Friday, April 29, 2016

Bengaluru's connectivity is on the cusp of a tectonic shift

During peak hour, crowd-levels in Metro train systems in Japan become unmanageable such that they employ what are known as ‘train pushers’ to pack in as many commuters inside the compartments. Closer home, the Delhi Metro has always been synonymous with coaches packed with commuters, much like sardines in a tin can.

Bengaluru’s Namma Metro could very well be the anti-thesis to the above two examples. For, this describes best the public patronage that it has elicited by far.

Be it during peak-/ non-peak hours; public holidays or weekends, crowds on the Namma Metro have always been sparse. The trains on its nascent network run virtually empty most of the time. Nothing short of an outlandish gimmick, including hiring the ‘pushers’ from Japan, could draw the crowds here.

Now this is a situation that is virtually begging to be expressed in the form of anecdotes, or even trolled at. Consider, for instance: a betting racket might hedge on the beleaguered businessman Vijay Mallya returning his dues to Indian banks, but not on getting a seat aboard the Namma Metro: it is but a certainty.

Many reasons can be attributed to the scenario, foremost among which include the incessant delays that have characterized Namma Metro’s implementation; and its network’s poor reach across Bengaluru. But we digress.

Don’t get me wrong; not for a moment am I implying the need for crowds in Namma Metro. As its daily user from Indiranagar to M G Road it comes as a matter of relief to me that I have no need to jostle with one another. That I can travel without being forced to inhale my fellow-commuter’s deodorant or the lack of it. That I can gracefully offer my seat to a senior citizen and shift to another. That I can escape from the chaos that is the roads of Bengaluru to a state of total bliss. That I can take a selfie with the Utility Building as backdrop as I whistle past the choked traffic junctions at Ulsoor and Trinity Circle underneath.

With greater footfalls comes the dreaded G-word, garbage — undeniably the bane of public spaces in our nation. It must be said that Namma Metro comes up trumps on this count, by showing the way for the maintenance of spotlessly clean public spaces. For those of us who have never visited lounges at international airports, the stations of Namma Metro should serve as template – and that is being kind to the airport lounges.

Let us also remember that this was much before Swachh Bharat became a buzzword and entered our drawing-room conversations. Walk into its restrooms and let the nostrils welcome a whiff of freshness that symbolizes frequent cleaning. Dustbins are provided at every conceivable nook and cranny. Look up, and you would see that even its roofs are subject to a rigorous cleaning schedule. In all my travels on the Namma Metro, I haven’t seen a single person opening a packet of edibles, or even a water bottle. Clearly, Namma Metro’s emphasis on cleanliness is a runaway hit.

This means that my experiences with Namma Metro by far have been bitter-sweet: while they have not yet been able to connect me to vital areas of the city, and that includes the IT hubs or the transport hub of Majestic, they have at the least been able to let me experience the ‘nirvana’ of public commuting. For that I would not grudge them one bit.

But here’s the catch: Much as we may detest them, crowds are the true barometer of any public utility. And for all its talk of being a mode of public transport, Namma Metro has been nothing but a glorified toy train. Go ahead, make that comparison with the ‘Puttani Express’, the toy-train at Bal Bhavan inside Cubbon Park.

Come April 14, and all that will change, when the Purple Line of Namma Metro —from Mysore Road to Byappanahalli via an underground stretch that criss-crosses Majestic, Central College and Cubbon Park — will become operational in its entirety. Which translates into commuter-count ramping up manifold.

Suddenly, the trip to Majestic — that perennially congested area where buses of all hues and kinds swarm to — or Mysuru Road will be a breeze. Commuters need not vent frustration at the bottlenecks at Richmond Circle or Nayandahalli. Given an option, who would not want to whizz past such areas?

Something inside me also tells that my bitter-sweet experience with the Namma Metro will remain
just that. I may be getting access to vital links in the city, but peaceful travel? Forget train pushers, the crowds will do that automatically.

