Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Are there good Republican candidates out there?

Last night, the Democratic Party secured a historic win in the special election to fill AG Jeff Sessions' vacated Senate seat in Alabama, marking the first time in 20 years that the party won that seat. These elections were clearly very high stakes for President Trump, since he invested a great deal of time in campaigning, first for primary challenger Luther Strange, and then for the Republican nominee Roy Moore. This defeat in one of the more solidly Republican states in the country should send alarm bells ringing.

Let's be clear: Moore was an exceptionally bad candidate. Even before allegations of sexual misconduct with minors came up, his utter contempt for the law, his self-admitted love for the days of slavery, and his extreme right-wing Christian posture made him a hugely polarizing candidate. There was something in him for everyone to hate, or at least dislike enough to either refrain from voting or writing in some other Republican candidate (as the junior senator from that state did). His past record on the Alabama Supreme Court and flouting of federal laws made it dangerous to imagine him actually making those laws in the first place. And his alleged indecencies with underage girls was simply too much.

There is a precedent, of course. Hillary Clinton, a candidate so bad that she was defeated by someone with no political experience, no base, very little money, and who was disliked by a majority of people. The Democratic Party believed that people would be so disgusted by Trump that Clinton would win, almost by default. Last night, a large section of the Republican Party (particularly those that Steve Bannon is trying to lead), believed that the voters of Alabama would dislike Democrats so badly that anyone they nominated would win, almost by default. In both cases, they were wrong.

Good candidates matter. Not all voters are ideological, who would vote for party first. And not all voters can put party before country. This is a lesson for both parties, but more so for the Republican Party, because they are currently led by a President who himself has a horrific record on his behavior with women. Of course, the Democrats have Joe Biden and had Al Franken. But they already lost. 

How much can personal integrity cover up?

He's at it again. Dr. Manmohan Singh, whose decade-long tenure as Prime Minister saw the biggest scams in the history of the Republic and a total subordination of the office of the Prime Minister to that of the Party President (a la a Communist dictatorship), has been enlisted into the Guajrat election campaign. Of course, he's not there to address crowds - he would most likely drive crowds away. Instead, he is there is provide more sanctimonious sermons and virtue signaling, because for some reason, the Congress party still believes that Dr. Singh is beyond reproach. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the current case, Dr. Singh is angry at the current Prime Minister. First, he was angry that the PM insinuated that he had attended a dinner with Pakistani diplomats. He and his party had asserted that it was a total lie. Then the truth emerged that such a meeting had indeed taken place, in the house of the foul-mouthed Mani Shankar Aiyar no less, at which point the outrage changed to the fact that only Indo-Pak relations were discussed, and not the Gujarat elections. Throughout this elaborate deception, Dr. Singh's unsaid assertion was that his personal integrity assures us that he would never do anything against the national interest.

Only, that assertion collapses spectacularly on the slightest scrutiny. As Prime Minister, Dr. Singh signed the infamous Sharm-el-Sheikh agreement that drew massive criticism from all sides at home; the various scams and cover-ups of his government are already well-known; he allowed a diplomatic spat to send Indo-US relations to their lowest ebb in years; further on, he endorsed Indira Gandhi's disastrous economic policies that we continue to pay for today. If all that is not enough, Dr. Singh allowed Sonia Gandhi and her son, the current Congress president, to dictate terms to the government, going as far as letting files from the PMO go to 10 Janpath for approval. The heat of government had been reduced to that of a regent, all under the eyes of the man who has mastered the art of bathing in a raincoat.

And yet, despite this sordid history, we are still to believe that Dr. Singh is a good man, a technocrat above politics, and is thus beyond questioning. Wrong. Dr. Singh is a puppet the likes of which India has rarely seen - he will do whatever he is ordered to do without once thinking about the consequences of his actions; he will lie and name-call when called out; and he will masterfully ignore facts when they don't suit him. As someone put very well, he is an over-rated economist and a (hugely) underrated politician. That such a pathetic person was Prime Minister for 10 years paints a very sorry picture of our democracy.

