& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Thank you!

I have reached a stage in my life where I don't need to say anything more.

It is time for introspection.

It is time to be with Mahrukh and Che, and plan for a secure future for them.

And to be with Durga and Sonal, and Shakera and Farrukh.

So, after a dozen years of active blogging, I'm going to stop now. 

There's enough here in this space to keep you occupied for a long time if you chose to browse through the past posts. And some of it may actually be interesting.

Thank you for stopping by.

Thank you for being a part of my journey.

Remember me as that awkward friend who always cared, and who didn't know how to show that he did. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Remembering Rishi Kapoor

To write about Rishi Kapoor in the past tense is incredibly sad.

As an actor, Rishi Kapoor was an institution. His legacy will last as long as there is cinema. 

But he was more than just an actor. In the last decade or so he had become a social media influencer, a twitter aficionado.

This blog post, however, is only about Rishi Kapoor the film star who although he came from a privileged background, thrived in a highly competitive environment for four decades because of his immense talent.

There are already a number of excellent obituaries about Rishi Kapoor; many written by people who knew him personally and met him frequently; mine is probably not going to match those either in erudition or depth. 

This blog post is just my tribute to an actor who will always remain an integral part of my adolescence and youth. I didn't know him personally. I didn't meet him, ever. 

I’ve interspersed the blog with some of my favourite Rishi Kapoor songs.

To the generation that became interested and aware of the tremendous appeal of popular Hindi cinema in the 1970s – he was and will always remain a lodestar. Rishi Kapoor was that young, reckless romantic, willing to risk everything for love, and who almost always nearly lost everything but got the girl.

By the 1970s, the dreams of a post-independence India were in tatters. There was a rising anger at the system, captured brilliantly by Amitabh Bachchan’s smouldering rage. Rishi Kapoor gave the audience welcome relief from that overwrought and essentially futile fury.

Right from his debut as a lead actor in Bobby (1973), where he was the personification of young love with its all its doe eyed innocence, Rishi Kapoor captured our hearts by his competent skills as an actor. 

He was a despondent, hopeless lover in Laila Majnu (1976), as a crossdresser in Rafoo Chakkar (1975), as a carefree quawaal in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), and a dafli-player in love with a mute dancer in Sargam (1979) – my favourite Rishi Kapoor film.

All his films from that era are equally well-remembered for their songs.

Rishi Kapoor redefined the song and dance routine that is a staple of Hindi cinema, and although never acknowledged as a great dancer, he knew how to set fire to the dancefloor with his moves.

Although he showed his versatility in every role he played, he was not offered challenging roles, till rather late in his career. The one notable exception was Doosra Admi (1977), where Rishi Kapoor played a young, ambitious man focused on his career and falling in love with an older colleague. His portrayal was bold, mature, but deliberately underplayed. He didn’t let Rakhee, a consummate, top-of-the-line actor of that era, overshadow him.  

In the 1980s, Rishi Kapoor signed up for a whole bunch of utterly unforgettable films. But he did give his fans Karz (1980), a reincarnated revenge saga based on the Reincarnation of Peter Proud; remembered today for its unmatched energy.

Prem Rog (1982), his second film as the male lead after Bobby that his father directed, saw Rishi Kapoor again give a subdued performance. Just as Bobby was centered around Dimple Kapadia, Prem Rog was focused on Padmini Kolhapure. 

Then, came Sagar (1985), the film that relaunched Dimple Kapadia. Rishi Kapoor could have easily been eclipsed by the much-acclaimed Kamal Hasan, but he held his own effortlessly.

I'm sure, he knew his worth as an actor, and would have been full of remorse that he didn't get good roles in his prime. But he didn’t believe in wasting his time waiting for good roles. He made good with whatever came his way, and never flinched from accepting roles that would probably have been rejected by other actors. 

He eagerly accepted roles that played second fiddle to the woman lead in films. Nagin (1986) with Sridevi was a monstrously bad film but was undeniably a monstrous hit. He was equally at ease being the second male lead. All his films with Amitabh Bachchan – Kabhie Kabhie (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Naseeb (1981), Coolie (1983), were hugely successful and remain endearing even today. Some, such as Ajooba (1991), were colossal flops, but that had little to do with Rishi Kapoor.

