India Insight

‘Vishwaroopam’ and Tamil Nadu’s cinema of politics

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

The most unfortunate aspect of the censorship controversy over Kamal Haasan’s new movie “Vishwaroopam,” which came out on Thursday, is that it is happening in Tamil Nadu. India’s southernmost state has a history of using cinema as a tool of political dissent and expression, particularly regarding the Dravidian movement, but that spirit seems to have vanished with the decision to release a truncated version of the film after Islamic groups said certain scenes offended them.

First, a recap: “Vishwaroopam” (background on that name here) is a spy thriller about a Muslim man living in New York, masquerading as a Hindu. He must thwart a plot by a group of Afghans to blow up the city. The film came out on Jan. 25 except in Tamil Nadu, where Muslim groups objected to the portrayal of some characters as bearded, wild-eyed “terrorists.” The state banned the film under India’s criminal code, and chief minister and former actress Jayalalithaa said she could not guarantee police protection at cinemas that showed the movie. She also said that the ban was a move to preserve “law and order.” Haasan agreed to remove seven scenes to mollify the groups.

The history of Tamil Nadu’s cinema is intertwined with its politics. The social, political and religious ideology that arose there over the years often was the work of prominent figures in cinema who gravitated toward politics. The influence of their politics was wrapped up in the films that they made. Many of these people dominate politics in the state today, but their stance on creative freedom contradicts their pioneering work in promoting progressive thought.

In 1952, the film “Parasakthi,” which lambasted Hindu religious beliefs and Brahmin caste hegemony, was released in Tamil Nadu. It was an instant hit – and all the more provocative because it debuted during the Diwali holiday.

Turning a Bangalore shanty town into a mall

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

The Bangalore city government and a private developer kicked more than 1,500 poor families out of subsidised housing in January, razed their neighbourhood and left them homeless. The reason? They want to build new, better housing – and a mall.

The flattening of 15 acres in the neighbourhood of Ejipura is another step to refurbish India’s information technology capital, where rents and property values have risen thanks to foreign companies pouring into the city and people from all over India seeking good jobs. As is often the case when there is money to be made, poor people are in the way.

Narendra Modi follows his roadmap to Delhi

The Narendra Modi charm offensive showed up in full force in India’s capital on Wednesday. Modi, the main opposition party’s likely prime ministerial candidate gave a speech on progress and development at one of Delhi’s premier colleges, the youthful audience greeted the 62-year-old politician with gusto, news outlets called his speech a “roadmap for India,” protesters showed up en masse and Twitter went bananas.

If not a direct declaration of grand political ambition, the nearly one-hour speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce sounded like a pitch for a national role: here was the chief minister of Gujarat talking about development to more than a thousand students in New Delhi, staying away from the usual and divisive political overtones, repeatedly referring to the youth of the country (future voters), and outlining his vision for India.

“The whole world is looking at India as a big marketplace. Why? Because they (other countries) think they can sell here easily. It is the demand of our time to make India a leader in manufacturing and dump our goods in the world market,” Modi said, according to our report on the Reuters news wire.

Delhi Art Gallery’s nude portrait exhibition draws protesters

Modern Indian artists have celebrated the body on the canvas for more than a hundred years. Amrita Sher-Gil, known as India’s Frida Kahlo, may have been the earliest Indian artist in modern times to paint nudes, including a self-portrait. The Delhi Art Gallery’s latest show – “The Naked and the Nude” – presents a retrospective journey of the representation of the body in modern Indian art, mostly from the dawn of the 20th century to the present.

It’s also generating anger among groups that object to art involving nudes. When I visited the gallery, the front office operator received a call from a regional political group, demanding that the show be closed. That is not an option, said Kishore Singh, project editor and head of exhibition and publication at the Delhi Art Gallery. “We cannot and will not take seriously people’s right to be offended, and demand that we take something down.”

On Monday, the show was briefly shut down after women from the right-wing group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) protested at the venue. Meanwhile, gallery owner Ashish Anand said about 200 to 300 people plan to protest on Wednesday. (A similar fracas just happened in Bangalore.)

from Photographers' Blog:

Exorcism at the ghost fair

Malajapur, India

By Danish Siddiqui

Malajpur is a small but not ordinary village in central India. In fact it is probably the only village in India which has been hosting a ghost fair for the past several years. People from across the country come to this fair to get rid of ‘evil spirits’ that they claim to be possessed by.

As night falls on Paush Purnima (full moon night) the 'possessed' are taken to the local shrine to be exorcised. People who bring their relatives here feel the latter's bodies have been 'taken over by ghosts of the dead' and that exorcism is the only release for them. Interestingly, most of those who come here to be exorcised are women. When I asked the priest the reason he said, “They are emotionally weak and hence easy target for spirits."

