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Monday, August 27, 2012

Paan Singh Tomar

I watched this very disturbing movie recently. The film has won critical acclaim, and if the director’s aim was to stir the audience’s sympathy for the central character, he has succeeded more than well indeed.The details you can pick up from the links provided. First off, a salute to Irrfan (Khan): he is unquestionably the best character actor in Hindi moviedom today, and he seems to be getting better all the time. He’s done it without conventional he man/chocolate boy good looks or big family connections or money to help him, too. As with Tom Hanks and a few others, I can say I shall be glad to watch any movie if I know he is in it.

A thumbnail sketch of the plot of this biopic: Paan Singh Tomar was a real life character, a poor Kshatriya farmer who came from the hinterland of western Madhya Pradesh, joined the Indian Army (though his mama was a brigand who, he boasted, was too clever to be ever arrested), rose to the rank of subedar, shone brilliantly as a sportsman at the national level and even participated at the Tokyo Asiad. Then he got embroiled in a family quarrel over land holdings, quit the army, suffered a very rude shock when both his son and mother were brutally beaten up by hired goons and the police and district collector refused to look deeply into his complaint, and eventually turned into (yet another-) much feared dacoit of the Chambal valley. He killed and terrorized a lot of people for a while, gave a self-justifying newspaper interview which made waves, got a price on his head, managed to put his son in the army which he still revered, and was finally killed in 1981 in an encounter with police special forces after he was betrayed.

The movie deals with several important issues swiftly but expertly. How shoddily sports and sportsmen are treated in India is deeply underscored (there is a list of big achievers at the end who died in obscurity and poverty) – apparently Paan Singh’s greatest grudge was how the police treated him as an importunate nobody despite his medals, and his greatest boast (always uttered with a sad snigger-) was that everybody sat up and took notice only when he turned ‘baaghi’ (rebel) and started killing people. No wonder we do so badly at the Olympic Games: it certainly isn’t just a matter of money. And no wonder crime attracts so many in India who are in desperate straits, either. One also realizes how deeply caste and caste-based iniquity is still rooted in the social psyche of rural India. I don’t really know whether things have changed much in this regard in the thirty years since Paan Singh died; the newspapers don’t give much reason for hope. The army has been held up as the last bastion of honesty, integrity, hard work, good fellowship, patriotism and that sort of thing, and yet there are contradictions even here: Paan Singh himself tells a superior in a certain scene that there are a lot of good-for-nothings among the officers he knows (and this was as early as 1960!), and his mentors were so incredibly callous (or stupid?) that they sent him to compete in the Asiad without even telling him beforehand that he had to run not in ordinary flat-soled canvas shoes as he was used to but in spiked boots, which virtually crippled him on the track. The little romantic interludes with his very tradition-minded wife are touching. Shooting at the Roorkee cantonment and in the actual Chambal ravines has added interesting realism to the visual content.

But then I said I found it disquieting too, not least because there are different voices, and different versions of what really happened. Tomar’s (now-retired) son has said in an interview that it is the police that make dacoits in the Chambal valley (that is not really a revelation; it’s been that way for ages, since before the British came to India); he has also said that the movie is ‘85% true to life’: I wonder which 15 per cent is not. The police have been demonized in the movie, and it shows that they arrived in overwhelming force to trap and kill the dacoit (who has been portrayed as a reluctant and deeply unhappy almost-Robin Hood), so there was nothing heroic about it, just a government orchestrated massacre. On the other hand, in this interview the police officer who was in charge of the operation, DSP Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan (also now retired) says it was a straightforward ‘taking out’ of a notorious and unpenitent criminal who refused to surrender and for whom there is no reason to feel the slightest sympathy, regardless of his army service record and his sporting achievements. Also, that this was a ‘routine job’ for him as an anti-dacoity operative, so he has no special emotional attachments to the memory, he has not bothered to watch the movie because he is sure that a trivial criminal would be glorified to the discredit of the duly constituted arms of the law; indeed, he sounds almost proud that it was done with so little resources (six constables rather than almost five hundred as shown in the movie), and without a single casualty among the police. I wonder now, what should I think about it all? Who are the real heroes and villains in independent India? Better people than me have found themselves at a loss, this much I know…

