Thursday, February 26, 2009

Slumdog Millionare Should not Have Won the Oscar?

Netizens have received the Slumdog Millionaire’s achievements with mixed feelings. Opinions are divided almost 50/50 between those who feel the film deserved the accolades it received and those who feel it didn’t. Now the print media has begun reflecting the views of those who believe that the film got more attention than it deserved.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so am not in a position to talk about its merits. But the logic that informs the negative responses deserves to be looked into. Take a look at this excerpt from the
link I have given at the bottom of the page.

Other than Slumdog, I have seen only one film out of the other four nominated. But I've read about all of them. The one that I saw is The Reader. The subject is far more intellectually challenging, emotionally moving and morally disturbing than Slumdog can ever hope to be. - - - -
But look at the themes of the other movies that were nominated this year. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the love story of a man who is born as an extreme geriatric and keeps getting younger and dies as a newborn. Only for a brief period of time are the man and his beloved around the same compatible age. Of course it's an impossible concept and completely unbelievable, but it's a high concept. Milk is about the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States; Frost/Nixon about the first interview disgraced US President Richard Nixon gave, to has-been TV journalist David Frost. For both of them, it is a chance for redemption, for a somewhat sane life. These are all big themes. I am not doubting Slumdog's quality as a film in any way. Danny Boyle is one of the most talented directors around. But comparing Slumdog to The Reader is almost impossible. It's like comparing A Christmas Carol to Great Expectations.
Scrooge won, little Pip lost. But that's the way it has been with the Oscars

Interesting, isn’t it? But the reference to “a high Concept” and “big themes”, and the purportedly reductive comparison of Slumdog Millionaire to A Christmas Carol betray the grip on the author of certain notions of canonicity and high culture.

If the problem cited is with the execution of the film, I have no arguments against it. But that’s not the case. He writes: I am not doubting Slumdog's quality as a film in any way. Danny Boyle is one of the most talented directors around,. So that’s not the issue. The issue is the theme of the movie. It’s a problem with the size and height of the theme.

Now, who is to decide how to hierarchize the quality and importance of themes? True, the reverse development of Benjamin Button is strange, curious, interesting and daring. The predicament of a gay public figure in Milk and the intense moral drama of Frost/Nixon are sensitive, challenging and intellectually appealing themes.

What about the theme of Slumdog Millionaire? Is it trivial? A social problem best swept under the red carpet of the Oscar venue?

On two scores, the comparison to Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol is appropriate. 1. In Victorian England, the novel revived a new interest in the spirit of Christmas which was being reduced to a mere bash by those who enjoyed the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. 2. Though a fantasy tale, it was a emphatic censure of the social evils thrown up by the Industrial Revolution. In a fabular style, The Christmas Carol poses the question to the conscience of Victorian England turning a blind eye to huge marginalisation of human beings. And the question is one that is hugely relevant today, in these days of a corporate friendly mode of development across the globe. And the question Scrooge puts to the ghost is “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer Scrooge gets is “Yes. You are.”

Well, Slum Dog poses the same question. Is that question any less relevant than how challenged people or gays or the privileged deal with their life situations?

Is the issue of sixty percent of a city’s people living in slums something that can be dismissed on account of its lack of intellectual appeal? In what sense is it not a high or big theme?

Or is it that, by Hollywood standards, it is a low budget film?

What/who decides the height and size of a theme?

Aren’t we Indians angry because the film defamiliarizes the ugly reality of the underdogs of our society? Because it causes the film to fall off from the eyes of us, the twenty first century Scrooges?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stray Afterthoughts on India at the Oscars.

I was waiting for the euphoria to die down somewhat.

