Monday, January 30, 2017

The Positive Wave in UP and Negative Wave in Punjab

by Ratnakar Tripathy

The BJP’s only advantage in Uttar Pradesh may have been what seemed like an unending fracas among the different factions within the Samajwadi party till some days ago. It seemed unlikely that Mayawati’s BSP would have been the sole beneficiary of the internal wrangles within the SP and some of the SP votes may have turned up in BJP’s kitty. But there is a sea change now and we already have the beginnings of an SP wave that may bring the Akhilesh government back to power in Uttar Pradesh. The analysts in the press have covered more or less all the factors at play, including caste, development issues, earlier track record, the recent failings of the BJP due to demonetization, the fast fading image of Narendra Modi, the internal strife within the BJP and its lack of solid leadership within the province. But there is a subliminal aspect that has gone largely unnoticed or underemphasized – even the most unnuanced reading of the recent handshake between the Congress and the SP will not fail to notice the subservient role played by Rahul Gandhi in all the images circulating in the media. It may sound like an over-subtle point here but may become the clinching factor in determining the voter choice in the forthcoming assembly elections. Within a matter of weeks Akhilesh has managed to project the image of an honest rebel capable of taking on his own father and uncles, an undaunted risk-taker and then finally a figure that can wrap within its fold the national figure of Rahul Gandhi and the towering though now largely titular figure of the Gandhi-Nehru names. There is enough evidence from the photos and footage in the media that Akhilesh is finding acceptance among a large swathe of voters in Uttar Pradesh. Unlike other partisan groups who have been routinely showing the BJP as victorious in their polls, the CSDS-Lokniti outcomes linked here draw the picture very differently. 

The Aam Admi Party [AAP] on the other hand is having a similar run in Punjab where it has managed to upset everyone with its rising popularity – it is now openly alleged that the BJP-RSS combine have instructed their followers to vote for Amarinder and the Congress rather than waste their ballot on the SAD-BJP combine. If this is really true, the BJP is surely convinced that there exists a visible and irreversible negative wave against the Badals. Interestingly in this case, the AAP has not declared its CM candidate and is letting Arvind Kejriwal’s image do the job for the time being, although AAP has repeatedly ruled out the likelihood of Kejriwal moving into the CM chair in Punjab. Here again Kejriwal cannot make the fatal mistake of claiming to lead a government in Punjab, the reason being he comes from Haryana and no Punjabi worth his salt will accept such chieftaincy. But more important that AAP has a long way to go and Kejriwal cannot on all occasions place himself in the CM bracket, thereby also scuttling his image of a prominent national figure. In this sense Kejriwal very much like Modi may become the chief star campaigner in various states but with no claims on CM-ships. 

The picture that emerges from both Punjab and Goa seems bleak from the BJP viewpoint and there are signs that the party now plans to take measures it often does when cornered – create communal tension and raise the temple issue in UP. BJP seems to be doing both weaving its development rhetoric with provocative communal propaganda at the local level. In the coming days this rhetoric is likely to become more strident. But this will only ensure that the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh get into a tighter huddle and instead of splitting their votes between the BSP and SP decide to go whole hog for Akhilesh. So Akhilesh has a lot to rejoice these days though this is unlikely to make him smug, lucky as he has been to skip and escape so many insuperable hurdles lately.         

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trump Troubles Start

How is banning people of certain countries going to improve the security?[1] You always need to do the hard work of identifying 'potential terrorists' among ordinary citizens, and the goal needs to be to do that search by minimizing hassles to everyday people. With blanket bans, you are destroying lives of people, making them live in fear. That is how Fascism starts. Your Green Card, your valid Visa or your American Passport; none of those things can save you if you are a political opponent.[2] 

By trashing Media as 'political opponent', Trump has effectively nullified American Media. There is nothing 'worthwhile pressure' Media can build in America to alter Trump policy. Today it is Muslims from those seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia). More Muslim countries are most likely to get added. Then anytime Indian PM Narendra Modi does not do things as asked by Donald Trump, India can very quickly come on that list too. With India, the number is large and by impacting those millions in Tech Industry if Valley Businesses get affected - so what? Tanking Economy does not bother Donald Trump and especially so of Tech Industry in Bay Area which did not vote for him. But same will be the case of Texas Corporations and Auto Industry in MidWest. All will get impacted, but that would not matter to Donald Trump so as long as he does not pay the political price.[3]

