Friday, May 03, 2019

Democracy and its discontents

Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Kanhaiya Kumar present a coarse populist side

The loudness and coarseness of the Lok Sabha election campaign, as part of democratic denouement, however distasteful, is unexceptionable. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi outflanks the rest of the opposition leaders in loudness and coarseness is not a fall from grace, either of Indian democracy or of Mr Modi. There is an inherent vulgarity in the speech of the demos, the common people, where subtleties and niceties get drowned. Democracy throws up dictators, and in 20th century many of the dictators have been and are democratically elected ones. The popular leader is always a dictator in disguise, and it is only the good sense of the popular leader that keeps dictatorship sheathed.

Democracy gives rise to sophisticated leaders as well as the unsophisticated ones. Jawaharlal Nehru was a sophisticated leader but he was not the norm. Mr Modi is the unsophisticated democrat, a kind of a Jacksonian – Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, who was perceived as barging into the genteel salons of power in Washington from the backwaters of Tennessee with his bare knuckles approach – democrat. It is not necessary to either admire or to give assent to Mr Modi’s underclass belligerence, but his ways cannot be described as undemocratic.

The precedents for Mr Modi’s cultivated rusticity go back to the politics of the socialist firebrand of the 1950s and 1960s, Ram Manohar Lohia. He was a sophisticated man himself, but he threw aside the sophistication and put on the rustic’s mask to identify himself with the common people of the country. Many well-meaning and well-healed folk admired the emergence of leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav as heralds of unsophistication, and they were hailed as symbols of authentic Indian democracy. Mr Modi belongs to this Lohia-inspired constellation, comprising the Yadav leaders. It was V.P.Singh, the Raja of Manda who facilitated the transition to grassroots politics in India by his decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations as an act of defiance when his rickety National Front government was tottering in mid-1990 and the man who had unwittingly dethroned a Nehru-Gandhi prime minister and there has not been one from the family ever since.

The well-meaning well-heeled English-speaking elite rejoiced in the Falstaffian antics of Lalu Prasad Yadav, without examining the virtues of theatric unsophistication. There is not much of a difference between Mr Yadav and Mr Modi in terms of their political vulgarity. They came from two ends of the socialist spectrum, Mr Modi from the rightist end and Mr Yadav from the Leftist end. It is indeed the case that Mr Yadav’s vulgarity was benign while the rightist vulgarity of Mr Modi stokes violent negativity among his listeners and followers. The latest entry into the vulgar club is the former JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, whose wit and eloquence has captivated the hearts of those who once cheered Mr Yadav. Mr Yadav, Mr Modi and Mr Kumar have embraced democratic vulgarity.

Mr Modi and his praetorian guard in the party and in the outgoing government can be accused of bringing down the quality of public debate by turning it into a no-holds barred us-and-them battle where everything is done to trip Congress president Rahul Gandhi from contesting the election while standing solidly with Hindutva zealot Pragya Thakur in the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency.

It is this vulgarity – there is nothing pejorative about vulgarity; the original Latin sense of the  term denotes the ordinary people and the translation of the Bible into Latin by St. Jerome is known as The Vulgate  --  of democracy that repelled Plato, and to an extent Aristotle. Unfortunately, we cannot quote the author of the Arthashastra or some other ancient Indian authority because democracy and its underlying principle of the equal rights of all in the political sphere was not prevalent in old India. It is the privilege of ancient Greece that it bravely experimented with democracy, and aristocrats like Plato did not hesitate in expressing their repulsion for its vulgar ways. It is often overlooked that it is Athenian democracy that tried Socrates for corrupting the minds of the city’s youth by criticizing the Homeric gods. In his personal political testament, so beautifully outlined in the Seventh Letter, Plato explains his inability to be part of the political scene of his day because of erratic tyrants who would not listen to him on the one side and the factionalism that dominated Athenian politics on the other, and he could not bring himself to play the intellectually unacceptable game of partisan politics. Aristotle was solidly middle class and felt that democracy – he called it polity --  is good because the clash of views among the many is better than the tyrannical sway of the views of the few. But he too did not like what he called the deviant form – he called it democracy -- which spelled the tyranny of the masses.

