May 25, 2010 at 10:59 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry) ()

 were not whole.

You were unraveling

before me.

You were weeping

when the world offered itself

to you.

You found emptiness.

Now I am undone.

Now I am unraveling before you.

– Dominic Alapat


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About Avatar

May 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm (Cinema, Mary McQueary) (, , , )

To say that the movie Avatar is about an alien Jewish American Princess having a hissy fit is actually a fairly accurate assessment. But that wasn’t the only storyline it contained. It was as if the writers’ brainstorming session became the script.  “What if the Indians weren’t decimated by smallpox and they united to fight against us?” suggests one writer.  “I say we pit the military against the scientists”, insists another.  “Don’t forget to plant the plot of boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl in there too, that’ll guarantee it to be a Academy Award nominee”.

That being said, you’d think this movie would be one I’d say pass on. But wait, underneath all the stereotypes and repetitious yawn provoking obvious storylines there truly were some thinking persons’ treasures.

To begin with, the alien planet’s animals are amalgams.  Is that part dinosaur, dragon, hummingbird, dragonfly? Thank goodness for that boring plot line, as your brain is suddenly found busily scanning the creatures, performing a type of IQ test, analyzing and identifying which part of the animal comes from which earth animal.

While your brain is busy analyzing creatures and/or creating its own chimeras and asking questions such as, “how many creatures do we have on Earth that are colorfully feathered?” and your inner child begins shouting, “I want to fly on the back of one of those too!” in slips a current events issue.  The hero of our movie has a spine injury and has lost the use of his legs. Note the subtle atrophy to them through the movie, so the question pops up, if medical technology exists to give a person back the ability to use their legs, should cost prevent them from getting such medical procedures?  While you mull over whether you support healthcare reform in slides a thorn to prick you about your internet usage.  

Today, more and more people are living two lives, one online and one IRL (in real life), and just as in the movie, one of our worlds goes limp and silent when the other is active. How IRL are we?  Have we become slaves to our overactive overfed imaginations? Is it possible to regain a relationship with our planet, to have it as our playground, our kitchen, our medicine cabinet, our protector, our home once again?  Or have we let cyberspace steal us away from our own place and kind? In Avatar choices are made, there is no playing for both teams.  This is this lesson I think merited spending $100 million to make and hopefully will be a couple hours of joyful movie viewing for you.

– Mary McQueary

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Sthaniya Sambaad : Something Bijjare This Way Comes

May 16, 2010 at 9:30 am (Cinema, Kiran David) (, , )

While we live in a country that makes the largest number of films in the world, unfortunately most of them are of the lowest quality. In fact, even the so-called ‘good’ films endorsed by cretins in the media are abominable. Most practitioners of the medium do not know even the basics, and the critics who write about them know even less. One enters halls screening most contemporary Indian [actually also most current Hollywood] films, with a sense of great terror at the idea of wasting a couple of hours of your pre-determined short life. It really curdles your blood when you are subjected to the bovine expressions and simian observations that critics, both in the press and more so on TV, pass off as ‘expert opinion’ on this so-called cinema. There is also a funny bunch of directors who say that if given a good budget they would make world-class films. My response to them has always been, “Bullshit man, learn the language and find your fucking idiom.” Yet another kind of mutt leans towards you and whispers, “I am making a film for the festival circuit.” I am tempted to vomit on this type. One thing our mediocre bunch should learn is to shut the fuck up and try to make films with a modicum of honesty. In the process, they may pick up intelligence and wit which most great filmmakers possess.  

Despite my reservations mentioned above, I do not deny that on very very rare occasions, experiencing movies both within and outside the mainstream has been rewarding. Listing them here is not the intention of this piece, but to talk about one in particular.

I was privileged to see the Bengali film Sthaniya Sambaad [Springtime in the colony], the first feature co-directed by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas. The film, besides being a delightful work, is also one of remarkable clarity and musicality. Though the narrative is quite simple and easy to follow, the joy is in the way the filmmakers have structured it.

 Space and time, the two fundamental coordinates, are used with intelligence and grace. The film is set across three spaces. First, Deshbandhu Colony, where the protagonists live, many of them refugees who came from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) over a period of time, beginning with partition. The second is Park Street, referred to in the film as White Town (or Shaheb Para) and the third is New Town where, as the name suggests, new townships are being developed.

What makes the film special is the way the directors have used basic, almost seminal, tools of the medium to navigate between these spaces within the temporal context of the film. The first part of the story takes place in Deshbandhu Colony; it then splits the action between the colony and White Town. The third part fragments what happens between the first two spaces and New Town. After this we observe scenes unfolding between New Town and the colony, and finally, we come back to the colony in the concluding part of the film.