However, clearly, despite his shameful past, Dr. Singh does not believe in retiring. He is staying on, the loyal stooge of the Dynasty. I would not be surprised in Rahul Gandhi asked him to become Prime Minister again in the future (if he can ever defeat Narendra Modi, that is). It would be an ideal situation - the emperor and his courtiers could make merry out of the nation's fortunes, with his loyal regent's personal integrity proving the fig leaf. Now, where have I heard that strategy before?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rediscovering Horror

It has been some years since I exhausted all the Star Trek episodes ever made (although I am yet to see Discovery that released only a few months back). After the withdrawal symptoms, I moved to watching varied stuff - some documentaries, some comedy. Nothing that I really wanted to binge on. And then, earlier this year, I discovered American Horror Story (AHS), a uniquely American anthology series that was both drama and horror. And I was hooked. 

I've only seen the first three seasons and am currently on the fourth, but this is seriously good stuff: it is so different, so unique, that you want to keep watching it. Of the first three, Asylum is my clear favorite, although Coven also had some memorable characters (voodoo queen, wink, wink). The biggest surprise was probably Evan Peters, who played a pretty sad role in X-Men but has outdone himself here. 

I've never been one for horror - it just gave me a hard time to sleep. But most horror has been crass with an excessive amount of religion involved. AHS, it turns out, it quite different - real horror, and real people. I can't wait to see the rest. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Floating High

IT (2017)

Produced By: NewLine cinema, and others
Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jack Grazer, Sophia Lillis, and others
Pros: Excellent story, excellent cinematography, excellent acting
Cons: Predictable
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

I don't know when I started to like horror as a genre. Bollywood does an absolutely disastrous job of it, while Hollywood does a good job in general, but it tends to be too focused on religion as a means to it (always god versus demon, and the like). Since I saw the first and especially the second season of American Horror Story though, I think I've come to like it (plus, as I get older, I'm not as scared of noises!).

Which is why I even decided to watch It in the first place. Initially, I thought of it as a kids movie, given that all the main characters, save the clown of course, is played by a child actor. And then, it's a clown. But boy, was I wrong - this is far from a kids movie and is pretty entertaining even for adults. As with any good movie, the story is at the heart and what makes it so good - it is well thought out and masterfully executed by the director. The scenes, even the darker ones, as well-shot. And the kids actually do an excellent job with their acting, while Skarsgård as Pennywise excels at his role.

The one shortcoming of this film is the fact that it is rather predictable, especially in its ending. There aren't really any surprises, and it is a very linear story. Hopefully, in the promised sequel, the director will be more creative. Nonetheless, I'd say this is the best movie of this year, although I am of course waiting for Star War Episode 8 to release next week. (OTFS)

A peek into the world of spies

The Associate
By John Grisham

Whenever I'm tired of a genre or simply unable to find a good book to read, I tend to fall back on John Grisham. No matter what, I can be sure that Grisham's work is simple and satisfying. His style is not overly dramatic, and the story is the real focus, as opposed to simply the ending. His books do not end on a cliffhanger - they end rather satisfyingly, while all the focus is on reaching that very end. The Associate fits that mold perfectly - and it adds some trivia from the world of spies.

When you read the book, it's obvious that the story is inspired from the early days of the F-35 program, which started with huge promises. It then moves on to detailing how you can spy on an individual (provided you have infinite money, of course). The story does not have a lot of subplots and is mostly linear, which makes it a light read. Definitely satisfied, as usual. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A New Decade

As 2017 comes to an end, so too wraps up the tenth anniversary of this blog. Next year will be our 12th, putting us firmly into the new decade, and behind the last. In many ways though, this year has been indicative of what's to come - fewer posts and a smaller scope. This is not exactly intentional - it's just an affirmation of the fact that I am far busier than I was as a teenager or an undergraduate student. And yet, writing has meant a great deal to me and is still my preferred method of catharsis.

Going in to the next decade, OTFS will continue, but will be leaner and more focused. I am strongly considering talking more about my thoughts on academia and research. However, I've decided to continue the IOTY series, as it is a useful way to look back at the year gone by.

This year's logo is inspired by the design of a race car, to signify India's progress forward. For decades considered a basket case of failed economics and a nearly-failed state, India has emerged as a global power in recent years, having been able to create new and meld old institutions in its favor, with varying degrees of success. At the same time, China's christening as the Asian superpower brings with its own challenges. As the country zooms forward to meet its manifest destiny, we will look back at the year 2017 to capture the key moments.

