Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

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.

Watching Murakami in Malayalam

In Cinema, Humour, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Many film festival regulars often have this strange competitive thing going on between them. Usually, it’s about who’s ‘caught’ the maximum number of the ‘best’ films on show. And of course, they themselves are the best judges of which are the best films. “Hey,” they’d holler from their stall in the auditorium loo, “have you watched ‘The Night of the Constipated Dead’? Dude! How could you have missed it? What superb cinematography! What brilliant sound effects, dude! See if they’ve another screening planned – it’s THE film of the festival!” and so on in that vein.

Of course, the truth might be the opposite. The fellow might have been so traumatized by the experience, so filled with rage at his own pathetic judgment, and so consumed by the desire to get even, that he’s trying to send as many gullible souls as he can to the cinematic gallows.

Screen-grab from YouTube trailer of In April The Following Year There was a Fire.
Yours truly became such a gullible soul not once, not twice, but three times in the course of a single film festival – the 12th Osian Cinefan film festival which concluded in the capital last Sunday.

The first time was with something called Ballad of Rustom, which came highly recommended by a film critic (never trust them). It was a 10pm show, and I hadn’t planned on catching a 10 pm show because the last metro home was at 11, and this was a two-hour film. Plus I hadn’t had dinner. But this critic was insistent that it was THE film to watch, and my companion (who I’d only just met at the festival, and who cunningly did not reveal, until much later, that he was a practicing sado-masochist) seconded the critic’s views about the film.

So hungry, thirsty (for some reason the security guards took away my water bottle. The festival organisers did not allow you to hydrate yourself while watching a film – isn’t that against the law or something?) and excited about catching an Indian cinematic masterpiece, me and my friend (he shall be referred to as Mr M from now on) trooped into the auditorium, and patted ourselves on the back when we saw a sizeable crowd. If we were making a mistake, at least we won’t be the only ones. (Bet that’s what lemmings say to each other when they jump off a cliff.)

Ballad Of Rustom, as I shortly discovered, is about a telephone repairman called Rustom who does three things again and again over a period of 117 minutes: 1. He cycles through beautiful landscapes; 2. He washes his face; and 3. He tinkers with bulbs and electrical wires.

Actually, that’s a gross over-simplification of a very complex, very multi-layered, very moderately pretentious film with extraordinary cinematography. But unfortunately, it was wasted on someone like me, whose cinematically under-evolved faculty was ill-equipped to see a metaphor when it saw a man splashing cold water on his face. What it saw instead, was a man splashing cold water on his face.

On more than three occasions I was tempted to walk out so I can grab myself something to eat, but Mr M – praise be upon him – forced me to stay till the bitter end. And I was glad I did, because I did not want to miss the ending. The last time I’d seen a film in which mostly nothing happened, the last 15 minutes had a rape, a murder and a suicide. I was hoping this one too would throw up something like that. I couldn’t have forgiven myself if I missed it.

And we were justly rewarded for our pains – for more than one person died at the end. One was a suicide by drowning, though I had no idea who he was or why he died, while another probably perished in a fire. But both were exquisitely shot sequences — of a corpse floating in a pond, and a burnt out office, respectively.

This obsession with pretty-looking visuals, where the camera is in love with itself, as it were, was what kept me out of the film. Either the filmmaker is king or the camera is – in Ballad of Rustom, the camera executes a silent coup. And cinematic art becomes collateral damage. The place where this film’s non-existent action takes place has no discernible connection with any particular geography or history or time, while characters with no discernible roots in history or geography or time pontificate on the state of the nation and the futility of political action.

After the film, in a post-midnight interaction with the director, one learnt that the film was ostensibly an attempt to capture a universal reality about the destruction awaiting nature and the dark clouds of predatory human development hanging over natural beauty everywhere. But lacking roots in a specific historical reality (or any reality for that matter), what we get are so many beautiful scenes searching, like orphaned souls, for a narrative body that can give them something akin to life.

