Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Film Review: Ana Maria In Novela Land – a fantasy in more ways than one!

- By Uday Oak

Fantasy has been quite a popular genre in art, especially performing art. The children’s theater, and quite a bit of adult (not ‘adult’ adult; here ‘adult’ is an antonym of ‘children’s’) theater is full of it. The folk arts thrive on it.
And the art of the last century, cinema, has of course given it almost unlimited freedom – freedom in terms of audio, visual and time.
Most of the fantasies go in the sci-fi direction, or the king-queen-witch-demon way. Very few are ‘contemporary’, with a (near) believable storyline, enough layers in the script and sober visual presentation. In absence of all these, the fantasy films mostly focus on some character that is invisible, or someone who garners some equally such impossible power, and the resultant antics. Coolie to CEO or Maid to Millionaire. Yes, it is humor, although of juvenile/infantile nature.
There are very few films that one comes across, which do NOT fall in this trap.
Ana Maria In Novela Land is certainly one such. The storyline is simple, interesting and layered. The casting is as perfect as it could get. And visually, it’s a treat.
Tele-Novelas (Spanish tele-serials) have everything that any popular Hindi/Marathi tele-serials have – implausible situations, characters with infinite libido and zero regard for familial morals/ethics, zero reference to the outside ‘real’ world…
Ana Maria is a twenty-something young girl, staying with her parents, and like the hippies of the sixties, busy in ‘trying to find herself’. Getting and losing jobs is quite a natural phenomenon according to her. She is more keen on posting her learned comments about a Novela “Pasión Sin Limites” (Passion Without Limits), because she has a lot of ‘followers’ on the net. Her parents are worried about her, but they also enthusiastically watch that Novela.
And at a moment when the ‘tension’ is quite palpable in the Novela as well as in the household, Ann Maria is transported to replace Ariana, the leading lady of the Novela. Ariana replaces Ana in the family.
And the fun begins. Revealing any more of the story would be idiotic and sadistic. Let me just give you a pointer – the last half an hour is so full of twists and turns, that in comparison, the roads in Konkan would be ‘straight, frictionless surface’ so often referred to in Newtonian physics.
What sets this movie apart from countless other ‘fantasies’?
Firstly and most importantly, the script is not written pegging the audience with IQ lower than room temperature in Alaska. That script is ‘written’ and is not ‘assembled’ is itself an achievement these days. And this script is not just written, it is well-written. The story progresses through revealing layers and layers of perceptions and events. It is not “A hits B, so B retaliates by hitting A’s daughter C” kind of dumbed down version of a story. What would be the ‘differences’ perceived by characters in a Novela when in ‘real’ world and vice-versa is suggested beautifully, not given in ‘step-by-step do-it-yourself-guide’ manner.
Sample this – X, a character from Novela comes out in the real world, finds that she has a sister who is getting married. Her dialogue to sis – “I will be a good sister, and won’t sleep with your husband, though that is what normally all sisters do”. Or when X is diagnosed with amnesia, she says innocently “that is quite prevalent from where I come”. Or Y, a character from outside ‘real’ world goes in a Novela, is talking to a character from there, suddenly looks up and shouts “stop that, I can’t think while you are playing that”. And we realize that the background music is the usual mindless idiotic abortion of a background score, perennially used in serials.
The camera is unobtrusive, yet communicates almost effortlessly. No fancy angles, super-zoom lenses, weird lighting… The temptation to employ these technics must have been enormous – after all, half the story deals with a ‘Novela’, where such technics are the foundation stones and the whole building.
The actors really shine. Edy Ganem as the leading lady is fantastic. She was active mostly in television, barring a few minor/uncredited roles in films. Her ‘fresh’ness is absolutely delicious. The way she portrays two different characters is almost unbelievable. It would have been tempting to say “she carries the whole film on her shoulders”, but the other actors are equally good.
Nestor Serrano, who plays Ana’s father has delivered a gem of a performance. His acting can be used as a demonstration of how an actor should be.
Michael Steger is another find from the TV world. He portrays Tony with more élan than Armando, but that is because Armando, being a Novela character, is a flat, mono-dimensional one.
And Luis Guzman, who so far portrayed small-time lackeys, really shines here. His acting shows the shades of differences between characters in Novelas and in ‘real’ life.

