Sampath G

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

That Narendra Modi joke you’ve never heard

In Celebs, Culture and Society, Politics, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm

There is a famous scene in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, where Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is recovering in a hospital after being seriously wounded in a gun fight with the hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the role of a life time).

A bed-ridden Moss is visited by another hitman, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is surprised to find Moss alive after his encounter with Chigurh.
“What’s this guy supposed to be, the ultimate badass?” asks an irritated Moss.
“No, I wouldn’t describe him as that,” says Wells.
“How would you describe him?” Moss wants to know.
Chigurh is a remorseless killer, the most dangerous man imaginable. But Wells doesn’t say any of that. Instead, this is how he describes Chigurh: “I guess I would say he doesn’t have a sense of humour.”
Like lightning that illuminates an entire landscape in a single flash, this one line is all we need to see Chigurh for the kind of man he is. He sounds more terrifying in this sentence spoken by a fictional character than in all those other scenes where he actually goes around killing people. And we find it chilling precisely because McCarthy here hints at the Chigurh lurking in each one of us, waiting to be summoned by the right cause, the right ideology, or the right man on a white horse.
Narendra Modi is scary for the same reason that Chigurh is scary: on publicly available evidence, he does not have a sense of humour. And neither do his legion of fans, who are less his fans than aspirational clones, as attested by the popularity of the Modi mask.
As Sandipan Deb observed in an article hereNo one jokes about Narendra Modi. In the whole vast limitless universe of the World Wide Web, there is not a single joke about Modi—at least none that are searchable. But there are tons of gags about Rahul GandhiManmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi; entire websites and facebook pages dedicated to having a laugh at their expense. Is it because the latter three are inherently funny people while there is nothing at all funny about Modi? Or is it that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who worship Modi, and those afraid to joke about him?
Humour, like some chemical elements do when brought near a white flame, acquires a strange new property when brought into the force field of power: it turns subversive. If you’re not living in an oppressive or totalitarian state, humour flows freely around the nodes of power and public discourse retains its civility under pressure. The moment the weight of power falls heavily upon those governed by it, humour disappears. And when it reappears, as it eventually will, it does so as a weapon that punctures the self-righteous piety which envelops power; it deflates the puffed-up sanctimoniousness that tyranny wears to shield itself from being interrogated by the kind of free and fearless speech that makes any democracy worthy of being called one.
Therefore, a sense of humour, defined as a willingness to laugh at oneself, is a fundamental value in a democracy and a non-negotiable quality for anyone who would aspire to a leadership position in politics. That people are not comfortable cracking jokes about Modi is a big minus for the PM wannabe. However, it is consistent with his history of bigotry, and fully in keeping with the allegations of his political opponents, who accuse him of possessing a fascist mindset. Indeed, humour does not mix with extremism, and if Modi wants to leave his extremist past behind, he must learn to lighten up—and that doesn’t mean joking about other people. For instance, if only he’d had a sense of humour, he would have done better than to run away from hard questions like he did in his interview with Karan Thapar.
Of course, one can argue that Modi’s public persona of a humourless authoritarian is just an act. But it is that act which wields power and takes decisions as well, and it is the nature of such power to seek control. And because humour cannot be controlled, power hates it. To take a recent example, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, another humourless authoritarian, arrested a Jadavpur University professor last year just for sharing an email that poked fun at her.
Today, when Modi is only a PM aspirant, and that too notionally, and not officially, his acolytes can barely stand jokes about him. I honestly would like to know if there’s anybody out there who believes that in a scenario where Modi is PM, Modi jokes would be tolerated in public discourse the way Manmohan or Rahul jokes are today. If you are that anybody, let’s see if you can walk your talk by sharing a joke about Modi (not by him) in the Comment section below.
Modi and his followers are too much in love with the image of the grim visionary who will lead India from the chaos of adolescence to the macho-rity of adulthood—obviously, for when you fall in love, you always do so with an image. What distinguishes an authentic individual (more commonly known as a human being) from an image is vulnerability. In so far as Modi is a human being just like the rest of us, just like Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh or even Arnab Goswami, he is vulnerable.
But the hard visage of Modi’s leadership persona has no room for anything as ‘soft’ as vulnerability, which is why he is a dangerous man for democracy. There are no jokes about Modi because Modi is first and foremost an image, and images are too worried about cracking up to crack up themselves. Modi’s India is no country for irreverent men—and that’s no laughing matter.