Another trend that marks his career is that despite a string of flops (inevitable, considering he did on an average three to four films a year) every few years, he would turn in a mega success. So, after a protracted lean phase in the late 1980s, he delivered a huge hit in Chandni (1989). 

He will forever hold the record of having launched the careers of pretty young things into movies, and he did that with aplomb, wearing multicoloured cardigans.

The 1990s were not too different from the previous decade. He continued to work in utterly forgettable films but also gave us Bol Radha Bol (1992), which succeeded as much because of him as for Juhi Chawla; Deewana (1992) which succeeded because of Shah Rukh Khan; and Damini (1993), which Sunny Deol’s biceps propelled to eternal fame.

Then, after a lean phase, he turned to character roles, and entered what was perhaps the most interesting phase of his career. He was liberated from ensuring a film's success. He could now focus on his performance.

He brought an indescribable insouciance to his role as a father who preferred to pursue his dreams as a photographer rather than be a responsible dad in Hum Tum (2004), you couldn't obviously like him for the way he treated his wife, but you still weren't willing to dislike him. 

He was wasted as Kajol's dad in Fanaa (2006).

He was nominated for the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a film producer in Luck by Chance (2009). Delhi 6 (2009) and Love Aaj Kal (2009) again saw him at his subdued best; in both the films he played an aging lover, who having lived it up in his younger days, is unable to comprehend the restrained ardour of the younger generation.

And then, came Do Dooni Char (2010), a story set in lower middle-class Delhi, for which he won the Filmfare best actor; his second after Bobby. He took everyone by surprise with his portrayal of an amiable and yet vicious Bombay bhai in the remake of Agneepath (2012). It was a performance that got under the skin of the audience – it was hair raising, and riveting. 

He followed it up with another incredible performance in D-Day (2013), portraying a character that was based on Dawood Ibrahim. As the lubricious granddad in Kapoor & Sons (2016), he was unrecognizable with layers of makeup, but again won the Filmfare best supporting award. His role in Mulk (2018) won wide acclaim because he brought to life the uneasiness of India’s Muslims in a country that rapidly transformed into a Hindutva citadel.

Rishi Kapoor's departure is a national loss. There won't be anyone like him. There can't be. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

He was my father

Meghnadurga (circa mid-1980s)

A few days back, Rajesh Macwan, a friend, sent me a few lines of my father Meghnad Bhatt’s poem about the advice that a father, who is entering the fifth decade of his life, is giving to his son, who is about to turn 25. 

But before I get into the poem, let me give a brief background. 

According to the Hindu Vedas, the four ashramas (stages) of a human being’s life are 

  • Brahmacharya (bachelorhood, student), 
  • Grihastha (householder), 
  • Vanaprashta (to give up on worldly life), 
  • and the final stage of Sannyasa (life of a mendicant, a life of renunciation). 
Vanaprashta means to enter the forest. When one enters the forest, one begins to relinquish one’s love for material possessions. Typically, that phase commences when a person enters the fifth decade. In most Indian languages, the fifties end in "Van" (51 = ekyavan, 52 = bavan, 53 = trepan, and so on). "Van" is forest. 

In Gujarati, Vanaprastha is called Vanapravesh. Also, in Gujarati, as in other Indian cultures, the advent of youth is a considered period of foolishness and clueless rebellion; it’s when a person, and especially a man, is no better than a jackass. 

The exact age when this transformation from a human to a jackass occurs is when a man turns 25-year-old.

Gujarati language has a term for it: Gaddha-pachisi. An approximate translation would be jackass 25, an age when young men are no better or worse than jackasses. A relatable reference is the contemporary popular psychological term ‘quarter life crisis’.

Now, let's get back to the couplet that Rajesh Macwan sent me. 

I have attempted to translate the poem into English. I'm not particularly good at translations, but I wanted to include the poem in this blog post which I'm posting on the 23rd death anniversary of my dad, so, please indulge me.

A simpler translation of the title of the poem that Rajesh sent me would be: 

Advice of an aging father to a young son 

But it wouldn’t capture the essence of the angst that the original title and the poem possess.

