Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Story of a Shirt and a Fish

One day, Paul Seabright went to buy a shirt. This shirt, he realized, was made of cotton that was produced in India, from seeds that were developed in the U.S., included artificial fibre made in Portugal, colored with dyes composed of substances from six other countries, has a collar lining that came from Brazil, was stitched on a machine from Germany, and was assembled in Malaysia.

This story behind the shirt prompted an article about how incredible it is that many an object we purchase and consume is manufactured and distributed around the world "without the intervention of any overall controlling intelligence." Seabright mulls over how natural this seems to millions who live in the "industrialized west," and goes on to narrate a wonderful little anecdote to make a point about the efficiency of the invisible hand:

After the break-up of the Soviet Union I was in discussion with a Russian official whose job it was to direct the production of bread in St Petersburg. “Please understand that we are keen to move towards a market system,” he told me. “But we need to understand the fundamental details of how such a system works. Tell me, for example: who is in charge of the supply of bread to London?” There was nothing naive about his question, because the answer (“nobody is in charge”), when one thinks carefully about it, is astonishingly hard to believe. Only in the industrialised West have we forgotten just how strange it is.

As Amit Varma points out, this is a nice story to use when faced with arguments about the continued importance of central planning and government intervention. But that phrase in the anecdote - nobody is in charge - in my opinion, comes with ethical blinders. It reminded me of another story - Darwin's Nightmare. This is a story of a fish (Nile Perch) that was introduced into Lake Victoria in Africa.

The Nile Perch, a voracious predator, extinguished almost the entire stock of the native fish species. However, the new fish multiplied so fast, that its white fillets are today exported all around the world.

Huge hulking ex-Soviet cargo planes come daily to collect the latest catch in exchange for their southbound cargo… Kalashnikovs and ammunitions for the uncounted wars in the dark center of the continent.
This booming multinational industry of fish and weapons has created an ungodly globalized alliance on the shores of the world’s biggest tropical lake: an army of local fishermen, World bank agents, homeless children, African ministers, EU-commissioners, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots.

The filmmaker, Hubert Sauper, was interviewed on NPR a few weeks back. When asked who, in his opinion, should be blamed for this state of affairs, he didn't have an answer. Things were so complicated, it is difficult to identify who/what was controlling things. He used a phrase - fragmentation of responsibility - to suggest how impossibly difficult it is for activists to intervene in situations such as this. Who, indeed, would an activist first talk to? The friendly Soviet pilots? World bank agents? The prostitutes? Let us leave aside this complicated question of activism aside for now.

Let us return to the story of the shirt. Where Paul Seabright falters, I feel, is in not bothering to point out that the story behind the shirt is so much more complicated. He writes that the story of the shirt he
"bought represents a triumph of international co-operation." Perhaps. But isn't there more to cotton from India grown with seeds developed in the U.S.? Doesn't a story of the shirt Seabright bought also carry traces of the upheavals in thousands of farmers' lives that the seeds from the U.S have wrought? Doesn't the shirt's story spiral out to include stories of hundreds of farmers committing suicides over the last few years? When he says "international co-operation," should he not consider the story of how the rules for co-operation were framed, and who got to speak up at these discussions?

I'm not suggesting that every story about a shirt track the myriad other stories that can indeed be told. What I am suggesting is - does the phrase "nobody is in charge" explain much, or does it in fact mask much more than it explains? Won't Sauper's approach - of mapping as carefully as possible, the many (seemingly bizarre) connections between various actors - help us tell better, truer and more engaging stories about the shirts we wear and the fish we eat than Seabright's distant "nobody is in charge" attitude?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Happy Gudi Padwa !

Gudi Padwa is New Year's day for Maharashtrians, and in 2006, it will be celebrated on March 30th! I have fond memories of celebrating gudi padwa - no school, new clothes, terrific food (with the sole exception of the spoonful of a concoction which contained leaves and flowers from the neem tree), and helping mom decorate the "gudi," a long pole atop which sits a small brass pot which holds a coconut, covered with a nice piece of cloth and decorated with leaves from the mango tree :)

Needless to say, many a story is spun around why we celebrate gudi padwa. Some say this is the day Brahma created the Universe, when the satyuga (the age of truth) was inaugurated, and when Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after slaying King Vali.

So what does one do to celebrate gudi padwa in upstate NY? No decorated gudi, but we make do with some wonderful kheer!

BBC Program on Desi Personalities

From DNA:

He’s covered the Olympic Games, tiger waves in new Guinea , global warming in Western Samoa, wars in Cambodia and tons of cricket. Now, Michael Peschardt, Australian correspondent for BBC, is looking forward to his new show, ‘Peschardt’s People’ that airs April onwards.

