If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 26 October 2012


King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the head of the Anglican Church were good friends once. Becket, who was a trusted aide of the King in his conflicts with the Church, became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 possibly with the King’s help. Henry might have hoped that Becket would continue to put the royal government’s interests first, rather than that of the church. But over time, Becket transformed into an ascetic and changed side. He was killed by Henry’s followers in 1170.

This true story inspired a Broadway play written by Jean Anouilh: Becket or the Honor of God, and later, a movie, Becket in 1964. In the movie, Peter O’Toole played Henry II and Richard Burton, the Arch Bishop.  In Namak Haram (1973), the protagonists were Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Industrialist Amitabh Bachchan sent his friend Rajesh Khanna as a mole into the trade union of the workers of his company. But instead, he turned into a genuine trade-unionist and the friends fell out. Both the films were hugely successful commercially. This time-tested formula has been used yet again by Prakash Jha in Chakravyuh to tell the tale of the Maoist movement that is raging in India today.

Arjun Rampal is the Superintendent of Police of Nandighat, where impoverished people shunned by a Shining India barely manage to live. Buried beneath their feet is an enormous wealth of minerals that attracts mining companies, leading to their ouster from the land they have lived on for centuries. Kabir Bedi is the head of the Mahanta group, a thinly veiled allusion to Vedanta, the company that has wreaked havoc in the forests of Odisha. Mahanta is trying to evict people from 256 villages to expand his project. And to do that, he thinks it is legitimate to employ paid hoods. The state government is in cahoots with him, but the government’s writ doesn’t go beyond the towns. Maoists are in control of the countryside.  The SP reluctantly sends his friend Abhay Deol into the ranks of the Maoists to sabotage their movement.

On the other side, Manoj Bajpai is the ruthless Maoist boss who terrorises the very people he is trying to liberate. One of Bajpai’s lieutenants is a woman from Jharkhand who falls for Abhay Deol head over heels. And Abhay starts looking at things from a new perspective. 

The film has all the ingredients of a mainstream Hindi film: sex, violence, and of course, song and dance, including an “item number” by Sameera Reddy backed by an ear-rupturing song by Sunidhi Chauhan. In contrast, the hero and heroine are strangely asexual, a throwback to the 1950s. And in the end, Abhay Deol and his love interest’s personal tragedy supersedes the tragedy of millions of people.

Despite the obvious fault-lines, this is a remarkable film of the recent times because of two reasons.

Firstly, the scale of the production is gigantic. The vast hills and forests of Central India and the millions that live under the constant fear of contractors, forest officials, and policemen have been represented with an authenticity that we hardly expect in Hindi pictures. And obviously a film maker needs courage to show bulldozers razing tribal houses or to name Tata-Birla-Ambanis in a song on “mehangai”.

Secondly, and more importantly, the story tells us how it all began, the ruthless exploitation of the tribal population, which has only worsened since independence. It tells us the story of the mining barons for whom dislodging people from their homes and livelihood is as incidental as felling trees. It also tells us the story of Maoists who put a small price tag on human lives. And this has been narrated from a remarkably neutral viewpoint.

I saw the picture at a multiplex a day after its release, with 28 out of the 30 rows vacant. Two men sitting next to me left at half-time to underline the fact that for the well-heeled urban middleclass, the emaciated people of Dantewada, Keonjhar, or Lalgarh are as distant as inhabitants of a different planet. The point is: is there any point of making films like these? I think there is.

Kolkata / Friday, 26 October 2012

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Women: yesterday and today

Recently, I was at a university, running a workshop. On the first day, as students were introducing themselves, a petite girl rounded off her self-introduction with the remark, ‘And I have a boyfriend.’ She was no exception. Several other girls took pride in stating that they too had one. A girl even rued the fact that she didn’t have any, yet. As I listened to them, my mind drifted back in time. My wife too had a boyfriend when she was at college in the early 1970s, but it would have been unthinkable for her to declare the fact in a mixed-gender class, that too when a teacher was around. In the last forty years, lots of things have changed for the better around us, but the most visible among them is the confidence that young women of India display today.

If you go to an engineering or management school, you will often find more girls than boys. Even in subjects that were once male preserves, like geology or civil engineering, you find lots of girls. And usually, the class topper is a girl. Many of them are actually masters of their own destiny. And their confidence is reflected in the way they dress and behave. Girls in spaghetti-strap tops and tight jeans confidently present their bodies to the world. Young women today hug their men in public as they ride pillion on motorbikes. And that is not the only change.

A few months ago some students of the Presidency University of Kolkata were interacting with the state chief minister in a televised programme. When a girl, Taniya Bhardwaj asked the CM an uncomfortable question, the latter shouted at her, called her a “Maoist”, and stomped out.

As I watched the absurd drama on TV, I was amazed by Taniya’s composure. Although she was taken aback initially, she was not seriously awed by the situation. She held her ground. On top of it, she followed it up with an open letter to the CM, saying:  “One of the most important features of a true democracy, which I have learnt as a student of political science, is freedom of expression.”

It would be insane to expect the Bengal CM taking lessons in democracy from a young girl. But ironically, the chief minister of West Bengal was the only girl who made a mark as a student leader in the hoodlum years of the 1970s. A grandmother of mine, then the principal of a girls’ college in Kolkata, once told me, ‘A girl named Mamata is making my life miserable.’ While Mamata’s male comrades in Youth Congress were notorious for their vulgarity and violence, her principal claim to fame was that she had danced on the bonnet of Jayaprakash Narayan’s car, something that she denies now.

However much I might detest our CM’s brand of politics, I have respected her – I still do – because she has overcome the twin disadvantages of her gender and subaltern background to reach where she has reached today. Mamata Banerjee and Taniya Bhardwaj are two strands of the same evolutionary process, one representing our pathological past and the other, a possibly different, desirable future.

I began this article with a conscious phrase, “young women of India”. Actually, we live in two countries simultaneously. Let’s also spare a thought for the young women of Bharat, who live under the watchful eyes of “khap panchayats” which rule that girls should be “married off” (what a sexist expression!) before they are sixteen so that they are not raped. Things haven’t changed much for them over centuries. Let me correct myself: we not only live simultaneously in two countries, but also in modern times and in the Middle Ages.