Sep 152016
 

I wrote this for She the People, earlier this week

Many years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s, dystopian novel, Handmaid’s Tale. Set around a plausible tomorrow, it looks at a world where fertility has plummeted, and there are a special category of women   who are kept especially for reproductive purposes. As I read the “Politics of the Womb” by Pinki Virani a frightening today began to emerge. Where there are women, whose only value to the world seems to be the eggs that she produces, the uterus that she has, and the womb that she rents.

A riot, in very slow motion, is being engineered on the woman inside her body; to take her apart, part by profitable part.

The slow rampage is in the name of God – for hers is the womb and she shall conceive.

In the name of science – for hers is the hostile uterus and medical evaluation must arbitrate. ……The world over, the combined might of religion and science has converged to martial many a uterus with a child. At any cost; to the woman, to her baby.

The opening lines of Pinki Virani’s long hard look at the surrogacy industry, hits you in the gut, and pulls you into a narrative structure that takes you into the universe of uterus pimp; the woman (who is the walking uterus; IVF clinics that charge, and charge, and charge;  the desperate, would be,  parents who want to have a biological child; and the mad rush for designer babies. Politics of the Womb – The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy and Modified Babies is both a behind the scenes look at the new industry that seems to have grown without regulation;  the ethics of such work; and a normative framework for regulation. It is also a manifesto of the rights of the unborn child. Someone has to speak for the child, and Ms Virani makes a very strong case for children born of IVF.

 

The books looks at how expensive  IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) treatment  is being pushed as the first option, on desperate parents, when there are a gamut of other options, that could spare the prospective parents both an expensive bill, as well as physical and mental trauma. There is between 72-80% failure rate per IVF cycle. Less than a third of people who start the IVF treatment, come away with a baby. The costs-  financial, physical and emotional – are seldom publicized or discussed. And, all this in the backdrop of an  industry that sells a myth of fertility, and downplays the medical risks both to the mother and those that may occur to the child. Virani  looks at the data surrounding IVF and birth defects, that leads to children being born autistic, and  with mental retardation. The risk of babies conceived through Ivf or Icsi (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) is 37% higher than babies conceived naturally. “Collateral damage” says a doctor, on the side effects, and birth defects.

Virani’s anger against the commoditization of the uterus, and its commercialization, is palpable. When she quotes doctors, involved in the baby making business,  she lets their callousness and utter disregard for the woman’s body, and the reproductive process , stay there unvarnished. “What is a uterus, it is like a room. Repaint, redecorate any number of times”’, Virani quotes a doctor saying.

Surrogacy is in the news of late, because of the bill being discussed in Parliament, as well as the Government’s banning of commercial surrogacy. In light of the high pitched conversations around this topic, it might be worthwhile to read the “Politics of the Womb” to look at the issue in a holistic manner.

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(Politics of the Womb; The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy & Modified Babies; by Pinki Virani; Viking; Rs 599; Pages 304)

Apr 182016
 

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I can’t remember if I saw, the original Jungle Book on television, or in the cinema hall. But, i remember watching it the first time, with complete delight. I loved the characters – Bagheera, the panther who is Mowgli‘s guardian angel in the jungle, Baloo – the sloth bear who had nary a care in the world; the vultures like the Beatles, and of course, the George Sanders voiced Sher Khan – who was as menacing as a Disney film would let him be. Since the first viewing, i have seen the film many, many times – along with the other Disney favorite, Dumbo – and cried buckets of tears each single time, when Mowgli approaches the prone form of Baloo.

The 2016 adaptation of Jungle Book is not a fun and frolic run through the jungles, like the earlier avtaar. It is a film for a grittier, more violent world – where nothing is what it seems.

The story remains the same. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) , human cub, brought up by a pack of wolves, has to be returned to the ‘man village’ before Sher Khan (the man-eating tiger)  kills him. Bagheera volunteers to do the needful.  Along, the way there are many adventures and old favorites return in a new avtaar.

Scarlet Johansen as the python Kaa is quite fantastic

Christopher Walken plays King Louie, with the kind of manic psychoticness that only he can bring to a role. The sheer insanity of the character reminded me of Marlon Brando’s outing in Apocalypse Now‘my ears have ears’ he tells a stunned Mowgli, as he asks the man cub to share the secret o the red flower (fire) with the monkeys.

But, as with the original film – it is Bagheera (ably voiced by Ben Kingsley), Baloo (Bill Murray, thankfully toned down) as the stern dad and mad uncle figures, who provide the contrasts in ‘good’, the boy’s role models. Hopefully Mowgli will grow up with Bagheera’s moral compass and Baloo’s sense of fun.  The interplay between them, is a flavour carried forward from the older film (and the book)

Sher Khan (Idris Elba, as the menacing predator/stalker), is chillingly focused. His pathological hatred towards humans in general, and Mowgli in particular, have driven him over the edge. It is from this precipice of insanity that you see the character unraveling. In his mind, he is fighting the righteous war. Killing humans before humans kill him (and all of them). And, his rage at being thwarted is chillingly brutal.