Peschardt samples lifestyles of the most famous and infamous people in the Asia-Pacific region. Author Shobhaa De, tycoon Dr Vijay Mallya and actor Preity Zinta are the three Indians he has on the show. “These are just a few people heard of in this region. This show brings out the beauty and wonder of these people and where they live,” he says.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Quick, what's the word for "gene" in Kannada?

I speak Kannada, but I've never heard someone use a Kannada word when they needed to use "gene" in a sentence. Ehsan Masood, in this article in Open democracy (via 3quarks daily) on the use of English for scientific research and writing suggests much is at stake.

The bulk of scientific research these days is reported in specialist journals published in Europe and the United States – and in the English language. Unless scientists in other parts of the world take more of a lead in innovation, languages such as Urdu will continue to need to "borrow" words such as "gene", "fertiliser", "biological", "pesticide" and "steroids".

And, as Masood rightly points out, the emphasis on English stems from a recognition that to be part of a scientific community and contribute to dialogues at global levels, there is no escaping the English language.

Carnatic musicians and Mimicry

In a few weeks from now, Carnatic music fans (or rasikas, if you prefer) in Bangalore will buy season passes to concerts that are held annually to coincide with Ramanavami (the mythical hero Rama's birthday) celebrations. This is Bangalore's version of the much more large-scale and prestigious December music season in Chennai. My parents attend these concerts, and usually tell me stories of how many youngsters are entering the Carnatic music scene, and how well they render some of their favorite compositions. And I've always been struck by how musicians' "originality" is evaluated on the basis of how well they render a centuries-old composition. To many who are not fans, this appears to be little more than mimicry and repetition, and Carnatic music is deemed a performative tradition that does not value "originality" in the sense of authoring new texts.

I've always struggled with this myself. I've enjoyed listening to my mother play the Veena, and knew at an intuitive level that she liked playing some songs over and over again not because she wished to imitate her guru, but because she truly enjoyed those songs. But I've also been a bit uncomfortable with accepting that mimicry is an art in itself. I'm not sure what Carnatic music aficionadoes would think of my drawing parallels with African American expression, but here's what Zora Neale Hurston says about how black aesthetics have been misread because of a "fixation on European notions of authorship and originality":
The Negro, the world over, is famous as a mimic. But this in no way damages his standing as an original. Mimicry is an art in itself. It it is not, then all art must fall by the same blow that strikes it down...moreover, the contention that the Negro imitates from a feeling of inferiority is incorrect. He mimics for the love of it...he does it as the mocking bird does it, for the love of it, and not because he wishes to be like the one imitated.

As I read this in Siva Vaidyanathan's book (Copyrights and Copywrongs), it led me to wonder how notions of authorship work in the world of Carnatic music. Is authorship "demystified," with the major concern being how well a performer renders a composition and how well s/he evokes a certain "bhava" (emotion) in the audience? Is the great Thyagaraja an author in the modern, legal sense of the term? Does a raaga have an author? Does the notion of "intellectual property" make any sense when we consider Carnatic music?

Monday, March 27, 2006

when I struggle for words...

I got some writing done today, but not enough, and the quality of the prose leaves much to be desired. On days like these, when I struggle for words and writing becomes frustrating and onerous, I tend to re-read passages that have stayed with me over the years. One of my favorite pieces of writing is an essay called Television Melodrama by David Thorburn, and one passage in particular always makes me pause. I read the passage a few times, ponder how some authors express so well what we often deem ineffable, and then return to my writing, reinvigorated. Here it is (the second sentence is my favorite):

"In order to understand television drama, and in order to find authentic standards for judging it as art, we must learn to recognize and to value the discipline, energy, and intelligence that must be expended by the actor who succeeds in creating what we too casually call a truthful or believable performance.

What happens when an actor's performance arouses our latent faculties of imaginative sympathy and moral judgment, when he causes us to acknowledge that what he is doing is true to the tangled potency of real experience, not simply impressive or clever, but true - what happens then is art."

Update: Rs.50 FM Station Shut Down

From (via Commons-law listserv):
A Central Government team raided Mansoorpur village in Bihar and shut down an FM radio station that was being run illegally. It was cheap and had become a part of the local community but ironically was also illegal. The residents of Vaishali may soon have to do without their favourite radio station - FM Radio Raghav Mansoorpur 1.