Behold, Bangaloreans who reminisce about a city of the glorious past, my empathy for you just went up enormously.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jon Stewart and his significance to Indian media

That's cheesy, Mr President: Obama on air with the witty Jon Stewart

When the most powerful citizen in the world makes an appearance on your TV show seven times, and makes special efforts to cultivate you, rest assured that you have made it as a showman. In fact, Barack Obama, on his last appearance on this show had quirkily commented to its host, “Can’t believe that you are leaving before me.”

Little wonder, then, that when Jon Stewart bid adieu to The Daily Show, the US late-night talk-cum-satire show that he had anchored for 16 years, news organizations from around the world — Bloomberg and The Times of India included — chose to chronicle his career. Every news organization worth its salt compiled “when Jon Stewart made us look back at serious moments” videos. His contemporaries and rivals alike have been busy penning eulogies that have swamped the virtual world. Needless to say, social media and the internet have been awash with tributes and brickbats, depending on one’s political allegiance.

Like Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman before him, it was Stewart’s turn to be the toast of the town one last time.

A show that donned the roles of an entertainer, activist, educator and, at times, thinker and philosopher, with aplomb, The Daily Show’s USP was its irreverence to everything it surveyed. Politics and the media were its cannon fodder, and the show evoked laughter by bringing to our attention their failing and flailing alike. It had its pet targets – Wall Street, Fox News, the conservatives and Republican politicos (George Bush Jr, Sarah Palin and more recently, the maverick Donald Trump), to name a few – which lent the show a distinct liberal identity.

Apart from being an eclectic mix of comedy and serious content, the show surreptitiously slipped in a message or its stance on various issues, signalling that it was here not just to entertain, but also inform. It was as if Stewart was playing barometer of public sentiment, curating and airing it.

And herein lay the biggest success of The Daily Show: it positioned itself as a trusted name in the cut-throat world that is the US media. For that, it may have to thank events in the country’s politics over the years. Events such as George Bush Jr’s much-contested victory over Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential elections, the decision to invade Iraq and hang Saddam Hussein over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, while the American media played choir-boy, were a god-send to Stewart. 

And boy, he lapped it up. 

Credibility via comedy: People behind the show that included
Ed Helms of 'The Hangover' series, and Steve Carrell
Thus, it wasn’t too long before the “fake news programme” saw its credibility soaring, almost on par with mainstream news outlets such as CNN, ABC, MSNBC or Fox News (to be fair, the show made a feast out of these channels’ egregious and not-so egregious blunders). Survey after survey underlined that many youngsters watched the show for its news content as well as entertainment.

In a way he was like the legendary cartoonist R K Laxman, who is remembered for saying, “After all these years I still look forward to our politicians, for they provide me with the daily inspiration that I earnestly seek.”

Thus, when TIME magazine profiled the show’s talismanic anchor as a “liver or a filter in the American discourse that absorbs a torrent filled with politics, punditry and sensationalism and passes it through in a form that you can safely tolerate”, it wasn’t indulging in hyperbole.

Stewart’s show may have been the recipient of a mélange of honours, he may have hosted the Academy Awards ceremony twice and authored books on the US economy, but he is an unknown entity to most of us Indians.

So, why should he matter to us?

A lot, going by the manner in which his show portrayed contemporary American issues.

Sample this: When the US government, to much dismay, decided to bail out Lehmann Brothers and other leading financial institutions that went belly-up after causing the infamous global financial catastrophe of ’08, he hollered on the show, “We just paid someone to f*** us!” In another episode, he remarked, “Looks like the biggest winners of the global downturn are the very ones who caused it, and by gainer I refer to the ones dipping their ba**s in gold.”

When George Bush Jr got elected as President in 2000 after an election that was the subject of intense drama, debate, suspicion and speculation, his first address to the nation was, “I haven’t been elected to serve any particular constituent. The entire nation…” To which, Stewart cheekily said: “You weren’t elected.”

The expletives aside, the quasi-comic in Stewart had graduated to playing moral compass to a nation’s conscience.

