Sunday, 9 November 2014

Game up for Congress?

The thing about eras is that their passing away usually goes unnoticed, either because people have long since given up even caring or, as is more likely, very few realise it until much later. In the context of Indian politics, I suspect we are witnessing the end of an era. The outcome of the recently concluded Maharashtra state elections could signal the beginning of the end for the Indian National Congress. Baring a dramatic turnaround, the once great party is now in its last legs.

The statement may sound premature, even an overreaction. After all, anti-incumbency is inevitable after a long period in power. There have been occasions in the past when the Congress got voted out, but soon bounced back to power. Why should one assume that its going to be any different this time around? Simple: the numbers.

Until the recent concluded national elections, the Congress even at its lowest ebb never held less than 114 seats in the Lok Sabha. Even in 1977, 1989 and 1996- the three previous occasions on which the party lost power after national elections, their seat tally in the 543 member Lok Sabha was 153, 197 and 137 respectively- pretty presentable numbers, far superior to their pathetic 44 in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Vidarbha
Image Source: Frontline

Then came the double whammy of last month: losses in Maharashtra and Haryana to a party which had not a single prominent leader in Haryana and was virtually non existent in Maharashtra outside of Vidharbha (see image above).

Its impossible to overstate or exaggerate the significance of losing Maharashtra. That state was always a Congress bastion. Even in the mid to late 90s, when it seemed that the party was a dying force in Indian politics, it remained a force to reckon with in the state.  In the 67 years since independence, Maharashtra and its predecessor, Bombay State, have been governed uninterrupted by the Congress, save 19 months between 1978 and 1980 and 4 years in the late 90s. The 26/11 attacks, droughts in Maharashtra and hundreds of farmer suicides notwithstanding, Congress still held on to Maharashtra. That bastion is now gone.

Even anti-incumbency cannot explain the magnitude of the party's recent electoral disasters. Sample this: 24/ 200 in Rajasthan, 8/70 in Delhi, 21/119 in Telangana and the crowning glory: 0/175 in Andhra Pradesh. Comparitively, 42/ 288 in Maharashtra and 58/230 in Madhya Pradesh almost look like victories. What's common to all those states? Two things: elections to all those states were held over the last 12 months and the Congress was the incumbent party in all those states (except Madhya Pradesh) until a year ago. In every single election, the 'grand old' party was not just defeated, it was wiped out.

Out of the 7 electorally biggest states (which account for 291 out of the 543 Lok Sabha members) the party has recently lost power in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh + Telangana. They have been out of power in Uttar Pradesh since 1989, in Bihar since  1990, in West Bengal since 1977 and in Tamil Nadu since 1967. Except Karnataka, the Congress is out of power in every other major state (see Map below).

Political Map of India by Ruling Party
Image Source: Wikipedia

Its hard to see the party ever coming back now. The current leadership of the party is bereft of ideas, inspiration and dare one say it, even commitment. It does not help that the vice-like grip on power exercised by the party's first family has effectively ensured that there is no leader of stature within the Congress capable of replacing the Gandhis, which means the party's dependence on its first family is even greater in this hour of crisis. Paradoxically, that once fabled name is also party's biggest liability.

The only way back for the Congress is a change in leadership, which is virtually impossible unless the Gandhis voluntarily step down. In the highly unlikely event that they do take the backseat (without installing puppets), its doubtful whether the new leaders will enjoy popular support within the party rank and file, let alone the voters. Given all those factors, the road back (insofar as there is one) is going to be a long and difficult one, assuming some other party does not fill in the vacuum created by the Congress' rapid decline.

The odds are stacked against the Congress. Whisper it if you may, but we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Congress.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

2-0 to England

With less than two hours to go before India kick off their first five test series since 2002, we're bracing up for a battle of attrition between two extremely conservative, defensive captains. Personally, I'm bracing for an egg in the face after previous predictions spectacularly backfired.

Its hard to believe that its been just 3 years since the last time India went visiting. Of the class of 2011, there are but a handful of survivors. From the Indian side, Dhoni and Ishant Sharma are the only major survivors of the debacle of 2011. Some members of the current squad were in the reserves, but never quite got to play on that tour. England too is a vastly different side, with Strauss, Swann, Trott and Pietersen no longer available for a variety of reasons. Tim Bresnan, who tormented India in 2011 has long since slipped off the radar. In many ways, this is a new India up against a substantially changed English side.

So how do the teams measure up?

Two Defensive Captains

It should appear that England have the clear edge. Their batsmen have the advantage of familiarity with the conditions, unlike their Indian counterparts who (Dhoni apart), have never played a test match in England. As far as the bowling is concerned, the firm of Anderson & Co. appears, at least on paper, vastly superior to the largely unproven Indian bowlers (Ishant Sharma apart), whose combined tally of test caps in England adds up to precisely zero.

Nonetheless both sides are lead by extremely conservative captains. So much has been said about Cook's conservative captaincy, that there's nothing new to be said about it. What has frequently escaped attention is Dhoni's own anti-Clarke approach. Critics of India's bowlers seem to ignore Dhoni's negative approach. How many captains would have taken all slip fielders out with the opposition effectively -100 for 5 (as Dhoni did recently at Wellington)? What can any bowler do, when the captain gives no catchers and, worse still, sets a field that discourages him from pitching the ball up?

