Monday, December 31, 2012

A plea for positive cynicism. Oh, and a happy new year, too.

I spent the last 45 minutes looking for a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke. Shops around here, for some reason, are loyal to Thums Up. Of course, to the average Badlapur resident, it doesn't quite make a difference; especially tonight, as many people aren't that pedantic about which soft drink they're going to mix their alcohol with – Thums Up is the preferred one, I hear. No wonder.
Nevertheless, my frantic, and not to mention pedantic, attempts led to one tiny shop which did sell Coke. In Twitter lexicon, this warrants the hash-tag #firstworldproblems. And now, as I stare at the half-empty glass, waiting for some relatives to pop over, I'm contemplating the past year. 
It's been a tradition of sorts, for me, to write a cynical rant every New Year’s eve for the last two years. The first time, I was alone at home, with no alcohol; the year after, I had a little too much alcohol in me, and a lot of repugnance. This time, right now, I mean, I'm sober. Very disillusioned, and undergoing what may, in the jargon of social sciences, be termed as an epistemological crisis. While the rest of the country's either preparing for a New year's party (except the Indian Army. Such honourable fuckers, these guys are, I tell you) or kicking up a big fuss about Honey Singh's party in some hotel in Gurgaon that I can't remember. 

You guessed it right, this post is about the larger issue that has gripped the nation for the last few weeks, at least: the question of violence against women – a quilted discourse, pinned by the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old physiotherapy student in Delhi. I was angry when I read about it, when I read about the sheer brutality of the incident, and a host of other such incidents; I’m still angry, frustrated even – which is one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to be my usual cynical self in dismissing the protests in the aftermath; protests that were met with an equal brutality meted out the Indian state, especially the Delhi police. 2011 had seen protests too, led by the messianic figure of Anna Hazare (who has, predictably, demanded death penalty for the rapists); heck, there were cosmetic protests even in Bombay itself, just after the incident. But when I saw people, who are very well my peers, in the tear gas-infested streets, wet and beaten, I realised, like Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers, that there is good worth fighting for. Sure, I disagree with the calls for castration and death penalties – these demands are fascist; but so was the way in which their voices were brutally crushed by the state.
Of course, I’ve said the very same things before, and I wouldn’t want to bother you with any more of it. But there’s one thing that has been rather over-powering, something which is bothering me for quite some time now; the cause, if you will, of my current epistemological crisis. My “presumed superior knowledge and intelligence”, as someone succinctly pointed out, has failed me. Another implied that I was “intellectually bankrupt”. Of course, I’m not taking these claims seriously; I have that much faith in my training. But truth remains, despite my intelligence, and my impressive bibliography (or so I like to think), I feel utterly disillusioned; any intelligible comment (again, or so I like to think) gets drowned in the din and clamour of popular discourse. Of course, it’s a different thing that I, following the prolific and verbose Justice Katju, consider most people to be idiots (unlike him, I’m sceptical of numbers). Truth is, there is no intelligence in public discourse today: we’ve got a media that manufactures conscience; a political class rooted in anti ideology, hypocrisy, apathy; a public that is very good at making emphatic calls; and, of course, Arnab Goswami, without whom, verily, our nation is doomed.
We’ve witnessed a culture that displayed a morbid fascination with death – the vast (and shameless, if you ask me) outpouring of eulogies after Thackeray’s death (I mean, did you see/hear Arnab Goswami weep during Bal Thackeray’s funeral?), and the celebration, literally so, after Kasab’s hanging. In other news, the fourth anniversary of 26/11 was a dull affair; this time, surprisingly, they hadn’t barricaded the memorial at VT (Kasab was hung days after this, actually).
So, where am I going with this? Yes, I’m bitter, repugnant and cynical (and, surprisingly, sober). Maybe, people commenting on my presumed intelligence and intellectual bankruptcy are right. I have a friend who, of late, has been bothered by the fact that I don’t have any clear political leanings. “You’re not a capitalist, nor a socialist; neither are you right-wing, nor an atheist. What…are you?” My answer usually involves complex sociological jargon which, actually, doesn’t quite amount to anything substantial. But tonight, I think I may have an answer for him. I am a positive cynic.
Partly, because one of my friends on Twitter commented that no one else he knows really lived up to their Twitter handle (something I found incredibly flattering; thanks, Bob!). But mostly because positive cynicism, as an intellectual space, really sums up my epistemological leanings: which is, well, disillusionment (that also happens to be my current existential profile). By positive cynicism, I mean a condition wherein I avoid both the naivety and radicalisation of political views. Sure, I punch holes in people’s arguments, and alternatives, more so; but that is an important job; a mission to civilize, as Will McAvoy of HBO’s The Newsroom put it. I’m not backing away from taking political stances, either, mind you. If I think castrations are not the answer, I believe I have sufficiently defended that stance. I’m not in the vocation of giving solutions, either. My training in anthropology doesn’t quite allow for that so easily. But I may be able to tell you where an intervention would fail, and where it might succeed. You see, that’s the brilliance of anthropology. That it’s rooted in a deeper problem, a constant epistemological crisis; that it blends scepticism, analytical rigour, scientific method, abstraction – all disparate elements, if you observe from afar – so brilliantly. Yes, I’m disillusioned by the narrow confines of traditional academia; but that’s changing now; the sociological imagination has become more diverse, more analytical, more empirical. And that is something I am looking to be a part of. That is where I see positive cynicism heading. A critical sphere, akin to the Frankfurt School’s endeavours (apologies for the umpteen references).
Ah, well, I’ve said too much. And I’ve realised that this post isn’t nearly half as repugnant and bitter as the previous two New Year’s eve ones. The relatives are about to arrive soon and I’m on my second glass of Coke now. I think I need something stronger. Alcohol does wonders for disillusionments, I’ve discovered. Let’s see if it has the same effect on epistemological crises. The world didn’t end, and we’re going to have to make do with this one. Oh, and before I forget, happy New Year, and have a brilliant 2013 (#sarcasmintended).

