Friday, 8 November 2013

Kismet: A Tribute to 40s Hindi Cinema (Part 2)

As we saw in the first installment of this three part series, the chain of events that preceded the making of Gyan Mukherjee's 1943 film Kismet had more drama than a masala potboiler. In this installment we shall analyse the the movie itself.

Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), an unreformed criminal who has just finished his third stint behind the bars, intends to get back to work immediately. Its not long before he sees a pickpocket named Banke (V.H. Desai, an immensely popular comedian of that era) relieving an old man of a gold watch in his coat pocket. Shekhar loses no time in relieving Banke of his catch. He immediately goes to sell the watch to a fence (David). The old man, whose stolen watch Shekhar has already palmed off, turns up there.

V.H. Desai
This old man (P.F. Pithawala) tells Shekhar that wanted to pawn the watch and raise the money to watch a live performance by Ms. Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) who, as we soon learn, is his daughter. Moved by his plight, Shekhar takes him along to witness Rani's performance. There, Rani's father points out a man called Indrajeet (Mubarak), who is with his wife. Indrajeet was once an employee of the old man, who was an immensely rich person in better days. His weakness for the drink destroyed the family fortune and was responsible for the paralysis afflicting his daughter. He is now on the run from Indrajeet, his principal creditor.

Shekhar learns that Indrajeet is behind Rani to recover the money her father owes him. For Rani, struggling to perform due to her limp, things take a turn for the worse when her younger sister Leela (Chandraprabha), informs he that she's carrying a child from her relationship with Mohan (Kanu Roy, best remembered today as the brother of Geeta Dutt), their neighbour and Indrajeet's son. Shekhar, who has inadvertently got involved in Rani's life, finds himself increasingly in love with the young lady. In Robin Hood like manner, he sets about solving Rani's problems.


In the meanwhile, we learn that Indrajeet too has his cross to bear. His elder son Madan (the 10 year old Mehmood) once ran away from home after a beating from his disciplinarian father and never returned. The recollection of that lost son still torments Indrajeet.

Desperate to raise funds for Rani's treatment, Shekhar decides to break the safe in Indrajeet's study. The plan goes awry when Indrajeet's dog starts barking loudly, attracting the attention of a passing police patrol. Shekhar manages to jump out of the window and escape, inadvertently dropping the pendant on his neck during his flight. 

Indrajeet is shocked when he sees the pendant. He tells the inspector that he wants the thief at all costs. The astute policeman advises him to organise a show featuring Rani. Indrajeet takes his advice. Posters publicising the show are put up all over town, catching the attention of all concerned. And so the climax is set to occur in the theatre, with all the principal characters present.

What happens in the end? Does Shekhar get Rani? Is Rani's limp cured? Does Leela get to marry Mohan? Is their father's name and honour restored? Is Indrajeet's long lost son traced? Watch the movie to get your answers.

Shah Nawaz: The Suave Police Inspector

Having watched quite a few movies from the 50s and 60s, I was expecting a movie with several songs and the odd scene in between. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is not a single wasted scene in the movie. Not once is the pace of the movie slackened by the songs- extraordinary for a Hindi movie of that era.

Even more extraordinary is the character of the protagonist Shekhar. Kismet was the first ever Hindi movie to feature a morally ambiguous protagonist. With an unapologetic criminal for its protagonist, its inconceivable that Kismet would have slipped past the censors but for the clout exercised by Rai Bahadur Chunnilal, as we've seen in part 1 of this series. Remarkably, except for the leading lady Rani, nearly all the other characters in the movie are flawed.


Shekhar was the first Robin Hood like anti-hero in the annals of Hindi cinema. With war time rationing, rising inflation, food shortages and high unemployment, its not surprising that the character found resonance with audiences of that era. The rebellious Shekhar must have appealed to the sensibilities of a time when anti-government sentiment must have been at its height (remember, Kismet was released in January 1943- just 5 months after Gandhi called upon the British to quit India). Interestingly, Shekhar is frequently shown wearing a pagdi, a symbol of status. Perhaps it pandered to the aspirations of the masses in that era.

Kismet was also the first ever Hindi movie to feature the lost and found formula, which would be stock of 70s Hindi cinema. All the characters in the drama converging at the same place in the climax scene and pregnancy out of wedlock were a far cry from anything audiences in 1943 had ever seen. Interestingly, the character of Leela never really says in words that she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is only hinted at- perhaps a device to get the movies past the censors.

As far as the acting is concerned, there's no doubt that Ashok Kumar as Shekhar completely stole the show. His natural, effortless acting stands in striking contrast to that of Mumtaz Shanti, whose over the top acting and dialogue delivery is reminiscent of early talkies a generation ago. Having only seen Dadamoni playing elderly characters in old movies, it felt surreal to see him playing the hero. The resemblance to his younger brother Kishore is striking. Even the singing voice (Dadamoni sang his own songs in the 30s and 40s) is remarkably similar to his brother's. To say that I became an admirer of Ashok Kumar after watching this movie would be an understatement!