And that's pretty much the reason why I'm predicting an easy series win for England. Cook's conservative style and the strength of India's batting pretty much precludes any chance of a whitewash. Nonetheless, England have the firepower to take 20 wickets in a test match- I expect they'll manage it it at least two times out of five. As long as Dhoni persists with his ultra-defensive captaincy, I don't see India ever winning a test match abroad. With two conservative captains, attritional play and bore draws are pretty much what I expect (hoping, of course, that I'll be proven wrong).

And so my prediction for the series is a 2-0 victory to England.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Achut Kanya (1936)- Part 1

1936 was an extraordinary time in Indian history. To capture the drama of that period in one single article is virtually impossible and so this two part series is but a humble attempt to review one of the most popular movies of that era in the background of socio-political realities of the time.

In today's installment we shall take stock of the backdrop in which Achut Kanya appeared. Part II will recapitulate the movie itself and the destiny of the characters involved.

30s India

The 1930s was a tumultuous period in Indian history. Mahatma Gandhi's Civil Disobedience movement a few years earlier had resulted in the Government of India Act 1935, which meant that India was at least partly administered by Indians. As India took the first, tentative steps towards self rule, Indian society too was undergoing a transformation. One of the burning issues of the day was the subject of untouchability.

The fight against untouchability under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar had emerged as a significant socio-political force in the late 20s. The round table conferences in the early 30s had resulted in the creation of seperate electorates for untouchables, before Gandhi's fast unto death resulted in a compromise, whereby 18% of the seats would be reserved for untouchables within the general electorate (the precursor to the reservations that would appear several years later).

Dube: The Man Behind Bombay Talkies

While Dr. Ambedkar's movement went from strength to strength, M.K. Gandhi too started his own movement for removing untouchability. Whereas the former set out to empower people of the lower castes, the later attempted to purge upper caste Hindu society of the curse of untouchability.

Indian Cinema in 1936

Untouchability was one of the most significant topics in the social discourse of the time. Inevitably, the cinema of the time would reflect those undercurrents. 

The 1930s was a period when Indian filmmakers consciously took up socially relevant themes. Reformist movies like Shejari (1935- on communal harmony), Amar Jyoti (1936- on women's empowerment) and Manoos (1939- about alcoholism) were pretty much the order of the day. 

Like Indian society, Indian cinema too was undergoing a profound transformation. With silent films being made as late as the early 30s, language cinema was pretty much in its infancy in the mid 1930s. Filmmakers accustomed to dialogue less cinema were just beginning to adapt to the challenges posed by the new medium. Many prominent faces of silent cinema like Master Vithal, Dinshaw Bilimoria and Sulochana (who would make a brief comeback) started fading away. Filmmakers were still grappling with the challenges posed by the new medium of talkies. 

V.Shantaram: Doyen of Reformist Cinema


It was in this environment that Bombay Talkies emerged in the mid 30s.

Bombay Talkies Limited was formed in 1934, the first Indian film company to be listed in a stock exchange. While Rajnarayan Dube gave the company financial muscle, the studio was the brainchild of Himanshu Rai (1896-1940). Passionate about cinema, Rai threw his life and soul into his work, to the neglect of his personal life.

His wife Devika Rani was the leading star of that era. With Sulochana (aka Ruby Myers) and Zubeida nearing the end of their careers and the likes of Fearless Nadia yet to emerge as a significant force, Devika Rani was the undisputed superstar of Hindi cinema in the mid 30s. While her professional career flourished, her personal life with Himanshu Rai was in shambles. It was rumoured that she was having affairs behind his back.

Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), staring Rani and Najmul Hassan, was the first movie produced by Bombay Talkies. It was also the first ever mystery film in the history of Indian cinema. As it happened, the release of the movie was soon followed by an even greater twist off screen. This time, it was in real life.

Najmul Hassan: The Forgotten Man


The shooting of the next movie, Jeevan Naiya was already underway, when the Rani and Najmul Hassan's on-screen romance spilled over into real life, a story I have already recounted the story in my earlier article. Suffice it to say that the machinations that followed ended in the ouster of Hassan, who was replaced by Bombay Talkies' 24 year old lab assistant Kumudlal Ganguly, who was given the screen name Ashok Kumar.

And so the 24 year old Ashok Kumar found himself acting opposite Devika Rani- an awkward, boyish looking rookie opposite the prima donna of that era. Not that it mattered- the movie was Devika Rani's, with the 24 year old just making up the numbers. In keeping with the spirit of the time, Achut Kanya was based on the subject of untouchability. 

The stage was set for one of the earliest super hits in the history of Hindi cinema.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Prelude to Victory

We have seen the story of India's historic win against West Indies at Port of Spain in the previous article. In this article, we shall recount the drama that preceded it.

Prelude
In February 1971, the Indian cricket team embarked on a tour of the West Indies. It was to be their first test match in 14 months. Incredible as it may sound today, test matches featuring India were a rarity back then and test victories were almost as scarce as honest politicians. But India were a competitive side by 1971, owing in no small measure to M.A.K. Pataudi, who had led India through the 60s.

Pataudi had taken over during the preceding tour of the West Indies in 1961-62 after a life threatening injury to then captain Nari Contractor. Over the decade that followed, Pataudi infuse a sense of belief and unity into a rag tag bunch with no self belief and even less cohesion. In 7 years, India won 9 tests under him, against 6 wins in the three decades before he took over. But by the late 60s, it was evident that the Pataudi magic had run its course. After nearly losing a home series to New Zealand, India lost 1-3 to Australia in 1969-70. 

