Saturday, December 22, 2012

Should we hang them or castrate them

Should we hang them or castrate them?
The country is alive and baying for blood. From 15-year-old schoolgirls with the Head Girl instinct to frantic face-bookers to middle-aged wannabes eager to cosy up to Kiran Bedi –the air around us is amuck with opinions on rape. The terrible crime in the Delhi bus has got us all demanding change. But how?
One way would be to change the laws. We could make an example of the young men in this case, draw and quarter them in public (in a flash of ‘fast-tracking’). But, as we all know, the laws will never be changed because too many of our law makers are on the wrong side of the law.
Perhaps, then, local governments could implement schemes to make urban spaces safer for women. In Pune, a new mandate declares, plainclothes policemen will patrol college campuses. And who will guarantee that these very policemen could be trusted to fulfil their noble mission? After all, Pune policemen are better known for accepting bribes at traffic lights and charging money to file FIRs than for actually doing anything to prevent or solve crimes.
Can we then rely on the media to sensitize us to the rights and responsibilities of the gender that is physically stronger? Well – in the very week of this ghastly rape, a prominent magazine has published its periodic survey on sexual attitudes. And instead of a sociological picture of changing mores in urban India, it is a collection of titillating visuals alongside weak statistics that seem devised to prompt you to pull out and measure your own equipment.
Sadly enough, even the Indian education system seems to have let us down. Smart urbanites still seem to think that rape could be reduced by legalizing prostitution!
But rape is not about sex. Rape is about dominance, it is about violence. Men do not rape women because they need a sexual outlet. The truth is that a desperately horny man usually has a hand (or two) that he can rely on. If a woman wears clothes that reveal her body parts, it’s a perfectly normal biological reaction for a man to feel aroused. Instead of attacking and violating her, however, civilized men sidle off to a private corner and make their own arrangements to get over it. It is a terrible mistake to assign rape to an eager sex drive. Men who rape are giving reign to their brute, demonic instinct and not to the very ordinary human instinct for sex. Until law makers understand this, until we find ways to spread this simple message, men will continue to rape women under pretext of this organic and in fact rather noble function.
The brutal bus rape in Delhi will stay alive in the headlines for a long time to come, but there are rapes happening every day, all around us, that are never going to be reported. The women who are staying silent are being violated by their family members, neighbours, colleagues – not just strangers. By telling women to cover themselves we are only making them so ashamed of their bodies that when they are raped, they blame themselves. It’s not just the laws we have to change – we have to work much harder and change something deep inside us too. As Indians, we have traditionally repressed women, denying them self-expression and condoning ill-treatment worse than rape: women are covered up, aborted, even killed, to protect a man’s ‘honour’. Apparently this is ok, because men worship their mothers and sisters. If we really want things to change we must nurture human dignity and consign some of it the more vulnerable, and more precious half.
first appeared in Pune Mirror on 22 Dec 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How Shah Rukh Khan made himself