In Democracy, such political accountability is expected to come via elections. But when a good number of Americans (I know so many of those young American voters) who do not take voting seriously, who do not see the value of stopping extremists like Donald Trump; we have diminishing hopes of things changing soon. Meanwhile, with a delusional president who thinks his opponent got millions of invalid votes; the business of disenfranchising a large number of voters is in full force.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are still with the understanding that they will be able to 'ride the tiger' of Donald Trump all the way to enact their ideological agenda. Unless and until they have 'used Donald Trump' thoroughly to achieve the ideological transformation of America completely, whatever political 'pain' of sticking with Trump is; it does not get repaid in full. For Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell (Reine Priebus and Mike Pence have already crossed to the 'darker side' to count them as any credible conservatives); the investment in Trump has to pay, and until that, Republicans in Congress are just going to accept the collateral damage of Trump devastation.   

In American Democracy, you need ways to build the political pressure on Republicans so that they would find the price of sticking with divisive and destructive policies and politics of Donald Trump unacceptable. In a dysfunctional democracy, citizens and impacted people do not get those mechanisms to enforce any kind of political accountability. That is where America has landed itself. 

Indeed these are dark days for America, and they are about to get darker before getting any better. 


[1] - I get it when Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn are deciding Tump's National Security; their thinking would be: "we want to alert countries of the world by pointing and browbeating these measly seven countries. That way rest of the world gets the message that 'if they want their business with the USA not disturbed; they take all the precaution of not sending any suspect terrorist." But to start by second guessing rest of the world when it comes to terrorism is precisely following the playbook of Fascism - 'you start with distrusting other countries'. That is what contributions from Messers Bannon and Flynn are going to be to Trump's National Security policies.

Some sane people have suggested that Senate Republicans need to 'stand up' to Trump and they need to do it now. I think Senate Republicans refusing to confirm Trump Sec. of State nominee Tillerson; is one way to drive that message - unless the ban is removed and influence of Fascists like Bannon and Flynn reduced from National Security, Tillerson does not get confirmed. That will be a taste where these Republicans want to 'draw a line'. I am not hopeful, but still would like to see if there is any life left in working of the American system.

[2] - Many in Media have adopted an approach where not to get distracted by Trump's utterances but to focus on his deeds. I saw the merit in that approach since it was pointless to react to every utterance of Donald Trump. First, that is what Trump wants - he always needs the oxygen of attention from others. Second, that is his ploy of pushing agenda while distracting people. Third, the guy is a ceaseless machine of attention grabs. You are not going to keep up with a lifetime's worth of Trump Narcissism. But now is the time - Trump has done something which is actually, concretely damaging lives of people, people's businesses. So we in Media who adopted this approach of 'watch Trump and criticize him when he does something' need to come forward start calling Trump's stupidity very clearly.

[3] - I know some Valley-based Indian Americans who made their wealth via Tech Business and who have been backing Donald Trump's clueless politics. Kids of these wealthy Indian Americans are now employed at 'plum positions' in these Tech Companies. It will be interesting to watch as 'assets' of this second generation Young Indian Americans start to vanish due to wrong policies of Trump; whether the older first Generation of Indian Americans will continue to support Donald Trump. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Film Review: Two plus two – not so simple!

by Uday Oak

Just like one routinely says “it’s not rocket science”, implying rocket science is something very complex, very special, way beyond reach of average individuals. Similarly, “it’s as simple as two plus two makes four” is a commonly used refrain.

A short film, just about eight minutes, makes one think. And think. And think. This film, made in Persian language, way back in 2011.

Students sitting in a classroom. Teacher arrives. There is an announcement on the PA system. And there is an upheaval. Revealing anything more would be sadism.

The points that hits you right between the eyes is, the film doesn’t point to anything or anyone in particular, and yet it points to the whole world within and beyond our perceptions and thoughts. There is some symbolism, but it is more in the ‘hint’ category and not in the ‘cacophonously preachy’ category. In fact, the director has avoided using any visuals, colors or sounds that would peg it down to a particular culture, country or a society.

