Category Archives: India

Hindi Movies : must watch list for an Indophile non-desi

Many of us know that the only thing true about India is that no single element represents the whole of India – her wonders, complexities, contradictions and the diversity. And Indian Cinema certainly can not – only Hindi movies surely can not. Still, I believe that the stories we tell and the songs we sing are a great representation of the people we are.

Many of my non-desi (firang !) friends have asked me numerous times on recommendations on Indian movies they should watch. I have prepared this list to for such Indophiles as a primer into the world of mainly Hindi films over the ages. The focus is to introduce them to some of our best artists in this craft – directors and actors whose work has had a remarkable impression on their generation ( and the following ones).

These are films, which through their characters, dialogues and songs, reside in the sub conscience of many-million Hindi speaking Indians and who have helped influence the idiom of our language. That way they lie in the fertile portion of our common milieu which influences our dreams and passions and represents them at the same time. These films either established a genre, represent the best example from a genre or broke new ground in Indian cinema. That is why this list also straddles the spectrum from serious art-house cinema of Shyam Benegal to crassly pulp-fictiony commercial cinema from Manmohan Desai or Karan Johar.

You would notice that I have tried to keep away from film-makers like Mira Nair whose works foreign Indophiles get first exposed to any ways. Also, however honest and rightfully critical their work is of our life and heritage, it is also at some level an attempt to gain attention by selling either over-hyped exotica or much-dramatized penury. I do like these films as well but they do not confirm to my current spec of being able to influence our lives.

A few disclaimers before I unleash the list. The first disclaimer is that these are NOT the best Indian movies – no such list is ever objective and coming from an amateur like me, this is just a list of my favorites. The second disclaimer is that this list is, in no ways, complete since it excludes some legendary film makers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shaji N Karun and many more whose work I have not been suitably exposed to because of my linguistic limitations.

Another disclaimer/advice – especially for non-Indians – Have patience with the films – in each one of them you would see more melodrama than you would have seen in a whole Oscar Show reel, more songs than a Broadway show, most longer than an NFL Play-off – but have patience. Alas, you would perhaps miss the beauty of the language ( poetry, dialectal nuances to build characters, analogies) in many of these films but I do hope that the charm would still show through.

and the Final one : this list is overtly biased in Amitabh Bachchan’s favor – but I can’t help it…he is the Best !

So, here goes :

V Shantaram :
– Do Ankhen Barah Haath :
From one of the early leaders of Indian film-craft comes this drama with a social message – to reform convicts with hard work and kindly guidance.

Mehboob Khan
– Andaaz : Perhaps the first attempt at love triangle which was to become the central theme to many many Hindi films to come, this film pits legendary thespians Raj Kumar and Dilip Kumar in conflicting roles, early in their careers. This is also a good movie to watch the contrast in their acting styles.

– Mother India : One of the first big screen, big story movies with the central of ever-sacrificing mother with a saintly son and another gone awry.

Raj Kapoor : It is very difficult to chose a small sample from the works of the greatest show man India has seen. Yet, I have tried to keep the list to work from his golden era in B&W 1905s/60s with him as the Producer-Director-Actor

-Awara
-Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behati hai
-Shree 420

Bimal Roy
– Bandini : the moving love-story of a soft spoken convict woman and a young doctor on duty in the prison.

K Asif
– Mughal-e-Azam :
India’s first real Magnum Opus – took N years to make, had a stellar cast and extra-ordinary performances from Dilip Kumar, Madhubala & Prithvi Raj Kapoor. Is based on the legend of Crown Prince Salim’s ( Emperor Jehangir later, son of Emperor Akbar) romance with a courtesan Anarkali. You may want to pick the recently digitally remastered and colored version for the awe-inspiring sets and camera work, but Madhubala’s eternal beauty shines in the B&W frames much better.

Guru Dutt : Again, difficult to chose even from the limited amount of work this Director-Actor produced in his short life. Here’s an example of serious cinema about the tragedies and pressures in the show-business contrasted to a very light hearted romantic comedy

– Kagaz ke Phool
– Mrs & Mr 55

Dev Anand – India’s first real on-screen Casanova, did very well in creating his own inimical style and charisma ( some say, copied from a Hollywood star of 50s, I don’t know who)

– CID : One of the earliest thrillers
– Guide : Dev and his brother Vijay Anand’s take on R. K Narayan’s incredibly well-written eponymous novel. If you were a R K Narayan fan, as I am, you would not forgive the Anand brothers in murdering Narayan’s plot. However, that does not take away that it is a wonderful piece of story-telling, heart warming music, brilliant camera angles – in all a good film despite a prolonged and unnecessary climax.

Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi : Acting & Parallel Cinema Power Houses. Smita’s life and career were shortened by a merciless brain stroke while Naseer and Shabana have successfully helped make mainstream cinema respectful in art-circles and art-cinemas profitable at the box office.

– Mirch Masala
– Masoom :
Director Shekhar Kapoor (Oscar winner Elizabeth ) adapts Eric Segal’s “Man Woman & Child” with heart warming performances by Shabana, Child Jugal Hansraj and a restrained one by Naseer.

-Arth
– Jane Bhi Do Yaron : Black Comedy ; India’s best political satire yet

Hrishikesh Mukherjee : This recently deceased director’s strength lay in taking simple but heart warming stories with usually every day characters, little malice and find comedy/joy in almost everything – even in the story of a terminally ill cancer patient

-Chupke Chupke
Anand : celebrates Rajesh Khanna’s stardom while Amitabh’s silent strength shines through.

Dilip Kumar Vs Amitabh Bachchan : Period.
– Shakti

Yash Chopra : the God of mature romances, poetry in dialogues and eternal melodies
-Kabhie Kabhie : excuse the last 30-45 minutes of the movie. This moview could be watched only for the sequence where the heroine ( Rakhi)’s old poet lover ( Amitabh) comes home to have a drink with the husband ( Shashi Kapoor)

-Silsila

Gulzar : This guys is basically a poet and a lyricist but has shown to be an extremely talented director as well
– Machis : Gulzar style take on the Punjab insurgency – non-preachy yet no pretence of a balanced point of view

Maniratnam – The best story teller of our times. Movies originally made in Tamil
– Nayakan : Mani drives another thespian Kamal Hassan to perhaps his career best performance. Story of a Tamil Underworld Don in Mumbai.
– Roja

Masala – Pop culture, pulp fiction, mass cinema
-Sholay : and then there were none ! No other single movie, with the possible exception of Mughal-e-Azam, has been able to generate as big a fan following with each character and each frame/dialogue giving birth to timeless memories. The movie’s popularity and longevity can be gauged by the no. of spoofs it continues to inspire in popular culture – stand up acts, ads, MTV gigs, etc.

– Amar Akbar Anthony : Bollywood’s favorite theme of brothers separated when young, grow up to avenge their parents from the evil villain. Of course, the bonus of one of Amitabh’s most comic performances.

– Kal Ho Na Ho : Almost a perfect example of producer/director Karan Johar started genre of modern pop chocolate romances of young people in trendy DKNY & Tommy attires, supposedly representing modern India, where there is no villain in any frame. This one is directed by his protege Nikhil Adavani and is a loose remake of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand and celebrates Shahrukh Khan’s stardom as much the original celebrated Rajesh Khanna.

Recent Marvels:
-Black: not original but perhaps one of the finest example of our modern cinema; loosely based on the story of Helen Keller – almost un-Bollywood like in its perfection. I can venture to say – Amitabh’s career best — and that is saying a lot.

– Eklavya : Last week’s release; one of the most original scripts that we have seen; almost Shakespearean though; competent performances. Watch it for the return of one of India’s most prodigious director after 7 years, his mastery at extracting the best from actors and technicians and his audacity to throw the hall in complete darkness for 3 minutes in midst of a chilling scene

– Bluffmaster : the younger Bachchan – Abhishek – comes of age in this con-man romance
– Maqbool : Director and Music Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Mac Beth in the netherworld of Mumbai crime mafia. Pl excuse the blasphemy but you could compare Pankaj Kapur’s (plays the old Don – “Abba ji”) performance with Brando’s in Godfather

-Lage Raho Munnabhai ( Munnabhai Part 2) : a refreshing take on the relevance of Gandhi in our modern life
– Lakshya : a coming of age story of boy during the Kargil war – completely humane look at soldiery but no jingoism, no Pak bashing despite the obvious anger at their actions

-Swades : has caused many a Non-resident desi professionals to rethink their personal and professional goals.

-Iqbal : The most charming attempt at marrying India’s 2 strongest passions – cricket and movies. Story of a deaf & dumb village guy whose dream is to play cricket professionally.

