Sunday, September 30, 2007


Television, Cricket and Media Frenzy

Another wave of cricket euphoria is sweeping through the subcontinent. India's Twenty20 world cup success has literally swung everyone off their feet and minds with the whole country gloating over it like an adolescent. Though India played much better and exciting cricket against Australia and South Africa, the final was 'the most important' victory obviously because it was against our arch-other, Pakistan. One could virtually feel the nervousness and tension of the players out in the field during the match. Evidently both of them were not playing a game; rather the game was playing them with the wishes, prayers and dreams of millions of their countrymen looming over their heads. Rules of the game do not apply here; it is either glory or ignominy. You are either paraded through the streets, or lynched in public. (The bitter experience that both the teams faced after their unceremonious exit at the WCC should be still fresh in their memory) So, the frenzy that television whipped up cannot just wind up with the end of the game. It went on and on through the night and the following days, with the channels vying with each other to follow the players to their homes. It was as if the channels, akin to adolescents, couldn't come to terms with the fact that the tournament was over.

Witnessing the kind of joy and exuberance in and of the media, one gets the feeling that it was also a desperate exercise in public memory. Television constantly needs such euphoric moments to create an illusion of participation through spectacles. On the one side are the pressures of entertainment industry to innovate new forms of entertainment and thus advertisement revenue. On the other is the frantic effort of the audience to hold on to something, anything that goes beyond the transience and everydayness of life and media that suffocates them. Such moments naturally need its heroes, villains or martyrs – and this game constantly renews itself to cater to this inexorable hunger - of the fans as well as the media. From its often result-less 5 Day version, here cricket has taken the shape and size of a film show, a thriller lasting for three and half hours!

As Rohit Brijnath puts it very insightfully, "it's a game that is the remarkable mix of many stolen parts; it has borrowed the idea that plot is irrelevant from Van Damme movies, it's scrounged the concept of "music at changeovers" from the US Open Tennis; it's spawned its own version of baseball's dancing girls; it's crude version of football's penalty shoot-out, it's got a hockey-style on-ground bench, and bears a resemblance to golf with its bizarre rules.. Its intensity is unrelenting, its no-dawdling pace so wonderfully un-cricketing, its lack of snobbery invigorating, its demand for nerve exhilarating, its improvisation intriguing" (It is Excitable, Unruly, Unsubtle and Fun, Sportstar, September 29. 2007). So, is the game of cricket imitating television, which is a media that picks from any genre, mixes and shuffles them at will, always trying to keep the frenzy alive at any cost?

And he goes on to say, "Twenty20 is the future, but it's also the past. The game we embrace now is the one we left behind. Every shot played by Yuvraj that night against England was only an echo of our boyhood..Gully cricket was not about accumulation but explosions..We played Twenty20 before it was invented" Maybe it is this very immediacy, intimacy and spontaneity, and the boyishness of the players (players like Hayden and Gilchrist look like Dinosaurs) that prompts us to take on to it so easily and compulsively. Maybe it is this feeling of participating in yet another reality show, where your gully and neighbourhood are the arena, that makes it so TV-friendly, full of excitement and frenzy as it happens, and totally forgotten the moment the wave passes by. So, it may not be a coincidence that this victory was constantly compared with film narratives like Lagaan, Chak De India, etc where a rabble comes together to gain victory. Is art/media imitating life or is it the other way round?

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Life in a Metro

The Metro within

The city and the urbanscapes of life and its tribulations have entered the mainstream of Hindi cinema recently. The city was there earlier too, but it was a sort of liminal presence, a space one took refuge in one was never 'at home' there. Its values were not consonant with the diegetic centers of the narratives of films from of the Raj Kapoor variety. Vegetating within the national-developmentalist ideology, the city was a place where money and ruthless ambition ruled the roost, and where humane feelings and tenderness had no place or time.

But in recent Hindi movies like Life in a Metro (Anurag Basu) city is no longer a 'place of arrival' but where one simply is. The feeling of awe and wonder at the sight and pace of the city, its anonymity etc are passé. There is no longer the feeling of shock or alienation; instead it is a place that totally engrosses its inhabitants, inexorably drawing them into its vortex. So, like earlier, these films do not place the rural at a moral highground as the counterpoint to urban values and ways of life. Life in the city now is something that seeks its own redemption and drawing from its own resources and conflicts. Moreover, for these characters, there is no longer a village to dream of or return to.

But significantly, even while the film deals with the contemporary conflicts of a globalised Indian city life, the plight of women remain almost the same. The three women in the film, the mother Shivani (Nafisa Ali), and her daughters Shikha (Shilpa Shetty) and Sruti (Konkana Sen Sharma) find it a very difficult place to realize themselves, or express their sensuality. Shivani joins her old flame Dharmendra, who left her decades back to pursue his career, but their relationship ultimately finds its consummation in death. Shikha who is bored with her busy and unfaithful husband, moves till the brink of breaking free from the moral prisons of the family, but only to rush back to its rusty security. Her sister, who is in endless search for the groom of her choice, had to literally grab him back on the day of his wedding. And woven through the lives of these three women is the life in the metro, one that is seething with restless ambition, lust and desire for pleasures. But only men seem to be able to access the new freedoms opened up by the new economy.

As a result, the culture of self-denial follows women in the globalised city too. If for Sruti it is a constant search for the right man, for Shikha it is a dangerous lure, whose furtive physicality sends her scurrying back to the familiar embrace of the adulterous husband and to the confines of the family. For their mother, the reunion, which is a liberating moment in the film, ends up as yet another denouement of self-denial, ending in her own death. Neha, the ambitious girl who attempts to sleep her way to success, has to return to her lover's hands, virtually reborn, 'reformed' and domesticated.

