A Sense of Despair

By Isheeta Sanghi

treeLast month, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the head of the Uttar Pradesh’s governing party, said he was opposed to a law calling for gang rapists to be executed. “Boys will be boys,” he said. “They make mistakes.””

Oh, you read it correctly. Boys will be boys he says. Whatever the hell that means. I swear sometimes I wonder if these people think before they speak. Actually, I wonder if they have daughters, if they have wives, if they have mothers. And God forbid if any of them were raped, murdered, and hung from a mango tree. Then would it be ok for boys to just be boys?

If you read the article below, you’ll see the USA Today reference where it’s reported that a rape takes place every 22 minutes in India. That’s three and a half rapes in the time of your standard lunch break. Think about that.


I know that it’s very easy for me to sit here in Silicon Valley and write about these things, and say change, change, change. But the thought depresses me that, even if I went there and tried to change things, chances are I wouldn’t be able to make a difference. I’d probably manage to make some TV show broadcast about how we feel for a month and then it would be on to the next hot political nonsense story.

So what can we do besides keeping writing about it, making the world more informed about it, and hoping and praying that one day Indian society will finally snap out of its mindset and realize that both men and women are equal?

I have such a love hate relationship with the country and its people. It’s a beautiful place, and the people are beautiful there – but dear God, some of them are also extremely ugly.

I also wonder if these politicians realize that when they make these bold statements, what they’re doing is endorsing rape. Because when you say “boys will be boys,” you’re pretty much telling all the young boys out there–if you eff up, if you rape a girl, it’s ok, I mean sh** happens. And you might get locked up for a bit, but when you get out of lock up you can do it again, don’t worry, you are still just being a boy, and we will again let you live.

This is the reality of the situation, the ridiculousness of the situation and the sadness of the situation. Again – I fully acknowledge that all I’m doing is writing about it and that if I really cared I would do something – but honestly what can I do? I’m not going to lie, I’ve thought about going and trying to make a difference and make a change, but I get scared off because I figure that not only will they try to squash my voice, they will most likely hurt me in the process.

This is a society that is so old, and so set in its ways and mindset that there’s nothing I could possibly do. It moves with the times – it has malls, it has metros, it has imported cars, but you know what? What lives in those malls, who shops in those metros and who sits in those imported cars? People who clearly have no hearts and no conscience.

IsheetaOriginally from the Bay Area, Isheeta went to India for her higher education.She studied and worked in Delhi and Bangalore, and now works at a tech company in the Silicon Valley (surprise surprise!) Though she would love to write regularly, most of her entries are left incomplete – she’s working on it though!


Propositions, Measures, and Candidates on the Ballot on June 3, 2014

VoteYes, there is an election this Tuesday. Yes, I know many of you are finding out about this right now. But please, please, use this quick primer and show up at your polling place on Tuesday. Because far fewer people participate in primaries, a lot of extremist stuff gets credence and support.

Come on, you can do this. You’ll find no lines at all at your local polling booth and in just 15 minutes you’ll get a glow of having done your civic duty that will last till at least the midterms in November. Plus, you can start every conversation till November with the words “Did you vote on June 3” knowing that at least 70-80% of the time you be rewarded with a blank look on the listener’s face and a really superior feeling inside you.

I’m making it easy for you, so what’s your excuse?

Proposition 41 – Vote YES. Prop. 41, the Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Act of 2014, redirects $600 million of previously approved, un-issued bond funds to construct and rehabilitate housing for California’s large population of homeless veterans. Basically the permission to hold a bond issue had already been approved for a different program known as CAlVet Home and Farm Loan program that provides low cost loans to vets. Turns out there’s not much demand for that, so the State wants to redirect the approval to provide actual housing. I’m all for it, both for ethical and economic reasons. Getting homeless vets off the streets is a good thing, any way you look at it.

Proposition 42 – Vote YES. This one is tricky. So far local governments have been reimbursed by the California State government for the costs of making public records accessible and transparent. In a rather sneaky move, the State government decided to cut the funds for public information access, thus making local compliance “optional.” (Local governments could always argue that they didn’t have the funds because the state cut off the supply.)

This proposition moves the burden of funding access for to public records from State governments to local governments. Now the Fremont city government will have to pay for any costs associated with giving the public access to Fremont records, which makes logical sense. Also, the wording in this proposition makes it harder for local governments not to give the public access to information, which is an even better thing.