Pataudi- Brilliant Batsman, Great Captain

With knives already drawn out for him, that series defeat was the last straw for Pataudi, who perhaps knew what was coming. In the words of Ajit Wadekar:

My fear before the 1971 tour was that I might not be picked...In fact, before the tour, I had gone up to Tiger and asked him to ensure that I was there in his team. Tiger replied that there were no doubts about my selection and instead asked me to ensure his place if I was asked to lead...

And so Bombay southpaw Ajit Wadekar, who was unsure of his place in the side, found himself in charge of the team against all expectations. In his own words:

" I reckoned the captaincy race was between Tiger Pataudi and Chandu Borde...The day the captain was named, I had gone out with my wife Rekha to buy curtains...when I returned around 8pm, I saw a large crowd waiting outside our building with garlands. My first thought was that some guy in the building may have been promoted. Little did I realise that it was me!" 

It later transpired that Chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant had used his casting vote to unseat Pataudi. More surprising still, the heir apparent Chandu Borde was not even in the team! Whether it was due to disillusionment or the desire to let the team emerge from his considerable shadow, Pataudi made himself unavailable, leaving Wadekar firmly in charge of the side.

Ajit Wadekar: Heir Non-Apparent


The selectors sprang more surprises with the omission of veteran wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer and the inclusion of Dilip Sardesai, who career looked dead and buried by the late 60s. Karnataka strokemaker G.R. Viswanath, who had made a promising start to his career with an average of 47.7 after four tests, was retained, as was a young opener from Bombay called Sunil Gavaskar, who had been in the reserves in India's previous series against Australia, but was yet to make his debut.

Perhaps the selectors reckoned that it was a good time to try fresh blood, since precious little was expected of the team. India had won just 15 of their 116 tests until then, none of them in the West Indies, where their previous tour had resulted in a 0-5 whitewash. Such was the extent of West Indies' domination of India, that India's record against them stood at 0-12 in 23 tests. Forget winning, not once had India taken the first innings lead in a test match against the West Indies. 

The Drama
Viswanath and Gavaskar were both unavailable due to injuries. The tourists decided to open with the Hyderabadi pair of Jayantilal Kenia- the reserve opener- and all rounder Abid Ali in a makeshift role. The West Indians surprisingly omitted the great Lance Gibbs, bringing in his place Jamaican off-spinner Noriega, whom the Indians had deliberately handled with care in their warm up game against Jamaica to ensure his inclusion in the test team in place of veteran Gibbs.

Unfortunately, the rains wiped out the first day of the test match. With water seeping through the covers, the pitch had plenty of life in it. Therefore it was no surprise when West Indies captain Gary Sobers opted to bowl first after winning the toss on day 2.

Jayantilal Kenia

Kenia had scored just 5, when an attempted hook off Shillingford (no relation to the present day West Indies off spinner) resulted in a top edge that looked like falling safely, but for an incredible catch by Sobers to end his innings. Abid Ali too was gone almost immediately afterwards, leaving the Indians struggling at 13-2. The home side rammed home the advantage, getting rid of Durani, Jaisimha and Wadekar to leave the Indians tottering at 75-5.

Out came the 24 year old Eknath Solkar. In him, the veteran Sardesai, who had fought a lone battle until then, found a determined ally. Between them the two resusciated the innings with some determined, circumspect batting. Their 137 run partnership was the very embodiment of the khadoos (bloody minded) approach that characterises Mumbai cricket. Unfortunately, the fall of Solkar  opened up the floodgates yet again. Once more, the West Indies exploited the opening to reduce the Indians to 260-8.

Dilip Sardesai- The Hero of '71

But Sardesai was still around and in Prasanna, he found another ally who made up for what he lacked in terms of batting skill with character. With his support, Sardesai brilliant turned the tables over the next two hours or so with a stunning counterattack that pulled off the carpet from beneath the feet of the West Indians. By the time he fell, the veteran had scored a magnificent 212 in just under 8 hours. India had posted 387- a sensational recovery from their desperate 75-5 a day earlier.

The West Indies reply started off well, with openers Camacho and Fredericks putting on 73 for the first wicket, before Prasanna nailed both of them in quick succession. The hosts' woes were compounded when Kanhai sold Lloyd short, calling him for a suicidal single that resulted in a run out.

Veterans Sobers and Kanhai batted with circumspection from there on to prevent a collapse, adding 64 in little over an hour before Kanhai, with West Indies just 5 runs away from the follow-on limit of 188, fatally chanced his arm. Shortly afterwards Sobers was Snapped up by Abid Ali at short leg, igniting a spectacular collapse that saw the hosts crash from 202-4 to 217 all out, as batsman after batsman fell to wild shots against he spinners. For the first time ever, India had taken a lead against the West Indies.

Rohan Kanhai

But then came the twist. The West Indians, who believed the game was secure in any case, were unaware of the little known law 13.3, whereby India could enforce the follow on by virtue of a lead exceeding 150 runs, as the game was officially a 4 day affair due to the first day washout. The scene that ensued is best described in Ajit Wadekar's words:

I wanted to gain a psychological advantage by making the West Indies follow on - something unthinkable at that time. I strutted into the West Indies dressing-room and loudly proclaimed: "Hey Garry, West Indies have to follow on."
They were stunned into silence. Garry was unaware of the rules and said that India did not have a lead of 200 to enforce the follow-on. He asked me to check with the umpires. I replied that he could do that himself since it was his team which had to bat again. It was a huge blow to their pride.