David in his Younger Avtar

It was also a treat to see David in a younger avtar. Unfortunately he wears a cap in all his scenes and so it was impossible to say whether he had any hair in his younger days. Audiences today best remember him as Haripad Bhaiya in Chupke Chupke or Dr. Mama in Gol Maal. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the boy who played Madan was legendary 60s comedian Mahmood, whose father Mumtaz Ali (a famous character actor of that era) was in the payrolls of Bombay talkies- actors in that era were contracted to studios, not until the late 40s did actors become freelancers.

I found the scene where Indrajeet asks Rani to cough up the money for Mohan's dowry quite remarkable. Its sad that a social evil like dowry still persists in present day India- a fact I've alluded to in this very blog several times. Nonetheless, its amazing to know that ten thousand rupees was a massive amount of money in that era- enough for the dowry of a rich man's son. Ten thousand rupees would be less than the monthly salary of a sweeper in this day and age!

Rs. 10,000 for Dowry!

Yet another remarkable scene was the one in which the newspaper boy screams out the day's headlines, which include Hitler's unsucessful attack- a reminder of the fact that the second world war was a contemporary event when the movie was made. The price of the newspaper- 1 anna- is a throwback to the age when prices were denominated in annas (a rupee was sub-divided into 16 annas, which were further sub-divided into 12 pies until 1957, when the Indian Rupee was decimalised).

I may add that I was surprised to see not a single Britisher in the movie. Admittedly Kismet could be an exception, but its remarkable that a movie made in pre-independence India only features Indian characters. Perhaps Indians of that era seldom had to interact with the British on a day to day basis, unlike what we imagine. 

To present day audiences Kismet might seem just another Hindi movie. However, its worth remembering that most of those themes- the stock of Manmohan Desai flicks in the 70s- were far removed from anything audiences in '43 had seen until then. Its remarkable that Kismet would have scarcely been out of place in the 70s- in itself testimony to just how far ahead of its time it was. Seen from the point of 1943 audiences, Kismet was a paisa vasool movie with a twist ending.

Socialism in Cinema

There is one last point I would like to mention here. Although avowedly a commercial movie (the term 'masala movie' didn't exist in the 40s), Kismet had unmistakable socialist themes. I do not know if it was the first movie with socialist overtones, but it was by no means the last- the theme would appear in countless films over the two decades that followed.

And so Kismet contained a number of firsts. It was in many ways the blueprint on which countless movies in the 70s and 80s were based. For all you Manmohan Desai fans, check out this movie to know where it all started.

P.S. We shall see the drama that followed the release of Kismet and the fate of the dramatis personae in the third and final installment of this series.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Ab Dilli (utni) door nahi

I recently wrote an article on this very blog about the possible outcomes of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Back then (on 29th August) I had predicted a Congress led coalition to be the most likely outcome, with a slim chance of the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) mustering the magic figure of 272.

However, there have been three significant events between then and now, which could transform the electoral landscape: the communal riots in Uttar Pradesh, the arrest of Lalu Prasad Yadav and the impasse over the creation of Telangana. Another significant factor is anti incumbency in Maharashtra. The four factors, when viewed in combination, could significantly alter the NDA's electoral prospects.

Modi: In with a chance

To provide context: 249 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats are from 5 states: Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Those five states naturally hold the key for any coalition aspiring to form the government in New Delhi. With the recent developments in UP and Bihar and anti incumbency in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, we are facing a potentially game changing scenario as we shall see.

Uttar Pradesh (UP)
Presently, 44 out of the 80 lok sabha seats from UP are held by Samajwadi Party (SP) and Indian National Congress. We know that the Congress is facing significant anti incumbency factor after ten years of misgovernance, which means that their vote share in this pivotal state is almost certainly going to fall dramatically from the current figure of 22. Much the same could be said of SP post Muzaffarnagar. Their woes could be aggravated by the deteriorating law and order situation in UP since they came to power. In short, there is every possibility of a change in guard in 44 out of 80 lok sabha constituencies in 2014.

Mulayam: On Shaky Ground

Unless the SP's Muslim voters turn towards Congress, the most likely beneficiaries of the vote swing in UP will be BJP and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Should Mayawati throw in her lot with BJP, which is perfectly possible, we are looking at a potential scenario where the BJP led NDA secures upward of 40 lok sabha seats in UP (against 11 currently).

Presently, Bihar politics is dominated by 3 parties: Nitish Kumar's  JD(U), Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD and BJP. Those three parties account for 36 out of the 40 lok sabha members elected from Bihar in 2009. As such, Bihar elections is effectively a three way race.