So, let’s go with the bells and whistle title: 

Advice of a Vanapravesh-aged father to a son who’s on the anvil of Gaddha-pachisi. 

I'm not sure if the improvised, hybridized (English-Gujarati) title works, and if it doesn't go back to the simpler version above. 

And now the poem’s translation

Till yesterday

The one who wore his father’s spectacles and romped around pretending to be “Pappa”

Has suddenly turned critical of bapu-cracy (gerontocracy), Mayank?

There never really was a gap between us, ever

The unasked, unanswered question that ends the poem is: "Or was there? (a generation gap).

Meghnad wrote this in 1985. He turned 50 that year and I was 23. He was at the height of his creativity. He was a successful union leader, having unionized the clerical staff of Mafatlal Group, in the heart of Bombay's corporate world - Nariman Point. 

His journalism was flourishing. He was writing for Janmabhoomi and Pravasi (edited by the redoubtable Harinder Dave). Although rather late, his first collection of poems Chhiplan was published in 1980 to good reviews, and his second collection Malajo would be published in a couple of years. During the decade, he won recognition as a poet from the Gujarati literary establishment. 

On the other hand, I was at a crossroads of my life. I didn’t want to do what I was doing – chartered accountancy, and wasn’t sure I could turn journalism (at that time my steadfast interest) into a vocation. 

He didn’t lose patience at my indecisiveness, and what in retrospect was clearly a sheer lack of purpose. 

I’ve often blogged about Meghnad here, but it has mostly been of how deeply he has influenced my thinking. I haven’t written much about him as a father. And more than a poet, a union leader, a committed leftist ideologue, he was a father.

I could fit a book of the many instances that I remember of him being a father. Today, I’ll narrate just a couple. 

On the evening of my sister’s wedding, after she had left with her husband’s family, Meghnad broke down and wept inconsolably. Nothing would make him stop. He didn’t want to stop. He cried for a long time, lying on the bed. 

My grandmother, my mother and I stood near him, gaping at each other, not knowing what to say or what to do. Later, I asked him the cause of his utter desolation, but he didn’t answer. He never talked about it ever. 

I saw my father cry only twice. The second time was when he reached Bombay from his maiden trip to the United States, a couple of years before he passed away. 

And, here's another instance of him being a dad.

I think the males in the Bhatt family have a genetic defect in the eyes. They all have to wear glasses at a young age. My father, my son and I have had to wear prescription glasses at about the same age. In my case it was in 1974, when I was 12 years old. 

We had moved to Teli Gali in Andheri a couple of years back, but my parents were still unfamiliar with the place, and they had excellent, long-nurtured relations in Kalbadevi-Princess Street area.   

So, I had my eyes tested at the Round Building (at the intersection of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street) and my glasses made at Ganko opticians (at the intersection of Old Hanuman Lane and Kalbadevi Road). 

That late afternoon, we were returning home from Ganko. I was wearing prescription glasses for the first time in my life.

It was raining and I was unaccustomed to seeing through the glasses. While descending the stairs at the Marine Lines station, I nearly slipped and would have tumbled all the way down to the platform, had Meghnad not grabbed my hand and pulled me up. 

He was angry. That was rare because he was seldom angry. But it was momentary. He pulled me to him and said in a calm tone. “We must be very careful.” A little later, when we were inside the local suburban train, he said, "We must start living in Andheri." 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Is Narendra Modi a 21st century Walter Rand?

Indian Prime Minister's sudden lockdown of India to control COVID-19 is reminiscent of
Walter Charles Rand’s tough measures to curb 1896 plague in Bombay

The plague in India: Stricken natives in the Street at Bombay

Lord Sandhurst, in a speech, delivered the other day at Poona said that in spite of the measures taken to combat the plague in Bombay, it was spreading and that not only had they the plague in their midst, but owing to the failure of the monsoon, the grim visitor famine was staring at them. Europeans have been attacked by the disease, and a nurse has died from it. The scene represented in our illustration is from a photograph by Inspector H. A. Perry of the Bombay City Police, and is, unhappily, one too often to be witnessed in the streets where wretched plague-stricken natives are to be seen lying down until removed.

he havoc wrought globally by COVID-19 pandemic has yet to run its course. We are hopefully somewhere in the middle of pandemic’s curve and in the next couple of months, the rapid spread of the disease will plateau and begin to decline. It will have killed thousands and more, affecting millions more by then.

