Archive for October, 2011

Ra.One: no hope, no succour, no escape

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Mint, 27 October 2011

I watch very little television, and that very little is usually restricted to news or English crime serials. But in the last few days, even I, for whom Hindi entertainment channels are just noise to surf through, have discovered that Shah Rukh Khan is Everywhere. If the man is not giving Amitabh Bachchan a massage in Kaun Banega Crorepati, he is sitting on a large sofa chatting with Preity Zinta, or parked with the jury on some game show. If on some channel, he is physically absent at the moment, then they are talking about him. If they are not talking about him, they are running the trailer of Ra.One, which threatens at the end: “3 more days to go”, “2 more days to go” etc.

Much of my youth was misspent, sitting in the dark in urban or mofussil cinema halls watching any and every Hindi film that held a gun to the projectionist’s head. Today, a quarter century later, I average about one Hindi film a year in a hall, and about two on DVD. But after this SRK onslaught (and if I, an accidental tourist, found him omnipresent, regular viewers must have been tsunami-ed by him), I decided to find out what the hell was going on. One must keep up with the world.

OK, but I don’t want to keep up with the world so closely that I want to spend hours researching Ra.One, so I limited myself to the Wikipedia entry. And I soon found my head spinning with all the numbers and deals and tie-ups and alliances and brand extensions and franchise options, that came charging at me. I had seen one of the Ra.One trailers, which seemed to be full of supermen in tights lobbing SUVs at each other and taking kilometre-long leaps, and just reading about the marketing juggernaut that the Khan has unleashed made me feel like waving a white flag: I plead unconditional surrender, now can I just go back to watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents?

Of course, they are claiming that it’s the most expensive Hindi film ever made, which is fine—an ubiquitous part of marketing Big Hindi Films nowadays is claiming, before release, that they’ve spent more gazillions of rupees on this film than anyone else ever, and then claiming, on the Monday after release, that they’ve collected more gazillions in the last three days than anyone else ever. How they manage to tabulate all the box office collections from all over India—and possibly the world (do not mention time zones)—till the last show on Sunday and make the information available for the Monday papers is of course a mystery, but what the hell, it seems to work.

But the Ra.One marketing hurricane seems to be like one of those Rajinikanth jokes taken seriously. The marketing budget is supposed to be the highest ever, the film’s promotion drive is claimed to be the longest ever. Other films have websites, these guys have a youtube channel, which apparently hosts games, and contests where participants can create their own promos (Why? Is this what economists refer to as disguised unemployment?) from clips, music and dialogues of the film. There are more brand tie-ups “than any other movie ever before” (let’s acronimise that to TAOMEB). TV and music rights have been sold at higher prices TAOMEB, there’s a full-cycle Playstation game, there’s another game you can download on your iPod or iPad, there’s merchandise—T-shirts, coffee mugs, wrist bands, watches, mobile pouches—you get the picture, plus a jewellery line, a series of laptops with customized Ra.One skin, comics in both printed and digital formats, Akon singing a song, Lady Gaga at a premiere, and so on and on. It’s being released on 5,000 screens (TAOMEB), it’s having premieres across the world (TAOMEB ), and it’s even dubbed in German (TAOMEB retires)! And it’s also being released in 3-D. Here my keyboard runs out of breath.

So I totted up all the numbers mentioned in the wiki (which I suspect is watched and managed vigilantly by the Khan’s henchmen, may they all strut around in tights some day and chuck MUVs at columnists), and I concluded that they don’t even need to release the damn thing! They can just keep marketing it, and making money, and it doesn’t matter at all whether anyone goes and watches it. OK, that may be too extreme, let’s say that it doesn’t at all matter whether anyone likes the movie or not. The hype gets you to breakeven, and everything beyond that is, well, the personal stuff that public personalities need, need like a fix—and the scale and the hunger keeps rising.

Rajinikanth, I am informed, has done a special appearance in Ra.One. This is a man who never pretends that he is actually anything other than a dark bald guy in a veshti, but, as they say, the apple that fell on Newton was thrown by him. May Ra.One get a whiff of Newton’s apple burp.

The Middle East: the unfinished revolution

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Mint, 24 October 2011

I am writing this on a Sunday, when Tunisia goes to the polls and the western-backed National Transition Council in Libya announces that the country is liberated and ready for democracy. This, while human rights activists allege that nothing much has changed in Tunisia since its hated dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled in January. Meanwhile, Moammar Gadhafi’s body lies in a refrigerated meat shop in the town of Misrata, amid confusion over what to do with the corpse — hand it over to his tribe, or bury it at sea. In Egypt, the interim military government is still mulling over the transition to democracy; and they have been mulling for a long time.

Winter is setting in, and it increasingly appears that it will take quite a bit longer for the Arab spring to bear healthful fruit.

Gadhafi’s death is hardly the end of the story for Libya. Eastern and western Libya don’t particularly like each other. Western Libyans are already chagrined that the liberation declaration is being made in Benghazi, in the east, and not Tripoli, the capital (the logic for selection of the venue is that the revolution started from Benghazi), and complain that it was after all they, not the Easterners, who took Tripoli and killed Gadhafi. Fierce tribal loyalties that had been kept in check by Gadhafi’s iron hand could now come to the surface again, as also political discordance about the way forward. Disagreements between level of representation of civilians and the armed fighters in the new government are also inevitable.

And of course, there’s all that oil, which brought the US and NATO into the conflict (Point to note: Benghazi is where the oil is). NATO fighter aircraft were supposed to only impose a no-fly zone, but it seems clear that French airplanes and a US Predator drone were involved in the location and final chase of Gadhafi’s convoy that ended with his death.

From Tunisia, there are consistent reports that Ben Ali may no longer be around, but his cronies and cohorts very much are. Corruption may have increased, and arbitrary arrests and police torture continue. The judiciary is still manned by people from the old regime, and the media is as muzzled as ever. Unemployment has been soaring — the actual state of affairs is estimated to be far worse than the official 19% figure. No one party is expected to get anywhere near a majority, but the Islamists will almost certainly get the largest chunk of votes.

In Egypt, there are growing doubts whether the military rulers actually hand over power to civilians. And even if there are elections, a military-security regime running a country from behind a democratic façade is hardly something new. The military has extended emergency law in the country, and some 12,000 people have been arrested, to be tried by military courts. Many human rights organizations are being investigated for “treason”. The US, afraid that the Islamists could come to power, has been tacitly approving the generals’ go-slow tactics. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already said that the elections should have “an appropriate timetable”.

Meanwhile, in Syria, 11 people were killed on Saturday, bringing the total to over 3,000, according to United Nations estimates—most of the dead being civilians. On the same day, Reuters reported at least 10 people killed in Yemen. The Yemeni government, however, said it was ready to “deal positively” with a resolution approved by the UN Security Council on Friday that urged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign a deal requiring him to step down in exchange for immunity. “Deal positively”, of course, could mean anything or nothing at all.

Clearly, the revolution in the Middle East remains a very unfinished project.