Editorial / Game of the people
Aggressively unbeautiful
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The origins of football are obscure but its popularity is evident. It is recognized as the people’s game, as distinct from those pursued by the affluent — polo, golf, tennis and, till recently, cricket. The plebeian marks of soccer — and the word plebeian is not used pejoratively here — is obvious from the amount of body contact there is in the game and from the fact that in Britain, where the game originated, none of the well-known public schools have a tradition of nurturing football and footballers. The contempt for the game felt by the British upper classes was expressed in Kipling’s memorable phrase, “muddied oafs at the goal”. But all this cannot take away from the enormous thrill that the game brings to its fans. In Latin America, the home for excellence in football, lives have been lost because of it, and on one notorious occasion it has been the cause for war between two countries.

The strange thrill, alien to any other sport, will be at its peak across the world from Friday, May 31 when the World Cup begins, for the first time in two Asian countries. The World Cup is the most sought after trophy in soccer as the best teams test their skills against one another for nearly a month. When one team holds the trophy aloft, there will be hearts broken but more importantly preparations will begin for the next World Cup, four years away. Football over the years has become a highly professionalized sport. This aspect is epitomized in the pre-eminence of the manager of a football team. The manager of any top class team is the coach; he is also the one-man selection committee; and also the man who chalks out strategy and tactics and substitutions during the course of play. The success of a soccer team these days depends as much on the overall planning of the manager as on the skills of individual players and team effort. In many ways, the manager is the unsung hero of modern soccer. Who remembers offhand the manager or managers of the legendary Brazilian sides between the late Fifties and early Seventies? It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that Matt Busby is still remembered because of that tragic air crash in 1958 in which eight of his “babes” died.

The holding of the World Cup in Asia is proof of the game’s growing popularity in the region. Like so many other things, soccer, exported from Britain by the British Empire, has become a global phenomenon. In keeping with global trends, soccer is Calcutta’s chosen sport. The city, like other places elsewhere, will be gripped by football frenzy. This is one example in Calcutta of the love for a sport being utterly free of any kind of nationalist sentiment. Football fans will be glued to the television and will be engaged in animated post-mortems of the matches only for their love of football. India is not playing in the World Cup. There is something indefinable about this love just as there is something ineffable about the joy produced in watching expert dribbling, unerring shooting and sense of position and defence. The goals decide the match but these skills determine the level of soccer and the thrill it generates.


Devdas in Cannes, Bollywood Dreams in London, Lagaan at the Oscars. Popular Indian cinema is fashionable in the West this year. This is still an impresario’s interest. Lagaan wasn’t a crossover film in the sense that Monsoon Wedding was, Andrew Lloyd Webber is having a hard time selling tickets for A.R. Rahman’s musical, and I can’t see global audiences beating a path to the box office to see Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas (it’s like asking a hyperactive child with a nanosecond attention span to play the tragic lover). On the other hand, there’s some evidence that the characteristic qualities of the Hindi film are finding admirers outside its traditional audiences. The director of Moulin Rouge, for example, acknowledged that the over-the-top extravagance of the songs in that musical was inspired by the “picturization” of Hindi film songs.

Since Western film academies, movie directors and festival organizers are suddenly fascinated by the way in which our films are different from theirs, this is a good time for us, as consumers of popular Indian cinema, to help them understand just how different our cinema is. The crucial difference is that in Western cinema it’s all right for both heroes and heroines to be good-looking. Not so in Bollywood.

It is a rule in Hindi cinema in particular and Indian cinema in general, that the heroine will be both good-looking and sexy but the hero will be neither. The best way of illustrating the truth of this is by citing examples. As you read the lists that follow try and conjure up the faces attached to those names:

Let’s start with the heroines: Gauhar Jan, Naseem Banu, Shobhana Samarth, Kanan Bala, Durga Khote, Fearless Nadia, Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Nargis, Suraiya, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Nutan, Saira Banu, Raakhee, Rekha, Zeenat Aman, Shabana Azmi, Dimple Kapadia, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Karisma Kapoor. This is a list at random in no particular order and I could go on. I don’t myself think that all these leading ladies were stunners, but most sane movie-goers would allow that, personal preferences apart, these were attractive and personable women. Now consider the men: Prem Adib, Kundan Lal Saigal, Pradeep Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Premnath, Kishore Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Bharat Bhushan, Guru Dutt, Biswajit, Joy Mukherjee, Rajendra Kumar, Jeetendra, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Raaj Kumar, Shatrughan Sinha, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgan, Govinda, Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakraborty, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Salman Khan, Govinda, Sunjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty and so on. Now the extraordinary thing about this list is that with a few exceptions (Dilip Kumar was a persuasively broody lover, Dharmendra was an old-fashioned hunk, Shashi Kapoor was the pretty boy par excellence and Aamir and Shah Rukh have some claim to cuteness) the men who figure in it are, by most standards of male beauty, aggressively unbeautiful.

