Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A life-long Ohrwurm...

My grandfather was an incredibly wise man. I do not remember him doing much but that was because he had retired from whatever he did for a living by the time I could remember details about my life. I do not remember anyone talking to me about what he did for a living either. So perhaps he did nothing at all throughout his adult life. Perhaps he was a man of leisure; a person with incredible wealth and social position who merely followed his hobbies, passions and interests. Then again, he appeared to have very few hobbies or expensive tastes and precious few personal friends. He had very few compulsive habits and only a passing interest in sport and radio. Nor was he wealthy.

But that was somewhat irrelevant to me as he was my hero when I was growing up.

I remember that he smelt of vibhoothi all the time. He would plaster it across his forehead, his arms and chest three times a day. It was a ritual that he followed. He chided me in the most kind manner when I purchased my first bottle of deodorant; he asked me to use vibhoothi instead. "This vibhhothi is natural no," he would say  immediately, and add with a naughty smile, "and besides it is at one-fiftieth of the price too!"

He spent a lot of time in the pooja (prayer) room of our house, doing his stuff; it was his refuge. On most days he would spend at least 4 hours every morning and 2 hours every evening in the prayer room. Perhaps this was his escape from the world. 

I didn't quite understand what he did in the pooja room, but he would often spend hours on end, chanting. I am not convinced he focused much on his prayers. First, he wasn't really a pious sort of a person. He was a good man, a very good man, but not God-fearing and pious. Second, every time someone gossiped in the living room about a vagrant neighbor or an irritant uncle or the raucously painful laugh of a distant aunt, he would be the first to offer a mild opinion from the inside of the prayer room, "He is not really that bad no, what makes you think he is as terrible as you say he is" he would ask, with an air of absolute innocence, in a subtle attempt to keep the gossip fire burning. Or he would say, "The laugh could be grating, I agree. But poor thing maybe no one has told her yet no" he might offer as sympathy, only to stoke the burning frustration of the people participating in a discussion on that topic.

Whatever the topic, Mr Ramasubramoni (or Ramsups as we called him) would have a view. One that would be mostly expressed from the confines of the prayer room. And it would always be expressed in soft tones. I do not believe I have ever heard him raise his voice or get angry.

But, as I said, it seemed to me that he spent way too much time in the pooja room even though he was not what I might call a very religious man and even though he participated in all family discussions. I think it was just his way of escaping the acid tongue of his wife, my grandmother. 

My grandma, Ponnammal (referred to by all of us as Kopaks -- don't ask me why, for it is a long story) was a loving person too. But she would never step back from a fight. She would call a spade a garbage truck, this lady. People who define "political correctness" should enshrine her words and phrases as litmus test. 

I remember this occasion when our maid was sweeping the floor in a somewhat hurried manner. My grandma pulled up the maid, pointed to a corner of the house and told her, "Last time I checked, this corner was also part of our house only. It does not belong to a neighbour!" ("yevati, indha moolai-um namma veedu thaan" she said in Tamil).

Another time, a visiting cousin of ours was acting rather too friendly with his heavily pregnant wife who playfully pushed him away. Kopaks, who was in the middle of her own prayer, snapped, "idhulla nee pannaradelllam panniyaachu, ippo porum nirutthu." ("you have participated in this child birth process to the extent you need to, now stop your amorous behavior and get lost").

A cousin of ours had just been to the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. On his way back, he stopped at our home before heading to his own home in Kolkata. He had not had a bath for the near 20 days of his religious expedition. As a result, he was rather unkempt. It is a custom for an elderly person to pour the first bucket of water on a person returning from this religious expedition. So there we were, all bunched together in a small shower cubicle, watching Kannan, our cousin receive his first post-expedition bucket of water. Kopaks stood on a wooden stool, with a bucket full of water. Kannan raised his folded hands above his shoulder, exposing his underarms. I must declare I was shocked at seeing the growth in Kannan's armpits. I gasped, but kept my respectful counsel. Not Kopaks. Instead of participating in what was essentially an intense religious ritual, she dropped the bucket of hot water, pointed to the raised under-arm and yelled, "Dei Kanna. Ennadu daa idhu. Indha anyayatha pinni vittudalaam pol-irukke!" ("What is this under-growth Kanna? It is so bad, you could even plait the darned thing!")

Little wonder then that Ramsups spent nearly 5 hours on a pooja that ought to have taken him an hour! It was his escape from the brutality of Kopaks!