Why should all these narratives which splurge in the adulteries of men, teeter at the edges of any transgression on the part of female? It is a question that looms large in the face of our variety of globalisation, whose gender biases are bursting in its seams.

chakde india

Chak de! India - Team vs. Nation

Chakde! India is a feel good movie for sure; one which celebrates the victorious comeback of the underdogs. Who doesn't love to identify with the underdogs provided they make it in the end? So, Chak de sees to it that, all the dilemmas and conflicts it triggered are tied back to a neat finale. The honour of the humiliated coach Kabir Khan (played in a very charmingly subdued manner by Shahrukh Khan) is reclaimed. The bureaucratic committee is silenced. The inner squabbles within the team about regional differences, culture, seniority, sharing, identity etc are sorted out. And in the end, Indian women's hockey team wins the world cup defeating the six-times champions Australia! His honour restored, Kabir Khan is able to come back to his ancestral home after an exile of 7 years and closes the door of his house on a victorious note. The pride of Indian flag has been saved to fly high above its subjects. But at whose cost?

For instance, why should a Muslim essentially be a traitor until he proves his patriotism? Why is this burden of proof and performance always thrust upon them? Why is his patriotism always linked to performance and worth? This is all the more striking because the 'Muslim question' is strongly posed only in this one instance - in fact in the prelude to the film. Significantly, it is a Muslim coach who 'unites' an otherwise chaotic rabble of players from all over the country. This is the exact replica of the communal logic in reverse; there you have the Muslim uniting India oppositionally as its other and enemy!

It is also interesting to note how the logic of achievement – a favourite Hollywood theme in this genre of films – is adapted to the Indian situation. While Hollywood unequivocally celebrates the spirit of the individual and his/her ambitions and achievement, here in Chakde!, individualism and difference is constantly critiqued and put down. The mission of the coach is to nip any individual or identity assertions at the bud – whether it be that of the region, playing positions or internal hierarchies. He wants them to put all this behind and meld into one whole to perform and save india and himself from ignominy. The contrast between cricket and hockey is an extension of this logic. In the film cricket stands for individual glory and benefits, while hockey is sported as 'the team game' representing all the values of 'good old india'.

The internal squabbles in the team, fuelling the feeling 'if only we stood together, we would be a super power', are based upon very stereotypical figures from various regions. The big, short tempered Punjabi, the coarse and unsophisticated Jharkandi, the urban rich arrogance of the Chandigarh player, the carefree ones from the North East etc play their popular identity roles, later to be purged and merged into the 'nation' of a performing team. Obviously differences do not perform and is anathema to team work and achievement. And who else can sort and stamp out all these internal female differences in the team (read family) but the male coach (Father)?

Maybe only if India melds all the differences into a monolithic, performing whole, can Kabir Khan's own Muslim identity become non-problematic. Or is it the other way round? Is he fighting all kinds of differences exactly because it is for being the other that he was humiliated and punished as anti-national.

But isn't the concept of the team one that brings together and works on the synergy between differences in personal talents and field positions? But ironically, in the Chakde! , it has to be supplanted by the uniformity that the 'nation' demanded from Kabir Khan.

So, if in the colonial India of Lagaan differences couldn't be suppressed, in competitive and globalised India, differences are something to be sacrificed at the altar of achievement

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ramgopal varma's aag


"If you had to see just one Hindi film in your life, just one, then see Sholay. It's deservedly considered the most perfect Hindi film ever made. So much so that several critics insist that innovation in Hindi films ends with Sholay and that everything after that is repetitious trash."

Bollywood, Ashok Banker

The disappointment of Ramgopal Varma's Aag is that it neither lives upto the expectations of the Sholay-fans nor does it satisfy the youth who deserve a contemporary version of it. And by following Sholay so closely, it makes comparisons inevitable. Evidently the effort was not to make a Sholay of the post-liberlised India. As a result, everything about Aag looks jaded and aged – as if all the characters of Sholay have themselves replayed the roles after all these years; their old age writ all over their tired gestures, faces and bodies. The central characters of the double male twins – the Police Officer and the dacoit, and the small time crooks who come to save the village - both do not have the charge or charm of the earlier version. The failure of Aag is its failure to capture in its re-created narrative what happened in between the two versions. Sholay was made in the turbulent 70's (in the Emergency year of 1975) when 'law and order' was all-powerful. There was an overwhelming feeling of being trapped in a limited space – a remote village amidst an expanse of a desolate, rocky landscape. The helpless villagers, the 'injured' police officer who is biding his time to wreak his revenge upon the dacoits – the outsiders who threaten the social order of the village. The village is a microcosm of the nation – with its Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai world of idyllic nationalism where the only threat is from outside, the lawlessness of the dacoits. Sanjeevkumar – the personification of Law in Sholay with both his hands chopped off, is the exact opposite of the 'thousand-armed' fascist state of those dark days. But Babban of Aag lacks all such resonance and looks almost like a maniacal killer.

While all the action in Sholay (the train robbery sequence is one of the most memorable in Indian cinema) is in open spaces, in Aag most of the encounters are in dingy, dilapidated interiors – again alienating the viewer from the sense of space.

The only difference is in the picturisation, with kinky camera movements and fast paced editing, that try to make up for the lost time. The controlled and sober acting style of Mohanlal finds it difficult to jell with that format and rhythm of the film.

To the very end, Ramgopal Varma follows Sholay. But even after a lapse of more than three decades, it is again the one who falls in love with the young widow and wishes to marry her who is fated to die at the end, without consummating their love. No wonder Ashok Banker's words ring so true in the case of Aag