The Indians stuck twice in the first hour, leaving the West Indians precariously placed at 32-2, raising Indian hopes of a historic win. With just over a day's play left, it was a race against time for India on a pitch that was doing little. This time, veteran Kanhai put his head down and played a circumspect knock, batting on for six and a half hours to play out time.

India may not have won the game, but the psychological advantage was theirs. Up against a side that had hammered every Indian side to have ever faced it, Ajit Wadekar and his men had conjured up an utterly dominant performance. It was the first sign that things were going to be different this time.

Epilogue
India won a historic win in the second test at the Port of Spain. The remaining three tests were drawn, giving India their first ever series victory in the West Indies. For veterans Durani and Sardesai, that historic win was the crowning glory of their careers after years of hurt. Both of them played just a handful of tests after that, but left behind an extraordinary legacy.

Wadekar's Indians repeated the feat in England later that year, making 1971 Indian cricket's golden year.  Unfortunately, the paucity of fixtures meant that India played only 5 tests between their tours of England in 1971 and 1974, by which time the gains from the heroics of 1971 were lost. A 0-3 thrashing in England in 1974 brought an end to one of the golden eras in Indian cricket. Like his predecessor Pataudi, it spelt the end of the road for Wadekar.

Eknath Solkar

Sunil Gavaskar, whose epic efforts were largely responsible for that historic series win, would become the first Indian to play 100 tests and the first ever batsman to score 10,000 test runs. Gavaskar gave Indian cricket its first superstar, shouldering the batting throughout the 70s and for much of the 1980s. Nearly all his records have since been surpassed, but he remains to this day one of the two greatest ever Indian batsmen.

Wadekar's enforcement of the follow on meant that the obscure law 13.3, which has been in force since 100 years now, was used in a test match for the very first time. Only once in 43 years and 1441 test matches since, has it ever been used.  

That historic win in the Carribean was the point where cricket started overtaking hockey to become the most popular sport in India, the effects of which are felt far beyond India's boundaries to this day. Such is the popularity of the game in India, that the game is largely sustained by Indian money today. Most cricketing boards keep themselves afloat using the profits derived from tours by India. The IPL has dramatically improved the financial condition of cricketers not only from India, but across the cricketing world. 

They can thank the class of '71 for that.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Watershed Moment in Indian Cricket History

I just realised that the day before, the 10th of March, happens to be the 43rd anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in India's cricketing history- India's first ever test win over West Indies. This is but a humble attempt to recreate the drama as it unfolded.

Prelude
India set out on a two month tour of the West Indies in February 1971 under Ajit Wadekar, the newly appointed captain, bringing an end to the Pataudi era (more on that in my next article). To say that India were the underdogs would have been a massive understatement. Forget winning, India had never even taken a first innings lead against the West Indians after 23 attempts until then. After 39 years as a test playing nation, India had won just 15 out of their 116 tests, nearly half of them against New Zealand- a team that was barely considered test class back then (much like Bangladesh or Zimbabwe today).

As we shall see in the next article, the tourists junked all predictions, holding the upper hand throughout  the drawn first test(more about it in my next article). And so, going into the second test he question in everyone's mind was whether India's dominant showing in the first test was a flash in the pan or a sign that things were going to be different this time round.

The Drama
The Indians made two changes with Ashok Mankad coming in place of Jaisimha and Jayantilal Kenia, who had had an unsuccessful debut in the first test, making way for another debutant, a promising young Bombay batsman called Sunil Gavaskar. The tourists made only one change, bringing in Charlie Davis in place of Conrad Carew.


Abid Ali

West Indies captain Gary Sobers won the toss and opted to bat first on what looked a dicey pitch, figuring that it would only become tougher to bat as the game wore on. The very first ball of the match proved the point, as Abid Ali's delivery kept alarmingly row to bowl West Indies opener Roy Fredricks. Camacho and Rohan Kanhai batted sensibly to stabilise the West Indian innings, before a mini collapse saw the hosts crash from 42-1 to 62-4. 

The fall of the fourth wicket saw the entry of Gary Sobers, the best contemporary batsman. As expected, the great man took the game back to the Indians with a stunning counter attack that saw the score move from 62 to 100 in a flash. He had reached 29 when he missed a quickish off-break from Venkataraghavan and was bowled, precipitating another collapse. But for a battling 71 from Davis, the hosts would have fallen well short of their eventual 214, which was below par even on that difficult surface given the strength of the West Indian attack (or rather, the lack thereof).


Charlie Davis


The Indians enjoyed a stroke of good fortune early in their innings as Sobers- widely regarded as the best slip fielder in the world- dropped an easy catch off Sunil Gavaskar when he had just 12 runs against his name. The openers capitalised on that lapse to put on an excellent start before Mankad and Durrani fell in quick succession. In came Dilip Sardesai, who followed up his magnificent double century in the first test with yet another brilliant knock, helped along the way by Gavaskar. The two put India well on top before Gavaskar and Wadekar fell at the same score, leaving the game wide open at 186-4

West Indies captain Sobers now produced what Wisden described as "...an extremely deadly  spell of wrist spinners." Unfortunately for him, his fielders did no favours, twice putting down Solkar, who combined with Sardesai to put on 114 for the fifth wicket before the later fell to Noriega. Solkar and Abid Ali added a further 30 runs before a dramatic collapse saw the tourists crash from 330-5 to 352 all out, limiting their lead to a manageable 138. If the West Indians were not completely out of the game despite so many dropped catches, it owed entirely to spinner Jack Noriega, who was handsomely rewarded for his efforts with magnificent figures of 9-95 (helped by some poor strokeplay by the Indians). 