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thinking about old boys

August is the time when some old boys and girls come to say goodbye every year, because they are going abroad – most commonly to the United States – for graduate studies. Some of the most intelligent and decent people are among them: a few years ago there were Mayuri Mukherjee and Nishant Kamath, then there was Arnab Kar, and very recently there was Sanket Roy. Not all of these are engineers, by the way – Mayuri's subject was journalism and Nishant’s is geology, Arnab’s is physics and Sanket’s is economics. Meanwhile many of my best ex-students are being picked up from the top law schools and CA institutes and places like St Stephen’s and JU where they read economics or English by top shot employers for salaries which would sound fabulous to all engineers except IIT toppers (and that too, only from a few select departments). At the same time, old boys like Abhirup Mascharak (into his second master’s at JU) and Soham Mukhopadhyay who has gone to Presidency College have been telling me not only how much they like the ambience but also laughing about how their friends who have gone into (usually third-rate private-) engineering colleges, generally against their will, and generally at great expense, are already turning green with jealousy when they compare notes. And this news article tells everybody who wants to know how bad the general engineering employment scene is. Nothing, of course, that I haven’t been telling young people for years and years – don’t imagine engineering will bring you the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, don’t go into it unless you have a genuine interest in it (rather than the desire to get into just any job somehow), don’t develop the habit of looking for shortcuts and cheating and the tendency to look down upon a lot of subjects they teach in school as useless because you will regret it soon enough, don’t pretend to be ‘interested in science’ when all you want is to get into some B- or C-grade engineering school, because it’s not the same thing at all – eventually you’ll be struggling to switch streams and try to get MBAs or a slot in the civil services anyway – don’t get lost in the herd, because ‘everybody’s doing it’ was never a good idea for making good careers, don’t imagine that what was wise advice in the 1970s still holds good today, and so on (do read in this connection what I wrote in the post titled Engineer or bust some time ago).  

It hurts me, as an old teacher, to hear old boys coming over to say ruefully ‘Sir, you were right, I should have listened to you’, because I don’t like to see people getting hurt if I can stop them from being foolish. And it also hurts to see so much talent wasted – so many potential sportsmen, musicians, artists, teachers, judges, soldiers, administrators, lawmakers, moviemakers and businessmen becoming bored, tired, uncommitted and therefore poorly-productive engineers instead: we have millions like that swarming all over this country now, desperate to get into or hang on to very pathetic jobs somehow. As I joke about a certain engineer-turned-private tutor in my town who has been minting money for years now, he found out long ago that engineering doesn’t pay, but coaching confused hordes for the various engineering-entrance examinations pays hand over fist. He and many others like him have made their piles, but is that how a country’s human resources should go on being wasted decade after decade?

Nothing in this post is meant to offend those few of my old boys who are doing well in the engineering profession: if they are making good money, enjoying what they do and contributing to the country’s economic development, they have my best wishes. Indeed, there are quite a few like that who keep in friendly touch with me, and know perfectly well I have nothing against their type. But I have only pity for the much bigger tribe who know now that I was right all along, and who hate me for being right, and who can only stew in their own juice of frustration and failure and imagine they can somehow get their own back by telling me anonymously how much they hate me. Poor sods, they can’t even read, or else they’d have found out long ago (it’s written on this blog itself) that anonymous comments are filtered out automatically, so I don’t even read them, and even if I did, I’d only laugh, not out of true amusement but out of sadness and contempt. But even for them I have my best wishes: maybe it is still not too late to find out how to live a good life and change courses… it is a very sad thing indeed that they feel this obsessive compulsion to keep on visiting my blog (and thereby making me proud to see how fast the counter keeps rising!) and can never think of saying anything other than hurling irrelevant abuse! I, for myself, don’t feel any hatred and jealousy for these people at all; rather, I remind myself again and again of the saying that hell is when a man is burning up with hatred and jealousy inside, about which he can do nothing, because it stems from his own unbearably painful awareness that he has wasted his life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Free India is 65 today

Tanmoy has written about how bad he felt watching the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games on TV, and how some of his (foreigner-) friends spoke slightingly about India in connection with our medals tally: ‘What are Indians good for?’

I felt the same sadness as Tanmoy, and even worse that I cannot list for him ten things about India that I can be proud about – especially ten things achieved since independence came. The only two things that come to mind (remembering the enormous problems and handicaps we started with) are what Amartya Sen has pointed out repeatedly: that we have avoided famines of the ghastly sort that routinely took millions of lives all through the 19th and early 20th century, and that we have somehow managed to preserve democracy (so far at least), no matter how defective it is. Everything else pales into insignificance in comparison, or is a sad joke, given that we are a nation of 1.3 billion with a rich historical heritage many thousands of years old which drew admiration from around the world once upon a time. Forget our sports performance or military prowess or vast and awful poverty and all-pervasive corruption in public life; we can’t even design and produce on our own the ’planes we fly or the surgical equipment we use or the engines we put in our cars after half a century of ‘engineering’ education; our movie industry, huge in scale, either produces Hollywood C-grade level ‘blockbusters’ or accidental good movies which even most Indians don’t want to watch, so how can they get foreigners interested? And as for our much vaunted IT industry, the likes of Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji have said enough home truths about what really happens there for me to add anything. No matter how hurtful it sounds, everything that westerners (and the Japanese and increasingly even the Chinese) say about our lack of civic sense and punctuality and cleanliness and concern for greenery and disdain for education and superstitiousness and sectarian hatred and violence is only too sadly true…