Indian Independance/Biopic : Not many credible movies on this, unfortunately – may be this history is too close for it to truthfully told yet. I have picked 2 movies which are biopics for 2 contrasting faces of Indian Independence struggle – both continue generating passions still – Gandhi perhaps more than Bhagat Singh

-Gandhi : This of course is not an Indian movie – made by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi played by Ben Kingsley, this movie brought the only Oscar an Indian has won on a movie project – Bhanu Atthaiya for Dress design ( Satyajit Ray won it for Lifetime Achievement). I have included this movie because no introduction to popular Indian culture can be complete without an introduction to Gandhi.

– The Legend of Bhagat Singh

Well, as I said, this list is not complete. So, my desi friends, please add on to the list – not merely your favorite films, but especially those which have represented and also inspired our collective imagination. Also, if you have been faced with similar questions – pl feel free to pass the list along.

Intrigued about the British Indian Soldier

Most of us grew up hearing the stories of valor of Indian soldiers who fought and gave their blood in the wars that India fought since its indepnedance. I have myself cried innumerable times reading/watching stories of the likes of Cpt Somnath Sharma, Lnc Nk Albert Ekka, Mjr Shaitan Singh and Cpt Vikram Batra.  However, the place India associates with her martyr sons who offered the supreme sacrifice to preserve her independence is an irony itself. India Gate, under which Amar Jawan Jyoti flames in their memory, was first built by the British to honour the British Indian Soldiers, who lost their lives during World War I, defending the same King’s Empire who was an alien ruler of their own land.

I have always been intrigued by the desires and passions which drove millions of Indians to fight and lay their lives for the British – many a times fighting their own countrymen – during about 200 years before independence. What’s intriguing is not that many warrior tribes known for their fierce love for independence, like Sikhs, Gurkhas, many Rajput clans and even some Muslim tribes from the North West Frontier, chose to fight under the British command, what’s even more interesting is that the British Indian Army was the seeding ground for millitary traditions in many castes which were till then employed only in non-millitary pursuits – like the priests classes or the peasant castes from the untouchable fold. 

 I do not have conclusive answers but the realisation of what should have seemed like obvious facts to them is a painful blow for my nationalist (jingoist?) ego and the notion that a soldier enrols only because of his love for his nation :

  1. Tribe, Caste & Religion had more importance in the feudally divided India of the late 18th and early 19th century than any notion of Hindustan/Bharat being a nation. Allliances were made and broken on these lines and as history tells us, British were perhaps the best players to play this game.
  2. Add these to the political incentives that the small but millitarily powerful kingdoms, like Marwar Jodhpur, had in aligning with British interests and the British found a rich and unlimited supply of valiant and faithful soldiers.
  3. Last but most importantly, Economic & Social incentives : Then, like in all ages till recently, a job in the ruler’s millitary should have meant sound economic prospects and immense social acceptability. This should have come easy for the warrior tribes since the British were the only respcectful force left in the subcontinent. But even for the ordinary peasant, when starved for any prospect of earning a steady employment, picking up a rifle to wear the respected/feared red coat should have been an easy choice.

I am not sure if this is the correct or complete diagnosis of the causes. I would love to have greater access to the minds of these men but popular  books on pre-independence India have barely touched this topic. I am not aware of many works on this and my superficial understanding is aided by the perspective gained by the following works :

  • Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace – one of the key characters is a Captain in British Indian Army who later defects to Indian National Army
  • In his collection of essays on Delhi, Khuswant Singh has a specific piece on Sikh soldiers who fought for the British in the Mutiny of 1857. This also reveals the second rate treatment that Indian soldiers in the British forces faced.
  • M M Kaye’s The Far Pavoillions provides a peek into the life of a British Indian soldier at North West Frontier during the Afghan War. She does not dissect or quetion their loyalty any deeply; it seems like the Indophiles of her age, she just takes it for granted.

If you have come acorss any work which delves deeper into the psyche of the British Indian Soldier, do drop me a line.

credit : Shout-out to Ash whose post on the same issue inspired mine

Ranji Superball : What if India had a SuperBowl

As the spectacle of the 41st Superbowl unfolds with Peyt Manning leading the Colts towards a well contested win, miles away and hours ahead, Wasim Jaffer should be waking up to see if he can repeat his first innings century to seal Mumbai’s hegemony in the Ranji Super League Final. I can’t help wonder what would happen to Indian Cricket if Ranji Finals in India were as big as the Superbowl in USA.