The haute bourgeoisie’s discomfort and dislike for Mr Modi’s vulgar politics is comparable to the horror felt by the aristocratic class in England after the Second Reform Act of 1867 which extended the voting right to the lower middle classes. There is no likelihood of Indian democracy getting back to the imagined salon decencies of the past. The coarseness and loudness is here to stay with or without Mr Modi and his friends around. In a distant future, when India becomes an advanced economy and prosperity levels improve, there could be a gentler dialogue among the politicians of diverse hues. Even in the United States, the democratic dialogue has slumped to a deplorable low with President Donald Trump unleashing belligerence in his 2016 campaign not seen since post-Civil War Yankee days. The middle class must accept the good as well as the bad that is inherent in democracy. It cannot always be ideal and decent. It turns loud and coarse. In other words, vulgar.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Future of Chandrababu Naidu’s dream city hinges on the poll outcome

Amaravati, an ungainly construction site now, is caught in the coils of the political struggle for power between Telugu Desam Party and the YSR Congress Party

A strange argument being offered by some of the people in Andhra Pradesh after the April 18 polling for the assembly and Sabha elections in the state is that perhaps outgoing chief minister and Telugu Desam Party chairman N. Chandrababu Naidu needs to be brought back to power for the new state capital, Amaravati, to be completed. There is a sense of uncertainty whether Naidu’s main rival, Jaganmohan Reddy, president of the Yuva Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), has the experience and dedication to see through the completion of the new city, which is being built in the fertile farmlands on the flood plains of River Krishna, between the cities of Vijayawada and Guntur. The farmers have been given generous terms for surrendering the land for the dream urban project, and they have also been allotted plots in the upcoming city apart from the generous price paid for the farmland that has been got from them.

It is interesting that the future of the city-in-the-making has been linked to the electoral fate of the chief minister and serious discussion centres round whether Reddy, Naidu’s main rival, will be able to fulfil the task of completing the capital. There is apprehension that Reddy may want to shift the capital to Kadapa, his home district in the sub-region of Rayalaseema. On the face of it, it seems that it may be difficult to shift the site of the capital because Rayalaseema does not have a perennial water source like River Krishna. Though the river has been made to flow through the drought-prone region as Telugu Ganga, a dream irrigation project that took wing during TDP-founder and charismatic matinee idol-turned- politicians N.T.Rama Rao’s first chief ministerial term in 1983. It was also meant to provide water for Chennai.

Taxi-driver Srikanth, 40, with two children, makes himself out to be a neutral observer of the rival claims of Naidu and Reddy. Citing Telugu television news channel debates, he says that Naidu who is nearing 70 will not be able to run around as much as he did, and therefore Reddy, who is younger, should get a chance to run the show. He also points out that there is no second rung of leaders in TDP, and speculates that film actor-turned-politicians Pawan Kalyan, who is fighting the election under the banner of his own party, Jana Sena, could possibly be the next big leader in the state if his party manages to win about 15-17 seats in this assembly election. As the difference in the number of seats between the TDP and YSRCP is going to be narrow, then Kalyan could emerge as the ‘king-maker’. Kalyan had set up the party in 2014, and he was part of the TDP-BJP alliance in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections that year.  He has now pitted himself against his former alliance partners as well as against Reddy’s YSRCP. 

Srikanth is acutely aware that there has been no growth in the state in the last five years, and that when the new capital is completed, then the opportunities would arise. He explains that right now Vijayawada, which is his birthplace as well as the base of his operations, is much too small to generate jobs and to enable expansion of business.