Neel Sethi as Mowlgi is entirely believable. There were parts you think – God how did his parents allow him to run around with wild animals, till the rational part of the brain tell you – CGI. Given that a child of his age was in a green screen environment, his performance is quite superlative.

The real star of the show is the breath taking CGI. The jungle looks real. The water buffaloes, the hedgehogs, the python skin, the python, look real. The tiger is all together real. The bit where Kaa is trying to hypnotise Mowgli, and you have a shot from Mowgli’s eye level, the python in full glory – you find yourself retreating into your seat.

As entertaining as it was, it was also educational. I got more on understanding wildlife from this film, than through a series of animal world features.  You appreciate how strong a tiger’s legs are, in the sequence where you see Sher Khan’s legs in fully muscular, sinewy glory,  you understand, how they can kill.   the minute observation about animal movements, have been well researched and recreated by the CGI team. This is possibly as close to a real world experience of a jungle and animal life that most kids are going to get (most adults too).

It is not just that, it is also the simple appreciation of the natural habitat and weather patterns.
There is a scene, almost at the beginning, where they show the impact of lack of rain, on the forest. The simulated ‘time lapse’  CGI in describing this is awe inspiring. I think that any school going child, watching that scene, would have learnt more from the 1 minute or so sequence, on drought and it’s impact on forests, than the way it is taught in schools today. The sequence where the monsoons begin, in full glory, and it’s impact on the forest – it is seeing it in a 30 second scene, that makes the power of nature seem all the more real.  The sequence of the water buffaloes stampeding through the countryside, in their quest for water, while Mowgli makes his escape from Sher khan (possibly the best sequence in the film). It would be so cool to teach kids about migratory patterns of animals looking for water,  through a sequence like this. I seriously think it is a must watch for children, it works on multiple levels.

Is it violent? About, As violent as a discovery channel film on how tigers hunt for prey.

I am going to end this one, with an absolutely fabulous rendition of “Wanna be just like you”, by a rasping Christopher Walken

Mar 272016
 

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All in all, it wasn’t quite as bad as the critics made it out to be. Definitely worth a watch on the big screen.

The film is set some 20 years after Batman first picks up his cape and cowl. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is a darker Batman than the one’s we have seen before. He brands criminals with the bat symbol (that leads to their death in prison); he is coping with the death of a Robin (killed by Joker); and he drinks more than he should. Also, he is sure Superman (Henry Cavil) is upto no good, and has God like plans to dominate the world.

Superman is conflicted – why he is conflicted is never explained in this film (i guess one has to brush up on Man of Steel to figure it out). Maybe he is getting over the killing of Zod or maybe he is figuring his relationship with Lois Lane; but, there is certainly a tortured hero air about him. And, both he and his alter ego Clark Kent have begun taking interest in the work of Batman .

Lex Luthor is the most irritating Bat Villain I have seen in eons. He makes Danny De Vito’s Penguin (who i loathed) seem tolerable. Jesse Eisenberg plays Luthor as a cross between Mark Zukenberg and the Joker. And everytime he was on screen, i had this terrible urge to slap him.  Oh, and Lex Luthor unleashes Doomsday – and all those of you who are comic book fans know what happens next. 

Wonderwoman though she is never introduced as that (rather as Diana Prince, her alter ego) has stunning screen presence. Gal Gadot wears that ridiculous costume with such nonchalance, that you barely notice that she is wearing a single piece swimsuit with lots of metal sticking out.

The film has more dream sequences than a Hindi movie – and most of it is about people getting killed.

My problem with the film, is that you needed to know comic book continuity to get a lot of the stuff going on. Be it the death of Robin (the costume in the bat cave with Joker’s epitaph); or Diana Prince ; or even Lex Luthor’s relationship with Superman (or indeed with Bruce Wayne). Also the allusions to the comic book universe are there – there is a stunning dream sequence, where a rebel Batman is fighting a Superman who has taken over the world (Red Sun), or the interruption of Flash warning Batman (one of the  crisis books, i forget which one). There are heavy costume influences from the Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller)

Ben Affleck makes for a good older Batman. I can see Christian Bale’s Batman growing up to be this. Henry Cavil is better in this than in his first outing as Superman. Jeremy Irons makes for a rather scruffy Alfred. Amy Adams as Lois Lane – is a plot device, when ever the plot gets stuck, she is rescued by Superman. Holly Hunter is wasted. Jesse Eisenberg was dreadful (and i am being kind).

