Editorial / Can’t bear to be free
The frisson of the real
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

India’s information technology success is somewhat muted now because of the information, communication and entertainment meltdown in the United States and in India. But it is legitimate to ask why the success happened at all. The answer, argued by the 1999-2000 economic survey, was the lack of government controls and licensing in the IT sector. This hypothesis is also true of the growth of services. Services account for 50 per cent of national income now and if one contrasts gross domestic product performance in the Eighties with that in the Nineties, the crucial difference is because of services; industrial and agricultural growth rates having remained more or less unchanged. And what characterizes services — as opposed to primary or secondary activities — is the lack of government controls. If something grows and moves, tax it. If it continues to grow and move, tax it some more. And finally, when it ceases to grow and move and begins to make losses, subsidize it. Unfortunately, this statement, made by a former US president, characterizes the mindset the Indian government adopts towards entrepreneurial activity. Why else would the government now decide to inflict a licence-permit raj on IT?

This has been proposed through the draft communications and convergence bill, most probably to be tabled in the next session of Parliament. Licences will be necessary for the internet, electronic commerce and all IT-related transactions. This covers unified messaging, call centres, tele-banking, tele-trading, tele-medicine and video conferencing. Specifically, this would also mean that posting content in the web will require a licence. According to Chapter 7 of the proposed bill, this is required because of the “necessity of serving the public interest, ensuring competition and preventing monopolies”. And if Big Brother has its way, there will be a communications commission of India. The government has a penchant for confusing regulation with control. Not even the most diehard of reformers will plead for a complete absence of regulation, although if the monopolies and restrictive trade practices commission is any indication, regulators do tend to confuse regulation with control. Since we will soon have the first competition commission of India, was there any need for CCI Mark-II, on grounds of fostering competition and preventing monopoly?

“Public interest” is a deliciously vague expression, since it is never equated with consumer interest. And the expression has been used historically to justify all manner of muddle-headed economic policies in India. For example, solving the unemployment problem in the civil services by providing for jobs in CCI Mark-II, can be construed as public interest. Indeed, the Wild West syndrome has served Indian IT interests fairly well and Mr Pramod Mahajan’s signal contribution to the cause of IT is best served by rooting for the abolition of the ministries of telecom, of information and broadcasting and of information technology. Mr Mahajan has been talking about the government setting up cyber-kiosks throughout the country. The government’s track record in delivering services is appalling. No doubt significant amounts of money will be spent in the name of setting up these cyber-kiosks. But generalizing on the basis of what has already happened in other sectors, 85 per cent will be leaked away. Mr Mahajan also needs to remember that the subscriber trunk dial revolution did not happen as long as it was in the government’s hands and the cable television revolution owes nothing to the government.

Let a hundred IT flowers bloom in the absence of licensing. Unfortunately, the government is unlikely to listen and will raise the spectre of cyber-crimes and pornography, keeping a strict vigil on a nation of potentially errant schoolboys. In the process, IT will be driven off from Indian shores to more welcome climes where controls are not pervasive.


The first documentaries I ever watched along with the rest of movie-going India were the Films Division newsreels shown before the main features in every cinema hall. You had to watch them like you had to rise to attention at the end of the movie for the flag waving on the screen and the anthem on the loudspeakers. People did both willingly; as a patriotic eight-year-old, I disapproved of shufflers who couldn’t curb their restlessness till jayo jayo jayo jayo hey! and my brother loved the Indian News Review so much that he forced us to get to the hall an hour before the feature started.

The Indian News Review wouldn’t be able to pass as a documentary now; now it would be part of news and current affairs, but in those days moving pictures were rare and people liked watching old news not for the sake of the news but for the precious sense of bearing witness to their times. The Indian News Review was documentary in the truest, most literal sense; it documented the real world, it was fact on celluloid as opposed to the fictional main course that you’d bought tickets for. The Indian News Review was strangely stylized: the man doing the voice-over sounded more like a master of ceremonies than a news-reader, the spectator applause in the sporting capsules was so canned it was tinny and tennis balls ricocheted off Premjit Lal’s racquet strings like gunshots.

Sometimes (rarely) you got to see proper documentaries that weren’t just a collection of news clips. These were usually short biographical films: I can remember one about the great hockey goalkeeper, Shankar Laxman, and another about Alla Rakha, who looked like a giant baby mysteriously massaging continuous sounds from an adult instrument.

The only documentary cinema I recall paying to watch were the three-hour summaries of the Olympic Games that they showed in major cinema halls through the Sixties and early Seventies. We had to book weeks in advance; imagine, queuing to watch footage of two-year-old races.

