Archive for February, 2007

Gained in translation

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Twenty-six years, eight nominations — six for direction, two for screenplay writing — and finally, an Oscar for Martin Scorcese. Hardly ever has the Kodak Theatre exploded in such applause as when his name was announced as the Best Director; Hollywood’s power elite whistled and whooped unabashedly as Scorcese walked up to the stage to get his statuette. And, given his experience with the award, it was entirely fitting that he asked: “Can you double-check the envelope?”

“So many people over the years have been wishing this for me,” he said. “I go in a doctor’s office, I go in a whatever. Elevators, people saying, ‘You should win one.’ I go for an X-ray, ‘You should win one.” Thus did Marty lose his status as the greatest living American director to never have won an Oscar.

But more than Scorcese finally joining the club — it was, after all, merely a matter of time (The Departed is hardly his best film, but an excuse for Hollywood’s collective guilt to work itself out) — the one striking aspect of this year’s Oscars was its sheer multiculturalism. Last year’s awards were Hollywood’s response to the Bush administration’s policies and posturings. Crash was a hard look at American society’s latent racism. Syriana at least partly blamed Big Oil’s greed for Islamic fundamentalism in West Asia. Brokeback Mountain subverted the myth of the macho cowboy by showing that the Marlboro man could be gay. Good Night and Good Luck was about state repression of the media. And Munich asked whether hunting down terrorists using some of the same means as they do doesn’t make us uncomfortably close to being jihadis ourselves. All these themes, at some level, are about left-liberal discomfort about the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld view of the world. This time round, it was about celebrating talent across ethnicities.

Of the five films nominated for Best Picture, three have clear international connections. In The Queen, Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II as she deals with the aftermath of Princess Diana’s tragic death. Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima is about one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, fought between the Americans and the Japanese, but from the Japanese perspective. And Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is one of the most international films ever made. The plot synopsis on the official Oscar site reads: “Several interwoven storylines unfold across four countries as difficulties in communication and understanding complicate life in the shrinking global village. A Moroccan shepherd, a pair of American tourists, a deaf Japanese teenager, and a Mexican nanny and her two young American charges are among the characters whose lives connect in unexpected ways.”

Similarly, the men nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards. Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for playing a South African smuggler dealing with conflict diamonds in civil war-torn Sierra Leone. His co-star, Nigerian actor Djimon Hounsou was nominated for Supporting Actor. The Best Actor award went to Forest Whitaker for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Among the ten women who won nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, one is from Spain, one from Mexico, and one from Japan. Penelope Cruz, in fact, was not nominated for any English film, but for her role in Pedro Almodovar’s Spanish-language Volver. The other two, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi acted in Babel. Babel director Inarittu was nominated for Best Director, but did not win. But Pan’s Labyrinth from his native Mexico won three statuettes. In fact, films directed by Mexican directors were up for a total of 16 Oscars this time.

Is this just part of the inevitable impact that economic globalisation has on culture? Or is this some kind of indication that the average American — or at least the Motion Pictures Academy — is now far better sensitised to the world outside the United States? Post 9/11, post the war in Iraq, are Americans now far more aware — and concerned — about how people in different parts of the planet think and live? And, in its attempt to come to grips with a world that is becoming increasingly self-contradictory, complex and in many ways incomprehensible, is America also becoming more inclusionist? In a way, this year’s Oscars represent the logical step forward from last year’s. Last year, Hollywood used the awards to give a thumbs down to George W. Bush’s beliefs and actions about ‘the other’. This year, it has gone beyond acknowledging ‘the other’. It has welcomed them in and given them a seat at the high table.

Was there no India connection then in the Oscars? Yes, Deepa Mehta’s Water was a contender for Best Foreign Language Film, but it was travelling on a Canadian visa. But Martin Scorcese’s win is itself cause for Indians to feel happy. In the early 1990s, Scorcese began the campaign to award Satyajit Ray a lifetime achievement Oscar. Roping in the likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Copolla and George Lucas, he succeeded in 1992, when Ray received the award in his sickbed in Kolkata, just before his death. It is amazing to believe that a man who has spent his career making gory films about the Mafia and Catholic guilt could be such an admirer of Ray’s gentle oeuvre. But then, as Scorcese said once: “Ray’s ability to turn the particular into the universal was a revelation to me. I had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience. I was moved by how their society and their way of life echoed the same chords in all of us.” This year, the Academy too seemed moved by the same idea.

