India Insight

from Expert Zone:

The return of the ugly American

(This piece comes from Project Syndicate. The opinions expressed are the author's own)

Nearly a month after American authorities arrested India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, outside her children’s school and charged her with paying her Indian domestic worker a salary below the minimum wage, bilateral relations remain tense. India’s government has reacted with fury to the mistreatment of an official enjoying diplomatic immunity, and public indignation has been widespread and nearly unanimous. So, has an era of steadily improving ties between the two countries come to an end?

Judging from Indian leaders’ statements, it would certainly seem so. India’s mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Khobragade’s treatment was “deplorable.” National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called her arrest “despicable” and “barbaric,” and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid refused to take a conciliatory phone call from US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Emotions have run high in India’s Parliament and on television talk shows as well. Writing to her diplomatic colleagues after her arrest, Khobragade, who has denied the charges against her, noted that she “broke down many times,” owing to “the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping, and cavity searches, swabbing,” and to being held “with common criminals and drug addicts.” A former Indian foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, has publicly called for retaliation against gay American diplomats in India, whose sexual orientation and domestic arrangements are now illegal after a recent Supreme Court ruling. The government has not taken him seriously, but his suggestion indicates how inflamed passions have become.

Some retaliation has occurred. The initial American rationale (that foreign consuls in the US enjoy a lower level of immunity than other diplomats) led India’s government to re-examine privileges enjoyed by US consular officials that are unavailable to their Indian counterparts in the US. These privileges -- including full-fledged diplomatic ID cards, access to the restricted customs areas of airports, tax-free shipments of items for personal consumption, and no questions asked about the terms of their employment of local domestic staff -- were swiftly withdrawn. The cardinal principle of diplomatic relations is reciprocity, and India realized that it had been naïve in extending courtesies to the US that it was not receiving in return.

Interview: BJP’s Harsh Vardhan slams AAP-Congress alliance in Delhi

By Aditya Kalra and Sankalp Phartiyal

India’s Congress party and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) entered an “unholy alliance” to share power in Delhi following state elections in the national capital, the chief ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in an interview on Dec. 31.

Harsh Vardhan, who lost the race for chief minister of the capital region to AAP founder Arvind Kejriwal, said he thinks that the Congress party and the AAP had “some sort of understanding” before the elections. He offered no proof. Spokesmen for the AAP and the Congress party denied these charges.

Kejriwal, 45, was sworn in as the youngest chief minister of Delhi on Dec. 28. The anti-corruption activist and former civil servant surprised India with his strong showing and is likely to create uncertainty over how the 2014 general elections and race for the prime minister’s seat will turn out.

Movie Review: Joe B Carvalho

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

A contract killer with a schizophrenic personality; a woman who is blind but doesn’t know it; a police officer who spends more time in bikinis than catching criminals; and a detective who never shows any signs of intelligence — these are characters in Samir Tewari’s disaster of a movie “Mr Joe B Carvalho”.

Arshad Warsi plays the title character, that of a detective hired to stop a couple eloping, but finds himself embroiled in another matter. Mahesh Ramchandani’s hare-brained script stops making sense about ten minutes into the film.

Styled as somewhat of a surreal comedy, Tewari’s film has some bizarre situations that are impossible to make sense of or make us laugh. The reason why Carvalho and his lady love (Soha Ali Khan) break up is because he saves her from a snake, a scorpion and a live puppet — all of whom turn up in her bedroom — but in the process causes harm to her family members. The entire scene is absurd, badly acted and not even remotely funny. And this isn’t the only such scene.

Equity funds underperform Sensex for first time since 2008

India’s diversified equity mutual funds rose in 2013 but underperformed the broader markets for the first time in five years, as returns were dampened by the losses in the mid- and small-cap shares as well as financial companies.

These funds gained 4.8 percent on average in 2013, according to data from fund tracker Lipper, delivering lesser annual returns than the benchmark BSE Sensex after 2008.  The Sensex touched life highs in 2013 and ended 9 percent higher, boosted by foreign inflows of more than $20 billion.

Shares of smaller companies, however, underperformed, with the BSE mid-cap index falling 5.7 percent and the small-cap index sliding 11.2 percent. Waqar Naqvi, chief executive at Taurus Mutual Fund, said the sharp fall in mid- and small-cap stocks came as a surprise in 2013.