20 out of the 40 are held by Janata Dal United. Inevitably perhaps, the party is facing anti incumbency after nearly a decade in power- a handicap the BJP does not necessarily face, since it is no longer in alliance with JD(U). Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD, which was likely to be the beneficiary of anti incumbency is now in the doldrums in the absence of its leader, who is presently in prison. Its doubtful whether the RJD will be able to hold on to the 4 Lok Sabha seats it presently has.

Lalu Prasad Yadav: Down and out?

With Lalu Prasad almost certainly out of the picture, its a two way race between BJP and JD(U) in Bihar. Should anti incumbency come to play, there's every possibility that the former will improve its seat tally in Bihar from the present 12. Should the BJP manage to touch 20 (by no means impossible), combined an improved showing in UP, the NDA's seat tally from those two states will rise to over 60, as against the present 23- an increase of over 35 seats from the current situation.

One factor that could hinder the NDA is a revival of the RJD. Unlikely it may appear now, I would be the last to discount the possibility of Lalu Yadav being given a new lease of (political) life by a high court judgement or an effective leader banking on public support by portraying Lalu Yadav as a victim of political machinations- stranger things can happen in politics.

Andhra Pradesh (AP)
Electorally, AP is a key state since it sends no less than 42 MPs to Lok Sabha. The Congress holds 31 out of those 42 seats- one of the several factors behind its spectacular showing in the 2009 elections. However, after nearly a decade of misgovernance, there's strong anti incumbency in that state.

The stalemate over the creation of Telangana is almost certainly going to aggravate the Congress' woes. Its incompetent handling of the situation, coupled with its inability to take difficult decisions has resulted in a deadlock that looks unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Both sides are going to view Congress as the villain of the piece: the pro-Telangana faction for its inability to deliver on its promise and the pro-united Andhra side for dividing the state. Unless something dramatic happens between now and next April, the Congress is on a very shaky wicket in Andhra Pradesh.

Naidu: The comback man?

There's no doubt that there will be a substantial vote swing come 2014, of which the beneficiaries will be Telugu Desam Party (TDP), YSR Congress and Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS). Out of the three, only the TDP is currently allied with the BJP, with 6 MPs.

Two factors could significantly alter the electoral landscape: the magnitude of the vote swing and the BJP's ability to muster allies in that state. Should more than one of the three rival parties join forces with the BJP (or at least provide outside support), the NDA's seat tally could improve by 10, possibly much more.

With 48 Lok Sabha seats, Maharashtra is (electorally) the second biggest state in India. It has always been a Congress stronghold- every single state government (except in 1995-2000) has been formed by the Congress singly or in coalition with Sharad Pawar's NCP. The Congress-NCP combine currently holds 26 out of the 48 lok sabha seats from the state.

But anti-incumbency is very high in the state. The urban residents are frustrated about the crumbling infrastructure and mounting corruption. Most urban Maharashtrians (Maharashtra is the most urbanised state in India, with a high degree of literacy) see the pro-development Modi as a messiah after years of stagnation. Rural Maharashtrians are, if anything, much more disillusioned after the state experienced devastating droughts between 2009 and 2012.

The anti-incumbency factor becomes even more significant since the main opposition party in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena, is an NDA ally. Should the BJP and Shiv Sena manage to establish an effective seat sharing agreement, they could decimate the Congress- NCP combine in the state. One factor that could save the Congress is the presence of Raj Thackeray's MNS, which could split the opposition votes and leave Congress-NCP candidates the single biggest receipient of votes (as was the case in 2009). Subject to that one factor, its perfectly possible that the NDA can increase its seat tally from Maharashtra by 10 seats, if not more.

Sharad Pawar: Battling Anti-incumbency?

There is one further possibility: Sharad Pawar's NCP allying itself with the NDA. Impossible as it may sound, I would be the last to rule out the possibility. Pawar is nothing, if not an astute politician. Should the NDA muster enough numbers to stand a realistic chance of forming the government, its perfectly possible that Pawar will throw in his lot with the NDA. Its a known fact that he enjoys cordial relations with allies and opponents alike. For him switching sides is surely not inconceivable.

However, all the above mentioned scenarios are subject to the BJP's own showing at the hustings. Regional players are going to keep their cards close to the chest until the election results are finally out. Its inconceivable that they will ally with a polarising figure like Modi unless there are definite gains to be had. 

And so the scenario I spoke about- the BJP securing at least 180-200 lok sabha seats on its own- will be a necessary pre-condition if the NDA is to form the government in 2014. In short, Narendra Modi will have to pull off what Vajpayee did in 1999. For sure, 2014 will prove the acid test for brand NaMo.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Kismet- A Tribute to 40s Hindi Cinema (Part 1)

Yesterday I watched a movie called Kismet featuring Ashok Kumar, David and Mehmood. If the sentence makes you hark back to the 70s, think again. This movie is from an earlier era- not the 60s, not even the 50s. The movie we are talking about is from 1943 (yes folks, there was indeed a film industry in India long long before the 70s). This three part series is my tribute not just to the movie, but also to that long forgotten era. We start off today with a recapitulation of the events that preceded the making of Kismet, which were far more dramatic than a masala movie.  

