Saturday, August 26, 2006

Divinity's tryst with fatalism

We were witness to two very baffling instances of mass hysteria recently. Residents of Mumbai claimed that the water at Mahim Creek, one of the most polluted creeks in India, had suddenly turned sweet. Barely had this event died down that reports appeared that hundreds of thousands of devotees were thronging temples across the country in the belief that statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk.

In a similar case a couple of years ago, a mysterious "monkey man" reportedly attacked people viciously and then disappeared into the dark of the night, never to be sighted by the police. Several people died on the outskirts of Delhi when they jumped off high buildings thinking that the monkey man was after them. The story eventually faded away.

Scientists went hoarse explaining there were no miracles involved in either the Mahim creek or the idols-drinking-milk incidents. They claimed that the dilution of salt can occur when there is heavy, continuous rainfall. Incessant rainfall in Mumbai had led to the Vihar Lake overflowing into Mahim Creek, causing a lower percentage of salty water from the sea. This resulted in a drop in saline levels, hence the sweet water.

With regard to idols drinking milk, scientists offered capillary action as an explanation. They postulate that the surface tension of the milk pulls the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity causes it to run down the front of the statue.

Divine episodes?

These explanations, however, did nothing to reduce the numbers of faithful rushing to Mahim beach/ temples. What was befuddling was the urban spread of these so-called extraordinary events. What is it that fuels this mass hysteria, making otherwise perfectly sane individuals to throw reason to the winds?

To say that this is a manifestation of the rampant illiteracy in our country is to oversimplify the point. True, a large number of devotees might not have held a scientific temper, but the fact remains that the idols-drinking-milk incident spread to all major metropolitan centres and significant numbers of the educated middle class were among those who allowed themselves to get carried away.

Could it be that these so-called divine episodes, akin to what can best be termed a hallucinogenic state (remember, Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses), are a delirious reaction to the mundaneness of life? The common Indian, in the course of his/her daily life, has to juggle nepotism, corruption, poverty, crime, poor housing, lack of potable water and myriad other problems.

In this stressful scenario, society's normal control mechanisms, the space that binds us together in a bond of shared experience, gets neutralised. Which is why, every once in a while, a divine miracle comes along and dissolves our inhibitions against believing in it. We clutch to it with steadfastness, certain in our belief that we are being looked upon. That we are, ultimately, not children of a lesser God, and things will get better one day.

Having a "responsive" God gives us a lever with which to suppress our frustration, our aggression at an apathetic state and a media culture that, at best, skirts grave issues at the altar of fluff. Is it any wonder then that the majority of news channels reported on these incidents by playing along with what the devotees believed, rather than exploring the moral and social vacuum that perpetuated the hysteria in the first place?

Mahim/idols is not a pointer to our superstitious or ignorant outlook. It is a mark of our deeply rooted fatalism.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

KANKing on empty

So, let me not repeat what the entire world's already told you. That Karan Johar has deviated from his usual candyfloss style and given us a movie that explores infidelity in marital relationships. That the movie tries dealing with an issue that Johar is inept, at best, to handle with maturity. That the characters are poorly written and one often wonders what the raison d'etre of their anguish is. That Abhishek is the best performer, and Amitabh's silly flirtations don't do him justice.

Phew! So what could one still say about the movie? Lots, as it turns out. Johar should be lauded for breaking tradition and keeping his promise of never again creating maudlin characters upholding "Indian" values. That said, he fails to truly radicalize his script. What is being touted as landmark is only a slight shift in Bollywood mores, in the aftermath of the success of movies like Murder. It's in no way a tectonic shift in how cinema is perceived and influenced by the society at large.

Where KANK is different is in its climax. The separated stay separated. Not just that, the characters seem to have reconciled to their situation and are looking ahead on a life with new directions. Shah Rukh Khan revealed in a television discussion recently that he would have liked the movie to end with a voiceover that would have taken a bit from the "happily-ever-after" aura of the ending. For one, there is no such aura. Johar introduces a pivotal dialogue in which Dev is shown cribbing about Maya's sari in what is a pointer to a return to the mundaneness of relationships in the aftermath of the dramatic meeting. This was reminiscent of the hospital scene in Johar's earlier Kal Ho Na Ho, in which Shah Rukh is shown mocking Saif for assuming he was dead.

Johar's film is a visual reaffirmation of his own doubts about the institution of marriage. He clearly wished to say more, or at least, in a better fashion, but box office success has forced him to sweeten things a bit. What I would have liked to see in KANK is more anguish, shame at taboo desires, conflict and an overall sadness, the absence of which, given his opulent sets and unnecessarily brought in humor, ensures that the movie fails to really connect with the viewer.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bushwhacking his way to an intellect

So, George Bush picked up The Outsider for his holiday reading. Big deal! The entire world is going gaga over the American President picking up the Bible of absurdist fare. John Mullan is so taken with Bush's choice that he's decided to dedicate an eulogy to the President:

And the president's supporters on the Christian Right will surely be worried to hear of him dabbling in one of the most anti-religious of novels. After he is sentenced, Meursault is visited in his cell by a priest whose consolation he furiously rejects. Camus makes sure we admire his narrator's indignation at the illusions the chaplain peddles.

All this is disturbing proof that George W is not the weird being that we had all liked to suppose. A few months ago, Camus' novel came top in a poll conducted for G2 among male Guardian-reading types, who were asked what book had most influenced them. The Outsider beat off JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five to claim the distinction of the book most likely to have changed their lives. Oh dear. Perhaps, chaps, George is one of us.

Well, well, Bush is, after all, one of us.