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.

A sober companion to watch IPL with

In Cricket, Sports, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Pained by the degeneracy of contemporary cricket, a famous essayist lamented, “A hard utilitarianism and commercialization have far too long controlled it.” Years later, a famous cricketer who felt the same pain commented, “The first and worst trouble of modern cricket is that players play too much, our best men will be permanently stale, irritable and below form.”

Just consider: when these two observations were made, there was no IPL, no T20, no one-dayers, no live telecast of cricket matches, and therefore no multimillion dollar sponsorships or broadcast deals. The first observation is from E.V. Lucas, writing in 1907. The second one was made by Walter Hammond 60 years ago.
And here we are today. Guess what’s ailing the sport? Too much commercialization and too many matches. Both these taken together leave our best men permanently stale, irritable and below form. We saw extreme evidence of this when M.S. Dhoni’s men got thrashed 4-0 in England within three months of being crowned world champions, and our laborious ascent to the No 1 ranking in Tests began to be remembered more by our premature ejection from that position.
And yet, for all the pain, the typical cricket lover—even, and especially, the purist—cannot help but continue to follow the sport. For that, too, is an essential trait of the purist: loyalty to the sport no matter what. No matter how many times the game is dragged through the gutter of fixing scandals, no matter how many times the sport is betrayed by its administrators, and no matter how much of meaningful cricket commentary is replaced by vacuous chatter, the purist will not—cannot—stop watching.
For such souls, which are bound to be in pain at this time of the year in this part of the world, the first Indian edition of the Wisden Almanack comes as a quiet, shaded grove where, sheltered from the lurid assault of Indian Premier League, they can meditate in peace on a magnificent career come to a close, or relive the nostalgia of a famous victory, and energise once again their waning enthusiasm for the game.
The first edition of the Wisden Almanack came out in 1864. It took nearly a century and a half for sport’s longest-running reference book to come to India. Edited by Suresh MenonWisden India Almanack 2013has almost everything one has come to expect from the UK original—essays, match reports and scorecards, compilation of records, obituaries and quirky chronicles.
Easily the most outstanding feature of this 760-page volume are the essays, some of which go beyond the boundary, both in space and time, and entertain even as they illumine the action within.
Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s The backside of Lord’s is a delightful account of what it’s like to live within cheering distance of the Lord’s cricket ground. When she is working, she says, the TV is on mute. “If the wind direction is right and the Lord’s crowd near capacity, their cheers come through the open window—the sound somewhere between the roar of a wave and the whoosh of car tyres speeding along a road—and I can swivel around and, thanks to the slight lag between event and transmission, actually catch the bails flying or the ball leaving the face of the bat to bring up that century.”
While it is de rigueur for the purist to bemoan the dumbing down of the sport wrought by the IPL phenomenon, the fact remains that IPL has benefited young cricketing talent in the country by opening up career options. In The IPL Generation, Anand Vasu narrates the fascinating story of 28-year-old Thiyagarajan, who used to open the batting in the first division of competitive cricket in Chennai. The pragmatic youngster demoted himself to the second division in order to “improve his ball striking skills”, and within a year of the move, succeeded in snagging a contract worth one million rupees with Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Bishen Singh Bedi’s tribute to Tiger Pataudi, and Sanjay Manjrekar’s piece on Sunil Gavaskar are lively and affectionate accounts of how the legends had inspired the writers in their respective lives and careers. Javagal Srinath’s piece on Kapil Dev is resonant with what the former cannot or would not say about the impact the latter had on his career. Srinath coyly admits to having competed with the great all-rounder, nothing more.
In Why the richest is not the best, the evergreen Ayaz Memon gamely attempts once again what every cricket writer worth his word count has tried at some point and given up: appeal to the nobler and saner side of the gents who run the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). He writes, “…the mindset of the administration too has to be tweaked – from constantly looking to fill its coffers to constantly seeking results and excellence.” Good luck with that, Ayaz.