The state government is also not interested to have this FM Station run, as it has been running without a license. But the owner of Mansoorpur 1 and its fans are protesting the move. "Everybody here will protest. We all get a lot of information from this channel," a fan of Mansoorpur 1, Mohan says. "People won't get any information. We advertise the Pulse Polio program, give news. Nobody listens to tape. Everybody enjoys listening to my station," the owner of Mansoorpur 1, Raghav says. Run from a hut, it is the only source of entertainment for the villagers in and around Mansoorpur.

To read about FM radio licenses, and the short-sightedness of the Indian govt. when dealing with radio, go here, and here for a short take on the different phases of FM licensing.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Spike Lee goes to Bollywood...

That's right. Spike Lee decided to tap into the wonderful world of desi film music and picked up one of Rahman's best numbers, Chaiyya Chaiyaa (from Dil Se) to open his latest film (Inside Man). Michael Dequina (of Cinemarati) writes:
Lee even plays more or less the entire track over the whole main title sequence (though the version used sounded like the slightly abbreviated 2002 remix for the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced stage musical Bombay Dreams and not the original 1998 movie version), and then he plays a faithful new remix version over the entire closing crawl; the only major deviation in the reprise are some additional Terence Blanchard-contributed strings and a couple of surprisingly unobtrusive English rap verses contributed by Panjabi MC.

Many will dismiss this as nothing but Hollywood's nod to what is still an "alien," mis-interpreted, and grossly underestimated film industry. But then, these are the traces that some grad student might find intriguing as s/he plots a dissertation on the Bollywood-Hollywood encounter of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that is unfolding even as I write this.
(Sumati, thanks for the link!)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Simply South, #1

There aren't too many actresses in the Kannada film industry who can claim they've held their own against stars like Rajkumar. Here's a short piece on Kanchana, an actress who has worked not only with every major male star in Kannada cinema, but even with MGR and Sivaji Ganesan!

Meera Jasmine, in a very short span of time has impressed many (she won the National Best Actress Award in 2004). In this interview, she talks about her roles so far, and says she would consider acting in Hindi films if roles like those Shabana Azmi has played come her way.

"From a period drama to an action thriller, there's something for everyone this summer," says this report on what the Telugu film industry has in store.

And finally, a look at the different roles Urvashi, brilliant in many a comic role, is playing in films and on TV.

Simply South Fridays

Every Friday, this blog will feature links to interesting stories from the world of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam cinema. Why, you ask? For one, much work needs to be done to interrogate how "Bollywood" has come to define Indian cinema for much of the world. Two, The Hindu's Friday Review does a nice job of reporting on entertainment from cities that are media capitals in their own right - Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Thiruvananthapuram - and I learn much from those stories. And finally, the name. Simply South was a show on [V] back in the 90s which showcased regional films once a week. For a kid growing up in Bangalore, those 30 minutes were much-needed affirmation that the south (and not just Bombay) was also "cool," to be able to shout out, "we are also like this only!"

p.s. [V]'s line in India was: We are like this only. It was brilliant. It said: so what if you're a fan of Madhuri Dixit? It is your pop culture damn it, and if you think Madhuri is better than Madonna, so be it. Tell the world: we are like this only. So for somone like me, who liked Madhuri but also thought superstar Rajni was wicked cool, [V] didn't offer much. We were also like that only, but what to do...we were never cool enough for the bambaiyyas (folks from Bombay).

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The first radical, realist, feminist film from India?

The current issue of HIMAL has a very interesting piece on an Assamese filmmaker, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla (1903-51), and his 1935 film Joymoti. A polymath - he was a playwright, musician, poet, and writer - for this film, Agarwalla was producer, director, script writer, lyricist, music director, art director, choreographer, costume designer and editor all rolled into one!

Altaf Mazid writes:

He made only two films, far less than other filmmakers, yet with his first film alone he could be distinguished as a radical auteur of all India.
Joymoti, released in 1935, added a new chapter in the chronicles of Indian cinema, primarily in the discourse of realism. Further, Jyotiprasad was the only political filmmaker of pre-independent India, though there were many in post-independent India, starting with Ritwik Ghatak. Above all else, Joymoti is a nationalist film in its attempts to create a cultural world using the elements of Assamese society. It is the only work of its kind of that period.

The rest of the article is a really informative take on the many influences that shaped Agarwalla's work, the remarkable circumstances under which Joymoti was made, how he went about building a film studio (Chitraban), his understanding of how "innovative cinema" could be articulated to anti-colonial sentiments in India at the time, and how examining Joymoti can help us think through the question of "realism" in the world of Indian cinema. As Altaf Mazid, the author of this piece points out, so far, discussions of realism have been confined to mainstream Hindi cinema. "Even the phrase ‘regional reality’, which has been used for Pather Panchali," he suggests, "could be redefined by going back to this work of Jyotiprasad’s."