The last sarkari documentary I remember seeing in a cinema hall was a kind of travelogue: Mrs Gandhi’s tour of the Soviet Union, starting with her reception at the airport where the Soviet leadership broke protocol by having the troika receive her: Kosygin, Podgorny and Brezhnev. Three trolls and a slinky queen met to jointly write a fairy tale with a happy ending: the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1970.

Then all documentaries vanished from our lives. The Indian News Review disappeared from cinema houses along with Jana Gana Mana and the time we left school, my generation assumed that documentaries were films that you watched involuntarily. Documentaries were made by government institutions or worthy organizations like the National Film Board of Canada sponsored in one way or the other by the state except for political documentaries made by Anand Patwardhan, which were shown as samidzat were read. But there was nowhere to see documentaries in the Seventies except maybe Attenborough’s Life on Earth on television.

Then, sometime in the late Seventies or early Eighties, I saw the definitive documentary film. I saw it on Doordarshan. It was three hours long and it was called King. It was an account of the political life of Martin Luther King made with archival footage. I watched it sitting with my parents and no one moved except to go to the lavatory. It was conventionally made: linear narrative, a voice-over tying the footage together, but so vivid that when he made his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, it felt like we were watching it sitting by the Lincoln Memorial.

Very few documentary films can hope to recreate the life of a public figure as vividly as King, if only because public lives aren’t as systematically documented by cameras in India. In King you actually see notorious southern policemen advancing on camera-men covering the civil rights movement, their truncheons raised, their spittle spattering the camera lens, distorting their already convulsed faces. King fulfilled every expectation I had of documentary cinema: it immersed us in someone else’s world and we came out dripping. Literally, because we were crying by the time the film ended. I would pay to see a documentary film like that.

Why is it important to say that? What does paying for tickets have to do with documentary cinema? The question of paying to watch is important because Indian documentary films over the past 15 years have been bankrolled by a variety of funders: foreign television stations, Doordarshan and quasi-governmental agencies. Money, especially in the last five or six years, has been extremely hard to come by. Even more difficult is the business of getting people to watch the films once they are made. Television release anywhere near prime time is impossible, so private screenings are organized by the director and publicity is often just word of mouth. Who are these films for? Who watches them? Should state television subsidize them like the BBC does? The reason these questions arise is that “expressive” documentaries need subsidies because they don’t have a paying public.

The kind of documentary film that recovers its costs either through advertising or resale seems to be the wildlife film shown on television by channels like National Geographic. These films are clearly not the kind ambitious documentary filmmakers make in India today. I have seen films about the circus, working class martyrs, Indian communities abroad, women’s cooperatives in Andhra Pradesh, people-friendly forestry in Bengal, cabaret dancers, classical music, Kashmir, but good or bad, it’s impossible to think of a market for them. The Indian documentary film is likely to remain beholden to institutional patronage, partly because the mainstream subject and the accessible discursive style favoured by the middle-of-the-road documentary finds no favour with our directors.

So what is the documentary’s audience and is this a fair or answerable question? It isn’t a question that a novelist is expected to answer except in dignified generalities, so why should the director of documentary films? The novelist can hedge by saying, “The sort of person who reads novels” and though this is a circular way of answering the question, it is a reasonable reply because there is a class of persons which reads fiction for pleasure. No one watches documentaries for pleasure because you can’t, even if you wanted to: there is no video library of documentary films. In video shops in Delhi I can buy a double-cassette documentary history of Nazism made by the BBC, but there’s nothing comparable available on Partition or the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Contemporary Indian documentaries are unlikely to find a paying public because they tend to be sensitive meditations on their chosen subjects: they aren’t hectic real life stories, they aim for anthropological insight rather than narrative excitement. Watching these films is an emotionally temperate experience: oddly, documentary filmmakers, usually so quick to defend the independence of their genre against those who think cinema is synonymous with the feature film, seem to have accepted for their craft the conventions of the well-made essay.

Nothing I have seen has been stirring or moving in the way that a novel like Beloved is, or a feature like Stalker, or a documentary like King. The lack of narrative tension in these films is related to their dependence on patronage. Institutional funding comes with deadlines: patrons want product in the shortest possible period. It’s possible to make decent films inside these deadlines but these films are generally based on ready-to-wear issues and categories borrowed from academics or journalism. To accumulate compelling stories about people and to be there to film them without setups and enaction, you need to spend time with them. In Indian documentaries, the faces talking into the camera aren’t characters in a film, they are native informants being harvested for their anecdotes, their opinions and their authenticity.