I enjoyed the equability and poise with which Ramsups handled most things. I often wondered if I would ever acquire that Zen-like state he seemed to exist in. Perpetually. Nothing would ruffle him. He took on every task with a smile. He took every rebuke on the chin.

He could never get shopping right. He would get a kilogram of cherry tomatoes. Kopaks would yell, "Who do you think will chop these many? The neighbor?" The next day, he would get large tomatoes and he would get told off, because the large tomatoes, "tasted like cement, did he not know."

I would often go to South Indian classical (Carnatic) music concerts with him although, more often than not, I had no idea what the artistes were singing. I remember vividly asking him why we were listening to an old man with a kudimi (tuft of hair tied at the back of the head) sing. This was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ramasups' favorite singer. I remember being scared listening to another old man, also with a tuft, and a frightening squint! We were in the first few rows. I remember screaming because this singer frightened me with his on-sage contortions. This was M. D. Ramanathan. Ramasups had to run out of the venue with me and we heard the rest of the concert from behind a convenient pillar in the auditorium. But Ramasups did not chide me for my unacceptable behavior. He understood and held my hand. We listened from afar. 

I had no idea if Ramasups understood what these artistes sang. At that age, I did not. But I would look with much respect at Ramasups. He nodded his head in appreciation and much knowledge. But I am not totally convinced he knew what they were singing. I am convinced he went to the concerts to escape his wife's continuous rebukes! For, if he understood what these musicians were singing, he might have hummed a line or two or even sing a song every now and then. 

But no. 

The only musical phrase he ever hummed was a short phrase in raga bhairavi. For the 30 years I knew him, he had no other variant on that one phrase! Perhaps he did not believe in improvisation. Perhaps he did not know how to improvise. Perhaps he felt that his life was complicated enough with that one refrain. He must have played that line in his head over a trillion times. I would have heard that line a million times myself.

It was simple: “sa sa sa ri ni da pa” was all he ever sang. All his life.

According to Kopaks, he only sang that one phrase for over 60 years. Of course, that phrase is not quite definitive enough to pin it as raga bhairavi. But that is what he thought it was and that was good enough for me. His life was simple. His life was uncomplicated. I never asked him, but I don’t believe his life was ever boring. 

A earworm is the calquing of the German phrase "Ohrwurm" that is used to suggest a portion of a song or a tune that repeats in one mind over and over again. It is used to suggest music that is stuck in one's head. I have had earworms every now and then, as I am sure you have. I even had full earworm days. I have known people to have been afflicted by the earworm, "I just can't get this song out of my head," is a commonly heard plaint.

But I am yet to come across anyone with a life-long Ohrwurm.

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Satyamev Jayate: Opportunistic or Responsible?

Satyamev Jayate: Opportunistic or Responsible? 

Time will tell...

Opinion is cheap. And there is plenty of that going around after the first episode of Satyamev Jayate aired, Sunday 6 May 2012. The show's producers may harvest all of these to construct the show differently. Or, they may not.

I have many people to thank for many things. For now, I will start with thanking Aamir Khan for my re-introduction to Bollywood cinema. I saw precious little commercial cinema that came out of India for over 13 years. One day, I stumbled upon "Dil Chahta Hai". I was hooked. Khan, the lead in that cult movie yanked me back into Bollywood. I reconnected with the genre and saw many a movie subsequently. However, I soon found out that the movie was as much an accident in this complex genre as my accidental encounter with it was! Bollywood, perpetually in search of a formula had merely found another one to exploit.

It is therefore, not surprising that Indian commercial TV follows the same idiom that Bollywood uses. The template reads: Continual and perpetual search for the next "formula". Serve flop after flop. Hit the jackpot with the formula of the year/decade. Milk it for all it is worth. Rinse. Repeat.

The TV 'formula' that seems to be working now is the reality show hosted by a major Bollywood personality. Have pretty face or stunning six/eight/twelve-pack? Fans stand outside your home in Bandra for hours on a hot Sunday afternoon to see you wave from your balcony? Come in. What? You haven't cooked a single meal in your life? You do not do extreme sport? You think an electrolyte is actually a new form of electricity? Do not worry. We will sand-paper the rough edges. We just need your face and body, not so much your intellect.

And so, I sat down to watch "Satyamev Jayate" with a healthy dose of cynicism. I admit. I was (potentially) just about to subject myself to another Bollywood actor telling me things he knew absolutely nothing about in an utterly convincing manner. After all, Priyanka Chopra had attempted to teach me about extreme endurance sport. Amitabh Bachchan had showered on me his expansive knowledge on all topics. Arjun Ramphal had taught me conflict resolution skills. Akshaye Kumar had taught me how to cook.