Do you remember ‘Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour’? Chris Tucker’s Asian looking lady detective ‘girlfriend’ Tania Johnson? Here Elizabeth Pena has given a marvelous performance as Ana’s mother, matching Nestor Serrano in sensible (and believable) portrayal of a character from ‘real’ world. Sadly, Elizabeth died soon after this film was completed.
A couple of decades ago, ‘Pleasantville’ opened a window to the idea of real and ‘virtual’ characters mingling and the subsequent dizzying potpourri. ‘Ana Maria In Novela Land’ has taken it further, several levels up.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Making sense of Nitish’s obsession with prohibition

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Cashew apples being squashed in Chorao, Goa
It is indeed a sign of the times that these days a leader of Nitish Kumar’s maturity and political skill is spending most of his valuable time lecturing the people of Bihar on the ill effects of alcohol and sending thousands of citizens to the jail for having a drink. He recently declared that ‘those who cannot live without liquor may leave the state’, a horrendous statement from a leader who professes commitment to democratic values. There is not much difference between those who talk of ban on certain food items or clothing threatening to ‘send someone to Pakistan’ since the whole issue here is the freedom of the palate and the body in general. Even within the framework of democracy what we now increasingly have is the eroded vestiges with stalwarts of democracy like Nitish defecting to the authoritarian side. All this seems ominous when the leader spends a great deal of his valuable political and administrative time over the regimentation of alcohol as the prime target of the state rather than the growth and development and security related issues plaguing Bihar. Indeed, Nitish sounds a bit touched in the head these days when with utter lack of self-consciousness, he advocates prohibition for the entire country as a matter of utter priority. As if booze was the main enemy of the Indian democracy and civilization. Nitish may even decide one day to eliminate the embarrassing word ‘Somras’, definitely an intoxicant from the Vedas themselves or even try to prove that Soma was in fact just a sort of milkshake or even just the syrup soaking the Vedic Rasgullas!  There are so many theories on what Soma really was anyway!

With our best leaders getting increasingly incoherent and muddled in their talk, Indian democracy faces days of extreme peril at least in the short run.  The daily dosage from Nitish on prohibition however provides a valuable chance to discuss two profound issues – first the fate of a leader like Nitish who despite his years in power and despite the great acceptance among the Bihari voter has not been able to build a cadre for the party, a party loyal to its chosen principles, a set of leaders at work with a robust sense of team spirit, or even a mass base like Laloo Yadav’s that would guarantee him a significantly minimum number of assembly and parliamentary seats at the worst of times. The reason may be Nitish’s bureaucratic attitude towards development that makes him look more like a deft manager than a man of the people constantly in conversation with the colleagues and the common folk. This alone makes him basically a politician unable to handle with full responsibility the mandate given to him by the Bihar voter. Nitish is currently under siege from Laloo who in turn is quite helpless in the face of pressures from the criminally inclined politicians of Bihar. Given Nitish’s heavy dependence on Laloo’s support to continue in power, the only card in Nitish’s hand is a threat, subtle or overt to join hands with the BJP in Bihar. This is a weapon with limited use. The fate of Bihar currently dangles by this slender thread.  

The second profound issue raised by the prohibition talk is a long term one and concerns the liquor policy followed by the central and the state governments right since the colonial times. The fact is that over the decades and centuries, the governments in India have managed to wipe out nearly all the local brewing traditions – the only significant remnant may indeed be the Cashew Pheni of Goa. Mahua, arrack, various palms, rice, and other natural products that had created a whole variety of liquors have been abolished in the favour of what are now known as ‘country liquor’ as well as the less poisonous Indian Made Foreign Liquor [IMFL]’, which is just as barbaric and low in taste. The sole reason why this was done is to of course eradicate the local traditions, wipe out the livelihoods of communities that produced drinks that would be the dream of the connoisseurs and collect the hefty taxes from the consumer. If you want a good analogy, here is one - it is a bit like a ban on the local weaving and textile traditions just to extract taxes from a regime of synthetic salwar/kurta – shirt trousers uniform for the whole nation. To create a monopoly of a jeans market, all you have to do is ban the Sari. The ban has had a radical impact on the drinking culture in India as a whole – people now often drink in order to seek a shortcut to oblivion or even worse to get oneself ready for the use of violence, rather than for enjoyment and conviviality. Anyone who has witnessed a tribal festival with dance and drinks can easily see the value in enjoyment when it is shared and created in states of togetherness.  