Shah Rukh Khan became famous through masala flicks. But he is also busy making a fortune off luxury branding. What is it about him that appeals across social strata and income groups to let him successfully endorse everything from pens to medium-budget cars to luxury watches? The evolution of this ordinary-looking man, from a middle-class family in Delhi and with no industry network, into the formidable Brand Shah Rukh, is not a happy accident but the result of clear, strategic thinking.
When Shah Rukh Khan’s first film was released in 1992, he was already a married man, and proud to be one. Unlike most other male Bollywood aspirants who suppressed information about their families with a view to projecting an irresistible romantic-hero persona, Shah Rukh Khan flaunted his.
Setting out with this novel approach, he maximised every opportunity that presented itself, and applied his keen business brain not just to advance his career but also to create a sterling public perception of himself that everyone, across socio-economic boundaries, could aspire to.
The first milestone was establishing himself as the embodiment of stability, cast-iron priorities, and traditional Indian family values.
Everyone knows the story of Shah Rukh Khan’s family: the tragic loss of his father to cancer when he was just sixteen, and the family’s financial trauma. He talks freely about how much he cried when his mother died; about the games he plays with his children; about how much he loves his wife. In nearly twenty years, his name was never tarnished with romantic links to any of his heroines – no matter how romantic or sexually explicit their onscreen antics. His super-clean image was reinforced by his prominent secularism: his Hindu wife, his education in a Christian school, and his loyalty and seamless devotion to Islam – each without conflict to the other. Whether he was a hero or a villain or a comedian in his movies; whether his name was Raj or Rizwan; he never hesitated to come out in public as just himself – with his family in tow. No Bollywood hero before him had ever created such a determinedly wholesome image for himself. Even Amitabh Bachhan, who Shah Rukh Khan duelled in public for prime position in the late 1990s, was not free of moral blemish.
Shah Rukh Khan sidled past ‘Big B’ and instated himself as ‘King’ of Bollywood – applying his shrewd understanding of human psychology to have the title brandished so frequently that it soon lost its ludicrous tone and began to ring naturally.
But Shah Rukh Khan never tried to gloss himself with trappings of pretentious royalty. He masked his formidable intelligence, choosing to pitch himself as a personality of mass appeal rather than a darling of the wannabe intelligentsia (like, say, Aamir Khan). And he shamelessly paraded his monetary goals – another tick in the box for the idol of wish fulfilment. It was he who launched the trend of Indian film stars dancing at high-budget weddings for enormous sums of money. When people criticized him for lowering his status by doing so, he coolly shrugged and confessed, tongue-in-cheek, that he was only a performing monkey.
Examples of Shah Rukh Khan’s PR genius abound – in the early 2000s, the front page of Times of India gave extensive details of his surgery in the US! Its most glorious peak was his 2009 tear-jerking film Billu Barber in which he plays a superstar who seeks out the long-lost friend of his impoverished childhood from amidst thronging masses of fans. What a paean to Brand Shah Rukh that was!
Working towards his single-minded goal of legend-status in the Hindi film industry, it was his PR skills that helped him enter and stay in the big league to which most have access only by virtue of family connections. And, having restricted the number of films he acted in, he took another strategic decision – to stay in the limelight by offering himself for product endorsements, a decision that opened a lucrative avenue of employment for other out-of-work stars.
As Shah Rukh Khan’s career progressed, his entrepreneurial side continued to identify new opportunities in his domain. In the early 2000s, he invested in a production house. Within a few years his production business had established itself and his next step was the IPL cricket team. In superb cross-utilization of each platform, his product brands sponsor his movies and cricket team; their sponsors use Brand Shah Rukh to endorse their products. Today, when Shah Rukh Khan looks at Hollywood, it is not by gratefully grasping at bit roles as many other Indian actors have, but rather by partnering with Hollywood studios.
In the new Indian economic scenario, it is the maturity and planning that went into the creation of Brand Shah Rukh that has so many women professionals aspiring to buy Tag Hauer watches for their men without the faintest idea of their price – simply because Shah Rukh Khan wears one.
First appeared in Atelier magazine in February 2012

Stories from Sindh

interview to Indian Express, Pune on 3 Dec 2012

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Life is so good to tough-looking women

Was it a hot flush that clutched at me when I read Sunanda Pushkar’s Tharoor’s endearing comment in yesterday’s papers that life was tough for good looking women in this world? Could have been. Surely – that must be what it was. One of those thundering, overwhelming hot flushes that makes you feel like a snake shedding its skin.
Because straight away I started wondering how much more tough life must be for good looking women who have plenty of money.
And then it struck me that life had surely got to be much, much tougher for good looking women with plenty of money who have husbands that are handsome, well-placed, and intellectually sound – and who dotingly classify them in public as “priceless”!
Since then I’ve been thinking hard about whether life could possibly be tougher for anyone else.
Yes – perhaps if you were a good looking and wealthy woman with a dreamboat husband and two children (one male and one female) able and willing to execute each and every failed aspiration of your youth? Because one day, you would be having a wonderful, wonderful surprise party for (say) your husband’s fifty-seventh birthday. Twenty-four of your closest and most loved friends would be secretly flying out from all over the world for an intimate dinner hand-cooked by you! And life would betray you by suddenly, unexpectedly striking asparagus off the market. Or the servant-woman under a bus. Alas.

