& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sachin – A Billion Dreams

Finally, many months after its release in India, I saw the docudrama on Sachin Tendulkar (Sachin A Billion Dreams).

It’s a measure of my utter ignorance of contemporary cricket that during my recent India visit I had to ask a co-passenger the identity of a young man at the Bombay airport that everyone was eager to click a selfie with.

He’d caused a minor flutter at the Delhi airport when he sauntered in casually. A couple of young women shrieked, giggled and ran to click selfies with him. The same sequence repeated at the Bombay airport when the flight landed.

This time, men as old as me were eagerly queuing up to take selfies, and the charming fellow was happy to oblige. As he was led away to a waiting vehicle, I asked a man who had a satisfied grin on his face, having just succeeded in capturing a selfie with this young man.

“Who is that?” I asked him.

He looked at me as if I had landed from Mars.

“That is Shikhar Dhawan.”

I nodded politely and walked out, where this Dhawan was talking to another young man who was surrounded by people clicking selfies. The gentleman, who had informed me about the identity of Shikhar Dhawan, was readying himself to take a group selfie with this Dhawan and the other young man. He rushed past me and hurriedly said, “That is Bhuvaneshwar Kumar.”

In the Cool Cab that I took home from the airport, I Googled both Shikhar and Bhuvaneshwar on my cell phone and discovered that both are star cricketers representing the Indian team.

I hadn’t heard of them.

As I was watching the docudrama on Sachin, I remembered this incident. My love for cricket effectively ended after Sachin Tendulkar retired. I mean, I follow Indian cricket off and on and admire Virat Kohli’s awesome determination, but I have absolutely no information about most of the other players who comprise the Indian team. My interest is limited to who's winning and who's losing. 

On occasion, I get to hear of some astounding exploits by cricketers but am clueless about who they are. I’ve heard that Hardik Pandya has done some amazing stuff, but I wasn’t sure whether he’s a batsman or a bowler.

Fortunately, we live in a world made easy by Google.

The docudrama on Tendulkar is good but should have been extraordinary, which it is not, primarily because it attempts to encapsulate a legend’s achievements in his long career and mixes it with his personal life.

Sachin’s career requires a documentary of its own. There’s just too much to say and everyone in India (and especially in Bombay) knows everything there is to know about the legend. I’m sure, all of them must have felt that they missed something that was (according to them) vital to Sachin’s career graph.

For instance, I sorely missed in the docudrama the nugget that Sachin’s international debut was as a team member of Pakistan, with Imran Khan as his first captain.

But perhaps I'm being overtly critical. The docudrama does introduce the person behind the persona rather effortlessly. And to cricket fans, that information goes a long way in creating a wholesome picture of the icon. 

The docudrama also brings out the supreme adoration that a billion plus people of this planet have for this diminutive yet determined man who changed not only the way Indians played the game of cricket but, also in a large measure, the way Indians saw themselves and their India.

Sachin never had the brashness so typical of the north Indian style of cricket first seen in Kapil Dev and perfected by Virendra Sehwag.  Sachin's aggression was always understated. It personified a self-assured confidence that in cricket was only seen in Sunil Gavaskar.

The generation that grew up watching cricket on television in the 1970s and the 1980s would perhaps be a bit biased in favour of Gavaskar. After all, he played the terrifying West Indian pace bowlers without a helmet.

But Gavaskar played in a different era (and along with Indira Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan created a unique Indian identity that symbolized an India that had emerged from the long shadows cast by the generation of leaders that fought for its independence). 

Sachin's rise, on the other hand, coincided with the rise of India's economic prowess and a growing realisation that it was time for India to take a leadership position among the comity of nations, and which had been deprived by colonialism and then by a defeatist, fatalistic attitude that considered karma as the sole determinant of results. 

Sachin gave Indians the confidence to change their mindsets. He showed Indians that they could boldly go where they hadn't gone before, take charge of their destinies and change it for the better.

Mukkabaaz - 1

If Uttar Pradesh were to be an independent country, it’d be the fifth largest country in terms of population.

One of the most ingenious arguments against the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in two and eventually three countries that I’ve heard was offered by a friend in Toronto who is a Punjabi from Pakistan. He said Partition divided the two most populous and cultural homogenous regions of the Indian subcontinent – the Punjab and Bengal between two newly-independent countries (India and Pakistan) in 1947.

According to this argument, the idea of Partition germinated in the then United Province, and its direct fallout was to propel Uttar Pradesh to a preeminent position of political influence in independent India.  This is evident in the number of prime ministers that the state has given to India (eight out of 14, and nine if you count Modi, who is elected from Varanasi). 

Punjab and Bengal were politically more progressive, where the confluence of cultures was a lifestyle choice that was never touted as exceptional. It was a way of life. In Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, the religious fault lines ran (and run) deep.

