& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, June 27, 2011

IIFA in Toronto

In a postmodern world, the distinction between high and popular cultures is relevant only to the deliberately snobbish or the ignorant.
Popular culture is entertainment driven and dominated by cinema.
The global reach of Hollywood and western media has given the West a serious advantage across the world to mould public opinion by managing public perceptions.
In a world where entertainment sector - dominated by players from the West - has grown into a globalised behemoth, steamrolling or gobbling up everything in its way, the hardy sustenance of popular Hindi cinema is remarkable.
Hindi cinema has effortlessly succeeded in staving off the immense and invasive reach of the West’s (read America’s) giant entertainment industry.
In the process, it has become truly global in its reach and influence.
And it isn’t just the popularity of Raj Kapoor in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, or Amitabh Bachchan’s craze in the Middle East in the 1970s.
Hindi cinema touches everyone everywhere.  I've heard that when Omni started the free telecast of Hindi movies on weekends in Canada, enthusiastic response didn't just come from the South Asians, but every major market segment of Canada's vast multicultural market.
Last night, as we got into a cab at Bay and Adelaide after a long trudged from Rogers Centre, the cabbie, Mohammed Farrah, an immigrant from Somalia began to chat animatedly, “Shahrukh Khan is here, but nobody else; that’s a pity.”
For good measure, he wryly observed, “This used to be Amitabh Bachchan’s show, but he’s not part of it anymore.”
His nuanced understanding of the internecine politics of Hindi filmdom was astounding only to me; to him it seemed natural.
I had a similar experience in Washington DC when I got a serious discount on a jacket from a South American owner, who was a serious “Bollywood” fan.
In my extremely partisan view, the IIFA in Toronto lived up to its billing, although many felt it was a dud that didn’t match its overblown hype.
Thanks to my friend CP Thomas (publisher of Indian Voices, and a serial entrepreneur), I attended my first (and perhaps the only) film awards show with my family.  And I had an absolutely wonderful time.
Toronto will not see a gig of this kind for a long time.
The 25,000 fans at Rogers Centre were there for one man: Shahrukh Khan.
The effervescent yet dignified superstar entertained the crowd for nearly 5 hours. Of course, ably helped by an all-star cast of actors.
For me, the biggest moment of the evening was the lifetime achievement award to Asha Bhosale, the versatile diva, who, at age 77 and without the accompaniment of music, sang a flawless stanza of one of her hit numbers. Earlier, Sharmila Tagore and Dharmendra also received similar citations.
This trio symbolised the passing of an era that lasted from the inception of Hindi cinema to the 1970s when although entertainment was a serious business it hadn’t lost its innocence, grace and dignity.
Dharmendra’s rambling, unending, meaningless and repetitive speech may have got the younger audiences restive, and Sharmila Tagore’s sophistication may have irritated those unaccustomed to erudition in women actors. Added bonus was the fleeting presence of Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor & Neetu Singh.
The combined power of the younger lot couldn’t match the simple charm of these veterans, with exception to Khan and Priyanka Chopra.
But these are minor piffles, unnecessary quibbles.
The evening demonstrated the undeniable and the amazing pull of Hindi cinema.
One people, one world, indeed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan

One of the best sections in MJ Akbar’s brilliant Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan is a unique interpretation of the Khilafat Movement as the Mahatma’s non-violent jihad.

It’s a thesis Akbar first developed in The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict Between Islam and Christianity (2002).
It was audacious interpretation because when Akbar first made it – soon after 9/11 – jihad evoked visions of radical Islam, fanaticism and terrorism.

Only Akbar – with his erudition, scholarship and chutzpah – could link jihad to the Mahatma, and then marshal historical facts as a lawyer in support of his argument.
In the new book he traverses the same terrain but uncovers new facets.

To any rational student of the history of Indian independence movement, Gandhiji’s Khilafat Movement was a gamble guaranteed to fail. Its achievements were dubious, chimerical.
But for a brief three years, the Mahatma achieved the impossible – unite the Hindus and Muslims and coalesce them into a potent political force.

Notes Akbar, “Words can hardly do justice to the transformation that Gandhi achieved in making the masses a part of India’s freedom movement. British officials who had no reason for sympathy, documented moving eyewitness accounts of Hindu-Muslim devotion to Gandhi, particularly in villages."

The chapter (The Non-violent Jihad) ends with a comparison between Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk and Gandhiji.
Akbar writes:

“Gandhi and Ataturk (Father of the Turks), both anointed fathers of their nations, make a fascinating comparison. Ataturk eliminated an obsolete caliphate from nationalist space and released politics from the embrace of religion. Gandhi used the caliphate to stir a dormant community by infusing religion into politics. Ataturk defeated the West, but welcomed its script, clothes and lifestyle, serving alcohol in public and dancing in immaculate tie and tails. Gandhi was more prohibitionist than any mullah and his battledress was a homespun cotton loincloth. He used khadi as an economic weapon and dress code...Ataturk banned Islamic veil and Ottoman fez and promoted skirts and suits. Gandhi welcomed the veil and fez, signature apparel of the Khilafat Movement...Ataturk and Gandhi used the same slogan between 1919 and 1922: ‘Victory or Death’ cried Ataturk; ‘Do or Die!’ demanded Gandhi. But while Ataturk’s battlefields did not offer a third option, Gandhi believed that a final confrontation could always be postponed on India’s minefields. Gandhi always lived to fight – or fast – another day, until 1947 broke his country and 1948 took his life.”