Bharat abaar jogot shobhay sreshtho ashon lobey (India will once again rule the global roost someday) sang the poet hopefully, long ago. I have been one Indian, at least, who has tried very hard to be proud of things Indian – without, of course, deliberately blinding myself to all her myriad faults or getting furious when others draw our attention to them, for that is not patriotism at all but chauvinism or jingoism, dangerous diseases of the mind, if only too common, especially among people who know they are inferior and hate to know it. What I intensely regret is that far from achieving great new things, we are increasingly forgetting things we had once achieved that we can really take pride in, whether it is Nagarjuna’s chemistry or Kautilya’s political economy or Kalidas’ poetry or even the wonderful skill of the Kashmiri shawl weavers and the enormous repertoire of folk music we had built up over millennia. I have written about this longing time and again on this blog: see, for instance, My India, and the post I wrote five years ago, My mother is sixty. I grow older, and nothing seems to change for the better. Can my readers cheer me (and Tanmoy-) up a little by drawing our attention to at least eight other big things India has achieved since 1947 that we can be justly proud of? (please don’t mention cricket and atom bombs and Chandrayaan, for obvious reasons) And honestly, is there any sane hope that India will truly lead the world in most things within my lifetime, or even my daughter’s? That was Vivekananda’s hope – would he be cheered by what he saw if he came back to see India 2012?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Family foibles

The older one grows, the more one gets the feeling that there are lots of things in this world that one will never understand.

I have a grown up daughter at home now. She and her mother quarrel most of the time – well, twenty times a day, at least. The issues are utterly trivial; often they don’t need issues at all. I sometimes get exasperated, and sometimes despair of things ever getting better.

But then, what is ‘better’? They tell me they hugely enjoy bickering (forget the snarls and yells and mutual accusations and long faces); besides, I can see that they simply cannot live without each other. The quarrels start and end with utter unexpected abruptness, too, and then and I see that all is sunshine and honey once more, and they are all over each other. I myself, when I look inwards, know for a certainty that I won’t have things otherwise – I have long stopped pretending that I even have any idea how things could have been ‘better’.

Twenty years ago, when I didn’t have either wife or daughter, I could have given very wise sermons about what a happy family should be like.

Twenty years ago, I was a fool.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Harishchandra's Factory

I recently watched a 2009 movie called Harishchandrachi factory. It’s in Marathi, with subtitles in English. Directed by Paresh Mokashi, and with theatre personality Nandu Madhav in the lead role, it has won some awards – you can check that up for yourself on the net. I am no movie critic, so I shall write only about my gut reaction, as nothing more than an ordinary cinema buff. This is the story, in highly dramatized form and with a strong leavening of humour and slapstick, of how the (controversial-) first ever movie in India – Raja Harishchandra – got made, way back in 1913, thanks to the nearly crazy passion of one man, Dhundiraj Govind (aka Dadasaheb) Phalke, along with the almost unstinted support of friends and family, and launched what became arguably the biggest film industry in the world. It has received mixed reviews (see this article, along with the comments), but I enjoyed it immensely, and would like to thank whoever left the movie with me (I forget sometimes, there are so many of them).

Well yes, if you like, it’s a feel-good movie. It reminded me of Life is Beautiful, though it leans far less on fantasy. It told me that one needs passion if one really wants to achieve something; that one needs to shrug off a lot of criticism and ridicule and opposition, and that one’s real friends are those who stick to one through thick and thin. Nothing new here, but it’s good to be reminded as one wages one’s own struggle through life. Looking at the way the family – wife and young sons – not only braved through all sorts of hardships but actually managed to enjoy themselves, I felt reassured that I have always been right; people need money and fame far less than warmth, cooperation, goodwill and satisfying work to be happy. Blessed is the family which rows together like this – even if the reality was not half as rosy as portrayed in the movie. The movie also shows, once again, that much can be achieved on a small budget and with a cast full of amateurs if the director knows his job.

I not only have a personal penchant for movies which remind us of times of yore, but I wish that more and more such movies would be made, because people in this country are becoming increasingly ahistorical with the passage of time. It is important to know one’s history, and few people would ever bother to read history textbooks of their own volition, so film-makers are doing yeoman service when they make movies like this. More power to their elbow.

One thing that I liked about the movie was the way Chaplinesque gestures and movements have been blended with very Indian background music. Another was the fact that the man’s long-suffering yet always cheerful and supportive wife reminded me of the Bible saying ‘He who has found a good woman has found a good thing’. The older I grow, the more I appreciate what that means, and how few of us are so lucky. The third thing was that it set me musing anew on education. I have always taken the story of Eklavya very seriously, you see, and I can vouch, on the other hand, from a whole lifetime of teaching experience that you can’t teach anybody who is unwilling to learn. As in October Sky, as Will Smith said in his interview to the Reader’s Digest, if someone really wants to learn something, be it making a movie or flying a space shuttle, s/he will find out ways to master it; otherwise, no amount of schooling and tutoring ultimately amounts to anything. I wish the world would begin to realize this eternal truth and start paying less attention to formal education, which produces molehills out of mountains by the tens of millions! Finally, the movie made me marvel at how easily people only a few decades ago could feel enchantment. Is it only me, or do many others also feel that all our super hi-tech wizardry cannot affect us similarly any more, whether we are watching The Matrix or Avatar or Inception?

The movie also motivated me to read up on Dadasaheb Phalke. It seems that he made several successful movies after Harishchandra in the silent era, but faded out once the ‘talkies’ became all the rage. Strange that a man of his versatile talent couldn’t cope – or was it that he was not interested in the new format at all?

Anyway, watch this movie. And let me know how you liked it.