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

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (2017)

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

POWER RANGERS (2017)

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

DEADPOOL (2016)

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

BROTHERS (2009)

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

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

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. 

IOTY16: And the winners are...

INDIAN OF THE YEAR 2016

Arun Jaitley, Union Minister of Finance
For his leadership in the passage of the Constitution (101st Amendment) Act enabling the economic unification of India

With the 2017 series of IOTY, I decided to shift the focus of the award back to its original intent: to commemorate the persons or events that had a significant impact on India in the preceding year. Over time, the award had become more a pop-culture show, with Bollywood-like categories being created to award things that really did not merit long remembrance. Some of this was for padding the blog to add more posts; however, as has been apparent, the time for that is long past, and only serious posts can remain, given my lack of time.

Therefore, starting with this new series is Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who has held and continues to hold a number of hats in the Narendra Modi government. He shares a love-hate relationship with both the Opposition as well as the BJP's own supporters, but has proven to be an indispensable part of this government. This award is given to him to commemorate his efforts towards the successful and historical passage of the Constitution (101st Amendment) Act, popularly called the GST Bill (though there are actually three subsequent bills related to GST). The GST, envisioned during the twilight days of the Vajpayee administration and championed by several finance ministers in the UPA days, finally saw the light of day after Jaitley finally managed to settle issues that states were holding forth on.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi won a massive mandate with the first single-party majority in three decades, there was an understandable degree of hubris, a feeling that anything was possible. GST was one of the first things that brought that crashing down, with the realization that not just the lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, but the need to take states on board, were necessary to truly build a New India. Thus, Mr. Jaitley worked with state Finance Ministers to get the GST through, and credit goes as much to them as to him.

GST is a revolution in the way indirect taxes are handled in India, creating a template for greater compliance, a unified national market, and India's first truly federal body: the GST Council. For his tireless efforts to make this a reality, Arun Jaitley is the Indian of the Year 2016. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tale of our times

AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998)

What a week to be outside America. First the neo-Nazis in Virginia - I never imagined I'd see those flags in the US or anywhere outside East Europe for that matter. But there it was. And then there was President Trump. I'd usually say that he scored yet another massive self-goal, except that he seemed to be dead serious for his support of these people this time. I cannot fathom how anyone, let alone the President, could get away by making a moral equivalence between Robert Lee and George Washington, but it did happen.

Anyway, half the world away, strangely in better weather than in Champaign, I could look at the events with the benefit and time and space as a barrier. And so I decided to well, chill out (it is a vacation), and watch a movie - and I stumbled upon this gem, American History X, that is eerily appropriate for our times. I was not looking for anything neo-Nazi themed, I just wanted a nice, family drama. I got both.

The movie is a strong look into the mind and thoughts of a white supremacist and some of the very real problems of the African-American community that the Left simply refuses to look at. More importantly though, the movie explores the evolution of an idea, from the intellectual who starts them with just ink and paper, to the first stormtrooper who puts them to action, and finally to the younger brother that absorbs them because they are all around him. I was very much reminded of Iqbal's espousal of the Two Nation Theory and the idea of Pakistan, and the Muslim League's Direction Action Day, all the way to the current Pakistani establishment. History manifests in funny ways.

My only qualm with the movie was the presence of the 'perfect' character (Avery Brooks - shoutout to the Star Trek man!) who seems to be made of Teflon, absolutely perfect with all the right words in the midst of chaos. Such characters just don't exist - people are not monochromatic, especially in a highly polarized environment. Otherwise, the movie was great to watch, dealing with some very serious issues that America is still dealing with today, almost 20 years after the movie was released. Perhaps President Trump should watch it too? 

This is the Asian superpower?

For over a month now, the armies of China (technically, the army of the CPC) and India have continued their confrontation on the high plateau of Doklam in Bhutan, India's closest ally and, for security purposes, de facto state. In that time, the armies have more or less stayed put without actually becoming violent (despite the fact that armies are trained to be violent), but the Chinese state-controlled media, particularly the xenophobic Global Times, have gone on hyperdrive with their threats of war. But something different happened today.

The Global Times is known to be hyper-nationalistic and bombastic, so nobody really takes it very seriously, except the narrow domestic audience that it is intended for. Xinhua, the official state news agency though, is taken quite seriously. Which is why, their rather racist and troll-like production about the Doklam event raised several eyebrows. By all accounts it was a propaganda piece meant to show Indians as being stupid, and the Chinese as the good, law-abiding people who have been wronged. Even more ironically, it was posted on Twitter, which is banned in China.

What is one to make of this? No fewer than eight threats of war made with rather grandiose imagery, and a troll-like production from the official news agency? If I didn't know better, I'd say that Asia's new self-proclaimed emperor has been caught without clothes and is making a fool of itself. There is something called sophisticated propaganda, and then there is the laughably cheap stuff - today's video firmly falls in the latter category. For all its smoke and mirrors, the Chinese have actually done nothing, and their record at war after World War II is quite poor (and even the WWII victory against Japan had a not-too-small contribution from the Americans and Soviets). Indeed, the 1961 victory against India is one of the PLA's few victories, and the Nathu La incident in 1967 showed that it was not necessarily a pattern.

