Tuesday, February 19, 2013

William Kentridge at Volte gallery

The South African artist William Kentridge is showing at Volte gallery in Colaba. Anybody in Bombay between now and March 20 should definitely put the exhibition on their to-do list. Here's a piece by me about the artist and the show, published last weekend in Mint:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The India Art Fair, 2013

I'm back home after a hectic time in Delhi, and here's my take on the recently concluded India Art Fair.
The 2013 edition of the Fair was a moment of clarity, the year when Indian galleries got real about the purpose of art fairs. That purpose is simple: to sell art, and build new contacts that will generate sales in the future. For some reason, a number of galleries had shied away from this goal in the past, catering instead to the tastes of insiders like myself. So it was last year, when I found a lot of interesting art at the fair, but could see the ticket buying public bemused or turned off by what was on offer. I wrote in the Business Standard at the time: "With the India Art Fair trying to build an international brand, those who come have relatively little easily-accessible, decorative stuff to view, raising the question of whether the Fair will manage to strike a balance between global tastes and local mass appeal."
In a way, that question was settled by international galleries themselves. The top galleries that had rented booths at last year's fair -- White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Lisson -- found Indian regulations too stringent and the market underdeveloped, and chose not to return. This left open the door for the likes of  Daniel Besseiche, which had, among its offerings, paintings by the Dhaka-born, Paris-based Ahmed Shahabuddin. That's the kind of art lay Indian viewers love.

A broadcast journalist asked me to elaborate upon my statement that the art this year was more accessible. I explained that uninitiated viewers enjoy works with an identifiable subject, bright colours, and visible skill. They are put off by conceptual pieces that require an understanding of art history and contain no obviously dextrous use of form. This year's art fair had plenty of accessible pieces and relatively small doses of conceptual work.
On the evening of the VIP preview, I encountered my friend the architect Ashiesh Shah returning to Le Meridien hotel, exhausted but satisfied. He had done the rounds of the fair with three different clients, seeking work to place in upcoming projects. He said the clients had been very happy with the selection available. What had been achieved in an hour or two here would have taken at least a day if it meant visiting individual galleries in Delhi or Bombay.
The accent on accessibility meant that the fair contained fewer items of interest for me, though there were a number of bright spots, such as the 90 year-old K G Subramanyan's excellent solo booth for Sakshi gallery. I don't have a problem with the paucity of top-quality art. Big art fairs spur the creation of a number of satellite events, and it is those -- shows in museums and alternative spaces -- that provide excitement to specialists. The best show this year was at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket; a beautifully-mounted retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi curated by Roobina Karode and designed by Mark Prime. Alongside it, though put somewhat in the shade by the superlative Nasreen exhibition, was a fine display of seven contemporary women artists.
Apart from this standout exhibition, there were interesting shows in KNMA's Noida space; at the British Council; at IGNCA (Homelands, curated by Latika Gupta from the British Council collection); at the National Gallery of Modern Art (The Skoda Prize Show, which I was involved in organising); at the Khoj Artists' workshop, which opened its newly-designed building in Khirkee Extension; and at Devi Art Foundation (DAF), where the closing party was held. The Khoj and Devi events were insiders' displays par excellence: the latter didn't even have labels to guide viewers on which work was by which artist. Walking around the DAF galleries (which I know pretty well since I curated a show there back in 2011), I felt at times that I'd rather be at the India Art Fair staring at a Shahabuddin canvas. Which is the equivalent of feeling, in the middle of a film by Jean-Marie Straub, that I'd rather be watching Salman Khan (though I can't recall ever having felt I'd rather be watching Salman Khan).
At its extreme, in the last and smallest of the fair's three pavilions, this year's India Art Fair resembled Bombay's India Art Festival, which attracts lesser-known dealers. Cymroza Art Gallery had a wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling grid of relatively cheap canvases, and they were doing excellent business.  In a way this turn isn't surprising, since Will Ramsay, who, along with Sandy Angus, bought a stake in the India Art Fair last year, is associated with London's famous Affordable Art Fair. However, there's a lot of snobbery involved in these displays: galleries are very concerned about who else is showing, and what their booths look like. The India Art Fair can't afford to allow too many Cymroza-style booths, no matter how popular, any more than an upscale mall can place a Levi's store next to Prada and Burberry.
The gallerists I spoke to were, on the whole, a far happier lot than last year. Perhaps it's a sign that the economy as a whole is sailing out of the doldrums. Viewers who had shelled out 200 rupees (or was it 300?) as an entrance fee, seemed content as well. And festival director Neha Kirpal must be super-pleased to have finally snagged a headline sponsor in Yes Bank.
A final evaluation. Win for viewers: check; win for buyers: check; win for exhibitors: check; win for organisers: check. Win for art lovers: check, if one includes satellite events. All in all, the most successful art fair so far. My main objection was the price of the food in the VIP lounge. 350 rupees for an ordinary cup of coffee: daylight robbery.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Curatorism: In Praise of Folly

An essay I wrote about the rise of curators, published in the latest issue of Art India magazine, is now online. Those interested in contemporary art can read it here.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Jesus, money changers and money lenders