Akbar’s seemingly unbridled pessimism about Pakistan’s future clearly didn’t have too many takers in January when the book was released. But since then, the United States found and hunted Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

About Canada: Immigration

Immigration to Canada is not easy. The fate of immigrants after they arrive is fraught with uncertainties. It’s an accepted fact amongst most newcomers that the first generation has to “sacrifice” so that the children do well.
The newcomer faces deeply entrenched but cleverly camouflaged discrimination.
It’s a vicious circle: You can’t get a job because you have no "Canadian experience" and you can’t get "Canadian experience" because you don’t have a job.

Shubnam Budhwani is with Skills For Change, a not-for-profit that works with newcomers to help them settle better.
Speaking about Canadian experience at the launch of the study Immigration, by Nupur Gogia and Bonnie Slade, she said she once saw a father helping his young daughter climb a wall at a park. As the father encouraged her to climb higher, he was also cautioning her of the risks.

Shubnam, an immigrant, remarked that this reminded her of her own childhood in India. And even though the play obstacles were different in India, she realised that any child could climb the wall in the Canadian park without really having any “Canadian experience.”
Immigration is published by Fernwood Publishing as part of its About Canada series. The series publishes books on a variety of subjects that provide “basic – but critical and passionate – coverage of central aspects of our society.”

The slim treatise is a shocking documentation of all that is wrong with Canada’s immigration policy and practice. Though there are definite improvements from the racially discriminatory practices of the past, the official policy that seemingly treats everyone equally doesn’t necessarily translate into equal acceptance of the newcomer.
My family, as many other families, continue to face discrimination. My wife, despite a local qualification and hours of volunteer work, still doesn’t have a job.

Moreover, had it not been for my own Indian community, which recognised my experience and gave me a suitable opening, I would’ve continued to flounder in a low-paying survival job in this new home that I had so enthusiastically and determinedly adopted.

What troubles me is that Nupur Gogia and Bonnie Slade say that even my son, who will grow up here and is turning into a fiercely patriotic Canadian, would still continue to face discrimination.
The launch event at the Toronto Women’sBookstore was an engaging event. In addition to the authors and Budhwani, Avvy Go from The Colour of Poverty also made a powerful presentation.

And there was lots of wine, and cheese.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Picture House: The Art of Bollywood

MF Husain's last Bollywood poster (2010)
Bollywood has moved to Toronto. There’s more Bollywood here than in Bombay (Mumbai). With the IIFA a couple of weeks from now and the VIP tickets for Roger’s Centre being sold – so I’ve heard – for $10,000 (INR 460,000 approximately).

The Greater Toronto Area and all its towns are being overrun by Bollywood themed events that has got the Indo-Canadians all charged up. 

They’re thronging these celebrations in big numbers. As my friend George Abraham recently posted on his Facebook page, “The flavour of Canada’s summer: all things India...Smart!”

I went to the inaugural of Picture House: The Art of Bollywood an exquisite exhibition of Bollywood posters at the Art Gallery of Mississauga curated by Ali Adil Khan and Asma Arshad Mahmood.

The exhibition had some of the most famous Bollywood posters ever painted.

And the richly-produced accompanying brochure had a well-researched and article by Ali Adil Khan.

Khan writes with the authority that comes from a mastery over the subject. He lists the many billboard painters who didn’t achieve the fame that Maqbool Fida Husain was destined to achieve.

Khan concludes his essay with an insightful observation: “The journey of Bollywood billboards and posters from the street of Mumbai to the museums of the world reaffirms their historical and aesthetic importance. 

"It is the relatively unknown artists, such as those profiled in this exhibition who are the unsung heroes of Bollywood, who worked day and night behind the scene, in open air studios and small alleyways, to give a larger than life image to actors and to commence a visual culture that is widely accepted and easily understood within and outside of India.”

The exhibition transported me to the past; to my aunt’s home in Prarthana Samaj where a few dozen cousins would congregate during the summer holidays, and accompanied by my cousin, I’d go from one cinema hall to another along Lamington Road to watch the posters of new movies.

That stretch of road had nearly a dozen cinema houses – Roxy, Opera House, Imperial, Naaz, Swastik, Novelty, Super, Apsara, Minerva, Alfred, Ganga-Jamuna and Maratha Mandir.

And, if I remember right, in the mid-1970s (1976-77-78) most of these cinema halls were showing an Amitabh Bachchan movie. And nearly all of them were silver jubilee hits.

Image: http://www.mid-day.com/news/2011/jun/100611-India-theatre-community-miss-MF-Husain-posters.htm