 The film also has a certain musicality – the makers structure the film as variations on a theme. Here every sequence actually works as a minor variation of the major theme, which is never explicitly stated but constantly implied. In point of fact, the almost shocking opening sequence with the braid (or did someone say ‘bride’) works as an evocation, a variation and also a metaphor of the film’s theme. Unlike the ham-fisted Let’s Talk, a film made a few years ago with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, where the filmmaker kept insisting it was structured like a Thumri (hence variations on a theme), Sthaniya Sambaad actually travels this path with incredible sophistication and grace. 

Besides the formal nature of the work, here is a film that states its geography, evokes its histories, exists on the cusp of a world that is changing. A young poet who is floundering, unrequited youthful love, misunderstandings regarding where the ‘nape’ is located, a chorus and life with all its joys, sorrows and endless other quotidian details emerge in this film.

The cast of Sthaniya Sambad seems handpicked for the job. Rarely has one seen such a bunch of talented actors in one film, all of them mercifully non-stars. To name a few – Anirban Dutta, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Anindya Banerjee, Suvankar Mitra, Sanat Sen, Sourya Deb, Thatagata Chowdhury, Shubam Roy Chowdhury, Aranya Chowdhury, Bratya Basu, Nayana Palit, Manali Dey, Kasturi Chatterji and the delightful duo Mrinal Ghosh and Dilip Sarkar. The list could go on but what is most important, more than the performances, is the way they understand and appropriate their roles. Recently, I watched on television an annoying TV-type with the expression of a computer-generated smiley interviewing Aishwariya Rai who actually referred to herself and some of her crones as artists. Talk about delusional. I suggest she watch this film, maybe she would realize that there is a craft in acting that is way beyond her.

One of the things that struck me after watching Sthaniya Sambad was whether this film (which was produced by the recently dissolved Black Magic Motion Pictures of which Goursaria was a partner) would have been given the thumbs-up by other corporatized production companies. I imagine those vacant employees hired by the companies to go through scripts wouldn’t know a good script if it became a projectile and fucked them in the ass. Most of them would not have the imagination or wit to know the poetics that exist beyond the script and within the process. For lovers of cinema who eternally hope that something worthwhile will happen in this part of the world, Sthaniya Sambaad is really a miracle.

While I always believe it’s the films that make the festival and not the other way round, I feel disappointed that Sthaniya Sambaad did not make it to the Cannes film festival. Not so much that it is the place to be, but that it would have given the film the international platform it deserves. I believe a film Udhaan from India has been selected in the Un Certain Regard category. I would not like to comment on it before seeing it. I honestly hope it is a good film and not something catering to the Slumdog Millionaire-type sensibility. I wish it success and if it is achieves 10 % of what Sthaniya Sambaad achieves, I shall consider myself a happy slob.

Finally, I have to say, as an aside to both Arjun and Moinak – “Man, or is it men, or just the usual friendly fuckers, the opening shot works.”

–  Kiran David

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Barack Obama and the Dispiriting of America

May 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji) (, , , )

 More than a year into his presidency it takes an effort to remember the hope and hype that Barack Obama generated during his historic campaign and victory. His candidacy and Presidency were seen as a renewal of America’s compact with its better self as well as a coming to terms with its less savoury aspects, including the ‘original sin’ of slavery and segregation. The media hoopla added to the aura of a ‘post-racial’ America that would now bring bipartisan governance to a United States racked by the divisive years of the Bush presidency as well as peace on earth. That these expectations were delusional at best was perhaps evident from the outset, that they would be diminished so quickly could not have been foreseen. While the conservative media was and continues to be implacably hostile to Obama, the so-called liberal media has joined an increasingly loud chorus of dismay and outright criticism. The reflection of oppositional stances that are played out within the political sphere in the media serves not only to highlight seeming ideological divisions but also the failures of the Obama Presidency thus far. Those failures, however, seem not merely those of policy but more fundamental ones.

As November 4, 2009, approached there were a series of positive commentaries on what President Obama had achieved. Eugene Robinson’s ‘A World of Change in 287 days’ [Washington Post, November 3, 2009] was fairly typical in its upbeat and optimistic listing. ‘It’s been a year since a healthy majority of American voters elected Barack Obama to change the world. Which is precisely what he’s doing.’ Robinson did concede that Obama is ‘a president, not a Hollywood action hero’ but then went onto see most of his policies in contexts of instantaneous change and hope. He ended with a prediction, which while proving substantively true, highlights in retrospect the pitfalls of journalistic and political crystal ball gazing: ‘We still have some fighting to do over two words – “public” and “option” – but it looks like the principle that everyone is entitled to health insurance, a Democratic Party goal for at least six decades, is about to become law.’ The aftermath of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts not only changed the dynamics of the health care debate (apart from the arithmetic of the Democratic Senate majority) but it also effectively buried the public option. The Democratic funk and then final vote on the health care reform bill on strictly partisan lines emphasized precisely the ways in which politics has not changed one whit in the age of Obama.