But Ballad of Rustom was not my only case of having the wrong tooth pulled. The other one, which is my fault entirely, was a Thai film called In April The Following Year There was a Fire. Not many people who landed up to see this film lasted as long as its title. Unlike Ballad, however, the main character of this film, a construction worker named Nhum, is not really a character at all but a stand-in for the director in a film that suddenly turns into a semi-autobiography of the director himself – I didn’t make this up, it says so in the synopsis of the film.

Anyway, all this is very well, except that this Nhum, like Rustom, does three things over and over again: 1. He smokes; 2. He walks; 3. He sleeps. There is only so much a man can take of a man smoking and walking and sleeping, and I regret to say that I cannot really say anything more about this film because I walked out shortly after Nhum’s 17th cigarette.
But in the evening the following day, there was a film we saw that made Ballad and the Thai film with the lengthy name seem like the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. It was a Malayalam film, officially a short one – just 15 minutes, though each minute was about 10 minutes long, effectively making it a two-and-a-half hour film.

Titled Cat People, it was an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, ‘Man-eating Cats’. Now, in the normal course of things, Murakami’s stories are not easily comprehensible. Strange things happen, people disappear for no reason, humans form intimate relationships with animals who are more than just animals. A lot is going on that is never explained and you don’t really mind that because you’re reading him more because you like the world he’s created and want to spend time with his lonely, alienated, and yet strangely self-sufficient characters.

As an old Murakami junkie, I was practically jumping up and down in joy when I discovered I was going to see one of his stories rendered on screen. But Mr M (who wouldn’t miss a Malayalam film for nothing) brought me down to earth, saying, “Buddy, this Murakami is in Malayalam. So don’t get your hopes up too high.”

And sad to say, he was proved right. The cultural distance to be traversed – from Japan to Kerala via English on a story set in Greece — seems to have overwhelmed the young director, who mixes three tea spoons of puliyattam (a tiger is a big cat, after all) with a few drops of Onam, three dead cats, a man, a woman, and a nightmare, to come up with a mélange of cinematic memes signifying nothing.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to my Mallu friend, in the hope that, being a native speaker, he would’ve caught more of the nuances of the film than I could by reading the English sub-titles.

“One day in the life of a Malayalee,” he said. “Wife goes out to work, husband stays at home and either smokes or mopes.”

“So who is this Malayalee guy?” I persisted. Save the fact that he was injured in one leg and liked to read the newspaper, I couldn’t make out much about him.

Mr M was silent for a while, watching the screen intently. And I realised then that the film had already ended – gone before I could ‘get it’. All my reading of Murakami was of little help in ‘reading’ this film.

As we were walking out, Bald Mr M explained, “Only a Mallu intellectual can understand Murakami in Malayalam. It’s not for everyone – so don’t blame the filmmaker if you didn’t get it.”

“So why don’t you tell me what that was all about?” I said.

“It’s elementary, my friend,” he said. “It’s a random film about a random woman, a random man, and a random nightmare.”

I stared at him. Of course! Now it all made sense! Even the other two – Ballad and the Thai one – were just that. Random films about – er – random stuff. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing. Does everything in life have to make sense? No, it doesn’t.

“You’re right,” I said to my friend. “These could well be the three best films of the festival. If I didn’t get them, it’s my fault.”

“You bet,” he said. “After all, two out of the three have won awards.”

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.

How to be positively negative

In Humour, Relationships, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm

“You’re always being negative, too negative,” the Wife said to me in the course of our scheduled Sunday fight two weeks ago.

In case you’re wondering – yes, we keep all our fights for Sunday. Except when either of us is travelling, in which case we reschedule the agenda of the missed Sunday fight to the next Sunday when both of us are in the same city (we avoid phone fights unless it’s an emergency and can’t wait).

We decided on Sundays because we’re both too busy to fight properly during the week, and Saturday is the day set aside for our respective errands. For Wife, it’s the day she buys all the vegetables I don’t like, goes to the bank five minutes after closing time (so she has a reason to go to the bank again next Saturday), and makes me feel guilty for not chauffeuring her around on wild goose chases.