Fermented cashew fruit juice being transferred into pots for distillation
But who is to reason with a man completely bewildered by his predicament and no more capable of leading except through tirades against imaginary enemies of the society? Nitish is not alone in this – our national leaders these days are busy inventing enemies within or outside the borders and if you do not want to be declared a traitor by them you must join them in their crusade against the windmills. If only Nitish would make a U-turn and go back to his earlier concerns – security, development and justice! As for alcohol, let him put in place a committee of competent researchers who document the traditional liquors of Bihar produced and valued by the Biharis. And then perhaps he should roll a few sips over his tongue long enough to determine their real quality as against the toxic brews circulating among our rich and the poor. Those who value their scotch and champagne or the great wines developed originally by the priests in Christian monasteries must now follow the ‘patriotic path’ in according due respect to the glorious liquors from our own soil and remedy the long-drawn neglect.

Any takers here?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro

Source - Wikipedia
Generally History does not get such a neat timing but in case of Castro it has happened. By Fidel going away from the world stage, an opening has been created for Donald Trump to continue the Obama policy of constructive engagement with Cuba.

It will be injustice to try to reduce such a consequential life to a simple blog post. One gets the sense of 'vast expanse of Castro's' life by reading this useful chronology of his life.

There are few obvious things which stand out from Castro's life:

- his life long struggle to throw hegemonic power, be it Cuba's dictatorship of Batista or America's hegemony over Western Hemisphere; and

- his commitment to the ideology which he pursued all through out his life.

That very commitment to the ideology no doubt brought hardship to Cubans over decades, made them to sacrifice their political freedom, torture and multitude of deaths in many cases, made them not to have property rights in any form and in general kept them impoverished despite general well being of average Cuban being improved during Castro regime.

It is true that, that very commitment to the ideology helped Castro's Cuba to have an outsize influence on the global stage. Involvement of Castro's Cuba was critical in the independence of Namibia and ending of Apartheid in South Africa - Castro punched way above his belt.

Could he have altered his ideology to bring freedom and prosperity to Cubans? Yes he could have and that has been a historically missed opportunity. But despite that Castro's life has been immensely influential to many in different parts of the world. For all his faults and shortcomings, in the end his life will continue to impart the core lesson of 'how humans in the end will not tolerate hegemony of anykind'

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanking Clintons - Grief, Hesitancy and Expectations

Source - Wikipedia
It took 12 years for John Kerry to remove the label of "ultimate Democratic loser". Hillary Clinton has claimed that spot and in a sense John Kerry's life is fully redeemed now. Not only John Kerry has a fairly consequential run at Foggy Bottoms than Hillary[1], his loss to George Bush in 2004 looks now lot more credible and to be proud off compared to Hillary's defeat in 2016.[2]

Source - Wikipedia
My fundamental assumption for 2016 election was that a Democratic nominee will essentially build upon Kerry States. This has been the conventional wisdom among punditry all along. Kerry lost Ohio narrowly, else his electoral vote count would have crossed 270. Democrats were disappointed in 2004 and felt Kerry should have closed the deal. But it was not easy to unseat a sitting president with "War on Terror" still selling briskly among Americans. In hindsight Kerry loss looks respectable.