The only thing left is for China to take a cue from its latest colony, Pakistan, and threaten to use nuclear weapons. After all, India and Japan are the only countries in Asia today that are willing to stand up the Asian bully, with or without American support, and neither of them have reproduced the willingness of ASEAN nations to bow out without a fight. For India specifically, China is dealing with a wounded country that knows the pain of losing territory and is unwilling to lose more without a fight. There is an understanding that, irrespective of the cost, defeat and further loss of territory is not an option (and as previously noted, for security purposes, Bhutan is Indian territory) - the roast of Rahul Gandhi following his meeting with the Chinese envoy, and the subsequent discussion in Parliament, showed that much.

Without a doubt, China is the largest continental power in Asia. Historically, it has been the Middle Kingdom, the center of global trade. However, even in history, it has never been an uncontested power, and the Indian civilization too has thrived at the same time. Pakistan, which rejected Indian civilization, considered itself superior for the same racial reasons that Xinhua showed in its troll-production. They have lost every war with India, including half their territory and population. Hopefully, the Chinese government does not believe its own propaganda. 

The dirty facts of war

HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

Produced By: Cross Creek Pictures, Demarest Films, and others
Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Jacob Warner, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, and others
Pros: Excellent acting, good cinematography, good story
Cons: Slow, poor SFX
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

In the world of war movies, there are usually two extremes: the romantics, and the realists. Because of course, war is dirty business, with a lot of blood and death. Perhaps that's why former soldiers don't usually want to talk about the operational details of their missions, or simply gloss over the specifics. Hacksaw Ridge is in the latter category, showing the gory side of war in all its (lack of) glory. In that, there is a very human story, albeit one that is difficult to empathize with unless you're extremely religious.

Andrew Garfield undoubtedly steals the show with an extremely strong performance, with supporting actors also putting in a good show. The acting is the strongest part of the movie. However, the director also does a good job with the cinematography in what is clearly very difficult terrain and a difficult story to depict (war is messy). However, running at over 1.5 hours, it is a long movie and can get horribly repetitive, even unnecessary at times. And unfortunately, this reviewer felt it was boring - and laughable. Specifically, the SFX were laughable - even Star Trek's oldest  TV episodes and movies had better effects. In this day and age, this was quite disappointing. Still, a good movie worth watching. (OTFS)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Independence Day Lecture: Could we be occupied again?

The year 2017 marks 70 years since the last occupation of the Indian Subcontinent - by the British - ended, and the newly-formed countries finally took their destinies into their own hands, albeit with mixed results. However, the British were scarcely the first foreigners to colonize this ancient land - from the Mughals to the Turks and even earlier waves of invasions, this land has seen pitched battles from the time it became possible to cross the Himalayas. Invasion from the naval front was, of course, much harder due to the robust navies of the southern and Deccani empires, but the land-centric Mughals ended that. After a thousand years of humiliation, we are free. But for how long?

Trade: A double-edged sword
The origins of all external invasions were, of course, economic. The Indian subcontinent was a rich and powerful place, with plenty of food and gold to go around. Trade records go back to the Roman Empire, which at one time was losing a lot of money to Indian cotton imports. This trade is also what brought us into contact with other civilizations - it brought the first Arabs and the first Chinese, and help spread our system of mathematics.

But it was also this trade that brought the invaders, bent on conquering the land. There is a reason why the Turks did not simply pillage the land and leave, but chose to instead form their empire here. Perhaps the focal point of this economic invasion was the East India Company, a trade company that ended up controlling vast swathes of the subcontinent, complete with its own army and civil administration. Thus, trade quickly turned into capture.

And yet, trade has helped us immensely. After the costly mistakes of the first fifty years after independence, India's integration with the global economy has created more prosperity than even before. Closing ourselves off to trade did not help us - indeed, it hurt us at a time when global trade was able to bring the world back from the ruins of World War II. Even earlier, Japan's forceful opening up to the outside world eventually enabled it to become the first industrialized Asian country.

Trade, therefore, can be good and bad, simultaneously. The answer is not to choose one or the other, but to merely maintain constant vigilance. Countries around us, such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are currently selling away their sovereignty to China's Belt & Road initiative, in the name of enhancing global trade. The difference is really not that hard to catch.

Our way of life
But trade was not the only cause of our enslavement - our way of life has also been attacked. India is one of the world's oldest continuing civilizations, and so-called Hindu civilization (a word that itself comes from invaders) is the cornerstone of our way of life. In the face of monopolizing religio-political movements across the world that has wiped out thousands of indigenous peoples and their ways of life, Indian civilization has endured, in whatever truncated form.