Altaf Mazid, a Guwahati-based filmmaker, has worked over the past few years to restore Joymoti. Go here to read an interview with Mazid where he describes how he went about restoring the film, and his plans to get the film into the international circuit.

Pic: Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla editing Joymoti
Pic Credit: Mitra Phukan

Monday, March 20, 2006


I watched Wide Angle's (PBS) documentary on outsourcing and the call center industry (1-800-India) last night, and let me just say, many a scene was cringe-worthy. The film does well in focusing on one operation - GECIS, in Gurgaon - instead of attempting to map the call center industry in multiple cities in India. The film also does well in approaching the call center industry as one that has transformed urban life in many, many tangible ways (leisure/entertainment, housing, food, transport, shopping, and so on). But what could've been an interesting examination of contemporary urban India ended up being a stereotypical take on the "effects" call center jobs have had on the young women who make up nearly half the workforce.

While some of the stories rung true, for the most part, the discussion was framed in terms of women in India being "liberated" and finding a sense of "gender equity" thanks to their call center jobs which have forced their friends and families to rethink gender norms. And lest the womens' stories allow any ambivalence to creep in, the voiceover ensures you interpret the documentary correctly: it is about Indians having to "balance traditional Indian family values with Western-style social and economic mores" (Wide-Angle). Tiring.

Convicted Criminal? Bollywood beckons...

From the BBC:

When little-known Bollywood director Nabh Kumar Raju was looking for six actors to star in his movie on the underworld, he had one criterion: they should have committed or had a brush with crime at some point of their lives.
The movie, called Hitlist, is based on six criminals getting together in India's financial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), and making a list of all the important people they intend to target.

"If real criminals or people who have had personal experiences with crime and law come forward and act in such a movie, then it is not acting for them, it becomes real. All the characters become themselves in the movie and dialogues will not seem like dialogues but actual conversation."

I suppose no one told Mr. Raju that back in 1996, a Kannada film (Om) starred actual Bangalore gangsters. My "regional" self gets all hot and bothered when journalists who report on "Bollywood" never cast a glance south towards the Tamil, Telugu, or Kannada film industries.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Ghulam, part two?

I wonder if Aamir Khan has heard about his namesake in Britain - a 19 year old lad billed "The Great British Pakistani Hope". Would the Khan who made one of Bollywood's decent boxing movies (well, at least he sang well...aati kya khandala) be interested in spinning a story around the "well-adjusted" Muslim "multicultural role model"?

Crossover films & the discourse of Corporatisation

Dev Benegal, of English August and Split Wide Open fame, has announced his next venture into "crossover" filmmaking will revolve around the famous Indian math whiz Srinivasa Ramanujan. Benegal will be collaborating with a Brit actor-director, Stephen Fry, who has also been interested in making a film on Ramanujan's life. As anyone who grew up with parents and teachers (in tamilnadu, particularly) who considered proficiency in math the only sure sign of intelligence will admit, Ramanujan's name was invoked very often. I, for one, can't wait to see this film.

This is interesting for another reason - this film will
"mark the teeing off the co-production between India and the United Kingdom; Fry is also in India for the official signing of the India-UK Film Co-production treaty" (Mid-Day). Such treaties need to be seen as part of a larger struggle over "corporatising" the Indian film industry. While TV has led the way here, the last few years have seen many, many attempts to quantify the different elements of the film apparatus. Consider this from the Indo-British Partnership Network:

The Entertainment Industry is currently worth Indian Rupees (INR) 166 billion ($4.3bn) and is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20 per cent by 2007 generating INR 419 billion ($9.4bn): Source KPMG.

A much needed Corporatisation of the industry is taking place with growth of professional management, accountability and the incorporation of best practices across the industry sectors.

We need to create a bridge, on which the UK and Indian Creative Industries can meet, facilitate business to business deals, access markets for content, leverage the creative and technical expertise, production and post production facilities, professional management skills and finance.

The important question "corporatisation" raises is this: how well do discursive constructs like "culture industries" or "creative industries" travel? How do we assess claims that "Bollywood" is now a global culture/creative industry? Can the markers and terms of a creative/culture industry in the 'West' - a free market economy, intellectual property, a fully commercialized culture industries sector, certains norms of creativity, etc. - be taken for granted in the Indian context? We need to examine carefully how consensus regarding "corporatisation" is being brokered - no easy task, considering the range of players involved (producers, directors, actors/actresses, distributors, dotcoms, the Indian state, NRIs/diaspora, banks/insurance firms/other financial institutions, and so on) all of whom bring their own desires and anxieties to bear on negotiating Indian film industry's entry into a transnational cultural sphere. And as we do this, we will come up against the limits of "creative industries," which will, in turn, push us to rethink key terms like creativity and intellectual property.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bollywood in China

I first learned about Hindi film music's popularity in China when I met a fellow grad student's mom who was visiting from Shanghai. The conversation presently turned to music, and to my utter amazement, she began singing a song (translated version) from a Raj Kapoor movie. Needless to say, I was fascinated at meeting someone who had been part of a generation that got to enjoy Indian cinema in China.