A lot has been written and said about how BCCI needs to beef up its domestic cricket circuit, attract more talent, more discipline demanding professional players to play the Ranji League and more commercial support to finally produce a commendable bench of players as the Aussies have. I am not going to comment on any of that as I agree with most of it, only with the addition that it’s a chicken & egg story starting with whether the average Indian cricket fan follows domestic cricket enough. For today, I’d keep all those contentions aside and imagine that Ranji Finals were really like the Superbowl to India.

So, imagine my friends :

Right now is the sweltering heat of early June, with temperatures soaring to 45+ Deg Cel making it near impossible for you to do anything productive with your time on a Sunday evening except watch the Mumbai Dons battle the Bengal Tigers in a Twenty20 format final for the RANJI SUPERBALL I at the picturesqe and relatively cooler surroundings of the Milkfood Punjab Jatts Stadium at Mohali. Also, you would have sat together with your friends/family for a good 4 hours before the game starts, waiting not only for the real play time which would be much shorter cumulatively than the ad time on the broadcast, but also to watch the spectacle of new and awe-inspiring ad campaigns to be launched. Yes, of course, the specials from Kake da Dhaba’s Ranji Superball Menu are as delicious as the pre-event deal that you got for Mumbai Dons’ Superball 2008 Winner Team Gear at www.nike.co.in.

You don’t find yourself as surprised at the UP-born-and-bred Mohd Kaif’s captaincy of Bengal Tigers as you are disconcerted and disgusted by the needless hype created by the politcally correct media and commentators on the “Celebrating Minorities in Indian Cricket” about Jaffer and Kaif leading the competing sides. (At the back of your mind, you yearn for those good-ol’days, when Cricket was cricket and not an arena for affrimtive action champions, when Kaif-&-Yuvraj’s unbeaten stand in the Natwest Final was all about cricket and none about bleeding-heart Ram-Rahim stories)

The not-so-cricket inclined in your house do not complain so much as they do not mind the opportunity to see Abhishek and Aishwarya perform together for the first time in a public arena, during the half-time. The artistically and patriotically interested have been surely suitably impressed by the redoubtable Pandit Jasraj rendering the National Anthem to open the ceremony. Not to forget, the mouth-watering prospect of seeing the trio of Rakhi-Kangana-Deepal perform at the field during every drinks break.

Regardless of the outcome (Ofcourse, Mumbai Dons, with Sachin, Jaffer and newly acquired Zaheer, would win) and the real prospect of this fantasy coming true, those who follow Indian Cricket and American football, even superficially, would easily sight the following :

  • Some of the glamor and commercialisation of Indian Cricket as fantasized here is already happening – most visible during the frenzy that picks up in advance of any major International Cricket Tournament.
  • More Importanly : if this fantasy were to strictly come true, Cricket would be played only in India, nowhere else – even Pakistan plays a modified version ! What this means, in turn, is the following :
    1. No Ashes contest between Australia and England : This could be the best news the English have had in cricket since their Ashes win 2 years ago.
    2. No India-Pakistan matches : That’s it ! That’s the single biggest reason why this fantasy should never come true !

(Anybody offering discounted packages for a possible Super Eight Match between India-Pak dirung the World Cup 2007 ?)

The decaying Metropolis , the finally-arrived Regal capital and the eternal-hopeful small town : State of 3 homes

Recently, my friend (and the lead contributor here at Arthshastra.com) Vikas, during his recent home visit, had this comment on the 3 cities which have been home to me – Mumbai, Jaipur and my original home town Ajmer .

Ajmer is changing at snail’s pace while Mumbai seems like a decaying and stagnant city but it was Jaipur that really took my breath away. I was there just for a day but I was able to see huge changes in city’s infrastructure and facilities. 

I agree with Vikas in many ways and here’s my take on the matter – obviously, more passionate yet cynical regarding the city of my birth. 

It’s a shame and a sorrow to see Mumbai decay the way it is with quality of life deteriorating rapidly, primarily due to lack of infrastructure. It’s ironical and sad how we pride ourselves in having a city which is the business and financial capital of the one of the fastest growing large economies but it does not feature anywhere in the list of prospective World financial capitals. You see mentions of Dubai as a capital in Near-East ( between Sing/HK and London); you’d also find mentions of Istanbul ! but no Mumbai.

