Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bluffmaster: a much-delayed review

Tell me what a good movie means, to you, and I'll tell you where a good movie's playing.
That, in essence, is the magic of cinema. Or, perhaps, of all art.
Because, that all good art speaks to you is only half a truth. The whole truth being that ALL art speaks to you. Or tries to. If you find yourself speaking back to the piece in question, if you begin to 'engage' in the apparently one-sided conversation, you have what you call a good film.

To my mind, a good film has to be one of three - amusing, touching or thought-provoking.
A truly great film has all three elements. A timepass film has one. A repeat-value film has two overlapping elements. A half-way decent film tries hard, but sometimes falls into the cracks between these.

Bluffmaster is what I call a one-time-repeat-value timepass movie.

It walks a tight-rope between fun and sentiment, between slick and real, and emerges pretty much unscathed, smelling of stardust. Here's why I recommend it:

1] Because Abhishek Bacchan really has started looking really hot. He's finally made it to 'lust object' category, which means that women can stop paying attention to his histrionic skills and just focus on how hot/cool he is. He doesn't have his father's acting skills, not yet, but he's working on it and is already at the stage where he slips into a character's skin without the loose folds showing. Or at least, has the wisdom to pick roles that he can handle with ease.

2] Priyanka Chopra is looking as hot as she's ever looked. She's wearing nice clothes. She's comfortable in her chracter's shoes; she's not hamming. She fits. And characters 'fitting' is half the battle won.

3] A lot of humour.
Some of it is wit-based humour, which is rare in Indian movies. And some of it is just good, old-fashioned, improbable nonsense that you can't help giggling at. Like the scene in which Ritesh Deshmukh is trying to con Boman Irani into believing that he - Boman Irani, that is - has been shot. And then there is Nana Patekar's impossible character - the dangerous 'shark' who begins his day by doing aarti in front of the mirror.

4] The setting is contemporary; the treatment is contemporary. Including the romance between the hero and heroine, which is a welcome relief.
For instance, when Priyanka's character is angry with Abhishek, he tries to win her back - turning up at her work-place, turning up at her apartment. He does not sing mournful songs under her balcony, and she does not sob alone in her bedroom. The heroine is like most independent young career women, and moves on to other men.

5] It is a love story, which makes for easy resonance. But it is not just a love story. It is the story of a con-man, who happens to be in love with an intelligent, headstrong, woman. It is the story of a young man confronted with imminent death, and that's also a game all of us have played in our heads: What if you had only a few months to live? And, paradoxically, not much to live for?

6] It is shot beautifully.
Bombay - the grittiness, the harsh greys and concrete, the sea, the Gateway, the beach, the cheap shack, the skyscrapers, the swank hotels, the pubs, the C-grade cinema halls.... it looks real. It's beautiful.

7] The music is good. The songs don't interrupt the flow of the story. They're pacy and good-looking. (In fact, the last 'item' song that's all the rage right now, arrives only when the credits roll at the end. Nobody wants to leave the hall, of course, as long as that number's playing!)

8] There's a twist in the tale.

9] Most importantly, the 'pace' is right. Many a good script is doomed when the narrative begins to drag. Thankfully, the director (Rohan Sippy) has not resorted to slick-tricks like jump-cuts, or deliberate convolutions of plot in an attempt to control pace. Also, there are no parallel sub-plots side-tracking the story, nor irrelevant flashbacks into the hero's unhappy childhood.

Like any good story, Bluffmaster unfolds smoothly, taking care to carry you along so that you don't feel breathless, bored or confused. Which is why it gets my vote. And an unlikely, much-delayed review. Two years later, I will have forgotten all about it and will, possibly, even wonder what was wrong with my sensibilities. However, two weeks after I saw the movie, I'm sitting here, saying that it's worth watching a second time. Which is something, no?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Succumbing to the temptation of year-end lists

For the last couple of years, I've stopping doing something that I once thought I could spend a lifetime doing: reviews.

I had set out (in journalism) seriously thinking that, since books and movies were so much fun, there was no better job than to first read/watch, and then talk/write about them. That's what I'd wanted to do, week after week. And initially, I did. For my first job with a web portal's news section. For a youth magazine, afterwards...
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I lack the true soul of a professional reviewer. My response to most books and movies and music was reduced to very few words - 'nice', 'okay', 'fun', 'loved it', 'bleah!' 'whatever...' ouch'. (In a profession where many of us are paid by the word, this clearly does not bode well.)