Measure E (Fremont)- Vote YES. This measure approves of a $650 million bond measure to build and improve schools in Fremont. If you are a Fremont resident , this is a no-brainer. Fremont schools are running at capacity (bulging at the seams, really) and they are all in pretty bad condition. I should know since, between my two kids, I’ve been a school parent for 12 years. With the new construction popping up in the Patterson Ranch area and the proposed development of the hub (and the BART expansion) Fremont is a very desirable destination for young professionals with little kids who are going to need a quality education. So go and vote for your interests here.

There are a few important positions also being contested in these primaries. I will not be voting for the Board of Equalization positions because, frankly, I have no idea what a Board of Equalization does. I suppose that makes me a bad citizen but I’ve tried to learn, I really have. Put it down to early-onset memory loss. But there are some other interesting races.

jerry brownGovernor – Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown’s main opponent is Neil Kashkari, and Indian American Republican who was the architect of the TARP program that bailed out banks at the peak of the financial crisis of 2008. He hews to the party platform, asking for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, reducing government regulations, and reducing labor influence in business. He also opposes Obamacare, the Affordable Health care Act. ‘Nuff said.

Ro KhannaRepresentative for District 17 – Ro Khanna. (Hard to think of the word “District” without conjuring up images from the Hunger Games!) I have to admit I am a wee bit biased towards Khanna because I happened to meet him while writing a review of his book “Entrepreneurial Nation.” The book is upbeat and offers some solutions to America’s big problem of losing manufacturing to cheaper countries like China. Khanna’s experience as Deputy undersecretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration gives him some insight into the way Washington works, though it is hard to beat the experience of his main opponent Mike Honda, who has served 7 terms in office. Honda has been a reliable party vote. What makes me tilt towards Khanna is the lack of initiative on Honda’s part; he did not get any bills passed despite building an incredible amount of goodwill in office.

downloadSwalwellRepresentative for District 15 – Eric Swalwell. Turns out, after the recent round of redistricting, my house falls under this district. (Go to http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ to see where your address belongs.) Swalwell is a relative newcomer who has the Philippines Charitable Giving Act to his credit so far. He is a reliable Democrat, supporting additional funds for education and less for defense, and stimulus for renewable energy jobs. In the two years he has been around (yes, two…isn’t it ridiculous that Congress Reps have to fight an election every two years? When do they have the time to do their job?) he has been good about reaching out to his constituents and giving the public every opportunity to engage with him through phone conferences and town halls. His main opponent is Ellen Corbett, a very respected State Senator taking the plunge into national politics, but since this is an open primary, the two are likely to fight it out in November again.

So there you go. If you live in a different district you will have to do your homework or just vote for the party of your choice, but do make the effort.

See you at the polls.



Kids and Art Foundation – Going Strong

kids & art workshopFive years ago, I had written about the non-profit Kids & Art on this blog. I recall being moved and inspired by this organization that helps kids fighting cancer find a few moments of joy and normalcy in their stressful lives.

Then life intruded and Kids & Art receded to the back of my mind till this year when I was looking for an opportunity for my daughter Lori to give back. She has been dealing with the normal trials and tribulations of a pre-teen and I thought it would be good for her to focus on the bravery and courage of others who were less fortunate. With her interest in art, volunteering at a Kids & Art workshop seemed to be a good fit.

On Sunday, May 4, 2014, we set out for the Lick Wilderming, a college-prep high school with a strong arts foundation. The school is set in a fairly nondescript part of San Francisco and looks quite unassuming from the outside but, enter its doors and you are transported to an airy, cantilevered campus that appears to float above its surroundings.

The visual art room, where the Kids & Art workshop was being held, is a long, wonderfully messy room filled with light and art supplies. On this Sunday afternoon, the room was bustling with kids and their families, artists, and volunteers from the Lick Wilderming freshman class.

I met Purvi Shah, the founder of Kids & Art. Her younger son Amaey’s fight with leukemia was the inspiration for K&A. Sadly, Amaey passed away in 2011 at the age of 9, but the flourishing Kids & Art program is the testament to a mother’s love, determination, and desire to honor her son.

