Editorial / Tar spangled banner
Restroom Realism
The Telegraph Diary
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EDITORIAL / TAR SPANGLED BANNER 
 
 
 
 
The image of a solitary sheriff or marshal taming a town in the Wild West has left an indelible imprint on the American imagination. A Wyatt Earp shooting down baddies in O.K. Corrall or a Bat Masterson taming Dodge city are the folk heroes of a country that has no folk myths because in historical time it is still in its youth. Such stereotypes are so powerful that they sometimes spill over from comic books and movies, and influence more serious domains. This is evident from the behaviour of the United States administration towards the world from the time the US, through a quirk of history, became the world’s only superpower. This unchallenged global position has given to US policy a crusader-like quality. It sees it as a duty to go and curb evil wherever it perceives it. The US sees itself as the world’s peace keeper and conscience keeper rolled into one. There can be no objection to this since it brings the US to the forefront of the global battle against terrorism and religious fundamentalism, the two principal threats to world peace. But there is a downside to this unchallenged sway of the US in world affairs. Its unquestioned military and economic superiority endows the US with an ogre-like quality. This perception is fortified by occasional US attempts to use strong-arm tactics or its efforts to twist a country’s economic arm. The word perception is used advisedly. This is how the US is seen even if its actions and intentions are completely different.

This perception invariably breeds resentment. Nobody likes a bully. The evidence for this is already manifest if the US policymakers care to read the signs. On the streets of Seattle and Genoa, men and women marched to protest against US hegemony. Such demonstrations should not be ignored. In the Sixties, this is how protests against US intervention in Vietnam began and then spread to US university campuses. The protests in Seattle and Genoa carry seeds of a global protest which may well put the US in the dock. These demonstrations, as is obvious from their popularity, are tapping into a reservoir of anti-US sentiments. At a different level, on various international fora, the US is becoming the target of criticism and voices of dissent are being heard against its stand on various issues. These are as yet subterranean shows of resentment. But unless the issues are addressed, the US runs the danger of finding itself isolated. A sheriff without a base of social support may find it difficult to fight outlaws alone.

This kind of resentment of perceived superiority will not surprise students of history. In the past, when Napoleon or Hitler loomed large over the future of a substantial part of the globe, there was united resistance. The Russian bear under communist rule was not a very popular animal in eastern Europe. The US is now treading that dangerous terrain. Its own unprecedented strength is its worst enemy. Unlike Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin, the US cannot live like a pariah in the community of nations. It needs to review its image and global responses to it. History has cast the US in a peculiar role. It needs to see history beyond the character assigned to it.

   

 
 
RESTROOM REALISM 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
The difference between our films and their films is realism. Even after watching a nicely mounted film like Lagaan where the costumes and props (including the English extras) don’t make you cringe, you’re left wondering why American films feel so different. I think I now know what the difference is: it’s the absence of “business” in Hindi cinema.

Anyone who has been up on stage knows that the key to acting is knowing what to do with your arms and hands while the other fellow says his lines. Ashok Kumar solved this problem with that indispensable prop, the lit cigarette. But generally in Hindi films, people in the shot just watch while a red-eyed Sunny Deol says something vengeful, their arms hanging by their sides like a spare pair of brackets.

You never see this kind of awkwardness when American stars like Harrison Ford or Al Pacino are on screen. They have business: they’ll be listening to their Deol-equivalent and wiping mud off their faces, sweat off their brow, tilting their hats back, loosening their bandannas, drinking or asking for a drink without really opening their mouths, casual-like, so you can’t understand what they’re saying. There was a time when Hollywood actors concentrated on saying their lines clearly, so that people sitting in the last row of the cinema hall could understand. Sometimes this was at the expense of their American accents: black-and-white Hollywood features of the Forties and Fifties have actors and actresses speaking unnaturally clipped sentences in ersatz English accents.

Then it all changed. I don’t know when precisely but I noticed it some thirty years ago when I saw that celebrated film, In the Heat of the Night. Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his part in it (I think he was a bigoted policeman) but his accent was so unreconstructedly southern that no one in that Connaught Place cinema hall understood a word he was saying. Ironically, in this hyper-real, black-and-white, Deep South drama, every time the black, that is, Sidney Poitier came on, there was a collective sigh of relief because he generally spoke out of the middle of his mouth and opened it enough for the vowels to come through.