Yet, I miss reviewing sometimes. I miss the exercise of describing a creative thing like a book, or a movie. The challenge of using words, as orginally as possible, to describe what could be a very original way with words. The magic of infusing a film review with 'ambience', beyond narrating the bare bones of a story outline.
On the other hand, I find it harder and harder to pass judgement upon any such creative work. The fact that I don't like it means nothing. I am not the world. And if I do like something, that is very likely a reflection upon me - my tastes, my values, my sense of humour, my needs.

Which is why, I've more or less stopped reading reviews. Especially movie reviews, since I realised how upsetting the star-rating system can be. Most publications have a five star rating scheme, where:
5 stars = fantastic/unmissable.
1 star = awful/please-avoid.
1 and a 1/2 stars = so-awful-that-we're-feeling-sorry-for-the-filmmakers.

I didn't think anyone really cared for the reviews and the stars, but now that most cities bank on the educated multiplex audience, it does make a difference. I noticed this year that my aunt and cousins actually refused to go watch a film because the ToI had given the movie only 2 stars. Which was horribly unfair, not just because I wanted to see that film, but that the ToI's reviews are sort of... well, suspect, at times.

I recall a time when I used to look forward to Khalid Mohamed's Sunday reviews in the Bombay edition of ToI. His make-fun-of-everything style, his silly-billy rhyme-shyme was amusing, if not edifying. But then, one day, he reviewed the film Love ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega. He refused to give it a review or a rating. Not even 1 star. He said it didn't deserve even that!

Since it was an E. Niwas film, we watched it, anyway. It was a very decently made film. I was laughing almost non-stop. (Some people suggested it's lifted from somewhere else in the western hemisphere; I really don't care. That's the newest fashionable thing, nowadays - spot the slightest similarity between any old English film and any new Hindi film, and accuse the filmmaker of 'lifting'... besides, no western movie could ever have had anything as remarkable as Aslam Bhai).

That day, I lost respect for that review-column. Now, I've stopped reading film reviews. I'll read them if I'm curious about the story, or if the reviewer is a fantastic writer. But I refuse to accept reviewers' verdicts, even when ALL of them say the same thing. In fact, if they all say it's great, I get a little suspicious. If they uniformly hate it, I'm immediately curious. For instance, Apharan has good reviews but I'm not too keen on it.

For one, I'm suspicious of words like 'precocious' and 'middle of the road' and 'experimental' and 'breaking new ground' and 'dark' and 'sensibilities'. Over-used words like 'pacy', 'fresh', 'young', 'understated', 'brooding', 'original'.

I'm also irritated with 'We've seen this one before' or 'ABC film can be summed up as UPO meets YZX meets RTS meets CAB'.

My reaction to that is: "Yes, we've all seen everything there is to see, they say there are only 8 original plots on earth.... And if ABC film is suggestive of mixed elements from all these films, clearly, it is not like any one of them; right?"

Similarity of plot is neither a virtue nor a vice. After all, Mera Gaon Mera Desh is very similar to Sholay. But Sholay is a classic that I've seen eight times; most Indians remember each scene, verbatim (some day, I hope to see it on the big screen!). Anarkali had the same subject as Mughal-e-azam. But there's no comparison, is there?
Originality is not always a good thing - I have never seen anything like 'Bal Brahmachari'. I hope to be spared, in the future.
Also, subtlety or understatement is neither a virture nor a vice. Manoj Bajpai in Pinjar was understated to the point of being invisible and inaudible. Amitach Bacchan in Baghbaan was not subtle; he was heart-wrenchingly believeable. When anyone says that performances are 'low-key', I want to remind them that we grew up on and with Bollywood... Low-key?! What makes you think we want low-key? Even Naseeruddin Shah is not really low-key!
Nor is 'pace' any measure of cinematic worth. Dev had no pace to speak of, barring the riot scene, but it's worth the watch.

Also, this whole post has been one long rant against nothing and nobody in particular. I have a suspicion that I've begun to babble. But since everybody's doing their year-end lists, here's mine:

I loved Black and Iqbal. Also Bluffmaster and Bunty Aur Bubli (which I've seen twice for the sheer fun and enthusiasm it fills you with.) Both these movies - like Main Hoon Na - belong to that category of cinema that you want to re-watch when you're feeling down, and don't want to stay down.