In the last five years, Kids & Art has come a long way. Its original mission was to provide a place for kids with cancer to meet and enjoy creating art without the shadow of their illness in the room for a few hours. Today the participants in the workshops include the care circles of the kids—siblings, family, friends—as well as children whose parents have been affected by the disease.

“We have also included kids in hospice care,” says Purvi. “An artist usually visits them at home and the two work on a piece together.” In addition, Kids & Art has reached out to kids in hospitals like Stanford Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, UCSF children’s hospital in San Francisco, and the California Pacific Medical Center.

The workshops are held on the first Sunday of every month and have been held in prestigious locations like Google and Pixar. “Nearly 150 people showed up for the workshop held at Google,” says Purvi.

Getting professional artists to volunteer for the workshops has been one of the bigger achievements of the organization. The roster of artists, once about 15, has grown to about 50-60 and features professionals like Roque (“call me Rocky”) Ballesteros, co-founder of animation company Ghostbot.

“I learnt about Kids & Art from a friend who was involved with the organization,” says Roque. He started volunteering at the Pixar workshop. “I was very nervous the first time,” recalls Roque. “The kids are going through so much and I wasn’t sure what to say and how to say it. But I realized very quickly that these kids, no matter what they are dealing with, are just kids and will let you know exactly how they feel about your art, what they like and dislike. It doesn’t matter what kind of artist you think you are!”

For Roque, volunteering at Kids & Art workshops is also a way of getting back to his first love – painting. “When you are creating art digitally, you always have a way to go back and fix your mistakes. But when you are painting on canvas or a piece of wood, it is like wrestling with the medium. Just picking up a paintbrush, dipping it in paint and applying it – [the process] improves my skills.”

Roque has roped in several of his fellow artists to come and help out with the program. In this particular workshop he helped my daughter and another child develop their individual pieces. While they hesitantly began creating their own superhero characters, he created Doctor Baby, a Pepto-Bismol pink villain too cute to be evil!

I asked Purvi how these workshops were funded. Some of the funding is from grants, but the primary source of funding is from auctioning off the children’s art. “We also license the art to corporates for use in their office spaces,” says Purvi.

An innovative idea that is in play is using the children’s art as backdrops for corporate kids and art dental cardcommunication. Tanya Manyak, a dentist with a practice in San Mateo, uses Kids & Art work in the reminder cards patients fill out after appointments. Says Tanya, “When we send out the reminder cards, we always get questions about the organization. ‘What’s on this card?’ Who created it?’ That gives us an opportunity to talk about Kids & Art.” She so strongly believes in the value of incorporating this art in her business practices that she has presented the idea to her dentist study groups. “We now have dentists from Alabama and Virginia interested in licensing our art,” says Purvi.

Kids & Art also receives donations in honor of loved ones. Future plans for Kids & Art include music, yoga, and meditation workshops.

If you are interested in licensing art from the workshops, becoming a corporate partner, volunteering, or supporting Kids & Art with your donations, click here. The new season for the Kids & Art workshops begins in July, so look for a list of the upcoming workshops here.

Kids & Art is also one of the causes being supported by the Sevathon event on June 22, 2014. To adopt it as your cause for the Sevathon Walk/Run/Sun Salutations, click here.

To learn more about the organization, do attend the upcoming exhibition and benefit on June 1, 2014. This event is to celebrate the amazing artists who participate in and support the art workshops and to thank them for their continuous generosity because, as Purvi says, “Without our artists there would be no art for our kids.”


Website: http://www.kidsandart.org/

Contact: http://www.kidsandart.org/contact/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/kidsandartorg

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/kidsandartorg

Instagram: http://instagram.com/kidsandartorg

Cui Bono?

I have an app called Ghostery on my computer. Fed up with an insane numberGhostery of pop-up ads ruining my reading and surfing experience, I installed the little extension that is supposed to block not just ads but also trackers – code from companies that are trying to learn more about you from your online habits. It usually runs quietly in the background but occasionally Ghostery will behave a trifle overzealously, blocking legitimate content on a site because the underlying code is structured like a pop up.