Every time I watched his show I wished he were an Indian phenomenon.

American TV history is awash with accounts of how Stewart engineered the collapse of CNN’s debate-show Crossfire. He appeared on it and made a compelling argument to its hosts to shun the slanging matches that characterized the show and do something more productive. An embarrassed CNN took note, and pulled the plug on it.

Wonder what he would have made of the prime-time spectacles on Indian TV news channels.

Interviewing the gritty Malala Yousafzai
Some of Stewart’s jabs extended to the Indian landscape as well. Like, for instance, in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, when most of us would have likely been introduced to The Daily Show.

In that episode, a correspondent travels to India, surveys its electoral landscape and the media, and contrasts it with its American counterparts for comical effect. This segment is best remembered for casting the spotlight on paid news, a phenomenon which the Indian media has tended to shy about, and our TV channels’ fetish for hideous graphic elements. (Bonus: an interview of then CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai in which he emerges a chump)

The perspective of the outsider aside, here was a programme that nailed the biggest ill of the Indian media in a matter of minutes. The show rubbed it in by saying, “Forget prime-time debates, the first thing you guys (media houses) must be talking about is paid news.”

To be fair, it isn’t that the Indian TV media has shied away from satire or criticism altogether. However, one does get the feeling that the programmes that attempt them err on the side of caution. The satire is tempered to such an extent that its purpose is lost, thanks to the fear of repercussions from our political masters, or their proxies.

Cyrus Broacha, anchor of CNN-IBN’s The Week That Wasn’t, which could be considered the Indian approximation to The Daily Show, had rued at the stifling atmosphere faced by the media, and comedy shows in specific. He had remarked at a not-so recent literary event in Bengaluru that comedy was actually a process of elimination. “You begin with the ones (persons) whom you do not want to offend… you don’t want to offend X, Y or Z, hence the content diminishes. In the end, 95% of the stuff is left out and what you have is either sterile or unfunny or both.”

The Indian Stewart? Cyrus on CNN-IBN's weekly show
The Week That Wasn’t is one of the few Indian TV shows that actually pokes fun at politicians and their idiosyncrasies, and ends up looking sensible (Sorry India Today, So Sorry is plain silly). Broacha’s show is also one of the few that satirize editors of media houses, too — a commodity in India that is as rare as the Kohinoor diamond. Which means Broacha’s comments could be considered their weight in gold.

What he may have not said is perception matters: focus on the follies of the Congress and you get labeled a Sanghi/ rabid right-winger; do that to the BJP and you are called a “commie” and may receive complimentary flight tickets to Pakistan.

But then, Stewart never made a secret about his slant to the Democrats. That’s hardly the reason people reminisce over him and his show.

Are we listening?

(**Pictures: Internet. I do not own the copyright to any of the photos)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The thin line between desperation and success

After years of blogging, I have decided to make a transition to short-stories. Here's my first shot at it...

The hangman’s noose dangled from the ceiling.

He placed a chair beneath it and climbed, wearing it around his neck, like a garland. Life had to end, prolonging it meant little sense. Although the urge had been at the back of his mind for a while, the catalyst was a newly-arrived e-mail.

“We at Polar Bear Books deeply appreciate you for expressing interest in us and sending us the manuscript of your work. However, as we are beset by financial difficulties…”

“… We are constrained to reject it,” he muttered as he clicked ‘delete’ and swore under his breath. The pattern was getting all-too familiar. Initial messages or mails of solicitation were invariably followed up with that of regret.

By now, he had sent manuscripts to every publication house worth its salt. From the industry’s biggest and most influential, to the ones at the bottom of the heap, it was as if everyone had a similar template of a response.

“That’s another stone dropped in the well,” he sighed. “My writing is pabulum – unfit for to be read on paper. Why else would they express regret in unison?” he thought. “Whenever my writing was labelled poor, I have always transformed. How much more…”

As he reflected thus, his eyes scanned the dilapidated room that had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. Only a reconstruction would have been fit. With any such suggestion kosher to its owner, there was a quid-pro-quo: cheap rent for lodging, but with low-habitability quotient. He accepted the offer gleefully, given the near-dormancy in his career.