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2017
Coming in 2018...

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The right amount of suspense


Produced By: PalmStar Media, Atlas Entertainment, and others
Director: Courtney Hunt
Starring: Keanu Reaves, Gabriel Basso, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Renee Zellweger, and others
Pros: Good story, good pace, good use of suspense
Cons: Poor acting, poor ending
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

There are different types of courtroom dramas: ones, like 12 Angry Men, which are restricted entirely to the courtroom, and ones like Erin Brokovich, which have a much larger component outside. And of course, there are ones that lie in the middle of that spectrum. The Whole Truth lies closer to the former, although it does make a lot of effort to build a solid background to the case.

As I've often said, the story is the most important part of a movie, and this movie does not disappoint. It's not particularly complicated, but it is good. More importantly, the director deserves high praise for executing it well at a good pace, not boring the audience through legalese but not slowing the movie down with endless background. The courtroom was the center, and the story moved out as required. Suspense was also used very well and made the movie a cliffhanger - top points to the director, again.

There are some pitfalls though. The acting, with the exception of Reaves, is quite poor. Mbatha-Raw played a crucial character with very poor acting, and the other actors did a pretty pathetic job. Moreover, despite the strong suspense built up, the ending was quite disappointing and a let down. It most certainly could've been done better. Still, on the whole, this was a very good movie that I recommend. (OTFS)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Did this election happen?

The election campaign in Himachal Pradesh was a whirlwind - it came and went so fast that one wonders if it actually happened. The entire national leadership of the Congress gave the state a pass save for a one-off rally by prince Rahul Gandhi. Incumbent Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh put up a brave face in front of a crushing campaign that was waged by the BJP, which is rearing to win back the state and complete its control over the mountains of the western Himalayan states.

Himachal Pradesh is a two-party state and has been alternating between parties in ever election for decades. Yet, the BJP put in significant resources, with Prime Minister Modi addressing several rallies and party president Amit Shah dramatically announcing former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal as the party's CM candidate - it really seemed like a picture perfect finish. Yet, it won't be that easy as Virbhadra Singh is set to fight his very last election and has put in a lot of effort to reverse the usual trend in the state. However, corruption accusations against him and his family loom large, and it is clear that he is trying to cultivate his son to create a dynasty in the state. Both of these have worked against him.

Funnily enough, the Congress still had a decent chance of beating anti-incumbency in the state, just as Jayalalitha managed to do in TN or Prakash Singh Badal in Punjab. Instead of working on that, the national party completely ditched its state unit and focused instead on Gujarat, where the party has a near-impossible chance of winning. When the results come though, Himachal could still spring a surprise. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

A new campiagn

As the Gujarat election campaign heats up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to campaign in each district, it can be noted by observers that something strange is happening in this campaign, so strange that it would not be wrong to call this a new campaign style altogether. And that difference is that, after decades, the Congress party is not fighting on secularism, nor is it so much as trying to polarize the Muslim minority.

Consider the last two elections in the state, in 2007 and 2012. The running theme of the party was the 2002 Godhra riots, culminating in the infamous 'maut ka saudagar' comment from Sonia Gandhi. Visiting imams was commonplace. This time however, far from either of those, Rahul Gandhi is visiting temples all over the state, and 2002 hasn't been mentioned even once. What a U-turn!

Why is this happening? Obviously, the Congress leadership has finally read the Anthony report, that pointed out that the Congress was not just considered pro-minority, but actively anti-majority i.e, anti-Hindu. The massive minority pandering that the party indulged in in UP led to a string polarization of Hindus against the party, ending in a three fourths majority for the BJP. So it is clear that the Congress has learned that it needs to ditch its anti-Hindu tag, and it possibly hopes to placate minorities below the radar, or even take them for granted.

That doesn't mean the Congress is not working on its divisive agenda. It has entirely embraced Hardik Patel and his agenda, which is based singularly around caste. The Congress' old strategy running for decades was to divide the Hindu vote on caste and consolidate the Muslim vote through stoking fears; now, it seems that it has realized that one negatively affects the other. Thus, while it has dropped the Muslim appeasement (at least overtly), it is doubling down on caste divisions. The net result is still the same - a divided society.