And that is the biggest success of the film. In a short span of eight minutes, it breaks the shackles of routine boundaries and sets your mind free. You are free to think and interpret this film in any way you like. In that sense, it is like a Zen story or haiku. So short, and yet so deep and long!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The puzzle of Jallikattu pride in Tamilnadu

by Ratnakar Tripathy  

large crowds of people protesting on Marina beach
The easiest thing for an outsider to Tamil culture and customs will be to declare the recent protests in Chennai and several other cities and smaller towns in Tamilnadu over the jallikattu practice as a case of irrational and excessive cultural zeal. Or simply claim that we seem to live in a mad mad world these days generally speaking! But wait – remember, jallikattu is not quite bullfighting in its European sense. Quite literally ‘jallikattu’ the composite word means bull-embracing and denotes a contest that is not meant to be a blood sport at all. This despite the fact that humans do occasionally get killed in the fracas as was the case just the other day when two fatalities occurred in the state. Interestingly, the article in question here uses the term ‘bull-vaulters’ for jallikattu. The latest reports of the Tamilnadu government issuing an ordinance to quell the huge mobs in different parts of the state asking for the lifting of ban on jallikattu is an indication of the state power bowing to the might of the masses. The move may take the throngs away from the protest hubs for the time being but then who knows.
 jallikattu performed in Alanganallur, Madurai

According to reports from the ground, the jallikattu protestors found the occasion suitable for raising a whole bouquet of demands including better protection for the Tamilian fishermen who are frequently fired at by the Sri Lankan navy and the stopping of heavy use of ground water by the beverages companies like PepsiCo and Coke. Jallikattu in brief continues to be a mark of Tamilian pride and Tamilian masculine pride in particular but may be used as a symbol for much more. The jallikattu protests saw the AIADMK leaders, the recent heirs to Jayalalitha being ridiculed, and even BJP making a target quite simply because any central government is wont to be seen as being adversarial to the Tamil pride. There are other decisive events lurking behind but we cannot see the overt connections clearly – Jayalalitha’s recent passing away and the moral vacuum in its wake as well as the recent drought in the state. Any politician would drool at the size of the crowds that gathered over the issue in the past few weeks - unfortunately the crowds wanted them strictly kept away.

What foxes any likely analysts of the events is how Tamilnadu, the most urbanized state of India should be so preoccupied with an issue that seems pastoral by all standards. Is this just nostalgia or an attempt at revival of localism? A glimpse at the varied history of this sport that goes back to 2500 years may enlighten us some – according to Mr. Gandhirajan, a post-graduate in Art History from Madurai-Kamaraj University, ancient Tamil tradition was “manju virattu” (chasing bulls) or “eruthu kattuthal” (lassoing bulls) and it was never “jallikattu,” that it has become today. Further ‘in ancient Tamil country, during the harvest festival, decorated bulls would be let loose on the “peru vazhi” (highway) and the village youth would take pride in chasing them and outrunning them. Women, elders and children would watch the fun from the sidelines of the “peru vazhi” or streets. Nobody was injured in this. Or the village youth would take delight in lassoing the sprinting bulls with “vadam” (rope). It was about 500 years ago, after the advent of the Nayak rule in Tamil Nadu with its Telugu rulers and chieftains, that this harmless bull-chasing sport metamorphosed into “jallikattu.’ Clearly then the sport is currently undergoing one more critical transition and we do not know if the cultural meanings of the game have stabilized already.  Even some parts in the neighbouring state of Karnataka follow a somewhat similar practice of buffalo racing  where the purpose was to assert caste power by the owners of the battened animals. Pastoral pride however has its downside and there are instances when the animals are goaded, hurt and provoked to unspeakable levels of pain turning the sport turning it into a sadistic spectacle.
Jallikattu, a Bull Taming Sport of Tamils

Identifying the male self with the bull or its various organs is a primitive impulse that still lives with us. Several Tamil films weave their tales around jallikattu and the recent protests are quite likely to see the sport being used with renewed zeal.  An Indian has to go no further than the ubiquitous ‘linga’ in shrines to unravel the puzzle and an American will fully understand the significance of the rodeo sport and the image of the cowboy, which is a major subgenre in Hollywood, having spread its memes all over the globe. The enthusiasm for Jallikattu may thus continue to remain something of a puzzle but the fact remains that this symbol of power, masculinity, and pride over regional identity, the assertion of the underdog as well as a declaration of might by the mightiest continues to circulate in our language and conduct.   

Friday, January 20, 2017

Donald Trump - 45th President of USA

Source - Wikipedia
Trump victory in November 2016 election is accidental. But he is not an illegitimate president [1] just because he did not get the popular vote. Rules of American Presidential Elections are centuries old. This is not the first time a president is elected with lesser votes. American System places a premium on the distribution of votes which is critical to retain a federal union. Trump got elected by those rules.[2]

It is an accident because more Americans either hated or showed apathy towards Hillary than a number of Americans who came to support Trump. As a candidate, lion's share of fault goes to Hillary; but one cannot say a larger number of Americans exercised their choice of voting carefully as well. I know personally so many young voters, many Bernie backers, who did not bother to vote against Trump. This is the context of one of the lowest approval ratings for an incoming president.