On the first day when I went to the temple, it looked to me like any other temple complex. But suddenly from the middle of the crowd I heard a woman scream as she started running around the temple courtyard. According to priests the ghost inside people becomes weak the more they run around the courtyard in an anti-clockwise direction. For those who don't run voluntarily (which is the case often) relatives or priests make them do so by pushing or kicking.

Understanding the repo rate, cash reserve ratio and the Reserve Bank of India

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Tuesday cut the repo rate as well as the cash reserve ratio (CRR) by 25 basis points, or 0.25 percent. Here’s a quick explanation of what that means. It will be obvious to some readers, but many people haven’t studied economics and are unfamiliar with the terms.

The repo rate, which now stands at 7.75 percent, is the rate at which the central bank lends money to Indian banks. As the repo rate goes down, it gets cheaper for banks to borrow money. That makes it easier for people to borrow money at cheaper rates too. As more people borrow money, which ought to be the result of action like this, they’ll spend more money. That’s good for the Indian economy.

The CRR, meanwhile, is the amount of funds banks must keep with the RBI. The CRR is at 4 percent, which means for every 100 rupees, the bank keeps 4 rupees with the RBI in cash. The ratio indicates the policy stance of the bank and is used as a tool to manage liquidity, or the amount of money in the system. By changing this ratio, the central bank can control the amount of liquidity. Tuesday’s cut would release 180 billion rupees (or about $3.35 billion) into the system, meaning banks would have more money to lend to borrowers.

“Homelands” exhibit in Delhi examines identity through art

Indians give high importance to the concept of identity and kinship, especially in a land that is home to hundreds upon hundreds of different languages and ethnic groups. Indian curator Latika Gupta explores this theme in “Homelands”, an exhibition of works by 28 leading contemporary British artists, all wrestling with the idea of what “home” means in the 21st century.

The artists whose works are displayed include four Turner Prize winners, Jeremy Deller, Richard Long, Grayson Perry and Gillian Wearing. Work by World Press Photo (2007) winner Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya, also is on display.

“I wanted to see what it is that makes up our idea of what our identity is. Is it our language that we speak? Is it the place that we come from?” said Gupta. “The exhibition really hopes to raise a set of questions rather than provide answers.”

Military personnel who rape in India’s conflict zones should be prosecuted: committee

The Justice Verma Committee, set up to review India’s legislation following the brutal gang rape of a student in Delhi last month, released its recommendations on how to make the country safer for women last week.

Among the issues which the panel addressed was a “neglected area” concerning sexual violence against women in areas of conflict.

The committee recommends stripping security forces of special immunity that they enjoy in conflict areas in cases of sexual assault on women, and bringing them under the purview of ordinary criminal law.

Padma awards 2013: stellar achievements, foggy decisions

Six months after the death of ‘India’s first superstar’, the central government honoured Rajesh Khanna with one of India’s highest civilian awards on the eve of the country’s 64th Republic Day. Reports last month said the Bollywood actor might have been up for the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, but “Kaka” will get a Padma Bhushan, the third highest.

India awards the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri for distinguished service in fields such as art, social work, public affairs, science and engineering.

The process of putting together the list of awardees has been a secretive one ever since India introduced the awards in 1954. The criteria for the awards is not specific, mostly relying on wide-open phrases such as “exceptional and distinguished service”. There have been cases filed with the Supreme Court of India, a committee under a serving vice president has examined the issue, and much has been written in the media on it. The list of awardees often comes under criticism for being politically influenced. Only demands under right to information requests reveal who is on the committee that draws up the lists. Even then, the ministry is likely to advise the applicant to not share the information with the media and the public.

from Photographers' Blog:

Not child’s play

Baran, India

By Danish Siddiqui

When I first took pictures of this child couple in a small village in the desert state of Rajasthan in 2010, I had no idea that I would come back to this village again. But life had something else in store and I have been visiting them every year since, documenting the changes in their relationship and their surroundings.

When I went to their house last week I was greeted by the loud wailing of a baby. It was their four-month-old son Alok, which means enlightenment in Hindi. Last year when I visited them, I learned that Krishna, the child bride, was seven months pregnant. I wasn’t surprised at all but out of curiosity I asked Gopal, her husband, why he was in such a hurry to expand the family. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nothing else to do, no work, life is so boring.” I was a bit taken aback.

Those like me who live in big cities and metros plan meticulously before taking the plunge into parenthood. And here this teenager was telling me that he wanted to have a child and risk his young wife’s life because of boredom. That, again, is a different India.

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