Monday, June 11, 2012


I had a lot of expectations from Shanghai. Mostly because, in its initial days of production, I thought it was a political thriller involving the Chinese secret service and a plot to nuke India. But apparently, Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger are dealing with the spooks angle. Shanghai, on the other hand, is better than I expected it to be. And its subject matter is much closer to home than the ISI or the Chinese secret service. 

Many critics have called the movie a metaphor. For me, the movie was a metaphor and beyond. Set in an Indian periurban village/town, presumably in north or central India, Shanghai tells the story of an aspiration that the Indian state envisages for its cities; an aspiration which pits decades of faulty governance, lack of infrastructure and a volatile Indian public psyche against the clean, geometric facade of civilization, and corporate governance. 

I won't go much into the plot right now, mostly because I wish to keep this review spoiler free, and partly because I intend to go beyond that. 

In many ways, Shanghai is about contrasts; more so, contradictions. Bharatnagar - the ground zero of the genesis, so to say is where Dr. Ali Ahmadi (a kurta-jhola-beard sporting Leftist) protests against the capitalist state turning the area into a SEZ. His detractors want him out. Not because of the ideological differences; because in India, politics is not about ideology anymore. It's a numbers game, as we see the ruling coalition trying to keep its aspirations alive for this Shanghai - to the extent of murdering the doctor. 

The principal characters Krishnan (Abhay Deol in his finest performance so far), Shalini (Kalki, who is more confused than anything) and Joginder (Emran Hashmi, a fine actor) are caught up in their own agendas; trying to find something to anchor themselves in the turbulent political climes of Bharatnagar. Yet, I would not call any of them protagonists; they're characters, each organically placed in their roles, which makes the film's progression more eased and natural without being caught up to explain their agendas. However what really contributes to the organic nature of the film is the fact that the supporting cast does a brilliant job; from the wily mandarin Kaul, to the Chief Minister and her coalition partner - his cronies, the cops and the plethora of angry political hooligans, the unwitting's a myriad picture, both violent and vibrant, and certainly something from which you cannot turn away. 

Cinematically, for me, the winning factor was the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis. And frankly, for someone who managed to execute a movie like Love, Sex aur Dhoka, I would've expected nothing short of brilliance from Banerjee. There was a constant nervousness in the camera movements, a sense of unpredictability as it captured both the loud morcha scenes, and the quiet, narrow, yet palpable curfewed streets of Bharatnagar. I spoke of contradictions earlier, and it's notable that the cinematography contributes to the visual telling of these contradictions; the government offices, with glass doors, polished conference tables, and the municipal schools, non-functional toilets.

The score, I felt was apt for a movie as intense as Shanghai, and it is what really contributed to the intensity of the film. The most striking feature, however, was Banerjee's use of silence to fill in the gaps - which I believe is the first of its kind I've ever come across in Hindi cinema. My only complaint was Vishal-Shekhar's music which, despite sounding great in the promos on TV, did not have room in the film, and thus, resulted in a slightly jarring effect; the songs consumed more time than what was required. 

Coming back to metaphors, I think Shanghai does more than just talk about the Indian state's aspiration to compete with the world by converting its cities into Shanghais. It is a commentary on the inherent contradictions within the Indian state; contradictions between the welfare role of the state and its capitalistic nature. It is about more than just corruption in the system and the abuse of state power; the corruption runs far deeper, and into the Indian psyches itself. It is a commentary on very nature of Indian politics. Elsewhere, I've mentioned that political parties today are no longer connected to an ideology - be it the right-wing BJP, or the so-called liberal Congress or the Left, or any of India's regional parties - the politics of India in the 21st century is that of anti-ideology; about synthesizing a form by positioning itself against an ideology; increased westernization, neo-liberal policy, and so forth.

What makes Shanghai the film it is, is the fact that Banerjee manages to capture these fine nuances on screen, in its profoundness and yes, you guessed it, contradictions. For some reason, I think of Shanghai as a "muted" film, mostly because of its noted and brilliant use of silence, as I said before, and also because you feel a sense of futility, of being inured to its portrayal of corruption and state sponsored violence. The Delhi HC was right it calling it a accurate description of the state of affairs in India; look the Jaitapur, or Raigad - districts earmarked to become the sites where India would usher in modernity and seal its place in the global economic order.

Shanghai is a warning bell for some alarmists, a time where the Indian state would sell the very people who elect governments to raze areas like Bharatnagar and make them into technological and information hubs, clean buildings, planned streets, and most of all, a populace which is the product of India’s neo-liberal values, who are at best passive consumers and at worse, a stupefied, silenced people. It is also something that would intrigue cynics, because it holds no bars in giving an honest account of the country—that we cannot do without corruption, that we cannot build a township, a sea-link, a sky-walk without our governments and bureaucrats having mud (and often, blood) on their hands. It talks about a genesis, of a violent kind, when our cities become the hallmarks of the modern global world order, in a crass Nehruvian manner of speaking.

This is the India of the 21st century; an amalgamation of contradictions. God, I love this country. And, it seems, the makers of Shanghai do so too. Shanghai is a rare gem of a movie. Many won't like it, because it raises uncomfortable questions. Many like to see the glass as half full. But optimism doesn’t change the fact that the water in it is dirty. 

So long, and Bharat mata ki jai.