And that always brought back memories of a painful childhood.

The house-owner had also been his guardian ever since his parents passed away. His mother died while delivering him in the hospital. This enraged his father, who blamed his son for his wife’s death and turned an alcoholic. Beatings were always in abundance, and provided in innovative ways.

An English teacher, he forced his son to memorize passages from Shakespeare’s plays at a very early age. Any error meant that his ears were twisted, his hair pulled at and knocks delivered on his head. It was ironical that the Wren and Martin English primer would prove a handy shield during his father’s outbursts of rage. This led to him developing a rare sense of humour. When the beatings rain on him, he would say, “The quality of mercy… blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” However, there was never a reprising of that scene from the Merchant of Venice.

Since then, he was convinced that Shakespeare was the biggest phoney.

Greater the intoxication levels, so were the levels of pain. He was used to getting kicked out of bed in the dead of the night and made to recite passages from the Bard’s plays. Friends, Romans, countrymen. I come to bury Caesar, not praise him…” he would drone on until his father slumped.

The only appreciation was in the form of absence of beatings.

One day his father said after an evaluation: “I don’t know which makes for a bigger tragedy: your poor grasp of Shakespeare or your imperfect grammar. Your précis on his works is pabulum, a Hamletian tragedy.” The father flung his son’s exercise book in disgust.

Instinctively, he lunged for the primer and closed his eyes, expecting a thrashing; but his father stormed out. He cowed inside his room in fear, expecting a thrashing. That was, however, not to happen: the next day’s papers carried front-page reports on how an alcoholic was mowed down by a truck. “Dipsomaniac meets death,” was the headline on one.

And that was also the last of his English lessons.

As he looked up he imagined that the roof had served target practice for the Red Army; sunrise and heat could be discerned through its many holes. Every time it rained, it was as if someone had turned open a giant bathing faucet. Water, pebbles, and even tadpoles, would gush in at the slightest hint of rain.

The walls, however, offered him perennial solace. They may not have had a coat of paint for time immemorial, but he adorned them with posters of personalities and quotable quotes to mask its grotesqueness. His favourite arrangement was that of the posters of Osho, with his face averted to that of Madonna in itsy-bitsy clothing, with a grimacing Mike Tyson providing them company. The quote “Work hard for what you want because it won’t come to you without a fight”, completed the arrangement. Every time he looked at it, a smile passed through his lips, always. Even now.

That took him back in time to his days as a reporter, and the admonitions from his editor for his copies, or news reports. “Your lede should have the gist of the copy,” the editor would cringe. “It should convince readers to dive into it. Why should it be mundane when you have an attention-grabbing specific within the copy?”

The editor would then read out key portions of the copy to him: “‘It is too early to say which party we will ally with during the elections… Any speculation of an electoral alliance is foolish, as we stand to benefit by going alone.’ Which of these statements are quirky enough to grab your attention?” For some reason, he would always make a 180-degree-departure from his instinct in his reply. The editor would go on: “Give an insipid lede, and chances are even the sub-editor who examines your copy will bury it in an inside page.”

He would always nod his head at the suggestion; not that he had a choice, but it was that he felt a valid point was made. “Do not make me re-write your copies. I can’t be explaining your poor wordplay to the editorial.”

A telephone call one day made him re-consider his style of writing. It was the editor who was irritated than usual, and that meant a tongue-lashing was on the cards. “Even by your exceptionally low standards, your copy has been pathetic. I don’t know what to make of it and where to begin rewriting it. Can’t you make the distinction between ‘atrophy’ and ‘a trophy’? I am killing your copy. Henceforth, I won’t be clearing them to the editorial.” The phone clicked at the other end.

He wished he had been slapped on his face instead.

The rumination began as soon as the sting from the rebuke lifted.
It was the love of writing that got him here, but now he was running from it. Something was terribly wrong. He knew that he had to act fast.