Jack Noriega

The West Indians brilliantly fought back in their second innings, finishing at 150-1 by end of play on day 3. Effectively 12-1 with Fredricks still out there,  Sobers and Lloyd yet to come and India's best bowler Prasanna out of the game with an injury, the West Indians might have started dreaming of turning the tables on a pitch that wasn't getting any easier. 

Yet again, the game turned around. First innings hero Davis was injured in the nets and had to be rushed to the hospital to have stitches inserted just minutes before the start of play on day 4. West Indies' woes were compounded by a suicidal run out that saw Roy Fredricks out without any addition to the score. Then came a magic spell from Salim Durani, who dismissed Sobers and Lloyd in quick succession. In his own words:


Salim Durani

After pitching some deliveries outside off to Garry (sobers), I pitched one on this rough spot just outside the off stump. It hit the spot nicely, turned a little, beat his defence, went between bat and pad and took the off stump... 
Clive (Lloyd) was another big wicket... Having made him play a few outside off, I over-pitched one on the off stump, but with a lot of turn. Clive attempted to lift it over my head. I had brought Ajit (Wadekar) to short midwicket, guessing Clive would go for the shot. He mistimed it, and the ball was pouched well by Ajit.
Venkataraghavan bowled the injured Camacho before a run could be added. In a flash 150-1 had become 169-5. Yet again, the game had been turned around on its head. There was little resistance thereafter except from Charlie Davis, who sensibly kept playing forward to reduce the risks posed by the uneven surface. Venkataraghavan bamboozled the tail, finishing with 5-95 to bowl out  the West Indians for just 261, leaving the tourists just 124 to make with two hours over a day to spare.
With their weak attack, the West Indians had no chance of winning. It was a question of when rather than whether now. As in the first innings, the debutant Sunil Gavaskar batted superbly, ably assisted by Ashok Mankad. By the time the two were seperated, India were more than half way through to their target. Gavaskar, showing the first signs of the mastery that would make him the first man to score 10,000 test runs, batted aggressively as India rapidly advanced towards a famous win. Then at 121-3, the little master hit a boundary to give his team a famous win.

S. Venkataraghavan

Postscript
That historic win gave Indian cricketers the belief that they could hold their own against anyone. It was the moment when India went from minnows who were expected to lose all they played, to a team that could compete against any side in the world. Save the odd series, India became an unstoppable force at home from there on, winning the occasional series abroad. Today India normally start off as favourites the moment they set foot on the field, their recent travails abroad notwithstanding. Where sides once queued up to face the Indians, no opposition side today can ever underestimate an Indian side. 
The impact of that victory would prove far greater than anyone could have foreseen then. Cricket overtook hockey to become the most popular sport in India. Contrary to popular imagination, it was not the 1983 world cup win, but the heroics of 1971 that made cricket the most popular sport in India. Over the four decades that followed, the game went from being an amateur sport to a national passion.
It all stated on 10th March 1971.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Open Letter to Rahul Gandhi

Dear Mr. Gandhi,

This is a letter from a common man who has lived all but 8 of his thirty odd years in Congress ruled India. Like millions of fellow Indians, I'm one of those who until not too long ago, believed that you would bring a positive change to the political scene in India. That is why I voted for your party in the national as well as (Maharashtra) state level elections in 2009- a fact I deeply regret... but that's for another day. 

I'm writing this letter to open your eyes to reality Mr. Gandhi. Whether or not you realise it, the credibility of you and your party right now is absolutely zero. The points you raised in your interactive session in Gannaur on Monday will amply illustrate my point. 

You mentioned that the BJP indulges in divisive politics. How about your own party Mr. Gandhi? Let's set aside the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, about which so much has been said and written that I have nothing new to add. How about the anti-Muslim pogroms in Bhagalpur in 1989, which happened under the watch of your party? The inquiry commission blamed several officers for their failure to stop the violence. What did the Congress government (and the subsequent ones under your ally Lalu Prasad Yadav) do to bring the  guilty persons to book? Precisely nothing. Irony of ironies, the government that finally acted on it was a coalition of which the BJP was a part!

Fast forward three years to the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, when your party was in power in Maharashtra.The vast majority of victims of those riots (Hindus and Muslims alike) still await justice because the government of Maharashtra is yet to act on the recommendations of the Justice Shrikrishna Committee. Strangely the same Government acted promptly to protect a policeman accused of murdering innocent victims belonging to another community in broad daylight (you party was in power then). Mind you, we're talking about a state where the Congress has governed uninterrupted since independence (baring a short period of 4 years between 1995 and 1999).

Since you have raked up the issue of divisive politics played by your opposition party, how does one reconcile it with the fact that the percentage of Muslims out of the total number of undertrials in Maharashtra is much higher than in neighbouring Gujarat, which has been governed since 13 years by the supposedly communal BJP? Statistically, 33% of the undertrials in Maharashtra are Muslims, even though their community constituted just 11% of the total population of the state as per the 2001 census.