Simon Tisdall in an end-of-year assessment of the state of the world in The Guardian, ‘2009: the year of living dangerously’, asserted that ‘Barack Obama’s inauguration provided hope in a period marked by war, terror, nuclear fears and climate change anticlimax.’ [31 December, 2009] Tisdall was aware of the extraordinary burden of global expectation: ‘To paraphrase Churchill, never in the field of human conflict was so much expected by so many from one man.’ That sums up not just the absurdity of a single transformative leader creating the pathway for worldwide transformation but also the apolitical, decontextualized desire for redemption that will miraculously transcend the complexities of American and international politics. Within such a redemptive, quasi-religious framework it is not surprising that there is a sense of betrayal, of diminution, and hopelessness and Obama was aware of it. In a speech in New Orleans he mimicked his critics: ‘“Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” […] I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder.’ [John F. Harris, ‘Change has come’ … or has it?’ Politico, November 4, 2009] Obama highlighted the difficulties of governance, the necessity of incremental change, and the pitfalls of an easy radicalism that ignores these realities to fulfil its agendas while ‘their man’ is in power.

Harris went on to analyze the kind of president Obama is focusing on contraries in his political persona and desire. At one end is the inspirational figure: ‘He wants to be a transformational president – unconfined by the limitations of conventional politics and determined to put a lasting mark on his era.’ ‘But,’ as Harris continues, ‘Obama also has the soul of an operative. He and his West Wing team – dominated at the top by people whose expertise is in the world of campaigns and Washington maneuvers – have proved to be far more familiar political types that they admit to themselves or than was forecast by his insurgent campaign and the expansive, at times almost messianic, rhetoric that powered it.’ That this is a fairly accurate summation is evident in the ways in which health care reform – a transformational issue related to ideas of equity, fairness, and the type of nation America wishes to be – was ultimately passed after a series of backroom deals and obfuscation about how it will be paid for. The positive political futures enacted in the bill sit uneasily with the shenanigans that preceded its passing. Arguably the wheeling and dealing is an essential part of the democratic process and the ends justify the means. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision and legislative achievements such as the laws related to Civil Rights were achieved at the cost of increasing polarization (and opposition to the Vietnam War from within the Democratic Party didn’t help). In a different era and under very different circumstances Obama’s policies too have sharply divided the country.

There can be no doubt that the symbolic politics of Obama’s election as the first African-American President of the US is of enormous import and Obama will be remembered for his signal achievement in a country still coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and race hatred. Obama was also the non- or anti-Bush and that explains part of the global and national adulation. As Robinson writes: ‘On national security, Obama moved at once to categorically renounce torture – a big step toward removing the ugly stain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left on our national honor.’ Yet, more than a year later Guantanamo Bay is open and there is a greater continuity in foreign policy initiatives – the New START with Russia notwithstanding – than the Obama administration may wish to acknowledge. These continuities are even more apparent in modes of political operations within the US. To cite Harris once more: ‘As it happens, the Obama team is never happier – as in its frequent public disputes with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or the insurance industry – than when it can adopt campaign-style tactics to frame an adversary for public advantage. The logic of this approach is clear but also plainly at odds with Obama’s stated desire to unify Americans and drain politics of its anger and addiction to unproductive conflict.’ To blame Obama and his policies for this anger, division, and hate is simplistic just as it seems disingenuous to attribute the vitriol solely to the wing-nutters on the extreme Right. That Obama’s election was not the promised future, that it was a deeply disturbing event for many Americans was evident in the immediate aftermath of November 4, 2008. [For media examples of post-election despair and hate see my article in this blog – ‘The Promise of America’, November 18, 2008] The combination of the biggest recession since the 1930s, high unemployment, massive government spending to bail out ‘too big to fail’ banks, a record budget deficit, two wars, the health care bill, the perception of a more interventionist government, a general sense of American ‘declinism’ (and the corresponding unease over the ‘rise’ of China) along with paranoia, hate on the net and over the radio and TV, Republican intransigence, and race have roiled the American landscape in a manner not perceptible since the Vietnam era.

Quite clearly there are significant sections of the populace who dislike if not hate the figure of the President and his policies for reasons which have little to do with policy. The Southern Poverty Law Center in its report ‘Rage on the Right’ pointed to some of the reasons for increase in militia and hate groups in the US: ‘Patriot groups have been fuelled by anger over the changing demographics of the country, the soaring public debt, the troubled economy and an array of initiatives by President Obama that have been branded “socialist” or even “fascist” by his political opponents.’ The arrest of nine members of the Hutaree militia whose Web site bears the slogan ‘preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive’ is just one example of a rising tide of armed hate groups intent on fulfilling their version of a perfect union. Along with mainstream Republican politicians, Birthers (who believe Obama is not born in the US and therefore an illegitimate President), Tea Party activists, and the likes of Glenn Beck who provide media space for all sorts of conspiracy theories there is a constant churning of anger and a furthering of the ‘addiction to unproductive conflict’.