The rap, thankfully, had an unintended effect: it opened his eyes to a plethora of writing styles. He made it a point to observe the written word. With time, he started assimilating all forms of printed material – every word and pun – around him, from even the scraps with which road-side vendors served food-stuffs.

And that led him to the essence of writing – communicating the maximum with the minimum. The evolution was firmly set in place.

It wasn’t that he did not notice but he did not care: the calls for clarification from the editorial stopped. In a month, his copies started making it effortlessly to the front-page. As the years passed by, no longer were his copies treated warily; it was time for him to move on.

He requested for a meeting with the editor one day, and handed him a characteristically-short resignation letter. “Please relieve of my duties.” The editor responded in kind: “Duly accepted.”

Not a smile was exchanged as they shook hands one last time.

His heart started pounding as he stepped out. “My writing will be independent; no one can dictate terms to me,” he thought and grinned from ear-to-ear. He realized he wasn’t walking but running at half-pace.

The chair creaked; he shifted his weight from one leg to another as he adjusted the noose. A few more minutes, and it will all end, he thought.

Back home, with the ink on his resignation letter still fresh, he charted out plans for his career. Something had to be done, but he did not know what. He dawdled and brainstormed, and once again dawdled. A couple of days later, when he nearly gave up planning he received a phone call from someone who introduced himself as “a well-known person in the publishing circles”. The person was guarded about his identity, and sought an appointment with him.

During the rendezvous the hesitant person introduced himself as the owner of a leading erotica magazine. He did not know whether to laugh or cry. “Perhaps there has been a mistake,” he said. “I don’t think I’m the person you are looking for.” The person sprang a second surprise even before his voice trailed off. “I think so. In fact, I am looking for someone who can help me revive my publication.”

The publisher continued: “I’d rather print pictures of nude models on all pages, but then the internet has ensured that porn is as abundant as air or water. I need someone who can offer me serious content. No journalist is willing to work with me. Will you?”

The offer seemed challenging as well as tantalizing. He acquiesced instantly. After all, here was an opportunity. He was made the magazine’s editor. A quantum leap for a journalist, he thought.

The mandate was challenging, but he relished every bit of it. He began to write on issues galore – from foreign policy to national security and agriculture. His work would have found place of prominence in any other publication, but here it was sandwiched between content that appealed to the baser instincts (“cleavage of clarity juxtaposed with the bosoms of nonsense”, as he thought dryly). His writings, usually incisive, were fit to print, and started acquiring attention.

Sniggers greeted him wherever he went; at first he laughed it off, but soon he developed the thick-skin to brush it aside. After all, he had vindication in the form of north-ward bound circulation indices.

The owner was only glad to hand him a free run. Social media ran amok with jokes about how policy makers were influenced by the magazine. The jokes attributed the government’s family-planning and contraceptive drives to it.
It wasn’t too long before the international media got wind of the situation. The New York Times did an article, titled “have balls, have gall”. It goaded American magazines such as Playboy to follow a similar work ethic. In a commentary titled “standing erect”, The Guardian commended the magazine for its no-nonsense stance on issues aplenty. The opposition political parties, too, rubbed it in, saying the government lacks the maturity and clairvoyance that even a porn magazine possessed.

Helped by the wave of publicity, the magazine went in for a re-branding exercise, and got itself the tagline of “serving contemporary issues, of the heart and the mind”. It was as if nothing could go wrong. The sniggers were replaced with awe and appreciation.
It wasn’t too long before the government struck back, and it struck hard. Its assets were seized, and its owner jailed on trumped-up charges of trying to destabilize the government. The owner was offered a chance to go free if he could discredit the editor, which he did without batting an eyelid. He was bracketed with the likes of Khalistan and PoK movement leaders and jailed on charges of sedition.

Suddenly, the government emerged smelling of roses.

Not much outrage was expressed this time. The invitations to literary events started receding, and after a while, stopped altogether. The same writers who were singing his paeans were now penning elegies. Newspapers no more sought his works for re-publication. It was as if everyone else existed in a parallel universe, eons away.

