Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why we make such terrible films

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece for Time Out about the reasons why Indian films, Hindi films in particular, are so bad. An editor at The Caravan liked it and asked if I could flesh out the argument to three times its original length. I agreed because the article did feel cramped within the space Time Out could afford. The longer essay has been published in The Caravan's latest issue, and can be read here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Husain at the Art Summit

The removal and reinstatement of an M.F.Husain painting from Delhi Art Gallery’s booth at the India Art Summit in Delhi last week may have been a storm in a teacup, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The Husain canvas had earlier been part of a larger show of paintings displayed in Delhi Art Gallery’s Hauz Khas Village space. There were in fact a number of Husain works on show there, freely on view in a gallery that had very little security. Anybody walking into DAG intending to vandalise a Husain canvas would have encountered hardly any resistance. Even as one Husain picture was transferred to Pragati Maidan, others continued to hang on DAG’s walls.
At the art fair, visitors had to go through ticket checks, metal detectors and pat downs, before being allowed entry. Delhi Art Gallery hired a couple of intimidating bouncers who stood next to the Husain, glaring at everybody who passed. The state and central goverment had assured support to the Art Summit, with officials publicly stating that displaying Husain works would be no problem. This was after the Summit authorities had refused to show Husain in previous editions citing security issues.
To sum up: there was absolutely no reason not to have an M.F.Husain painting on display throughout the Art Summit.
Yet, the evening of the VIP preview, just as proceedings were winding down, we heard the Husain was being removed. Threatening emails had apparently been received, and the organisers feared a stampede. That evening, news organisations like CNN-IBN led their prime time news with the Husain story.
I was furious, seeing the episode as a craven capitulation on the part of the Art Summit organisers. It sends a terrible signal to give in to anonymous emails despite the presence of great numbers of state and private security personnel, after activists and influential people in the art world had lobbied for months to ensure all conditions were in place for a public viewing of Husain’s paintings. The next afternoon, Neha Kirpal, the head of the Art Summit, told me a solution was being worked out. A couple of hours later, the Husain was back up in the DAG booth. Nothing much had changed on the ground. Maybe an extra platoon had been posted outside, but it would hardly make a difference to a determined vandal inside the hall.
The entire episode left me feeling depressed, and wondering if the Husain issue had not been cynically used to garner valuable publicity. The Art Summit depends on footfalls, and these can best be guaranteed through the media. In a crowded media space, it’s extraordinarily difficult to receive the kind of coverage that draws real public attention. The broadcast time and column inches granted the Art Summit a few hours before its public opening were priceless. It would have taken crores of rupees to get that sort of notice through advertising. Whether capitulation or cynical ploy, there’s no doubt the latest Husain fracas helped the Summit massively.
A number of representatives of media outlets were present at the VIP opening, but the alacrity with which the news spread still seemed calculated. It would’ve been fairly easy to keep an event like this under wraps; but it was burning up the newswires within a few minutes of the paintings coming down.
Neha Kirpal’s done a tremendous job in creating an event that has grown so quickly in popularity and influence. The Husain episode, though, made me think less of the fair as a whole.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Delhi hotels

The recent Delhi trip was my first visit to a city involving stays in two five star hotels in succession. When I speak of Delhi, I'm referring to the National Capital region, including Gurgaon, for it was at Gurgaon's Leela Kempinski that I first landed.