The only disappointment in this otherwise excellent volume are the tour and match reports, many of which are tame narratives of what happened, offering little of the insightful touches that one expects from Wisden. The report on India’s tour of Australia last year, for instance, makes no reference to the most glaring (and for the fan, most frustrating) feature of India’s 4-0 drubbing: in match after match after match, despite repeated failures, not once did India make a single change in its dysfunctional batting order. Young Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane warmed the benches right through a Test series that we lost 4-0.
The match report on the third Test in Perth, where David Warner scored a murderous 180 and India lost by an innings and 37 runs, asserts that Warner “sucked the fight out of India.” Interestingly enough, Warner said after the match that “he felt the pressure” when he went in to bat. “If this is what pressure made him produce,” says the Wisden writer, “one shudders to think what he will do when his mind is calm”. Now, this is exactly the kind of facile rhapsodizing that you don’t want to see in a quality match report.
Warner was not fibbing when he said that he felt the pressure. India, who batted first, was bundled out for 161 because the Perth wicket really was difficult to bat on. It was slightly easier for Australia, but even then Warner was very cautious to begin with, and kept playing and missing. Then he did what he does when under pressure—he tried to hit his way out of trouble.
When a player of Warner’s caliber swings the bat, there is a decent chance he would connect. And he did a couple of times. Immediately Dhoni took away the slips and spread the field, taking the pressure off, and making it way easier for Warner. If anything sucked the fight out of India, it was poor captaincy. Had the Indian skipper kept faith in his pacers, we could have been more competitive than we were. By switching to a defensive field prematurely, any chance of an early breakthrough was as good as forfeited, and the Aussie openers put on a massive partnership of 214, effectively taking the match away from India. A little less enthusiasm for eloquence and a little more for close observation and analysis would have considerably improved the tour narratives.
Like all great reference books, the Wisden can be read from cover to cover or dipped into whenever the mood strikes you. The section on records is ideal for browsing when you’re on the couch watching IPL and there’s a commercial break. Did you know, for instance, that in first class cricket, the third highest career average in the universe, next only to Don Bradman and Vijay Merchant, belongs to Ajay Sharma(10,120 runs at an average of 67.46)? Or that, of the three fastest triple centuries in the history of international cricket, two are by Sehwag?
Personally, the record I found the most interesting was the highest percentage of team’s runs scored by a player in his Test career. As you would expect, right on top is the greatest—Don Bradman. The Australian scored 24.28% of all his team’s runs during his career. At number 3 is Brian Lara, who accounted for 18.87% of his team’s runs. Sachin Tendulkar doesn’t find a mention in this list but it would be an interesting exercise to see where he stands on this one, and also the several Indian batsmen who would rank above him.
The chronicles section, of course, is rich in intrigue and entertainment. Here’s a gem, sourced from a national newspaper: “Navin Mendon, 37, of Lokhandwala, has failed to regain full use of his voice after cheering himself hoarse during India’s semi-final win over Pakistan during the World Cup. Doctors said his vocal cords had been abused.” And here’s a typical it can happen only in India story: “The Bombay high court has started investigating a complaint by two alleged terrorists that they had failed to appear for a hearing because the policemen supposed to be escorting them were watching an IPL match.”
If you love cricket, and nothing but cricket, the Wisden India Almanack 2013 would be a nice companion to have by your side when you sit down to catch your next IPL match. I did just that, yesterday. And whenKarishma Kotak asked Kings XI Punjab’s Manan Vohra about nightlife in Chandigarh, I picked up the thick, fat volume and threw it at the TV. Luckily for me, I missed.

The schizophrenia around Narendra Modi

In Celebs, Culture and Society, Politics, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Agreed, Narendra Modi is a polarising figure. But like all clichés, it has zero explanatory value, offering little insight into the Modi phenomenon. What it does, rather, is to induce a kind of schizophrenia in the public consciousness about a man who, apparently, is two different people. But Modi isn’t two people—the Modi who spoke of empowering women at the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) forum on Monday is the same person was the chief minister (CM) of Gujarat when scores of Muslim women were raped and killed in the communal carnage of 2002.