All that unpopularity will vanish if Trump turns out to be good for America. On the campaign trail, Trump has talked so many incorrect policy prescriptions that if any of those he attempts to fulfill; it is unlikely to be good for America. If he exasperates 'racial tones', America is likely to see social unrest. If he follows on his excessive anti-Muslim agenda, not just American Democracy and Rule of Law will be fractured; globally Trump Administration is going to face needless, avoidable headwinds while dealing with so many Muslim nations as well as a country like India where the Muslim population is large. Trump may start erecting Wall on Mexico border on day one and may start cracking the whip on Hispanic migrants as well as other immigration. But then again all that is going to result in disturbed families, disturbed businesses, continued global disapproval and in general non-conducive environment for American Business. If Trump continues his antagonistic attitude against American and Global Media, then again it will not be too long before swords from Media will start coming out.

The dangers arising from his foreign policy prescriptions are equally or even more severe than his domestic prescriptions. The European Union is not on a solid footing and Conservatives in Germany are indeed going to drive extinction of EU[3], at least in the form it is at present. After Brexit, there is a danger of France shaking up EU followed by Italy. On this background, Trump is likely to 'hasten' the process of the demise of EU rather than nurturing one of the strongest alliances in human history - NATO and EU countries. By sleeping with Putin, Trump is going to bring legitimacy to autocratic and non-democratic regimes of the world. That coupled with weakened and broken NATO / EU; he is setting the context of global disorder and loss of stable security environment.

But the greater damage Trump is likely to do to USA Economy, to the Global Economy and to the Global Security Order is by locking horns with Xi's China. Trump is eager to start a fight with China. He wants to exploit every aspect of USA-China relationship as a bargaining chip in a zero-sum game. Trump is going to fail in that because he is going to discover that no amount of threatening and trade shenanigans are going to cow China. Xi's China will respond positively, only if Trump engages with China in the spirit of co-operation and never questioning certain principles of PRC - likes of Taiwan part of PRC, the total legitimacy of Communist Party Rule, the supremacy of PLA and no interference in China's internal affairs or unwarranted criticism. The reason Xi's China will be 'unbending' for these principles is there is no other way Xi can keep Communist Rule in PRC and by their thinking very existence of PRC. Unless and until Tillerson and Trump Administration learn that the only way to co-exist in this century is to work 'along with China'; Trump's America is going to face all sorts of avoidable hurdles.

All this means the path of success for Trump Administration goes by not enacting many of Trump utterances of the campaign trail. Sure, Trump and Republican Congress can get away with repealing ObamaCare without replacement, they will be able to give Trillions of Dollars Tax Cuts to rich by creating holes in Federal Budget and will be able to get away with a paltry Public Infrastructure Spending. This is because Trump and Republicans are smart enough to talk away a good number of Americans. Trump will blatantly lie in the office saying 'access to health insurance' as the 'beautiful availability of health insurance to all'. Tax cuts for rich will be justified as usual as kick starting 4% economic growth. Already committed ongoing infrastructure projects will be touted as the success of Trump plan. There are enough Americans, who get fooled by this talk else not that many Americans would have sat the election of 2016. There are no effective Democratic Leaders who can aggressively combat these lies of Trump Administration. What all that means is, there will be regressive policies with which Trump Administration will get away so long as Economy does not derail much. But lackluster economic growth, or policy overreach, or poor employment generation in mid-west states combined with anyone of the above mentioned Trump hubris; we are looking at the failed term of Trump Administration. These chances are not low and we are not even considering myriad possibilities of corruption and foreign policy blunders.

If not due to the majority, but at least due to a substantial number of Americans who did not vote against Trump; America has landed up taking enormous risks with the Trump presidency. Everything may indeed work out OK in the end, but watching ill prepared Donald Trump taking the oath as 45th President on the background of a deeply polarized American Society does not cut a reassuring picture. Unfortunately, it will not be only Americans who may have to pay the price, but Trump Era could cost the entire world too


[1] - Donald Trump called possible Hillary victory as illegitimate, that he will not accept her win; that is all besides a point in the room with grown ups. Donald is Donald, you are never going to do anything good for this country if you follow his words literally. Let us focus on what he does, rather than what he says

It is also true that Donald Trump used corrupt and illegitimate practices on the campaign trail to win the election. His campaign staffers had lingering connections with Putin, he actively engaged espionage on his Democratic opponent, he never revealed his tax returns and in general lied throughout the campaign. But politics is not 'bean bags'. His political opponents failed to capitalize on all this. The way Democratic party is and lack of obvious leadership; it is unlikely that Democrats will be able to put a good political opposition to Trump. Trump era will end by his own mistakes rather than a better opponent.