Kismet was produced by Bombay Talkies, a studio founded in 1934 by Himanshu Rai, Raj Narayan Dube, Framroze Dinshaw and Sir Firoze Sethna. Rai, a prominent actor of the late silent era and the early talkies and a dominant force in the Hindi film industry in the 30s, was the person responsible for running the studio. Several famous movies of that era, including Karma (1933), Achhut Kanya (1936), Savitri (1937) and Kangan (1939) were made under his watch. 

As it stands today, Rai is best remembered for the first on-screen kiss in the history of Indian Cinema with his co-star and real life wife Devika Rani. The great grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, Rani was one of the leading actresses of the 30s. Her popularity In that era was second only to Sulochana (Aka Ruby Myers).

Devika Rani (1908- 1994)

But the couple's greatest contribution to Hindi cinema was inadvertent and the manner in which it came about is stranger than fiction. During the shooting of Jeevan Naiya (1936), the lead actress Devika Rani eloped with her co-star Najmul Hasan, triggering off a series of events with unexpected repercussions. 

In came Sashadhar Mukherjee, one of the leading figures in Bombay Talkies, who had started off his career in the studio as a sound designer. Using all the tact at his disposal, Mukherjee persuaded Devika Rani to return to her husband and in turn, Himanshi Rai to accept his returning wife. While his considerable tact did wonders, there arose a new problem as Rai decided to cut out the scenes featuring Hasan which had already been shot. Najmul Hasan would never again work with Bombay Talkies. The question naturally arose, who would replace Najmul Hasan?  

Mukherjee once again came to the rescue, recommending his brother in law Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly, a 24 year old former law student who was then working with Bombay Talkies as a lab assistant. After a preliminary screen test, Himanshu Rai decided to go ahead with Ganguly as his wife's co-star for Jeevan Naiya.

Himanshu Rai: One of the early doyens of Hindi Cinema

Ganguly, who dreamt of being a director, was unwilling to appear before the camera at first, since acting was considered a dishonourable profession in that age. But Himanshu Rai (helped by Sashadhar Mukherjee, who seems to have been a genius at handling people) eventually convinced the reluctant youngster to take up the lead role in Jeevan Naiya opposite Devika Rani. Few people could have imagined then that the 24 year old would go on to forge a career that would last 6 decades, not least Kumudlal Ganguly himself.

He is remembered to this day by his screen name Ashok Kumar. 

Rani's pairing opposite Ashok Kumar proved an instant hit with Achhut Kanya (1936), one of the first superhits of Hindi cinema, following which the two co-starred in several successful movies in the late 30s. Throughout that period, Devika Rani remained by far the bigger star. Remarkably, given how conservative Indian society was back in the 30s, Rani and Sulochana were both leading ladies of that era who were far more popular than their leading men. But the equation started changing after Ashok Kumar's pairing opposite Leela Chitnis. With three back to back hits in Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941), he was a popular actor in his own right by the early 40s. 

By then much had changed at Bombay Talkies too. Overworked and troubled by the difficulties of managing a studio in an era of wartime rationing, Himanshu Rai's health steadily deteriorated, resulting in his death in 1940. There ensured a struggle for supremacy between Devika Rani and Sashadhar Mukherjee. The struggle ended in an uneasy truce, under which the studio was split into two production units: one headed by Ameya Ckahravarty (Devika Rani's Protege) and the other headed by Mukherjee, with each unit taking turns in overseeing the production of projects. 

Mukherjee delivered a huge hit with Bandhan (1940), the second highest grosser of the year, putting the ball back in Ameya Chakravarty's court. Devika Rani's reply came in the form of Anjan (1940), pairing her opposite Ashok Kumar- reuniting Hindi cinema's most popular couple. The movie bombed at the box office, bringing an end to the legendary pairing. Mukherjee's position became even stronger with the success of Jhoola (1941), directed by his friend and namesake Gyan Mukherjee (no relation).

The team of Devika Rani and Ameya Chakravarty hit back with the successful Basant (1942), featuring Kanu* and newcomer Mumtaz Shanti (and Madhubala as a child artist). After the success of Basant, Mukherjee found himself losing ground to Devika Rani in the battle for supremacy despite three consecutive hits. Determined to regain the initiative, he decided to pull out all stops and deliver a movie that would shut up his detractors once and for all. That movie was Kismet (destiny), featuring his brother in law Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti.

Sashadhar Mukherjee (1909-1990)

Kismet was perhaps the first ever Hindi movie to be backed by a proper script. Hindi movies until then had little, if anything at all, by way of  script. Writing scenes and establishing characters, commonplace in contemporary Hollywood, was virtually unknown in the Hindi film industry until then. As such, Kismet was a watershed in the history of Hindi cinema. The plot also incorporated several themes which would have been considered bold, perhaps even scandalous for its era. That it slipped past the censors was due in no small measure to the efforts of the Studio General Manager.