I thought Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara had a great concept, but was just about rescued by Anupam Kher (I'd have given a lot to have Urmila Matondkar replaced by... anybody else. But I also thought it was a film that deserved to get made). Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi was alright - the word 'hard-hitting' comes to mind - but it engaged only my mind, not my heart.

I have nothing against The Rising. Didn't love it, but I didn't think it was all that bad and I'm still in love with Aamir Khan's moochhein... and the fine wrinkles round his eyes. (pause, sigh deeply) By the way, WHY does everyone go on and on about Madame Kher's cleavage? I completely fail to understand what the fuss was about. There was cleavage, yes, but in the age of Mallika and the silicon brigade... and considering everybody's been watching Baywatch... this should've passed unnoticed. I, for one, didn't bat an eyelash.

[PS - I know I have not linked to all the things and people I should have linked to, as blogosphere etiquette demands, but there are simply too many film and actor names and I don't have the time.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Meet happening

There's a blogger's meet happening in Delhi. 2nd January, 6:30 pm, Barista, Connaught Place.

Apparently, Amit Varma, from Bombay, will be there. Shivam tells me that this is also a sort-of farewell meet for Saket Vaidya, who seems to be shifting to Bombay.

I won't be there, because I will be in Bombay (much Delhi-Bombay commuting is happening, as you will note). I will be in the lap of the family, with - hopefully - the luxury of having bed-tea in bed.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Another think

Shit happens.
It happens, because we let it happen.
We don't lift a finger to stop it happening.

What is really infuriating, to me, is not the news of the gang-rape itself, nor the (alleged) abdication of responsibility by the railway cops from UP or MP. What is infuriating is the assumption that the 'system' was, as expected, dysfunctional, and that we - the comman man, if you will - are suffering because the cops failed in their duty.
As if we had no duty of our own!!

Have you all traveled in a 'general' compartment in UP? I have.

There is not once square inch of space in that dabba. People lie down on the narrow luggage-racks overhead. People squat in the aisles. A space meant for six people is occupied by twelve. By the most conservative estimate, there are at least 200 people in one general compartment. Maybe more.

How many dacoits/rapists/robbers/assailants/whatever-they-were?
Maybe 8. Not more than 10.

Ten men. Two cops.
[Okay, so there should have been five cops according to the rule-book. But that's neither here nor there; the rule-book rarely works anywhere.]

The point is that we - the aam junta of this mahaan rashtra with it's mahaan sankaar and centuries' old tradition of dharma - expected those two cops to fight off those ten men, while we sat back on our cowardly little backsides.

Three men protested, anf were pushed off the train, for their pains. What galls me is that there were only three of them.

Even if these 8-10 dacoits were armed - and I doubt they were carrying bombs or even fancy automated weapons that would have silenced the whole compartment in one blaze of fire - are you telling me that five men couldn't have stood up and pinned down one assailant each? You'd only need fifty men....

A woman was getting raped, but not one man had the guts to even reach up and pull the emergency chain!

I remember people pulling the chain when some member of their travel party got left behind, as the train began to pull out. I remember people pulling the chain when someone from the platform called out 'Pull the chain!', without waiting to find out why. 'Why' comes later.

Yet, not one man or woman, in that probably jam-packed compartment, reached up to pull the chain.

What really scares me is this sense of deja vu... Names, places, dates change. The story doesn't.

Remember August 2002, Mumbai?

Mumbai... that haven for women. That one 'safe' city in the country. Where women aren't assaulted so easily, even if they're alone, even at night.
But when they are, the city looks on, not lifting a finger. Even if it's a 12-year old girl being raped by a one-armed man.... Not one man will have the sense to pull the chain. Trains, late at night, stop at almost all stations - the average time between smaller stations is two minutes, maybe three, maybe five. Not one man tried to step off the train when it stopped, to interrupt the raping.

When citizens - you and I - do not want to take on criminals, because we're afraid of getting hurt, why should we expect the cops to be any different? Toting a gun doesn't make you a superman, for God's sake! The cops are just extensions of this system that is 'us'. They get paid to do a job, but money cannot buy courage, or even social responsibility.

The cops will pass the buck, if they can. No society can ever be made secure through state-sponsored forces alone. We are our own security.