[2] - Putin's Russia intervened in 2016 campaign to make Trump victory possible - yes, that is the case. But remember, in the end again it is Americans who get to votes. If a good number of those did not exercise their right/privilege correctly - that is not the problem of Putin or rest of the world. Unless there is a compelling evidence that Russia actually 'hacked' votes for Trump; there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of Trump election. 

[3] - Donald Trump for once was right to say 'EU is a vehicle for Germany'. The reluctance of likes of German Finance Minister Schauble for any transfer of German Tax Euros to other EU countries is at the root of deterioration of EU project. These conservatives understand that perennially underachieving economies of Greece, Italy and Portuguese - all these southern EU states - keep the Euro cheap making German Export possible all over the world. What is not to like in that, as long as the party - meaning EU - lasts? That is the thinking of these conservative German politicians and Trump is calling that bluff.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Film Review - Silence

I had not read the original novel by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, so for me there is no way to understand this movie compared to the original text. I wanted to watch what Martin Scorsese has been lately up to and I was intrigued by the subject matter of the movie. I expected a good director to make a solid film about that subject matter and Scorsese did not disappoint me.

A director can pursue the topic of 'failed Portuguese Christian missions' in 17th century Japan from one of the 3 ways: the human drama of folks involved, theological debate underpinning between traditional Japanese Buddhism and European Christianity or to contextualize visits by these missionaries from oceans apart in then political and social structure of Japan. Scorsese has filmed few dialogues between the young protagonist Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the inquisitor; between the protagonist and his predecessor Father Ferreira (Liam Nesson) for whom these two young Portuguese disciples are searching; as well as monologs of Rodriques when he is traveling alone or in captivity. But clearly, a film is not the place where one can conduct deep philosophical questions and Scorsese understands that. 

It is the human drama of Rodrigues, his companion (Adam Driver), their guide (Yosuke Kubozuka) and the inquisitor (Issey Ogata); that is what attracted Scorsese. No doubt, the novel itself would have concerned more about the fictionalized lives of these characters though reports say that it contains reams and reams of theological discussions. (But then, 'text' is the right medium for ecclesiastical discussion.) Scorsese doesn't over dramatize lives of these characters. Scorsese knows that the canvass of these people's lives is large enough and human suffering involved unsettling enough. He takes the straightforward chronological order which ends in the natural death of the protagonists and succeeds in surfacing agonies of human life in the missionary context. I liked such a straightforward approach.

The question is has Scorsese succeed in rendering the authenticity of these core characters and have those actors done the job? (Predominantly male cast, another of the bold choices by Scorsese that he does not succumb to flimsy political correctness in mixing any unwarranted female cast.) Some criticize the choice of picking Rodrigues as the protagonist or the fulcrum of the story as well as the weak performance by Andrew Garfield in this lead role. But I think such a criticism ignores the success of Scorsese in portraying the winning character of the inquisitor in addition to Rodriques. It is as if, for all cruelty and suffering heaped by Japanese power-be on those poor Japanese who converted to Christianity; Japanese ruling class does provide a compelling argument for what happened. All that is brilliantly enacted in the inquisitor role. And as far as the weak performance of Garfield, it may be the case but  I think Scorsese wanted the naivety, innocence and the literal sense of Bible adopted by these young missionaries fully exposed. Least because that is the cleanest and simplest way of highlighting the core moral and theological dilemma of the movie - how do you keep your faith in your God and your religion when the cost to do that is inhuman suffering and killing of poor practitioners of the faith who are already engaged in existential struggles. And this is all when that very religion is founded on alleviating sufferings of poor.

Coming back to the depiction of ruling class of Japanese gentry in 17the century - for me, the most important and fantastic performance by Issey Ogata delivers it in highly competent manner. Neither the novel nor Scorsese would have anticipated what a great acting can do to this character. By the force of his acting, Ogata almost makes the inquisitor as the central theme of the movie. Ogata seems to be a classical, old style actor and hence brings priceless facial expressions. But obviously he is more than that, his fan waving, his whining; all that carries exceptionally well the 'air of the ruling class'. In one scene when the old inquisitor portrayed by Ogata attempts to stand up, he did not get the requisite help. The inquisitor hits his servant with a fan and then the back of his dress is shown in the frame where an immaculate dress of rich is awkwardly crumpled. All those creases in wrong places on the expensive dress are beautifully filmed. Not only Scorsese has given enough space and footage to the inquisitor (like keep showing him in the background in his compound when the main drama involving Rodriques, Father Ferreira and poor practitioners who are tied upside down is unfolding in the courtyard; to imply the constant overlooking by the powerful inquisitor); Ogata has delivered probably the most powerful performances among these capable and accomplished actors. 

