Saturday, September 23, 2006

Lage Raho Munna Bhai - Carry on Bro!

Gandhivaad has a new incarnation - it's called Gandhigiri. The revered and deified Mahatma has metamorphosed into an approachable, identifiable and friendly chum. He still sticks to his values and beliefs, but rather than throwing them at us from the high pedestal of a preacher, he puts an arm around our shoulders, and with a friendly wink convinces us that he is as relevant today as he was in the pre-independence era. The archaic, seemingly anachronistic and irrelevant concept of Gandhian values is suddenly hot and happening.

Tension nahin lene ka....Bapu hai na

Rajkumar Hirani gives Bapu a new avatar and demonstrates that you don't necessarily need to recycle the gags that worked so well in the original to come up with an enjoyable sequel. The second episode of Munnabhai (I prefer to call it an 'episode' rather than a 'sequel'), is strikingly original, extremely funny; and at the same time, carries an important message without being preachy at all. Gandhivaad has been re-packaged as Gandhigiri to make it relevant for today's generation, and it's not surprising that it has caught the imagination of the youth today. Cynics might argue that the film is 'unreal' and the solution to problems by applying Gandhian values too simplistic and improbable. Yet, you can't deny the fact that the film has achieved what it set out to do - entertain people with dollops of fun, yet convey a strong message. Our lovable goons - Munna and Circuit - have done more service to propagating Gandhian values than what even decades of deification could not do.

When Rajkumar Hirani made Munnabhai MBBS, he was still struggling to emerge from the shadows of his high-profile mentor, Vidhu Vinod Chopra. But with Lage Raho, he has clearly come up on his own. There's no doubt that he is the most promising filmmaker of the commercial format today. His originality is his strength. If Hollywood bought the rights of his first film and commissioned Mira Nair to remake it as Gangsta MD, I'm sure Lage Raho too deserves to be remade. Only, I can't think of which historical person would take Gandhi's place in the Hollywood version. Martin Luther King? Probably.

Raju Hirani has started working on the script of the third 'episode', where Munna is likely to go to the US and probably come face to face with George Bush (?). That should be an interesting film to watch as well, but it’s still early days. As Raju Hirani mentioned in an interview, it will be 2-3 years before we get to see Munna's next escapade. I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.

Lage Raho Rajubhai...Carry on Bro!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Art and History

When I had visited Agra two months back, I had lamented the fact that we Indians have no respect for our national heritage and have no qualms about desecrating historical monuments. After visiting Italy this week, I'm wondering if I can generalize this to the whole world. That may be a bit too much, but I witnessed exactly the same thing in Italy as I did at Agra. Whether they were the 2000 year old ruins at Rome, or the precariously tilting walls of the Leaning Tower of Pisa - all bore witness to the regrettable proclamation of love by irresponsible lovers.

Anyway, I had a great time at Italy. I have always been fascinated by history, and what better place to witness history than Rome. I can't think of any other city with such a rich treasure of history - from ancient to medieval to modern. Every street corner, every piazza is so steeped in history that you really need a lifetime to see everything that Rome has to offer. Given the fact that I had less then 3 days to explore the Eternal City, I'm sure there was a lot more I didn't see. However, I still managed to see the usual touristy stuff - Piazza del Popolo, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Fontana di Trevi, Colosseum, Vatican city....

If I were to pick up a few of my favourite places in Rome, they would certainly be Fontana di Trevi and St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican. It was quite an experience to behold Michelangelo's Pieta at the church. The figure of Mary cradling the dead body of Christ is so real and lifelike, that it is sure to evoke the emotion of compassion even in a non-Christian.

It was a coincidence and my good luck that I was in Rome during one of the biggest events in Rome - Notte Bianca (White Night). On September 9th, the city refused to sleep. Shops were open all through the night, there were concerts at the major piazzas, and almost the entire population of Rome was on the streets. Nobody seemed to have any idea what they were doing on the streets....On Via Corsa (the main street in Rome) all you could see was a huge ocean of people just walking aimlessly from one end to the other. You had to be there to experience it.

I know for sure that I will visit Rome again (and that has nothing to do with the fact that I threw a coin at the Fontana di Trevi). And then I will hopefully get to see the one place I regret missing this time - The Sistine Chapel.

My next stop after Rome was Florence. Florence is very different from Rome. If Rome is all about history, Florence is nothing short of a huge art gallery. There are very few cities that can match Florence in terms of its art collection. Michelangelo's awe inspiring statue of David and Doni Madonna, Botticelli's colourful and allegorical Birth of Venus, Calumny and Primavera, Leonardo's incomplete The Adoration of Magi and visually deceptive Annunciation, Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch, Titian's erotic Venus of Urbino (which incidentally was dubbed by Mark Twain as 'the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses')....the list is endless. I'm not much of an Arts person, but this visit to Florence has fuelled my interest in Art

Speaking of David, it's called the most perfect representation of human form on stone. And rightly so. You have to see to believe it. Every muscle, every nerve, every body part is so painstakingly and realistically sculpted on marble that you can't help but marvel at Michelangelo's brilliance. Actually, as I later found out, David is not really perfect in that it is not proportionate. The top half of the body is disproportionately larger than the bottom half. But there's a reason to it. It was sculpted with the intention of being placed on a high pedestal, so in order for it to appear perfectly proportionate to a person viewing it from the ground level, the top half of the statue had to be larger. Similar visual deception was also used by Da Vinci in his Annunciation. When seen from the front, it appears truly disproportionate. But then this painting is meant to be seen from the right at an angle because of the position it was to occupy on the wall when it was painted.