Auto-rickshaw driver Mastan Rao, who is from Gudur, 276 kms from Vijayawada, and settled in Vijayawada for 30 years, says the only thing  that has happened after the formation of the new state of Andhra Pradesh, has been the phenomenal increase in house rentals in Vijayawada because there is no housing as yet in Amaravati, and that there has been no increase in wages/salaries/earnings. He points out that he is forces to spend about Rs 3000 per child per month for fees and other things, which is a huge burden. Agrees Srikanth, and he says that he is able to cope with the burden of the high costs of school education because his wife is employed too. Mastan Rao is in favour of Naidu getting a second term to put the state on an even keel.

Amaravati is right now a huge construction site as it should be. As I go around the Secretariat campus with its six five low-roof, American-type buildings with airc-conditioned facilities, and clicking pictures of the well-laid out pathway, the central park with its fountain, and the installation of a two-bullocks-drawn cart laden with grain bags and a woman and her daughter sitting atop with the man standing in front, it has the appearance of a private sector corporate campus. One of the security men tells me that this is a temporary facility of the secretariat, and the permanent structure is coming up about 10 km away. I ask him how long will it take the permanent buildings of the secretariat to come up? He smiles and says that the foundations have been just dug, and that there is no money to continue with the construction. It is only after the elections, that work will resume and that too after the money has been arranged for it. 

I find my way to the High Court building, which is the only other building which is functioning. The Supreme Court has earlier bifurcated the High Court of Telangana-Andhra Pradesh. There is a tent across the road from the building, where the cars of the honourable judges of the court are parked, and behind them lawyers and their clients sit in plastic chairs because there is as yet no place inside the building. Prasada Rao SVS, a High Court advocate, says that the court is functioning at 60 per cent of its capacity. We are also told that this again is a temporary building, and the High Court will have a permanent structure along with others in the heart of the capital which will come up over the next few years. And he wryly points out, “It is usually the case that a court building comes up when a town is ready. Now, a town will come up around the court building.

There are spaciously wide roads leading to and away from the court even as other buildings are under construction. The capital-to-be is a huge construction site which is as it should be. But the future of Amaravati hinges on the outcome of the Lok Sabha and state legislative assembly elections. Whether it is Naidu or Reddy in the state, or whether it is Modi or whoever else at the Centre, Amaravati’s future is closely tied to the fortunes of the political leaders. The city to be completed needs infusion of huge investments, public and private, for it to emerge as the smart, modern city, a la Singapore, that Naidu wants it to be.

Another 20 kms away lies the old town of Amaravati, where once the famous Buddhist chaitya or prayer hall existed, and whose famous frieze showing scenes from the Buddha’s life is now in the British Museum, and the Buddhist structure now houses a Shiva temple. The added glory of the old Amaravati and the future glow of the unbuilt city lie uneasily next to each other.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sense of the mandate

Congress and the BJP can never hope to dominate Karnataka

Forming the government after an election is a necessary part of the democratic process, but it is not sufficient. What is called the mandate, or what the people want or prefer, cannot be pushed under the carpet because it comes back like a bad penny at the next election. Karnataka’s fractured verdict, and it is one because even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its 104 seats has fallen short of the minimum majority, the simple majority. But the BJP leaders, like those in the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), have chosen to be silent about it. Had they managed to rustle up those eight or nine seats which they needed to form the government, they would have continued their silence on what the mandate meant. There is little doubt that the combined figures of Congress and the JD (S) helps cross the magic line of the minimum majority, and despite their 58.6 percentage of the vote share as opposed to the BJP’s 36 per cent, they do not have the mandate. One can pretend that in the context of the exigency of forming the government, it is futile to look at the niceties of the mandate, which is clearly negative in the case of JD (S). And given the electoral system of first-past-the-post, the Congress is straining credibility when its leaders argue that they have the popular mandate.

