Manikarnika & the Silence Around It

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‘Main Rahun Ya Na Rahun, Bharat Ye Rehna Chahiye‘ becomes the defining song of the film Manikarnika. That should be reason enough for Tukde Tukde Liberals to avoid the film – they turn up their noses at the word Bharat. And rightly enough, Manikarnika’s release has been met with radio silence too. It’s not the usual script – normally one would expect someone like a Karan Johar at least to use the opportunity to grab a few headlines but not this time. Not at the time of Kangana’s directorial debut. This is a woman who has made it purely on her acting chops (ya… ya… everybody has a past) and a knack for ticking off some of the biggest names and decision-makers in the insufferably nepotistic confines of the Hindi film industry. Her weapon? Her personality and her truth. Also, her inability to stay quiet and do as told. She’s the veritable Manikarnika of the Hindi film industry. Perhaps this is why (and how) she took up the task of portraying The Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibai. Problem is, no liberal media has even started writing things like ’10 things you didn’t know about Rani Laxmibai’, ‘Manikarnika sets off a trend of biopics on women freedom fighters’… that is all now left to us guys, people like me who are branded as right-wingers in a total copy-cat move that’s as irrelevant as it is inaccurate, as far as ideological imports from the US go. Kangana is called crazy by people who know people who know her. They usually hint at her weird affair and legal fight against Hrithik Roshan… but Kangana has already made it pretty clear in one of her interviews that ‘normal’ she ain’t and can’t even hope to be – given all the challenges she had to overcome and the industry she belongs (sic) to. She’s upfront about it. It’s people like Karan Johar, Saif Ali Khan et al who have to jump through hoops to admit it’s daytime when it’s day. But the interesting thing is, Kangana reigns over hearts. She continues to make films, and notable ones at that. She is now a film director and she has done a good job with her debut. I’ll talk about Manikarnika the film, the way I saw it. The first 20 minutes are a strange drag. The research value is probably there but a Manikarnika in a velvet blouse stringing a bow to kill a wild cat is something too… well, far-fetched for me. CGI wild cat sucks. And Manikarnika seems to understand that. Kangana’s would-be husband, Maharaja Gangadhar Rao (played by Jishu Sengupta) who is an arts & culture exponent, opens with a dance sequence on a set that looks like borrowed from some mythological TV serial of today too is a bit of… a letdown. Having said that, the actors are fantastic, led by Kangana. Especially, Gangadhar Rao. If the screenplay wasn’t so good, I doubt I’d find it so easy to excuse below-par lighting & strange costumes. The film portrays Rani Laxmibai’s strengths really well – sword work is nifty. Action scenes left a lot on the table though. And then suddenly, around the interval, the whole look, treatment, performances, everything just changes for the better. I have a feeling that there’s a point where Kangana (& her team) took over. There’s a change (for the better) in camera angles, direction, even costumes & jewellery, everything looking a lot more authentic than before. And that changes carry the second half of the film well past the victory line. To note, the credits show a never-ending line-up of post-production agencies, reflecting the scale of challenges Kangana must have had to surmount in getting this film finished and released. It also indicates that the film probably struggled to get out, for reasons not known to us. Be that as it may, Kudos, Kangana! If you ever end up reading this, know that we do understand why industry acknowledgment won’t be coming for your film that has just crossed 50Cr collections in five days. Because, acknowledging your film would be to appreciate your success, that of the character you portrayed – Rani Laxmibai, and that of a nation that’s trying so hard to stay in one piece despite your fellow Bollywoodiyas’ tukde tukde disposition. They know that talking about you & your film would only drive more crowds to watch your film and they don’t want to risk it. Not in the current political climate. In this country, you smash Brahminical patriarchy by defending those who attack its inherently, organically secular