My other problem with the film is that it takes itself too seriously. Once you set up a hero to be a God or as near a God as possible, it possibly strips the fun part of being human from it. It will help if comic books feel like comic books, and not like a Shakespearean Tragedy. i kept wanting to shout at the screen “lighten up, it is a comic book, superhero team up”. Seriously, directors of Batman movies should take inspiration from Grant Morrison’s style, not Frank Miller. So much angst gets overwhelming.

But, was it a bad film – not by any stretch of imagination. It held together well.  It was enjoyable, and I am looking forward to the Justice League and all the other films that will follow.

Looks like it is Darkseid up next or Brainiac – Lex Luthor’s final promise. And the Justice League. Should be interesting.

Jul 062014
 

He thought she was a warmonger; she thought he was helping along a genocide.

Bass, Gary J. (2013-10-01). The Blood Telegram (Kindle Location 5592). . Kindle Edition.

(Gary Bass on the relationship between President Nixon and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi)

Among the more brutal events in the 20th century, was the birth of Bangladesh. And this is despite the fact that the holocaust and the partition of India took place in same 100 year span. The mass killings in East Pakistan, as it was then, was especially cold blooded because of two reasons a) the casualness with which people were being murdered b) the lack of reaction of western powers, especially the USA.  It is a testament to the brilliance of the perception management of the Pakistanis, that they could, in cold blood, murder their own people and get away with it. I also wonder, if  the west, especially the Americans, had clamped down on the sadism and excesses of the Pakistani armed forces at that point in time, would Pakistan have been such a failed state today. While the Germans, for generations, will have to bear the cross of the holocaust, the Pakistanis have gotten away scot free with being tarred with the same brush. There is little spoken about the issue, even less written about it. It is as though the sub-continent – apart from a few troubled souls, want to brush the stigma of targeted killing, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, mass rape, mass displacement, and genocide from our collective consciousness.  It allows those in South Asia to slot ‘genocide’ as an activity that happens elsewhere,  and it helps the West maintain its image of Pakistan as this cuddly, albeit, misunderstood entity.

The Blood Telegram - by Gary Bass

The Blood Telegram – by Gary Bass

Gary Bass‘ book “The Blood Telegram : Nixon, Kissinger & a Hidden Genocide” spares no punches in its description of the bloody events that led up to the birth of Bangladesh,  especially,  when it looks at the role played by the then US President Nixon, and his Secretary of State Kissinger and their attempts in hushing up the entire event. As the author points out one crucial difference between the events in East Pakistan and other instances of genocide, where the US was a non participant

Pakistan’s slaughter of its Bengalis in 1971 is starkly different. Here the United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments.

The American tango with Pakistan, says Bass, was due to two reasons. One was that the Americans were using Gen Yahya Khan – an alcoholic megalomaniac, whom Kissinger thought was a moron – as their conduit to establish a working relationship with China, and the second was, rather more petty, that Nixon loathed Indira Gandhi (an emotion that was fully reciprocated) and quite liked Yahya Khan. Ultimately when you take away all the strategy, and the realpolitik (there was an alternative route to mending fences with China), and the lofty terms – it boiled down to less of National Interest and the ‘good of humanity’ at one end, and more of personal animosity and camaraderie at the other.

“I don’t like the Indians,” Nixon snapped at the height of the Bengali crisis.

Late in the book, Bass qoutes Nixon on India

“I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about India. There are 400 million Indians.” Keating corrected him; there were actually 550 million Indians. Nixon was surprised: “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do.”

Bass brings alive the interplay between the various nations and their leaders with each other, at the same time as driving home the viciousness of the Pakistani action in East Pakistan, that ultimately led to the birth of Bangladesh. The author notes,

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis.

It is a crying shame that Nixon and Kissinger were never called to account on the brutalities and scale of murders  in East Pakistan.

In the Blood Telegram, the story of the birth of Bangladesh is told at three levels – the story of an American Presidency that wanted to leave the restoration of links with China as its legacy; the story of an India, led by Indira Gandhi that was isolated in its support for the Bengali cause;  and a man called Archer Blood, the American counsel general in Dacca, whose relentless bombarding of the State Department with clinical observations of ethnic cleansing, murder and genocide gave the world the first indication of the level of bloodshed taking place in East Pakistan. The narrative moves seamlessly between the machinations at the State Department, Washington; Delhi and the interactions that the Government of India – which did not have the clout that it has now – with various nations and governments – hearing no most of the time; and Archer Blood in Dacca who has to choose between his career and his conscience. The Americans do not come out of this smelling of roses. If anything they look kind of flatfooted and clumsy (not to mention callous & woolly brained) in their decision making. Looking at the world around us today and US decisions, it seems that their penchant for poor decision making persists.