The Vatican has been barred by Italy from accepting credit and debit cards, because the Italians feel the city state does not have a proper legal framework to prevent fraud. This means visitors can pay only cash for souvenirs, and will put a major dent in the Vatican's tourism revenues. The Italians were sensible enough to let the Christmas high season pass before clamping down. Presumably the matter will be sorted out before Easter.
In covering the issue, reporters have reached for a Biblical analogy that seems most apt: the cleansing of the temple by Jesus. Reuters, for example, went with, "... the move has nothing to do with throwing money lenders from the Temple or concerns about usury." Which gives me an opportunity to segue into an issue that really interests me, misreadings of canonical texts (I'm not particularly concerned about sales of postcards in the Vatican).
Pretty much every Christian who goes regularly to church has been told about the story of Jesus whipping the money lenders and chasing them out of Jerusalem's great temple. It's the standard text to bring up in discussions about Christianity, usury and the history of anti-Semitism.

Yet, the actual incident has nothing whatsoever to do with money lending. Christian boys and girls have for centuries been fed a lie by their parents and priests (who, to be fair, probably act out of ignorance). By the time they mature, they cannot read what's before their eyes without substituting it with the incorrect interpretation they've been brought up to believe.
Here's the incident as told in the English Standard version of the Bible:
Matthew 21:12
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.
John 2:13-16
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.”

The phrase used is unambiguous: money changers, not money lenders.

When you think about it, Jerusalem's temple, where most visitors were pilgrims, would have been the last place where money lenders would've plied their trade. Lending to people you barely know, who are in town for just a couple of days, and who live in distant lands, is the equivalent of giving money away.
Money changing was a different trade altogether. It involved providing local currency to those who came in with Roman or Greek coin. It required experts who could tell counterfeit metal from the real stuff, who could gauge whether any corners had been cut (the phrase originating from the practice of physically slicing off slivers of precious metal from coins), and who were familiar with a variety of currencies. The money changers were the equivalent of today's shops with signage exclaiming EXCHANGE WECHSEL CAMBIO BUREAU DE CHANGE. They performed a necessary service, helping pilgrims, local traders and the temple. They kept the entire economy of the locality going, and took a cut for doing so.

Jesus wasn't against any one type of business; he was against the idea that any business at all should be conducted within a holy site. Of course, if priests and parents told children this, they might get asked whether Jesus really did the right thing. Did those petty traders deserve to be whipped and have their little work counters turned upside down? Presumably, if Jesus had gone in alone, the money changers would've banded together and kicked him out. It stands to reason that he was accompanied by a group of followers, though this isn't mentioned in the Bible, and is not how the scene is depicted in the paintings of Giotto and El Greco accompanying this post.

There's another question kids might ask, if told the truth about Jesus's action: since Jesus was so firmly against any connection between places of worship and any kind of commerce, why does virtually every famous church, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, contain a shop selling souvenirs? Why is the Vatican hawking postcards in the first place?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Pulp Fiction, Morality Play

Not long after Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was released, I wrote a piece for a small magazine arguing the film had a moral centre that was being missed. I elaborated on that idea years later in a lecture to a film club. In anticipation of the release of Django Unchained (which will, I hope, soon come to India as Django Uncensored), I'm putting a version of that talk on my blog. Christmas Day feels appropriate for it. I've cut the essay drastically, but it's still pretty long. However, since the film is now an established classic and nobody else appears to have written about it from this perspective, I believe it's worthwhile having it online in some form.

I argue in this essay that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a profound as well as subtle ethical exploration. The three main male characters represent three central tendencies in European moral thinking: the Christian, the Aristotelian and the Hedonistic. The film bridges the divide, highlighted by Nietzsche, between Greek and Christian ideas of virtue. While such a bridge is not unsual in itself, the film deviates from tradition in affirming the virtues of pride and sacrifice in individual characters, while denying those virtues any general or universal validity. Whereas the Hollywood tradition of virtuous heroes performing virtuous deeds is simplistic and politically fraught, Tarantino separates subjective from objective, allowing for the approval of noble impulses without a consequent approval of the actions which result from these impulses.
Since the making of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s moralism has become progressively more overt. Perhaps this is a result of the failure of critics to appreciate the moral basis of his most important film. His recent, obvious manifestations of moralism lack the power of his 1994 classic, which communicated itself to audiences even though they may not have be aware of its ethical roots.