Sensex performers in 2013: TCS surges 73 percent, Sun Pharma gains 54 percent

By Aditya Karla and Sankalp Phartiyal

The BSE Sensex ended 2013 with gains of 9 percent after hitting life highs during the year. The benchmark index touched an all-time high of 21,483.74 on Dec. 9 after falling to a 2013 low of 17,448.71 in August.

Foreign inflows boosted sentiment on the street even as concerns about a slowing economy and high inflation weighed. Foreign institutional investors (FIIs) bought a net $20.1 billion worth of Indian shares in the year. FIIs had bought $24.5 billion worth of stocks in 2012.

The sharp fall in the rupee and recovering U.S and European economies boosted export-driven sectors, helping shares in many IT and pharma companies rank among the top Sensex performers.

Bollywood actor Farooq Shaikh dies at 65

Farooq Shaikh, the actor who embodied Everyman in Hindi films of the 1980’s and portrayed many memorable characters on screen, died in Dubai on Saturday. He was 65.

Shaikh is best known for his roles in films such as “Katha”, “Saath Saath” and “Chashme Buddoor”, where he straddled both commercial and art house cinema successfully.

His deadpan sense of humour stood him in good stead during his stint on television, where he played the lead in the Hindi adaptation of the British series “Yes, Prime Minister”.

The best (and worst) Bollywood films of 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

This was the year of the mega blockbuster in Bollywood. Box-office records were broken in 2013 as more and more audiences thronged into cinemas. It was also the year that Indian cinema celebrated a century of existence, cementing its place as one of the world’s most prolific film industries — one that thrives on its own audiences and talent, without having to borrow from elsewhere.

As for content, it was a mixed year, with an overriding focus on catering to the lowest common denominator to bring in the money. Films such as “Chennai Express” and “Dhoom 3” proved that, backed by a big star, this formula still works like a charm.

Critics, thankfully, don’t have to go by numbers. Here then, are my picks for the year’s best and worst, in no particular order:

Tendulkar exits, Anand slips during emotional 2013

Sachin Tendulkar bid a teary-eyed farewell to cricket while contemporary Viswanathan Anand lost his world chess crown in an emotional year for Indians in sports.

Forty-year-old Tendulkar, statistically the greatest batsman ever, walked into the sunset in November after his 200th test at his home Wankhede Stadium brought the cricket-crazy nation to a standstill.

“My life’s been 22 yards for 24 years. It’s hard to believe that wonderful journey is coming to an end,” an emotional Tendulkar said during a moving farewell speech as most Indians on and off the ground battled to hold back tears.

A Minute with Vijay Krishna Acharya on “Dhoom 3”

Vijay Krishna Acharya wrote all three films in India’s only action franchise – the Dhoom films, and directed the latest one. Fashioned as slick action thrillers in the mold of “Ocean’s 11” or “The Fast and the Furious”, the films always star an intelligent thief – an anti-hero who is too smart to be caught.

Opening this weekend to record-breaking ticket prices (three times the normal amount of a multiplex ticket), “Dhoom 3″ features Aamir Khan as a bank robber. Acharya, 45, spoke to Reuters about the film, why he wanted to shoot it in Imax, and what it takes to write a good anti-hero.

Why did you want to shoot “Dhoom 3” in Imax?

I have been a keen watcher of Imax films abroad, and always thought that we should experiment with the format. With this film, I had the sets, the locations and the story that lent itself to this kind of treatment. The audience that is discerning, and has been exposed to such films in the past, will definitely appreciate the IMAX experience.

Movie Review: Dhoom 3

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

The dominant sound in Vijay Krishna Acharya’s “Dhoom 3” is the revving up of a bike. The bike never quite takes off though, resulting in a lot of noise and smoke, but not much else.

Hyped as the biggest release of the year, and as the slickest action thriller to come out of India, “Dhoom 3” turns out to be a damp squib. For an action film, there is hardly any action – instead the 172 minute film is laden with an insipid romance and many other distractions that add nothing to the story except lengthen it further.

Even the action sequences aren’t clever – the bike that Sahir (Aamir Khan) uses can apparently travel on water, fire and in air – can combine with another bike to transform into another machine altogether, and even straddle a rope across two buildings. If the film had gone on any further, it might have solved world hunger.

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