Its been but a few days since the Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde- a veteran leader of your party- wrote a letter to all state Chief Ministers asking to ensure that no Muslim youth is wrongfully detained in terror cases. As it happens, Mr. Shinde served nearly 2 years as the chief minister of Maharashtra, a state whose record in terms of justice to minorities is abysmal, as I've just shown. When a person like that proclaims you as the leader, you can imagine how it reflects on your credibility when you denounce the communal tendencies of others.

What makes it worse still is the fact that the only state with a higher percentage of Muslim undertrials is West Bengal, governed by Trinamool Congress, which was your party's coalition partner not so long ago. Why, other states where the disparity between the rates of detention of Muslims and numbers actually convicted include Assam & Meghalaya (both governed by your party) and Uttar Pradesh (governed by SP, whose outside support has kept the UPA afloat). In short, nearly all the states where malafide detention of Muslims appear to be the highest are governed either by the Congress or its allies, many of whom profess to support your party to keep communal forces at bay! Did I hear someone talking about running with the hare and hunting with the hounds?

You also spoke about the Congress wanting power to trickle down to the people. That gives rise to two questions: (a) how you plan to achieve that ambition and (b) why the Congress still 'wants' to do it. It has been in power at the centre (singly or in coalition) for 54 out of 67 years since independence. When after more than half a century in power your party is still talking of greater devolution of authority with no concrete proposals yet, don't you think it sounds like hollow talk?

You don't even need to go elsewhere, take a look at yourself. You owe your position to family lineage. You were not voted to the position you hold and I see no real action on your part to devolve power within your own party. In short a person who inherited the leadership of a party which has never held internal elections is telling us that his party wants to work towards greater devolution of power to the people. Do you seriously imagine that anyone is going to believe it?

Lastly, lets come to your claim that the Congress helps farmers. Ever heard the term 'cruel joke' Mr. Gandhi? It took me all of 2 seconds to find this article on farmer suicides in Maharashtra, or this article stating that a farmer in Andhra Pradesh is three times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the country. What's common between the two states? Both have been governed by your party since at least a decade now. While farmer suicides indeed happen in Mr. Modi's state, the number has been estimated at 125 for the five year period between 2008-2013, about a ninth of the corresponding number for Maharashtra in 2012-13 alone. In short, for every one farmer who commits suicide in Gujarat, there are 45 who do so in a state governed by your party!

All that I've written above is in response to the points you raised in one single address and believe me, it took very little effort for me to unearth the facts. If this is the level of credibility you carry, why should anyone believe that you and your party are capable of responsibly governing the country for 5 long years? Mind you, I've not even touched upon the the appalling poverty that still prevails in India after over half century of Congress rule.

Whatever sycophants in your party might tell you, I assure you no one believes a word you say anymore. If you truly care for your own credibility or that of your party, there's an awful lot of work to be done. A bit of honest self introspection would be a good starting point.

Regards,

An anonymous Indian

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Kismet: A Tribute to 40s Cinema (Part 3)

First and foremost: a word of apology to the readers for the delay in coming out with the final installment of this series.

We have seen the drama that preceeded the making of Gyan Mukherjee's 1943 film Kismet in Part 1 of this series and reviewed the movie itself in part 2. We shall recapitulate the drama that unfolded after the release of the movie and the destinies of the dramatis personae in this, the third and final part.

Released in January 1943, Gyan Mukherjee's Kismet smashed all existing box office records. In an era when box office collections were the only source of revenue and ticket prices were more in the region of one-fourth of a rupee, Kismet grossed 1 crore at the box office- the first ever Indian movie to do so. Box Office India classifies the movie as an all-time blockbuster.

Kismet proved to be a watershed in the evolution of the film industry. Up until the early 40s, there were two industries churning out Hindi movies, one based in Calcutta and the other in Bombay (as the cities were known then). The Hindi film industry in Calcutta was already in decline by the 40s. The roaring success of Kismet, pretty much ensured that Bombay would remain the headquarters of Hindi cinema. Its ironical that the most influential people behind Kismet (the Mukherjees Sashadhar & Gyan and Ashok Kumar) were all Bengalis.


Kismet: The First Hindi Movie to Gross 1 Crore

Like countless legendary movies that followed, Kismet was roundly criticised for offending moral sensibilities of the time. Not atypically for a blockbuster, the songs of that movie became immensely popular. While that would have surely pleased the filmmakers, one of them didn't please the British Government of the time, which was still fighting a war in the west. The opening stanza of the song in question ran thus:

आज हिमालय की चोटी से हमने यह ललकारा है (we proclaim today from the Himalayan peaks) ,
दूर हटो  ए दुनियावालों हिन्दुस्तान हमारा हैं। (Go away foreigners, India is ours)

The lyricist Pradeep (more about him later in this article) employed the clever device of inserting the following words in a later para, to hoodwink the censors:

शुरू हुआ है जंग तुम्हारा जाग उठो हिन्दुस्तानी (awake Indian, your struggle has started)
तुम न किसी के आगे झुकना जरमन हो या जापानी। (bow before none be it German, be it Japanese).



Those lines are a grim reminder of the war that was on. Preposterous as it may seem today, for people living in 1943, the possibility of the British losing the war and India being colonised by one of the axis powers was a very real one. The allusion to Germans and Japanese, with whom the British rulers were at war, sounded superficially like a pledge of support to the rulers. That clever ruse (combined in no small measure with the influence of Rai Bahadur Chunnilal) helped the song slip past the censors.