The Critics
Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs, made in 1992, and Pulp Fiction, released in 1994, quickly established him as the most influential director of the decade. As screenwriter or executive producer, he piloted a number of other films, such as True Romance and Killing Zoe, which, together with a host of similarly themed movies like The Usual Suspects created a popular new genre. Typically, these films were violent and funny, stylish and hip, and focused on criminals, often groups of them rather than individuals. It was called, by one biographer of Tarantino, ‘the cinema of cool’.
Tarantino’s films and their clones were appreciated by audiences and critics alike, but also came under attack for their perceived lack of substance, and their use of violence. Charles Taylor, film critic of the left-leaning web magazine Salon.com wrote, “For me, the effect of Pulp Fiction isn't much different than the effect of any big, impersonal action picture. The audience knows from the start that everything has been set up for effect and that there's nothing to believe in or care about.” At the other side of the political spectrum, John Gautereaux, of the conservative Christian organisation Neopolitique, excoriated Tarantino’s perceived nihilism in an essay titled This Dog Has No Reservoir. Gautereaux began by acknowledging the stylistic accomplishments of Pulp Fiction, but complained that “Today's movie audiences, although quite knowledgeable, seem intent on being entertained, not challenged.” He compared Tarantino’s characters unfavourably with those of Frank Capra, director of loveable screwball comedies from the 1930s: “While Capra's films are tagged as 'say-something' movies, Tarantino's have nothing redemptive to say, even to themselves.” About Tarantino’s characters, he wrote: “no matter how many humorous catch-phrases they utter, his characters say nothing transcendent. Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now.”
Mary Kenney of the left-wing British tabloid The Daily Mirror. Kenney wrote that Tarantino’s films were “disgusting, violent, repellent, dangerous to young and unformed minds, childish, irrational, horrible, agonising, and distressingly like something out of a Nazi nightmare where human beings are subjected to every degradation just for the hell of it."
A few critics had recognised that the tale of trust and betrayal in Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, had a moral basis. The Christian overtones in the relationship between a robber (Harvey Keitel) and a cop pretending to be a robber (Tim Roth) were too obvious to be ignored completely. Moreover, these themes were already familiar in the work of two other Catholic, Italian-American directors who, like Tarantino, were preoccupied with tales of underworld violence: Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese. Scorcese had always been open about the Catholic underpinning of his stories. They aren’t propaganda for the Catholic cause, in the manner of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, but revolve around and question certain persistent issues in Christian myth and ethics. Since trust and betrayal are central themes in the story of Christ it was easy to incorporate Reservoir Dogs into the Italian-American gangster movie tradition of Scorcese and Coppola.
In which case, why not see Pulp Fiction in a Christian moral context as well? How could John Gautereaux claim that “Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now”? Doesn’t one of the characters, played by Samuel Jackson, mouth lines from the Book of Ezekiel? (Mixed, Tarantino style, with a quote from a karate flick starring Sonny Chiba) Doesn’t he undergo a religious conversion which makes him rethink his entire way of living? And doesn’t he undertake the most elaborate exegetical exercise in the history of Hollywood, when, near the end of the film, he considers different interpretations of that paragraph from Ezekiel?
Somehow, the form of Pulp Fiction, its humour and many conscious absurdities, prevented critics from allowing Jackson’s character any significant moral purpose. The film’s title itself seemed to announce its lack of depth, referring as it did to a cheap paperback genre of the 1950s. Maximilian LeCain, an Irish film-maker and writer, one of the few to actually consider the Christian connotations of Pulp Fiction, quickly dismissed the whole thing as a sham: “The lazy, dishonestly moralistic about-turn that Tarantino makes with Samuel Jackson's 'redemption' in Pulp Fiction is ultimately of little consequence amid the self-satisfied posturing of that film because the full extent of its 'moral vision' is no more than immanent glibness.”

In my view, the character played by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction represents the Greek virtue of pride, while Samuel Jackson represents the Christian virtue of sacrifice. Through these two characters, we feel a commonality between the opposed virtues of the two ethical systems underpinning European thought. I say opposed because, while Aristotle considered pride the greatest virtue, Christianity deemed it a deadly sin. For the Greeks, pride was an essential aspect of greatness, though it could cause a hero’s downfall if it became hubris. The qualities the Greeks valued, not just pride but courage, justice and honour, could be termed masculine virtues. In fact, the word virtue is derived from the Indo-European root ‘vir’ meaning, simply ‘man’. Virtue has the same root as words such as virile, and also werewolf. ‘Vir’ became ‘wer’ in Old English, so werewolf meant ‘man-wolf’. The Sanskrit word ‘vira’ meaning man as well as hero, is also derived from the same root.
 Consider the first time we see Bruce Willis, or Butch Coolidge as his character is named. He is being offered a packet to throw a fight. Marcellus Wallace, a gangleader who is fixing the fight, speaks a lot about pride (Starting 2.10 in this clip). He attempts to convince Bruce Willis that “pride never helps, it only hurts”, that Butch will have to forget his pride for material gain. In the event, Butch refuses to throw the fight, thuse re-asserting the power of pride. Later in the narrative, when he and Marcellus run into each other, he throws Marcellus's words back at him along with a few well-aimed punches, "You feel that sting? That's pride fucking with you" (1.40 in this clip).
It could be argued that pride has nothing to do with Willis’s actions. He makes a lot of money betting on himself at a minimum risk to his life. However, the narrative develops in ways that highlight pride over mercenary plotting. Though he knows Marcellus will be looking for him after being double-crossed, Butch returns to his home to retrieve the heirloom that is the source of his pride: a gold watch worn by his warrior father and his warrior grandfather before him, and originally purchased by his great-grandfather Erine Coolidge just before he set sail for Paris to fight in the First World War.
The way Tarantino deals with the story of the heirloom is crucial to my understanding of his moral innovation. The history of the artefact is related by an army officer who survived the Vietnamese POW camp that claimed the life of Butch’s father. The story begins conventionally, one may even feel emotionally involved in it at the start. But it rapidly becomes funny, ridiculous and finally scatological, with an account of Butch’s father hiding the watch in his rectum and then dying of diarrhoea. By this time, it has lost all pretensions to gravitas. The only person in the world who takes the heirloom seriously is Butch himself. This split between the audience’s view of the watch and Butch’s own is enhanced in a scene where Butch discovers his girlfriend has failed to pack the watch in preparing their getaway. He keeps repeating that the watch was, “beside the table drawer on the little kangaroo”. Though Butch himself is distraught, the audience is diverted by the absurd kangaroo. We feel Butch is doing a brave thing by going back, but feel no connection with the object of his quest, the watch next to the kangaroo. Tarantino divorces our attitude to Butch’s motivation from our attitude to his goal.