Last Saturday, for instance, I was corralled into a second-hand furniture-shopping-expedition – ostensibly to buy a ‘comfortable chair’ for ‘back-achy’ me. All I got in return for five hours of standing and waiting and intermittently deploying my own bottom to wipe the dust off assorted antique chairs in a muddy corner of Lajpat Nagar were thirteen Georgian knobs for cabinets that don’t yet exist, dizziness caused by extreme hunger, and a heart throbbing with rising BP and unexpressed acrimony.

For me, Saturday is the day I sit down and prepare my weekly report on our perfect marriage, with concrete action points on how to make it even more perfect, and make the perfection sustainable in a challenging domestic environment and fast-changing emotional climate.

Restricting fights to one pre-assigned weekday has three advantages: it keeps most of the week peaceful; in the absence of an immediate trigger, you’re not adequately charged up for a full-blown emotional melt-down (which is mandatory if you have to take the fight to the next level); and fighting with your spouse isn’t much fun when it’s no longer a spontaneous outburst at a perceived injustice but a task on your to-do list.

So in this fight I spoke about, calling me ‘negative’ was Wife’s counter to my observation that she had forgotten to switch off the geyser three times in a row in one week.

“I wasn’t being negative,” I replied. “I was just stating a fact.”

“Now you’re being defensive on top of being negative,” she said.

I considered pointing out that her calling me ‘negative’, followed by her calling me ‘defensive’ – was a text book example of negativity. But on a whim, I opted for the road less travelled.

“I am sorry,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to stop being negative.”

Wife’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Is this supposed to be another one of your sad jokes?”

“Of course not!” I said, despite being fully aware that I was playing into her hands by answering a leading question, and thereby implicitly admitting I had made ‘sad jokes’ in the past.

“Fine,” she said, savouring her little victory. “Let me see if you can do this: whenever you find something to criticise me for, convert it into praise.”

“But how –” I began, but she cut me off.

“The moment you say ‘but’ – it’s a big sign that you’re being negative. Can’t you give me one week of no criticism and only praise?”

Put like that – as a challenge – I couldn’t not accept.

“Okay,” I said. “You got it.”

So a week went by – it was in no way different from any of the previous weeks, save in one respect: on Sunday morning, I found myself in the unique position of having a lot of ammunition but bound by an agreement to surrender all arms. And not only that, I was required to go the extra mile and convert my nuclear-tipped missiles into honey-coated flower rockets filled with Machher Jhol and tiramisu.

So this is what I said to Wife last Sunday:

“First of all, I would like to congratulate you on leaving the geyser on for altogether 33 hours this past week – this is three hours more than the previous week. I am confident that, with your consistent efforts, we will, in the next billing cycle, break all our power consumption records and surpass our previous highest electricity bill of Rs11,678 by a huge margin.

“Secondly, on Wednesday, you demonstrated tremendous courage and risk-taking ability by carrying out a comparative study of the melting point of steel and the boiling point of water. You did this by filling a steel vessel with water and waiting till all the water had evaporated and the vessel had turned black as a buffalo. By thus reminding me of my favourite animal (buffalo) and favourite colour (black), you instantly lightened my mood.

“Finally, on Saturday, you insisted on taking the Kalindi Kunj route home when I wanted to take the DND expressway, and we got stuck in a jam for two hours. Thanks to this, we spent two unexpected hours in each other’s exclusive company – two precious hours we would not had with each other if we had reached home one-and-a-half hour earlier, and I hadn’t had to cancel a crucial Skype appointment.

“So, thank you for being such a wonderful Wife – for being patriotic (boosting the national economy by increasing power consumption), inventive (improve my mood through an innovative scientific process), and really loving (willing to put self and spouse through a mega-traffic jam for the sake of quality time together).”

My little speech was received in silence.

“So?” I said. “Did I pass?”

She shook her head, and said, “Affirmative.”

Congratulations, you’re now a leadership expert!

In Humour, Management, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I’m not an expert on leadership. But guess what? You don’t have to be! And you can still hold forth as if you are a leadership expert — because everyone is a potential leadership expert, just as everyone is a potential leader, and you too can become a leader if you pay enough money to a leadership consultant. I hereby dedicate this piece to that special breed that makes a living by ripping off suckers who will pay for ‘leadership lessons’.