Until quite recently, I was an overweight adolescent blessed with profusions of facial hair, and I must say life in those days was real easy and great fun. Still, it was a period in which I could have easily been convinced that beautiful women had it just as easy as me.
One day, life’s strange byways led me from a Bombay local train compartment almost directly into an ‘ante-natal class’ with a bunch of stiletto-heeled women who arrived at the clinic in wafts of chiffon and Jean Patou Joy Eau de Parfum, tripping out of chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benzes in a particular frenzy that they might soon be afflicted with stretch marks. We were earnestly exhorted to rush out and buy expensive cream to rub those ghastly, ghastly marks away. In pre-Liberalization India, it was Joy over Chanel, Benz over Audi, and such creams were coveted concoctions of the most privileged – and life was tough indeed because they were hard to come by.
But why on earth would anyone ever want to try and erase their hard-earned stretch marks? The earnest inquiry won me an ante-natal class full of “what a peculiar person this is” looks.

Just a few years later, there was a wise woman condescendingly comforting my children with the awful truth, “Sometimes life can be tough,” when they complained, “That’s not fair!”
And one day about then I met Sujatha Burla, Telugu celebrity chat-show host on TV9, styled as “The Most Beautiful Anchor” in Andhra Pradesh. Hate mail rained on Ravi Prakash, CEO of TV9 for branding a merely good looking woman thus. Later, Close Encounters With Suzy became a sensation, and it was acknowledged that Most Beautiful Anchor was well-deserved – after it was ‘revealed’ that thirty-two-year-old Suzy had been rendered paraplegic by a car crash eleven years before. Here was a woman who had never let the fact that she could not even raise herself or perform a single life activity without help from someone else stand in her way of living life to the full and achieving wealth and fame. So I already knew, way before my hot flushes struck, and way before Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor told the world that she felt sorry for herself because she was good looking: life is so, so good-looking to tough women!
first appeared in Pune Mirror on 7 Nov 2012