On these occasions the only thing to do is to pause blocking. When you do that Ghostery spits out a list of everything that’s running in the background, as if to say, “Do you really want to do this? Because here’s everyone who’s watching you right now.” It’s an effective tactic because it is pretty scary when you realize that at any point of time you are on the web, you are being tracked by at least a dozen or more companies, with names like Certona and Monotate and Bazaarvoice. And the longer you stay on a site, the longer the list grows.
To a web marketer this is probably routine, but to a lay user like me the level of intrusion is a revelation. These trackers are labelled under categories like “widgets” and “beacons” and “analytics” tools. Some are even honest about their purpose, calling themselves “advertising.” By far the most intrusive are the web beacons, also known as web bugs, which track your movement across sites. These are the little crawlers that ensure that a recent search for “women’s camel hair coat” follows you from site to site, making targeted ads for similar apparel pop up on every future site you visit. Wondering why you are seeing an ad for diet pills on Facebook? You probably visited a health food site or read an article on losing weight.

Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg have been in the news recently for asking the NSA to cease spying on American citizens. The level of hypocrisy is breathtaking because anyone who is on the web to make money is doing exactly what the NSA is accused of. Companies like Facebook and Google have a pretty deep profile on each of their users. At the moment the information is probably used only in aggregate but it is just a step away from being individualized if needed.

You might argue that we bring it upon ourselves by posting every detail of our lives on social media, from where we eat to where we shop to where we give. But the mining for our personal data is everywhere, not just on social media. You can choose never to post on Facebook and still there will be companies on the web who know a lot more about you than you would care to reveal. The above mentioned Certona “delivers the most personalized customer experiences tailored to each individual using continuous behavioral profiling and predictive technology, resulting in increased engagement and conversions.” You can be sure this “behavior profiling” is not coming from social media. I once took a survey a few years ago that claimed to be able to tell me who I was from my surfing habits. Given my heavy emphasis on political blogs and sports, it concluded I was a middle-aged man. Okay, it wasn’t very accurate but the tracking technology has improved significantly in the last few years.

You might also argue that it has always been in this way. The endangered newspaper survived these many years because of the advertising it sold. Once the web promised better targeting, its days became numbered. But this level of tracking feels uncomfortable, like being a “Big Brother” participant every moment of my life.

What annoys me the most is that I am not sure how useful all the data mining is to the miner. Consider this example: Based on my search terms on its site, apparel company Land’s End now knows that I am in the market for a winter jacket. It aggressively bombards me with pictures of and sales information on the jackets everywhere I go next, whether it is a social media site or news feed. Does this make me more likely to buy one of the advertised items? Not unless you believe nagging is the best way to get someone to do something. It’s like shopping in a store that is entirely made up of checkout lanes with their impulse-buy positioning.

The reason that this saturation approach has worked so far for internet marketers is because it is a numbers game. Because the internet offers access to such a large global audience, even a small percentage of conversions can make the company money. These are customers who would not have been accessible in the pre-internet days or accessible at a prohibitive cost. It’s not unlike the Nigerian emails begging for money. The scammer sends out the email to 100 million people. All he/she needs is .1% to fall for it. The same goes for internet advertisers. The remaining 99.9% of us, who tear our hair out at the dating, weight-loss, and shoe ads that follow us around, are expendable.

Resistance by way of blockers is futile because programmers (probably coding away in an erstwhile Soviet Socialist Republic) simply create new apps to override the old. Pop-up blockers have led to pop-over ads, which are not as delicious as they sound. The biggest deterrent to effective ad blocking are the publishers themselves, because their (net) worth is judged by how many viewers and clickers they can snag in their net. Let’s face it, we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are the shoppers, but we are actually the product.

Still, the popularity of anti-trackers like Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus are a sign that the bacon is fighting back. Ghostery recently got a bump from master leaker and privacy advocate Edward Snowden himself. Facebook has woken up to the barrage of ads its users experience and is quietly trying to control the flow. Eventually users will get desensitized to the ads swirling around them and make them ineffective. The worry is who will survive the war to get online viewership. We’ve already seen the demise of traditional media and brick and mortar stores. We’ve seen the rise of a few monopolistic online giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. As individual users, as human beings, we have ceded more and more power to entities that manipulate and control us. When the war is over, will we be the prize or the collateral damage?

Brand Modi

By Geeta Padmanabhan

NamoHe is stylish, he is spicy, he is sweet, he is explosive. Choose a non-controversial product, attach his face, add the brilliantly-coined acronym NaMo, and you have a best-seller. Brand Modi sells – anything from clothes, snacks, tea, explosive firecrackers to the idea of India.