Indian colour of a pink slip

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

What does it feel like to be on the way home from work one evening, preparing yourself to tell the family that you don’t have a job anymore? I have friends who have been through this, yet I can only vaguely imagine what goes through a man’s mind in the moments before the inevitable confession to wife, child, parents. No one who hasn’t gone through that moment possibly can more than vaguely imagine the feelings: the anger, helplessness, guilt, shame, fear. If one had a choice, one wouldn’t want anyone to go through that experience. But I am also a person who has personally sacked perhaps two dozen people during my career. In the last three months, I have let three people go, on grounds of incompetence.

But today, we know what the reality is, what the rules that run a market are. I have known young software engineers switching jobs thrice a year just for more money and nothing else, their minds devoid of any concept of employer loyalty or job content. The times were good then, grand. The times are bad now, as they were inevitably supposed to be at some point of time. We have seen real estate developers on reckless building sprees, charging prices that look like phone numbers for apartments clearly worth much less in the long run. The party couldn’t have lasted for ever. And yesterday’s hot shot who got fired last week should have known that fast careers come with risks attached. Always.

The good part is that we are now socially educated enough not to attach much — I would have loved to say “any” — stigma to a pink slip recipient. We have progressed since the days when dismissal was seen as career cancer. We know that the reason for dismissal may have nothing to do with performance. A friend of mine got fired twice, both times because of global-level mergers and consequent decisions taken by men sitting in New York who had never visited India and decided to close down their businesses here. The first time, he landed at Delhi airport, fresh from honeymoon at Phuket, picked up a financial daily and found he had no job. The second time was brutal. His entire division was called in, and told to clear out with their belongings within the next half hour. Their competence was not in question, their performance had not been criticised. Men in Manhattan had decided to close that damn division down, not worth their time.

When you have no option but to fire, you have to. But. One, CEOs are programmed to attack salary costs and manpower before they take any other action when their companies fall on bad times. The US Senate Committee asked the chiefs of the Detroit Big Three: “How many of you have flown here in your corporate jets?” All three had. Forget corporate jets, a senior manager travelling from Mumbai to Delhi ten times a year on a low-fare airline instead of full-fare business class would be enough to keep four low-level employees on the roll. Two, when the best of times change to the worse of times, hardly any company says: Let’s take pay cuts and go on. Given their salary levels, the top one lakh executives in India could easily take a pay cut of 10 per cent and feel no pinch at all, and save a crore jobs. I am sorry if I am sounding like a woolly socialist, but the few times I have seen top managers take this sort of decision, the organisation has become stronger, morale has gone up, and people have worked harder.

But in the massive majority of cases, it’s the small fry in a company who get shafted, and they are left clueless about what they did wrong. For instance, right now in India, the job loss problem, to a significant extent, is due to the irrational exuberance of top managers. They thought the boom would last for ever, and hired many more people than they needed in anticipation of riches that have turned out to be a mirage. In management jargon, that’s poor market projection. Let’s put it in simpler terms: You screwed up. But these men, I think (I hope I am wrong) are safe in their jobs, blaming the sub-prime crisis for the woes of the thousands of people they have personally rendered jobless.

Again, at the risk of sounding like a bleeding-heart liberal, if you do have to let people go, it’s all about how you do it. The Jet Airways firing fiasco is an object lesson in how not to do it. This is India, not the US. All human activity works in a cultural context. In fact, forget cultural context, there is also something called respect for human beings. People need to be given warnings, people need to be told that this could happen to them, people need to be given the big picture, they need to be told what other measures the company is taking. And they need to be given humane terms of disengagement. All this must apply to cases that don’t have to do with incompetence. There, only the warnings part applies. With dishonesty, not even warnings. But if it is not incompetence or dishonesty, the pain should be shared from top to bottom, and a bit more at the top than at the bottom.

Bull runs end. Bear runs end. It’s about how to manage the transition. My twice-fired friend, when he got the exit order the second time, took it in what I believe is heroic fashion. It was just a week before the soccer World Cup of 2002. “I’m free,” he told me. “I’m going to watch every World Cup match and then think of looking for a job. This is good.” He watched every match, living for 40 days in T-shirt and shorts. We watched the finals together. He works for a giant multinational out of Singapore now.