nature toward monotheistic cults. Best moment of the film for me:  When Manikarnika’s father tells her she is to become the Queen of Jhansi, she says, “I may have been raised a Kshatriya, I don’t know how to be a Queen”. To which, her father replies: You love your Bharat. You’ll find a way. So here are a few historical facts about Rani Laxmibai that were quite faithfully portrayed in the film:  Her name was Manikarnika Tambe – Her father, Moropant Tambe and Mother, Bhagirathi Bai. Her father worked for the Peshwa of Bithoor. She learnt shooting, horsemanship, fencing, and Mallakhambe as a child. She was 14 when she got married to Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, who was some 25 years older. After becoming the Rani of Jhansi, she had formed and trained her own army of women, from her friends at the court. She lost her husband when she was 18. The Maharaja had, at the adoption ceremony of their son, which was also attended by a British officer, in his letter said that ‘his widow Laxmibai be given the government of Jhansi for lifetime’. She had strategised & led the occupation of Gwalior fort while the Scindias escaped to Agra. She died 29 years old. In the battlefield, fighting the British. This was after she had made them taste defeat twice earlier. British officer Hugh Rose said about the Rani that she was: personable, clever, and beautiful. And that she was ‘the most dangerous of all Indian leaders’. Rani Laxmibai was NOT the first such woman in the history of the great land of Bharat. The great queen Abbakka Chowta of Ullal was. She came to be known as Abhaya Rani as she successfully defended Ullal from the Portuguese for 40 years. This was some 300 years before Rani Laxmibai came to be. Now that’s a film waiting to be made, a story that’s waiting to be told to a generation that can’t see ‘why we don’t bin our space programme so that more kids can go to school’.

Have you ever eaten off plates made of pure lead?

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Oh-kay, I spent yesterday at one of the fanciest 5-star hotels in Mumbai – Taj Lands End. Attending the Content Marketing Summit & Awards, hosted by the World Marketing Congress, a super busy event that’s a great place to meet with the top professionals in marketing. Last week, I was at the Digital Leadership Summit organised by Social Beat. At the St.Regis, Mumbai, super swank. Loves these places. Last month it was TechSparks 2018 at the Taj Yeshwantpur in Bengaluru. And this is not me showing off. I’m actually talking about something completely different here. You’ll see why I am mentioning all these grand old daddies of luxury living. Not name-dropping. Because, these luxury hospitality brands clearly fail – astoundingly – at both luxury & hospitality in one very important regard that interferes with one of the loves of my life: Food. In fact, the experience I went through yesterday makes me want to reinvent the term ‘arm exercises’. It’s a one between me and my friend I shall refer to here as Mundu Cracko. Arm exercises refer to the ultra-best form of workout one gets from lifting beer mugs filled to the brim (heavier the better) right up from the table level to one’s lip and holding it there while consuming the much-needed refreshment, while making sure to give it as many reps as one can humanly make in the course of one session. Unlike all other kinds, this workout mixes dopamine with spirit, thereby creating a whole new level of motivation. It’s muscle isolation, it’s endurance, it’s mood uplifting, it’s socially engaging because you’d probably do this with your buddies, and the healthy competition to keep going adds to the magic. It’s a sorry state of affairs then that this beautiful connotation must be vacated for a more staid & serious, a more literal one that has neither its original flair nor the spirit. In fact, it falls flat like non-aerated beer. Did I hear your enthusiasm just fizzle out? Well, I’m a teetotaler and yet I know we can empathise with the lack of carbonation, which we know contributes wholly to the beer’s mouthfeel and its refreshing-ness. You can imagine my feelings when I see that my but one indulgence – food – is now condemned to become an arm exercise in the least pleasurable way possible! I’m talking about how these hi-fi places I’ve named above in a list that is by absolutely no means exhaustive, make it difficult for a nourishment-seeker to seek precisely what they