Some attribute it to the business acumen of the Gujarati, others point to the unquestionable charisma of the man, but brand-merchandising has closely accompanied Narendra Modi’s rise in the national scene. With state elections a few weeks ahead and national elections just months away, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate is on a brand projectile.

The first to appear were the ones you would see in the US election conventions: Modi masks, pins, bands, caps, T-shirts – in one early rally an entire section of the audience was made of Modi faces – a startling sight! Soon BJP supporters saw the business opportunity in his growing popularity. The obvious product was the Modi kurta – the knee-length top worn over leggings – customized and popularized by the man himself. With a close collar, short sleeves and earth colors it was already a “moving” item. All it needed was international exposure.

A boutique in Ahmedabad has registered a trademark for these “half-sleeve kurtas”. “We’re trying for an international trademark for the brand,” said its owner. A report in the Indian Express said at least 30,000 made-in-Surat kurtas carrying embroidered “NaMoMantra” were sold at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on the October 27 Hunkar rally, addressed by Modi. A NaMo store opened in an upmarket mall in Ahmedabad to sell NaMoMantra apparel, books and other merchandise. Modi Lion, named after the Hunkar (roar) rally, will soon reach the children’s section of super markets. “Even his most ardent fans could not have foreseen this transformation – from Loha Purush to cuddly toy,” wrote Firstpost Editor Sandip Roy.

The Patna rally also saw the mushrooming of those humble tea-stalls that dot India’s roads, street-corners and railway stations. Unsurprisingly called Modi Tea-Stalls, they were dual-purpose. The kiosks made sure tea was available to rallyists all day while reminding them of the great man’s humble origins as a vendor at a railway tea-stall. A killer branding idea!

Diwali of course brought a multitude of options for value addition. Boxes of firecrackers (labelled Modi Brand) wrapped in Modi’s photograph sold the most, outdoing cheaper imports from China. One shop-owner cracked: “We have Chinese items as well as the ones with photos of actors. Right now, “Modi Brand” is the most popular and is explosive in Rajkot. “Explosive like Modi” was the underlying sentiment, agreed the buyers. In the US, the boxes went for $16/- . The firecracker business, reported India Today, was worth $8 million in Rajkot alone.

Can Modi snacks be far behind? NDTV ran a story of how “Modi magic” spiced up this year’s Diwali in the US. Rajbhog Sweets, which celebrated Modi’s elevation as Chief Minister of Gujarat for a third consecutive term by gifting each customer with 11 pedas (one for each year), decided to go “namkeen” on the run up to the 2014 general elections. According to the news channel, Arvind Patel, Rajbhog Sweets, Newark Avenue, Jersey City said, “A few of us were chatting one afternoon when the idea of ‘Modi Magic’ came about. We give it out for free at BJP events and festivals here in the US, and aim to distribute 10 lakh packets till the elections.”

Each packet of  spicy mix labelled “Modi Magic” sells at 45 cents, but 10 lakh packets will be given away free, said Mr Patel, adding he was ready to do much more. The mix was a hit with the customers, probably Modi fans. “This is the first time I have seen an Indian politician branded like this, his magic is working not only in India but the whole world,” said one. Mr. Patel would have happily sent the sales proceeds to the BJP election campaign, but laws don’t permit supporters in the US to donate directly to political parties in India. So after spreading the Modi message on foreign shores, Mr. Patel has traveled to India to campaign for the BJP.

The virtual world has embraced him. While Modi social-networks constantly, tweeting, face-booking and blogging on the go, his fans have made a video game and composed a Namo Youth Anthem that goes, “A powerful orator will now become the nation’s curator. His persona is athletic, his charisma magnetic. Who’s gonna mar ’em? NaMo. NaMo. Who’s gonna scar ’em? NaMo, Namo.”

Merchandising politics isn’t new to India. Gandhi topi, Nehru galaband, I Am Anna cap, Mamata sari and paintings, Mulayam pehalwan doll, yojnas (schemes) and streets named after leaders are all part of this branding culture. But Modi-branding is much larger in scale and scope. It is market-savvy, and thanks to supporters’ unrelenting efforts, has gone global. In is case, Modi’s the brand, and his supporters know how to sell him.