Why do I feel safe when shopping at Lajpat Nagar in the evenings? Because there are hordes of people there.
Why do I hesitate before taking a walk down the more deserted streets of Central Delhi, evn in broad daylight? Because there aren't enough people about.
Why do I not hesitate before watching movies at the mulitplex-cum-mall complexes at night? Because there are hordes of people.
If there were no people, but only five cops, I'd be scared out of my wits.

Because a man with a gun is only as dangerous as his whims - a uniform is no guarantee of my safety. The 'public' is. The hordes are.

Or so I used to think. I guess, I have another think coming.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Asli cheez, and the alternative

Once upon a time, people sold 'chaai-chaichaigaramchaaaai', on railway platforms and in train corridors.

Now, they sell 'dip cha-dip cha-dip... boliye saab?'

Once upon a time, the chai would come to the traveler. Now, the traveler must step off the train, go looking for a stall which serves properly boiled-n-brewed chai, from proper iron kettles. The asli cheez, as it were.

Or else, one must ignore the call of the garamchaai, and settle for some ashen-sweet dip-dip.

The latter has it's merits, though. With dip-cha, one can play with form and colour. One can control what the brew looks like. One can dip-dip until the colour deepens to resemble the five-o-clock winter sunlight falling across one's hands.

So... Boliye saab?

Chai, in other posts.

men, murderers

Prejudice or values, I'm learning, are a function of perspective, and directly proportional to one's range of experience.

Take, for instance, murder.

I've grown up thinking that if there is sin on earth, it is murder. That killing a human being - especially for the purpose of material gain - is the greatest sin. You can condone a lot that's labelled 'criminal'; but how can you forgive somebody for cutting short a life? For destroying any potential that a life may have held, for the future? For bringing about something as irreversible as death?

All these years, I thought that I couldn't bring myself to be nice to murderers. Until I went to do this story.

Here's when I met men who have killed several times over. Men who killed so many that they didn't remember how many.

A curious magistrate had asked 'how many' when old Lukka Daaku (Lokman Dixit) was brought to court after his surrender, "Judge saahib, do you remember how many chappattis you eat in a month?"

Lokman Dixit. Old man. Green woollen cap, white cotton dhoti, shuffling feet. Great-grandchildren, playing with new-born puppies; I played along. An old pension-earning school-mistress wife, who insisted on silently standing behind him, in the background of the frame, while I took his pictures, oblivious to his yelling. Old man with the wrinkles of an wise grandfather.

I met this old man who didn't remember 'how many', and I felt no outrage, no tempestuous sense of wrong-doing and lack of justice. No resentment. Nothing.

I said namaste, and, unthinking, called him 'baba'.

Just like that. Baba.

Baba is what grandfathers are called, in this part of Chambal. And I think of my grandfather - his morning quiet, his aversion to violence of any sort, even raised voices, his wollen cap, his shuffling feet, walking stick, wisdom.

I wait for Lokman Dixit to speak, while he struggles to find answers to my questions - Will the new gangs surrender? Will he help them persuade them to surrender?

And he says: "I wouldn't, not unless the police asked. But I don't believe that there will more surrenders.... Koi nahin chahta, beta. Sarkar, samaj, police, koi nahin chahta. (Nobody wants them to surrender, child. The government, society, police... nobody.) They'd lose the bribes these gangs pay. They'd prefer to kill them. If you don't catch them, you get money. If you catch and kill them, you get accolades and president's medal. Inke toh dono haathon mein laddoo hain. (They've got sweets in both their hands, which means, either option is sweet, for them)"

.... and after a long pause, he adds, "You see, child, the problem is that the police force was made by the British, for their own purposes. They were made for the bureaucracy and to protect the (foreign) government. They weren't ever intended for the poor. That's the basic problem. That's why the police is pathetic. They extract two paise from rickshaw or thela-walas..."

He drifts off again, before adding, "I don't talk about the past in front of the kids, don't know what might come into their minds... Even when we meet at Jaura, at the Gandhi Ashram, we don't talk about the past... I get bad dreams, sometimes."

Dixit still remembers one colonel, Girdhari Singh. "I met him near Dhaulpur. He said 'Go over to Pakistan.' I said, why should I? This is my homeland. He said,'why are you ruining your own home?' That got me thinking. Then Vinoba Bhave appealed for a surrender, and we asked to meet him..."


