Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bungle in the Dangal

Like the rest of India I too - finally - watched Dangal. I laughed a little, cried a little, felt inspired and uplifted. Then, as I walked out of the theatre, I googled ‘real story Geeta Phogat’. As expected, the makers had embellished the original story. To create more tension, more drama. But the journalist in me couldn’t help wondering, “Is this correct?”

Some are relatively minor changes. The real Geeta Phogat had shoulder length hair during the Commonwealth Games. The Geeta Phogat on-screen has symbolically chopped it off. Chalega.

But what about the coach on-screen who is depicted as a complete duffer, an obstacle in Geeta’s path? The real coach was actually a competent fellow and there was no ego clash. What’s more, Geeta Phogat did not fail in all her international outings. And in the final match at the Commonwealth Games 2010, she easily overpowered her Australian opponent 1-0, 7-0 to clinch the gold.

But the poor coach had to become a villain, so that Mahavir Phogat aka Aamir Khan could play the hero. Well, you might say - don’t crib about that. Isn’t it great that an actor of his stature picked up a story like this and made such a great film out of it? It’s all about empowering women and it’s about a sport other than cricket. Bhai thoda bhool-chook maaf.

How does this compare with biopics made in Hollywood? Well, it turns out the accuracy level is as as 41% low in a movie like The Imitation Game (which I quite enjoyed) but a respectable 89.9% in Bridge of Spies (also a great movie). But none of these films is blockbuster mass-market variety, which is what Dangal has achieved.

So I guess in the movie world - anything goes. As long as the larger purpose is served. The real Milkha Singh never looked back during that fateful race nor was Mary Kom in the ring fighting for the world championship while her son was fighting for his life. But the audience lapped it up right - toh phir this is the formula that works. Facts must wrestle with fiction and ultimately... the stronger narrative prevails.

The original story was inspiring enough but now we have the super-inspiring version. This is how myth and legend must be born. Hanuman went to fetch Sanjivani booti for Lakshman. Arey ek chhota sa plant laana kaun si badi baat hai. So some ancient storyteller - predecessor of the modern movie maker - tweaks the story. Now Hanumanji carries back the entire mountain…

Now if only I could use that trick in my next book. And turn some boring young fogey of an entrepreneur into Superman!

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Difficulty of Being Good - in Journalism

I saw a superb movie today called ‘Spotlight’. It’s the true story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper who chased a story which everybody was trying to cover up (as is the case with every great story!). In this case, the villain of the piece was no less than the Catholic Church.

The efforts of the Spotlight team revealed that parish priest John Goeghan had been sexually abusing young boys and girls for close to three decades. What’s worse - he was just one of more then 70 priests who were indulging in such behaviour and getting away with it. With the knowledge of the highest officials in the Catholic Church.

The story was happening right there, in front of everyone’s nose, but people chose not to see it. To bring such stories out of the Cave of Shame and the Cloak of Cover-Up is the dharma of the professional journalist.

The work these reporters did is what we call ‘old-school journalism’. They started with a single lead (Geoghan), then went backward and forward. Found people willing to speak on the record and off the record. Did actual running around and legwork. Finally they got documentary evidence to back it all up (which is always the hardest part)

To do this kind of journalism you need a great editor. Someone who will be your taskmaster and cheerleader - rolled into one. In this case, that editor is Marty Baron. He sets the ball rolling by asking the team to look into the Geoghan case. As they unearth more and more dirt, the editor stands by them, and gently nudges the direction of the investigation.

It’s not enough to focus on the priests, he says. The bigger story is ‘the system’. If the cardinal knew about it and turned a blind eye - now that’s the real crux of the problem.

So the team scrambles to get the crucial evidence which can prove this. Yes, it’s going to take more time. But the editor understands that - a great story is never done in a hurry.

To run such a story you need a publisher with balls of steel. You might lose readers, you might lose advertisers, you might upset powerful people. Well, the Boston Globe ran the story anyway - hats off to them!

Finally, it’s the reporters themselves who get consumed by what they are reporting. They are sad, they are angry, they feel guilty (how could we not know earlier?) These emotions are channeled into the pursuit of the story, the determination to do whatever it takes.

There is also an element of fear - having worked months on this story, what if the rival paper gets a whiff of it and publishes first? That is a professional hazard which keeps reporters on their toes. In the movie (as in many actual newsrooms) the journalists appear to be married to their jobs.

You do it because you want to make a difference. The Spotlight team got that elusive satisfaction which every journalist craves for. The paper went on to publish more than 600 stories about the Catholic Church abuse scandal and hundreds of victims came forward, not just in Boston, but around the United States.

As I watched the events on screen unfold I thought - there are so many stories happening right under our nose, just waiting to be told. But where are the editors with nerves of steel? Where are the publishers with spine? Because when you have these two necessary elements, there will be enough reporters willing to do everything it takes to unearth the story.