This gentleman, Rai Bahadur Chunnilal was once accountant general with the Iraq Kurdistan Peshmarga Force, before moving back to India in 1932. Having settled his family in his native place in Chakwal, Punjab (present day Pakistan), he moved to Bombay to explore business opportunities. There he carved a niche in the film industry, becoming one of the leading figures in Bombay Talkies in the late 30s. He also happened to be a member of the Censor Board in the mid 40s, when Kismet was produced.

And so the scene was set for the release of perhaps the most ambitious project in the history of Indian cinema until then. For Shashadhar Mukherjee, it was make of break in his on going battle of supremacy with Devika Rani. Both parties held their breath in anticipation, as Kismet was released in January 1943.

*It was wrongly stated earlier that the movie starred Ashok Kumar opposite Mumtaz.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Battle for Delhi

With national elections less than 9 months away, the immediate future of India is a matter of intense speculation. Let's see if we can make predictions based on electoral mathematics (you can find the calculations here). We shall discuss each possibility in detail (which is by way of apology for the length of this article).

By way of background: the government at the centre is formed by the party or coalition having a majority in the Lok Sabha. Since the Lok Sabha has 542 members of parliament (MPs), the minimum figure required by any coalition to prove a majority will be 272 seats in the Lok Sabha. Every single government at the centre since 1989 has been, without exception, a coalition government. With that background in mind, I see four possible post poll scenarios that could emerge:

(a) A Congress led coalition
(b) A BJP led coalition 
(c) Third front
(d) A multi party coalition with outside support of Congress or BJP

Let's now analyse each of the above-mentioned scenarios.

a. A Congress led coalition: The Congress will almost certainly emerge the biggest or at worst the second biggest party in the Lok Sabha owing to its share of the rural vote, which ensured that it had at least 114 seats even when the party's fortunes were at their lowest ebb in 1999. Cold statistics suggest that the Congress could form the government at the centre with as little as 120 seats subject to support from the following quarters:

  1. The communist bloc (for reasons explained later in this article)
  2. AIADMK and/ or Trinamool Congress 
  3. Samajwadi Party 
  4. Bahujan Samaj Party
  5. Janata Dal United

The Man With The Aces?
In the event of any one of these assumptions failing to materialise, the Congress will need support from a handful of independent MPs and/ or regional players to form the government. Should that come to pass, the Congress led government will be hostage to the whims of truant allies, leaving little or no room for maneuvering. In short, UPA 3 with a substantially weakened Congress will make for a paralysed and unstable government that may not go the distance.

On the other hand, a UPA 3 with Congress having 150 seats or more will be a far more stable coalition. Unlikely as the scenario may appear now, let's not forget that there remains the best of a year before the elections. Given the vagaries of Indian politics, there's every possibility that the scene could change dramatically between now and next summer.

By my calculations, it will be extremely difficult for the Congress to form the government with anything less than 120 seats, which is why I have kept that figure as the cut off. Only once in the history of independent India has the party's seat count dipped below that level.

b. A BJP Led Coalition: Given the hype and hoopla surrounding Modi, it would appear to the uninitiated that he's the favourite to be the next Indian Prime Minister. The electoral maths suggest otherwise.

Before we come down to the figures, let me explain the assumptions behind the numbers. To start with, I expect that Narendra Modi will be BJPs prime ministerial candidate or at any rate, one of the front runners for the party. Given Mr. Modi's image, it is extremely unlikely that 'secular' parties like SP will ally themselves with the BJP- as it is, long standing allies like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik have ruled out an alliance with the party. The BJP is further handicapped by the lack of support from the communist block, with whom they have historically had a strong and at times even bloody enmity. 

Modi: A Himalayan Mountain to Climb

All considered, the BJP will require at least 180 seats in the Lok Sabha plus support from BSP, AIADMK, Trinamool Congress and a handful of other regional players to stand any chance of coming to power. So 120 seats for the Congress is the equivalent of 180 seats for the BJP, which never had more than 182 MPs even in its heyday in the late 90s. Its going to take a herculean feat for the present, disunited bunch to replicate that performance. You can now imagine how heavily the odds are stacked against Mr. Modi, unless something extraordinary happens between now and next summer.

The scenario might change if Mr. Modi moves out of the frontline, which is highly unlikely. In any case, its hard to think of a single leader in  the BJP capable of holding the party together, let alone bringing allies on board. Its an altogether different matter that the party will still be at the mercy of fickle allies like Mamata or Mayawati- a challenge that Mr. Modi is completely unprepared for.

As I see it, even in the unlikely event of a BJP led coalition coming to power, the resulting government is unlikely to last its full term. That they managed to pull it off between 1999- 2004 was largely due to the charisma of Vajpayee. There appears no leader even remotely approaching his stature today.

c. Third Front: The possibility of a third (even a fourth) front was discussed back in 2009 and talk of that is already doing the rounds. A third front like that will surely be a coalition between several regional parties, most of which will have no more than 10-20 seats in the Lok Sabha.