Contemporary Hollywood routinely has its stars going on as if they were home with no one watching, only more so. This is called being normal and being normal means being real. Normal Americans, on average, clearly spend a lot of time in fitted kitchens, in offices, while eating. So screen business in American films is filled with offices, kitchens and food. Not food they’ve cooked themselves, but food they’ve bought in paper bags which crackle wonderfully on the soundtrack, deepening the realism of the moment. Technology is a fine thing: Hollywood studios install microphones in actors’ mouths to get the chewing right in every detail. They must do because Pacino, Ford and Hoffman get more crunch out of a burger than you and I would get from toast. They also talk while chewing and often move out of frame while doing both to make trebly certain that they come across as unselfconscious, real, regular people. In Hollywood’s newspaper offices, characters frequently try to smoke, put on a jacket, talk and eat a take-away burger at the same time.

Eating, or drinking coffee out of disposable containers, is obviously American shorthand for routine, ordinary living. When Harrison Ford reaches into a paper bag or Pacino starts chewing they become, for those seconds, American embodiments of Everyman, so that however superhuman, melodramatic or implausible the subsequent action might be, they remain real. Perhaps it has something to do with being a republic with an anti-aristocratic myth of origin because Americans on and off screen seem to spend a lot of time being regular guys. Remember Bush Senior in his ten-gallon hat and Texan rig trying to live down his fancy Eastern origins? And Carter being homey by the fireside? And Clinton looking porkier than ever in baggy sweats?

The irony of republican populism is that public figures can’t be themselves: they have to be averagely real regular guys. It’s a kind of reconstituted realism, like hamburger meat: boned, ground and processed for convenient paper-bag consumption. It is a realism impossible to reproduce in our films. In a country where one lot of people don’t eat beef and the other lot don’t eat pork and the remainder don’t eat either, its hard to make take-away food a universal symbol for Real Life.

Lagaan is three hours and forty two minutes long. In all that time I can’t remember the villagers or the improvised cricket team eating on screen, not once. They dance together, sing together, play cricket together and talk up a storm but there’s no casual eating, no everyday chomping and there almost certainly would have been in an American movie this long. That’s because Indians don’t eat together and desi eating is not a casual, absent-minded affair. It’s a deeply rule-bound business, full of proscriptions and taboos. An American taking a swig from a friend’s beer bottle is unremarkable, therefore real; an Indian actor doing the same thing is making a statement: arrey! so advanced he is, not worrying about jhootha even!

In American commercial cinema, realism means no more than a movie star plausibly playing Everyman and his routines. It’s not an option open to us because there is no stereotype that can stand in for all of us. We are (for better or for worse) too plural, too irreducibly different. Think of how carefully Aamir/Bhuvan’s cricket team is put together: Kachra, a Dalit, Deva, a Sikh, and Ismail, the Muslim potter. Hip realism is hard if you have to dot each “i” and cross each “t”.

Still, it isn’t that much of a loss. All-American eating happens too often in Hollywood’s films and falls victim to the law of diminishing returns. You begin to wonder about all that persuasively shot eating on screen. It begins to look hokey because these movies never follow up the eating. Watching Pacino eat you can’t help wondering, where does all that food go? Why don’t they ever show them do that other average, Everyman thing? What about the daily bread at the other end? How about Al (or Marlon or Clint or Harrison) crouched over a porcelain bowl, taut with thought. Rodin’s Thinker for Hollywood Stinker. Restroom Realism we could call it. The stuff they could tape for the soundtrack! Imagine.

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THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Inside the heads

To be or not to be Sardar Patel? The Laloo-speak-alike, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh of the Rashtriya Janata Party, seems to have already answered that question for the Union home minister, LK Advani. Post-Doda, during a high-strung attack on the minister for his failure to live up to his much-projected image of the iron man of India, Singh made a pithy observation, “Yeh Sardar Patel thodi hain, yeh to Gobar Patel hain” (He is hardly Sardar Patel, he is cowdung Patel). While NDA MPs risked their lives to stop themselves from grinning, the opposition dissolved in laughter. Amidst the din, the Congress president turned to her chief whip, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, with an innocent query, “What is gobar? What does he mean by Gobar Patel?” “Cow dung, madam! Gobar Patel means you have cowdung in your head,” was how Munshi rose to the occasion. More laughter from madam, this round for having understood the joke.

