumerable other thefts of lives and resources from different parts of the world — catch up with it someday, as Moss’s theft catches up with him?
Moss knows there is little chance of his getting away with $2.4 million of drug money, but he thinks maybe he can because he is special. Perhaps, in this dilemma, and in this choice, McCarthy, often hailed as the true heir of Hemingway and Faulkner, has managed to capture the existential history of America, and the radioactive nature of the American dream.
In the book, Chigurh’s character, who the film depicts as the purest incarnation of evil, doesn’t see himself as evil. He believes himself to be the instrument of fate. Hence his use of the coin toss. When a victim begs him for mercy, he flips a coin and asks him to call it. Invariably, the ones he knows he’ll have to kill call it wrong, and those who call it right are people he knows he can spare.
In a brilliant scene, Chigurh has a chat with Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, who knows he has come to kill her. When she begs him not to kill her, he offers her a glimmer of hope: a coin toss.
She calls ‘tails’, but it is ‘heads’.
Chigurh says, “I’m sorry.”
A terrified Carla tells him, “You make it like it was the coin. But you’re the one.”
In a revealing comment, Chigurh tells her, “I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”
Here was a bad guy, so to speak, who killed seemingly good people — not out of greed or jealousy or hatred, but almost from a sense of duty, as a matter of principle. In the film, you are either terrified of Chigurh or you hate him. But as you read McCarthy’s novel, you find the evil of Chigurh refracted through the prism of your own self — the evil things we do, and justify, as a duty we have to perform. The patriotic killings of a soldier comes to mind, as do the lay-offs a CEO perpetrates as part of his professional duty, or the peculiar logic that justifies the evil and forcible displacement of adivasis from their land in the name of economic development and progress (a logic apparently as inexorable as fate and Chigurh).
While watching the film, you’re rooting for Moss, but it is not until you read the novel that you understand that in real life, our allegiance, whether we like it or not, is with Chigurh.