Whatever the politicians and the pundits may think, the people are not going to let the parties forget this issue of the mandate. When elections are held the next time round, it is quite likely that those who presumed that they have been mandated to rule will be punished. The BJP will make up the deficit in the next round. The JD (S) will not be able to better its position because it has managed to form the government, and the Congress’ numbers will not improve either. There is a parallel to this in the national politics, from 1996 to 1999. The BJP was the single largest party in three of the Lok Sabha elections, though its vote percentage was at best modest. In 1996, the BJP had 161 seats (20.29 per cent of popular vote) to Congress’ 140 seats (28.80 per cent) and Janata Dal’s 46 seats (8.08 per cent). It was inevitable that then BJP’s prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed in his attempt to form the government, and we witnessed the second largest party, the Congress with 140 seats supporting the JD with its leader H.D.Deve Gowda as the prime minister. The anomaly could not be sustained. In 1998, BJP fared better with 182 seats (22.59 per cent) to the Congress’ 141 seats (25.82 per cent) and the Janata Dal was reduced to 6 seats (3.24 per cent). The BJP led the National Democratic Alliance to form the government. After the Congress brought down the Vajpayee government in 1999 by a single vote, the BJP returned with the same number of seats as before, 182 and with a barely improved vote percentage – 23.75. Congress was reduced to 114 seats but with an improved percentage – 28.30. The Janata Dal had split into JD (Secular) which was reduced to 1 seat (0.91 per cent) and the JD (United) to 21 seats (3.10 per cent).

A close look at the Karnataka assembly election results over the decades shows a certain pattern, with the Congress retaining a strong foothold even when it lost elections. For example, in the 1983 assembly elections, the party had 82 seats (40.89 per cent) to Janata Party’s 95 (38.21 per cent). And in the 1985 election, the Janata Party’s unmistakable triumph under Ramakrishna Hegde for a second time with 139 seats (47.62 per cent), the Congress had 65 seats (41.03 per cent). And in 1989, Congress came back with 179 seats (44.2 per cent), with Janata Party reduced to two seats (11.68 per cent) and Janata Dal winning 24 seats (28.86 per cent). But in the 1994 assembly election, Congress crashed to 34 seats (27.36 per cent) and Janata Dal won a handsome 1115 seats (34.02 per cent).

The BJP’s story in Karnataka is interesting and instructive. In 1983, the party had won 18 seats (16.21 per cent), was reduced to two seats (7.59 per cent) in 1985, got four seats (7.70 per cent) in 1989. It improved its position tremendously in 1994 when it won 40 seats (17.05 per cent), and in 1999 it won 44 seats (30.99 per cent). It won 79 seats (31.68 per cent) in 2004 and 110 seats (33.93 per cent) in 2008, before it went down to 40 seats (20.07 per cent) in 2013.

All the three parties – the Congress, BJP and the JD (S) – are now permanent players in the state politics. It would be wrong to believe that if BJP is able to form a government in the state, then it turns into a permanently saffron state as it had happened in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Despite the rhetorical bombast of BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress is a force to reckon with the state politics. And it is true of the BJP and the JD (S) as well. The JD (S) will be a permanent third in the political league of state unless it is able to recover its pre-split Janata Dal vote of 1994. Karnataka cannot be reduced to a bipolar polity though both Congress and the BJP would prefer it.

So, how do we make sense of the mandate in this context? The BJP has failed the test because the other parties together have larger number of seats, and their combined vote percentage is a statistical frill and nothing more. The presence of the third party makes it difficult for the other two major parties to play the bully. In many ways, the Karnataka scenario replicates itself across the country, where the presence of third parties keeps the arrogance of the Congress and BJP on the leash.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

IT sector hovers in mid-air

Information Technology (IT) export earnings are what keep India going. It is India’s face abroad and the country is proud of the vibrant IT sector. The 2016-17 Reserve Bank’s annual survey on computer software and information technology enabled services exports gives a general picture how the sector, which is what makes the India a big player in the world, is faring in terms of the services it offers and the dollars it fetches in turn. There are of course illusions among politicians and spin-doctors that IT exports make India a major global economic power, which is not really the case. The survey reveals that India is among the top Information and Communication Technology (ICT) exporters, that it is ahead of China, Ireland and France, close to Germany, and far behind United Kingdom and the United States. India is exactly in the middle of the IT exporters pecking order.