“Brand Modi becomes an act of reflection with the multiplying effect of a hall of mirrors,” said Firstpost editor Sandip Roy. “As Modi stands at the rally, beaming, waving to the crowd, the jubilant crowd gazes back at him draped in NaMo paraphernalia… Our feverish passion for politics and our insatiable hunger for brands have finally come together in common churn. And Narendra Modi has emerged from that manthan (churn) as an entity than can both sell and be sold.”

As in everything political in India, Modi branding is not without its comic consequences. To their utter dismay, BJP’s election supervisors have found that people in many parts of the hinterlands who have pledged to vote for Modi (Modi ko vote denge) are clueless about the party symbol. Brand Modi now outshines brand BJP! The lotus (party symbol) has been blown away by the Modi storm, said a commentator. Ironically, the party might lose the votes of those who support Modi! Party heads are no doubt at the drawing board figuring out how to bring the lotus back into the picture. Any ideas?

WNI Quiz 1

I’ve been doing a radio quiz show for kids for several months now, and one of my biggest challenges has been calibrating the level of difficulty to the ages of the children participating in the studio. I’ve gotten better at it, but when I go back and look at some of my early quizzes, I’m appalled by what I put those kids through. Maybe that’s why some of them never came back!

[This post has been updated. The News Quiz plugin I had tried on this before did not work with the latest WordPress upgrade so I just took it out. Meanwhile, if you want to listen to the show every week, it is broadcast live on Radio Zindagi 1550 Am and 99.7 FM at 11 am PST. Do tune in and give me feedback.]

Chennai Express: Funny Despite Itself

“I don’t make my movies for intellectuals,” the director of Chennai Express, Rohit Shetty, is supposed to have said. I can well imagine him making that statement, sneer on his face, contemplating his previous box office successes like Bol Bachchan and Golmaal, all made with similar LCD ingredients of slapstick humor, over-the-top acting, and overwrought emotion.

But a sweet seller (bear with me on the analogy for a bit) is not an intellectual, and a good one will know exactly how much ghee and sugar to put in the halva without needing a culinary degree. If the halva is over-sweet and dripping with fat, people will still eat it, and maybe even relish that first decadent bite, but at the end of it all they will be left with is a stomach ache and a desire never to repeat that mistake.

Which is how I felt after watching Chennai Express, a tale of a North Indian halvai (and there’s the analogy returning to roost) and a South Indian lovely who meet by chance on a train and have adventures on the run.

To be fair, CE is pretty funny in bits; the sequence where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan spoofing himself) pulls Meenamma (the lovely Deepika Padukone) on to the train, DDLJ style, is hilarious. Even though the dialogues are just plain awful, the situational comedy and Padukone’s perfectly pitched turn as a Madrasi lass are enough to have you in splits through about 70% of the movie, especially if you are sitting in a theater surrounded by tweens. The kids laughed continuously, despite missing the Hindi-Tamil jokes and the SRK references, and we adults laughed along.

But, fair warning, the last 20 minutes are just horrendous and there is a sequence involving a small person which is not just insensitive but bizarrely incomprehensible and left us all scratching our heads. I happen to be a fan of SRK, but ever since R.A.One, I’ve been wondering what the heck happened to the guy. His facial contortions, his weird grimaces and mannerisms – were they always there or is this some pathetic attempt to live up to his superstar expectations?

What saves the movie (and SRK’s butt) is Padukone, whose performance leaves me no doubt that she is the next big thing in mainstream Bollywood. She delivers her cheesy lines with aplomb, completely getting into the skin of what can only be described as a mythical Southy stereotype, the kind once popularized by Mehmood with his “aiyyo-jees.” The role is a complete departure (as much it can be in a Hindi movie) from her successful outing in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, and she does it justice in a way that really exposes SRK’s  shortcomings.

It is almost a pity that Chennai Express (as I write this review) is turning out to be a big box office success, because it sends a message to other filmmakers that it is okay to skimp on quality dialogue, it is okay to hire ensemble actors who suck so badly they must be related to the producer, it is okay to pair an over-the-hill lead with a young, gorgeous twenty-something, it is okay to poke fun at disabled people, and it is okay to engage in the worst kind of Southern stereotyping so long as you have a formula and a hook that brings the audience in.