At present, journalism - like every other profession - is going through a crisis. Owners of media have decided their customer is not the reader but the advertiser.

What they forget is that without readers - very soon - there will be no advertisers.

So don’t just grumble about how newspaper brands and trusted editorial faces have ‘sold out’. The way to register your protest is to stop buying those newspapers, stop watching those channels.

Stop consuming junk news, which is just as bad for your health as junk food.

For the last one year I have stopped subscribing to newspapers and I have no cable TV connection. I am not ‘missing out’ on anything. In fact, I am much happier starting my day without a heavy dose of paid publicity. And I am certainly much calmer ending my day without the shrill voices of TV debaters ringing in my ears.

It is my contention that if just 50 buildings in Mumbai with residents in ‘SEC A’ category stop patronising the media which they moan about for 6 months- it will have an impact.

Owners will say ‘the market is sending a signal’ and clean up their act.

We will then have reporters chasing the stories which need to be chased.

We will get the journalism we deserve.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Playing your part

I watched the play ‘Wooster and Jeeves - Perfect Nonsense’ at NCPA earlier this evening. The newspapers report this is the first time a ‘major West End production’ is touring Mumbai.

Well, I am guessing that is for two important reasons:

1. P G Wodehouse still enjoys a cult following in India.
2. This production rests on the able shoulders of just 3 actors playing 9 different characters.

The piece de resistance was the scene where the same chap performs as a man and a woman simultaneously (imagine a Victorian style Ardhanarishwara).

I quite liked the play though I think you would enjoy in 2X if you were a Wodehouse junkie in college. There are 4 more performances at the NCPA this weekend - though tickets are expensive (starting at Rs 2000) it is certainly cheaper than going to the West End :)

Years ago, when I was in London for 2 months on a fellowship, I used to buy the cheapest tickets available and watch one show every week. Many of these productions were big-budget, high-end musicals. A couple of years ago I also visited New York and saw some Broadway shows glitzier and more spectacular than anything in London!)

Over the last 6 months I finally got around to watching several plays, right here in Mumbai. I realised the trick is to
1. Buy the ticket on ‘Book My Show’ in advance (then you feel, I must go!)
2. Do not wait for company - a good play can easily be enjoyed alone.

Unlike Broadway or West End, where theatre is an organised industry, in India it’s a ‘trial by fire’. Tickets at Prithvi theatre sell for as little as Rs 150 so it’s clearly not something people are doing for the money. What we lack in spectacle we make up for with sheer passion and acting talent.

In fact, I find some of the plays I like best are the ones where one actor plays several parts, or even all parts. Here are some such productions which I recommend highly:

1. 9 Parts of Desire directed by Lilette Dubey
- a play about the effect of the Gulf war on the lives of Iraqi women. Ira Dubey is brilliant in this one-woman show where she plays 9 different characters. These characters are women who actually existed, from Layal, the artist who survived by painting portraits of Saddam Hussein to Umm Ghada (mother of Ghada) stays in a deserted bomb shelter where her entire family perished. It is a hard-hitting play but not ‘heavy’.

15th & 16th Jan at NCPA Experimental Theatre, 730 pm

2. Kambhakt Bilkul Aurat by Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley Productions - Again, you will see just one actor on stage performing an entire story, with minimal props and sets. That takes real talent! The actors are Heeba Shah, Loveless Mishra (chhutki from Hum Log) and Seema Pahwa (badki from Hum Log)

Of course, the stories themselves are so good - coming from the pen of famed Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai. One of the stories was ‘Lihaaf, for which Ismat was charged with obscenity (she successfully fought and won the case back in 1942!). I do think the story is quite radical even for today - hats off to her!

Keep checking BookMyShow as performances keep happening. If you are lucky you might even catch part 1 of this production called ‘Ismat Aapa ke Naam’ where Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak perform a story each.

3. Einstein by Motley Productions
- Naseeruddin Shah plays Albert Einstein as an old man, reflecting on his life, work and legacy. This play can be quite inspiring for kids, as the stage Einstein talks about how he had speech difficulties and teachers thought he was a difficult child for asking too many questions. In fact, his father was quite keen that he become an electrician!

You also get a glimpse of how tiring it was in later years for Einstein to play the part of a ‘celebrity’. Constantly invited to give interviews and makes speeches - by people who scarcely understood science. It also looks into the guilt which the scientist felt because his work contributed to the making of the atom bomb.

Naseeruddin Shah actually looks like Einstein and only an actor of his calibre could carry off a 75 minute long solo performance. It felt a little bit long but still worth a watch. No show scheduled at present but I am sure it will come back.