The numbers hold out very little hope for a possible third front. As you can see from the calculations, I was unable to take the tally of the third front beyond 215 even after including 18 possible parties, some of which are bitter rivals. You can safely assume that It will take at least 20 parties (plus possibly a few independent MPs) to reach the magic figure of 272, which will surely make for a highly unstable coalition. 

Desai: The Public Face of the Janata Debacle

Unless there emerges a strong figure to rally around, the third front is surely going to be an unwieldy hotch potch of reluctant and unlikely allies. We have already been down that road before, as old timers may recollect. So dismal was the performance of the Janata Government (1977-80), that the Congress came back to power barely three years after the emergency. 

In the highly unlikely event that a third front manages to muster the magic figure of 272, I do not see the resultant Government lasting more than 24 months (I'll stick my neck out on this one). Frankly, I see no possibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP third front ever managing that magic figure.

d. Multi party coalition: There exists yet another possibility: a multi party coalition with outside support from the Congress or the BJP, which has happened before. The manner in which it unfolded should be cautionary tale for anyone who chooses to tread on that path.

The 64 member SJP, led by Chandrashekhar assumed power back in 1990 owing to outside support from the Congress. Chandrashekhar was less than 4 months into his term when the ground was cut off below his feet. The Congress was at it again in 1996-97, providing outside support to H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral before pulling the plug on both of them less than halfway into their term.

The Revolving Door
It remains to be seen whether any party or group of parties can actually convince the Congress or the BJP to provide outside support. How long that support will last is a moot point, quite apart from the fact that the coalition will be hostage to the whims of the bigger party.  I suspect it might be used as a ploy to play for time before big brother decides that he's ready to go to the polls.

Personally, I am skeptical about the prospects of a multi party coalition with outside support. In the highly unlikely event that it actually happens, I do not see the government lasting its full term. As in the case of the third front, such a coalition will inevitably be doomed to premature dissolution.

In short, we are most likely to see a return of the 90s, when no less than 6 out of the 13 Prime Ministers we have had since independence had their chance at the hot seat (for the record: V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajapayee). Unless the Congress manages to secure at least 150 seats in the Lok Sabha, the 2014 elections will most likely be a semi final. 

My prediction for 2014 is of a hung parliament and an unstable coalition unlikely to last is full term.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Rahul/ Raj turns 40

I have never been an admirer of Shah Rukh Khan. If anything, I have always been one of his most ardent detractors. I never imagined that the first article I would ever write about himwould be a tribute, but that's precisely what I'm doing today. Its because SRK finally turns 40 on screen. It may mean little for today's generation, but its significant for people like this writer, who grew up in the 90s/ turn of the century.

The Poster of Chennai Express
I wonder how many people today remember the fact that Shah Rukh Khan charted his path to stardom playing negative roles. In Darr (1993), he played an obsessive stalker (to date one of his finest performances) who murders three men in pursuit of his beloved. Just a few weeks later came Baazigar (1994), in which he played a character who murders two innocent young ladies. It is ironic indeed, that the man who came to be known for candyfloss romantic roles shot to stardom playing murderous characters. 

It really was Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge/ DDLJ that established the romantic image. To be sure, he had essayed such characters before, but DDLJ was a watershed. SRK was almost always the loverboy thereafter, who featured in movies that were high on feel good factor. That energy and charm (admittedly lost on me) endeared him to countless Indians in the decade and a half that followed, so much so, that he delivered at least one hit every year between 1992 and 2008 (except 1996 and 2005), including 18 blockbusters- not even the great Amitabh Bachchan had such a sustained run at the box office.


As he delivered hits nineteen to the dozen, SRK became embedded in our collective conscious as Rahul/ Raj the romantic hero who made you feel good about life, a far cry from the angry young heroes who were in perpetual struggle against the system or against society itself in the movies that were going around in the 90s/ turn of the century. It was like light to dark.

Unfortunately for the man, he no longer fitted the popular image by the late 2000s. The sparkle suddenly started fading. The movements, once effortless and spontaneous, started appearing laboured. Even as far back as 2006, one could see unmistakable signs of aging, especially in the close up shots in  Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. The combination of a deteriorating back, an insanely hectic life and the countless cigarettes started taking their toll on the man. Besides, a new generation had emerged by now and Rahul/ Raj started looking too old and careworn.

SRK Today

The sight of a visibly aged Shah Rukh Khan playing a 25 year old in Jab Tak Hai Jaan was almost as painful as seeing Sachin Tendulkar struggling against bowlers he would have taken to the cleaners in his prime. The man I was seeing on screen was an aged impostor of the actor who never failed to make me feel better about life in his heyday. But then we, the generation that saw Shah Rukh Khan's beginnings as schoolkids, were ourselves in our 30s by then. Perhaps his aging was a reminder of our own mortality.