The outbreak has tested all governments and many have been found wanting in being able to control the spread of the virus and the number of fatalities. 

So far (and this is going to be a very long journey) Canada has managed the crisis rather well. Both the federal and the provincial governments have taken the general population into confidence and have been gradually exerting pressure to implement social distancing and alleviating the economic fallout of the pandemic. The Samara Centre for Democracy has produced a useful analysis of the state of democracy in Canada during the pandemic. Read it here: Parliament Under Pressure.  

In India, the federal (central) government has ordered a complete lockdown to ensure social distancing to prevent the community-based spread of the infection.

Swift & Sudden Decisions

The measure, tough and necessary, has caused utter misery to the tens of millions of migrant labourers and daily wage-earners, who have been forced to return home. Managing and ensuring a lockdown is not easy especially when its implementation is announced without adequate planning and adequate advance notice.

Whether it is demonetisation or tackling coronavirus, Narendra Modi has made such swift and sudden announcements his forte. It would appear that he doesn’t seem to weigh in on the overall impact his decisions would have on India’s massive population.

In implementing the lockdown, the government has used a colonial-era law – the Epidemic Disease act, 1897 – that was enacted to deal with the outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Bombay Presidency in 1896.

The outbreak of plague in Bombay is remembered for the wrong reasons – the assassination of Walter Rand, the head of the plague commission, by the Chapekar Brothers (Damodar and Balkrishna), and the arrest of Lokmanya Tilak on charges of sedition (both events occurring in 1897).

The wide and rapid spread of plague in Bombay and the adjoining cities also saw the heroic efforts of two doctors – Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas, a medical practitioner from Goa, who discovered the first incident of plague in September 1896, and Dr. Sir Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, who developed the vaccine for the disease.

There is always a political story that underlies the decisions governments take in tackling pandemics and epidemics; it is clear now globally in the way governments are dealing with the coronavirus. It was evident then in Bombay in 1896, too.

Seemingly, the tough, no-nonsense totalitarian response by the Chinese government has yielded results, as compared to a soft, all-inclusive approach adopted by many countries in Europe and North America, which has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. China has been able to control COVID-19 but the virus is swallowing all of the developed world.

Tough action

The differing experiences of different countries indicate that the way forward is to strictly enforce lockdowns everywhere. But that cannot be done hastily. It is necessary to take the people into confidence, have their involvement in finding a lasting and permanent solution. That is the true essence of participatory democracy. The dilemma, of course, is to ensure that while people become aware of the gravity of the situation, the death toll is controlled. 

In 1896, at the behest of Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India in London, the British government representatives in India – Lord Elgin the Viceroy in Delhi and Lord Sandhurst the Governor in Bombay – attempted various ways to curb the rapid spread of the plague.

Lord Hamilton (the Canadian city of Hamilton gets its name from George Hamilton) was adamant that strictest measure should be adopted to curb the spread of the plague because the ships from Bombay were being denied entry into all the ports on the way to England. Both Elgin and Sandhurst, aware of the prevailing sociopolitical and cultural circumstances in Bombay Presidency, were less than enthusiastic to implement such strict measures.

At that time, Governor Sandhurst organised the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria in Poona on 22 June 1897. In his editorial, Lokmanya Tilak observed that at the time when the city was suffering from the plague epidemic, the celebration was “the sixtieth anniversary not of our prosperity, but of our decline…” Tilak’s journalism was incendiary; his editorials in Kesri left nothing to the imagination even as he took the necessary precaution not to circumvent any imperial laws.

There was a severe, irreparable divide between the moderates and the extremists of the Indian National Congress, with Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale leading the moderates, and Lokmanya Tilak leading the militants. Their difference would split many institutions in Poona that they had co-founded and were a part of, and cause a vertical spit in the Congress in 1905.