Ashok Kumar was a charming man, but he had the physical presence of a cupboard wearing a dressing gown. Kundan Lal Saigal was possibly the ugliest leading man in the history of world cinema. Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar, looked upholstered for most of his career, like a pillow wearing a guru shirt. Rajendra Kumar: well, what can you say? And yet, these men were serious stars.

And it isn’t just the Hindi cinema. If you look south, the contrast is even more startling. Fat, lipsticked men with pencil moustaches — the one thin one I can think of, Prabhu Deva, has all the sex appeal of a stick insect. Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Nageshwara Rao, M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao, Prabhu Deva, Kamalahaasan — after making every allowance for regional differences in popular notions of male beauty, you still have to explain why Rekha, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Padmini Kolhapure, Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty, south Indians all, need no allowances made for their looks.

Historically, heroines have successfully moved between cinemas in different languages. From Padmini and Vyjayanthimala to Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty, girls from the South have been successful leading ladies in Hindi films. Reciprocally, north Indian heroines have starred in Tamil and Telegu films. But the reverse isn’t true. Heroes travel very badly. No south Indian star, however big, has ever made it in Hindi cinema. Rajnikanth, who is contemporary Tamil cinema’s greatest star, has made no impression on the box office in Hindi cinema. Nor has any Bengali actor been successful in a Hindi film, not even the extraordinary Uttam Kumar: Amanush was a resounding flop.

Why does Indian cinema deal in beautiful women and ugly men? It could be that since the audience for popular cinema is disproportionately made up of young, desperate, thwarted men, the heroine’s looks and sex appeal matter rather more than those of the hero. This sounds plausible but as an explanation it just doesn’t work. It is an axiom in the film trade, that the “initial” of nearly all films, that is the houses a film gets in the first few days after its opening, depends on the charisma of the hero.

Thus, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Shah Rukh Khan, even Ajay Devgan and Govinda can (or could) “open” a film on the strength of their names and guarantee full houses for days or weeks, but very few heroines have been able to do that. That’s why heroes are routinely paid more than heroines are. This leads us to the bizarre conclusion that mainly male audiences mainly buy tickets to adore indifferent looking men.

This is absurd; but true. The truth of this insight, however, depends upon the truth of a larger generalization: Indian cinema favours good looking women and bad looking men because its audiences consist of good looking women and bad looking men. It’s rude to say this but any firangiwill tell you that the first thing that strikes an outsider in India is how striking, delicate and vivid Indian women are, and how coarse, dull and squab-like, Indian men. You don’t have to take their word for it: cast your eye over mixed gatherings in classrooms, offices, weddings, literary festivals or protest marches. Indian women are routinely and radically better looking than Indian men.

Indian heroes look the way they do because those desperate male audiences pay money to watch men like themselves succeed with beautiful women. And ticket-buying women? Think about it: what choice do they have? In nearly every arranged marriage in north India, you will hear an older woman say reassuringly: “Ladkon ki seerat dekhi jaati hai, soorat nahin”, which, roughly translated, reads: you look at a boy’s qualities, not his looks. Which, given Indian men, is just as well.

Hindi cinema is unfairly dismissed as escapism: it is, in fact, a great reality machine designed to remind Indian men of their good fortune and to reconcile Indian women to their fate. That’s why all Hindi films are musicals: without songs and ensemble dancing, the mandatory union of a succession of beautiful women with an endless supply of beastly men would be unbearable. Despite Moulin Rouge and Bollywood Dreams, the tricks of Hindi cinema are essentially unexportable. For the formula to work, you need quantities of ugly Indian men: both on the screen and in front of it.