Apart from art, Florence seems to be a shopper's paradise. You can get everything from from inexpensive trinkets on the streets to unaffordable designer wear in swanky designer outlets. We visited the shops of all the major designers....I can't forgive Armani for burning a huge hole in my pocket :)

From Florence, we took an excursion to Pisa. To climb up the Leaning Tower and get a panoramic view of the city was an exhilarating experience, and to climb down the slippery and tilting marble steps was scary!

This trip to Italy is certainly one of my most memorable trips. How I wish I had more time!!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Which Tune Shall We Sing?

The Vande Mataram controversy is nothing new. Ever since the song was first penned by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1876 and it later appeared in his novel, Anand Math, the song has found itself mired in unnecessary controversy. And now the UPA government has given this controversy a fresh lease of life, only to be lapped up eagerly by the BJP and the so-called Hindu Nationalists (read fundamentalists) to give it a twist that suits their communal agenda.

The genesis of resistance always lies in force. If you force someone to do something, resistance is the natural outcome. That's what's happening now. One section wants to make singing of the song compulsory, another opposes it as being anti-Islamic. While the saffron-hued fundamentalists are quick to label those who don't want to sing the song as traitors, the green wing calls it against their religion not only because the song supports idolatry but also because the novel it appears in talks about Hindus using the song as a sort of war-cry against oppressive Muslims. Both these opposing views are completely misplaced.

Let's look at the saffron version first. How justified is it for them to call those who don't want to sing Vande Mataram as traitors? Is patriotism all about singing a song? Does patriotism mean imposing one's views on others? Remember, Vande Mataram is the national song of India but nowhere does the Constitution make its singing compulsory for all Indians. How many Indians know the meaning of the song anyway? Ours is a secular country; and in a secular country if a people of one religion think - rightly or wrongly - that something is against their religion, you need to understand their apprehensions and address them instead of questioning their patriotism. If you really read the entire song, it resonates with Hindu symbolism and you can't expect a practicing Muslim to subscribe to that. That's the reason why only the first two stanzas were chosen as the national song. Even in these stanzas, the word 'Vande' is open to interpretation. It can mean 'worship', which is un-Islamic. Sri Aurobindo's English translation, which is the most widely popular translation of the song, further complicates the matter as it translates it as 'bowing' or 'sajda', which again is anti-Islam. However, 'vande' can also translate as 'salute' or 'salaam' (as in A R Rahman's Maa Tujhe Salaam) or 'tasleem' (as translated in Urdu by Arif Mohammed Khan). In that case there is nothing that goes against the basic tenets of Islam. So if we want the Muslims of this country to accept Vande Mataram, we need to help them interpret the words appropriately, rather than getting into unnecessary offensive against them. Again, the basic question remains - why can't singing this song remain a matter of personal choice?

On the other hand, Muslim fundamentalists and religious leaders also need to look at this issue with an open mind. Only the first two stanzas of the song are classified as the national song. These lines don't promote idolatry (as the subsequent stanzas do), and, if interpreted appropriately, they also don't talk about 'worship' and 'sajda' which Muslims find offensive. As for the other objection about Anand Math being anti-Muslim, it's akin to viewing the context of the song in an extremely narrow and partisan fashion. True that the novel has strong Hindu under-currents, but in the end it is about opposing repression. Now what's un-Islamic about that? Also, the novel was written much after the first few lines were composed by Bankim Chandra. To equate it to the seemingly anti-Muslim stance of the novel is grossly incorrect.

This brings me to a larger issue of the perils of stubbornly attaching something to a particular context. The right-wing people have been fuelling this Jana-Gana-Mana vs. Vande Mataram controversy for a long time now. As you would have seen in the spam that was doing the round a few years back, they think that Jana-Gana-Mana is not the right choice for our National Anthem because it was written by Rabindra Nath Tagore as a welcome song in "praise of George V', and hence amounts to subjugation to foreign rule. How real is this view? The fact that Tagore was commissioned to write a song for George V is true, but it is also true that Tagore balked at this idea and wrote a song that was cleverly ambiguous and hence open to interpretation. In his mind, he addressed it to 'God', while others construed it as a hymn in praise of the King. If the right-wingers feel that they're justified in their stance about Jana-Gana-Mana, then how are the Muslims wrong in saying that Vande Mataram is un-Islamic, with its Hindu symbolism and a place in a book that talks about Hindus fighting the Muslims? Interestingly, Anandamath ends with a character actually welcoming the arrival of the British as saviours to oppressed Hindus. That's not very nationalistic, is it? The key here is to look at these two poems out of their original context and go strictly by what the words mean. While one is an invocation to God, the other is to the Motherland. Going strictly by that interpretation, I would personally like to believe that Vande Mataram is more suited to be the National Anthem. But Jana-Gana-Mana has been chosen as our National Anthem and there's no point in creating a big issue out of it. Those who do it, do it for the wrong reason, mostly with a sole purpose of giving it a communal twist and propagate their brand of medieval Hindu Nationalism.

If we're so fascinated by controversy and want to indulge in inconsequential and irrelevant debate about changing our National Anthem, I would like to start a new one. I would say that Sir Allama Mohammad Iqbal's Tarana-e-Hind aka Sare Jahan Se Achchha is more suited to be our National Anthem, because it is written in an easy to understand language. More people would know the meaning of this song as compared to Jana-Gana-Mana or Vande Mataram . So what if it's written in Urdu by a Muslim who was among the earliest proponents of an independent Muslim State, and has been granted the status of the National Poet of Pakistan?