need: nourishment. And, it’s not a gender equal world out there either. I’ll explain: I’m actually talking about how heavy the plates are that they use in these event buffets dinners and lunches. By the time I’ve scooped in some salad and collected some chapaati and moved on to daal, and subzi… I’m already a spent force. I’m handling a towel that was once a comforter somewhere, a spoon that is a miniature version of a mason’s or a gardener’s spade, and a fork that is only slightly lighter than a garden rake. Thank God for small mercies. Because, by the time I begin eating, it has turned into an exercise in negative calories – I’m spending way more calories than I am consuming while holding myself erect, walking around carrying the huge ceramic receptacle in which my nourishing morsels lay, embraced by the mason’s weapons. The food itself becomes bland, unimportant, secondary, not germane to the issue. It’s only the challenge that counts. Can I continue to ingest, and chew, and swallow when I am busy demonstrating the term ‘Herculean effort’? And for how long? In fact, it becomes a conversation starter with quite a few participants: “Here we are again… huh, huh :-)… yes, this is heavy… dunno what’ll happen if I add that shallot – will I buckle under? Haha” I even joked with a fellow male participant that the practice of feeding people at such galas seemed rather skewed towards favouring men, who have a denser muscle tone than us ladies. Turns out he wasn’t too thrilled about it himself – saying he’d probably last 1 chapaati more or two but in the end, had to give up his right to nourishment. So well, I really wonder if you’ve wondered this too: Why do swanky places host stand-up buffets and then give us these plates made of pure lead to eat in?  Any hospitality folks out here who can help me out? What do you guys really want us to do? Not eat? Anyway, I doubt if you’re gonna get me to do a few more push-ups every day, stretch the zer0 workout I’m on. I’m pretty sure I actually lost 400gms of weight yesterday even though I ladled my way through some pretty hefty paalak corn and paneer-something & something-veg-biryani. Compliments to the chef. None to the hotel industry.

The Computer was a Bullet Train Once

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In India, the last time an international deal drew more attention than any other diplomatic aspect of the visit of an international Head of State was in 2006. US Prez George W Bush signed the Indo-US nuclear deal with Dr. Manmohan Singh being our PM. This time around, Japan’s Shinzo Abe’s visit has been somewhat overshadowed by the Rs.1lakh crore project which is the Bullet train. It will run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, cutting the travel time from 8 hours to 2 hours. And, it has already run into opposition. Judas Priest Bullet Train, that Grammy nominated heavy metal number comes to mind: Sunrise showing every flaw Paying for the night before Dark eyes, scanning every vein Exploding – cannot stand the strain With each new mile They death defy me Standing on trial Scrutinize me And questionize my Strong denial Bullet bullet train Piercing through my brain The Indian Bullet Train project has a strange bevy of people voicing their opposition: the educated lot, at times the highly educated lot that traditionally always seemed to want more education, more modernity, more technology. Less chaos, less noise, less tradition, less superstition… less of India, to be quite clear. So today if you’re asking what’s new in India? It’s this:  The same lot that applauds, as it is supposed to, India’s might in the field of space engineering, launching of satellites, Mangalyaan, etc. are now asking if a country where a large population goes hungry to bed every night needs a bullet train. Changing my course Blurred and scorched Breathing exhaust As we distort By gravity Of such G-force Bullet bullet train Piercing through my brain Breakdown close my eyes Today, the so-called scientific, educated, progressive lot have taken over the jobs of the conservative, orthodox lot who they themselves used to frown upon for exactly this: In a country where people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, the sick don’t have hospitals, do we need a space program? The question remains the same, the people that are asking it have changed. I have heard of a time when people asked why we needed computers in a country where people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, and the sick don’t have hospitals. Decades later now, political leaders are crediting their party with bringing in computer technology. Computers came. What has stayed? People who are hungry, children who don’t have schools, the sick who don’t have hospitals.  