If you walk into a five star hotel and throw a stone randomly (on second thoughts, if you don’t want to be thrown out by hotel security, make that an apple), it’s bound to fall on a suit who fancies himself an expert on leadership. Leadership is such a vague idea that it is impossible to go wrong when you say anything about it. But there is a small problem:
there is nothing new you can say about it.

So you have every ‘thought leader’ worth the three thoughts in his skull striving to draw ‘leadership lessons’ from the Mahabharata, ‘talent management insights’ from Sholay, and ‘unorthodox leadership tips’ from the Godfather. There is a thriving cottage industry peddling such ‘content’ – not just in the form of articles, blogs and books, but full-fledged ‘leadership development programmes’ where seemingly rational human beings subject themselves to concentrated doses of this stuff in an enclosed space.

But what’s wrong in teaching someone to be a leader, you may ask. My answer: you cannot ‘teach’ leadership anymore than you can teach strength of character. ‘Leadership’ describes a certain kind of behaviour in certain kinds of situations. Such behaviour has its roots in the person’s character – a concept that ‘leadership programmes’ are allergic to, given that ‘character’ has given way to ‘personality’ as the defining paradigm for talking about individuals in the management space.

Until the early 20th century, ‘character’ used to be the default concept for discussing a person’s actions and behaviour. But with the rise and rise of Management as a pseudo-science, two things became necessary: one, to reinvent the human being as a malleable entity that could be trained to work harmoniously with machines as per the machine’s convenience; two, to eliminate the moral dimension from human behaviour, a dimension embedded in the very concept of character, and which therefore makes it unsuitable as a term of reference in the amoral space wherein business management operates.

Management theorists realised pretty fast that while character is difficult to change, behaviour and habits are not. Personality is nothing but the sum total of your behaviour and habits. It can be scientifically observed, if not quantified. Once quantified, a person can be trained to change ‘unsuitable behaviour patterns’ and this change in behaviour can be tracked. And most importantly, ‘personality’ has no applicability in the moral domain. In other words, you can have a good personality and be a bad person (but you cannot have a good character and be a bad person).

Thus, the advantages of focussing on personality as opposed to character are manifold.
But what makes ‘personality development’ a useful tool for managing employees – flexibility, willingness to blindly follow orders, and the lack of a moral compass – renders it inadequate for leadership behaviour. Hence the amount of bilge produced on leadership everyday by wannabe management gurus.

Today you have any number of ‘personality tests’ – Myers-Briggs, TAT, Rorschah Inkblot — and some of them apparently help you identify potential leaders and ‘groom’ them. But no amount of personality reengineering is going to help in producing real leaders. Why? Because what we laud as leadership is simply the byproduct of the positive social difference a person makes – not an antecedent quality that supposedly resides in his personality and makes her ‘act like a leader’, as it were. Leadership is a set of actions borne of character, not a ‘skill’ or a personality trait that can be programmed into someone through training.

Leadership, in a word, is the difference between a Hugo Chavez and a Barack Obama. One acted according to his moral compass, exercised his political autonomy, and will go down in history as a truly great and inspiring leader. The other reserves his moral compass and autonomy only for his speeches. Nobody can deny Obama is leadership material in terms of his personality, but whether he will ever demonstrate leadership behaviour such that it makes a positive social difference to the millions of people subject to his power, is a matter of character.

Watching Mama with Papa

In Cinema, Hollywood, Humour, Relationships, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm

If you’re a resident of India, you don’t actually have to pay money to get terrified. All you need to do is pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV, or just take a walk down the road outside your gated community. This, in brief, is Father’s position on horror movies. As for going to the movies in general, there can ever be only one reason to do so: the opportunity to nap peacefully in a darkened, air-conditioned room in a snug, cushiony seat.

Though I follow some directors in the horror genre, I’m not a big fan of ‘ghost movies’ per se. But Wife is. And every new horror movie that releases, has to be ‘seen’.

I’ve put ‘seen’ within quotes because, as will soon become clear, there is a big difference between going to see a film and actually seeing it when you’re in front of a giant screen in a darkened theatre.