Tilak’s maneuvers

Tilak, when he realised that he was sidelined in the maneuvering and jostling for public space by his more astute moderate comrades, began to pursue stringent advocacy of orthodox Hindu religion, opposing the Age of Consent bill introduced by the British rulers to increase the age of marriage of girls to 12.

When his opposition didn’t prevent the passage of the bill, he launched the public celebration of the Ganeshotsav in 1893 – a political masterstroke that catapulted him to top of the pantheon of Indian leaders. He maintained his stridency in 1895 when he relaunched the Shiv Jayanti – the annual celebration of Shivaji Maharaj’s birthday (February 19), which had been started by Mahatma Phule. 

Walter Charles Rand was appointed the Plague Commissioner of Poona in 1896. He went about his task with the zealousness of a civil servant unconcerned with local customs or local sensitivities. Poona in 1896 was in political, social, ideological, and economic ferment. There was an ongoing famine across Deccan, which had crippled the economy. When the cleaning operations began in Poona and Bombay, the British administration was expectedly thorough, and ruthless.

Stanley Wolpert notes in Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India, notes:

“As chairman of the newly created Plague Committee, (Walter Charles) Rand was invested with dictatorial powers. He arrived in Poona preceded by his reputation as a stern disciplinarian for having sentenced eleven “respectable Hindus” to jail for instigating the Wai communal riots of 1894 when he served as the magistrate of Satara District. After passing the sentence, he had obliged these convicted Brahmans to walk under a blistering sun for more than twenty miles from Wai to their Satara prison. But if Rand was regarded with hostility by the orthodox Hindu of Poona before his arrival there, a brief period in the office at his new job in that city sufficed to arouse the hatred of most of its inhabitants against him. Even the Liberal newspaper, which had so recently advocated the appointment of a “strong officer” moaned “for heavens forbear,” explaining that this

Is the universal wail of blank despair that goes up from the suffering inhabitants of this ill-fated city. There is a limit to human patience and human suffering which has long since been overstepped…The accounts we have been from time to time publishing in our Marathi series will, we have no doubt bear sufficient testimony to the unparalleled distress and the misery caused to the people of this city in consequence of the operations of the Plague Commission as at present directed.”

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, at that time in London, even accused the imperial police of molesting women during the plague searches. Mahadev Govind Ranade, a judge in the Bombay High Court, Gokhale’s political guru, and the undisputed leader of the moderates, prevailed upon Gokhale to withdraw the allegations.

Chapekar Brothers

When Rand was returning to his carriage after participating in the celebrations of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in Poona that Bombay's Governor Lord Sandhurst had organised on 22 June 1897, along with an associate, the Chapekar brothers shot Rand and Lt. Ayerst. Ayerst died on the spot and Rand succumbed to his bullet wounds after 11 days.

Tilak was aware of this conspiracy had given tacit approval of the plot to kill Rand and helped the Chapekar brothers escape and hide. The British administration was probably aware of the linkages between Chapekar brothers and Tilak, it had no substantive evidence. But it nevertheless wanted to ensure that Tilak wouldn't go unpunished and arrested him under charges of sedition on 27 July 1897. He was tried for disaffection, found guilty and sentenced to 18 months of rigorous imprisonment. Justice Ranade and Parsons denied Tilak bail.


Richard P. Tucker notes in Ranade and the Roots of Indian Nationalism, Justice Ranade defined disaffection” in a related case, which laid down the rules of engagement between the British administration and Indian leaders agitating for freedom. 

Justice Ranade defined disaffection thus: “disaffection is a positive political distemper and not a mere absence or negation of love or goodwill. It is defiant insubordination of authority, or when it is not defiant, it secretly seeks to alienate the people and weaken the bond of allegiance. It is a feeling which makes men indisposed to obey or support the laws of the realm, and promotes discontent and public disorder.”

The public outrage of orthodox Hindus at the tough measures implemented to control the plague epidemic forced the British administration to adopt softer measures. This prolonged the disease for several years. According to Tim Wallasey-Wilsey, Senior Visiting Research Fellow, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, “…the stark truth is that cultural sensitivity had its consequences. The plague was not stamped out – and continued to kill until the mid-1920s. As many as 10 million Indians may have died.”