But I watched it because of Aamir Khan. I also watched it because I had been assaulted by the pre-show publicity. Even people living under a large immovable rock couldn't have missed news about the show. Social media was full of references to it, so were the papers. Although, as Harini Calamur (@calamur) records here, not many in the industry knew what it was going to be about. She says:
"I was curious about Satyameva Jayate, especially given that industry at large was scratching its collective head at both the timing (11 am on a Sunday Morning) and the content (serious, chat show, with no embellishment. Real people, real clothes, little make up – a show that puts the real back in reality). Many I spoke to, some as late as yesterday evening, were not sure if the show will be accepted by the audience."
The reach and canvass was broad. It was simulcast on 10 different TV channels and in 7 or 8 different languages. The Karnataka Government did not allow a Kannada dubbing of the show to be aired, ostensibly because it is against dubbed TV, although dubbed porn being viewed inside its Parliament building appears acceptable or even encouraged. The show was aired via community TV in many villages across India.

This, then, is a massive show. It has a popular figure asking tough questions. Each episode focused on one elephant in the room. The show will never run out of elephants or rooms. India is replete with elephants in search of a room; which is why I believe the producers are onto a gold mine here. I have no idea why no one has thought of this concept or the frame earlier.

And there is another bold move that sets this show apart. It is aired at Ramayan-time. A bold move. From my limited knowledge of the way Indian TV works -- assuming it does, that is -- apart from Star Wars, Mahabharata and Ramayan, not many other shows made it big in that Sunday-morning slot. The 11am time is family time in India. To show grotesque images of disfigured and badly punched up faces on a Sunday morning at 11am was as courageous as it was experimental. I would not have shown such graphic images. I may have issued a warning so that young unsuspecting kids did not accidentally see the gory and bloodied images that were shown. But then, perhaps the show did not want to air brush the truth. The images told the story of the victims. This was bold TV at family time.

But then Aamir Khan has always been bold.

After a monologue at the start, the show hit you. It took you on; played with your sensibilities. At one point in time, Aamir Khan had a tear in his eye. There were some irreverent and gratuitously pernicious suggestions on Twitter and other social media that the tear may have been made-for-TV drama. I refuse to accept that they were false tears. The stories were too raw and too hurtful. Any person with feeling and emotion would be affected by it -- even a brilliantly successful method actor. I had a tear too. And I act as well as I write. It was impossible not to feel hurt or anger at the stories that we heard. They were depressing. They were compelling. They weren't new. But they made you simultaneously angry and sad.

The show was well made. Harini Calamur has talked about it in her review. It had indeed put 'real' back into 'reality'. The victims spoke. It was their story. Aamir Khan did not tell us what we had to do. The show questioned us, our morality, our values, our silence and our tolerance of a continuing atrocity: female foeticide. And there are many more such societal ills that will follow. As I said, there are many elephants in search of a room.

But it wasn't as though we were seeing something we did not know already. Then again, did we really know it? Do we, as a society, need Khan to tell us we have a problem? And we do. Let us not stick our collective heads in the sand. And as G. Khamba says in another multi-layered review of  'Satyamev Jayate':
"The intention is noble, and props to him for even trying something like this on Indian television. He’s using his star power to “raise awareness”, and while personally I will always skeptical of that ... I hope some good will come of it. What and how? I don’t know, and I don’t even think anyone cares. People are just happy that Aamir Khan is “doing something”! And we as a people seem so starved of role models and hope that even “doing something” is enough..."
But there lies the problem too. A society that needs Khan and his star power to highlight these substantial ills needs some serious introspection. We need Amitabh Bachchan to ask us to think about eradicating polio. Until that time, we will not care about it.

The Government throws its hands in the air. The problem is just too hard. "Where do we even start?" it asks. The poor people throw their hands up in the air. "This problem is not ours," they say collectively. They just want their daily bread on the floor.

The lower middle class just wants to escape the lower middle class and become just-right-of-center middle class. For them, just putting bread on the table (yes a small hand-me-down table re-surfaced last year with a polished formica finish, but covered with now-dirty lace cloth) is hard enough.

The just-right-of-center middle class is tired of being just-right-of-center middle class for decades and  wants to get to being upper-middle class. "Just getting to work and back is a problem already."