Exactly the same split takes place on the Christian side of the story. Jules (Samuel Jackson) undergoes a conversion after six bullets, which should have killed him and his friend Vincent (John Travolta), end up hitting the wall instead. Vincent sees it as happy chance, perhaps helped along by the extra heavy gun the shooter carried. He takes with a pinch of salt Jules' conclusion that God diverted the bullets from their fatal path. Later on, when they’re sitting in a diner, and Jules mentions he is thinking of the miracle they witnessed, Vincent responds; “The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak accident.” Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. You don’t judge stuff like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch.” In this exchange, quite explicitly, a distinction is made between subjective experience and objective reality. The moral worth of a subjective experience cannot, in Jules’ framework, be judged by objective standards. Just as the subjective value attached by Butch to his watch cannot be judged in objective terms. The decisions Butch and Jules make are absurd and heroic at the same time.
The decade before Tarantino’s emergence saw the emergence of a succession of violent movie franchises. There was Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator and Commando; and Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series. Bruce Willis himself topped the box-office charts with three installments of Die Hard. Each of these was a bad guys versus good guys story. The hero is a good guy who does good things. The villain is a bad guy who does bad things. In other words, heroes are both subjectively as well as objectively noble, and villains are subjectively as well as objectively nasty. We can see the political ramifications of this kind of thinking. Rambo fights the Vietcong, then goes to Afghanistan and battles on the side of the brave Mujahideen, (including, presumably, Osama Bin Laden). Rambo’s nobility is founded upon the audience’s sympathy with his actions as well as goals. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these heroes of action franchises, as well as the pioneer of the genre, Clint Eastwood, who played Dirty Harry, are supporters of the militaristic Republic Party, even as much of Hollywood prefers the Democrats.
My suggestion is that, by deliberately severing the connection between subjective and objective nobility, Tarantino finds a way to allow us to accept the idea of the heroic, even the proud, hyper-masculine warrior, without getting tangled in George Bush style ‘you’re either with us or against us’ kinds of ethical simplification. Precisely this innovation makes Pulp Fiction an extremely difficult film to read. We have grown so accustomed to seeing noble motivation matched with noble objectives that we find it hard to accommodate a new vision into our moral framework. The consistent conflation of the sublime and the ridiculous in Pulp Fiction makes it tempting to dismiss the film as entertaining sound and fury signifying virtually nothing.

Before concluding I’m going to briefly, and tentatively, extend this argument to the third major character in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta. If we try and place Travolta’s character within the great ethical systems, one would put him in the category hedonist-epicurian. He talks continually of material things, of drugs, and food, and fast cars, and clearly enjoys all of these. His storyline offers him the prospect of a night spent with the alluring Mia, played by Uma Thurman. But he backs away from the promised fulfillment of hedonistic desire. Talking himself out of sleeping with Mia, he uses moral terms, telling himself he shouldn’t do it because it would involve wronging a person who trusts him, namely Mia’s husband Marcellus. However, given his preoccupation with the story of Antwone (a Samoan who was thrown from the fourth floor by Marcellus, perhaps because he gave Mia a foot massage) we know that what stops Vincent from proceeding is not moral consideration but plain fear. He is being dishonest with himself. Vincent is the only one among the three main characters who fails to follow to its logical end the dictates of what one might term the governing philosophy underpinning his character.
Tarantino’s non-linear narrative is peculiarly suited to the employment of irony, and one of the most telling uses of it is in the final sequence, just before Samuel Jackson gives away all the cash in his wallet to a robber, in a manner reminiscent of such Christian classics as Hugo’s tale of the Bishop’s candlesticks from Les Miserables. Vincent has been arguing strenuously against Jules’ intention to to give up the criminal life to seek a deeper meaning in his earthly existence. Vincent repeatedly tells Jules he is going to up as a bum. Viewers have no idea what will become of Jules after completes his final task of delivering a briefcase to Marcellus; but they do know that Vincent ends up dead in a toilet, shot by Butch Coolidge. I am not suggesting we take Pulp Fiction as a film with a moral, rather than as a moral film. But the story of Vincent Vega certainly reminds us that just because you play safe doesn’t mean you stay safe.

A few more critics on the amorality and insubstantiality of Pulp Fiction.