It feels great. We always knew that AR Rahman was a rare genius. I love music but have little or no knowledge of its science. But one doesn’t have to be a music academic to know that AR Rahman is the rarest of gems. I can never forget the first the first time I heard Chinna China Asai in Tamil. I was checking university papers. The song stunned me into inaction, suspended all my senses except that of hearing. It was nothing like I’d ever heard before. The novelty of it – the sounds and their management, the sound of water?, a brook tripping over stones? all captured in a harmony that I was sure would suspend the motions of the stars. Such was the total effect. It was incredible. Listening to Chinna Chinna Asai for the first time was an experience - of a sensation coursing through my blood; it was not just an act of listening to a composition. It was like being part of a hitherto unheard harmony of strange sounds descending from another galaxy. When Ar Rahman tamilised Beethoven in Thiruda Thiruda, I was bewildered, dazed, and ecstatic. The space between systems of music seems to collapsed totally.

Now, of course, the novelty has worn off.

However, we didn’t need an Oscar to tell us what AR Rahman’s place was in the world of music. But we are happy that he got this recognition.

But it took an Oscar and other international awards for Pookutty to make us realize that the ‘technicians’ are/have to be artists par excellence, that there is a high degree of aesthetics involved in the role of these technicians. I remember, more than twenty years ago, my very intelligent niece Anita was very vociferous on this issue. Strange, it took a quarter of a century and an Oscar to make me realise how truly she had spoken.

Both the Oscar award winners carried themselves with extreme dignity and confidence at the function and after.

But our own dear Anil Kapoor. What on earth got into him! On several occasions he made us go red- eared! But what took the cake was his excited declaration ('Guess who came on the stage after the best movie was announced?' Anil Kapoor -) that Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel came to the stage to congratulate the Slum Dog team, that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt came to his house(?), “they didn’t know who I was, they didn’t even know I'm an actor - - –“!!!??? He was incoherent with excitement.

Oh, he embarrassed us, to say the least. Why doesn’t he realize that the adulation of millions of his countrymen is a greater recognition than a few Hollywood stars shaking hands with him?

And so back to my pet theme. When will we recover from this colonial hangover?

Thank You, Resul Pookutty.

I come from a country and civilisation that gave the world the word that is preceded by silence and is followed by more silence. That word is 'Om'. So I dedicate this award to my country," said Kerala-born sound technician. This is not just a sound award but a piece of history that has been handed over to me.

Thank you, Resul Pookutty. Not just for the Oscar, but for going out there and proclaiming to the whole world, and to India in particular that he is an Indian, he is proud to be an Indian and that the Indian heritage is his too, despite being a Muslim.

He went a step further. He dedicated the Oscar to India as a gift on the day of the great festival of Sivarathri which India was celebrating while the Oscar function was going on.

He represents the true spirit of India , that secular backbone of the Indian psyche which holds this country together despite the concerted efforts of agents with petty political agenda to polarize this great nation on communal lines.

His speech took me back to my college days when we were Indians first.

Thank you Pookutty. May your tribe increase.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Two Great Men - Dr. Aiyyappa Panikar and

This is my third post on Dr. Aiyyappa Panikar. While searching for something else I came across a synopsis which I had written on a bibliography card (!) as demanded by the great man who was then the Director of the Institute where I did research. As I was writing it down with shaking clammy fingers, a fellow Research Scholar told me this story.

Dr Aiyappa Pannikar (AP) was a very demanding Research Guide. He only had to look at a page to detect the grammar errors! His eyes need only to run down the pages of an entire assignment for him to ascertain the quality of the work. If he was in a foul mood, he would tell you in harsh language what exactly was wrong with the paper – whether it was puerile, simplistic, superficial, biased, judgmental, lacks cogency and consistency, or whatever. If he was in a pleasant mood, he would tell you the same things in the most humorously sarcastic language that you will laugh at yourself. Either way, it was an education – a rare one that you will always treasure for it was a clear and emphatic discourse on what research should or should not be.

So, one of his students – it happened to be a nun –once went into his room which was adjacent to the Research Scholars’ room (he was not the Director then – it happened long before my days at the Institute). The Research Scholars’ room and Dr. Panikar’s room, on the first floor, had the corridor on one side and, on the other side, huge half French windows over looking a stretch of vacant plot with trees and wild growth. One would not dare to venture into that plot for fear of snakes and insects. It was as dangerous as going into Dr Panikar's room with a badly done assignment. The Research Scholars’ desks were placed against these windows and they sat facing the windows.