The novelist Tamanna (Manmohan Kumar) has written some 48 books, most of them novels about dacoits in this region. He is bursting with anecdotes about many a prominent daaku, of his time.

Like the one about Mansa Ram, a dreaded dacoit from Datia. Tamanna told me, "On May 1, 1972, about 81 dacoits surrendered. Mansa Ram Singh was one. But surrender meant nothing. He ruled the prison, like it was his sasuraal (in-law's house). He was known to beat up the jailor. Later, he had done this interview with Kamleshwar for Doordarshan. The show was titled 'Bandoonkon ka badshah' (The King of Guns). Kamleshwar asked him how many people he's killed. Mansa Ram retorted, "If I'd known you would be asking me, someday, I'd have kept a record"."

"I have one grouse", Tamanna says. "The media goes overboard in it's descriptions. Especially the women. The papers describe all dacoit women as 'dasyu sundari'. Beauties! All dacoit women are described as great, irresistable beauties.... When you see their photos, you'd be willing to puke!"

Tamanna has other stories to tell - my favourite being about a brave woman cop who went chasing dacoits. He says it is a true story. Someday, he might turn it into a novel, in English, if he can find a publisher.... "She killed 5 dacoits in an encounter. She went through mud and rain. Alone. When the villagers found out she as a cop, they refused to give her even a cup of tea."


Mohar Singh, who's now a local politician as well in Mehangaon, was part of the Madho Singh-Mohar Singh gang. But he began his career training under a woman - the original bandit queen, Putli Bai. She, who was one half of the Putli-Kallan gang. She, who took pride in her work, leaving behind signed notes every time she committed a daring robbery. But Mohar Singh is dismissive of her work, now.

"Putli didn't do much... she was around for 5 years (she was killed in an encounter later). She had a big name only because she was a woman... but yes, that's where I first went, when I turned baaghi... Later, I met Madho Singh in the forest. We'd all meet each other wandering in the forests. Sometimes, the villagers would introduce us to each other and we'd formed our own gangs."

He begins to get nostalgic about his 'support base'. "In Dabra, we went to loot at a wedding. We'd just begun, and I saw the bride, sitting there quietly. She said to me, "Uncle, I'm going to be taunted for the rest of my life, all because of you". So, I felt bad. Those were times when we didn't even have ten rupees. But I asked the guests to take back their money and jewelry; we blessed her and left. In jail, this same girl came to visit me. She was crying because she thought I'd be hung. I consoled her and told her that our terms of surrender ensured that we would not be killed..."

And there's Makhan Singh, who was part of the Chhidda-Makhan gang. Chhidda was the only dacoit to be hung by the authorities, in recent decades. He had killed a small child. Makhan was the less cruel brother. Cousin, actually. But caste and family ties are so strong, that there is not much difference between 'real' brother and cousin.

Now, when Makhan Singh laughs, his eyes crinkle up, like a man who is used to laughing a lot.
He's had some acting experience too. A few years ago, some film crew from Bombay came to him, offering Rs 50,000 to play himself. "The film was 'Anokhi Aahuti'. But then there was Ayodhya, and the riots, and the film shooting was put on hold... Later, they gave me Rs 20,000. I thought I might as well take what was coming my way."

He talks of this and that - tube-wells, land, farms, caste equations. His grandchild brings out an old gun - licensed, this time around... "A punjabi from the army, Niranjan... he sold us our guns, in those days. He is in jail, now."

But Makhan Singh does not talk so much about guns or Chhidda. When asked to pose for a photograph, he handles the gun lightly, as if stuck somewhere between unease and familiarity.


Makhan Singh. Mohar Singh. Raghuveer Singh.

Old men. Grandfathers. Murderers. Surrendered dacoits....
.... murderers?

And, unthinking, I call them 'Baba'.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Plug time again.

This time is a friend of my brother's, Jay (as in, Jai).

Jay is the first Jai I knew. Now I know of two other Jais, both well-known blogozens. Which is a completely irrelevant factoid of sub-zero significance; do forgive.

Anyhow, those who wish to scream and pull their hair out in frustration at Jay's complete disregard for spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like, are welcome to beat him up, the virtual way. Don't curse me for sending you there, though.

Monday, December 12, 2005

How much is enough?

A while ago, I attended a press conference that didn't result in a story. To tell the truth, I did not even stay until the end of the conference.