In 2016-17, India’s software exports brought in a net invisible surplus of $97.1 billion (71 per cent), and it helped in reducing the current account deficit of $112.4 billion to $15.3 billion. But where do these earnings come from? They come by way of computer services (69.2 per cent) and Information Technology-enabled services (30.8 per cent). The computer services segment accounts for 66 per cent of the earnings and software product development has a share of 3.2 per cent. In the ITes segment, 23.7 per cent is accounted by the business process outsourcing (BPO) and engineering services contribute 7.1 per cent of the share. There has been encouraging improvement in terms of software product development and engineering services, but earnings from those segments are still small. The Indian IT sector stands at the lower end of the value chain, and though its dollar earnings provide ballast to the crucial foreign exchange cushioning, it would be an exaggeration to call India an IT superpower. India is the IT service hub of the world, but it is not the leader in the sector in terms of spearheading technology with its brainpower.

In terms of the industry, BPO services corner the share of 76.8 per cent and engineering services 23.2 per cent within the sector. Within the larger BPO services, the share of customer interaction services is 5 per cent, which is half of what it was in 2012-13 (10.9 per cent), financing and accounting, auditing, book-keeping and tax consultancy services is 10.3 per cent. Segments like medical transcription (0.8 per cent), HR administration (0.6 per cent), content development, managing and publishing (0.8 per cent) reveal diversification but not significantly so. Similarly, on the engineering services side, product design engineering (electronics and mechanical) has a share of 7.7 per cent

Experts are aware where India stands in the IT league table, and there are attempts to improve the position by increasing the share in software product development and in engineering services. A change can also be seen in the profile of the companies dominating the sector. In 2012-13, the public limited companies dominated the scene with a 64.6 share of the sector’s space, with the private limited companies occupying 35.3 per cent of the share. That is the big companies with a larger shareholder base were the lead players, though the small companies existed. In 2016-17, the private limited companies increased their share to 49. 2 per cent, while the public limited companies’ space shrunk to 50.3 per cent. This marks a major change in the profile of the sector. It means that there are more players, and the smaller players have almost an equal share of the IT business along with the big ones. It also means that those employed in the sector get lesser pay and the jobs are also insecure because the private limited companies operate on tight and stringent budgets. The low wage bill of the private limited companies keeps the Indian IT sector competitive. It is estimated that the total work workforce directly employed in the IT sector stood at 40 lakhs or 4 million, while those indirectly employed stood at 1.3 crore or 10.3 million in 2017. The IT sector should be expanding and growing in terms of technology upscaling, but India is not the leader in this field.

IT sector will generate disproportionate foreign exchange earnings compared to its capacity to create jobs. India’s growth story cannot depend on IT alone. Policy-makers recognize it and they have been flailing their hands desperately to boost manufacturing and agriculture. Due to unavoidable reasons, India is unable to find a way out of the logjam in the primary and secondary sectors. The Indian economy looks like a skyscraper standing on stilts. Not an assuring sight.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Knotty issues in history of Marx

A slightly

A slightly modified version has been published in The Times of India (May 11, 2018)

He was not the global icon he became after the Bolshevik Revolution

The eulogies for Karl Marx on his bicentenary (1818-2018) and elegies for communism will be the order of the day. They are deserving. There would have been no Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)(1917-91) of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin and successors, there would have been no People’s Republic of China of Mao Zedong, no Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh and Cuba of Fidel Castro without Marx and Engels’ clarion call for a revolution in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. The mid-19th century Manifesto was the mantra of revolutions in the 20th century. (At the time of writing of the manifesto, Marx was a few months short of his 30th birthday and Engels was 27. The manifesto did not have any impact on the revolutions that had erupted all over Europe that year, all of which had failed. Historian Lewis Namier had described them as the “revolution of the intellectuals”.) It was not surprising that Marx and his intellectual collaborator Friedrich Engels became demigods across the Third World.