I have no idea what needs to be done to help documentary films reach a larger audience. I do know that most lay viewers expect documentary footage to be unprompted, unmassaged and true. I’ve seen films where the idea of verite is dispensed with and enaction made a virtue. The credits at the end of one film told the viewer that several of the characters in the film were merely roles, played by friends of the director because the characters were representative types: finding them in their natural habitats would have been too expensive, so in the interest of economy, it made sense to confect them. Reconstituted reality in the documentary film makes the same claim as tetrapacked orange juice: the concentrate is real — all we add is water. The idea that a director has distilled the truth of his subject and can realize it with staged footage is lazy and self-serving. To stage action is to act in bad faith because every viewer of every documentary needs to believe that the film bears witness to a reality independent of its maker and further, that the camera records that reality as it unfolds.

From the viewer’s point of view, every documentary should be shot like an honest wildlife film: creatures in their habitat, circumstances beyond the filmmaker’s control. That’s why watching King is so stirring. This is the civil rights movement unfolding; there is Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream...”. There go the police, there he is in church saying “How long? Not long! How long?...” and there’s the congregation talking back to him. It’s like watching an epic story out of the Old Testament as a contemporary. You’re a fly on the wall watching history as it happens and there is a charge to that, an electricity, which no biopic can ever match. It is the frisson of the real — why would any documentary filmmaker swap that real magic for the shopworn tricks of Art?

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Moral of a story

Contempt of 10, Janpath. And legal eagle Kapil Sibal hardly realized he was inviting it when he opened his mouth before the television cameras to speak on Amma’s coronation. The head of the Congress’s economic cell apparently got madam hopping mad by raking up the morality issue with regard to J Jayalalitha’s chief ministership. Sibal reportedly told Zee that from a moral point of view, the puratchi thalaivi’s appointment was unacceptable to him. Evil hour. His comment coincided with the statement of the party’s general secretary, Ambika Soni, who said on another channel that the party saw nothing wrong in Amma’s enthronement. Mayhem followed in the AICC. RK Dhawan was heard screaming at the top of his voice at whoever deputed Sibal to represent the party on TV. The media department washed its hands of the whole kerfuffle claiming that the advocate had ventured into the spotlight on his own at the invitation of the channel. Dhawan however was inconsolable. To attest to madam’s wisdom, he dug up AR Antulay’s kissa kursi ka. This Maharashtra CM, Dhawan’s narrative ran, was also charged with corruption, for which he had to give up his gaddi. Acquittal happened after 12 long years. “Who will return the 12 years of his political career?” Dhawan’s question for Kapil. But Sibal is answering no moral questions.

Another figure creeps up

One could not have noticed it, but another figure held the stage with Amma — Fathima Beevi, the low profile governor of the state. Hailing from a modest Muslim family in Kerala, Beevi is fast emerging a potential challenger to the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson, Najma Heptullah, in the race for the vice-president’s chair. Najma’s detractors in the Congress want Sonia Gandhi to consider Beevi for the coveted post given her “secular credentials” and outstanding legal record. Moreover, Beevi is a commoner without links with either Abul Kalam Azad, Zakir Hussain or Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. Lets hope that commonsense prevails.

Lying on the wayside for now

Beginning of the end? One can’t be too sure. But things are certainly on the downswing for the invincible Brajesh Mishra of the PMO. The diminution of the Colossus was evident from the latest turn of events on the Kashmir front. Since the unilateral ceasefire gambit, Mishra has been virtually cut off from the process. Yet so tight had been Mishra’s grip on the dealings that even the Union home minister had opted out of the talks. But the wheel has turned. With the sangh parivar and others casting disapproving glances at Mishra, AB Vajpayee has reportedly been compelled to clip his wings. KC Pant, vice-chairman of the planning commission, has been inducted to broker peace with the militant groups in the valley. Advani, who started taking active interest in Kashmir after a hearty meal with Vajpayee, is, together with Pant, chalking out the Kashmir policy. The duo will decide whether to extend the ceasefire after May 31. Mishra is, quite apparently, nowhere around. But then he might just be lurking behind the scene?