It is hard to sit through testimonies of women who describe the years they spent being tortured, raped, jailed, harassed, orphaned, widowed and so on. All this, they said, was perpetrated by the police and/or the Special Task Force, while looking for the moustachioed brigand, Veerappan.

I listened to them. Five of them. And then I could take no more. (Thankfully, at least one journalist stayed back, and wrote about it.)

After an hour of this, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I walked out of the hall, into the sunshine.

Woman after woman breaking down. Woman after woman faltering as she could not find words for describing what had happened. Old women. Young women. Broken health. Lost jobs. Ongoing cases. Women naming the police officials who'd raped them. Who could have pointed out their tortemtors, in a line-up. But the cops were not going to organise a line-up for their fraternity, were they?

Oh, they did constitute one of those famous commissions of enquiry; the Justice Sadashiva panel was set up in 1999, and submitted a report to the National Human Rights Commission as early as Dec 3, 2003, confirming the terrible truth of those women's testimonies. However, it was not made public. That was why these women were here - they'd come to Delhi to protest, and demand that this report be released.

The delay was apparently caused by the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, who had not submitted their comments on the report. When they finally did, their responses were ridiculously defensive, saying, among other things, that the panel had exceeded its brief... exceeded... what? How do you limit the brief of justice?

It was only on the 19th of October, this year, that the NHRC ordered that the report be released to the complainants. The panel has recommended that 89 of the victims of STF's ... er, methods, be compensated.

And I'm sitting here, wondering, how much would be compensation enough?

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Last week, a senior journalist asked me to fill up a questionnaire about women in media, gender parity and suchlike issues. She warned that it was going to be a complicated questionnaire and I should think hard before filling in my responses.

It was complicated.

Partly because there are no straight answers to all questions, and partly, because there's no information available.

For instance, numbers :

How many women journalists in this country? In this city?
How many women in print and how many in broadcast and how many online?
How many on contract? How many unionised?
What percentage? What ratio?
How many in senior position? How many in super-senior, top-of-the-heap positions?
How many in 'hard' and how many in 'soft' news?
What percentage? What ratio?

I just don't know!!

I found only one report, about discrimination in scribe-land, based on a study conducted by the National Commission for Women, about gender issues in the Indian media; and even this turned out to be limited, because most of the potential respondents did not respond to the survey.

The one union website that did seem active and frequently updated, did not have any statistics broken down, along gender lines. Unfortunately, most women are not members of any union or press club.

Ultimately, I used my own limited experience to answer those questions. In any case, collecting data from various media offices is not a very efficient way of researching gender parity, because media - especially nowadays - is in a constant state of flux. People are always moving; ratios are always changing.

For instance, in our bureau, women form 33.33 % of the editorial team (3 out of 9), but in the Bombay bureau of the same publication, women comprise 100% of the team (all 3 are women, last I heard).

Earlier, when I worked at the ToI office, my team was almost perfectly balanced. But the Femina Girl team was not; there was only one guy there. When I first joined Mid-day, there was an equal number of women and men, but that changed within a year - thus upsetting the ratio.

But on the whole, looking around me, and judging by the number of women I see at press conferences, and major events, I'd venture to say (and I'm sticking my neck very far out, while saying this) that we have a more or less balanced ratio in the English language media. This is NOT true of Hindi, Urdu, Marathi or any other language press.

Also, gender-beats/roles are often pre-defined.
Development issue or Social sector press con - 50% women. Police press con - 20% women. Riot situation - 10-15% women. New car launch - 30% women. New lipstick launch - 70%+ women. New lingerie line launch... ummm, maybe 50% of all the women journalists working in magazines, and 95% of all the mostly-male-photographers in town.

On a serious note, the fact remains that there is a serious non-representation problem for women journalists in the small towns, in the regional press, and that's where it really matters. Everywhere I travel, I meet local journalists, but only once have I encountered a woman journo, and that was in Udaipur, which is not really so small, as small towns go.

Most photographers and camera crews are men. It is also true that nearly all women journos I know end up handling 'features'. In Bombay, I knew of only one other girl who covered courts, and only one who covered crime. While these beats continue to be a male bastion, it is also true that the woman brigade isn't doing much to storm these bastions.

For instance, I would not voluntarily tackle crime. If the beat was assigned to me, maybe... but I wouldn't be too happy doing it. Not because I'm scared; I've done my share of chasing lawyers, hanging around police stations, watching raids, speaking to criminals... I continue to do all of the above, when the story demands it of me. But I will never be on back-slapping terms with these people, and I can think of other things I'm more interested in.