A large part of the blame for the toxic and dangerous divisions in the US today may be assigned to the Republicans, Birthers, and Tea Party activists. They are more visibly angry and given some of their absurd assertions easily lampooned in the liberal media. However, there has been a failure of leadership. Obama and his supporters have justly condemned the extremists but the alternatives he has provided have not always been clearly articulated or fully implemented. Obama’s failure has stemmed, paradoxically, from one of his greatest campaign strengths: the ability to be all things to all people. As Larry Sabato observes: ‘Obama’s great strength on the campaign trail was that he was a “tabula rasa”. People wrote what they wanted to write. That was true for moderates and independents and even some Republicans, and was certainly true for the Left. He was going to be everything.’ [Cited in Chris McGreal, ‘Obama battered by criticism as anniversary approaches,’ The Guardian, 18 January, 2010] What worked on the campaign trail is not necessarily good for governance. Obama has been criticized on the Left for being too timid and on the Right for being a socialist (among other things). This critique seems to overlook a larger failure of imagination, of political courage, of the inability to perceive alternative and viable ideas of being American. Commenting on the significance of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts Harold Evans wrote: ‘Of more significance, in my view, is the mood of the country, and it is becoming as sour as it was in the worst Bush years. With Obama, this disenchantment is not so much because of what might be. It’s because of what is. And what is lies at the core of national despair.’ [‘Lessons of a Mass revolt,’ The Guardian, 20 January, 2010] Part of the disenchantment is surely attributable to the gap between the promise and the reality, the ‘arrogance’ that ‘has seeped in’ to the administration, and the ways in which Obama and his coterie seem so comfortable in the ways of Washington.

Eli Saslow captures this sense of disillusionment in an article on three Americans who were invited by Obama for his first speech to Congress on 24 February 2009. They were a bank president who split his $60 million bonus among 471 employees, the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., rebuilding the city into a clean energy hub, and an eighth grader who wrote to Congress about the decay of her 112-year old school in South Carolina. Saslow cites the banker in conclusion: ‘“The risk here is that people are going to lose hope. I worry about what it does to our society, having people out of work for so long and struggling so hard to find work and getting into despair and things like that. People want to work and need to work. It goes beyond making a living. A lot of people are very scared, and they’re starting to lose their spirit.”’ [‘Some Obama goals for administration have still not been met,’ Washington Post, January 26, 2010] Saslow delineates the lives of Americans who are not extremists, who are supportive of Obama and yet deeply worried by the present, their futures and that of the nation, and their despair is a far more trenchant criticism of Obama’s governance than any of the rabid rhetoric resonating in Congress, the blogosphere, or the media. In some crucial ways Obama has failed to reach out to American citizens such as the ones characterized in Saslow’s article and therein lies the disconnect between promise and reality.

There is another aspect of the impact of Obama’s presidency and this relates to the notion of democracy. Michael Gerson, former speech writer to President George W. Bush, writes of the visceral hatred and contempt with which his boss was greeted and treated. He draws parallels between that expression of hatred and the current scenario and sees it as a sign of democratic decline. ‘While no democratic judgment is final – and citizens should continue to work to advance their ideals – respecting the temporary outcome of a democratic process is the definition of political maturity. The opposite – questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one’s opponents – is a sign of democratic decline.’ [‘Tone down the hatefulness in politics,’ Washington Post, April 9, 2010] Conceivably there is a difference between the disputed election of 2000 (decided ultimately by the US Supreme Court) and the huge Electoral College victory of President Obama, but Gerson’s point about the need for respecting differences is worth considering. One consequence of the absolute lack of dialogue between political and ideological opponents is the diminishing of democracy and spaces for disagreement and debate. The process did not, of course, begin with Obama’s presidency but it is ironic that an articulate, intelligent, and acute President presides over public spheres vitiated by vitriol and worse. Politics now is largely a matter of ‘messaging’ and ‘massaging the message’, of advertising and hype bereft of substantive matters, a permanent state of campaigning.

Perhaps it is too early to judge and the febrile media commentary merely reflects the echo chamber of talking heads who lambaste Obama for dithering over health care and hail him when it is passed, who detest him as a socialist, fascist, and Muslim or revere him. Perhaps he will be a truly transformative President who, putting aside easy radicalism, genuinely sets America on a revolutionary trajectory. At this point in his Presidency, however, it seems that the promise of America represented in his being and administration is precariously poised. The dispirited nation needs more than rhetoric to regain its sense of hope and direction, to restore democratic spheres of debate and disputation.

– Subarno Chattarji

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