So last week when she began badgering me about going for Mama, Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering, I knew what was coming. But there was one complication: we were visiting my parents in Chennai after a long time, and as a model daughter-in-law, she wasn’t comfortable leaving her parents-in-law out of the ‘outing’. Mama, of course, wouldn’t be caught dead watching a film called Mama. But Father was persuaded to come along “for the experience”.

When it comes to movie reviews, Wife swears by the NYT critic Manohla Dargis, and this is what Dargis had to say about Mama: “Horror … rarely gets more enjoyable than Mama.”

Less than 10 minutes into the film, she was finding the film so enjoyable she couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to leave. “This is too scary, let’s go now,” the inevitable litany had started.

Father, on the other hand, was snoring so nicely in sync with the film’s scare moments that some in the front rows were turning around in wondrous confusion, trying to figure out the mechanics of the exceptionally good 3-D surround sound.

As always, I was the only one genuinely interested in getting my money’s worth of scares. But this time, over and above my usual challenge of paying attention to the film while keeping Wife in her seat, I had the additional one of not letting Father’s snores – which were gradually rising in volume, and establishing their own identity as a composition distinct from those approved by Mama’s sound designer – distract me.

I am not sure about the physiological rationale behind this, but I was amazed at how he slept through all the loudest scenes in the film – the sudden crashes, screams and clangs – but would wake up in the quietest moments, look around in surprise, and then gently close his eyes again.

Father’s longest and most lucid phase of wakefulness came just before the interval, by which time Wife was concentrating hard on her Blackberry. She had switched to her old tactic of screening out any sensory input from the film by clearing important official mail that would require her full attention.

In what I’m sure was the defining scene of the film, when the ghost seemed like winning, Father woke up. He woke up because his cell was playing Carnatic music at a decibel level higher than that of his snores. He then did something nobody – neither me nor Wife – expected: he took the call. And started saying things like, “I told that idiot not to get involved with that woman …no, no, I am in a cinema hall….HELLO….can you hear me? HELLO…HELLO?”

I tried to snatch the phone from him. But he turned away, signaling to me that it was an important call, and he kept talking, and wouldn’t go out of the hall. What was most bizarre — nobody objected. Even as I sank deeper into my seat in shame and mortification, our neighbours gave him indulgent glances. Perhaps they were shit scared by the movie and welcomed the intrusion of reality into the world of make-believe. Wife, who usually lost no time pouncing on any ‘cell phone loonies’ couldn’t stop grinning.

Well, it all seems so predictable now — but my eloquent appeals to reason and the logic of paisa vasool didn’t work. Wife didn’t want to go back after the interval: “Let’s watch it at home – you can mute it when it gets too much.” Father clearly saw no reason to go back. “Not a bad film,” he said, “but how can anyone sleep with all that noise?”

How I miss the Mumbai winter

In Humour, Lifestyle, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm


Illustration by Ravi Jadhav

I moved from Mumbai to Delhi last April. And in all that time since, I never missed Mumbai as much as I did over the last ten days or so. I’ve just taken up a new assignment that requires me to step out of the house at seven in the morning, and with only the vapours from my mouth for company, I’ve been negotiating the Delhi winter with the ‘winter clothing’ that I had originally bought in Mumbai some half a dozen years ago, on a whim and a sale.

If you talk to non-resident Dilliwalas, they will wax eloquent about the ‘Delhi winter’ – as much if not more than how Mumbaikars romanticise their monsoons. But reality has a way of pouring cold water (pardon the double pun) on warm hallucinations of nostalgia.

Just as Mumbai’s monsoons mean flooding, traffic jams, and disruption of the local trains, Delhi’s winter means extreme fog, clothes that don’t dry, and a bone-chilling cold that leaves your brain frozen in mid-thought.

Please don’t think I am exaggerating – as I’m writing this, 233 people have perished already to the cold wave sweeping north India. Last week, the temperature was 0.7 degrees in Gurgaon – which is my commuting destination. In fact, yesterday, outside the Huda City Centre metro station, at half past six in the evening, there was half a kilometre long queue of shivering men waiting to get in through the security check.