In fact, Uttar Pradesh children have been gifted laptops for free, in a state where 4-hour power cuts per day every day are absolutely routine (this observation predates Yogi government but I think it unlikely for the scene to have changed tremendously). Voices talking many lies Stained glass bursting in Shattering my world again Free fall but never can Ever reach the ground again Dark eyes scanning in Feel my mind explode within Before this, there was a time when people asked why we needed foreign car manufacturing technology, steel manufacturing technology, and so on. Perhaps, these people are the reason why India depends on others for every flipping thing under the sun: technology for agricultural growth, food storage, defense, computers, education, health, and much more. Because every time that somebody tried to do something in these areas that required any major investment, they brought forth the present: mouths to feed, bodies to clothe and house, sick to care for. Not realising that transforming technology was the one way to actually doing something about it. Once upon a time, this attitude was seen in other parts of the world. Those people were branded Luddites (In England, where the Luddites originally came into being in the 1800s, they destroyed machinery, particularly cotton and woollen mills, that they saw as threatening their jobs). That happened in 1800s. But these Luddites of the ‘New India’ are not those Luddites. These Luddites would love going to Japan and rave about its tech infrastructure. They would love to say ‘This kind of progress can NEVER happen in India’. Thing is, when someone tries to bring this technology into India, they’re the ones trying to make their own pronouncements come true. These are the people who think that Indian traditional thought is somehow “not worth it”, not worthy of all these technologies: digital, artificial intelligence, automation, 3D printing, the bullet train. Also, when they rave about Japanese technology and infrastructure, they forget Japan’s demographic issues and social issues, and uncomfortable history: the society is deeply mired in patriarchy, an ageing population, historic burden of war and guilt of comfort women. There is always a context to any story. It’s not always as linear as the geniuses around us would like to be. Wanting much more I implore you Near to death’s door To ignore The screams of all Who fall before Bullet bullet train Piercing through my brain But, the geniuses have pronounced their judgement and that’s it. The nuclear energy deal wasn’t much of a problem; in fact, the same Luddites went gaga over it, calling it a product of a strategic relationship with a superpower that India needed on her side. One is prompted to ask, therefore, is this really about the project or the man who is rolling it out? Sadly, those taking the credit for bringing into the country the two main technologies that have transformed our lives: telephone and computers, also the space research, have decided to draw the line – THIS FAR AND NO FURTHER. The Bullet Train is taking it too far. Internet: yes Technology: yes Space research: yes Bullet Train: NO. Because people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, the sick don’t have hospitals, the society doesn’t have tolerance. Bullet bullet train Piercing through my brain In effect, THEY want to be the ones to decide how much technology is enough. How much public good is good enough. The only thing that they fail to answer is how is it then, that people don’t have food, children don’t have schools, the sick don’t have hospitals? Even after 70 years? Have you seen a more inefficient lot?  Why should the people listen to such an incompetent, inefficient bunch? You could either use the Bullet bullet train… to understand or we can all quietly chug along the merry old ‘chhuk chhuk chhuk’ and enjoy the ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ of these Luddites of the New India. Unless they take matters in their hands and decide to feed, clothe, protect, educate, and employ the poor, build hospitals and schools that we need. Now that’s a fine thought! 