If someone gave me the money, I'd be thrilled to document China's encounter with Hindi cinema in the decades following the cultural revolution.*sigh* For now, I'll just point you all to a story in this week's Sunday magazine of The Hindu:

"The first time I heard a Hindi movie song I was four-years-old and I remember thinking it was music from heaven, so beautiful that I could listen to it again and again," recalls 24-year-old Hou Wei. She smiles dreamily and launches into a word-perfect rendition of Chadti Jawani Meri, from the 1971 Asha Parekh-Jeetendra film "Caravan".

But Hou Wei is not just any starry-eyed, Bollywood-infatuated youth. She is in fact one of Beijing's hottest entertainers having in the last couple of years become a sought-after performer at parties, weddings and restaurants, where bedecked in sparkling saris, she belts out a wide range of Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu songs.

Hou Wei will be traveling to India this month to "learn more about the culture" and to "find a suitable teacher."
"I have never had any formal training in Indian music and I feel this is a big disadvantage," she says. "But I have big dreams and if I try hard enough I can achieve them."

Wouldn't it be terrific if Hou Wei was roped into a film-music based TV-show? How about pairing her up with a music director in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa?!

Friday, March 17, 2006

What happened to the chapatis?

I recently saw the much-hyped Mangal Pandey: The Rising, and came away sorely disappointed. While the film was unsatisfactory in many ways, one thing bothered me greatly: there was no mention of chapatis.

I grew up hearing about the mysterious chapatis that were circulated in the Awadh and Bengal regions during the weeks leading up to the 1857 sepoy revolt. My history textbooks said so, and so did the comics. Why, oh why, did Ketan Mehta not include chapatis in his tale? Wasn't Farrukh Dhondy, the man who wrote the script, aware of the 21st century Sepoy who continues to track mysterious chapati? Hasn't Farrukh Dhondy read Homi Bhabha? Didn't anyone tell Ketan Mehta that a scene or two of chapatis being passed around and puzzled British officers might have added some spice to the film?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Songs for a Song"

Over the last 2-3 years, ringtones have been much hyped as a new revenue stream for producers. "Royalties from mobile phone ringtones are soon expected to replace sales of CDs as the chief source of income for music makers around India," reported siliconindia. Expectedly, songwriters began asking for a piece of the action. Producers, who claim complete ownership, aren't too thrilled about such demands. While this hasn't been sorted out, here is an interesting piece of trivia on how this issue played out in the good old days of All India Radio (AIR).

Back in the 80s, AIR paid producers Rs.1 for a song! And incredibly, this rate was unchanged since the time broadcasting was introduced in India! Film music was what kept Vividh Bharati going - without film music, AIR-babus could never have increased advertising rates the way they did (a 400% increase, says one Screen report). I found information on protests by producers, but couldn't dig up anything on how this was resolved.

Crushing Piracy

"The jumbo sized problem of software piracy in India is symbolically stamped out by an elephant at Nehru Place in New Delhi..."
[Times of India, 24-09-1999]

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Immigration Test, Dutch Style

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I read about this on India Uncut. This really takes Norman Tebbit's ideas re "assimilation" to a whole other level. I googled a bit and came across a story on another proposal that only Dutch be spoken on the streets. What is Iron Rita thinking?
Two men kissing in a park and a topless woman bather are featured in a film that will be shown to would-be immigrants to the Netherlands.The reactions of applicants — including Muslims — will be examined to see whether they are able to accept the country’s liberal attitudes.

Those sitting the test will be expected to identify William of Orange and to know which country Crown Princess Maxima comes from (Argentina) and whether hitting women and female circumcision are permitted.

Other key details from the story:

Applicants will sit the exam at one of 138 embassies around the world. They will answer 15 minutes of questions and those who pass the first stage will have to complete two “citizenship” tests over five years and swear a pledge of allegiance to Holland and its constitution.