Amit Shah called the Gujarat election a fight between caste and development. For the first time in perhaps decades, communalism is nowhere on the radar. A New India indeed. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

All the little jokes


Produced By: Columbia, Marvel, and others
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, and others
Pros: Lots of jokes around, good special effects
Cons: Too long, boring story
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

In the world of superheroes, I'm mostly apathetic - perhaps the closest I come to being a fan is with Optimus Prime, assuming that even counts. In that world lies Spider-Man, the (mutant?) superhero that I've seen from Toby Maguire to Andrew Garfield (still the best) and now, Tom Holland. Yes, the franchise is that old, and it would've probably died a natural death if the Avengers hadn't bailed it out.

Which brings us to this not-quite-an-origins movie, the little kid Spider-Man who wants to join the big league, and isn't killed in the process. That's just about it - oh, there is a story, and it goes on two full hours, but it's more a background story. Bottom line - it's boring, the story goes on-off as we see little Spidey trying his best to remain relevant. Pathetic.

OK, it's not all that bad. Holland is actually OK as Spider-Man, not the same league as Garfield, but good. You can't but help feeling sorry for the poor kid. The director has peppered jokes all over the place, making the long duration bearable, though just so. The special effects are also good, not overdone a la Captain America, but good. However, as I always say, it's hard to keep a movie going without a good story, and that's the fate of this one too. (OTFS)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The key is ownership

The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach
By Bruce Shore

This season, I'm trying to read some books that will help me professionally in the (near) future. I'm not really a big stickler for DIY or self-help books, and certainly not for motivational writing, none of which I have ever found to be of much use, and most of which are downright boring to read. Nonetheless, as part of my Mavis Fellowship commitments, I was given this book to read and promised it would help. And it possibly might.

Pulling from his decades of experience in the Humanities, Prof. Shore takes a deep dive into what makes a good mentor and what landmines are out there to avoid. His point about making students take ownership of their research is something that has particularly resonated with me - it is quite crucial that a student grows from merely following instructions to becoming an independent scholar; and for that, taking ownership of their project and thinking about it critically is crucial. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

War & Peace Lecture: Is the nation worth defending?

The history of the world can perhaps best be understood as the history of battles and conquests, of victory and defeat, and of technology and tactics. Every upheaval in any corner of the world has been a result of powerful forces coming together, most often taking up arms, and fighting for... something. But what? What do armies and militia fight for? Once upon a time, and to a lesser extent today, they fought for the sovereign, the King. The King's primary, sometimes only, responsibility was to protect and expand the kingdom, and an army was created for just that.

But today, we live in a different age from those times. Standing armies, as opposed to ones created for specific battles, are the norm. While there are still monarchies and dictatorships, a very large proportion of the world lives in a democratic setup, in which sovereignty lies with the people, a people who are expected, even entitled, to bicker and fight among each other and periodically compete for the election of a national government. There is no kingdom to preserve, in fact the administration is supposed to be changed often. And yet, the same administration is expected to maintain a standing army. Why?

What's in a nation?
In a democratic sense, change is the norm, and the nation should also be open to it. A foreign power invading and changing everything is also change. And yet, while we in the democratic world are quite alright with changing our government and laws quite regularly, we are loathe to let anyone else do it. Is this mere xenophobia, a fear of the other, a fear of someone who doesn't share our values? But are there really any shared values at all?

The answer is more subtle, and lies at the very heart of nationhood. In the Westphalian setup, a nation is a people who share some common beliefs and identity. But the two of the three largest nations in the world - America and India - are very diverse country that have varied internal identities, sometimes closer to that of their neighbors than to other members of the country. And yet, both these countries maintain large armies and are determined to protect themselves. Why? Why is defending a democratic nation so important, when it can very well be overturned internally?

