Archive for February, 2009

It shouldn’t have won

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Feb 24, 2009

Frankly, I don’t think Slumdog Millionaire deserved the Oscar for best film. And even more frankly, I don’t think Resul Pookutty should have invoked “my country and my civilisation” in his acceptance speech for best sound mixing. India was not up there in the Kodak auditorium for approval. It was a British film financed by the indie subsidiary of an American studio which happened to be set in India and as a result they could not help but involve Indian actors (including Indian-origin Britishers) and shoot it in India. We crave too much for international recognition. A bit too much than is seemly. Even as all of us go around strutting, pretending to be a superpower.

Other than Slumdog, I have seen only one film out of the other four nominated. But I’ve read about all of them. The one that I saw is The Reader. The subject is far more intellectually challenging, emotionally moving and morally disturbing than Slumdog can ever hope to be. Not since A Last Tango In Paris has nudity (both male and female) been so necessary to a film’s narrative, and so non-titillating and so touching. A film which stretches over 30 years and with essentially only two characters, and yet a film that is as gripping as a thriller. It’s a film that, as my friend told me, demands and requires to be seen in one sitting, with no interruption by commercials and visits to the loo.

But look at the themes of the other movies that were nominated this year. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the love story of a man who is born as an extreme geriatric and keeps getting younger and dies as a newborn. Only for a brief period of time are the man and his beloved around the same compatible age. Of course it’s an impossible concept and completely unbelievable, but it’s a high concept. Milk is about the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States; Frost/Nixon about the first interview disgraced US President Richard Nixon gave, to has-been TV journalist David Frost. For both of them, it is a chance for redemption, for a somewhat sane life. These are all big themes. I am not doubting Slumdog’s quality as a film in any way. Danny Boyle is one of the most talented directors around. But comparing Slumdog to The Reader is almost impossible. It’s like comparing A Christmas Carol to Great Expectations.

Scrooge won, little Pip lost. But that’s the way it has been with the Oscars. Sometimes the nominations reflect the mood of America’s liberals, sometimes the winners reflect political correctness. In 2006, the following five films were nominated: Good Night and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Capote and Munich. Good Night and Good Luck is about a TV broadcaster who took on the McCarthyist witch hunt in the 1950s; essentially about freedom of the press. Brokeback Mountain deflated the entire mythology of uber-macho frontiersmen by portraying a deep homosexual relationship between two cowboys. Crash interlinked several stories to study racism in all its forms and in startling ways. Capote was about the gay writer Truman Capote who travels to the South of the US to write a book on two multiple murderers. Munich told the story of the Israeli agents who hunted down the Black September terrorists who killed Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics, and asked the question: To take revenge, do we become as base as the men who are our targets?

There’s a clear pattern: anger over the Iraq war, the stifling of the media, the stranglehold of neo-conservatism, the contempt for minorities. The denizens of Hollywood were simply reacting to their world as they saw it. The other major critically-acclaimed movies of that year were Transamerica, about one man’s battle to change his gender, and Syriana, which told Americans that their nation’s policies were largely responsible for Islamist terrorism.

Then there’s political correctness. Gandhi won Best Picture over ET. The Academy decided that the biopic of a great and influential leader was more “important” than the woes of a cute alien stranded on our planet. (This incensed Steven Spielberg so much that he decided to give the Academy the “important” films they felt comfortable with, and made The Colour Purple — which didn’t win any Oscars — and Schindler’s List — which raked them in.) Tom Hanks won his first best acting Oscar for Philadelphia, as much for his acting as for being the first major star to portray a gay man suffering from AIDS. In Hollywood, that’s called “courage”.

So The Reader can’t win. After all, its female protagonist is a former Auschwitz guard who let 300 Jews burn alive in a locked church. The film’s position on morality is too nuanced for the general Academy member to grapple with with any success. But Kate Winslet can be given the award for best actress. By taking this controversial role and baring her body so naturally for the purposes of art, she has shown “courage”. Milk is about homosexuality, so Sean Penn gets the statuette for “courage”, but not the film. Benjamin Button, which was co-produced by its star Brad Pitt, is probably seen as too much the case of an actor showing off, while being aided by more-than-state-of-the art visual effects. Frost/Nixon? Who’s interested?