So, this nun announced that she was going to submit the first chapter of the first draft of her thesis and went out. Five minutes after she left the room, the research scholars facing the window saw A4 papers floating over the vacant plot like so many kites out of control. They quickly asked each other to check the papers on their desks to see if their papers were blown off the desk by the ceiling fan. Nobody had lost anything. They were wondering what it could be. Some one said it could be from the desk of the professors’ rooms, all of which had these windows on one side. As they were discussing, one of the scholars spotted the sister walking gingerly into the plot, looking up furtively to see if anyone was watching from the Research Scholars room. All of them kept themselves out of sight ‘cos they realized what had happened, and didn’t want to embarrass her. Apparently, Dr. Panikar had flung the papers out of the window.

The poor sister picked her way through the overgrown grass and thick vines, praying, no doubt, to St. George to keep her safe from reptiles. Occasionally, she would shoot a quick glance at the windows. The Research Scholars watched the entire operation keeping themselves out of sight. Soon, there was only one more sheet of paper to be picked up. It was right below the window of one of the Research Scholars. As she bent down to pick up the paper, he threw down the cigarette he was smoking so that it fell near her paper. She jerked her head up to the window to see her fellow Research Scholar wave out to her with a sweet smile.

That Research Scholar with none other than the late Dr. Narendra Prasad, who later became a famous actor in Malayalam.

Friday, February 13, 2009


I was reading in the Yahoo news the reaction of boys who live in the slums to The Slum dog Millionaire.

‘After watching Slum dog Millionaire with intense concentration, barely moving from his cross-legged position on the floor, 12-year-old Vijay Kumar, a rag picker around Old Delhi railway station, grinned: "I really enjoyed it. It shows my life, the way children like me eat and sleep together, how we live”’

‘Asked if the film was 'true', they exclaimed 'yes!’ That's what slums are like, that's how the police harass us, that's how some boys get into crime or glue-sniffing, that's how middlemen approach us and ask us to entice children to be sold to gangs, that's how we share our food and help one another’

I’ve lived in Mumbai for almost six years. I still go to that big city on and off. Yet, if you ask me about the ‘street urchins’, I’ll hardly be able to tell you anything about them. After reading this bit of news I made an effort. A serious one to recall some contact or conversation I had with them. A couple of instances came to my mind but looking back at those made me feel ‘not good’. Did it take a Britisher(I have not yet seen the movie) to open my eyes to that terrible reality for which, I too, as a citizen, is responsible, which, I too could have seen if I had opened my eyes wide enough?

A brief conversation I had with a boy was way back in 1999. The cab in which I was travelling had stopped at the traffic signal at Peddar Road. I saw the cover of a thick book pressed against the window of the cab, which I rolled down ‘cos I wanted to buy the book. The boy – about 10 or twelve- was repeating mechanically “STAREPORT, SO RUPIYA (Star Report, 100 Rupees). Hundred rupees was dirt cheap for a book on Kenneth Star’s investigation into Clinton’s sexapades, which was released in the US just the previous day, and I opened my purse. The boy’s eyes lighted up. But my friend who was travelling with me in the cab asked me not to buy it. Though she spoke in Malayalam, the boy got a clue that she was dissuading me from buying. ‘Stareprt, so Rupiya’ he raised his voice. There was plea in it. ”Madam. Hundred rupees only, madam, hundred Rupees only” he begged. “Don’t buy it Molly. It’ll be sleazy. Your children will read it if you take it home”. I hesitated. By then the boy was pleading in both English and Hindi. The signal changed and the car moved with the boy running along with the car repeating “hundred rupee only madam, only hundred rupee”. I looked straight ‘cos I couldn’t buy it even in I had wanted to. The taxi had gathered speed and I had to fish out money from the wallet in the hand bag. So I turned deaf and blind and sat back as though the boy did not exist.