Preserving a system
The answer lies in two parts. One, is the desire to defend a democratic system, even if that system eats itself up from within, because a democracy is the one system that offers a fair chance to everyone (at least in theory). Sure, there are many people in democratic societies that dream of a benevolent dictatorship like the one in Singapore. But more often, when they say benevolent, they really mean one that can serve their interests at the cost of all others, as in Pakistan. Killing democracy internally is fairly simple, and preserving it is in itself an achievement for any nation. A democratic society therefore guards itself internally through protest and vigorous debate. But externally, it guards itself by being armed to the teeth and ensuring that no external power can overturn a system that their people alone have the power to overturn.

The second part is related but more subtle. It is an acknowledgement that democracy exists in a nation as a result of a series of compromises, and maintaining those compromises is only possible when no external factor can overturn it. Thus, while the Right and Left in India accuse each other (often without proof) of wanting to destroy the nation, all but the most radical of them agree that an external invasion will definitely destroy the nation and the compromise on which it stands. It is the need to provide a safe environment for this compromise to stay that leads to the need to defend a nation while simultaneously being open to and even encouraging changing governments every now and again.

In 1947, a large section of India's polity took the hard-won freedom for granted, and believed that there was no need to maintain a standing army. Fortunately, saner voices who saw the tenuous column on which the country's democracy stood, kept the military strong and alive. And to this day, we are safe inside the country because the borders are protected by those who love the nation. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A movie for the sake of it

JOLLY LLB 2 (2017)

Produced By: Fox STAR Studios and others
Director: Subhash Kapoor
Starring: Akshay Kumar, Huma Qureshi, Saurabh Shukla, and others
Pros: Funny
Cons: No story, stretches too long, forced
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Undoubtedly, Akshay Kumar is the biggest star of the post-Khan era, putting through a remarkable series of movies that have done well at the box office. Every now and then though comes along a poorly-made movie - like Jolly LLB 2. Pulling from the first movie of the same name (which actually starred Arshad Warsi and was quite good), this movie makes a desperate attempt to rekindle the old flame - and fails. It continues with Bollywood's odd obsession with not-very-conservative UP women who defy stereotypes, but hardly has a real story to add.

One thing goes well for the movie - in between the disconnected jokes, it is funny, if incoherent. You'll laugh, although you may not be sure why. And you'll laugh a lot, because the movie stretches out far too long, becoming increasingly absurd, taking plot twists from the last movie and turning them into central themes - in other words, a very forced film that doesn't have anything original to offer. Quite disappointing. (OTFS)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Could have been better

RANGOON (2017)

Produced By: Viacom 18, Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures, and others
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Shahid Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Richard McCabe, and others
Pros: Good topic and story, good acting
Cons: Poor cinematography, boring music, bad ending
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

Fact: Bollywood does war movies very badly. Most of them are not related to any actual war; virtually all of them are based on the western border with Pakistan; and most of them are actually love stories with some action scenes. On the first two counts, Rangoon does a much better job than average; on the last count, it follows the old formula.

There's a lot I liked about this movie. Vishal Bhardwaj brought in top actors, including the Queen of Bollywood Kangana Ranaut, and the acting was naturally top-notched. By setting it during World War II in the context of the INA, particularly capturing the small mutinies that the INA was creating in the British Indian Army (which eventually led to the Bombay and Karachi mutinies that brought the curtains down on the British occupation), the director has moved to a different era that Bollywood has largely avoided. Thus, the story is ripe and entertaining, with the requisite amount of historical setting. This on its own gets a huge thumbs' up from me.

All is not well, however. The cinematography was poor, and the plot quickly got confusing. The love story was wholly unnecessary, and the songs were boring and out of place. To make matters worse, the ending was abrupt and illogical, which is the worst thing a director can do to an otherwise good film. However, all done and dusted, this is a good film that I recommend you to watch. (OTFS)

Monday, August 28, 2017

No story here


Produced By: Paramount, Hasbro, and others
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Isabela Moner, and others
Pros: Nothing
Cons: Everything
Rating: - of 5 (0 of 5)

Michael Bay has ruined the Transformers franchise - he has burnt it to the ground, taken it to the depths of Hades, and done some more unspeakable sins on top of that. He has made Optimus Prime's epic closing lines (which used to fit so well with Linkin Park's New Divide) into an anachronistic joke. He has made the fact that they can transform irrelevant. And he brought in Mark Wahlberg, who shouldn't even be in this movie in the first place.