Yours truly was one of those, and I consoled myself by thinking of the Labrador I passed on the way – it was wearing just a single piece of woollen ‘jacket’ wrapped around its belly. Its face was uncovered, its ears were uncovered, its tail was uncovered – I couldn’t believe the poor animal was warm enough in this ‘dress’ bang in the middle of a Delhi chill that is reported to be the “harshest and longest in 40 years.”

Everywhere you go, you see men in street corners huddled around bonfires created from leaves, twigs and garbage. And then, of course, there is the fog – which becomes a part of the landscape, and even occupies your living room. I don’t know how – but last week, I was sitting in the living room watching TV and suddenly I could only hear Arnab Goswami and not see him anymore. Then I realised it was the fog, and the television set was enveloped in it.

This never happened to me in Mumbai, though. When it comes to winter, the maximum city becomes the minimum city – it knows how to offer a human being a finely calibrated winter: cold enough to deliver days that are perceptibly cooler and more attractive than summer, but not so vastly different in terms of temperature that you have to invest in a whole new wardrobe.

When I moved to Delhi, I had with me just one sweater – that too with a hole in it, most likely made by a Bambaiyya rat tasting wool for the first time in its life. This apology of a sweater probably did less for me than what the ‘wrap’ did for the Lab.

Then on December 31st, we decided to go for the ‘Take Back the Night’ protest at PVR Saket, and it was so cold, so cold, that we took a detour to a nearby market to get some really solid overcoats and thermal wear for each of us. Now my wife wants to segregate all my clothes into two sets: ‘summer wear’ and ‘winter wear’. Honestly, I used to think that only fashion designers dealt with stuff like ‘summer collection’ and ‘winter collection’. Now I have one of each too – that’s what Delhi forces upon you, whether you like it or not.

But come to think of it, what is the purpose of winter? Basically, to give us a little respite from the heat and sweat of summer. Mumbai, whose default climate setting is summer, has got this sorted out. When its summer gets rainfall, they call it the monsoons. And when the monsoon is finished, summer resumes. It is only December-January that gives well-heeled Mumbaikars some excuse to try out their ‘winter collections’. As for me, when I was in Mumbai, my ‘winter collection’ was simply to wear a T-shirt beneath a shirt, and that was enough to keep me warm.

But I am in Delhi now, and I am going to stop this column right here because I can’t type with the gloves on and my fingers are freezing.

The end of the world and all that shit

In Humour, Satire, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm

What were you doing when the world was ending?” is not a question that a human being is normally expected to answer. But that’s what I was doing the day after the day marked for the biggest Event in the history of the world — its end. For those of you who haven’t been told yet: I was busy squabbling over which was better for the bottom: a square toilet or a round one.

Let me explain. My wife was determined that if there was one thing she wanted done before the world ended, it was to die with a bathroom she wouldn’t have to be ashamed of. So we spent the second week of December selecting tiles, chasing the plumber, and researching toilets.

I wanted a round pot because the human bottom is round (sort of) and also because I prefer roundness as a matter of aesthetic principle. But my wife believed that a square toilet would look more elegant as debris, and weather an apocalypse better. So, after a long and bitter argument which I lost, naturally, we ended up buying a square pot. My only consolation was that it didn’t really matter because, the world was going to end anyway, and then I wouldn’t be around to produce shit.

But as usual, it turned out that I was slow on the uptake. It took me a while to register that, for the doomsday believers, the end of  the world did not mean that they themselves would cease to exist — it only signified a mega-calamity that they, and they alone, along with their family, friends, pets (and if they are lucky, their favourite pornstars), would survive.

But if you ask me, personally, I believe the end of the world is an idea whose time has come. As a lifetime pessimist and technophobe and eco-fundamentalist who holds that all forms of life on the planet (save mosquitoes) have equal rights to life and dignity, I sincerely believe the extinction of the human race would serve the greater common good.

When the dinosaurs returned to the evolutionary pavilion after a marathon innings of 180 million years, they left the planet, if not a better place than they found it, at least no worse. We humans have barely played a couple of overs, and we’ve already wrecked the pitch, poisoned the opposition, and burnt down half the stadium. If you ask any cockroach, it would tell you that life was much better under the dinosaurs — there were no pesticides in leftovers, and hardly any traffic.