There was an almost identical experience at a signal at Bandra. This time, he had a bunch of beautiful fresh roses for a mere Rs. 15. I had opened my handbag to look for the wallet when the same friend told me that the flowers are stolen from the graveyard. Something about that put me off and I repeated my performance at the Peddar Road signal. This time too, as the taxi gathered speed, I turned deaf and blind and sat back as though the boy did not exist.

I do not know how I’ll explain my self to the Almighty when the day of reckoning comes.

These are but a couple of incidents, and they point to an unpleasant truth that I am living in an oasis of plenty amidst a wasteland of hunger and want. Don’t the oases have a tradition of keeping their resources open for the hungry and thirsty and shelterless travellers?

Disturbing questions which I push aside - for I want to continue to violate the tradition of sharing the oasis with the less fortunate travellers of the desert!

But these seizures of guilt return over and over again – only to be to be calmed and controlled by the drugs of convenient theories and pragmatic philosophies.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Babuchayan, My Brother

On February 1, 2005, Babuchayan passed away. He was Father Abraham to the world, but to us, he was Babuchayan, our brother. He was the eldest and I, the last but one in the family of eight. He joined the seminary after graduation, but used to come home twice or thrice a year, and whenever he came, it was always like the old times.

Sure he was intelligent, but was not the most brilliant of human beings. But he reached heights that are denied even to the most brilliant of the brilliant. Both in worldly and otherworldly achievements, and also in the hearts of the people he dealt with.

Being the first born, he was intensely conscious of his position and responsibility. But that couldn’t suppress his joie de vivre. Like those occasions when we siblings cracked jokes that a priest was not supposed to appreciate. He would hoist that very serious look on to his countenance to mask his struggle to contain laughter, and would admonish us like a good priest should, till one of us told him something like “Come on Babuchayan, you better laugh or your sides will burst”. His control would then crack and he would dissolve into helpless laughter, and in the intervals of the paroxysms of merriment, he would say ”Naughty jokes, you must not crack such naughty jokes”

One of my earliest memories of him goes back to the time I was around 5 or 6. The radio was in his room, and for some reason, he disapproved of my sister listening to it for too long. I still can’t figure out if this is on account of patriarchal hangover or because he thought she should be studying. On this occasion, he had gone out for his evening walk. My sister sneaked into his room to listen to the radio, keeping me posted in the balcony to announce his return. As soon as I saw him open the gate, I ran in and informed her, and she quickly switched off the radio, ran into her room and buried her head in her books. Babuchayan came into his room, and immediately put the back of his four fingers on the radio (like we check the temperature of a person), and then marched into my sisters room.
“Were you listening to the radio?”
“No. I was studying”
“Then how come the radio is hot?”
“I don’t know”
To me,” Was she listening to the radio?” I was too young to have learnt the art of saying white lies, and blurted out the truth.
He shook his index finger at her saying, “Just you wait. I’ll tell amma”.

I have fond memories of him which take me back now to an afternoon in the drawing room of our house where my brothers and I were having post lunch gossip and fun session. One of my brothers asked me to get something to eat from the larder. I came back with a large plate full of laddoos, and all of them pounced on it. Then Babuchayan made an announcement.
“For one week we’ll give Molly some rest. We won’t make her run errands. Even girls need a break”, he said.

I wanted to fling myself on him and give him a bear hug but, he, being averse to any such demonstrations of affection, would have jumped up and run for his life had I tried. So I limited myself to just clapping my hands joyfully and looked gleefully at the disapproval writ large on the faces of my siblings closer to me in age. That one week that followed was bliss. That’s when I got an inkling as to what it feels like being a male child in a Nazrane family!

After his ordination, he was posted as the assistant parish priest in a big parish in the Nilgiris district. He was so earnest to do, to the best of his ability, his duty to his Lord and Master that he visited all the homes of his parishioners twice, on foot, within the space of six months, at the end of which period he fell ill with over exhaustion.