The upper middle class just wants to escape being the upper middle class. "Sending our kids to the best schools is expensive enough. Don't distract us from the JEE exams and UPSC exams please. We are all studying for it. Yes. As I said, all of us are studying for these exams."

And the upper class just drive around in their expensive cars dissing the poor class for all the filth on the streets and the chaos at their airports.

Simply put, we have all, collectively, stopped caring for anything other than that which we need to worry about in our own lives. So yes, we do need Aamir Khan to tell us that we must care. We do need Aamir Khan to tell us that we need fundamental education in this regard. Such education on fundamental values ought to be provided in our homes and in our schools. However, are we enlightening our kids at home and school to think critically and in an ethically correct way or merely training them to get into good jobs that pay well? I am convinced it is the latter.

So the fact that we need Aamir Khan to "do this to us" is a much larger worry than the amount he is getting paid.

Ah yes. Khan's payment-per-episode. We focused on the amount he is getting paid first, as is our wont. For, if we do not like the message, why not shoot the messenger? In other words, every message has a bakra messenger. We collectively train our focus on the messenger as a mechanism to conveniently deny the very existence of the inconvenient message.

So, in the tried and tested manner that we have all become familiar with, Khan was severely criticized for charging Rs 3 Crore per episode. As G. Khamba said in his review: "I know for a fact that some of my friends who have been working their assess off on the ground for a pittance will be irked at so much attention being showered on issues they’ve been crying hoarse about for years and years purely because Aamir Khan has said it – but that’s just how we’ve become."

My irrational fear, however, is that we -- all of us -- will think that watching the show is our monumental and singular contribution to rectifying the ills that a show like this might highlight. After all, no one took notice when our Prime Minister called female foeticide (wait for it) a "national shame".

We are like this only. Even such derision has lost meaning.

My fear is that the show will be forgotten. The daily ride to work and back and constant quarrels with the auto-driver will completely occupy our 'bandwidth' and make us impervious to the ills around us. The truant maid will test our patience enough to distract us from the real ills that surround us. The re-surfacing of the formica table-top will occupy us so completely and thoroughly that all we have energy for is a commitment to watching the show at 11am every Sunday.

The show does play a role. It may remind us and fill us with guilt... Until the maid, auto-driver, metro journey assault us with their realities. But for that one hour on a Sunday and perhaps for a few hours after that, the show must occupy our minds. Perhaps a few people will get affected and decide to do something about these elephants and the rooms they reside in. The show is, therefore, good in my view.

But I do have one substantial problem with the show. And it worried me tremendously.

To the best of my knowledge, the show did not interview or showcase the work of a single NGO in the area that was under the microscope: female foeticide. And there are many NGOs and individuals that are doing substantially good work in this space already. Organisations like Jagruti, or Population First, for example. Or indeed, the work that Aamir Khan's colleague, Gul Panag has been doing in this space.

In that sense, by not standing on the shoulders of people and organisations that had preceded it, the show had a "messiah" feel to it. It ought to have acknowledged, more powerfully and more directly, the scale of the problem despite the work that is already being carried out by other people/NGOs.  And instead of being a mere promotional tool to increase "fan following" the show ought to use its online presence, social-media presence and online brand, as well as its strong brand in the non-Internet-enabled rural India to point to the wealth of resources that already exists.

The show has garnered interest from all walks of society. Of that I have no doubt. The show has two choices now: (a) It can remain a mere 'highlighter' of issues and reside in our collective conscience for a few hours before we get assaulted by practical realities of life, (b) It can also become a vehicle that points to useful resources that already exist, measure its impact and become a vehicle for real change.

We have many people who care enough in an "all care, no responsibility" mode of operation. We do not need another such entity. If the show chooses the former path, it should not cry foul if it is seen as an opportunistic commercial enterprise that made money through a society's collective misery, its ills, its warts and its pimples. The more responsible path would be the latter. It is a real choice that faces the producers. Now.

I am willing to give 'Satyamev Jayate' time to see if it indeed goes down the more responsible, latter path. I am not a cynic... not yet!

-- Mohan

9-May-2012: There have been shows like this in the past on TV. Shows like Visu's "Arattai Arangam" (on Sun TV) and Lakshmi's "Kadhaiyalla Nijam" have attempted such people-focused, socially-relevant issues in a "regional" context and setting. "Satyamev Jayate" is perhaps the first attempt to tackle social issues of national relevance, prevalence and importance and take it to a national audience.