“The way that [it] has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming”. Stanley Kaufmann, The New Republic

“The fact that Pulp Fiction is garnering more extravagant raves than Breathless ever did tells you plenty about which kind of cultural references are regarded as more fruitful—namely, the ones we already have and don't wish to expand”. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

“Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism, which is to empty the artwork of all content, thus avoiding its capacity to do anything except helplessly represent our agonies.... Only in this age could a writer as talented as Tarantino produce artworks so vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest”. James Wood, The Guardian

“A succulent guilty pleasure, beautifully made junk food for cineastes... Pulp Fiction is a terminally hip postmodern collage… the film's tone is buoyantly amoral”. Forster Hirsch

“That's why Pulp Fiction was so popular. Not because all audiences got all or any of its references to Scorsese and Kubrick, but because the narrative and spatial structure of the film never threatened to go beyond themselves into signification. The film's cycle of racist and homophobic jokes might threaten to break out into a quite nasty view of the world, but this nastiness keeps being laughed off—by the mock intensity of the action, the prowling, confronting, perverse, confined, and airless nastiness of the world Tarantino creates”. Robert Kolker

Friday, December 14, 2012

This morning's accident

A common morning story. A large Chevrolet is double parked in front of my building, leaving only one lane free for two-way traffic. A Maruti Dzire goes past the Chevy in a hurry, just as a taxi driver backs out of the driveway of the building opposite my home. The taximan, looking out for vehicles coming from his left, doesn’t see the Maruti driving in the right (ie. wrong) lane, and reverses into it. The Maruti is dented, the taxi, an old Premier, unmarked. The Maruti’s driver demands compensation, the taxi driver refuses, suggesting they go to a police station to sort everything out. In India, the person who suffers most in an accident is always a victim, the facts of the case don’t matter. Having seen close-up what happened, I explain to the people gathered below my balcony that the real culprit, the man who had double parked, has driven off. But that doesn’t stop a fight from breaking out.
The driver of the Maruti is Marathi, the taxiwalla from UP. The home state of the men becomes more important than the way the incident played out. A man on a motorcycle taking his young boy to school stops to figure out the language situation, and begins to abuse the taxi driver. Emboldened, the Maruti driver slaps the taxi man, something he’d never do in a one-on-one match up against his tall and well-built antagonist. The cab driver, knowing he’s in the Marathi manoos heartland, does not retaliate. He says, “How will beating me help. I have no money to pay you. Let’s go to the police station”. The man on the motorcycle continues shouting. “Speak in Marathi, motherfucker”, he says to the ‘bhaiyya’, though everybody present understands Hindi perfectly well. His boy shrinks away to the edge of the back seat, on the verge of tears.
The old Shivaji Park civility is not entirely dead. A gentleman in his late fifties intervenes, insisting the shouting and beating stop. A woman calls out from a balcony backing him up. I say again it wasn’t really the taxi driver’s fault. Had there been one or two more aggressive MNS types in the crowd, the safari-clad gentleman would’ve been told to shut up, and the fight would’ve escalated. But the scales happen to be evenly balanced, and the situation clams down. The drivers go off to the police station.
I think of the hundreds of insults that North Indians face in Bombay each day. By now, after years of this treatment, every poor or middle class person from UP and Bihar must feel unwelcome, and sometimes unsafe. The question is: if North Indians stop coming to this city, and if some of those already here leave, will it increase opportunities for Marathis? A Marathi rickshaw owner with cancer doesn’t think so, and his story is instructive. It’s not as if Marathis are actively seeking to drive autos and taxis, and being deprived because of an influx from the north. Protectionist laws and the assault on North Indians have only led to fewer taxis and autos plying, inconveniencing commuters.

Meanwhile, opposite Shiv Sena Bhavan, the largest towers ever built in Dadar are being sheathed in glass. The complex, now called Kohinoor Square, used to be Kohinoor Mills. The 4.8 acre plot was purchased by Raj Thackeray (who later sold his stake at a fat profit) and Unmesh Joshi (son of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi) in 2005 for 421 crore rupees (over 75 million USD). Nobody knows where Thackeray got that kind of money, but as long as he defines enemies for his followers to target, they won’t ask questions; and they won’t understand that, if this city is in many ways unlivable, it isn’t because of northerners coming here to work hard for a living, but because of builders who’ve corrupted politicians of all parties, and most bureaucrats, and subverted planning, infrastructure augmentation and public housing projects. You won’t hear Raj Thackeray say much against builders; after all, he’s a proud member of that fraternity.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Kali's temple and town