That the crassly commercial Lungi Dance was added as an afterthought suggests even Shetty had some doubts about the viability of a movie where so many aspects were shortchanged.

That the movie is going to be a blockbuster suggests that all those doubts will be erased. Sigh! I gorged on the halva yesterday, but today I’m feeling sick.

*LCD = Lowest Common Denominator

Archives, Archives, Archives

Spent the best part of 4 hours organizing all the archival material of my radio shows. If you look at the new menu above, you’ll see the two new archive options – Parent Talk Show Archives and Quiz Show Archives.  Despite being fairly mundane, the whole process was incredibly validating, especially as I was typing out the various topics I had covered during the year-long run of Parent Talk.

Each archive has the recordings of the various episodes in mp3 form. I’m still not done with the quiz show archives but another couple of days and all the episodes should be up.

Tried out the WpPro Quiz plugin to see if I could put up all the quizzes I have conducted, but it seems to be an incredibly time consuming process, because each quiz question and answer has to be entered separately, and with 25 quiz shows and over 750 questions, that’s a task I am not willing to undertake. Anyone know of a better plugin that will allow me to copy my questions off of MsWord?


On Faith

The producer at the radio station where I host a kid’s quiz show was unusually complimentary. “Your show is so interesting and fun..it deserves its popularity,” he gushed while I blushed. As I arranged my quiz paraphernalia in the small booth where we work, he went on. “What I don’t get is the appeal of the panditjis and psychics,” he grumbled. As the person fielding the incoming calls, he had had his fill of mothers and fathers and uncles and grandpas who begged for divine help from these distinctly mortal messengers, some of whom he had known when they were neophytes looking for an angle to work.

Tune in any weekday at the station and its easy to understand his frustration. “Panditji,” comes the plaintive cry through the air, “my daughter is just not getting a suitable boy. Help!” After a twenty-second exchange of a few birthplace and time details, the eminent host has a solution. “Tell her to wear an emerald of nine carats, and donate a kilo of rice on a Tuesday.” Then comes the kicker. “If you have any further questions, you can contact me on the private line at….”

The psychics are even more awe-inspiring. They need only your name to tell you your past, present, and future. And because the volume of calls has not decreased an iota since they set up their shingle, either they have an in into the workings of the universe or, as famous showman P.T. Barnum was once criticized, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“Why is belief in psychics or on-air astrologers so mystifying when people believe in God?” I asked my producer back in the studio. He looked miffed, so I hurriedly changed topics. “Desperation?” I ventured as a guess to the callers’ motivations. “Or the desire for a quick, free, fix?” After all, the man who needs a job has to put in the hard work of perhaps getting trained in a new field, updating his resume, and networking intensively to get the job of his dreams. How much easier it would be if those problems went away with a ring or a ritual.

But faith is not so simple or shallow. In all probability the job-seeker is wearing his ring and doing his rituals while networking and taking evening classes. The contestant who wears his tilak to my quiz show and loses is not going to stop doing so because his faith let him down, he might just prepare better next time. The parents of a child prematurely lost to cancer or war will continue to conduct services in church and pray for understanding and reunion in the afterlife.

And that is the true mystery of faith, how it survives and endures against all Shivaodds. Watching the carnage wrought by the flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand brings this mystery into sharp focus. Thousands of pilgrims have been obliterated by the viscous mud, but the “miracle” of the preservation of the holy shrines is proof to them that God is omnipotent. Geeta Padmanabhan, columnist for The Hindu newspaper, writes, “In about two/three years when Kedarnath opens, the pilgrims will be back – the old, the young, women with infants in arms, children, the infirm using walkers. ‘Is it done in love, is it done in fear?’ asked  Mark Twain about this extra-ordinary journey through dangerous terrain.”

Is it love or is it fear? What makes us continue to venerate a God who, at least to the objective viewpoint, seems to have been extremely selfish to have protected his territory while nature wreaked havoc all around? How does the quarterback or basketball star reconcile God’s hand in his victory with the same God who leaves thousands starving a continent away? Is our idea of God that of a fairy godfather or a personal guardian who has to be propitiated, pacified, and praised to deliver magic powers on our behalf? If God is love, as most religions claim, boy he has a strange way of showing it.