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Cannes and willing

Images of India Sushma Swaraj has taken quite a shine to her role as ambassador for the Indian film industry. For the second year in a row, our minister of information and broadcasting is in Cannes to mark India’s presence, albeit a token one, at the ongoing film festival in that city. Last year, she had crowed about having facilitated business worth — hold your breath — Rs 1 crore. Eventually, the figure whittled down to a paltry Rs 20 lakh, and that too came from the sale of old Satyajit Ray footage — business that would have come India’s way even without Madame Swaraj’s intervention. But last year’s poor show hasn’t dampened Sushma’s spirits or her ambitions in any way. She has taken with her a much larger delegation to Cannes this year. While the I&B ministry and the National Film Development Corporation will be footing the bill for the minister’s peregrinations abroad, the cash-rich Confederation of Indian Industry too will chip in, since its members are part of its official delegation to Cannes. Incidentally, Swaraj had taken her daughter with her on last year’s tour. And while mama Swaraj made the rounds of the topless beaches in and around Cannes, beti remained cooped up in the hotel room. On the way home, mother and daughter stopped over in London, apparently so they could do the rounds of the colleges in the city. Quite a junket, eh!

A game of musical chairs

While Sushma Swaraj is gallivanting abroad, back home storm clouds are gathering. The latest buzz on the long-deferred cabinet reshuffle is that the I&B ministry is to become part of a new “convergence” ministry of which Pramod Mahajan will have charge. This means Sushma will soon be out of a job although the BJP grapevine has it that she is to be repatriated in the party set-up and groomed as a future president. This will not only give the party a pro-women image, but Sushma can also be projected as a counter to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi. For the moment, however, Swaraj can rest easy. With a war on the horizon, cabinet reshuffles are the last thing on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s mind. Others who are pleased with the impasse are CP Thakur and Yashwant Sinha. In fact, Sinha’s supporters have even organized a thanksgiving yajna.

All is well that ends well

Never mind the farewell party fiasco — the memory of which the Pakistan high commissioner, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, will carry back home may not be entirely bitter. As a parting shot, Qazi had reportedly started to give interviews left, right and centre. One prominent television channel fell for the gambit. The political editor was even gearing up to give Qazi a half an hour footage. That was till his “nationalist” staff put their foot down because they did not want another Pakistani to reap advantage of India’s free press. The infighting among the channel personnel got so severe that the owner of the production house together with his wife had to intervene to cut down the time slot, drastically. Some fidayeen that.

Reporting from control towers

Backroom boys and girls. The lack of space in the Congress headquarters may turn most of the Congress leaders into precisely that. Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmad Patel, has apparently decided to operate from home. And the other pol-sec, the reportedly omnipotent Ambika Soni, reportedly has no place to sit. All that is seemingly because of people like Ghulam Nabi Azad. The former AICC gen-sec is in no mood to vacate his room at Akbar Road. He was seen sitting in it even two days ago, making a wag remark, “Azad sahib enjoys a special status. After all he is from Kashmir.” Another culprit is Kamal Nath, who has taken a room at the HQ but works from his house. His critics have an explanation for that. One of them says that if the people he sees started visiting Akbar Road, there would be a scandal. So there you are. Views from different rooms.

As some would not like it

Witness this. An MP with a socialist background was negotiating the steep incline at the entrance of a government-run hotel in the capital when he was stopped dead in his tracks by a marriage party. It decided to dance to Hindi songs while the politico waited in his car, AC switched off because the fuel indicator had almost touched “E”. The ordeal over after another half an hour, our man unknowingly parked his car at the taxi stand of the hotel and went hurrying inside. He bumped into the marriage party again at the entrance and got delayed. Dinner over, he came out to find his car hemmed in by taxis all around and the drivers gone for dinner. He had to rescue his car after midnight. Question: should socialists like him still be opposing disinvestment of government-run hotels?

This star is on the wane

An ageing matinee idol and a Trinamool Congress MLA was in for a shock when he came home a few days ago. The door was locked. When he tried to open it with his key, he found that it was bolted from inside. His wife was in, but she refused to open the door. The reason: she didn’t like the company he kept. Our hero, known as much for his receding hairline as for his expanding waistline, doesn’t keep the best of company. Visitors to his house include drug addicts and criminals — the very dregs of society.