The enthusiasm for Modi among those who subscribe to the Hindu supremacist ideology is understandable. But there are many who pay lip service to religious equality and yet assert that Modi is no longer the political animal that was the CM of Gujarat in 2002; they would have you believe that he has magically transformed from a communalist demagogue into a clean, decisive politician who would offer leadership, integrity and good governance. Well, here’s the thing: this is nothing but a self-serving delusion.
If there is one essential quality of a true leader, it is the ability to inspire trust. Look up any article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review—and see if you can find a piece that does not list trust as an essential leadership trait. Given Modi’s track record, an obvious question to ask would be: Can India’s minorities entrust their safety and well-being to a man who refuses to take responsibility for the communal carnage that took place under his watch as Gujarat CM? This question did not come up at FLO and I haven’t heard it being asked of Modi at any other industry forum either, which is odd considering that both business and communal riots take place in the real world, and this is a question of effective governance.
Am I saying that Modi can never be trusted as a national leader? Not really. He can still establish himself as a great leader who can be trusted to provide good governance. But there is only one way to do it: by taking responsibility for his failure in 2002. How does he do that? He needs to, at the very least, empathize with, if not apologise to, and seek the forgiveness of, the riot victims’ families. But we know right away that he never will do anything like this, which is why it comes up less and less these days. (In fact, a Modi apology has become such a laughable notion for so many that it was presented as an April Fool’s joke by a news portal last week.)
The very moment we accept that Modi has never acknowledged the 2002 riots as a failure on his part is the moment the good governance argument in favour of Modi stands exposed for what it is: a lie. It can either be true or false that Hindu supremacist violence is good for business. If we go by the ‘success story’ of ‘Modi’s Gujarat’, then it must be true that violence against minorities has been good for development as we have defined it. At any rate, it does not seem to have had a negative impact on business growth—otherwise influential sections of India Inc. would not be pro-Modi.
So if, as a businessman and/or a decent human being, you want Modi on the national stage, then you have to acknowledge either that A) you are indifferent to the fate of the minorities; or B) you really believe they deserved what came their way in Gujarat in 2002. Since neither of these positions is compatible with the political and social values of respectable public discourse, which still holds that murder of minorities is bad, you have no alternative but to turn schizophrenic in order to be able to believe that Modi will be good for business and also protect minorities.
It is a testimony to how far the mainstream national consensus on Modi has shifted, and how successful Modi’s image managers, Apco, have been in disassociating Modi from his past, that today you can barely bring up 2002 without being branded either a Congress stooge or a ‘commie’ or just a spoilsport bore. But take away the schizophrenia, and the reality stares you in the face: the Modi of 2002 is the Modi of 2013, and he is fully capable of ‘allowing’ again what he ‘allowed’ in 2002. How can we be sure of this? Two reasons: one, it has worked for him; two, he has gotten away with it, so far.
Many commentators point out that India is not Gujarat; that Modi has ‘evolved’ as a leader, and can never do as PM what he allegedly did as CM in 2002. But that’s precisely how schizophrenia works—it forgets, and then alters reality to fit the delusion. By endorsing Modi for a national role, we are communicating a simple message to the man: your central government can do in the future what your state government did in 2002, and we, as a nation, won’t hold you to account, just as we’ve not held you to account for 2002.
Consider: some thirty years after the Holocaust, Israel was still sending out death squads to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Germany still does not want to forget its Nazi past, which is why it has a Holocaust museum. We, however, are in a hurry to forget what many respectable forums have termed ‘genocide’ even though it’s been barely 11 years.
Maybe all the perfumes of propaganda will finally wash away the black spot of 2002 from Modi’s record. After all, it was the same Modi whose government revised the state’s higher secondary school textbooks to glorify Hitler instead of condemning him. But George Santayana’s oft-quoted dictum has been proved true by history many times over: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is only one way to make sure India does not repeat 2002: keep harping on it.

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.”