UP's Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb undoubtedly contributed to the formation of a syncretic identity that dominated the cultural and social discourse at least in the initial post-Independence decades, but caste has been an integral part of the social fabric in Uttar Pradesh, and the Hindi belt. 

Caste has often skewered the social discourse and made it toxic.  Since the late 1980s, especially in the post-Mandal India, caste has intensified its stranglehold on the region, turning Uttar Pradesh into a cauldron of angry caste politics.

The subalterns – the lower castes – have had to find different, innovative means to circumvent the dominance of upper castes and rise above the narrow confines of social hierarchy that is both rigid and stifling. The simultaneous rise of Mandal and Mandir politics brought a demographic awareness of the caste and its electoral significance.

Despite the political mobilization of the lower castes, a process that has now been going on for over two decades, the social dynamics of caste have seen little fundamental change.  Socially and culturally, the upper caste dominance remains largely unchallenged especially in everyday life of the people. The influence of Hindutva has, it’d seem, actually enhanced the dominance of the upper caste in the society.

It’d, therefore, seem inconceivable to many unfamiliar with the social composition of northern India in general and Uttar Pradesh in particular that even today, more than a decade-and-a-half in the 21st century, caste constriction is a stark reality.

Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz is supposed to be a film about boxing. Indeed, it is that. But at its core, it’s a film about caste. Caste and its horrors.

Mukkabaaz - 2

Cameroon Bailey of Tiff talking to Anurag Kashap at the screening
of Mukkabaaz along with the lead actors Vineet Kumar Singh,
Zoya Hasan & Sadhna Singh 
In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, caste permutations get unencumbered playout, bringing up close the always unsettling and often ghoulish aspects of caste orthodoxy that continues to dominate the practice of Hindu religion. 

A not-so-young lower caste aspiring boxer Sharavan Rajput from Bareilly is keen to get a break at the national level. To get ahead, he has to serve the upper caste coach Bhagwan Das as his personal aide, doing odd jobs for the coach and his family – from buying vegetables to being a masseur to the coach.

Bhagwan, a Brahmin, is a local gangster who has made it good. He controls the local district boxing establishment and rules it with an iron hand. Sharavan is in love with Bhagwan’s niece, Sunaina, a young woman who is mute. An unexpected turn of events leads the headstrong Sharavan to beat up the coach, and in retaliation, Bhagwan takes it upon himself to ruin Sharavan’s boxing career.

The small town ambience, which includes small-town attitudes, is beautifully and sensitively etched in almost every scene. Sunaina is constantly made aware of her status as a woman, as a mute, both by her parents and especially by her uncle, the brutish Bhagwan, who slaps her for having the temerity of not immediately giving him a towel when he wants it.

Sunaina’s parents are at Bhagwan’s mercy, and unable and even unwilling to protest their continued mistreatment. Sunaina’s defiance is manifested in her carefree love for Sharavan, who despite his wayward ways is committed to her, and is willing to brawl his way through till he succeeds in getting married to her.

Sharavan’s extreme poverty and low social status prevent him from effectively challenging his coach, and being a realist, he makes reconciliatory gestures to assuage the coach’s ego, but the coach is in no mood to compromise. 

In a scene that is stunning in its depiction of the utterly casual callousness with which the upper caste treat the lower caste in India, the coach pisses in a bottle and asks Shravan to gulp it down if he is keen to develop his boxing career.

In another scene, another ‘lower caste’ supervisor takes immense pleasure in making a relatively ‘higher caste’ Sharavan work as a janitor and a peon in his office and records on his cell phone the menial jobs that he orders Sharavan to perform. 

The film also depicts the laggardly, lethargic and indifferent sports administration of the country of a billion plus people, that routinely produces ‘also-rans’ in international sports competitions.

However, the real deal in the movie is the filmmaker’s slap across the face to the proponents of patriotic nationalism, the cultural revivalists, the revisionists who are at present ruling India with unbridled power, and without regard to any democratic or civilizational norms or niceties.  

The film begins with a mob of gau-rakshaks (men protecting cows from turning into beef) almost lynching Muslims who are herding cattle. The mob records this act of violence on their cell phone and the video goes viral instantly. Later in the movie, when Sharavan gets an opportunity to get even with the coach, he punches the daylights out of him while muttering repeatedly 'Bharat Mata ki Jai!'  

The guileless love between Shravan and Sunaina slows down the film a bit, but its depiction is not romanticised. It’s love of a couple who is battling severe physical and circumstantial odds. The extreme violence (which is a constant ingredient in most of Anurag Kashyap oeuvre) is often too stark and makes one uncomfortable because of its brutality. The boxing bouts are as real as they can get. 

The performances of all actors are excellent. Jimmy Shergill as Bhagwan hams a bit. Ravi Kishan, one wishes, had a meatier role but excels in the bit part that he has in the film. The film, of course, belongs to Vineet Kumar Singh, who enacts the role of Sharavan, with panache and chutzpah that is at once fresh and breathtaking. 