I just spent a day and a half in Calcutta, a city that always makes Bombay look good. The deficiencies of the capital of what was once India’s most industrialised state became apparent days before I got there, when I found all three-, four-, and five-star hotels booked out. Obviously, synchronising my visit with the start of the deciding test of the India-England cricket series didn’t help, but what kind of metropolis has so few upscale lodgings that the barmy army and maybe some suits attending conferences can take over every single room in town?
Plan B was to look at the B&B ratings on Tripadvisor. I found a room available at Relax Inn, which turned out to be perfectly satisfactory.
Ten minutes into my ride from Calcutta airport, I asked the driver for his mobile phone number. He told me he possessed no cellphone.
Me: No phone? But what if there’s no parking where I alight? How will I know where you are?
Driver: I’ll be around.
There was no parking outside Relax Inn. Having checked in, I came out to give the driver instructions, but he had already gone off to find a parking spot. When I was ready to leave for my first appointment after freshening up, I asked the doorman if the driver had returned to tell him where he was parked. He had not.
I called the car rental agency’s number on the receipt.
Me: I think the driver has left.
Him: No, he must be there.
Me: But how can I find him?
Him: Look around, I’m sure he’s there somewhere.
Luckily, autorickshaws are plentiful in Cal.
On my way back from the first meeting, I stopped at a chemist to buy a razor, toothpaste and stuff I’d forgotten in my hurried packing. It was an impressive looking branch of the chemists’ chain Frank Ross. Eight men were at the counters when I entered, each wearing a green jacket embroidered with the Frank Ross name, each sitting at a computer looking like he was doing work of national importance. I saw two customers, neither of whom was being served. When I asked if they could sell me a razor, one of the men gave me a can’t-you-see-I’m-busy look. Eventually, a ninth man appeared from the stock room, and I asked him for a disposable razor.
He said, “We only have packs of four. It’s a Buy 3, Get 1 Free promotion.”
He took a strip of Gillette Prestos off a hook and held them out.
Him: See, four for 54 rupees.
Me: I’m sure you can sell them individually as well. They must have individual prices.
Scrutinising the packaging, he found each razor was priced at 18 rupees. But then he shook his head.
Him: If I sell you one, then who will buy the remaining three?
Me: The same people who buy them when there is no special offer.
He looked at me with a pitying expression. Obviously, I was the only idiot in the world who would buy a single razor when four could be had for the price of three, but the man was generous enough not to say so. He told me, only, that he could not offer me the razor I desired.
A corner shop sold me a Gillette Presto without hassle. Back at Relax Inn, I found my driver had reparked next to the lodge, and was ready to ferry me around. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t scoured the neighbouring streets looking for him.
The next day, I decided to begin at the Birla Academy, which was hosting an interesting show curated by Shaheen Merali. Getting there, I found the place opens only between 3 and 8 pm. I had consulted the website in advance, but the people who built the elaborate site obviously felt that stuff like opening timings, or even the address of the place, didn’t merit mention.
Next stop was the Kali temple at Kalighat. I’d never actually been inside, since I avoid functioning temples as far as possible, but with time on my hand, I braved the gauntlet of flower sellers, guides and touts. I lost count of the number of people who tried taking money off me between the gate and the sanctum. Every few steps somebody would insist shoes had to be removed at that spot. One man screeched as I passed him despite his warning, as if I’d broken a dreadful taboo. The temple has no official footwear storage, so one is forced to leave slippers and shoes in the care of shopkeepers. They refuse money for looking after the shoes, but ask you to buy a garland or some other item of worship, which I refused to do. Finally, I found a man willing to watch my shoes for five rupees. As I looked for the entry queue, a man asked if I wouldn’t rather pay 100 rupees and gain instant access to the sanctum. I said I’d wait in line.
“It will take three hours”, he said.
“Obviously your goddess has nothing against lying”, I wanted to reply, but ignored him. In the end, it took about forty minutes for me to get my five seconds in front of the startling icon with black face, red eyes and a massive golden tongue hanging out of its mouth. The Kali temple is relatively modern, having been built in the 19th century, and features a domed sanctum, which means it is a little larger and better ventilated than most garbhagrihas. The sanctum’s walls are painted yellow, stained with soot, clad with white tiles at the lower reaches, all of which gives it the feel of an old-style Irani restaurant kitchen. The idol is held in a cage in the centre, above which is a canopy shaped like the hood of a kitchen’s exhaust. As our line slowly wound around the room, pressing against the wall, priests went round thrusting flowers into hands, daubing and smearing stuff on vacant foreheads, and generally ensuring that every individual in line contributed to the temple kitty. Periodically, our line would stop as VIP guests, which meant anybody forking out extra dough, were thrust in from the exit point for an expedited darshan. In the brief time I was given to examine the idol, no fewer than five entreaties / demands for contributions rang in my ears.
“Give me fifty rupees. Ten rupees”
“Don’t give me anything, give it to the temple. Put it in the donation box”
“Put money in this box, in the box”
“You haven’t made a contribution. Give me something.”
It’s a pity that workers in businesses such as Frank Ross Pharmacy have a statist perspective. Rather than government employees, they ought to model themselves on the Kali temple’s priests, who are perfectly mercenary, single-minded in their determination to get some cash from each person who enters their domain. OK, I’d prefer it if businesses left out the cheating, the harangues, the stealing, but no business does that without proper regulation, and temples are among the least regulated commercial operations in the country.
I suppose the money-grabbing at the Kali temple was no worse than I’ve encountered at Puri Jagannath or the shrines that dot Pushkar lake. On the other hand, Kalighat offers neither the architectural delights of the former, nor the marvelous atmosphere of the latter.
As for the city as a whole, I'm amazed I’ve never disliked it. In fact, I’d even concede I am a little fond of Calcutta. It has character, a certain laid-back gentleness, and retains the core of a great city in its monuments, parks, and museums. It doesn't hurt that the place is cheap (everything in Bombay costs about 50% more), and the inhabitants fond of fish, red meat and liquor (though alcohol is reasonably priced, Calcuttans don't drink themselves under the table in the manner of Goans and Keralites). Also, there are plenty of smart, good-looking women around (so what if backcombing never went out of fashion here?). Right now, citizens are feeling pretty depressed, having hopped out of the frying pan of Communist rule and landed in the fire of Mamata Bannerjee’s lunacy. It’s always wrong to believe things can only get better. Like Iranians discovered when Khomeini took over from the Shah, things can always get worse. And yet, Calcutta does seem to be developing fast, particularly in areas close to the airport like Salt Lake and New Town. The development is very much in the Gurgaon mode, all tower blocks and malls, with none of the sense of community that still defines neighbourhoods in Calcutta proper; but that’s preferable to the dilapidation and decay whose depiction has provided lucrative careers for so many painters.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vishy Anand fails the test