I have lived in Jaipur for a couple of years, not too long ago, and enjoyed the luxuries of a big city that it has started to offer while retaining the small town charm that its suburbs always had. My recent visit there only confirmed my prediction 2 yrs ago – Jaipur is THE city in North India to watch out for. 10-15 yrs from now, we’ll all be speaking of Chandigarh as a wasted opportunity apt for Retirees, Gurgaon as a city past its peak, of NOIDA still in awe, Ghaziabad as a lawless land that would never reach its potential but of Jaipur as an urban marvel which has handled modern development while preserving its medieval heritage pretty well.

Well, of course, this rides on many assumptions –

  1. Govts continue to see that the best way to develop Jaipur is to keep it as a destination for 3 key areas : a) Heritage Tourism b) Skilled industry ( gem & diamond cutting, hand crafted material, etc) and c) Modern knowledge based industry.
  2. Build infra to support that – a fast and clean intra-city commute option; a faster speedway with Delhi; a devoted fast speed commuter service ( like a bullet train) with Delhi and very importantly, do all of this in a way that accentuates the Old city’s beauty and does not overcrowd it.
About Ajmer : It never had a future frankly, despite producing some of the brightest off springs of humanity (I have never been accused of modesty!). After the Indian Railways stopped being a significant player ( in terms of attractive employment & real business incentives), there was n’t any real hope for the city. The real reason of the past glory was it being the seat of Mughal governorship, and later a British Presidency. In a political environment where the federation was loose, it would serve brilliantly as a centre of power and the representative of the Federal/Central govt – almost equidistant in geography, from  Mewar, Marwar and Jaipur kingdoms. And that’s exactly what led Ajmer be a Central Govt ruled territory with great powers and all the benefits ( like a Union Territory). But if you look back, the reasons for its ascent in Mughal/British period have also become the reasons for its decline in the last 50 yrs – after it was integrated into Rajputana State in 1956/57. It never acquired a strong caste/religion bias one way or the other – meaning in the new political reality of electoral democracy, it had no significant voter section/political leader who derived power from a feudal/caste based politics and could draw resources to the city for his/its own benefit (compare the state of affairs with Jodhpur, where both the erstwhile King and the popular Congress leader J N Vyas were able to draw resources). Nor did it have the rich colonial heritage of its colonial cousins of Meerut, Simla or Kanpur – it never had the Rajputana linkages of its more Regal neighbours – Udaipur, Jodhpur or Bikaner.
The other predicament of this city is also British brought – for 80-100 years ( till perhaps now OR 10 yrs earlier) it served it well to be the city with best English education, seats of education and education administration – serving and producing a large class of well-bred people ready for “Govt -like services” employment ( Right from Hindi medium Arya Samaj or Govt run schools to more upscale St. Anselm’s and Mayur). This meant that till the major centres of administration remained in the city, there would still be opportunity and prosperity, with allied businesses of trading and services flourishing. But somewhere in the last 50 yrs, the power-that-be realised that they had no incentives in keeping large powers of administration in Ajmer. Unfortunately, they were never as bright to keep a Gandhinagar different from Ahmedabad (or Canberra different from Sydney) – atleast, that would have kept the city clean and infra-healthy.
Where it leaves the city is that the bright ones, who are fortunate to find an opportunity like ourselves, flee and lament later at the slow development in their beloved home town ; and those who could not leave but CHOSE to stay back, do enjoy living in the enviable and comfortable surroundings and  raise their children in the eternal Ajmeri hope that some day it would be the brightest city in Rajasthan, besides Jaipur. I am caught in between  – since I carry the eternal Ajmeri hope that now when Jaipur becomes the modern age Metro it always threatens to, ancillary towns like Ajmer would eventually bloom but the realist in me finds myself pleading every year with friends and family with years left in their productive age to “come out”.
In many ways, the tale of Ajmer is the tale of many small towns in Middle-India – towns populated with hard working eternal hopefuls; towns which are a promise unto themeselves – promises, which ironically, would never get redeemed as the children of these people move to make Jaipurs and Coimbatores compete/complement Noida and Bangalore. 
On balance, too bad for Ajmer, not too bad for India (Hopefully ! -see, as I said, people of Ajmer are and only breed eternal hopefuls)

Indra Nooyi’s Graduation Remarks

Good evening, everyone. Dean Hubbard, distinguished faculty, honored graduates, relieved parents, family, and friends, it’s a distinct pleasure to be in New York City this evening to celebrate the biggest milestone to date in the lives of you, the young men and women before us: your graduation from Columbia University Business School. It may surprise you, graduates, but as big a night as this is for you, it’s an even bigger night for your parents.