Working from home sucks: Why Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is right

In Culture and Society, Lifestyle, Management, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm

In a decision that is certain to cause heated debates in HR circles, not to mention office cafeterias and water cooler hangouts, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer has banned working from home for all her employees. As per a memo sent out last Friday to Yahoo employees, those who have been working ‘remotely’ now either have to move to the nearest Yahoo office by 1 June or put in their papers.

This won’t go down well with the world’s digital evangelists, who would have you believe that everything – from meetings to matings to partings – is best done via the internet. And as the CEO of an iconic digital company, Mayer deserves to be applauded for demonstrating the courage needed to take an unpopular, counter-intuitive decision.

A lot of nonsense has been written about stuff like ‘telecommuting’ and how organisations can ‘leverage’ technology to cut costs and improve productivity. So yes, having a chunk of your staff work from home will trim your overheads. And yes, if they are self-driven and reliable and sincere and their astral bodies roam the corridors of your office during working hours, hovering benevolently in conference rooms when strategies are being thrashed out, by all means get them to work from home.

AP

Marissa Mayer in this file photo. AP

But most companies don’t require only individual contributions from individual employees. A lot of value is derived from team interactions – from top-down, at the same level, and from downward-up. And a lot of fruitful team interactions are informal, serendipitous, and unplanned – something you simply cannot have with remote employees. And this dimension of value and employee contribution that can only come from being physically in the same space is completely lost when employees begin to operate from home.

Mayer is too smart not to have figured this out. She took over as Yahoo CEO in July 2012. In October, she had a baby. She could have easily taken maternity leave – and for as long as she wanted, a privilege she would obviously enjoy as the new CEO. But she skipped maternity leave and chose to come back to work immediately after having the baby – and with this new directive, she is evidently preaching something she believes in and already practiced.

The memo announcing this new regulation asserts, “…to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

It remains to be seen how Yahoo’s 11,500 employees take to this diktat. But Mayer makes a strong case. The leaked memo is quoted as saying in AllThingsD, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings … Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” You can’t but agree with Mayer here. Nothing can beat walking up to someone for an input, as opposed to laboriously composing email or text messages for something that could be resolved by walking across a corridor.

Of course, working from home does have its rightful place in the professional world. It is ideal for consultants, for mom-and-pop outfits that have two or three employees and cannot invest in office space. It works well for businesses that need to have just one representative each in multiple geographical locations – say, a media house that needs to have a correspondent in every continent or major commercial capital.

Some work-from-home flexibility should always be on the agenda when it comes to managing talent you cannot otherwise tap into. The smartest of tech companies – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP – don’t have a fixed policy on this. They have neither banned it or nor do the particularly encourage it, preferring to go on a case-to-case basis, to be decided by the concerned manager.

Mayer’s directive will reportedly only affect a few hundred employees, but it would also cover those who have a work-from-home arrangement only one or two days a week. A disgruntled ex-Yahoo employee commented on this news at the digital media website AllthingsD, arguing that working from home was more productive than being in the office: “Why? I didn’t have to put up with numbskull self-important programmers constantly yakking to each other LOUDLY from the next set of cubicles about non-work-related stuff, and I wasn’t being distracted every 20 minutes by some bored soul coming over to my desk to go for coffee or foosball, or just to talk about the spreading ennui of knowing we were working for a company who’s (sic) glory days were long over…”

But then, the home environment is hardly insulated from distractions. As someone who tried working from home for a few months, I can vouch for the fact that, in the absence of the structure offered by the office routine, you need highly evolved self-management skills to be able to manage distractions and work at optimal efficiency.

Also, if you are in a phase where you are trying to rebuild the organisational culture and team spirit, which is presumably what Mayer is trying to do, then it would be difficult to get through to staff who are hardly ever there on your premises.

Incidentally, the strange phrasing of the directive has also led to much mirth on tech websites. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” says the memo. Well, for those Yahoo employees used to only being spiritually together, not being “physically being together” will not be an option anymore from 1 June. And it would be interesting to see how this Mayer’s edict impacts work-from-home policies in other companies.

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 petapixel.com, where a stranger goes around recording random people without permission.

AP

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.

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.”