The isolation was setting in. The suicidal tendencies started taking root.

Discredited but eager, he began to pick himself up once out of jail. He dabbled in a host of genres, impassionately as ever. Some of his works included a treatise on writer’s block, and an analysis of the ills of the education system. There was one hitch, though: the inability to publish. Publishers were not willing to touch him even with a cattle-prod.

Wearily, he decided to circumvent the hitch by starting a blog. The blogosphere enabled him to open up like never before. The creative juices began to flow in torrents: as essays, short stories or social commentaries. It wasn’t too long before he became a social-media sensation. The appreciation was there, in the form of likes, shares and re-tweets, but not the satisfaction. He yearned for more. He wanted to author a book, though he could not put a finger on what.

Regimes changed, but his run-in with the government ensured that he was always a marked-man. His social media accounts were getting hacked and replaced with graffiti or offensive content. This was followed by trysts with the law enforcement agencies. Police barged into his room and removed the hard-disk from his computer. It was returned sterile, which meant all of his lifetime's hard work was gone. The excuse trotted out was, here was a man bent on de-stabilising the nation, and hence, had to be kept on a leash. After a series of jail sentences and illegal tortures, he decided that maintaining an online presence was not worthwhile. He became a recluse, online and offline.
The mail was the proverbial last straw.

With a sense of finality, he took a deep breath and stared ahead. The noose was tightly-bound. He halted for a moment before he kicked away the chair on which he stood. Death was a mere seconds away.

He clenched his arms, determined not to raise them above waist-level. Images of his father, the magazine owner, hypocritical government officials and policemen streamed across… nothing worth reminiscing. He reacted thus for nearly a minute, when he let out one final gasp. No more criticism.

Finally, he was beyond reproach, coercive forces or unhappiness. No one could suppress him.

As if by clockwork, a sound emerged from the computer. He had forgotten to turn it off, besides what was the need for such trifles? If he had read it, he would have known that an international literary committee had named him for a lifetime achievement award.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Let’s stop talking about sex, honey

Bittu (Tamil slang for porn) movies in Tamil Nadu may have finally found a worthy competitior: TV programmes doling out sex advice.

Prior to the advent of internet, titillation in TN would have meant ‘record’ dance bars – where women in skimpy dresses gyrate to item numbers in front of raucous crowds– or theatres screening dubbed movies of the soft-porn virtuoso Shakeela. Today, it might mean turning on the tube late at night to watch a sexologist hearing out woebegone callers and advising them on everything related to sex – from intercourse to periods and masturbation.

What could have been a healthy trend gets reduced to a caricature, and even worse, a misinformation campaign. And that – for a state that has made remarkable progress in curbing the incidence of AIDS (remember, it was once bracketed with the likes of South Africa) and showed the rest of India how welfare schemes for transgenders could be implemented – is a blot of gargantuan proportions.

The “professional” opinion becomes shorthand for sleaze, if it's made to appeal to the baser instincts. More the merrier if it includes half-truths, sensational and misogynistic elements. This is what a majority of the Tamil TV channels (news and general entertainment) have been doing of late. Why, even their traditional broadcast timings (post-11 pm) is snidely referred to as the “midnight-masala” slot.

At one plane the shows resemble mere plugs for libido enhancers. This can be gauged from the discussions that centers on two primary issues: “performance enhancement” and sperm count improvement. It’s as if every caller faces either of the problems, and the experts, if they can be called that, ask them to consume the product. Template question elicits template answer.

You’d think they would stop at that, but no. Such “experts” also double up as marriage counselors, delivering horrifyingly judgmental opinions. Whenever marital issues are broached, the word “adjust” gets bandied about.

And this is when the show hosts reveal the sexism ingrained in them. In such cases, the answer is “it is the woman who has to adjust”. On this count, Captain TV, run by the DMDK (led by Vijayakanth) ranks as worst. Their show has a sexologist, who, with the air of a Supreme Court judge, listens to queries read out innocently by a woman, before delivering bursts of baloney.