Denied entry into his own house, the actor has since shifted to an apartment located near the television centre. But that hasn’t dampened his spirits at all — what has is the dressing down he got from his party chief. Mamata Banerjee was scathing — she told him to mend his ways, or she would see to it that he did. The actor and his cronies have reached the conclusion that it is the angry wife who must have complained to didi. But the point is — what, if anything, can Mamata do?

Footnote /With friends like these

Talking of Mamata Banerjee, it is amazing how very naïve she still is, given her experience in the rough and tumble of politics. Didhas no idea what a cosy relationship her one-time friend Subrata Mukherjee shares with the ruling CPI(M) and especially, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. In fact, before the CMC embarked on its recent crack-down on hotels and cinema halls which have defaulted on taxes, mayor Mukherjee had a closed door meeting with the chief minister. Few know about this meeting, or what transpired therein. Apparently, Buddhababu had told the Calcutta mayor that he had a free hand and that he would look after the political fallout of his unpopular decisions. That’s all very fine, the mayor is supposed to have told Bhattacharjee, but what about Mamata Banerjee, who believes that the state treasury should pay for every public convenience? To which, the wily CM apparently answered, what can I say, she is your karma; let’s work on other areas. Madame M has been told about the meeting, but refuses to believe that Subrata could be so treacherous. More fool she.    


Smells like foul play

Playing with fire Sir — The discovery of the body of the missing White House intern, Chandra Levy, could open up a fresh can of worms (“Missing US intern’s body found”, May 24). Reports of her alleged relationship with the Republican senator, Gary Condit, had created waves in US political circles just before she was declared missing. Her sudden disappearance had triggered off speculations about Condit’s involvement in it. The discovery of her body reinforces suspicions of foul play. The fact that the body was found in a park she frequented also raises questions about the thoroughness of the search operations. Was someone waiting for the issue to die down?

Yours faithfully,
Anuradha Sanyal, Calcutta

The heat is on

Sir — The twin punishment of heat waves and power cuts have been making life miserable for Calcuttans for the past one week. Showers on Thursday and Friday brought some relief after days of intense discomfort, but there is no guarantee that the earlier situation will not recur. The CESC, as usual, has failed to ensure a steady supply of electricity when the demand for power is at its peak. Although one hears from time to time that the state has surplus power, it never seems to be available for consumers during the hottest days of the year. While the forces of nature are not within our control, the production of electricity surely is. Doesn’t the CESC owe a written apology or at least an explanation for its failure?

Yours faithfully,
Mohammed Asif Iqbal, Calcutta

Sir — There is an acute shortage of water and electricity in New Delhi. With the mercury touching 40 degrees centigrade even at night, it has become impossible to sleep because of the power cuts. One has to make do with the little water available from taps at odd hours, so taking a bath to escape the heat is also out of the question.

Delhiites are paying a heavy price for living in Delhi, particularly from the point of view of health. Worst, in spite of being the seat of the Central as well as the state government, there is little that is being done to provide relief to the people of the city.

Yours faithfully,
M. Kumar, New Delhi

Sir — The recent heat wave took Calcutta by surprise. While temperatures soared above 40 degrees centigrade, humidity levels nearly touched the cent per cent mark for nearly a week. As if to keep up with this, the frequency of power cuts and the scarcity of water have increased manifold. It is true that this heat wave was sudden, but the civic authorities should have been prepared for situations like this during summer, given the rising global warming. There are few shades on the pavements for pedestrians to rest under. Neither are there drinking water taps or filters on the roads where one’s thirst can be quenched.

Yours faithfully,
S. Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — Here is a tip to keep one’s gastronomic system cool in summer. Soak some cooked rice in plenty of water overnight. Have this for breakfast with some yoghurt and salt, together with green chillies and onions. Having consumed this dish for several summers, I can vouch for its effectiveness during the hottest days of summer.

Yours faithfully,
C.V.K. Moorthy, Sandur

Birth of a nation

Sir — When the first wave of United Nations peacekeepers descended on the smoldering seaside city of Dili, East Timor, in September 1999, they encountered what one commander called “unimaginable apocalyptic ruin”. East Timor became independent on May 19. Xanana Gusmo, a former freedom fighter, has become the first president of the world’s 192nd nation which has gained independence after three centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation and two and a half years of UN administration. This moment truly belongs to the people of East Timor, who richly deserve their freedom. It is also a tremendous accomplishment on the part of the UN.

Yours faithfully,
Partha Paul, Calcutta

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