For the entire month of August 2016, Hillary kept herself busy in one fundraiser after the other. In the end all those donations raised from gilded Liberal Citadels on Left and East Coast did not help; that was one mightily missed call on Hillary's part. Bernie voters complain rightfully - Hillary did not campaign enough in those Midwest States. When many of us got the whiff of the unfolding disaster, it was too late. But then what happened to Hillary's vaunted 'internal polling'? It is true that private polling firms were not polling enough in PA, WI & MI because all were thought to be part of the secured Blue Wall. Seems like Hillary's own internal pollsters did not notice weak spots in those states as well.

All year long the press has been eulogizing Hillary 'go to vote machinery'. Experts speculated that she at least had 1% to 2% point advantage in the end because of the well oiled 'go to vote infrastructure'. On Saturday November 5th, I did phone calling for the Hillary Campaign. We were given a reliable Democratic voter list from Michigan. But after 3 hours of calling what became clear to me was the remarkable lackluster reception for Hillary among the Democratic Base in that state. It worried me, but little did I get the sense it would unfold as the prime reason for Hillary's electoral defeat. Trump did not get any more votes than Romney in those states, it is just that Hillary dropped many of those Kerry votes. I am not comparing Obama vote share which was very high among White Americans.

So that is the feat Hillary has achieved. I would not say she carried the infamous Clinton 'sense of entitlement' in the 2016 run. That was her problem in the 2008 run. She was smart enough to be non-assuming about her electoral prospectus through out the campaign. But in the end she simply could not bring the vaunted competence. Her 'home work' turned out to be inadequate.[3]

Americans simply got tired of understanding nuances in assessing who will disgrace White House more - a women groping candidate or the past president who will move as the 'first dude' with a history of sexual adventures of unethical kind. Bill Clinton got America Dot Com Boom, but his lust has cost Democratic Party so much along the way - first by pushing Gore aside and now not making Hillary's electoral fight any easier.

I know it is a season of thanking and forgiving. Even Donald Trump gets that. But by leading the pack of majority Americans to no avail except a total a ship wreck while leaving Democratic Party in complete tatters; Clinton defeat has brought 'hell to Democrats'. I understand Politics is fickle[4], but it will not be Clintons who will and who can rebuild the House of Democrats. Dems themselves will have to gather pieces with different thinking, different leaders. We need Clintons 'to leave' the stage of Democratic Politics permanently. That is the ask for the good of Democratic Party, for the good of America.

In the end though, I will have to gather myself for this - to thank Hillary for bringing American Politics so far for American Woman. Yes, Trump victory has shown the limits of Identity Politics; but bringing American Woman this far - to be a nominee of the major party while winning the Popular Vote - that journey has been necessary. Many, including myself, will be thankful to Hillary for that.

Happy Thanksgiving 2016.


[1] - John Kerry's has been ridiculed for chasing the illusive Israel-Palestine peace. But neither did Hillary move any needle on that topic. I can imagine Kerry would have never forgiven himself if he had had not tried for Israel-Palestine treaty. His philosophy has been fear of 'failure to clinch the deal' should not have stopped him from making the run. In the Trumpian era of 'winning is everything'; this is a throw back philosophy very soon the world will start asking for.

But importantly Kerry was instrumental in the Iran Deal, helped Paris Accord and helped open relations with Cuba; all long term consequential accomplishments.

[2] - Hillary's vote share is not much better than Kerry's share at 48.3%. Final vote tallies will come in a month or two which will increase Hillary's vote share. But as of now it stands at 47.9%. It is electoral votes where Hillary lagged substantial to Kerry - his 252 to hers 232. And this is all on top of block buster wins of Obama in 2008 and 2012 to build upon Dem voter base.

[3] - Hillary also made the same mistake like Mitt Romney - it cost him with voters when his "47% Americans are takers" remark came to light. Most voters do not take condescension lightly and Hillary made the same mistake when she called "half of Trump voters as deplorable". I am not saying one single mistake would turn off a big chunk of voters; but 'shaming Trump voters' wouldn't have been a winning strategy to start with.

[4] - After the Kerry loss, Nancy Pelosi was back with Democratic Majority in 2006 followed by thumping wins by Obama and Democrats in 2008. Sure, nothing like that is preordained in Trump Era; but Trump lives by sword so may die by sword too.