Uber, a symbol of class conversion

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The other day I was with a friend and we found ourselves talking about how much our lives have changed since Uber / Ola hit the roads in our city. Very much, we realised. But not just for us, also for the drivers. First stop, Convenience. Had to be, of course. For many, it’s not just about hailing a four-wheeler when and where… it’s also about beating the frustration and fatigue of massive, ceaseless traffic full of knuckleheads who couldn’t be bothered about traffic rules. In India, that’s putting it mildly. Given that daily commute on busy roads is one of the major contributors to work stress, many like me take succour in just hailing a cab. Surge or no surge. Next comes Cost. And not for everyone. What delights the Indian commuter is that in many cases, a ride in an Ola Mini/Micro or Uber Go costs much the same as that in an autorickshaw. They maybe commonly referred to as autos but autorickshaws derive their name from the word jinricksha – of Japanese/Chinese origin, meaning handcarts. Versus that, advantage cab: track the ride; AC; closed and therefore, safer; luxurious; custom payment mode; ability to use maps… Cool, right? Third and final, Communication. The real topic of our conversation here. In the pre-Uber/Ola era, communication with the auto driver meant basically asking him whether he ‘wants to go’ where you wanted to. A whole lot of times, you ask him, ‘Bhaiya Ghatkopar?’ only to see him shaking his bob while steering his three-wheeler away from you. Little regard for the job he was doing and even less his courtesy for you. The next step was may be arguing over which route to take. Then may be admonishing him over his need for speed. Then may be haggling about not having change, or the right fare, or where exactly he agreed to drop you off versus where you wanted him to. A generous exchange of swear words is never ruled out as an option if it turns out you are both having a bad day. It was not pretty and it still isn’t. My last week’s trip to Thane is a recent reminder. Had to “ask out” literally 15 autos before one agreed to drive me to a particular ‘naka‘ just because “time ho gaya madam, abhi badli karne ka hai” (change of shift between drivers). This ALLLLLL has changed in the Uber / Ola era. Here, we have real conversations. Because there is greater respect. Both ways, I see. These are your private drivers on a short hire. They are courteous, most of the times (is it because their work is incentivised based on the stars you give in your feedback ? Or is it because they are actually happier doing this job? And, are they happier because they HAVE incentives?); they are not temperamental as they would have been otherwise (is it the stars again?). There. I said it. So when my friend and I got to this part, we couldn’t but help look at each other. It struck us both exactly what it was we were really talking about. You see, a large number of the drivers working for Uber/Ola are those who have been working for someone or the other before as well. Why is it only now that conversations are in the spotlight for the simple reason that they exist? Well, because something has enabled their existence. And that’s the beauty of technology. The app-based system has made both parties come together on the same platform to do something together. Our respect for each other has grown considerably. Our perception of the other too has changed. Especially on the customer’s side. We no longer take these men and women (in some cities) as ‘just a driver’ like we used to before. I’ve actually been driven by an engineer who owns 2 cars he manages with Uber, employs 2 drivers for doing so, and has earlier worked where I have too. Someone once told me that a good engineer will manage to find ways to maximise the outcome with the least of resources, whichever be the field he is in. This guy has done so. He has maximised his earning potential with very little investment and inconvenience to himself. When my parents came visiting, we were driven by an old-ish man who was clearly at peace with life; cracking jokes, stopping for pedestrians, and yet, overtaking at unlikeliest of places and having a good time, clearly. The only difference is, some of them request you to give them the ‘stars’ and some don’t. SO, when some people talk about how an ‘engineer’ or ‘entrepreneur’ would put up with being a ‘mere cab driver’, I am amused. They speak as if they are themselves doing their dream job, living their dream lives, and following their dream career. How many of us really do, anyway! And wouldn’t most of us would stop working the day our work didn’t earn us that pay check, however passionate we claim to be about our work? What Uber is doing is dissolving boundary lines of class. This is what education was supposed to do but it achieved quite the opposite. The scene is changing now that we have ‘educated’ drivers. I’m sure the day is not far when we have ‘educated’ domestic helps and electricians and janitors and plumbers… evidently, they take less advantage of the system and are less likely to abuse the power they have than the ‘educated’ or the ‘highly educated’ lot such as our babus and MBAs and CEOs and whatnot. At this point, would it be too far a stretch to refer to The Bhagavad Gita and what happened between Arjun and Krishna during the all-important battle of Kurukshetra? Krishna, the lord incarnate, drove Arjun’s, a mere mortal’s chariot. Not only that, he also drove Arjuna’s side to victory. All am saying is, perhaps it’s time to look at and perceive life out of the boxes we have constructed for ourselves and lived in for too long. Besides, if money is what you are looking at, you could read this perhaps: TOI article on how senior execs take to driving and one of my favourite blogs on finance (financialsamurai.com) explaining what’s an aerospace engineer doing driving for Uber. Anyway, keep calm and hail a cab tomorrow.