The randomness of life, the unfairness of fate, and the plight of the suffering faithful have long made me a skeptic, but if I am to be truthful, I envy those whose faith is strong. It is not an emotion that is swayed by logic, evidence, or personal experience. It may wobble, but it never topples over. And when it is not clouded by intolerance and bigotry, it acts as an anchor to chaotic lives and arbitrary fates in the best possible way. It fulfills the human desire for fairness, a need to believe that a life lived in piety and morality will reap its just rewards. And if events don’t bear that belief out, one can always console oneself with the promise of a heaven or a better reincarnation. Its almost like a child’s belief in Santa Claus, except there is no North Pole to go to and disprove the existence of elves.

Still, the line between stupidity and wisdom is very thin, and I am not qualified to judge. For the majority of the human race, faith seems to be a primeval urge that doesn’t need godmen or psychics to exist; they are just remoras who latch on to this whale. So if chanting prayers or wearing corals or trekking to the Himalayas is what someone needs to make sense of the irrationality of their existence, I cannot criticize; I can only wish I could feel that way.



Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – The Joharification of Bollywood

YJHDWe have a saying in our family that “Disney Ruins Everything.” We watched in dismay as the quality of Pixar movies dropped after Disney took over, and now the Disneyfication of Marvel has the die-hard comic fans in my family aghast.

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani(YJHD) is an perfect example of the Joharification of mainstream Bollywood. To be fair, Karan Johar himself was inspired by Yash Chopra, whose glossy movies about wealthy Punjabi romances set a certain template for song and dance movies, but Chopra was a romantic at heart, and there was a sincerity in his vision that shone through the mehndis, sangeets, and tulip fields. With Johar, the emotional manipulation in his movies is blatant, from the kid singing Jana Gana Mana in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, to the dupatta handed over by Kajol to Rani in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. There is also something ersatz about all his movies, as if he is incapable of genuine feeling and reconstructs it from the vision and product of other, better directors.

Jawaani is directed by Ayan Mukherjee and stars Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, but it might as well have been helmed by Johar and starred Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. Johar, who produced the movie, seems to have had such a strong influence on the young director that Mukherjee, who previously made the warm-hearted Wake Up Sid with such finesse, goes full-on Bollywood, with ensemble song-and-dances at the drop of a hat and big wedding productions.

Still, Jawaani, the tale of a boy with itchy feet and a girl back home who pines for him, is watchable, and credit for that must go almost entirely to Kapoor and Padukone, who share an incredibly chemistry and light up the screen whenever they are together. The first half, where the shy Naina blossoms under the throwaway affection of the oddly named Bunny and where the lead pair is together on screen most of the time, is quite magical. The aptly named Naina conveys such tender wistfulness to be a part of Bunny’s cool gang and to be loved by the nomadic Bunny that you feel intensely what it’s like to be her. Padukone is perfectly cast and those supercharged moments that promise a budding relationship are beautifully directed and acted.

In the second half the movie loses steam, mainly because the absence of the romantic pair makes you realize how thin this 2 hour, 40 minute film really is. Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapur have an unnecessary amount of screen time, but even all that time is not enough to fully develop their characters or their story lines. The denouement is disappointing, but then I think most romantic movies don’t get it right, so maybe it’s just my opinion.

Mukherjohar’s musical co-conspirator is Pritam, which is why each song reminds you of another composer. There is an Amit Trivedi-style song sung by Rekha Bhardwaj called “Kabira,” a Salim-Suleimanesque number titled “Dilliwali Girlfriend,” and the peppy “Badtameez Dil” feels like it could have been composed by Vishal-Shekhar.

To Pritam’s credit, the songs are all peppy and hummable and well-choreographed, but after the evolution of Bollywood movies to songs being played in the background, the ensemble numbers feel retro. And roping in an ageing Madhuri Dixit for an item number is a classic example of the audience manipulation that Johar is famous for.

If you are a Karan Johar fan, by all means watch YJHD. It will not make you feel any real emotion, or linger in your mind after you return home, but for the nearly three hours you are in the theater you will be entertained. I would have been more depressed by the corruption of a good director like Mukherjee, but the trailers of Lootera and Ranjhaana that I saw left me with hope. And Kapoor and Padukone are so good together that I predict they will be a classic romantic pair in many movies to come.

My rating: 3/5