A spokeswoman for Verdonk [that's Rita Verdonk] said an edited version of the DVD would be available for showing in Middle Eastern countries such as Iran where it would be illegal to possess images of homosexuality.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Pandit Nehru & the poet Nirala: an anecdote

Guha narrates a delightful story in a piece on Nehru and Nirala by way of suggesting that "the statesman and the poet belonged to an India that was very different from the one we live in." For more on Nirala, go here.

"MANY years ago, the anthropologist Triloki Narain Pandey told me a story featuring Jawaharlal Nehru and the poet Suryakant Tripathi "Nirala". The Prime Minister had just returned from a visit to the People's Republic of China. He was addressing a public meeting in his hometown, Allahabad, where Nirala then lived and where Triloki Pandey then studied. The poet sat in the front row, bare-bodied, his chest rubbed up with oil — for, he, a passionate wrestler, had come straight from a session at the akhara. He cut a striking figure, the shining torso contrasting with the white beard and shock of white hair.

Nehru accepted a garland or two from his admirers, before launching into his speech. "I have come from China," he began, "and heard there a story of a great king who had two sons. One was wise, the other stupid. When the boys reached adulthood, the king told the stupid one that he could have his throne, for he was fit only to be a ruler. But the wise one, he said, was destined for far greater things — he would be a poet." With these words, Nehru took the garland off his head and flung it as an offering at Nirala's feet."

$1/Rs.50 Radio Station in Trouble

A BBC story about an FM radio station run by Raghav Mahato in Mansoorpur village in Vaishali district of Bihar received much attention a couple of weeks back. Raghav set this up with transmission equipment that cost him about fifty rupess, and for close to 12 hours each day, informed and entertained villagers in a 20-km radius.

Amarnath Tewary writes for the BBC:

"Good morning! Welcome to Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1! Now listen to your favourite songs," announces anchor and friend Sambhu into a sellotape-plastered microphone surrounded by racks of local music tapes.

For the next 12 hours, Raghav Mahato's outback FM radio station plays films songs and broadcasts public interest messages on HIV and polio, and even snappy local news, including alerts on missing children and the opening of local shops.

Sad news is, this station is now in trouble. Raghav's attempts at broadcasting is illegal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933, which stipulates: no person shall possess wireless telegraphy apparatus except under and in accordance with a licence issued under this Act. If BAG Films, a company that has now obtained a licence to operate in Muzaffarpur, decides to report/sue Raghav, "hecould be punished with "imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees or with both" (

Image credits: BBC

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Rationalism in India: Immanuel Kant vs. Emperor Akbar

I will begin by saying I know precious little about either Kant or Akbar – this post is more about the choices that two desi academics have made in recent writings on the history, culture, and politics of India (Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, and Meera Nanda’s article which explores the cultural contradictions of Indian modernity).


Meera Nanda has been one of the most vocal critics of the “scientism that pervades modern Hinduism,” and has taken to task not only the right-wing types who have done much to conflate the Vedas with science, but also scholars of a postmodern persuasion who have (according to Nanda) bought into the notion that modern science “has no special claims to truth and to our convictions, for it is as much of a cultural construct of the West as other sciences are of their own cultures.”

I have been reading about these debates (and I will admit, as an admirer of the writings of Shiv Visvanathan and Ashis Nandy) over the past few years, so Nanda’s essay in the Feb 11, 2006 issue of EPW concerning the “cultural contradictions of India’s modernity” was one I read with much interest. Before we grapple with why modernity in India feels “incomplete,” “superficial,” and “even schizhophrenic,” Nanda argues in this essay, “we must first understand what the transformation of reason that the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment set in motion.”

So Nanda invites us to consider a few lines from Kant’s famous piece, Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?:

“Enlightenment is man’s release from this self-incurred immaturity [which is] his inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another…Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” that is the motto of the enlightenment.”

She goes on to write:

“Kant’s call of ‘Sapere aude!’ was simultaneously an invocation of a new standard of reason meant to challenge all a priori truths that we accept out of faith, cultural conditioning or overt indoctrination.”

And in a subsequent paragraph, deploring how the conflation of the Vedas with science is an affair that has been going on ever since science and technology were introduced in India in the 18th century, she notes: “Indian rationalists, in comparison, have never enjoyed the same degree of cultural hegemony. The marginalisation of rationalism in India’s cultural politics is a topic for another day and another essay.”

It is this point about “the marginalization of rationalism” that caught my attention. I wondered if Nanda could not find any dialogues on rational thought within India that pre-date Kant and other influential European thinkers? And if she did, why did she choose to invoke Kant and not a figure from Indian intellectual history? Surely, Nanda is aware of how for centuries, we have heard that analytical reasoning and critique are quintessentially ‘Western’ and were introduced to the rest of the world post-Enlightenment. I was just not comfortable with her decision to use Kant’s phrase – Sapere Aude – to invite us to reflect on our “incomplete” and “schizophrenic” modernity. It is “our” modernity, damn it. And if it seems incomplete by Kantian standards, so be it, I felt.