His next appointment as the Vice Principal and then the Principal of a boy’s school in the diocese brought out the dynamic person in him which we had not seen before. He had a major role to play, right from getting students for the school in the year it was founded to its development as one of the most innovative schools in that town. He was the first to introduce yoga, computer courses, and classical Indian dance in boys’ schools in that district.

In the late 80s he organized a national Chess tournament in the Nilgiris District. He got the public sector banks and companies to sponsor it. Young Viswanath Anand and the then big names like Dibayendu Barua and Manual Aron were some of the participants. Difficult to think of a priest, even today, taking such initiatives.

He was the member of the Lions Club. He encouraged his teachers too to take membership in clubs. I got this information from a teacher who worked with him. As we stood outside the IC unit two days before my brother died, he told me this:

“I was a shy person from a remote village in Tamilnadu. A month after I joined, Father arranged to have me inducted into the Rotary Club. Seeing my reluctance, he explained ‘You are good at your work but you need some more exposure when you deal with the type of students who come to this school. Besides, it’s good for your growth too’”. He continued “He made me what I am today. You talk to the other teachers who worked with him. They’ll also tell you similar stories’

From the conversation I had with the stream of visitors who came from his diocese and school in Nilgiris, I came to know, for the first time, of the enormity of the monetary help he had been giving to individuals, both lay and religious, and to institutions, after he rook leave from the diocese to work in the USA. “No one who approached him for help was turned away”, his close friend, a priest, told me.

All this was news to us siblings ‘cos he never told us about this. I now wish I had known this. May be then there would have been another dimension to the great regard I had for him – you know that special reverence that we always have for an altruistic person. To me, he had always been my brother Babuchayan, always generous with advice and admonitions, laughing uncontrollably at the jokes we cracked, scolding me for giving up the music lessons after seven years of training – scolding me not just once when I did it, but every time he saw me in the 35 years after that.

“You should not have stopped”, he said rolling his eyes in his typical angry way. “To be able to play piano is such a rare thing in our country. If you had perfected that skill, you could have made plenty of money giving lessons and helped people in need with that extra money. Besides, it is a kala. No. you should not have stopped. You should not have stopped” Almost the same words each time he saw me all those 35 years after I took the decision to stop getting trained in piano.

Last September, I started music lessons again, after 35 years. As I was going for the first lesson, I remembered his words and found myself thinking wistfully that had he been around, I could tell him. I smiled to myself thinking of his reaction and his “you should not have stopped” encore.

In the funeral address delivered by the officiating Bishop from his diocese, there were repeated references to the enormous monetary contribution my brother made to various worthy and humanitarian causes in the diocese. We siblings looked at each other. Why we were kept in the dark, I wondered. A true follower of Christ, I guess. The left hand should not know what the right hand was doing.

During his hospitalization, all who visited him from Nilgiris spoke of his ‘innocence”. Strange word, I thought, to describe a 66 year old person. But yes. He was that. Innocent. Not really a man of this world in many ways. He thought the world was a good place and a good person could do good things if he set his mind to it. He didn’t know how to hide his feelings. He was so transparent that you would know if he was angry or happy or nervous or amused or tense or embarrassed. No. Babuchayan could never conceal his feeling. Childlike. That’s what he was. A simple, honest, straightforward, innocent person with a tremendous drive and confidence in himself which made him rush in – with success too- into areas that the average person would hesitate to tread.

When he was finally laid to rest in Kochin, we, his siblings, stood around the grave, our feelings under iron control and maintaining a poised demeanor. As the casket was lowered, suddenly his colleagues from the school and his friends from the diocese where he worked burst out in unison. loud and clear into a Tamil song, tears streaming down their faces!!

That’s when I realised that they have seen a side of him which we siblings didn’t get an opportunity to see. There was much more to Father Abraham than the Babuchayan we knew and loved and still miss after three years.