Monday, January 31, 2011

The Awards Tsunami

In 1988 Bharatanatyam dancer Sudharani Raghupathy was sitting on the roadside in Karnataka sipping tea, a day after her performance. Her van had broken down and the mechanic was on his way. The teashop owner recognized her face from the photo in the morning newspaper. “are you Sudharani Raghupathy? I am honoured to meet a Padmashri.” That was how this dedicated dancer was told about her national honour. She was 44 years old. When she returned to her Mylapore home it was to a room full of telegrams and flowers. There was not a murmur about her merit and talent.
Over the past ten years, the Padma awards have ceased to reflect the intended patina of honour. For one, the net has been widened to include the fields of business, medicine and public service. While this is certainly commendable, the honouring of film stars who have done nothing for the medium is only devaluing the award. Rekha, the eternal diva, was honoured as late as last year along with film brat Saif Ali Khan! Both received the Padma Shri. Many times the list includes those who are in their nineties and often unable to stand or walk to receive the award from the President of India. Like RK Srikantan who is now 92 years old and finally recognized for his superb contribution to Carnatic music.
This year the inclusion of design guru Dasrath Patel for the Padma awards was bittersweet since Patel had passed away 9 weeks earlier to the announcement on Republic Day. Obviously nobody in the Home Ministry bothered to check on the names after they had been cleared.
Remember the furore last year over controversial NRI hotelier Sant Chatwal receiving the Padma Bhushan? Was that really deserved? Were there other pressures involved? The Padma awards are not supposed to be mentioned, according to the Supreme Court declaration, as a title in visiting cards and stationery. That does not stop many awardees from printing this national honour in bold letters on any given opportunity.
Through the RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, the complete list of more than 1000 names who were nominated for the Padma awards this year was available to all. The list revealed the huge disparity in collating the so called “deserving” individuals for the various Padma honours. A 35 year old Carnatic singer was competing with an 80 year old Bharatanatyam dancer. Fortunately the dancer received the award this year. Lobbying and jockeying for awards has become so common that some dancers and musicians are inviting former awardees as chief guests to their functions and gifting them with gold jewellery in return for the award.
Tamilnadu government’s recent list of state awards called the KALAIMAMANI, also reveals discrepancies. Kollywood starlets like Anushka and Tamannah receive the award alongside veterans like actor Revathy Sankkaran and theatre director Prasanna Ramaswamy! And to top it all, two committee members on a national government cultural department gave themselves awards while selecting others! Only in India can we see such blatant conflict of interest. It is like the wife directs a play, her daughter acts in it and her husband writes about the event in the media. The public reads this and actually believes the report to be objective and unbiased!
While awards, like life, can never satisfy everyone and be totally just, it is only fair that we as citizens of a democracy can expect to admire true achievers who have distinguished themselves in their chosen field of endeavour and enhanced India’s profile in the world. Not upstarts and publicity junkies who play the game and masquerade temperament for talent!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The recent viewing of the film NO ONE KILLED JESSICA reminded me of the challenges of translating an an acutual incident onto celluloud. The sensational night when model/bartender Jessica Lal was shot by a boorish politician’s ‘beta’ fired the imagination of India on and off for seven years. The portrayal of the actual night of the shooting with the owner of the resto-bar, socialite Bina Ramani and her daughter Malini Ramani , was quite different from the actual flow of events. The mother was portrayed like distracted floozy and the daughter, a self righteous bimbette. Was that accurate? Knowing the mother, I can say that it was not like feisty Bina Ramani I used to know in New York in the last century. But that was life and this, before me, was the film.
How many biopics or incidents actually capture the person or the event truthfully? The answer is a paltry few. RAY, on the musician Ray Charles, WALK THE LINE on American country music sensation Johnny Cash, ALI on boxer Muhammad Ali are some sterling examples. Closer to home, NAYAKAN on the Mumbai don Varadaraj Mudaliar, BANDIT QUEEN on the explosive Phoolan Devi, Sivaji Ganesan’s VEERAPANDI KATTABOMMAN and the multiple award winning GANDHI(although made by British director Richard Attenborough) are some of the excellent films inspired by real events and people. Several others plummet into the chasm due to a deadly cocktail of misplaced reverence and self indulgent ego.