Liam Nesson portrays well the reticence of a past Christian who has crossed the line towards Buddhism; all in the process of assimilating to the native land. Throughout the history of Christianity, we have numerous examples where missionaries finally have been absorbed into lands of their visits by abandoning the mission and their original faith. That process in most cases is not thorough, generally tentative leaving the new converts constantly paining about the core betrayal. Liam Nesson is trying to enact this conflicted mind and to a certain extent he succeeds in that. Equally, competent acting is done by Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamoto as village elders.

Scorsese does not indulge himself much in trying to untangle what 'political and economic' interests of Japanese ruling class made them crush nascent Japanese Christianity. Famous insular socio-economic practices of Japan, which for thousands of years have sustained Japan as an independent nation against multiple attempts by just visiting or invading foreigners, clearly contributed to missionary failures. This hostility towards otherworldly ideas and people is well captured in one after the other gruesome torture scenes of the movie (each getting built towards even more cruel scene like a clockwork); but clearly there is much more to say and to show about the underpinnings of economics and politics of Buddhist priest class and their incestuous relationship with rulers of Japan which crushed Christian missions and their poor native followers. Maybe Scorsese realizes that it is pointless to attempt such a vast topic in an already long movie when there is so much to the show about human life itself.

Scorsese gives justice to the scope of the story in an almost 3 hours long movie. I do not complain about long movies, having raised on Bollywood movies where any less duration is often times considered as lack of 'value for money'. Some criticize for the slow pace of the movie. I think Scorsese got it right in keeping the pace of the movie slow, that is the only way to rebuild 17th-century life intimately on screen by forcing viewers at each step to notice a different world. When most movies are nothing but trivialization of human life at a fast pace, a deliberate approach to human drama only entrenches the weight of suffering. This pace also perfectly showcases kinds of death - slow deaths when bodies are endured for days at sea (Scorsese takes minutes just to show carriage of a body from a wooden cross to a pier!) and sudden death when in an instant a head is chopped by a Samurai. 

The focus for Scorsese is to craft each scene with its slow pace. At times Scorsese's tendency to eliminate 'clutter from the scene' gives the impression of 'over produced / over tidy' cinema making. But such 'sleekness' is par for the course in today's 'multi-million productions'. Audiences tend to enjoy such filming indulgence - whether it is the 'commercial ad style' overhang shot of 3 black robe priests climbing down white marble steps splashed over the entire screen, or surreal setting of a completely empty long white hall at the end of which 3 priests are talking in black robe; or numerous sumptuous scenic shots all brought to the earth by agonizing human pain. The question is whether such 'decorative art' will help Scorsese to sell his solid, thematically coherent film. When I went to the local cinema hall, we were less than 40 folks, most of the theater was empty. But my hunch is the film likely to make money overseas in markets like China, Taiwan (where filming happens), Korea and Japan even though in Abe's Japan it may be on a politically incorrect side while contemporary Japan is busy unshackling past sins. But then contemporary, thoroughly globalized Japanese society has enough 'political space' for basic liberalism as indicated by the popularity and acclaim of the original novel. 

Meanwhile, it may be outside of the cinema hall that Scorsese would be stirring the pot lot by provoking questions in minds of audience. Outside Europe - torture, cunning and proselyting missionaries paving the way for capture of trade and livelihood of locals; all that is a familiar story. That all culminated in post-WWII Third World Liberation swelling UN country count close to 200. But what the world may forget is enormous personal risks, sacrifices and personal suffering all undertaken by these missionaries in spreading Christianity. Missionaries were pioneers of globalization in some sense. They may have carried a rigid orthodoxy with them but were equally tortured in foreign lands. Intolerance goes both ways. Highlighting that is I guess Scorsese way of questioning anti-globalist views which will be inaugurated this week in Washington. For my taste, Scorsese way is far more enduring and substantive way of encouraging Americans not to fall for 'restrictive vision' of the world when they and the world watch the glorious art of Silence; rather than bit flashy Trump tirade by Meryl Streep at an award ceremony. The thing is 'instant, narcissistic tendencies of restricted political vision as exemplified by Donald Trump and his Republican enablers who want to wash their hands by enacting ideological policy changes' cannot be fought by 'viral going rebuttals at awards ceremonies'. Donald's Tweeter account will NOT be answered by Tweeter replies. It will be answered only when Americans and non-Americans alike take the time needed to 'think' through what is at stake and be wise about understanding our world around. 