Archer, much to the chagrin of Nixon and Kissinger does not back down from documenting that which was distasteful to his political bosses. A decent man, he goes about his work with precision and the quiet rage of the righteous. He especially highlighted the plight of the Hindus in East Pakistan who bore the blunt of the Pakistani Army blood lust. 6 million Hindus fled East Pakistan. Till date, the numbers of dead, are at best, fuzzy. Entire villages were burnt to the ground, those who escaped to terrified to return. People are burnt alive, shot randomly, men picked out and killed, women raped and murdered – the stories of the genocide are recounted in a chilling matter of fact manner.

Blood finally gets his transfer orders out of Dacca

The chapter that deals with Nixon and Kissinger meeting Indira Gandhi and Haskar – a meeting before the war –  is worth its weight in gold. if India, had sold tickets for it then, there may have been no national debt now.

India would win on the battlefield, Nixon said, but a war would be “incalculably dangerous.” With the superpowers involved on opposite sides, it would threaten world peace. Hinting broadly at a possible Chinese attack on India, he told the prime minister that a war might not be limited to only India and Pakistan. Gandhi was blunter— if anything, less tactful than Nixon. Kissinger later wrote that her tone was that of “a professor praising a slightly  backward student,” which Nixon received with the “glassy-eyed politeness” that he showed when trying to muscle down his resentment. She ripped into U.S. arms shipments to Pakistan, which had outraged the Indian people, despite her efforts to restrain her public.

The book is a really good read, it is almost as thought i was the fly on the wall while history is unfolding.  When the Indian Government goes from nation to nation asking for support, it realizes that this is a battle that it needs to fight alone.

“Mrs. Gandhi went around the world saying this is a genocide ,” says Admiral Mihir Roy of the Indian navy. “Nobody listened to her.”

The relationship between the leaders, their aides and the world at large is reconstructed extremely well. More so, from the perspective of the Americans – who have copious notes and recordings of that era; and less from India – where papers from that era are probably still classified. The isolation of India, although not explicitly stated in the book, comes through very clearly. It was a lone, long battle, with the very real threat of China joining in on the side of Pakistan. When war officially began, it did so when Pakistan bombed Indian on the 3rd of December. Mrs. Gandhi is reported to have said, “Thank God, they’ve attacked us.” In Parliament she said –

“We meet as a fighting Parliament,” Gandhi stormed before the Lok Sabha. “A war has been forced upon us, a war we did not seek and did our utmost to prevent.”

A war that India won, to lead to the birth of Bangladesh.

If the history of the sub continent fascinates you, then this should be on the must read list.

Nov 012012
 

A long time ago, just about when i turned 10 – treats were comics. Dad would, twice a month, bring home Amar Chitra Katha comics. You must remember that this was a time when the main source of entertainment was radio. TV was not available, and we were brought up with the reading habit.

History, Mythology – a  whole bunch of our generation grew up loving history, mythology because of these comics.

Yesterday, I went to see Sons of Ram (Luv Kush) and the moment the ACK logo came up – i flashed back into the past and got swept away in the nostalgia.

The film starts with a nightmare. King Ram is alone – having sent his wife away – and is haunted by the decision. His city is not doing too well for itself, and the solution is the Ashwamedha Yagna.

There in the jungle, Sita (Sunidhi Chauhan) is bringing up two incredibly talented, but terribly bratty kids and facing all the issues a single mom will face.

The kids capture the Horse of the Ashwamedha Yagna – and now they have to face their father in battle.

The adaptation of an old classic to something that children of today will like – has been done verywell. children in the audience (yes i watch the audience watching at times – old habit difficult to shake off) were laughing at the right points and cheering at others. The support cast works very well. All of Luv & Kush’s friends in the ashram are finely etched characters.  and what worked for me is it is not just about  cutesey kids. the film has a tremendous emotional connect. between Ram and Sita, between the boys, between the friends. Valmiki was a total rockstar, and Gandharva  an inspired addition. Iespecially liked Lakshman as the exasperated general whom the kids run rings around.  The action scenes are fun. and the music catchy.  The art was lovely, and the 3d works well for this film – the depth that you need for the jungle scenes and the fight scenes is captured very well.

What works for the film – the story telling. The characters are very human, very real and very identifiable.Ram’s humanity more than divinity struck me. He is real, grappling with real emotions while trying to do the right thing. Sita is a mother who wonders if she has done the right thing, by bringing up her kids by herself. “am i a good mother’. The bachcha party led by Luv & Khush are interesting and modern .   It is a great family film – with different members of the family identifying with different aspects of the film.Right and wrong, which is so integral   to the Ramayan, is conveyed in a non-preachy manner.

My suggestion is use your   kids as an excuse and go watch 😀 you will enjoy it as much as them 😀