Yes, it is that bad. It's terrible. There's no story at all - stuff just kept happening as happy coincidences. The USP, the original reason that the Transformers came to Earth, is flimsy and treated like a footnote. Instead of hour-long action scenes coming in after a story is established, they've now replaced the story itself. Characters are meaningless - both Laura Haddock and Isabela Moner were entirely irrelevant to the story - and the acting from Wahlberg needs no comment. The 'Knights' are another after-thought, whereas they should've been the centerpiece - in fact, they're so irrelevant, they're bunched together as one big Dragonbot for brevity!

The only thing worse about this movie is that it's all set up for a sequel that will be even worse, if that's possible. There's no redeeming what used to be a fantastic franchise. I don't even know why I keep coming back. In those immortal words: Sad! (OTFS)

This isn't a superhero movie either


Produced By: Lionsgate, Saban, and others
Director: Dean Israelite
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, and others
Pros: Good nostalgia, decent effects
Cons: No story, bad acting, no Megazord sequence!
Rating: * of 5 (1 of 5)

What is it with directors wanting to turn a superhero movie into something else? It's easy - villain wants to destroy earth, superheroes stop villain, everybody is happy: this formula works! What's the need to add so much drama into that? Joining the pack of superhero movies that want to be otherwise is Power Rangers, a very pathetic attempt to recreate the old franchise that I used to be a huge fan of as a kid.

Not everything is bad here though. There is the nostalgia from the old cartoons that brought me to this movie in the first place - although back then, there was a sort of ownership of the different colors, the Blue Ranger was the Blue Ranger, and not just any other Ranger. That's gone - you could've changes the colors (except Red) and reached the same conclusion. There are some decent effects in this movie with the Zords and Zordon (although Alpha was quite pathetic); however, they entirely missed over the Megazord formation sequence, which was a deal breaker for me.

Everything else in this movie is bad. There is no real story - the antagonist, Rita, is so lame that she's laughable (not sure if that was on purpose though). The whole story about Red Ranger's leadership just goes around in circles - and Montgomery does it with bad acting too. And did I mention the lack of the Megazord sequence? Oh, the horror, the pain! If you're a fan, do not watch this. If you're not, why would you? (OTFS)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Not a superhero movie


Produced By: Twentieth Century Fox, Marvel
Director: Tim Miller
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Stefan Kapicic, Morena Baccarin, and others
Pros: Fast story, good effects
Cons: Very forced, poor acting
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

I'm a very big X-Men fan, and I'm usually willing to watch any movie in the franchise, even another one of those Wolverine movies. And it seems, there are a lot of people like me, which is why Deadpool had to be created to precipitate a reset. This is not a superhero movie - we are reminded of that at regular intervals. Rather, this is a super-villain movie, and everybody is bad. Quite appropriate for our times.

In fact, the director made such a strong pitch to show this as a super-villain movie, that it came out much too forced. There are no happy coincidences here, there's just a lot of incredulous stuff that's happening at a very fast pace. Of course, the story is fairly fast and does not bore you, and some excellent special effects have been added to the movie. But it never seemed real - all of it just seemed impossible (even for an X-Men movie). Add to that the rather poor acting. Now, compared to most other critics who fund Reynolds to be a great actor in this movie, I disagree - his expressions looked the same in all situations, most of the acting was probably done by a stunt double, and there was hardly any real emotion. Just an overall sad display.

I'm told a sequel is planned to this movie. While that might be better, if it continues from this one, I can't see any realistic road ahead. (OTFS)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

All too convenient


Produced By: Lionsgate and others
Director: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and others
Pros: Good acting, good war scenes
Cons: Bad story, abrupt ending
Rating: *** of 5 (4 of 5)

So while I'm stuck in India waiting for my visa, I'm passing the time by watching some drama movies. War is an interesting subject for movies, and is also very easy to mess up, because it is by no means beautiful or glamorous, but rather very ugly business. There's a reason why soldiers do not like to talk about their wartime experience.

On that note, Brothers does a fantastic job, with portrayal of the horrors of fighting the Taliban being spot on, and Tobey Maguire delivering a riveting performance, along with Natalie Portman as the Army mom, a group of people that are critical to any war effort but are often forgotten. Jake Gyllenhaal, who is of course no more, also puts on a great performance. Unfortunately, all this good stuff was in the wrong movie - because a movie without a good story is not a good movie, period.