Can’t handle heritage

No roses for the Congress in the Shahjahanpur Lok Sabha bypolls. But the results have surprised many as Kanta Prasada, wife of the late Congress rebel, Jitendra Prasada, was in the fray. Apparently, Kanta has herself to blame for the fiasco. According to the Uttar Pradesh Congress committee chief, Sriprakash Jaiswal, the Congress nominee lost because her camp refused to make use of the party organization. It even asked senior leaders like ND Tiwari and Salman Khurshid not to come for campaigning. Mrs Prasada’s campaign was run by a select band of Prasada loyalists and they cut across party lines. There were Naresh Agarwal of the Loktantrik Congress, Puttu Awasthi of the BJP and several others. Too many cooks always spoil the broth.

Nothing in it really

Winners lose all. Sougata Roy, Trinamool legislator from Dhakuria, has apparently got no rewards from the party leader for defeating the leftist PWD minister, Kshiti Goswami. Since a cabinet berth was out of the question, Roy had expected a senior position in the Trinamool legislature party, given his experience. Nothing there as well. Roy could not hide his dismay while talking to scribes last week. “I am talking to you as a replacement of Pankaj Banerjee (who heads the legislature party) as he is out of station. It is a stop-gap arrangement,” Roy rued. Didi probably has still not forgiven him for contesting against her from Calcutta South some years back.

Footnote / A secretary in his place

Down but not out. Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary, Vincent George, might be out of 10, Janpath, but not out of the Congresswallah’s mind. Although the number of visitors have gone down at Chanakyapuri, George’s residence, loyalists like Ajit Jogi still visit him. At a recent party thrown by Congress glam boy, Subbirami Reddy, in the honour of Rahul Bajaj and Anni Reddy of Reddy Laboratory fame, George was the centre of attraction. The entire Congress working committee, minus Sonia, Ambika Soni and Arjun Singh, was present and zeroed in on George. The members buzzed round and round the king bee. Senior leaders like Natwar Singh, Saroj Khaparde and Ajit Jogi posed with him for photographs, while others queued up in front of him to tell him how much they missed him and that they would tell madam that she should bring him back. It goes without saying that George went back home happy, having enjoyed the attention, but he left his numerous adversaries in the party rather uncomfortable, especially since there are rumours that he might be back in Janpath soon. Party time for him then.    


Of sons and daughters

Sir — That Chokila Iyer has no friends in the ministry of external affairs was evident right from the time her nomination as the foreign secretary was made public. The recent mudslinging regarding her trip to the United States therefore comes as no surprise (“Chokila diplomacy for daughter”, May 18). The slice of news which the media has lapped up must have been delivered with special care by the MEA itself. But while presenting the information on the front pages, the media should have at least cared to find out how many ministers make it to foreign countries on a similar pretext and why no noises are made about this.

Yours faithfully,
S.P. Chatterjee, Calcutta

English in its place

Sir — “English literature, swadeshi style” (May 5) may on the first read appear to be another Hindutva gimmick, but a detailed analysis of the intended change shows that this is an excellent opportunity to erase the inferiority complex that English education breeds among a large section of the population. English is an international language which has been indigenized by scores of countries the world over. The language also integrates the world commercially. India must encourage this lingua franca so that the country can keep abreast of whatever is happening in the rest of the world.

R.K. Dikshit of the National Council for Educational Research and Training appraises the reality correctly. The changes will take the sting out of the older English literature curriculum in schools which promote foreign authors over desi writers. Over-emphasis on English and European history must be eliminated. Other personalities, nations, events must be given the prominence they deserve.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — It is all very good if the English syllabus is revised to include Indian writers. But the choice has to be intelligent and this is where the catch lies. An authority which insists on including astrology as a science in the university curriculum, strikes off the study of history as unnecessary, cannot be trusted with that choice. It is better to have Milton and Shakespeare in the syllabus than that “young boy in England, writing poetry”.

Yours faithfully,
J. Sen, Calcutta

Women’s world

Sir — R.D. Sharma’s “At home with violence” (May 15) speaks of the injustice done to women by the Indian society. It also gives details about the mental and sexual abuse women undergo every few minutes. One cannot but feel confused about one point. Why are men alone held responsible for this each time? There are numerous cases where men are mentally and sexually abused, where aunts and sisters-in-law molest and physically assault their young relatives.

If women are paraded naked in villages by Thakurs and a complaint is lodged against such acts, why should women glorify nakedness in beauty pageants by walking in brief clothing in public view? And doesn’t all the showing off of the body on Fashion Television hurt the sentiments of women? Also, women are often promoted because it is not their talent and academic results which count, but their seductive talents. I am not against women, but I feel that in this male-dominated society women are the ones who prevail. It is unfair to blame men for everything that goes wrong with the opposite sex.

Yours faithfully, Ali
Reshmi Ghosh, via email

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