Yet, this is not necessarily because I am a woman. So, okay, I have not been around long enough, but in my limited experience, I have never been made deliberately uncomfortable by cops or criminals, while I'm on the job.

On the contrary, in my limited experience, I have been made very uncomfortable by fellow-journalists - men AND women - and some former bosses.
How do I reduce this complexity to numbers, percentages and ratios?

There are other problems with regard to gender parity on the work front.
I know of several women who do not want to work very hard. They want a job in the media because it makes them feel glamourous and powerful. But they don't want to meet cops, criminals, or even a raggedy social worker who wears torn chappals.

Some of them just want a job, want to work enough to justify keeping the job, but don't want to break any stories. They lack ambition. Other women have severe hang-ups about 'these modern girls' who are a blot on the face of all Indian womankind, and complain about younger girls taking away their jobs (such are the women who're responsible for the lack of a bar at the Indian Women's Press Corps). As if older men don't lose their jobs to young blood!

If women don't get promoted... well, maybe some of them don't particularly deserve a promotion. But I am bothered by the assumption that many of us are not getting promoted because we are women. I am bothered by the caveat in questionnaries, that even allows us to assume such things, giving us this hole to slip our possible incompetance into.

I mean, for God's sake, how do I KNOW that I am not being promoted because I'm a woman. There's a whole stack of men out there who are not getting promoted either. After all, if a bureau has 20 journos, there can be only 1 chief. And only 1 resident editor. And only 1 editor-in-chief. [Four years ago, the head of Mid-day Multimedia was Bachi Karkaria, a woman].

Sure, the competition is intense. But some women have made it. Ambitious women. Maybe even manipulative women. But smart women.... but when they do make it, people (many of them being women) immediately make the converse allegation. That you made it because you used your womanhood, allowed your body and your conscience to get used.... my point is: even if it were true, what gives us the right to bring in gender parity into the media picture, in particular? What does the press, our work, have to do with our bedroom/couch choices?

PS - Please do let me know if there are any specific studies or reports about gender parity in the media.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

We, the problem?

This is something I've been wanting to say for a long time.
To quote Sad Old Bong, I too "take issue with the general trashing of everything associated with the government."

I'll admit that government-bashing is often well-deserved, but I resent the attitude that accuses everything the government owns/runs of being sub-standard, or the assumption that it would automatically be thrice as good, if it were in private hands.

I beg to differ.

A very ordinary example:

Whenever I travel (and have a reserved ticket for an AC dabba) on our country's railways, I find that they serve me well. The sheets are clean - sometimes even starched! - and the blankets dust-free. The food is edible. The attendants are polite, in general. The rajdhani and shatabdi trains - though not my favourites on account of personal boredom - almost go overboard, trying to fill the journey with food and service (I usually tip the attendants willingly, though I don't need to; they do a fair job).

The railways are government owned.

On the other hand:

I often stay at hotels in small towns. Considering the small town's rates for accomodation, these are not very cheap hotels. But even the better ones leave a whole lot to be desired.
The sheets are invariably dirty. I have to supervise the making of the beds myself (if I ask for fresh sheets, they bring fresh sheets, but don't bother to change the pillow-slips, until I call them back and request fresh pillow slips... and often, the fresh sheets are only marginally cleaner). The blankets are ragged and dusty. The telephones don't work. The food kills all appetite and the waiters often forget to knock, or wait for an answer.

Even though internet facilities are available in the town, most of these hotels have not bothered to set up a communication centre for guests (some don't even offer STD facilities, for god's sake!).

These hotels are all privately owned.

If private ownership and competition could take care of all ills, then there is no reason why these hotels should be sub-standard. They should be falling over their shoe-laces trying to provide the best possible, at competitive prices, right?

They seem to be competing, to maintain more or less the same level of sub-standardization.
[And ooh, speaking of hotels and competitions, surely, you've all heard about the lovely little cartel in Paris?]

The problem is not the government or government-run institutions.

The problem is that WE take crappy services from any given institution, because WE don't have the guts to stop, fight and demand better services. WE claim that we don't have the time, or the energy to fight with employees who aren't going to get fired anyway.