They may look calm and collected as they sit in the audience, but deep inside they’re doing cartwheels, dancing the Macarena, and practically speaking in tongues, they’re so excited. This is what happens when parents anticipate that their bank accounts will soon rehydrate after being bone-dry for two years. So, for everyone here this evening, it’s a very special occasion. And I’m delighted to share it with you.

I am keenly aware that graduates traditionally refer to our time together this evening as the calm before the storm. Some graduates — perhaps those who minored in self-awareness — refer to the commencement address as “the snooze before the booze.” However you describe my comments this evening, please know that I understand. It wasn’t that long ago that I was in your place. And I remember the day well. I knew that I owed my parents — my financial benefactors — this opportunity to revel in our mutual accomplishment. Yet, as the guy at the podium droned on about values, goals, and how to make my dreams take flight, I remember desperately checking and rechecking my watch. I thought, “I deserve to party, and this codger’s cramping my style!” In one of life’s true ironies, I am now that codger. Well…I’m the female equivalent. A codg-ette, I guess. And I now understand that values, goals, and how to make dreams take flight, really are important. So being a firm believer that hindsight is one of life’s greatest teachers, allow me to make belated amends. To that distinguished, erudite, and absolutely brilliant man whom I silently dissed many years ago: mea culpa. Big, BIG mea culpa!

This evening, graduates, I want to share a few thoughts about a topic that should be near and dear to your hearts: the world of global business. But, I’m going to present this topic in a way that you probably haven’t considered before. I’m going to take a look at how the United States is often perceived in global business, what causes this perception, and what we can do about it. To help me, I’m going to make use of a model. To begin, I’d like you to consider your hand. That’s right: your hand. Other than the fact that mine desperately needs a manicure, it’s a pretty typical hand. But, what I want you to notice, in particular, is that the five fingers are not the same. One is short and thick, one tiny, and the other three are different as well. And yet, as in perhaps no other part of our bodies, the fingers work in harmony without us even thinking about them individually. Whether we attempt to grasp a dime on a slick, marble surface, a child’s arm as we cross the street, or a financial report, we don’t consciously say, “OK, move these fingers here, raise this one, turn this one under, now clamp together. Got it!” We just think about what we want to do and it happens. Our fingers — as different as they are — coexist to create a critically important whole.

This unique way of looking at my hand was just one result of hot summer evenings in my childhood home in Madras, India. My mother, sister, and I would sit at our kitchen table and — for lack of a better phrase — think big thoughts. One of those thoughts was this difference in our fingers and how, despite their differences, they worked together to create a wonderful tool.

As I grew up and started to study geography, I remember being told that the five fingers can be thought of as the five major continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. Now, let me issue a profound apology to both Australia and Antarctica. I bear neither of these continents any ill will. It’s just that we humans have only five fingers on each hand, so my analogy doesn’t work with seven continents.

Clearly, the point of my story is more important that geographical accuracy! First, let’s consider our little finger. Think of this finger as Africa. Africa is the little finger not because of Africa’s size, but because of its place on the world’s stage. From an economic standpoint, Africa has yet to catch up with her sister continents. And yet, when our little finger hurts, it affects the whole hand. Our thumb is Asia: strong, powerful, and ready to assert herself as a major player on the world’s economic stage. Our index, or pointer finger, is Europe. Europe is the cradle of democracy and pointed the way for western civilization and the laws we use in conducting global business. The ring finger is South America, including Latin America. Is this appropriate, or what? The ring finger symbolizes love and commitment to another person. Both Latin and South America are hot, passionate, and filled with the sensuous beats of the mambo, samba, and tango: three dances that — if done right — can almost guarantee you and your partner will be buying furniture together.

This analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and, in particular, the United States. As the longest of the fingers, it really stands out. The middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively. This is a really good thing, and has given the U.S. a leg up in global business since the end of World War I. However, if used inappropriately — just like the U.S. itself — the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble. You know what I’m talking about. In fact, I suspect you’re hoping that I’ll demonstrate what I mean. And trust me, I’m not looking for volunteers to model. Discretion being the better part of valor…I think I’ll pass.