A couple has not been intimate for a while; the woman suspects her partner of fidelity; the woman has not climaxed for a while. The solution: adjustment. “The man always has the need to graze wherever he wants to, it is the woman who must ensure he has no such need,” the expert once suggested. “Consummate, and all problems will be resolved.”

You can choose to either laugh or get shocked out of your wits.

If the queries are from a woman, that is if ever, then the questions assume a voyeuristic nature. It starts with the seemingly-innocuous  query, "Are you married?" followed by the fusillade.

"How frequently do you do it?" "Do you masturbate frequently?" "Does he use contraceptives?" "When do you experience pain? Immediately after sex?"  In some cases, a probe into the family history begins. "Has your mother experienced similar discomfort/ problems?" A prescription is given after this judgmental exercise.

The shows on these channels, without exception, follow the trend to the-T. Have they been conceptualized to give the sexologist, and some sex-starved viewers, a kick? Your guess is as good as mine.

If the advice served qualifies as rank horrendous, opacity describes the nature of the products being advertised. Nobody knows whether they were manufactured with due approval and tested by a pharmaceutical authority. And all claim to boost performance beyond one's imagination — whatever that is supposed to mean.

Even tragic is the fact that no authority – be it medical- or broadcast-regulatory – seems to have woken up to the phenomenon. They have every reason to act fast: the spread of wrong information is worse than the lack of it. 

People may squirm discussing sex in public, but listening to sexologists’ advice on midnight TV is no solution. In comparison, that quack whom you see on the road-side peddling aphrodisiacs might pass off for the dean of AIIMS. 

Dear Tamil TV channels, please give me the analogy of the birds and the bees any day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tamil Nadu’s Thala-Thalapathy conundrum

Overrated, yet celebrated: Tamil actors Vijay and Ajith, who command massive fan-followings
“Oh, you watch Tamil cinema? So, you must be a fan of ThalaThalapathy?”

Trepidation must be the watchword when one encounters these statements. For, this refers to a syndrome that has divided film freaks of Tamil Nadu into fans of Kollywood’s leading (well, at least expensive) actors — Thala or Ajith Kumar and Thalapathy or Vijay. Chances are, the manner in which you will be treated from then on depends on your reply.

Behold the Thala-Thalapathy syndrome. Such is its omnipresence that no Tamilian worth his salt can ever claim to have escaped it (Thala and Thalapathy roughly translate to “leader” and “commander”, in Tamil). Industry buzz has it that Vijay’s moniker lends credence to the theory that he is the “successor” to Rajinikanth’s mantle in the industry (Thalapathy was one of Rajini’s biggest hits); Ajith’s nickname is to establish that he is a leader in his own right.

If you have not guessed by now, this represents a glorified slanging match over which actor is superior. Long before George Bush Jr sounded his war-cry for invading Iraq, “you are either with us or with them”, Tamil Nadu had firmly put it in practice.

As with Bush’s intellect, the “arch-rivalry” between fans of both the actors, is downright silly. 

Thus, be it in the online or offline world in Tamil Nadu, content edifying either of the actors and/ or trashing the other is kosher. A verbal or style statement by them can inspire such material – that can be twisted to paean or pejorative. However, the phenomenon assumes gargantuan proportions in the online space. It is as if the Red Army is waiting to descend on any Facebook post, Twitter hashtag or Instagram upload, and react to it adversely, usually with expletives. 

Think public personalities are immune to such hero-worship? Think again. As incidents over the years attest to, no personality, however popular, can evade it.

When TV anchor-turned-actor Sivakarthikeyan made a positive reference to actor Ajith in his last-year’s flick, Kaaki Sattai, chagrined fans of Vijay found it fit to vent their spleen. Social media went alive with their outrage. The film’s trailer links on YouTube were promptly bombarded with unprintable comments on his genealogy. Likewise, when it was reported that an actress who had once worked with Ajith praised Vijay, she faced disparaging comments in the online world; her character questioned and demeaned. “Thala or Thalapathy?” is a poser routinely put to film personalities at public functions, who resort to the safest answer possible: “Thala-Thalapathy.”