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Olympic diary, London 2012

with Gagan Narang just before Vijay Kumar's silver medal 

Would we hear the Indian national anthem being played in the Olympic stadium? It was hard to keep that eager thought from our minds as we set out, knowing how lucky we were to be attending this event. Getting tickets had been our test of persistence – the rest of the world wanted them too, and the website, the only source of tickets, was overburdened and unresponsive. It took hundreds of attempts, over a period of several weeks, to get some. Ajay volunteers with the NGO Olympic Gold Quest, set up by Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone to nurture Indian sporting talent, and he had finally managed to get some tickets for events for which the OGQ athletes had qualified. But we did not have one for the first big chance India had, with two of our star shooters, Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang in the lineup.
Standing at the venue, Woolwich Arsenal, with a small paper placard that pleaded, “One ticket needed. Please!” Ajay was most gratified when an elderly Indian gentleman came up and handed him one – and refused to take money for it. “Just go in there and cheer for India!” he said.
Inside was a highly-charged atmosphere, including a large crowd of cheering Indians. When Gagan made it to the finals, and won India’s first medal after some fine shooting by all eight contestants, it was a magical entry into the Olympics. What an explosion of happiness there was in the stadium, with Indians waving their flags and cheering loudly!
Indian sportspeople presently excel in boxing, wrestling, shooting, archery, and badminton. Sadly, our very talented archers did not perform well. Why does this happen? Only the very best in the world qualify for the Olympics and the fact that they are there at all means that their skill and talent is proven. It’s unfortunate that even though in the last twenty years, Indians have moved out, gained confidence and made a mark for themselves in every field, there are certain sections of society that have remained in the third world. That’s what we felt about the archery debacle – a lack of the right sort of nurture, leading to a lack of confidence at the final stage. While we felt sad about this, it was hard not to feel happy at being inside the very special arena where the competition took place, the holiest ground of cricket – Lords!
London is a beautiful city, with its many monuments and sights. For the Olympics, the central part of the city was decorated with flags and mascots. The venues were at suburbs in different corners of the city, and each route was also festive, with signposts and impressive teams of volunteers dressed in the pink chosen as the colour for this Olympics. Since most of the Olympic routes passed through the centre of the city, managing peak hour traffic must have been a major challenge and it was met very well. The Olympic stadium itself was the farthest out of the city, with another two venues on the way, and right at the end an enormous new shopping complex at Westfield. Coming out of the tube station, the crowd was so thick that the ticket barriers were kept raised. One day we heard a volunteer calling out loudly over the public address system, in a tone traditionally reserved for the wholesale vegetable market, “No need to take out your tickets, ladies and gentlemen! And in case you don’t have a ticket, that’s just fine, we don’t mind at all!” We laughed, but couldn’t help wondering what the scene would be like after a few weeks, and whether these huge stores could possibly get the kind of custom they needed to sustain themselves just from the local population.
It wasn’t just the people in England who were out making merry – even the sun was smiling and the clouds and frosty wind stayed away while the games were on. So persuasive was this weather that the British sportspeople couldn’t help but win one gold medal after another and the celebrations across the country rose to a higher level. This run of British gold medals unfortunately cost India one and our star hope, Mary Kom did not make it.
By now everyone knows Mary’s story, her background of poverty; her immense talent and the number of world championships she has won – including two after her twin boys were born; her supportive husband; her sweet, uncomplicated nature and her love for singing! It was so like Mary that, after weeping for an hour, the first thing she did was apologize to the country.
That’s when we realized that, though the Olympics is really about physical excellence, endurance, and commitment – it’s high emotion that stands out most of all. One day we walked from one venue to another on one of the long walkways that had been prepared for the games and as we passed a large screen, the people sitting in front of it burst into loud cheers. Andy Murray had won the tennis gold! And there was Andy on the screen, and what was he doing but weeping!  So many of the British gold medalists wept when they won their medals that the tabloid press decided to give Britain a gold medal for being a nation of the biggest ‘blubbers’. We heard a TV anchor ask Nicole Adams, the woman boxer who beat Mary Kom, “I noticed you were smiling when you won your medal. Most of the others cried when they got theirs. How come you didn’t cry?” Poor Nicole looked guilty and apologized for not weeping at the happiest moment of her life.
People do crazy, inexplicable things. At the Royal Barracks one day, Ajay was thrilled to watch Joydeep Karmarkar reach the finals of the 50m prone. Sadly, he missed the bronze by a whisker. A short while later he bumped into the president of the West Bengal Rifle Association who had decided that he could not possibly watch any more (even though another shooter, Vijay Kumar, was in the finals) since he was so overjoyed at Joydeep’s terrific performance. He proclaimed that if he had his way he would announce a day’s holiday in West Bengal the next day!
One of our low moments was watching the feisty Saina Nehwal get walloped by a Chinese girl. It hurt! Even the memory of the volunteers who saw us waving our flags as we marched up the steps to Wembley Stadium and called out: “Go get them! Beat the Chinese! You can do it!” wasn’t enough to make us feel better. Later Ajay met Gopichand, Saina’s coach, a very soft spoken and polite person. He explained the strategy of the Chinese team, which had three players in the semi-finals. So in the first semi-finals it was China against China, and their stronger player, Wang, had purposely lost so that it would be she who played Saina and give them a better chance at getting all three medals. As it happened, during the match Wang developed a hamstring catch and had to forfeit, giving India our second bronze medal.
Another unforgettable moment was watching the quiet, unassuming Vijay Kumar work his way steadfastly through his event and come out nearly at the top. Every Indian inside the arena, including those in the media section, was jumping up and down and screaming with delight!
We were certainly disappointed that we never heard the Indian national anthem at the Olympics. At the same time, the thrill of seeing our beautiful flag raised a number of times made us come home quite determined that we would be there in Brazil too!
first appeared in Ability magazine OND 2012