The hotel's embedded in Gurgaon's Ambience Mall, and came on board after architectural plans were drawn, so its exterior includes a standard shopping mall glass facade. The inside felt pleasant enough but unremarkable. I later learned Rajeev Sethi had put together a selection of artwork in the lobby and rooms. I'm afraid I didn't notice any of this art in my walks across the marble floor to the glass door in the mornings, or my walk across it to the lift in the evenings. What I did notice was the number of people saying namaste to me at every point: the chap who opened the car door; the two security men; two women just inside the door; two males flanking the lifts; and any other staffer who happened to be within ten yards of me at any time of day or night.
Delhi has completely gone over to the namaste greeting. In Bombay they still do 'welcome', 'good morning', 'good afternoon' without reflexively folding hands.
The room was very comfortable with a pleasant view over some scrub-like forest. All fixtures worked, and the wifi was fast, though the 550 rupee price tag for 24 hours was a bit hard. What I didn't understand was the wooden floorboards, which creaked below me every time I walked across the room, and creaked above me whenever the guy upstairs moved across his. There's really no excuse for using wooden floorboards in this day and age: tile or stone does perfectly well, and if you're worried about cold floors, a carpet's far better than wood.
Strangely the second hotel I stayed in used wooden floorboards as well: a peculiar fixation appears to have gripped the hotel designers of Delhi. This second hotel was The Park near Connaught Place. It claims to be a five-star hotel, but really is not. Like, I checked in at night, and I suppose the windows had been kept open by the previous occupant or by staff, and so the room was really cold. I turned the climate control to 25 degrees, but it didn't help. I called reception and was told the hotel had no heating, the thermostat was there only to adjust the level of cooling. They gave me a portable heater to keep the temperature comfortable, and I kept the AC switched on to ventilate the room, but really, a five-star hotel in Delhi ought to have central heating, no?
The lobby of The Park is done in retro-sixties style: bright, velvet-y biomorphic sofas, bead curtains, that sort of thing. Problem is, the place is showing its age, giving the lobby the feel of a fancy bordello.

The Park is a tourist's hotel, unlike the Leela which is full of suits; the senior citizens I saw looked quite happy. Maybe the decor reminds them comfortingly of what was cutting edge in their teenage years.

I was less than happy. The rooms are small; the water in my bathroom seeped under the glass partition separating shower from toilet; there's no wifi, only a slow ethernet connection at an extortionate 450 rupees plus taxes for an hour and 800 plus taxes for a day; the staff looked a bit too eager for tips; and the muffins at breakfast had a kerosene flavour.

The hotel that seriously impressed me on this trip was The Trident, Gurgaon, which I visited for a late night drink with a friend.

Designed by a Thai architect, the hotel makes use of traditional Indian structures such as the bangla roof, but within a spare overall plan, not minimalist by any means, but calm, reflective. Entry at night is spectacular: one walks through a gate to a black rectangle of water within which gleam four fires. To one side is the dramatically lit entrance to the reception area.
Going back to the Delhi versus Bombay theme, here's another reason Delhi scores: it has lots of interesting modern and postmodern architecture, while hardly anything good has been built in Bombay after the art deco era.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Delhi boots

My friend Adrian, commenting on a previous post, spoke of finding Delhi staid and dowdy in comparison with Bombay. Well, Delhi fashions have changed considerably since Adrian visited half a dozen winters ago. Which makes sense: all the clothes sold in all those new malls have to end up somewhere, right? The most important sign of the shift in fashion sense is, in my opinion, an exponential increase in the number of women wearing boots.
No item of clothing combines allure and assertiveness, power and play, the way stiletto-heeled leather boots do. A decade ago one could stay in Delhi for days and spot hardly a couple of boot-shod females. Young, office-going women wore shoes; seniors wore sneakers or chappals with woolen socks. Now women in boots are all over the place, striding down streets, in offices and restaurants.
If I'm right in relating boots to power, the change in female footwear represents something larger. It is a sign that women are slowly claiming Delhi for themselves in a way previously unthinkable within a city notorious for its female unfriendliness.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bhimsen Joshi

Listening to Bhimsen Joshi was like consuming a comforting meal in a top quality restaurant, a meal based on hearty fare, devoid of frippery. I can think of singers who soared higher (Kumar Gandharva), dug deeper (Amir Khan), and had more refined voices (Pandit Jasraj). But nobody approached Bhimsen Joshi for the all-round satisfaction he always provided.
A concert by him seemed somehow basic, fundamental, even though his practice was highly sophisticated. One came away satiated. Meat and potatoes on a cold winter night; or fish curry, rice and beer by a sunny Goa beach.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bombay versus Delhi revisited