I am not particularly fond of machines, but I am with Agent Smith on his assessment of the human species. In that memorable scene in Matrix — arguably the greatest cinematic indictment of the technophilia and the digital onanism that drives human civilization today — Agent Smith, a computer program, tells a bashed up and battered Morpheus that human beings are no different from a virus: “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”

As someone with a vested interest in the welfare of the planet, I was hoping the cure would happen on December 21st. But alas, the disease will live on. We will continue to fry the planet, plunder mountains and seas, pollute the rivers and the air, poison the lakes and the very source code of life — the planetary gene pool — in the name of progress and technology. And we will continue to wage war for peace, make arms for security, and build prisons to protect our liberty. Who would mourn the passing away of a world such as this? Or celebrate its non-perishing? Not me. And not even the doomsday junkies.

It’s not as if, on December 21, the doomsday believers really expected the entire planet to disappear in a puff of smoke, or the earth to be smashed by a colliding planet into a million little pieces, each country now perched atop a tiny piece of planetary real estate with its own atmosphere to pollute and species to make extinct and ozone layer to make holes in.

Yet there is hope. If you really think about it, the ‘end’ not happening on December 21 may not be a cancellation, but merely a postponement. The end of the world is not an event, but a process. A process orchestrated exclusively by the human species. And you and I are either passive participants or active agents of this process.
So, to come back to the main issue: crapping into a square pot every day instead of a round one is not the end of the world, is it?
THE END — haha

Who will mourn Man’s extinction?

In Humour, Satire, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Every man, deep down, knows he’s a worthless piece of shit.’
—Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto

If you were in Delhi this past week, there was no way you could have escaped being affected by the public protests over the (I’m not going to bother saying ‘alleged’) gang rape of a 23-year-old in a moving bus last Sunday.

The rage in the air was so thick you could have cut it with a shaving blade. But it was frustrating to see the business-as-usual, TRP-driven spectacle of assorted talking heads and politicians and cops and news anchors engaged in competitive verbal flatulence.
Not one TV channel or newspaper was asking the really important question: Are men necessary? Let’s begin from where we want to be: A world where men won’t rape women. What then is the most logical solution? A world without men.

This is not my idea, nor is it an original one. Such a solution has been imagined, and proposed, many times before. The most celebrated of such proposals is the American radical feminist, Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, published in 1967. In case you were wondering, SCUM stands for Society for Cutting Up Men.

“Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” Thus begins Solanas’ scintillating ode to the utter redundancy of the human male.

Solanas calls for the elimination of men as the only way to secure a life of meaning and dignity for women, and also for men. And if there’s one place in the world where her argument would be irrefutable, it has to be Delhi, the rape capital of the world.

Solanas wastes no time trying to buttress her case with sophisticated philosophical arguments. In any case, “the male,” she points out, “is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion… to be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited… Women don’t have penis envy; men have pussy envy.” Hence the male compulsion to keep women under subjugation, both physically and psychically, with the most direct embodiment of this being rape.

SCUM, by working to destroy the money system, government, law and order — the whole male-erected system of society — will pave the way for a world where male violence would be unimaginable.

In literature, the most deadly, most beautiful (her role was played by the late Aaliyah in a botched Hollywood adaptation) and personally, my most favourite, advocate of genocide against men is the vampire queen, Akasha. The eponymous villain of Anne Rice’s best-seller Queen Of The Damned (Book III of The Vampire Chronicles, and the sequel to the sequel to Interview With The Vampire) is the only woman in the history of the world, real or imagined, to have carried out a systematic pogrom against men with the objective of nudging mortals like you and me toward a world without rape, war or random acts of male violence.

Akasha is an ancient, powerful vampire from pre-Biblical Egypt, which had a matriarchal society. When she is awakened in the 20th century, she is so appalled by the wars, rapes, assorted atrocities, and general mismanagement unleashed by men in positions of power that she concludes that the best way to bring peace among humans is to have one male for every 99 females. The males would be kept purely for breeding and recreation purposes, nothing more. “Can you conceive of bands of roving women intent only on destruction? Or rape? Such a thing is preposterous …. The possibility of peace on earth has always existed, and there have always been people who could realize it, and preserve it, and those people are women. If one takes away the men.” That is Akasha for you.