While movies get reviewed by hundreds of people, it’s hard to find out which play is worth watching. If you’ve seen something you liked please do share :)

For every 2 movies you watch, I suggest you also watch 1 play. If more of us do that, we might actually have a viable theatre ‘industry’ - right here in Mumbai. Though sometimes I feel we already have a thriving film and television industry. Perhaps theatre should remain that last bastion where passion rules over commerce.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Mirror, mirror on the wall

There are some mornings when I wake up feeling like shit. I know there is only one option before me - which is to ‘snap out of it’.

A psychologist once administered a lengthy test to me, which included staring at inkblots, and pronounced - you have a 'depressive personality'. Meaning I am not, by birth, a shiny happy sunny person. But that doesn’t mean I cannot be happy. It just means I have to consciously work for it.

After experimenting with numerous forms of healing and self-development I have come to one simple conclusion: my state of mind must be in my control. No matter what the circumstances, what the trigger, what the ‘other person said’.

We go to university and get degrees in different subjects but the one area that remains a mystery to most of us - often till the very end - is the human mind. Baar baar bure khayal aate hain… what can I do? As if thoughts are magical beings which dance around in our heads without our consent.

Well, the best way to explain this is that the human mind is like a computer system and thoughts are the software. Many of us have installed faulty software (thoughts which do not serve us well) and hence the system is malfunctioning.

The installation often happened when we were children. We watched our parents and teachers and learnt to be criticise ourselves. We felt alone and unwanted on the playground. We felt ashamed of ourselves. Unworthy of love.

It is amazing how almost every problem in the world can be traced back to the need to be loved and yet feeling - ‘I am not unlovable’. Whitney Houston performed an amazing song called ‘The Greatest Love of All’.

The greatest love of all.. is happening to me.
…learning to love myself.. it is the greatest love of all.

Sadly the singer herself died 25 years in a bathtub after an overdose of cocaine… Obviously struggling with issues of self-acceptance and self-love.

Our modern society, and in particular advertising, is based on the idea that you need to ‘have something’ or ‘do something’ or ‘be a certain kind of someone’ to feel worthy and feel good.

‘Use 7-in-1 Blah Blah Cream because you are imperfect in not 1 but 7 ways’.

‘Eat sugar-free Blah Blah Biscuits because you are ugly and fat’.

‘Buy an expensive handbag with some French guy’s initials on it to be a part of the club’. (the club of people who are insecure about themselves)

Self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-love cannot be bought. You have to create this within yourself,. Through introspection, through awareness and by reprogramming all those faulty programs.

Where can you start? Take out 1 hour each day for your personal self-development. To identify those bugs and to fix them.

There are many ways I can recommend - from yoga and meditation to reiki, panic healing, pranayama - all of which require a certain level of training and commitment.

But if you are willing to at least take a baby step forward I can recommend just 1 method: affirmations.

An affirmation is anything we say or think. A lot of what we say and think is quite negative and does not create good experiences for us… We have to retrain our speaking and thinking into positive patterns if we want to change our lives.

These are the words of Louise Hay which revealed a new way of living to me - several years ago. I understood a piece in the puzzle of ‘what I have to do’ to be happy and stay happy.

Buy the life-changing book ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ by Louise Hay. Read it and do the exercises - what the author calls as ‘mirror work’.

Also access Louise Hay’s free guided meditations on Youtube. My two favourites:

You Can Do It:

Change your Life Forever:

Listen to these at least once a day for 30 days. You could do it while commuting, during lunch hour or even just before going to sleep.

Will things really change? Is it that simple? The truth is things may not change but how you feel inside does change. And that makes your experience of the same world around you very different.

Try it because you deserve it. It’s the best gift you can ever give yourself.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

All that glitters...

This morning @AnantRangaswami, Editor of CNBC Storyboard tweeted: The only display ad in today's @EconomicTimes. Confounded by the media planner. This was what he was referring to:

In fact, I found the choice of media quite clever and tweeted back: @AnantRangaswami @EconomicTimes why confounded. It's the readers of ET (mostly men) who pay for jewellery purchases!

Pick up any in-flight magazine (80% of air travellers are men) and they are full of jewellery advertisements. Each necklace looks like it weighs 3 kilograms and the earrings are nothing less than 1 kg each. You would imagine we are all princesses living in the Mughal era!

The lust for jewellery in the year 2016 is entirely based on 2 factors:

1. The rational motive: To find a parking spot for one’s black money. (a jeweller whom I recently met in Gurgaon shared that 75% of his clients pay cold hard cash and do not want proper bills).

2. The irrational motive: To show one’s status and wealth - although there are many other ways to do that in the modern age.

In fact, at most weddings women are happily wearing absolutely blingy, 100% fake costume jewellery citing security reasons. Aajkal zamaana itna kharab ho gaya hai…

The real thing lies locked up in the bank locker, possibly completely out of date and out of fashion.