Yesterday, Viswanathan Anand capped a disappointing performance in his World Championship match against Boris Gelfand by playing out a draw that felt like a defeat. Vishy has been undisputed chess World Champion for five years. He won the title in 2007, defended it the following year against Vladimir Kramnik, and again two years ago in an exciting match against Veselin Topalov. In both those playoffs, Anand went into the match as an underdog or, at best, a very narrow favourite. His third defence was supposed to be easier, since he faced the relatively low-ranked Boris Gelfand. It hasn't turned out that way. The 12 match series started with six draws before Gelfand took the lead in the seventh. Vishy played brilliantly to equalise with white pieces in the eighth. Three more draws followed, leaving the players tied at 5.5 points with just one more game to play, a game in which Anand had the advantage of white.
The champion produced a novelty on the sixth move that put Gelfand in the tank for nearly an hour. Anand had given up a pawn, but gained compensation by messing up his opponent's position. None of Gelfand's pieces could move freely, his bishops were tied up behind doubled pawns, and Anand had all the initiative.
On his tenth move, Gelfand offered Anand two pawns in return for freedom of movement. It wasn't necessarily the best play available, but the challenger made it in the belief, correct as it turned out, that it would throw Anand off his prepared line. Between moves five and ten, Anand had been comfortably parlaying a line analysed carefully with his seconds in preparing for the world championship. He was banging out his moves instantly while his opponent had to improvise on the board. It was the equivalent of being in a section of a maze that Anand had traversed dozens of times, but which Gelfand was trying to figure out as he went along. After move ten, both players were in an unfamiliar section of the maze.
Gelfand had been put to a huge test, and had seemed for some time to be sinking into a mire of self-doubt and despondency,  but had emerged creditably.
He was, nevertheless, under some time pressure and a pawn down. He now had to simplify the position and hope his paired bishops would compensate for Anand's small material advantage. On his twelfth move. Gelfand offered an exchange of queens as part of his simplifying tactics. Anand had two options: the first was to take the queen and go into an endgame in which he couldn't lose, but had a very small chance of winning. The second was to reject the queen swap and instead push his queen sideways one square. That would create a double-edged position in which Anand had a far greater chance of winning, but could lose if he played a couple of sub-optimal moves.
The queen exchange was what a club class player like myself would choose almost every time. Not having the ability to think through every possible variation in complex positions, I would take the no risk - low reward option and try to press home that pawn advantage in a simple endgame. I would expect a World Champion to pick the slightly riskier move.
Anand played safe. He exchanged queens and, a few moves later, the consensus among experts was that there was about 95% chance of a draw and a 5% chance of Anand winning. That 5% chance, I figured, was sufficient for Anand to keep the pressure on Gelfand. It's difficult, psychologically, to play when you know your best hope is to draw. On move 20, Gelfand pushed a pawn and seemed immediately to regret it. Horrible blunders have been made under the pressure of playing in the World Championships, blunders no Grandmaster would make in less important games. It seemed possible the challenger would crack.

After playing move 22, though, Anand offered a draw. It left the commentators gobsmacked. Accepting a draw would have been bad enough, but offering a draw? Come on!
Chess etiquette demands players don't continue games when a draw is almost inevitable; but this was the final game of the World Championship, and the challenger was behind on material and in some time trouble. Nobody would have blamed Anand for pressing on at that stage. Offering a draw in that position was being Mr. Nice Guy to a ridiculous degree.
Maybe it wasn't just out of niceness. Anand, in the moments he spent at the table after the truce was signed, looked spent, almost dazed. Maybe he just ran out of steam. Which isn't a happy thought either.