Scorsese would be more than delighted if that is the role his movie plays in days and years to come even if it struggles at box office initially.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Commentary - Replacing ObamaCare

As Republicans in Congress spin wheels - how to repeal ObamaCare without replacement - the political reality is forcing GOP to go slow in dismantling ObamaCare. Senator Tom Cotton, the youngest firebrand Republican from Arkansas who has made the political living by opposing everything Obama, is on record saying that he would not repeal ObamaCare without replacement. There is now sizable group of Republican Senators who may be more careful in rushing to the demolition job.

Congressional Republican leadership, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in particular, is not wedded to the idea of putting replacement before repeal. This duo and overall Congressional Republican Leadership are still behind the "blow it first" plan. After all that is what Republicans in Congress may land up doing despite what Donald Trump wants or despite serious political repercussions. Given that, in general Republican Party is not having any serious discussion about what the "replacement" should look like.

Exception to that rule is what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is offering. His ideas clearly do not make a complete blue print, but it is a much more worked out thought than what most Republicans are saying. At least he is ready to say something publically about what a viable replacement plan would look like.

One of the tenets of Senator Lamar Alexander's plan is "say goodbye to the employer mandate" wherein it is compulsory for the employer of certain size to provide minimum health care plans to all employees. But I was wondering with employment market already so strong, it is simply not feasible from competition perspective for any such employer to retain employees without health plans. For simple reasons of market pressures in a competitive employment outlook, whether it is mandated or not, employers will continue to offer health care plans. In that sense "reality" would have out-run Republican policy changes and it will be a "win-win" situation: Republicans get to fulfill their promise of changing ObamaCare but ground realities only entrench those policy approaches as American Market and American Public get used to ways of ObamaCare. Obama and progressives would not have much reason to complain for any such outcome. For them, and more importantly for American Public, it is much more preferred outcome than a simple "demolition job". 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Dangerous Twilight Zone

Through the carcass of World War I, League of Nations was born; one of the first global organizations of consequences. Ultimately the league failed to stop the onset of World War II. Only after Humanity paid the heavy price of that war all across the planet, phalanx of global organizations came up to establish the current global order. UN, NATO, WTO, IMF are all children of "that realization by Humanity". Liberal global order has remained since then, augmented further by EU.

But German Vice Chancellor nailed it when he said it is not unthinkable that EU can unravel. Equally and more importantly he put his thumb on the exact reason of possible unravelling of EU - what likes of German Finance Minister Schaeuble type insist for the austerity. No doubt, on the European continent this German reluctance of sharing their prosperity - by way of money transfer from Germany to rest of the Europe - is the root cause of dire economic state in most parts of EU. Apart from Germany and handful of other countries, most European countries have not gotten the necessary public spending to defeat recessionary forces unleashed by 2008 Global Financial Crisis; the crisis all triggered by wild American Financial System.

Wide spread feeling of "assault on national cultural by migrants" is an equally important reason to break EU. Brexit is a classic example of that. Nationalistic tendencies - low hanging fruits in electoral politics - have created avoidable economic hardship for Britain. But such is the force behind the politics of "cultural grievances"; that there are no political costs associated with pursuit of Nationalism despite looming economic degradation of UK. 

Trump victory last year and his looming presidency epitomize these tendencies of Nationalism and breaking of global institutions all formed after WWII. Davos Man, as Greg Ip precisely identifies, had no lovers all over the world and it is good that Trump Presidency wants to bury him. But in absence of any replacement, the death of Davos Man in itself cannot establish alternative global equilibrium. Meanwhile Putin keeps on winning as EU unravels is only a collateral damage and that too President-Elect Trump is trying to ease out.

So the question is where is all this potential unravelling of global institutions going? Another equivalent of WWII? Whose knows, when Xi's Chinese Communist Party is all pushed to the wall and there is no other option than adopting jingoistic hard nationalism policy in dealing with intransigent Donald Trump; the danger of military clash is not far away. The reality is we do not see any strong global political constituency of consequences which can stop the incessant ongoing corrosion and potential collapse of all these global institutions. Trump Presidency is only going to accelerate that process.