For once I was rooting for the ‘bad guy’ to win. But alas, the gorgeous Akasha, being a vampire, could not be allowed to triumph over humans — it would go against the norms of the vampire genre. Rice would go only thus far, and no further. But I, like Solanas, would have no objection to an ethnic cleansing of the ‘dented’, ‘tainted’ race. Neither would Mother Nature, I’m guessing.

Killing is fun when it’s for a cause

In Humour, Satire, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm

People who know me well would testify that I am a meek, amiable, and peaceable creature, not given to acts of violence and bloodshed, especially during daylight hours. But then, as you may have read in the papers, people change. And in the last couple of weeks, I have seen myself change — from a gentle peacenik into a bloodthirsty mass murderer — and all for the greater common good.

It all began with this mosquito swatter I saw at the local supermarket. This happened shortly after I had read about the death of a powerful movie mogul at the hands of a dengue mosquito. This man’s death affected me deeply, and I had barely recovered when Arvind Kejriwal came out of the closet and identified himself as a dengue mosquito. I had no choice but to arm myself with as much knowledge as I could get my hands on about this creature and the virus it carried.

I learnt, for instance, that ‘dengue’ is the name of the virus and not the mosquito. The mosquito that gave you dengue is apparently called Aids – don’t ask me why. And how do you distinguish a dengue mosquito from a ‘normal’ mosquito? By looking at legs – the mosquito’s legs. As someone with ample experience in this department – it was simply a matter of redirecting my optical reflexes – in no time at all I became an expert at racial profiling of mosquitoes and identifying the dengue ones.

Just for your information: a dengue mosquito looks like what an ordinary mosquito would look like if it wore black and white striped pyjamas – that’s how its legs look like. And the creature does have really long legs (though not as long as Deepika Padukone’s; but then Deepika, as many observers have pointed out, and correctly so, in my opinion, is not a dengue mosquito).
Also, the dengue mosquito keeps regular working hours: it bites only during the day, nine to five. So it’s easier to track, and to kill, and this is what’s kept me busy these last two weeks – give a man a little power, to play God, and see what he does with it.

So as I was saying, the moment I saw the mosquito swatter, I knew I was destined for it — like Thor was, for his hammer. I was at a grocery store, and a boy working there was wielding it with the elegance of a Federer backhand and the viciousness of a Ponting pull. Each time he made contact with a mosquito, it produced a delicious, electric pop and you could actually hear the insect getting fried as its soul departed for mosquito heaven.

For those of you who’ve never seen it, an electric mosquito swatter looks a bit like a child’s badminton racquet. It is made of plastic, and comes with a retractable plug for charging, and a sweet spot bigger than in a conventional racquet.

These days, every evening, around dusk, I go to the balcony and indulge myself with a nice little massacre, Kill Bill style. I have discovered that I love killing, especially when it has no consequences.

Swatting mosquitoes is also more fun, and more effective, than plugging in a liquid cartridge and waiting. Today’s Twitter generation of mosquitoes have shorter attention spans, and they don’t have the time or the patience to be slowly suffocated to death by poisonous fumes. They’d much rather die of the electric swat.

But swatting them is not as easy as it may seem. The dengue mosquitoes, in particular, are very clever. They mostly turn up when you’re without your weapon. I would go to the kitchen in all

innocence, to wash a spoon, and the moment you open the tap, you’ll see two of them take off from the little pools of water in the basin.

I’d rush to get my racquet, but by then, they would have vanished. And this has happened so many times that I now carry my weapon with me at all times. To me, my red swatter is like Arjuna’s bow or Hanuman’s — what do you call that
weapon of his with the spherical thingie at one end — I think it’s called a donkey, if I’m not mistaken. And I use it to kill for a cause — a dengue-free, malaria-free life.

Why did I tell you about my mosquito massacres? Because I believe there is a lesson in all of this somewhere. Only, I’m not sure what it is just yet.