The Billion Dollar Tamasha

America. The greatest democracy in the world. Or so they claim. But being ‘murica, they don’t stop at claiming. They want to prove it. So they hold a pageant every four years. A carnival of democracy and all it entails. It goes on for almost two years, and affects how the government functions, how they react to crises and what Americans watch on TV. They call it the Presidential Campaign, and it’s already on in full swing. Here’s an early overview.

First off, this campaign is for the president who will take oath in 2017. And it already been on for a few months. In fact there have already been TV debates and tens of not hundreds of millions collected and spent. And we are not even close to deciding who will contest the election. We are just trying to decide the candidates.

Hillary Clinton

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be easy. It was going to be Clinton v/s Bush. Just like old times. Hillary Clinton was called the “presumptive Democratic nominee” for a long time. Till Bernie Sanders happened. Never heard of him? Neither had

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

Americans. He came with Socialist tattooed on his chest, railing against the business, and soon the left wing of Democratic Party, unhappy with the pro-business Clintons, bent their knees and elected him their Pope, or Czar, or

whatever those guys think is next to God. He’s worryingly close to Clinton in polls and the aura of inevitability is all but gone.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares "You're fired!" at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 17, 2015.  REUTERS/Dominick Reuter      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1GZCO
Donald Trump

And if left wing populism has disrupted Democrats, right wing populism has devastated the republican race. The leader of the pack is currently Donald Trump. Best known for being tacky, tasteless and rude in reality shows. Yes. He’s a reality star, and super rich because his dad was. He’s like older, American Rahul Mahajan. And he’s super racist and not afraid to show it. He has no consistent policy other than being anti-immigration. His biggest promise is to build a wall all along the Mexican border. And he’s leading by a healthy margin for most of the time the campaign has been on.

Ben Carson

His closest competitor is Ben Carson. A neurosurgeon. He was practically unknown and never considered a contender. Till he started breathing fire against Trump. And their fiery exchange has put them at the top. Lost in the little league are the former stalwart governors like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Rick Parry. And then there is the super successful Tech CEO Carly Fiorina. All with single digit support. Looking at each other and wondering what happened. The republican base that used to reward experience is now rewarding drama.

republican-fieldOh there’s the Oh-So-Not-Indian Bobby Jindal too, but no one cares about him. Even without him, though, this must all seem familiar to Indian audience. The dynasty politics, playing to vote banks, and mindless populism. This is an electorate so tired of business as usual that they are willing to stake their future to someone who just talks about bringing a “new kind of politics”. Just that phrase is sometimes enough for rational, sober people to abandon caution and take a bet. In India this has happened repeatedly via the many socialist coalitions elected in center and various states. Never remember it ending well. But when this happens in US, the effects are felt on a global scale.

So imagine Rahul Mahajan or Arvind Kejriwal as the proverbial “most powerful person in the world”. In fact the “safe” options are either the wife of a former president, or a guy with two presidents in his immediate family. That feels familiar too, right?

The “greatest democracy” has become the greatest carnival of democracy. If that doesn’t make you take interest, nothing will.

Our Lives, Their Permission: The Legacy of DDLJ

More than “Raj, नाम तो सुना ही होगा”, more than “señorita”, even more than “आओ, आओ”, the dialogue that defines Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is “जा, सिमरन जा, जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी”.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The eternal Bollywood blockbuster, second only to Sholay, if at all. A film way ahead of its times…. or was it?

It did start a decade long domination of romantic comedies, of Punjabi wedding songs, of family gatherings and of course of a Shahrukh Khan with his hands outstretched. It also kickstarted the NRI market as a major territory. It was a behemoth in business sense. A redefinition of Hindi commercial cinema. But what did it achieve cinematically, culturally?

Well, it reinforced a lot of stereotypes. Shahrukh and his friends are exactly the type of people mother warns you about. Party goers, beer drinking flirts who have had a bunch of girlfriends, and are serious about none. Any party girl is sure to fall prey to them.

The the heroine, thank God, is not one of “those” girls. She’s immune to his charms and traditional. Because she comes from a family that values tradition. Tradition, you see, is another name for oppression. An overbearing father longing for a long lost homeland that he left for greener pastures is trying to impose his longing on his London bred daughters.

Forced to live without any power over their own destinies, the girls seek pleasure in small rebellions of dancing to western music and dreaming of a Prince Charming. Even going on a trip with female friends requires a near meltdown. And then he pronounces “जा, जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी”. All magnanimous in granting an adult a vacation before she is forced to marry some stranger.

09ddlj2Her body, the property of parents, loaned for a month on the condition that it is returned unspoiled, returns. But the soul has tasted freedom. And yearns for more of the same. In the form of the boy who seems freedom personified. And the body is returned to beloved Punjab to be handed to the new owners: greedy, selfish, shallow and mean. The soul keeps hearing some half forgotten strings, till they become real, and with them comes the flirt, the playboy, the wayward. The free.