Let us now turn our attention to Amartya Sen’s collection of essays. In this book, Sen challenges “promoters of a narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization,” and those who have “tended to view the harking back to ancient India with the greatest of suspicion.” His goal in the book is to examine how a consideration of India’s “argumentative tradition,” or the “extensive and ubiquitous reach of Indian heterodoxy,” might influence our understanding of the history, culture and politics of the subcontinent (p. ix).

Sen offers a sweeping introduction to the tradition of reasoning that has been part of India – all the way from the Vedas to thinkers like Ram Mohan Roy. The first chapter of the book includes a section on “Science, Epistemology and Heterodoxy,” in which he narrates an incident from the Ramayana worth quoting at length:

"Javali, a skeptical pundit, lectures Rama, the hero of the epic, on how he should behave but in the process supplements his religious scecpticism by an insistence that we must rely only on what we can observe and experience…follow what is within your experience and do not trouble yourself with what lies beyond the province of human experience (p.26)."

Could Nanda not have used instances such as this to reflect on “our” modernity? Ok, perhaps the Ramayana is a text that is irretrievable from the clutches of the likes of L. K. Advani. But how about the great Moghal Emperor Akbar?

Sen brings to light a phrase that Akbar championed: rahi aql (the path of reason). Nanda would perhaps argue that such examples do not help because they are still connected to the domain of religion, that even debates on “rationalism” were never fully separated from the realm of the religious or the metaphysical. Perhaps, yes. But if the central concern here is to fight against the “streak of scientism in modern Hinduism” (Nanda), isn’t it just as critical to re-assess the history of “rationalism” within India and to use that to critique on-going attempts to read science into the Vedas?

To my mind, rahi aql (the path of reason) is as powerful and evocative as Sapere aude (dare to know).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

New Media, Old Fears?

This is what Screen had to say about the filmi world on March 8, 1991.

- Yes, that is Mohanlal sporting a hoosiers sweatshirt!
- S. P. Balasubramaniam, we are told, recorded 8 songs in a single day for B. B. Films Combine’s I Love You (music by Raam-Laxman)
- Maniratnam’s Anjali has been adjudged best film in the Cinema Express Awards for 1990...

...and so on. I could spend days delighting over such trivia. But the reason this issue of Screen caught my attention is the headline in the right-top corner which reads, “Fight for total ban on Cable TV.” T. Shankar and Ayyappa Prasad write, “In a massive show of solidarity, the meeting of all sectors of the film industry held at the South Indian film chamber auditorium here on March 1 ratified the earlier decision to close down indefinitely. Accordingly, all film activity will come to a halt from March 11.” They go on to report, “Nothing less than a total ban on the operations of the cable TV network in the state will satisfy the industry.”

It is also instructive to note that just a week before this call for a “total ban” on cable TV, a thousand-strong delegation of film industry personnel (including actors Kamalhassan and Rajnikant) had marched along Mount Road in Madras (now Chennai) to the State Guest House and presented a “memorandum demanding the ban of cable TV operations” to Mr. Karthikeyan, advisor to the Governor of Tamilnadu (T. Shankar, Screen, March 1, 1991).

Shankar goes on to report, and it is worth quoting him at length:

“Unlike the pirated movie cassettes, which have to move from hand to hand, cable TV can spread like wildfire enveloping entire residential complexes at a time. The resulting loss to the film industry, in the bargain, cannot be recouped. The safety of the film industry, thus, can no longer be assured unless drastic measures and immediate steps are taken to arrest this pernicious and illegal practice.”

In an issue of Screen dated March 15, 1991, we learn that the Tamilnadu (TN) High Court acted swiftly and ruled, on March 7, that “running a cable TV network is a violation of the TN Exhibition of Films on Television Screens through VCR (Regulation) Act, 1984” (T. Shankar). Essentially, film industry representatives across the country (there are stories of similar protests in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Bombay), were arguing that screening films at video parlours and via cable TV was leading to immense losses at cinema halls where exhibitors were paying a fee and obtaining a license to screen the films.