The irony cannot be overlooked that Marx and Engels did not attain cult status in England where Marx lived in exile for 30 of his 65 years in England and spent a large part of that time in the Reading Room of the British Library poring over the reports of the factory inspectors and the Factory Acts that were enacted by the British parliament in the 1830s. (The first Factory Act 1833 prohibited the employment of children below the age of nine in factories, those between the ages of 9-13 were to work for nine hours, and those between 13 and 18 for 12 hours, and a two-hour daily compulsory schooling. The Factory Act of 1844 extended the rules that applied to children to women.)

The ideas of Marx and Engels did not have much sway in the politics of western Europe or in the United States of America, the core capitalist countries. It was politicians and theorists – yes, there was such a combination in 19th century Europe – like Louis Blanc and Auguste Blanqui in France, Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany who played a significant role in pushing forward the socialist agenda. The socialist legislation carried out by Bismarck, an example of state socialism – in the 1880s – was due to Lassalle’s influence over the conservative leader. The trade unions too emerged in the second half of the 19th century as a response to the emergence of an expanded industrial economy and the large industrial working class that was a necessary part of it. Marx and Engels were stern critics of all varieties of socialism and trade unionism.

Marx had a devout following and he seemed to have been irritated by it, and he was forced to say that he was not a Marxist. Engels was the chief among the followers of Marx. There were enough in Marx’s camp in the factional feud that took place at the First International, which was the first meeting of the International Working Men’s Association dominated by French and British trade unionists. The clash was between the followers of Joseph-Pierre Proudhon, of Auguste Blanqui, of Mikhail Bakunin and of Marx. There was a split in the First International in 1872 at its conference at The Hague. The First International was moved to New York, apparently nudged by Marx, to escape the influence of the followers of Bakunin, but it was disbanded in 1876 at its conference at Philadelphia. The anarchists held sway over the First International in Europe till 1881 when it ceased to exist.

Though Engels could be called the first commentator or exegete of Marx, it seems that it became institutionalised in the Soviet Union. The official version emerged. But there were Marxists before the Soviet era, like George Sorel in the 1890s, Paul Laforgue, Marx’s son-in-law and a co-founder of the French workers’ party, Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the founders of Social Democratic Party in Germany, and Georgi Plekhanov of the Russian Social Democratic Party. And of course, V.I.Lenin, the Russian √©migr√©. We have Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht of the German communist party in the immediate aftermath of the First World War who were avowed Marxists. There were also the much-reviled revisionists, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, German theoreticians who broke with Marxist orthodoxy very early.

It is after the Second World War that followers of Marx felt that the master was misinterpreted by the Soviets and tried to retrieve him. And in the 1970s it led to French theoretician Louis Althusser positing a younger, romantic Marx as opposed to a mature, scientific Marx, something that was mooted by Bernstein even when Marx was alive. Bernstein called it the immature and mature phases. There was also an attempt to re-invent Marx as a sociologist during the same period.

Despite fluctuations in the intellectual fortunes of Marx, quite a few on the Left everywhere seem to persist in the belief that his critique of capitalism is invaluable and powerful. It looks more powerful than invaluable in retrospect. The reading of the first volume of Das Kapital, even in English translation (originally written in German as was the Manifesto)), remains an interesting experience as you come across a quotation from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, where the protagonist denounces gold in a soliloquy. What is lacking in clarity in Marx is made up through passion.  It seems to be the case that it is his passionate argumentation more than logical rigour that keeps his text alive. He however believed that he was dispassionately dissecting capitalism. His economics became antiquated even as he published his first volume in 1867, and his philosophy remained in the shadow of Hegel. Many of the ardent Marxists, in and outside academia, are now invoking Hegel as a means of understanding Marx better. Marx is struck in the historicist groove and scientific socialism cannot extricate him out of it.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Blackmail (2018) a bad movie made with good intentions