In the case of GANDHI, Attenborough recounts the resistance in actually portaying the Mahatma as a flesh and blood person. The groupies wanted him portrayed as a FLAME ! “A bloody flame!” as Attenborough exclaimed in a TV interview. Imagine if the shrill screams of intolerance were able to silence the brilliance of Ben Kingsley and the now iconic film that continues to inspire a new generation of young Indians.
Generally, we Indians are weak at writing and filming biographies. How many truly honest self reflexive books have we read authored by icons of our times? In the world of performing arts, I can honestly say that most autobiographies are merely hagiographies. The unnecessary attitude of hallowed worship misses the human side of the artiste. Rare examples are RUKMINI DEVI by Leela Samson, CHANDRALEKHA by Rustom Barucha and AE MOHABBATEIN by Rita Ganguly on singer BEGUM AKHTAR are three exceptions where the human side of this renaissance triad was shared, warts and all.
We are also brittle when an outsider attempts to capture the essence of any of our great epic traditions. Many of you may not recall the superb 9 hour stage adaptation of the Mahabharata by British director Peter Brook which launched dancer Mallika Sarabhai’s international career. In 1986 I watched the production in New York city at the transformed Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was, in one word – breathtaking- in imagination, scale and performance. When the production attempted to tour India, a maelstrom of protest began. How could Bhishma Pitamaha be a dark African actor? How dare Sri Krishna speak with a French accent? Bhima from Burkina Faso? Impossible! Never! Nobody should be addressed by their names – Only Arya Putra or Aryaa Putri ! And the outrage continued until the entire tour was called off to our disappointment and dusgust.
So, while watching the glossed over incident on the night of Jessica Lal’s fatal shooting in what was otherwise a fairly good film, I walked out the movie theatre wondering why the bungled cover up by Bina and Malini Ramani after the killing and so many other actual TEHELKA- revealed facts were never mentioned. But that may not have made for a sensational sex hungry, headlines grabbing TV journo Rani Mukherjee character.
And so it goes.. from Real life to Reel life..

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The recent furor over the techno-meddling with the skin tones of Aishwarya Rai, Beyonce Knowles for Western magazine shoots has re-launched the age old argument about colour. When Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister in the beloved epic The Ramayana, is shown using fairness creams in a television ad, we realize that the stigma of an’ Indian’ skin tone that is brown in any form is actually considered a handicap or a weakness. Look at the matrimonial ads for “fair”, “light complexion” as if they are trophy points for a bride or a groom. Fairness creams and skin lightening products is a multi billion dollar industry and the subject of feminist ire and scholarship.
For the West, black may be beautiful for political correctness but the actresses who have succeeded in white-dominated Hollywood are those who resemble their Caucasian colleagues. Halle Berry, Rihanna, Whitney Houston, are all beautiful-yes but with aquiline noses and gently sloping chins. No hint of any African ancestry evident. All their endorsements show them with lighter skins than what is theirs naturally. When Monique of generous proportions won the Oscar for her supporting role in the disturbing film “Precious”, she was featured in VOGUE magazine with considerably lightened skin, causing a major racial uproar in the US.
In the world of performing arts, especially dance, the same rule applies. If you are light skinned with an international body type- slim, long limbs, lean torso- chances are that western presenters will choose you as their Asian Barbie Doll. If you are brown toned, then you MUST be of perfect body shape. No Indian Ajanta hips and Chola breasts. Yuck! Please be uber slim and’ exotic looking’. Look at Freida Pinto! She is poised to vault over beauteous Ash because of her size zero body size.
I am also no stranger to this subconscious prejudice. This time from the other end. As a Tamizh woman, I am often asked with amazement if I am “puuure Tamil” by people from the North AND the South. I was overlooked by the government some years ago to represent Tamilnadu at a major outdoor event, citing my light skin colour and “upper class looks”. Huh?.
Which brings me to the tyranny of the Western ‘optic’. All Asian women, or women of colour need to subscribe to the ruthless mono culture ‘gaze’ of the euro centric gatekeepers. A strong, outspoken Asian woman is not as welcome in performance spaces compared to the demure, adorned bride/dancer type. For the West, all Asian women are “geisha babes” and all Asian men are kung fu fighting Jackie Chans. We cannot wait until the Euro-centric gaze changes to accommodate all our differences and exciting individualities. We just have to go out and break down those barriers and claim our space. Until we do that, we will always cower beneath our beautiful brown tones in embarrassment.