A few days later, on March 22, 1991, Screen reported that a meeting in Bombay (held on March 14th) and attended by representatives of producers, distributors, exhibitors, and video rights holders “ended on a promising note with an agreement to release the video cassettes in India and abroad after 15 days of the theatrical release” (V. Verma). In Karnataka, chief minister Bangarappa announced, “cable TVs, video parlours, and dish antennae will not be given licenses to operate in the state since it had adversely affected the growth of the film industry apart from it being a bad influence on the younger generation” (no politician can resist commenting on wayward youth). And in Tamilnadu, it was decided that video and cable TV rights will be granted by producers only via distributors’ associations and that too, after 5 years of the film’s theatrical release!

Let us remember that 1991 is when homes across urban India encountered a new entrepreneur: the cablewallah. Enterprising young men were assembling dish antennae on rooftops and stringing wires to hundreds of homes in a neighborhood, charging a monthly fee of about 75-100 rupees. Back in 1991, all we saw on cable TV was Star TV, BBC World Service, MTV, Star Sports, and a “video” channel on which the local cablewallah would screen the latest films (two shows a day – one in the afternoon and one at night!). This is what scared the film industry, and exhibitors and distributors in particular.

I am interested in this moment of convergence (antagonistic, as it may be) between the film industry and the “new” medium of cable and satellite TV because it adds further evidence to what media historians know: contexts change but the arguments remain consistent. Entrenched media systems will do all they can to protect their turf.

I’m not sure, however, that this scenario played out when the film industry(ies) in India encountered the Internet. While many in the industry are very concerned about DVD piracy (and music piracy via the Web) and are struggling to combat it, on the whole, the film industry did not panic when the Internet became the hot new medium of the late 90s and early 2000s. One easy explanation is the number of homes/eyeballs: when compared with cable TV, PC and Internet penetration in India is quite insignificant. But I wonder if the manner in which the film industry reacted to the Internet has more to do with the new medium being a “diasporic” one. This moment of convergence between film and the Web coincided with the growing importance of the NRI figure to cinema, and the gradual institutionalization of diasporic audiences as a “market.” The Internet, as a new medium, was less a threat to established markets and more an opportunity to understand, target, and monetise the diasporic market.

I’ll return to this theme over the next few weeks as I work on an outline of the first chapter of my dissertation – an industrial/institutional analysis of the convergence between cinema and “new” media in the Indian context.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Conference Notes: 2 papers

It is always difficult to navigate, enjoy, and learn at a large conference, especially when 15 or more panels are held in parallel. Size notwithstanding, I had a wonderful time at the SCMS conference and of course, exploring Vancouver.

SCMS is, as I mentioned in my previous post, the conference to attend for those involved in film and media studies. So it is as much a space for networking and meeting friends as it is for getting a glimpse into cutting edge scholarship in the field. Like with other discipline-specific conferences, this one too is dominated by a handful of established graduate programs.

The panel on “Indian Cinema,” as I explained earlier, was constituted in part because the Society for Cinema and Media Studies continues to labor under the “national cinemas” paradigm. I sympathize with those who have to read through hundreds of abstracts and organize them into panels. It is certainly difficult to put together panels such that individual papers (written without an organizing theme in mind) speak to each other. But I also wonder how much time the organizing committee spent thinking about papers that addressed different aspects of cinema in India. Not only does this relegate students and scholars who study “non-Western” media to the fringes of the conference, it makes the task of engaging with film/media theory difficult. More on this in a separate post.

On to the papers I really enjoyed…

There were two papers that I found particularly intriguing.
Bhaskar Sarkar presented a paper that sought to examine film music in Indian cinema as a defining narrative element. If one were to agree that melodrama is the genre that one identifies most easily with Indian cinema, Sarkar’s focus on the melos (musical) part of melodrama will be an important addition to film scholarship on Indian cinema. Songs, as anyone familiar with cinema in India knows, are composed well before shooting for the film is completed. In some cases, the dance sequences are choreographed and shot well before the rest of the film is shot. In spite of this fragmented mode of manufacture, the songs work wonderfully well in the film. This is the puzzle that Sarkar engages with in his paper ("The Mellifluous Illogics of Bollywood Musicals").

The other paper dealt with one of my favorite Maniratnam films – Kannathil Muthamittal. Priya Jaikumar’s paper, “A New Universalism: Terrorism and Film Language in Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (Peck on the Cheek, Tamil, 2002),” took on some of the heavyweights of film and cultural studies in India who were worried about Maniratnam. Rustom Bharucha, M. S. S. Pandian, and Tejaswini Niranjana were among those who argued that Maniratnam’s Roja was “fascist” and “communal.”

Jaikumar went on to argue that these scholars get it wrong: maniratnam’s films are more centrally concerned with fears of a loss of regional identity (Tamil), and the need to shore up urban Chennai as a site for the production of a Tamil identity that is translocal in nature (think SUN TV and its circulation around the world).