Who’ll make it to the chair?

The return of the didi to the NDA fold seems to be causing a lot of heartburn among her brothers. Not because they didn’t want to go back, but because they don’t know if they’ll get back what they had. The cabinet post will be Mamata’s, they all know. But who’ll have the half ministership, that is the minister of state-ship? For one, didi is giving no hints. But a little bird tells us that she has her eyes on her MP from Hooghly, Akbar Ali Khondkar. But why? Because he’s tied to didi’s apron strings and is a Muslim (a signal to the minorities that all is well despite didi’s joining hands again with the saffronites). Then what’ll happen to didi’s blue-eyed brother, the Trinamool chief whip and Nayana’s husband, Sudip Bandopadhyay? Will his ministerial ambitions go unfulfilled? Maybe not. For Sudip knows his way about the capital, how to tap the power network and still be Mamata’s pet. Which means in the next few days he will have to pull all the tricks out of his bag.

Another ghost which calls

It is the UTI ghost which is stalking those hallowed corridors now. If the Tehelka gave defencewallahs nightmares about strangers, the UTI scandal is giving politicians jitters about using cell phones. Remember it was the UTI chief’s cell phone which became his nemesis. The other day, Congress MP Ghulam Nabi Azad, who didn’t have a phone with him in the central hall of Parliament, asked BJP MP Vijay Kumar Malhotra to lend him his so that he could make an important call. Malhotra was reluctant. He jokingly told Azad, “I don’t mind giving you my phone, but be careful. Don’t make a call to PS Subramanyam, otherwise my number too will be discovered on his phone.” Azad told Malhotra that he needn’t worry, he was only going to call his wife. Malhotra replied, “It will be even more dangerous if my number is discovered on your wife’s phone.” Message sent.

No stitches this time

A political lesson and it took the Union law minister, Arun Jaitley, and the rural development minister, Venkaiah Naidu, a gaping second to learn it. They had gone to visit a relative of Venkaiah who was admitted to the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. While returning, they decided to call on one ailing independent MP, admitted to the same hospital. Not a part of the NDA, the People’s Front or the Congress and its allies, the duo thought the sick man could be easy meat for the ruling party. Our man in the hospital was delighted to have them. He asked his musclemen guarding him to leave them alone. At that point, Jaitley made the fatal mistake of asking the sick man about the nature of his ailment. Our man promptly removed the sheet covering him and pointed to a spot below one of his knees. The ministers however were in no state to see that. Under the sheet, our MP wore nothing but that faint smile on his lips.

A match to watch

The Lok Sabha nowadays resembles an akhara for wrestlers. And this is how an enviable seat in the house was wrested from an unsuspecting politician. The BJP MP from Bihar, Rajiv Pratap Rudi, sits among five women MPs from his party, and one face in this group is particularly beautiful. Rudi’s bete noire, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, presumably,did not like this. As the speaker for the day (a panel of senior politicians act as speakers when neither the speaker nor the deputy speaker can conduct the assembly) Singh asked Rudi to go back to his seat, that is away from Ms Beautiful Face. It is Kirti Azad, the cricketer turned politician, who now sits in that much sought after place. No seat-sharing here?

Week full of fashion and more

The second India Fashion Week in Mumbai turned out to be roaring success despite the boycott by some top designers and models. The business of fashion apart, Mumbai lived up to its reputation of being India’s most colourful city. Parties continued till the wee hours of the morning. At one such meet, male attendants wore bow ties and undies. Unlike in Delhi, there was no moral policing. Organizers are now deliberating about the next destination of IFW. Some sheepishly suggested Calcutta. But is the city of joy ready for it?

Burning midnight candles

Making candles may not be enough for Bobby anymore. Dimple is apparently so angry that she may need to burn them as well. In the recently released Dil Chahta Hai, Aamir Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta and Sonali Kulkarni are each getting their fair share of the promo attention. But not Dimple, who plays the older love for a besotted Akshaye. But wait Miss Crowning Glory, don’t burn all the candles — or fingers. Dimple is probably being held back as a surprise offer to cinegoers. But will that hold back the perpetually wet baby?