What is most crucial to my analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents, is that each of us in the U.S. — the long middle finger — must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand ..not the finger. Sometimes this is very difficult. Because the U.S. — the middle finger — sticks out so much, we can send the wrong message unintentionally. Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand — giving strength and purpose to the rest of the fingers — but, instead, scratching our nose and sending a far different signal. I’d challenge each of you to think about how critically important it is for every finger on your hand to rise and bend together. You cannot simply “allow” the other four fingers to rise only when you want them to. If you’ve ever even tried to do that, you know how clumsy and uncoordinated it is. My point here is that it’s not enough just to understand that the other fingers coexist. We’ve got to consciously and actively ensure that every one of them stands tall together, or that they bend together when needed.

Today, as each of you ends one chapter in your young lives and begins another, I want you to consider how you will conduct your business careers so that the other continents see you extending a hand…not the finger. Graduates, it’s not that hard. You can change and shape the attitudes and opinions of the other fingers — the other continents and their peoples — by simply ascribing positive intent to all your international business transactions.

If you fail, or if you are careless, here’s a perfect example of what can happen: A U.S. businesswoman was recently in Beijing, China, on an international training assignment for a luxury hotel chain. The chain was rebranding an older Beijing hotel. As such, the toilets in the hotel had yet to be upgraded. There were no porcelain commodes, just holes in the floor. Until recently, this was the standard procedure in China. Now, 8,000 miles removed from the scene, you and I — and most Americans — can shake our heads and giggle at the physical contortions and delicate motor skills necessary to make the best of this situation. We’re simply not used to it. But to loudly and insultingly verbalize these feelings onsite, in front of the employees and guests of the host country, is bush league. And yet, that’s exactly what this woman observed. In the hotel’s bar, the woman overheard a group of five American businessmen loudly making fun of the hotel’s lavatory facilities. As the drinks flowed, the crass and vulgar comments grew louder, and actually took on an angry, jingoistic tone. While these Americans couldn’t speak a word of Chinese, their Chinese hosts spoke English very well, and understood every word the men were saying. And we wonder why the world views many Americans as boorish and culturally insensitive. This incident should make it abundantly clear. These men were not giving China a hand. They were giving China the finger. This finger was red, white, and blue, and had “the United States” stamped all over it.

Graduates, it pains me greatly that this view of America persists. Although I’m a daughter of India, I’m an American businesswoman. My family and I are citizens of this great country. This land we call home is a most loving and ever-giving nation — a Promised Land that we love dearly in return. And it represents a true force that, if used for good, can steady the hand — along with global economies and cultures. Yet to see us frequently stub our fingers on the international business and political stage is deeply troubling. Truth be told, the behaviors of a few sully the perception for all of us. And we know how often perception is mistaken for reality.

We can do better. We should do better. With your help, with your empathy, with your positive intent as representatives of the U.S. in global business, we will do better. Now, as never before, it’s important that we give the world a hand…not the finger. In conclusion, graduates, I want to return to my introductory comments this evening. I observed that as big a night as this is for you, it’s an even bigger night for your parents. I ascribed their happiness to looking forward to a few more “George Washingtons” in their bank accounts. While this is certainly true, there is another reason. Each of your parents believes that their hard work has paid off. Finally! They believe that maybe — just maybe — they have raised and nurtured the next Jack Welch, Meg Whitman, or Patricia Russo. Don’t disappoint them. Don’t disappoint your companies. And don’t disappoint yourselves. As you begin your business careers, and as you travel throughout the world to assure America’s continued global economic leadership, remember your hand. And remember to do your part to influence perception. Remember that the middle finger — the United States — always stands out.

If you’re smart, if you exhibit emotional intelligence as well as academic intelligence, if you ascribe positive intent to all your actions on the international business stage, this can be a great advantag But if you aren’t careful — if you stomp around in a tone-deaf fog like the ignoramus in Beijing — it will also get you in trouble. And when it does, you will have only yourself to blame.

Graduates, as you aggressively compete on the international business stage, understand that the five major continents and their peoples — the five fingers of your hand — each have their own strengths and their own contributions to make. Just as each of your fingers must coexist to create a critically important tool, each of the five major continents must also coexist to create a world in balance. You, as an American businessperson, will either contribute to or take away from, this balance. So remember, when you extend your arm to colleagues and peoples from other countries, make sure that you’re giving a hand, not the finger.

You will help your country, your company, and yourself, more than you will ever know. Thank you very much.