So Slumdog has won, and we should really rejoice for the six children who acted in it, for they are the real stars of the film. We should rejoice for AR Rahman, though the music he has got his two Oscars for is not even of his average quality, forget his sublime and exhilarating stuff. But the Academy has decided. But I really think it’s a bit too much if we take this as a victory for Indian cinema. It’s a non-Indian film which happened to have an all-Indian cast. We shoot entire films abroad nowadays, especially in the US, remember?

The Australians will be back

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Feb 22, 2009

Dusk is a hard thing to accept, especially when the day has been glorious. But this is what the Australian cricket team has to come to terms with, it has no choice but to do so. All the mighty warriors have left, barring two. Steve Waugh’s world-beating team, its heritage is finally over. It’s time now to face up to the fact that defeats are now not only possible, but quite probable.

The team that Waugh built has consistently been rated as one of the three best cricket teams ever, along with Bradman’s 1948 Australia team, and Clive Lloyd’s 1984 West Indies. The Waugh twins, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee. Only Ponting and Lee remain, and of them, Ponting is now beleaguered by media and public.

Australia will return. If for no other reason than the simple fact that there is no better sporting nation in the world, given the size of its population. And also the spirit that Australian sportsmen seem to be born with. The most amazing quality of Waugh’s team was the apparent inability of any of its members to consider the fact that they could ever be defeated. And he rubbed that into the team’s DNA. On the way to England for an Ashes tour, the team stopped over at Gallipoli in Turkey, where thousands of Australian soldiers had died in a key First World War battle. There would have been no hope in hell for England in that series.

In the most impossible of situations, Warne and McGrath would bowl with the same deadly cheery aggression, and Hayden and Gilchrist would set the boundaries ablaze. No one ever saw an Australian face droop, or shoulders hang. The only man who ever looked worried was Steve Waugh, brooding and chewing his nails. But he was the man for the most impossible of situations. If you were to choose a batsman to come in for your World XI at 35 for 4 and 467 to chase, whom would you choose, from all the players available to you from 1876 onwards? Steve Waugh would be the one, by a large majority.

Australia will return. But the period from dusk to dawn will be tough hours. The fans will be unforgiving, the selectors impatient, the media unfair. But it has been done many times before. Clive Lloyd built a lethal team out of the post-Sobers-Kanhai ruins. Allan Border built his team from scratch, after the ‘70s greats departed, leaving a generational void. It takes a few years, given the existence of talent that can be nurtured to greatness. But more than the time required, it needs grit and self-belief. Will the Australian selectors stay with the captain and his team, or will they behave like shareholders who dump or beatify a company based on its quarterly results? We will know the answer to that in the coming months.

The hardest thing to accept in the world is the reality that you can lose, that things may not be going your way, that others can be better than you at what you do. And this after years of making a habit of winning, of walking out every time into the field knowing that you are part of one of history’s best teams, that you and your mates are the best in the world, that your destiny is to decimate and triumph. One has no idea what’s going through Ponting’s head currently, but one can feel for him. He must be remembering those halcyon days, and looking at the faces of his team members, trying to locate that élan that he saw in the eyes of those gone.

Ponting is one of cricket’s great batsmen, and at one time was expected to cross Tendulkar’s record of Test centuries. He has fought alcoholism and a history of rowdy behaviour (he was beaten up in a Kolkata bar for eve-teasing during the 1998 tour) to be a disciplined and fine captain (yes, there are charges of cheating against him, but our finest captain Mr Ganguly would not have behaved otherwise in such situations). This is the greatest test of his abilities. We in India feel vicarious pleasure every time Australia loses. But the fact of the matter is that they were better than anyone else. Just as it’s clear that they are not so good any more. That’s what Australia has to come to terms with, and see how they can go from ordinary to extraordinary once more.