With the Quit India Movement still on and war time hardships, the patriotic overtones of the lyrics were not lost upon the public. The song became incredibly popular among the masses, so much so, that during screenings of the movie, the reels would be rewound and the song played multiple times on public demand. The popularity of the song had not so happy repercussions for the lyricist Kavi Pradeep, who went underground to avoid being arrested for sedition.

The success of Kismet should have pretty much been a decisive moment in the battle for supremacy between Sashadhar Mukherjee and Devika Rani. Unfortunately, the outcome was the exact opposite, as it brought the rivalry to a head, with unexpected consequences for the dramatis personae. The fallout would shape the history of Hindi cinema.


Gyan Mukherjee (1909-1956)

Sashadhar Mukherjee was not even part of Bombay Talkies by the time Kismet hit the screens. Just prior to the release of the movie, he had an acrimonious fallout with Amiya Chakravarty- Devika Rani's blue eyed boy. In a huff, he issued her an ultimatum that she would have to choose between him and Chakravarty. Rani supported her protege, to the chagrin of Mukherjee, who severed his association with the studio.

Ashok Kumar, who was contracted to Bombay Talkies, still continued working as a laboratory assistant despite the fact that he was the leading star of the era (it would be a few more years before actors would become freelancers). He was working in the lab one fateful day, when he was ordered by Ameya Chakravarty to leave the room. Angered by the humiliation, he left, demanding to speak to Devika Rani. He was curtly informed by the security guard that she did not wish to be disturbed by anyone. The snub was the last straw for Dadamoni, who angrily followed in the footsteps of his brother in law Sashadhar Mukherjee.

Gyan Mukherjee threw in his lot with his friend Sashadhar (no relation of his). Rai Bahadur Chunilal followed suit. The two combined with the brothers in law to establish a rival studio called Filmistan, which would churn out countless historic movies in the decade that followed. The studio operates to this day. The exit of the four biggest names associated with the studio triggered off a mass exodus from Bombay Talkies to Filmistan.


The Bombay Talkies Movie that Launched Raj Kapoor

With the success of Kismet, it would have seemed that Devika Rani's position atop Bombay Talkies was unassailable. Unfortunately for her, things went pear shaped from there on. The Indian economy went through a severe crisis in the mid and late 40s, which severely impacted the film industry.  A series of unsuccessful ventures saw the studio sink into debts. Just two years later, Devika Rani got married to Russian artist Roerich, effectively ending her involvement with Bombay Talkies. Desperate attempts were made to revive the studio by Ashok Kumar, who got re-involved with the studio.

Dadamoni's second stint with Bombay Talkies produced movies like Ziddi (which established the careers of Dev Anand and Pran) and Mahal (perhaps the first mystery thriller in the history of Indian cinema) and Neel Kamal (debut film of Raj Kapoor and Madhubala). The crippling debt of 28 lakhs (a staggering sum in that era), proved too big a burden to overcome. A fire in 1954 finished off the studio, which lies in shambles today, surrounded by an industrial estate (a project to revive Bombay Talkies was mooted in December 2013).

The Bombay Talkies Movies That Launched Dev Anand

While Devika Rani would have to shoulder much of the blame for the demise of Bombay Talkies, her contribution to Hindi cinema is beyond question. One of the leading actresses in the 30s, her presence behind the camera  saw her make one last significant contribution to Hindi Cinema even as she left. She was instrumental in giving Hindi Cinema its first superstar. She would unearth the second superstar- this time there was nothing unintentional about it.

Some day in 1944, the 21 year old Yousuf Khan, then the manager of an army canteen in Bombay, happened to be filling in for his unwell father at their fruit shop, when Devika Rani went shopping. Quick to see the young man's potential, she gave him his first break in Amiya Chakravarty's forthcoming project Jwar Bhata (1944). Yousuf Khan, who adopted the screen name Dilip Kumar, is remembered to this day as one of the greatest actors in the annals of Indian cinema.

Sadly, little is known about Amiya Chakravarty, who seems to have been incidental in some of the most momentous events in the history of the Hindi film industry. Despite my best attempts, I have not been able to locate so much as a photograph of Chakravarty online (the so called 'photographs' of his available online happen to be those of the great Bengali poet and Gandhian who happened to be his namesake). I'll be indebted to anyone who could give me more information on him.

The Ganguly Brothers

Of the crew of Kismet, Ashok Kumar was the greatest beneficiaries of the movie's success. The runaway success of the movie marked the high-point of his career. Already one of the leading actors of the era, Kismet propelled him to heights of popularity never seen before. Such was the craze for Ashok Kumar in that era, that police action was needed to disperse frenzied fans whenever he went out in public. His personal mail would be flooded with thousands of love letters from admiring fans. Although the term didn't exist then, Ashok Kumar became the first superstar of Indian cinema post Kismet. His popularity in that era anticipated the Rajesh Khanna mania that would grip the country quarter of a century later.

As his stardom waned in the 50s, Dadamoni successfully reinvented himself as a character actor. Many critics rate him the greatest ever Indian actor on screen. He remains to this day one of the most mimicked Indian actors. Dadamoni's contribution to Indian cinema extended beyond his on-screen performances. He paved the way for his younger brothers Kalyan (Anup) and Abhas (Kishore). While Anup is scarcely remembered today, the youngest brother Kishore, is perhaps the most well remembered of the Ganguly brothers, due to his magic voice that enthralls music fans to this day, close to three decades after he passed away.