That he chooses “आदर्श नारी” over all the modern girls he’s met is no surprise. Indian heroes have always done that, laying down the rules for indian girls: be docile or be used and discarded. Well, he’s now decided he wants her, and comes to her, and they elope. No wait.

यहीं तो फ़िल्म offbeat हो जाती है। He decides to wait for paternal approval. Mother’s approval is not enough, because what do mothers know anyway. The father ultimately owns the body, and it’s his seal of approval that matters. Behind all the sweetness of family wedding is a strong patriarchal assumption that seemed wrong to me even in the 90’s, and seems almost cruel now.

The father who sells beer but moralizes on those who drink it, who doesn’t care what sort of home his daughter is going to, and who has taken all efforts to suppress his wife and daughters, and squeeze all personality out of them. That father is a sympathetic figure, quietly feeding his pigeons and clinging to the social mores of Victorian era. That’s the guy who needs to approve.

41Well, he doesn’t. Till he does, and with the last dialogue of the film, “जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी” he permits his adult daughter to live her life as if doing a favor. That shadow of the great Amrish Puri still looms large in our films.

In Cocktail, Saif chooses demure Diana over Deepika who has personality. In Rockstar, the couple agonize over her marital status as if set in stone. In 2 States, the lead couple don’t marry till the parents approve. Long forgotten is the brave and brazen rebellion of “Ek Duje Ke Liye”. In countless movies since, countless incidents of injustice have seemed normal. Because DDLJ was such a successful film. Not just commercially, it was a great entertainer. It was charming, fresh and it wrapped its stale message in many layers of fresh looking wrappers. Not that DDLJ was more regressive than usual, it just made regressive “cool”.

No matter how charming though, the movie was dragging us backwards into elder worship, even when they are wrong.. No one in the world has the right to take away your right to your own life, and then give it back as a favor

Aurangzeb v/s the idea of India

What do Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir, Rahim Das & Tansen have in common? They all lived and created immortal art during Akbar’s reign. Each in his own way created not just pieces of art but a way of living and thinking about art and spirituality that persists today. From architecture to music to cuisine to language to poetry to religion itself, Indian and Persian streams mixed and mingled, and Islam became an integral part of India. This was the first attempt by ay ruler, Hindu or Muslim, to create a state neutral to and tolerant of all religious ideas.
maxresdefaultThis openness of thinking, this blooming of art and philosophy, this idea of a ruler meant to rule, not impose his views, these are all traditions of a great king. In the era before capitalism, it was also the duty of the ruler to ensure patronage of arts and artists. To provide them with platform, sustenance, opportunity and freedom. This tradition continued for the next two generations, till Aurangzeb happened. Much is made of his anti-liberalism. Mostly correct. Much is also made of how he lived a simple life. Also correct. But lost in this is how he damaged culture and economy.
Akbar left a prosperous, mostly peaceful empire. Akbar appointed Raja Todarmal who introduced keeping strict records of wealth and land, and ended the arbitrary rule by having an appointed hierarchy of officials. Akbar, Jehangir and Shahjahan also held open courts where work and justice was done. This was the real hard work of ruling. Managing day to day affairs. Where was Aurangzeb during his five decade long rule? On the horseback or in camps, fighting wars.
Not only did he saw a large number of rebellions, and inspired heroes like Shivaji, Guri Teg Bahadur, Kushal Khan, he also led the largest expansion of Mughal empire. Some point to this with pride, and compare  him to Ashok the great. They are fools. This expansion was costly. It left the rich Mughal regime weak and poor. He was so often in war that he never really managed the state. And so blind was he to talent that he kept appointing bad Nawabs, either incapable or corrupt or both. When your rule is the start of decline of your empire, it is nothing to be proud of, really.
Aurangzeb_in_old_age_2He not only banned making new temples, and had a number of them destroyed, he also stopped all patronage to arts. We have a long discontinuity in poetry. Much later we had talents like Ghalib and Mir again supported by the Mughal state. Alas, it was too late by then. The poisoned legacy of misrule and mistrust was too deep. Marathas were the largest powers by the time British took over India, and Mughals just symbolic heads in and around Delhi.
Oh and by the way, those who profess that the Brits were scared of Aurangzeb and stayed away: patently false. British made a stronghold in Bombay during his reign and conducted one of the most profitable acts of piracy in history when they captured a Mughal convoy returning from Mecca.
Aurangzeb did the magic trick of converting a prosperous, tolerant, dynasty – rich in both means and culture – into a hated, shrinking rule by increasingly small men. The small men started with him. For one who doesn’t understand what makes his nation great does not deserve to rule it. This nation was made great by people like Kabir, Tulsi, Tansen, Todarmal and Akbar. Not by narrow minded bigots.