I just got back from a week in Delhi, and have lots to blog about. But first, I'd like to continue where I left off, with my Mumbai Boss piece on NGMAs (link in the January 10 post below). A number of Dilliwallahs looked askance at what they saw as my criticism of the capital. Sure, I'd written about Delhi's new imperial aura, but I don't believe the article as a whole was critical of the capital.
On my most recent visit I perceived that since the annoying blockages resulting from Commonwealth games prep have been cleared, the pattern I discerned some half a dozen years ago has become boldly etched: Delhi is racing ahead of Bombay and is now India's premier metropolis. And it's going to stay that way because, as I wrote in my final column for Time Out back in 2008, nobody has a claim on it. As soon as some group claims a city as its own, it signals the beginning of a decline. Bombay grew to greatness because it was the one city in India that welcomed people of all religious, ethnic and linguistic groups. Ever since its political discourse began revolving around the claims of Marathis, the city has suffered. In the past five years, Hyderabad has fallen victim to the Telengana agitation, and Bangalore to Kannadiga - Tamil conflict. Calcutta and Madras have, of course, long been mired in parochialism.

Since my valedictory Time Out column doesn't seem to be on the Web, I'm cutting and pasting it here. The final sentence suggests Bombay may soon have to give up its status as India's premier metropolis. Less than three years later, its clear the switch has happened, and Bombay's now in second place. It may be that a decade from today there will no longer be any debate about the issue. During Lord Curzon's reign as Viceroy, Calcutta was India's foremost city, with Bombay brashly staking a claim. Eventually, Bombay comprehensively overtook Calcutta, to such a degree that the debate itself died out. The same looks set to happen in the case of Bombay versus Delhi.

A Tale of Two Cities

I don’t love Bombay. I barely like it. Things were very different in my teenage years, when I had a pride in my home town that extended even to supporting its Ranji Trophy team. I viewed other Indian cities, as many Bombaywallahs did, with snobbish disdain. We had great public transport; we had power 24 / 7; taxis and autos charged by the meter; shops were located conveniently at most street corners; eateries catered to every income level; liquor stores stayed open well after sunset; vehicles maintained something like lane discipline; appointments were kept more or less punctually; and women participated in the workforce in massive numbers. None of this was true elsewhere in the country.
My attitude began changing after the January 1993 riots. That’s when the city’s liberal identity suffered a dreadful wound. It wasn’t a fatal injury. Recovery would have been possible, had the instigators of violence been punished. Instead, they were elected to run the city and Maharashtra state.
Many good things have happened in Bombay since then. Aside from revolutions in IT services, telecommunications and organised retail that have transformed all cities, we have witnessed enormous growth in the entertainment and financial services sectors. We’ve begun to appreciate the preciousness of our past: localities like Kala Ghoda, Khotachiwadi, Bandra and Juhu have benefited from the efforts of heritage activists and citizens’ groups. But 1993 and its aftermath irrevocably shattered my pride in the city. Visiting other places these days, I frequently find myself comparing them favourably with my home. Delhi, in particular, appears an increasingly congenial location. It always had abundant open spaces, large homes, magnificent monuments and important academic institutions. In recent years, the city has grown more diverse, and less obsessed with who’s-in-who’s-out politics. Infrastructure’s been upgraded, with new transport systems promising an end to the cliché about needing a car to get around. Having its own government is a great help, but what’s even more crucial to the capital’s progress, I believe, is the fact that no religious community or linguistic group can stake claim to it. Free of chauvinistic demands, Delhi has not just physical but also mental space to develop into a truly great city. I’m afraid Bombay may soon have to give up its claim to being India’s premier metropolis.
There, it’s done. This is my last column, and I’ve ended with perhaps the unkindest cut of all. Before I go, though, I’d like to thank all readers who have taken time out to respond to my articles over the past four years and a bit. Your feedback has been incredibly gratifying. I’ve been privileged to have a prominent position in a magazine of such consistently excellent quality, but I now feel the need for a more expansive and interactive format. Hope to meet you soon in cyberspace.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ranbir Kaleka at Volte