There will now be a tie-breaker of four rapid games. Anand is generally considered among the two or three best players in this format in history, so everybody expects him to win. However, should he lose, I will not mourn, though I've been a fan of his for the longest time. To be a World Champion, after all, is not just about gaining a point more than your opponent, it's about courage, imagination and determination. I'm afraid Viswanathan Anand failed that test yesterday.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hugo and The Avengers: A kind of magic

They say Hollywood's a machine, but no machine would have greenlighted the 170 million dollar budget of Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The cast features no big box-office draws and, while Martin Scorsese might be the greatest living American film-maker, he has yet to deliver a blockbuster hit in forty years of making movies. Hugo is not only set in the past, but seems in some ways a throwback, filled with simplistic characters and stock situations, and adhering to a convention, questioned by Milos Forman's Amadeus and taken apart by Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, that period films set in continental Europe must be peopled by British accents. Reviews have said Hugo is Scorsese trying his hand at a children's film, and perhaps they've said this because of the simplicity of the storyline and the fact that the main character, Hugo Brevet, is a young orphan, but the film offers few thrills, and the mixture of history and fiction at its heart is hard for children to appreciate.
Who, then, is Hugo made for? It is made for people like me, adult bibliophiles and cinephiles. For people like myself, and there aren't all that many of us, as proven by the film's dismal box-office numbers, Hugo is magical. It takes us back to a time when entire new worlds opened up through books. The last time I felt that way was while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude at age sixteen or seventeen. Hugo brings back that magical newness in combination with the most unchildlike of emotions, nostalgia. We feel like the food critic from Ratatouille who, on taking a bite of the dish of the film's title, finds himself, suddenly, unexpectedly, transported back in time to a precious memory from his rustic childhood. Scorsese orchestrates this play of magic and nostalgia by exploring more flamboyantly than anybody has so far the extravagant visual possibilities offered by 3-D 2.0 (the sweeping opening shots of Casino were impressive enough, but they don't hold a candle to Hugo's breathtaking aerial view of Paris that moves seamlessly into a bustling railway station before following the main character through a succession of intricate corridors leading to rooms leading to ladders leading to more corridors), while telling an intimate story made from an old-fashioned mix of sentiment, comedy and coincidence. It's a unique and unrepeatable melding of past and future.
Briefly, now, to the story itself (spoiler warning): In 1931, an orphan named Hugo Cabret lives in secret within the walls of  Paris's Gare Montparnasse. Hugo has taken over his uncle's job of keeping the giant clocks of the station ticking, in the hope nobody will realise the alcoholic uncle has vanished. He feeds himself by stealing, and also pinches widgets from a toy store in the station's concourse to repair an old automaton that his father was trying to fix before he died. Hugo is caught by the store owner, who turns out, in the end, to be a once-renowned film-maker named Georges Méliès.
Méliès is well-known to film buffs as the pioneer of cinema as fantasy. His most famous movie, made in 1902, involved a journey to the moon. By the time the first World War broke out, Méliès was out of fashion. He had to close down his studio, sell off his props and his beloved automatons, and even hawk his negatives for the silver that could be extracted from them. He ended up running a toy store much like that the one depicted in Hugo.
In the early days of cinema, the days of Méliès pomp, the medium enchanted adults, made them feel like children. Scorsese replicates some of that enchantment felt by early viewers of cinema. But in telling the story of Méliès after his downfall, he reminds us of the dangers inherent in using a technology that is improved constantly and makes what went before feel dated. Books don't date the way films do. Of course, language changes and literary fashions change, but we don't find Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction awkward in the way Méliès's films look awkward today. It's impossible to say which film will age badly and which film will stay vital: who would have predicted, around the time Scorsese made his first film, that Singin' In the Rain would still seem like a masterpiece in 2012 while My Fair Lady and West Side Story would be virtually unwatchable? There is a warning inherent in Hugo that not only will the magic we feel watching it today not be replicable by films until another radical breakthrough in technology is achieved, but it might not be experienced by succeeding generations watching this same film.

Had Méliès been alive, he'd probably have made a film like The Avengers rather than Hugo: a funny, action-packed, cutting-edge entertainer, an unabashed crowd pleaser. The budget for The Avengers, around USD 220 million, wasn't that much greater than the amount allotted to Hugo. For that money, we get an inter-galactic war; a proper good versus evil tale with the appropriate outcome after a frantic climax; a bunch of A- and B-list stars playing familiar comic book characters; and great 3-D, CGI and motion capture. Hardly surprising that The Avengers, like Avatar before it, will realise over ten times its budget. According to Holywood's rule of thumb, a film needs to take in twice its budget to show a profit. At the moment, Hugo has barely scraped past its production expenditure, and will probably never recover marketing costs. I'd like to thank all the people at Paramount Pictures who let their good taste over-ride their accounting skills.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Scam alert: Noise barriers

MMRDA has earmarked over 37 crore rupees this year for the construction of sound barriers on flyovers. The idea was mooted in 2010, and the following year, "Metropolitan Commissioner Rahul Asthana and former Municipal Commissioner Subodh Kumar went on a weeklong tour to Italy to study, among other infrastructure projects, sound barrier technology". Now that junkets are behind them, there will be a 'noise mapping exercise', from which MMRDA officials will receive a cut. Following this, the installation of the sound absorbers will provide an even bigger payoff. Once the barriers are in place, their dimpled surfaces will be leased out for advertising, as has happened on the J J flyover, the first in the city to be endowed with noise mitigating tech. Of course, sticking posters in front of sound absorbers renders them ineffectual, but their effectiveness isn't a real concern for the MMRDA anyway. The agency contracted to use that space for ads will also factor kickbacks to municipal employees in its budget.
Five years from now, the Suman Nagar and Navghar flyovers will be as noisy as ever, the city's visual clutter will have been augmented, and wallets of MMRDA executives and their favourite contractors will be considerably fatter.