Only thing that is clear is Humanity will have to relearn lessons of global co-operation in hard ways in years to come while liberals figure out how to compensate adequately those who are left out by globalization. Unless global progressives, especially in Western countries, find out effective political ways of alleviating cultural anxieties of those left behind by globalization; Trump style restrictive politics will keep winning and will keep increasing inherent risks in the existing global order.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Amir’s ‘Dangal’, reviewing a film experience

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Given the state of traffic in most of the Indian cities, it is indeed a bold decision to go out to the movies and one has to make a very clever selection since so much may be at stake. The expensive tickets, the long ride and sundry other irritants can be a major disincentive and yet the lure of the big screen is something I have not been able to overcome. I can quite see myself even in distant future as an old man dragging himself along the dark aisles and ignoring the annoyed remarks emanating from faces I cannot see. There is indeed no substitute for the big platter of the 70mm and no home theatre snacking would ever suffice for me. That said the risks are immense too. If I may make a bizarrely anachronistic comparison, once in Haryana I was told by the oldies that not long ago country folk would trudge up to 40 kms to watch a nightlong Sang shows. So imagine how dire a villainy it would be to disappoint an audience that comes to you from afar after so much sweat and hoping! Even though they do not have to carry their foodstuff anymore and are willing to spend insensibly at the snack counter!

In Hyderabad the other day, I got a risk-free opportunity to see Amir Kahn’s ‘Dangal’ in a neighbouring single screen cinema that went through a makeover recently, the owners turning a C-grade arena of porn offerings [early morning shows included] into a respectable theatre. It was the New Year’s Day and the throngs were milling. The driving and parking culture in Hyderabad can get scary – the zealous bike riders seemed to plough right through the crowds all the way to the ticket counter. I had a prior booking of course and was happy to learn that I do not need to have my sms converted into paper ticket.

When in Hyderabad you cannot be spared the ads from sari and jewelry showrooms that look like aeroplane hangars. Preceding ‘Dangal’, one was thus served a feast of Telugu beauty and the thin-voiced croonings that go with it. Just before the film started I was struck by a sense of trepidation. I am not quite a fan of Amir Khan films as I find them too idealistic about values I do not particularly care for and I find his brand of idealism a bit too simplistic and slogan ridden, at times just a substitute for good storytelling. I thus wondered beforehand if Amir is going to offer a straight muscular path to women’s liberation through wrestling. It turns out ‘Dangal’ did not disappoint as the film went past without a flicker of boredom. I blinked many times of course at the overly patriotic rhetoric of getting ‘medal for the country’. But I was reminded of the tough times stars like Amir and Shahrukh have been through in what may be a synoptic but painful phase of Hindutva. Being trolled and teased with full official approval and encouragement, they perhaps need to overcompensate and over-amplify their patriotism.
Fatima Sheikh, who plays Babita Phogat 

‘Dangal’ seemed to do full justice to the ambivalence of emotions that are integral to flesh and blood human beings. The little girls whom Amir the father wants to turn into hulky dynamos as national wrestling champions do their own ‘dangal’ [contest] with the father through acts of noncooperation. At the initial stages of their training before making their father’s cause their own, they try a series of cute tricks to defeat the somber disciplinarian idealist Amir.  Amir as the father and the guru shows ambivalence too, shifting between the infinite tenderness a father feels for little daughters to the hoarse toughness of a merciless guru. An interesting aspect of the entire tale is the half-hidden contest between the modern technocratic regimen of professional wrestling and the entirely intuitive style of the old school wrestling. Amir the father wins his own little dangal in convincing his daughters that the standard techniques fashioned by the professional coach at the sports academy are inferior to his own earthy style.

As is well-known now, the film is based on the real life of Mahavir Phogat who coached his daughters in wrestling and brought fame to the family, the village, the state and the community through a series of medals at a number of international tourneys. The remarkable thing about the real man was his determination to stand against the Haryanvi/Jat society to make his dream come true, a dream his daughters shared and accomplished in real life, and well, now on the screen. Anyone familiar with the haryanvi culture will know what kind of excessive and even reckless courage you need to raise women wrestlers in the family. 

Okay, I wish I had something to whine about at the end just to prove that my critical faculties were alive and kicking. But no, apart from the excessively patriotic rhetoric I have no crib to offer. But wait as I wind up, the music was downright bad and improperly punctuated even. These days you often get ‘sufiyana’ howlings in Hindi movies that are meant to enhance your emotional intensity and I look at them more or less as avoidable emotive steroids when the music is not good. One last word before departing – it was good to see Amir offer some spontaneous acting for once instead of the strained one I am accustomed to, but that has of course only been my very personal grouse and bias over the years!  You may differ.