Where do I begin? Far too many coincides, all the 'right' stuff happening at just the right time (spoiler alert). What makes the rash and irrational younger brother suddenly so grown up and responsible, with barely a day of mourning? How is it that the Captain was saved just in the nick of time? How does a five year old know what sex means? And how does it all get better by just shouting out facts about family relationships? It all seemed too forced, too much coincidence, and ending in much the same manner, as though the director ran out of ideas. Sad!

It is a good movie, and the relationship between the two brothers is portrayed well by the very talented actors. But the poor story does not do it justice. (OTFS)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

IOTY16: Notable Visit


The 8th BRICS Summit, Goa
For bringing together the heads of state of BRICS as well as revitalizing BIMSTEC

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014, Indian foreign policy has become very active, with the PM himself having made a large number of visits to bolster India's ties with the world. However, the PM has also carried forward the initiatives of the previous government, including the BRICS forum that aims to give teeth to the idea of a post-America, multilateral world. Hosting the BRICS summit in India for the second time was a chance for India to add to that.

Hosting this summit was always going to be difficult, given the enormous success of the previous two editions - the one in Brazil, where the New Development Bank was established, and the one in Russia, where a new custom of inviting neighboring countries was created. India has to equal both these, and it did, by hosting 100 BRICS events to energize the event, and bringing representatives from BIMSTEC, an organization that itself was in need of new energy.

In the end, the final communique from both the BRICS summit and the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summits met India's foreign policy goals, and by carefully cutting out Pakistan after the SAARC debacle, India also sent the appropriate message about how it plans to move forward with its regional goals. Thus, the 8th BRICS Summit is the most notable visit from last year. 

IOTY16: Special Mentions


All the staff of Indian Banks
For their spirited work during demonetization that went above and beyond the call of duty

Indians banks are not exactly well-known for customer service - indeed, they are often a source of memes for all that plagues the public sector in India. They have stepped up to the challenge previously - form the difficult times when large banks were failing, to adjusting to new realities after 1991, and to adopting new technology. And of course, the work done to open millions of Jan Dhan accounts deserves praise.

But last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw them the ultimate challenge, when he demonetized 84% of the currency in circulation. Instantly, massive queues formed outside banks, and there was a real danger of chaos, especially if there was even the slightest sense that banking staff were being tardy while the common man was forced to stand in line for their own money. However, in one of the most stunning examples when the nation came together to meet a crisis, there was no large-scale violence, and bank staff performed to the best of the abilities, going well beyond what was expected of them. There are tales of staff sleeping over for days in the bank branch, of young women employees leaving their children to the care of their grandparents, of special lines for senior citizens; all these stories out some faith that in a crisis, we Indians do come together.

Of course, there were the banks that tried their best to break the law by enabling black money to be deposited without necessary checks. Axis Bank in particular became the butt of all jokes. However, a few black sheep do not ruin the whole flock, and the performance of banking employees across the country deserves great praise. Whether demonetization actually meets its lofty goals or not, only time will tell. But it has certainly taught us some vital lessons.

J Jayalalitha, Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu
For her espousal of Hindu values in the face of anti-Hindu Dravidian-Communist movements

Some political leaders are so important to the system that their death - and everyone eventually dies - becomes a seminal moment. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and the death of Jinnah had long-term effects on their countries. Last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, who only recently made history by winning a second consecutive term, died under mysterious circumstances, plunging the state into uncertainty. But in her loss, India has lost much more than a politician. For, she was the last protector of Hinduism in Tamil Nadu, a state whose rabid Dravidian politics, mixed with the venom of Communism, has seen itself becoming dissociated with the larger Hindu body of the Indian subcontinent.

Jayalalitha, to much personal danger, was a proud Hindu. Her donation of an elephant to a temple is remembered to this day, and her refusal to give a free hand to evangelicals in her state made her the hero of Tamil Hindus. In her death, there is a grave danger to Hinduism in the state, and it is hoped that her successors can end their quibbling and join hands to preserve her legacy.