It is almost as if, we just want to see somebody punished because we're unhappy with them.
If we really wanted - as customers, as consumers, as clients - to see things change, we'd kick up a row, and keep at it, until they did change.

Let me give you another example.

At home, we have a private internet service provider. The service fails us - time and time again. In fact, the service doesn't exist. We've already paid up for the year and the cable dude (a private entreprenuer) refuses to reimburse our money.
Do we rave and rant against private cable services?
Do we sue the guy?

We bite our lips, swallow our anger and make fist-shaking-type statements about switching to another cable dude.
This dude shrugs and says "fine, switch."
Have we switched yet?
No, because we've already paid up for the year, and there's no guarantee the next dude will be any better.

On the other hand:

MNTL broadband services are not spectacularly fast. But they're there. They exist!
Our old MTNL dial-up was not very fast either, but it worked, in its own fashion. Did we rave and rant against the government and MTNL?
Did we hop mad, and switch to another service?
Is MTNL improving, offering better services, more competetive rates, faster connections?
Will we go back to MTNL?
The decision is not mine to take. But if it was, I would.


Let me tell you about last year, when my aunt was flying out of the country with her family. (No, it was NOT Air India, but a private airline from the Middle-east).

My aunt had a two-and-a-half year old kid in her arms, two daughters and an old mother-in-law. The baby started squalling, and refused to be strapped down in his seat. My aunt tried to shush him; he would not stop crying. The air hostess (a snooty Brit blonde, my aunt later told us) came up to say that the captain refused to take off until the baby stopped howling and was strapped into his seat.

So, my aunt took the baby in her lap and put the seat-belt in place.

But no, the airline staff wasn't happy. They insisted the baby be strapped into HIS own seat.

My aunt tried to force the baby down into the other seat, but he was kicking and crying. The pilot still refused to take off.

Finally, my aunt threw up her hands and handed the baby over to the airline staff. She said, "Okay, YOU handle this. I can't help."

The air hostess SLAPPED the baby.
She yelled at the baby, scolded, held him down.... and all to no avail. So, finally, she stomped off.
After which, the baby fell asleep. And AFTER THAT, the captain ordered my aunt AND her whole family to get off the plane.

My aunt pleaded, explained that the baby was now asleep; she even offered to let them punish the kid if they liked. But the captain was now adamant. He refused to fly until the whole family was off-loaded.

Eventually, the whole family was off-loaded.

Did my aunt go back to the airline office and complain? Yes.
Did they apologize? No.
Did the captain lose his job? No.
Was the air-hostess punished for slapping the child? No.
Was the family compensated? No.
Did we go to the media with the story? No.

Despite my being a journalist, despite my uncle being a government servant and in close contact with several airport officials... we kept shut.

Because my aunt was just relieved to have made it home, a day later. Despite the fact that her mother-in-law's visa required her to fly out that day, and a day late was too late; so she did not see her son, that year. Despite the fact that my aunt still cannot forgive the captain (she remembers his face and name) or that blonde air hostess. Despite all the anger and resentment.

I have a feeling - irrational and inexplicable - that something like this would not happen in a government airline. But we did not complain. We did not sue. We did not say "If this was a government airline, this would never happen."


What about the time when you and I find certain edible products with fungus on them much BEFORE the expiry date?
It happens! Somebody I know was even offered money by the company for keeping quiet about it, and not complaining... not just rotten, but filthy as well, eh? (Don't have permission to talk about this incident, so I'm not naming any names). Do we talk about this sort of corruption?

What about when the whole Cadbury keeda controversy happened?
Did we say "Let's throw out all private chocolate-making firms?"

When a private firm goes into the red - many of them do - do we say "Let's just not have any more private enterprise."?


In front of my office building, there is a nice, wide pavement.
Guess what's on it?
No, not hawkers and beggars.
Cars. Ours (well, not mine, but in general, many of these cars belong to those who work in the building).

Do we blame private 'enterprise' for taking over a public space?


We blame the government and/or state institutions like the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi).

"Why don't they keep an eye on these things?"
"Why don't they stop these illegal car parkings?"
"Why don't they raid and catch and fine and tow away and bulldoze and arrest?"
"Where are the traffic cops? Where are the MCD officials?"
And best of all -
"Why can't the government have more free car parking spots?"

But then, we have our cars and we need parking and so we avail of a little illegal private enterprise. And without so much as a choo.n, we pay up.

I seriously suspect, the problem is us.
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