It is fitting that SRK is playing the role of a 40 year old Rahul in Chennai Express. If, as I suspect, this is going to be his last movie in a romantic role, its the perfect closure. Rahul/ Raj belonged to an era that has long since passed. Its time to bid adieu to that era and move on.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Letter to Sajid Khan

Dear Sajid,

At the very outset let me clarify that I have not yet seen Himmatwala, nor do I ever intend to. It would take a lot more himmat than I could possibly muster to sit through your movies.

Yes I know you don't care about critics and that box office returns are all that you're concerned about. Your movies have raked in crores of rupees so far. But then so do gutkha and bidis. Using you argument, do I take it that gutkha/ beedi makers should only bother about their returns?  If their products damage the user's health, your movies are doing much worse.

Your films, in your own words, appeal to kids between the age of five to ten. Racist jokes on the complexion of an african child in Housefull, a man talking to a woman about nipples in Hey Baby, letching heroes in Housefull 2, or an attempted rape in Himmatwala- is that what you consider appropriate for tiny tots? Is that what you want your sister's kids to see? What's the message you're trying to give to kids at the most impressionable period of their lives? That racism/ letching is cool?

You claim that life doesn't immitate art. Does it mean that everything goes and that a film maker has no responsibility to society? So what can we expect from you next? Jokes on rape? Child labour? Farmer suicides? How about a joke or two on human trafficking? After all, it may rake in another hundred crores!

By the way, what made you believe that cringeworthy and third rate 80s movies are what the audiences wanted? Really Sajid, you seem to have lost the pulse of the audience. I won't be surprised if you next announce a remake/ re-writing of Gunda. Rape, obscene dialogues, sexual innuendo, misogyny- it has all the elements you've shown in your movies so far. That would make for wholesome family entertainment, wouldn't it?

P.S: I hear that the movie has been officially declared a flop since I wrote this letter two days ago. Do I need say anything more?

Monday, 4 March 2013

NaMo- To PM or not to PM

Based on recent developments, it would appear that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is going to be the BJP's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections. As you would expect with 'NaMo', the social media is already abuzz with talks of an unstoppable force. Is it really quite as simple as that? Let's do the maths.

In the 543 member Lok Sabha, any party wishing to stake a claim to form the government needs the support of at least 272 members. There is little in the BJP's recent track record to suggest that its going to get even close. 

Even in the late 90s, when the party's popularity was at its peak, its count never crossed 182. Its seat count in the 2004 elections shrunk to 137, dipping further to 116 in 2009. Given such a background and the sorry state of party (ageing leadership+ weak agenda+ contention among workers) today, chances of BJP substantially improving its electoral performance are slim.

Even if one were to assume that the so-called magic of Modi does work and the BJP manages to get 180 seats in the Lok Sabha- a wildly optimistic scenario there- it would still leave them  92 seats short of the magic figure of 272. Needless to say, in such a situation, the party will need allies to form a government. As I see it, only smaller parties like BJD and Shiv Sena are likely to offer them assured support, among all their allies. 

We can safely rule out any support from the two Yadavs (Mulayam and Lalu), who have a substantial Muslim support base and therefore, are not going to support a man who is widely perceived to be responsible for the anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002. We can just as well rule out Nitish Kumar, who has long since made his intention clear as far as Modi's candidature is concerned. Another significant player, Mayawati, is highly unlikely to support Modi for precisely the same reason, which means that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, electorally the two most important states, are out of the picture.

Another significant block, the Communists, are surely not going to support the BJP, given the history of mutual (and frequently bloody) antagonism. Support from Jayalalitha's AIADMK is largely unpredictable while Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamool Congress is at best a poisoned chalice, leaving NaMo counting on (possibly) a handful of independents. While the BJP might manage to secure their support in normal circumstances, its doubtful whether any of those leaders will take the risk of supporting a polarising figure like Narendra Modi- that would be a massive political risk.

You can now imagine the himalayan obstacles that NaMo has to surmount, quite apart from his own reputation. What actually happened in 2002 may still be under debate, but voters decisions are guided by perception, not facts and even his most ardent supporter would agree that the general perception of Mr. Modi's past is far from positive.

I think standing for prime ministership will be the biggest mistake of Modi's career. Defeat, which is more than likely, will debunk the myth of his being unstoppable. In the event of  victory, the tiger of Gujarat will find his wings clipped by dictates of coalition politics, delivering a fatal blow to his 'iron man' image. Either way, Modi faces a lose-lose situation. The wisest thing he could do right now is to pull out of the race. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Open Letter to Kamal Hassan

Dear Mr. Hassan,

Let me start off saying that I am an admirer of you as an artist. As a Tamilian, I inevitably grew up watching your movies and I can say with little hesitation that I'm yet to see a better actor than you. I have always respected you for the fact that you are passionate about your art. I can still mouth dialogues of movies like Michael Madan Kamarajan, Avvai Shanmughi or Indian, even though I haven't seen many of them since several years now. I loved those movies then. I still do.