I have nothing against jewellery - I too own some heirloom pieces handed down to me at the time of marriage by my mother-in-law. But the important word here is ‘few’.

Buying your daughter or daughter-in-law multiple big fat sets is a waste! Yet every single day you see it happening.

Brides are practical birds after all - if pitaji and sasurji are feeling generous, why to object! Behti noton ki Ganga mein haath dho lo...

Grandmothers often talk of jewellery as stridhan. Well - a gold biscuit is a more sensible form of dhan than a kundan ka haar. Then there are shares and mutual funds. Even property.

But kya karein - we have our traditions.

Actually, I feel that girls from modern Indian families have already received the greatest form of dhan - which is a good education. They are fully capable of buying their own jewellery - the kind they can actually wear everyday.

But no, the act of buying jewellery has been equated with ‘love’ and ‘romance’. Thanks to a modern day advertising success story called De Beers.

If your husband buys you a diamond on your birthday or anniversary - it means he loves you.

Now if he goes for this Tanishq scheme and buys the same diamond at 20% off… it could mean ki unke pyaar mein bhi kuch kami hai ! *wink*

So think before you leap. The most precious jewel a man can give you is his heart. Do you have that or do you just have a collection of stones?

Friday, January 01, 2016

Back where I belong

My New Year Resolution is to start writing again. I mean, do it single-mindedly, dedicatedly, every single day. Whether I ‘feel’ like it or not. Whether I am ‘inspired’ or not. Whether I am ‘tired’ or not.

Because this is what I was born for.

Because this is what keeps me sane.

My target is 3 hours a day - coz it’s best to start with baby steps. Writing would include - books, columns, blogs, maybe even poetry. Depends what comes out of me once I start.

My inspiration for this resolution is Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’. A somewhat preachy but stimulating book on leading the creative life. There’s plenty of pithy advice for every kind of writer and artist - including those still in the closet. But even a published author like me needs reminding. That writing is not about ‘wanting to write’ or ‘planning to write’. It’s about actually writing. A few lines from ‘Big Magic’ which rang true for me:

‘I do not know of any creative soul who does not dream of calm, cool, grass-growing days in which to work without interruption’. (it never happens - you gotta do it in the midst of chaos.).

‘Most things have already been done - but they have not been done by you.’ (yeah - there are pretty much 6 or 7 stories which are told and retold. It’s the voice which makes it fresh/ unique).

‘Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labour… but sometimes it is Fairy Dust’. (what I need to get back to is the discipline and the labour, the fairy dust is a bonus).

So like Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, it’s time to ‘sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self.’

This year I shall flirt with words and seduce ideas… may the fun and games begin!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why Shit Happens

In 2016, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is marooned on the red planet in the Hollywood sci-fi adventure titled ‘The Martian’. There are two possible versions of the future. Version 1.1 – when food and oxygen run out in 212 sols (Martian days) Shri Watney will die. But that’s not the version he chooses to believe.

Mark Watney is an eternal optimist and a ‘take that! Neil Armstrong’ kind of guy.
He says to his webcam, “Maybe I will die, but I not without putting up a fight.” Thus with nothing but his own wits, willpower and determination he figures out a bunch of things nobody has ever done before.

He starts growing food, finds a way to communicate with NASA and stays sane without any human support or company. But it struck me that the stuff Mark Watney did on planet Mars is quite similar to what any entrepreneur must do right here on planet Earth.

When you start a company, you have no company. You are marooned on a planet called ‘My Big Idea’. There is very limited oxygen (read: funding) and even less food (read: paying customers). What sustains the entrepreneur is the will to survive.

On planet Mars, Mark Watney discovers that even his own shit serves some purpose. He uses it to make the red soil fertile and plant potato seeds. When, after many weeks, he sees the first green shoots appear, Watney is thrilled to bits. In India, we call this method ‘jugaad’.

‘The Martian’ is extreme jugaad. Watney is a botanist by training, yet he must now be physicist, chemist and rocket scientist rolled into one. Our astronaut can get some ‘mentorship’ from experts on earth but kaam to usey khud hi karna padega.

But none of this would have been possible if Watney had broken down. Kaise hoga? Nahin hoga blah blah blah blah. The biggest challenge an entrepreneur faces is not in the external environment but within himself. So forget about the ‘ecosystem’, first work on apne andar ka shaitan.

Unlike Mars, this planet offers many escape routes. Cut off those options. Unless you are as desperate as Watney, you won’t be able to look at your own shit and create life from it.

Robinson Crusoe did it 300 years ago on a desert island. Mark Watney did it on a different planet. We can take inspiration from their stories and write our own stories. There is no dearth of ‘planets’ to colonise. Look up in the sky and find the one that speaks to your heart.

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