The most impressive exhibition in town right now, and perhaps the best show of all 2010, is the work of a 57 year-old British citizen of Punjabi origin. I’m referring not to Anish Kapoor’s Dilli Mumbai, but Ranbir Kaleka’s Sweet Unease at Gallery Volte in Colaba. Kaleka lived in Chandigarh and Delhi before leaving for England in 1985 on a Charles Wallace scholarship. Anish Kapoor, his junior by a few months, had by that time established himself in the London art scene. Kaleka stayed on in Britain for about a dozen years after gaining an M.A. in painting from the Royal College of Art. He returned to India at the end of the 1990s, and settled in Delhi. In the years since his return, he hasn’t had a single solo show in India. He’s famously non-prolific, known for taking months, even an entire year, to complete one of his hyperelaborate canvases. But he’s stepped up the pace in the past year, creating four works in 2010 alone, all of them video projections on painted canvas. Tushar Jiwarajka of Volte has taken a huge leap forward as a gallerist by mounting Sweet Unease.

Monday, January 10, 2011

State of the NGMAs

My article in Mumbai Boss about the state of the National Gallery of Modern Art as part of a wider Bombay versus Delhi debate can be read here.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rolling back the communist conspiracy

Now that Republicans have regained control of the US Congress, they have begun to roll back President Obama's socialist agenda. It's no coincidence that federal health officials have recommended a lowering of the fluoride content in water. As General Buck Turgodson pointed out in Stanley Kubrick's Dr.Strangelove, fluoridation was part of a communist conspiracy to corrupt Americans' precious bodily fluids. No doubt he would read today's news as a vindication.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Digvijay Singh's lie about Hemant Karkare

Here's what Digvijay Singh said in an interview with the Indian Express published on December 11, 2010: “On November 26, 2008, at 7 pm, just about two hours before the attacks in Mumbai started, Hemant Karkare, the slain ATS chief rang me on my mobile and told me how his family and his life were blighted by constant threats from people annoyed by his investigations into the Malegaon blasts."
The remark became controversial, and Maharashtra's Home Minister R R Patil issued a statement saying there was no record of Karkare and Singh having spoken at the time mentioned. Now, Singh has produced telephone records which he claims vindicate his position. Except they do not. What the records show is that Singh called Karkare, not the other way round. It's a crucial difference. I don't like the idea of police officers contacting politicians to whine: I'd think less of Hemant Karkare if he'd done what Digvijay Singh said he did. However, if a politician calls a police officer he is acquainted with, it's perfectly acceptable for the policeman to mention in passing that he is being threatened. Moreover, we only have Digvijay Singh's word for what was actually said. If Singh could lie about who called whom, he could well twist the contents of the conversation.
I've been very critical about the police in a number of posts on this blog. There are, however, a few perfectly honest, dedicated officers who stand apart within the force. Hemant Karkare was one of them. Digvijay Singh lied when he said Karkare called him the day he was killed. I hope newspapers and TV channels covering the issue highlight the difference between making a call and answering it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Wikileaks lies

How will governments react to the potential for more embarrassing revelations in the future from Wikileaks and likeminded websites? They will obviously grow more circumspect, and will probably place greater restrictions on access to diplomatic and security related documents. It's mind-boggling that 3 million people in the United States had access to the cables now being published in dribs and drabs by Wikileaks.
I believe governments might also begin to insert convenient fictions into such communications. People tend to believe that everything released through Wikileaks reflects truth on the ground, but that's far from the case. A cable from a diplomat in Cuba stated, for example, that Michael Moore's Sicko was banned in Castro country, while the documentary was in fact shown on Cuban national television. Now we get news of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being slapped by Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander-in-chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. This incident might well have actually happened, but it's also one of the cables whose publication the US will not regret. It's possible the message, which came out of Baku, was based on embellished information. After the Iraq WMD fiasco we know how dissidents tend to tell the CIA what US politicians want to hear.
The question then arises: If diplomats can lie or pass on dubious details in official cables, what's to stop US intelligence from going further and seeding data banks with misinformation in case of further leaks? Muddying those waters will create a new barrier to transparency in government functioning.