Having grown up outside the south, I was quite unaware of socio-political realities of Tamil Nadu. I was completely unaware of the anti-brahmin sentiment that existed in Tamil Nadu (my parents too never lived in Tamil Nadu). Unfortunately, now that I know a lot more about the subject, I have started understanding your movies better and there's one common thread running through most of your movies which I'm tired of seeing: brahmin bashing.

Admittedly, I am a tam brahm myself- not that ever I cared about it. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, I was hardly ever aware of my caste. It never entitled me to any privileges, nor did it ever prove a disadvantage. Frankly, my caste identity has never made a pennyworth of difference to me. Whatever I am today, I have achieved out of my own efforts and good fortune. That's equally true of you Mr. Hassan, isn't it? The people of Tamil Nadu accepted you, nay, embraced you in spite of the fact that you were yourself born a paapan.
I know that my forebears were active protagonists in an inhuman social system. Its not something I'm proud of. I can completely understand the hatred for brahmins in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. However, I am unashamed about my identity Mr. Hassan, nor am I apologetic about it because I am not responsible for things that happened long long before I was even born. I happen to be a brahmin by accident of birth, not by my deeds. Truth be told, I never even bothered about it. Its people like you who make me aware of my caste identity.

I have never disrespected or judged anyone on the basis of his or her caste, nor will I ever do it. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of you. The negative portrayals of tam brahms in your movies are far too frequent to be a coincidence. Its sad to see a great artist like you demeaning himself by reinforcing negative cultural stereotypes about a particular community.

I'm not in a position to judge anyone Mr. Hassan, let alone a living legend like you. If you've disowned your identity, so be it - that's entirely your prerogative. If you are confused or ashamed about your identity, that's for you to sort out, not for others who did nothing to create that situation. You may be a great artist, but that does not give you license to judge others on the basis of their caste. I am first and foremost, a human being. If others have the right to live a life of dignity, so do I.

I'm not asking you to change your views Mr. Hassan. I'm only asking you to be a good citizen and treat everyone equally, irrespective of their caste. Surely, that isn't too much to ask for.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Political reforms in India

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi made a very important and valid point last week when he spoke about opening the doors of a closed system and making the polity more inclusive. To make an honest confession, I'm no fan of Rahul Gandhi. Nonetheless, there's no denying that he touched upon a very important topic which, to my knowledge at least, has not yet been broached by any other Indian politician of note.

It is one of the absurdities of our political system that a pre-dominantly youthful country is being administered by a geriatric cabinet of ministers. To put it in perspective: the median age of the present cabinet of ministers is 65.2 years. 18 out of the 33 current cabinet ministers were born before independence and only 2 of them are below fifty years of age. That in a country where 65% of the population is below 35 years of age.

Dr. Manmohan Singh- The epitome of a geriatric political class

Rahul Gandhi was right once again, when he mentioned that a handful of people control the entire political space and that power lies only with those at the top. He could have added that those people at the top have taken considerable pains to exclude others from it. Is it any wonder that dynastic politics is the order of the day? The vast majority of India's political parties are family led (the BJP being a prominent exception), with the baton passing from generation to generation. Rahul Gandhi is himself a product of that system.

Lying at the root of this problem is the fact that there just does not exist a system to identify and groom potential leaders. That being the case, why not create state level institutions (I'm not talking about the civil services) dedicated to that very purpose? Each state could have an institution that identifies potential leaders. Let's begin by laying down certain specific criteria in terms of educational qualification and/ or existing work done by the candidate to ensure that only the truly deserving ones are chosen.

Rahul Gandhi: A product of the system he criticised

The people chosen could then undergo formal education to give them theoretical knowledge of subjects that a political leader ought to know, such as the constitution, macro economics, political science, geography and  demographics of the state, foreign policy and so on. The theoretical training ought to be followed by an internship period of at least one year where they get to work as assistants to state cabinet ministers, giving them insights into the actual working of the Government.

Such institutions will surely churn up leaders who are much better informed and more aware of the wider world outside which is the need of the hour. Given the sheer diversity and complexity of the country, India needs leaders who have a wide perspective, not people with limited, localised perspectives whose knowledge and aspirations scarcely extend beyond their respective regions. It will also give the youth of India an opportunity to participate in the running of their country as well as first hand knowledge of how the country actually runs.

Until such a system is implemented, the talk of creating a more inclusive polity with greater opportunities for the youth will remain plain lip service. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the track record of the Congress to give the impression that Mr. Gandhi actually means what he says. 

An inclusive political system is likely to remain a matter of mere lip service until the people of India take to the streets. Its just a matter of time before that happens. Our political class would do well to remember Tsar Alexander II's famous words "it is better to...destroy serfdom from above than wait begins to destroy itself from below".