Footnote / Call out of the control room

More spotlights on the Parthapratim Roy Burman kidnap case. Last Monday, the Crime Investigation Department in West Bengal sent officials to surround an ashram in the bheris of Salt Lake to arrest a suspect. There were spotlights, armed officials cordoning off the area where the criminals had allegedly been holed up. Officials warned those inside through megaphones that they had surrounded the place and that there was no way of escape. When repeated persuasion and warning failed to yield any result, the bright officials decided to contact them through their mobile. The number was dialled and when someone at the other end picked up the phone, he was met with a volley of abuse in choicest Bengali followed by stern warnings about what would ensue if there was no surrender soon. After sometime, the caller realized that the man at the other end was at a total loss. Then a voice spoke up, haltingly, “Boss, I want to surrender. But to whom?” Obviously, there were no spotlights at the other end, no posse of police seen through windows. The call had reached an eatery in Salt Lake. Sweet end to the tale?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Public eye on private lives

Sir — That it took the Asom Gana Parishad just seven minutes to clear their leader of bigamy charges shows how insignificant the private life of an Indian politician is in comparison to his politics (“Mahanta clear ‘bigamy’ trial by party”, Aug 10). Apart from showing how important Prafulla Mahanta is to the survival of the AGP, the incident also shows a peculiar Indian trend. While a whiff of extramarital romance can snuff the political life of American senators, politicians in India can still afford to canoodle without it involving too many risks. Is it because Indians have become wiser by their leaders’ years of experiments with the truth?
Yours faithfully,
J. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Derailed

Sir — In the all-party delegation of members of parliament which met Nitish Kumar recently to notify him about the present situation of the wagon-making industry in the eastern region, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Trinamool Congress were strangely missing (“Nitish nods to Mamata’s wagon industries”, July, 28).

Yet, Tapan Sikdar, minister of state for communications, had assured the people of his constituency that if elected, he would reopen all industries in and around Dum Dum. Sikdar has not kept his word and his staying away from the delegation also shows that he has no intention of keeping his promise. He should have known that the two wagon-manufacturers in his constituency were nearing closure with work in the rolling stock division having been suspended for a considerable time. Even the former railway minister, Mamata Banerjee, after resigning from the Rail Bhavan has shown scant interest about her Bengal package.

Let us hope the order placed on the industries in West Bengal and the return of Banerjee to the National Democratic Alliance are harbingers of a better future.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Kanti Nandy, Barasat

Sir — The functioning of the Northern Frontier Railways is not without flaws. Two trains running between Lumding and Silchar, that is the Cachar Express and the B.V. Express, still do not have the facility of computerized reservation. I looked up the Indian Railway reservation system website, where I typed in the train number. The website gave me the train schedule. But when I inquired about the fare or availability of seats, it gave no response. I was later informed by the divisional commercial manager, Lumding that manual reservation is done between Lumding and Silchar. But I think that computerized booking services should be available from any reservation centre for these two trains.

In the website the railway stoppages had the term “station deleted” beside each. Would the NFR authorities clarify what this means? And could a new train be introduced between Lumding and Kumarghat.

Yours faithfully,
Sagnik Chakravartty, New Delhi

Service provider

Sir — I use the internet and thereby require the connections of different private internet service providers. A few days ago I needed to buy a dial-up internet start-up kit of the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited and found that these were not available in the open market as VSNL has few or no retailers in Calcutta. The Poddar Court office of VSNL informed that these are available in the Ultadanga office. I went there the next morning only to find work suspended till 3 pm in protest against privatization of VSNL.

The following day I had to wait for 20 minutes to get myself registered as a visitor. For the start-up kit — I was informed at four in the afternoon — I had to fill up a form, then wait for one hour more. Besides, I needed to have a demand draft or a cheque since cash is accepted only till 3.45 pm. If this is the way VSNL works in Calcutta, where there are so many private ISPs, I can imagine how it serves areas where it has a monopoly.

Yours faithfully,
Kapil Khandelwal, Calcutta

Sir — Rural telephone exchanges are usually introduced with much fanfare. This was the case with the Balarambati exchange in Hooghly early this year. I am an unfortunate subscriber to this exchange. Even when I urgently need to connect to Calcutta, I usually fail to do so. Acquaintances in Calcutta have a similar experience in trying to connect with me. Complaints to the exchange have yielded little result. Queries are given the typical answers.

Yours faithfully,
K.Chakrabarty, Hooghly

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