Even Tamil TV channels have not been beyond reproach. Reportedly, fans of actor Vijay threatened to break the glass façade of the TV channel Star Vijay’s office (not linked to the actor) in Chennai for spoofing one his movies (Pokkiri) – a hilarious one at that. From then on, the channel lost no time in prefixing a disclaimer to the programme that lampooned the movie, Lollu Sabha.

Kollywood has ensured that this found a foothold in popular culture. For instance, the 2010 hit film Boss engira Baskaran features a scene involving actor Santhanam, who gets beaten up by Thala and Thalapathy fans for poking fun at either of the idols. Although the sequence was intended to provide comic relief, it embellished beyond doubt the intent and ideologies of the fans. Other portrayals haven’t been flattering either.

Surprisingly, the quality of movies the two actors have starred in are largely forgettable, save for a few exceptions. Most of their movies cater to their captive audiences – testosterone-filled, raging fan (usually all-male) clubs. Such movies are replete with self-fawning lines, devoid of logic, female leads reduced to eye-candy and the presence of other actors customary.

Which brings us to the question: what is this fuss really about? A part answer relates to a legacy over the decades.

From the days of M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar, officially the Tamil film industry’s first superstar; to M G Ramachandran and ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, and their successors – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan – all have commanded following in hordes, and among both the sexes. And for good reason.

Each of the actors was a treasure trove of acting talent. ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan – recipient of the French honour Chevalier – could get into the skin of every character that he portrayed (“Stop acting like Sivaji”, is still a refrain in many households). Long before he became the theme for Chuck Norris-styled jokes, Rajinikanth won accolades for his acting prowess (think Aarulindhu Arubathu Varai, or Thillu Mullu – the remake of Amol Palekar’s Golmaal). Kamal Haasan is one among the few who has sought to redefine acting in every movie of his. An exception must be made for MGR, whose persona, rather than acting skills, captivated audiences into installing him as chief minister. 

Kollywood’s current big two, thus, find it easy to connect with the audience by imitating any of these actors. In fact, a passing mention to MGR or Rajinikanth is almost a must in many of Vijay’s movies. And not everyone finds that palatable. As actress Khushbu commented in The name is Rajinikanth, the superstar's biography: “These days, whenever I see actors imitate Rajini, I cringe. After all, Rajini is wherever he is after decades of hard work. These actors want to get there in just a few days, after a movie or two.”

The good news is, Thala and Thalapathy are enjoying stardom just as a cycle travels a distance after going down a slope. They have had to reinvent themselves to a large extent in their recent releases (Thuppakki, Kaththi for Vijay; Ennai Arinthaal, Mankatha for Ajith). Other recent flicks that catered solely to their fan-bases (SuraAsal) met an ignominious end at the BO. That no other upcoming actor has managed to command massive followings (not even the next star on the horizon, Surya) means that this momentum is perhaps fizzling out.

Importantly, changing mindsets towards Tamil cinema have played a role, too. Give the audiences a movie with a refreshing story and they will lap it up dutifully. How else can one explain the runaway success of flicks such as the Hitchcockian Thegidi, the laughter riot that was Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanam (that also spawned countless Internet memes)the thrill-a-minute movie Pizza or the industry’s best noir-flick in a long time, Jigarthanda? How else can one explain the new-found fame of its lead actors — Vijay Sethupathy, Ashok Selvan and Bobby Simha? Some movies have gone on to question the ham-handed functioning of the entire film industry (think JigarthandaKathai Thiraikathai Iyakkam Vasanam) — something unfathomable any time in the past.

Why, even the presence of superstar Rajinikanth could not prevent the failure of his last two ventures that were poorly-scripted, Lingaa and Kochadaiyaan

And that bodes well for the Tamil film industry.