For Ashok Kumar's co-star Mumtaz Shanti, life took a completely different turn. After a hugely successful career stretching into the early 50s, she migrated with her husband to Pakistan in the mid 50s, before retiring to become a housewife. She lived on for four more decades before passing away in obscurity (and something approaching penury) in 1994.

Mehmood Ali, who played Ashok Kumar's childhood avtar in the movie, would start off his working career doing odd jobs before taking up the job of a driver. He eventually moved into films, doing part roles in movies like CID (1956), Pyaasa (1957) and Kanoon (1959), before establishing himself as a popular comedian in the mid 60s. He is widely regarded as the finest comedian in the history of Hindi cinema. Perhaps Mehmood's greatest legacy was the support he gave to a young struggler called Amitabh Bachchan in the early 70s.

Mehmood

The person who employed Mehmood as his driver was P.L. Santoshi, one of the writers with Bombay Talkies who was part of the mass exodus to Filmistan in the mid 40s. Santoshi would go on to become a film director himself in the 50s. His son Rajkumar Santoshi is one of the most respected directors in the Hindi film industry today.

V.H. Desai, who played the role of Banke was by far the most popular comedian of that era. A former lawyer, Desai was legendary for his inability to remember the simplest lines (for example, it took a staggering 124 takes for him to get the three words "kuch mila partner?" right!). It is said that he was single handedly responsible for wastage of hundreds of feet of film in the 40s- a massive problem for filmmakers in an era when the length of movies was restricted to 11,000 feet due to war time shortages. Despite that, he remained a regular in Hindi movies due to his sheer popularity. Sadly, he passed away tragically young in 1950, still just in his 40s.

David Abraham Cheulkar, known mononymously as David, who played the fence in Kismet would go on to become an extremely popular character actor in the decades that followed, frequently playing the role of the friendly uncle. He is best remembered today for his portrayal of Haripad Bhaiya in Chupke Chupke (1975) and Doctor Mama in the cult comedy Gol Maal (1979). A member of the Bene Israel community, David remained a bachelor all his life, passing away in 1982 aged 73.

Shahnawaz, who played the suave police officer, was a Hyderabadi from the Deccan. Little is known about him, except the fact that he moved to Pakistan after partition, where he appeared in several Urdu and Punjabi movies. His acting career lasted two more decades before he passed away in Karachi in 1971.


Shahnawaz

Ramchandra Narayanji Dwivedi, alias Kavi Pradeep, who penned the songs of Kismet would go on to write countless songs remembered to this day, including the great patriotic song Ae mere watan ke logo and Main toh aarti utaroon re from Jai Santoshi Ma. Kavi Pradeep's patriotic verses would earn him the title of  राष्ट्रीय कवी (Rashtriya Kavi- Poet of the Country) from the Government of India. Like most of the principal members of the crew of Kismet, he enjoyed a long life before passing away in 1998.

The patriotic themes of the songs were fitting, given that composer Anil Biswas was a revolutionary in his schoolboy days. He would go on to compose songs for several movies that followed, until changing trends in the early 60s saw his popularity fade. Disillusioned with the film industry, Biswas joined all India Radio in New Delhi, working there until the mid 70s. He would go on to compose the music for the now legendary television series Hum Log in the mid 80s. Anilda, as he was popularly known, was active until the early 90s, before passing away in 2003 aged 89.


Anil Biswas
For director Gyan Mukherjee, the success of Kismet was the crowning glory of his sadly short career. He would also go on to direct the first ever movie to emerge from Filmistan- Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944) starring Ashok Kumar. If he never again replicated the brilliance of Kismet, it was also in part due to the fact that he passed away in 1956, aged just 47. But his contribution to Hindi cinema would be felt long afterwards, owing to the sterling work of two young directors he mentored: Guru Dutt and Shakti Samanta.

Rai Bahadur Chunilal is an almost forgotten name today, despite the fact that he was largely responsible for ensuring the movie slipped past the censors. But for him, its quite unlikely that Kismet would have ever seen the light of day. But his greatest contribution to Hindi cinema would come long after Kismet hit the screens, in the form of his son Madan Mohan who is rightly remembered a legendary composer today, nearly four decades after his death.


Rai Bahadur Chunilal

Like Chunilal, Sashadhar Mukherjee too is a forgotten name today, but his legacy lives on through his successors. His brother Subodh is remembered to this day as the dirctor of Paying Guest (1957) and Jungli (1961). Sashadhar's son Joy was a noted actor in the 60s. Another son, Shomu would marry the actress Tanuja. Kajol (daughter of Shomu & Tanuja) and director Ayan Mukherjee (son of Deb Mukherjee, Sashadhar's second son) are prominent personalities in contemporary Bollywood. Ravindramohan, the elder brother of Sashadhar is the grandfather Rani Mukherjee, one of the leading actresses in the mid and late 2000s who remains a popular actress to this day.

As for the rest of the crew, I regret to say that I know virtually nothing about them. I will be indebted to anyone who can give me information about Kanu Roy (Mohan), P.F. Pithawala (Rani's father), Chandraprabha (Rani's sister), Mubarak (Father of Mohan and Madan/ Shekhar) and Shah Nawaz (Inspector Saahab). I conclude with the hope that I will be able to share  some more information about them in the future.