In general, Anurag Kashyap’s cinema portrays India that Indians often don’t want to see. In his cinema, one can smell India in all its gory. Mukkabaaz portrays This is the reality of India that Indians want to forget and not change. It's a reality that foreigners are only now beginning to realise and question. 

One has come to expect cinematic miracles from Anurag Kashyap, and in Mukkabaaz, he nearly performs one.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Omerta - in the skin of a terrorist

Rajkummar Rao is Omar Saeed Sheikh
To journalists familiar with South Asia, Omar Saeed Sheikh is a known name. The British terrorist who killed Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist in 2002, has been extensively covered in the media. 

He also nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan by making a hoax call pretending to be India’s then Foreign Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari threatening stern action in response to Pakistani-inspired terrorist attack on Bombay in November 2008, when terrorists held India's commercial capital to ransom and killed hundreds of people.

Omar’s career in terrorism began in the early 1990s when he abandoned his privileged upbringing in Britain and quit his studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). He volunteered to seek justice for the Bosnian Muslims being massacred in the rapidly disintegrating former Yugoslavia.   

A local Muslim priest in England assisted Omar in convincing his father that Omar’s quest is genuine, and then helped him reach Pakistan where he joined a training camp and met  young men from different parts of the Muslim world who had all gathered together to be trained to wage a war against perceived and real injustices being perpetrated against Muslims.

In Hansal Mehta’s Omerta (which means the Mafia’s code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) Rajkummar Rao portrays Omar with ice in his veins, and with a chilling realism that is unnerving, and at times even difficult to watch without feeling queasy. 

Rao, indisputably one of the finest actors to emerge from India in recent years, lives the role of the British terrorist and immerses himself in the character. He follows the minutest nuance and smallest quirk of the character with complete involvement and utter conviction. 

During his training in the AfPak border, Omar is made to realise that Kashmir needs as much attention as any other region where Muslims are being persecuted. He decides to focus on Kashmir's liberation by fighting the Indian state. He is arrested in the kidnapping of foreign tourists and spends five years in an Indian prison. He is released in exchange for Indian Airlines passengers who were hijacked by Taliban-backed terrorists in 1999.

Back in Afghanistan, Omar begins work with the Pakistani intelligence the ISI, and kidnaps Daniel Pearl, eventually butchering him. His subsequent arrest is seemingly orchestrated by the Pakistani establishment and his death sentence is never carried out and remains under suspension until his appeal is heard. According to some authoritative sources, the British intelligence is also interested in protecting Omar.

There is a passionate commitment in Rao's eyes and his voice especially in scenes which depict the courage of his conviction as when he harangues a cellmate for not observing the ritual fast during Ramzan or arguing with his father on the logic of being a Muslim necessarily implies fighting injustice against Muslims. The scene where Omar is having sex in a hotel room with a Caucasian hooker is one of raw passion mixed with red hatred.

Mehta deftly conveys the transformation of a young Muslim man in Britain into a committed militant in a few scenes that show the horrendous mayhem in the former Yugoslavia, where the Serbs massacred the Muslims, as nearly all Europe passively watched, preferring silence to action until it was too late.

In another scene that stays long after the movie ends, Mehta brings alive the human rights violations in conflict zones such as Kashmir where the state’s power is misused to subdue people’s aspiration. 

In a poignant moment, a young Kashmiri jihadi is resting with Omar in the terrorist training camp. He shows Omar a photograph of himself as a child with his parents. When Omar asks him whether he misses his parents, the young jihadi pulls out another photograph, showing blood-soaked corpses of his parents killed by the Indian armed forces. What the media reports turn into faceless and abstract tragedy, suddenly becomes all too human and real.

It is rare for a film to be made entirely from the perspective of the terrorists, without being morally judgemental. Mehta is tremendously successful in bringing to screen the smouldering subterranean anger in Omar which motivates him to dedicate his life to the cause. And Rao brings to life a terrorist’s menacing efficiency with which he puts everything at stake in an all-out attempt to win at all costs. For Omar and his ilk, no sacrifice is small and none is too big in their pursuit of their cause.

The deep-seated and ingrained anti-India anger that Omar harbours is on evidence repeatedly throughout the film and bubbles over periodically such as when he sees the Indian currency and angrily mutters, “Bloody Gandhi”, or when he urinates leisurely inside his cell, exposing his buttocks, while the Indian national anthem is playing in the Ghaziabad prison. 

Omerta is convincing because it depicts the most horrendous acts of violence with coldblooded equanimity and without fuss, creating an overall effect that is at once riveting and repulsive.  

At present, Omar apparently languishes in a Pakistani prison, and in recent days, news reports have also been published indicating that he attempted to commit suicide (in 2017) because of a fragile mental health condition.

Omerta’s world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2017. I saw the film on September 16, 2017.