So long suckers!

A great majority of the skill based non-immigrants waiting to legally immigrate to the US (in simple words, temporary worker visa holders waiting to get their green cards) are from South Asia. While these workers don’t win by numbers compared to illegal workers, they are definitely an asset to the American society. Largely law abiding, highly motivated and skilled, by some estimates, these people are responsible for starting upto 25% of the companies in the Silicon Valley.

These people have waiting patiently for years working their way through grad school or working in different jobs in different states in the hope of achieving that ever elusive American dream, and yet, when the US lawmakers had the chance to set the system right, they screwed this law abiding group, sending a strong message that in the US, illegal workers get the priority. US lawmakers often accuse President Bush of living in a bubble, but one wonders what kind of bubble are they themselves living in? Or maybe, they are not living in the bubble at all, because despite all the platitudes about this bill being forward looking, it actually is exceedingly favorible towards illegal workers. It seems like the lobbies of illegal immigrants were present behind closed doors when details of this bill were being thrashed out. You can read about some of the many flaws of this bill here, but to highlight just a few absolutely absurd ones:

  1. Instead of the current allocation of 140,000 immigrant visas (green card) to skilled workers, this bill brings it down to 90,000.
  2. It will require H1B holders to renew their visas on an annual basis.
  3. Under its merit based points system, an agriculture worker can earn 25 points for working 100 days a year for 5 years, while a skilled individual will get 10 points for working the same number of years!
  4. Economic contribution by the undocumented is recognized by awarding points for property ownership but not for people working legally.

Legal workers in the US have for years maintained the right of the United States to implement an immigration system that is fair and is in the best national interest of the country. By any reasonable standards, the current bill is neither in the best national interest of the US, nor does it offer a fair shake to the people who’ve been law abiding residents for years.

As of now, it seems like the powerful lobbies of Hispanic workers will be able to amend this bill even more in the favor of illegal workers while legal immigrants, majority of them do not have the time or the inclination to be activists, will be left holding the bag.

A Journey Down the Ganga

Philip Reeves, the National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent has just finished a brilliant radio series on his journey along the Ganga river in India. In five parts of about 10 minutes each, he explores life along the river. NPR has archived the entire series on its website – it is a fascinating journey and well worth the time spent listening to it.

Some of you might feel offended by the fact that Mr. Reeves talks about the uglier facts about India’s economic progress, the people who are being left behind and might attribute it to the propensity of the foreign journalists to highlight only the bad aspects about India. My thinking is that, “Hey! don’t kill the messenger”. In fact, it is a shame that for decades, we have to rely on foreign journalists to bring us such thoughtful and provoking pieces of reportage. Listen to it and see if something stirs in your middle-class soul.

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

-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.

– 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)


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

Turkana Boy

What is the most dangerous product or idea exported from the US to the world? Foodies might say Big Mac and Coke! Rugby purists might say American Football! Health concious migh say their portion sizes! Fashion concious might say Paris Hilton!

While all these might be valid choices, I contend that one of the most dangerous exports from the US is evangelical Christianity. Not the entire spectrum of evangelical Christianity but a rather virulent and violent strain of it that unfortunately, like all mutated organisms is spreading fast. This particular form of Christianity insists on the Bible being the literal truth and instinctively opposes scientific enquiry. In the US, it manifests itself in the form of anti-abortion movememnt, anti-gay rights movement, anti-evolution movement, anti-stem cell movement and finally [tongue firmly in cheek] the anti-intelligence movement which marks the two time victory of the current US President as its ultimate success.

Now, this strain has reared its head in Africa. Here’s what’s going on:

Feb. 7, 2007 — Deep in the dusty, unlit corridors of Kenya’s national museum, locked away in a plain-looking cabinet, is one of mankind’s oldest relics: Turkana Boy, as he is known, the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found.

But his first public display later this year is at the heart of a growing storm — one pitting scientists against Kenya’s powerful and popular evangelical Christian movement. The debate over evolution vs. creationism — once largely confined to the United States — has arrived in a country known as the cradle of mankind.

“I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it,” says Bishop Boniface Adoyo, head of Kenya’s 35 evangelical denominations, which he claims have 10 million followers. “These sorts of silly views are killing our faith.”

He’s calling on his flock to boycott the exhibition and has demanded the museum relegate the fossil collection to a back room – along with some kind of notice saying evolution is not a fact but merely one of a number of theories.

Really Mr. Adoyo? Just one of a number of theories? Just like Mr. Bush never tires of saying that Global warming is merely one of a number of theories? Just like the theory that the confusing butterfly ballot and an openly partisan election board in Florida and Supreme Court lead to Mr. Bush’s “victory” in 2000?

These unreasonable and unscientific men have already done enough damage to scientific enquiry and this seems to be a worldwide phenomena. The worst aspect of fundamentalism in religion is not that it is fundamentalism, but that fundamentalism in one religion, specially in a well connected world like ours, encourages other religions to be even more fundamentalist. There have already been fears that the actions of hardcore evangelist Christians are fueling religious tensions in the middle east and other tinderboxes around the world. Africa, the cradle of civilization, with its vast illiterate and desperately poor population could soon become the next battleground between the two “revealed” religions.