Perhaps, bad movies are good because you try to unravel the mystery of why the movie was bad. You are trying to find out reasons. And a bad movie sometimes reminds you of other bad movies you have seen. So when I saw Abhinay Deo-directed Blackmail at Rivoli in a crowded upper stall -- the lower stalls were empty --it reminded immediately of two other bad movies -- Juari of 1968 starring Shashi Kapoor, Tanuja, Madhavi, Nanda and directed by Suraj Prakash, who had also made the successful Jab, Jab Phool Khile starring Shashi Kapoor and Nanda in 1965 and Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading (2008). Of course, there are some mindless admirers of Coen brothers' movies and they would be offended immensely if I were to class Burn After Reading along with Blackmail as a mindless movie. The reason I lump these movies together is because there seems to be a lot happening in them and each scene makes sense in itself though it does not connect with the other scenes. Each scene promises that the film could turn out to be a good one but the other scene which passes muster in itself again raises hope and so all the hopes raised by each of the scenes is left hanging in the air.  It could be argued that this kind of a splintered movie experience offers an aesthetic pleasure of its own. It really does not however much one tries to do it.
Abhinay Deo, son of veteran character actor Ramesh Deo, has been praised by the cognoscenti for his Delhi Belly (2011), which I did not see and which I think I would not have liked if I had seen it, promises a dark, intense and complicated movie in Blackmail and fails to deliver on the promise. Something like that other much talked-about Iranian movie, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman (2016).which was bad. Blackmail disappoints because it had competent players in Irrfan Khan, Divya Dutta and Kirti Kulhari but their roles are reduced to those of caricatures, lacking in dignity and meaning. Deo's tries to turn Blackmail into a black farce and it does not work. He seems to have been carried away by the cleverness of the plot and loses the plot of good film-making, which needs a good story, that is with a story that has a credible sequence, and characters which provoke curiosity as well as respect. The characters in a movie cannot be treated as pawns or props to be moved around at the director's whim and pleasure even as the director is absorbed in the maze of the plot. It is a good thing that Abhinay Deo took the risk of making Blackmail into a bad movie because he was experimenting with idea and plot.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

L'Enfance du Mal (2010), or Sweet Evil, a twisted, convoluted tale of misandry told with admirable brevity

This is a French film, and therefore the unexpected is to be expected. There is the delinquent under-aged teenager, who cleverly traps a wanderer, a fellow-teenage conspirator and boyfriend and an overaged judge. She has a sad story to tell, especially to the judge and his wife, which changes in details. The judge believes in law and rules, and he is aware that all that one can do while delivering a judgment is to be as fair as possible. His wife is the daughter of a clockmaker and she fixes clocks and she is a member of an association which fights for the rights of women. There is the usual sense of European loneliness beneath the orderly life in the judge's house and the teenage intruder causes enough ripples right from the beginning. The girl's mother is in prison. The girls wants to get her out.
Director Olivier Coussemacq handles the narration with great dexterity. It is supple and there are moments of psychological violence which are kept on leash.
Anais Demoustier plays the role of the young girl, Celine, Pascal Greggory is the judge and Ludmila Mikael, the judge's wife. It is the tense interactions among the three that holds this 120-minute plus movie. There is also an underlying theme of misandry but a triumphant one at that. At each stage, the girl outguns the men through sheer cunning and subterfuge. This is indeed the interesting part of the movie. But it is never out in the open. One can infer it only after seeing the movie and ponder over it.
It is a crime thriller in one sense, but there is the complexity of the social situation, the war of the classes and the sexes.
This movie was shown at the Bombay International Film Festival in 2010, and it has done the festival circuit, including Karlovy Vary. 

Democracy and its discontents

Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Kanhaiya Kumar present a coarse populist side The loudness and coarseness of the Lok Sabha...