And it is that endurance that has made us the target of invaders. There is, after all, a reason why the Hindu Kush is named so - a trail of tears as millions of Hindus were transported to their death towards slave markets, forever severing some parts of the subcontinent from its history and people. In contemporary times, just look at the fate of the Yazidis after the invasion of ISIS - a veritable genocide took place upon a people who not only link their way of life all the way back to India, but who, like India, have also endured. This is the fate that awaits us if we were to be conquered again.

Therefore, our way of life, our Hindu civilization, is the key to our preservation. If we lose it, as so many are on the verge of in West Bengal, then we would be conquered without ever raising a finger.

Unified defense
Finally, the third ingredient that made us ripe for conquest was the lack of a unified defense against foreign invaders. This is perhaps the most important factor of all that allowed us to fall, while simultaneously the unified Chinese empire was able to hold on, despite its internal rumbles. We were divided into many kingdoms that fought against each other - which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, as long as the civilization survives, who runs it is really besides the point. However, in the face of external intrusions, we failed to put up a united front, which led to our undoing.

Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this lack of unified defense is the Somnath Temple which, despite being so holy to Hindu civilization, was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, with local leaders refusing to bury their differences to protect it once and for all. And perhaps, in that symbol, lies the answer to the original question: can we be conquered again? For, the Temple was indeed rebuilt at the behest of Sardar Patel, despite opposition from Nehru. And it stands today inside a country that has been unified (albeit amputated) after centuries, and is now protected by nuclear weapons.

So, can we fall? Quite possibly. Without our armed forces and a political system that speaks in one voice on national security, without trade that puts national interests first, and without preserving our Hindu civilization, we can certainly fall again. Right now, it seems unlikely. But time is fluid, and eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

After five years, OTFS is happy to have delivered this year's Independence Day lecture from India. 

Jai Hind! Vande Mataram!
Happy Independence Day to Indians across the world

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fare Thee Well

LOGAN (2017)

Produced By: Marvel Entertainment, and others
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, and others
Pros: Good story, good acting
Cons: Poor screenplay, abrupt ending
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

The X-Men franchise has been around for as long as I can remember (although it was only supposed to be a trilogy) - and at the center of that universe was always the Wolverine. Therefore, perhaps it is only fitting that Logan is possibly a part of the last stand of that universe, unless someone decides to attempt a reboot in the future, that is. Nonetheless, despite the good intentions, it is apparent that this movie was quite forced.

Yes, the story was good - and also very simple. It's a rehash of the same old mutant-hunters tale, together with some corporate intrigue. The acting is good, but that was inevitable when you have the likes of Hugh Jackman and Patricm Stewart. But that's where all the good stuff ends. The director seemed to have had no interest in the audience while making the movie, making the screenplay quite boring and confusing. Add to that a very abrupt ending, and there's not much good to say about this movie.

If you hold nostalgia for X-Men and its slow death at the hands of Avengers and Guardians, you might consider watching this movie. But don't expect much more beyond that to keep you through the whole thing. (OTFS)

The Perfect Prequel

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Produced By: Lucas Films, and others
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Wen Jiang, and others
Pros: Excellent story, great concurrence, great effects, wonderful acting
Cons: None
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

I'm a Star Wars junkie: I've never hidden that, and never will. I've see the old six twice; I've grudgingly seen Episode VII. Because I love it so much, the very idea of a prequel to a sequel is quite insulting - it has to be really, really good to be respectable. The bar if acceptability is just so much higher given the pedigree. And shockingly, Rogue One meets that bar - it is quite possibly the perfect prequel, a worthy member of the franchise.

There is much that makes this movie perfect: the story on it own is quite good, with riveting scenes across the Imperial galaxy, and of course the wonders of hyperdrive. But there's more: the plot fits very well with Episode IV, when the Rebel Alliance actually destroyed the Death Star. This movie feels very much a part of that one, with familiar events concurring with new ones, ultimately making this a prequel in the truest sense of the term.

Add to that the excellent effects and wonderful acting, and you have a truly excellent movie. Indeed, a huge shoutout to Diego Luna for some splendid work. If any more movies like this are in the offing from Lucas Films, then we might just be about to enter a new golden age of Star Wars! (OTFS)

Harry Potter meets Ghostbusters

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)

Produced By: Warner Bros, Heyday Films, and others
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterson, and others
Pros: Exciting storyline, high on creativity, great effects
Cons: Slow at times
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

It just had to have happened: a full generation after the Harry Potter phenomenon swept the world, a spin-off was in the offing. Indeed, it's a miracle that it took so long! With Fantastic Beasts, a whole new generation has finally been introduced to that magical world. However, it isn't the same: the defining feature of that era was its simplicity, of the underdog defeating the super-villain. This era is different, it is of the master doing his thing. Welcome to the New World.

There is much to enjoy in this movie. The storyline is exciting, with a cross between Harry Potter and Ghostbusters, set in the grand city of New York. The story is very creative, bringing in a vast array of well... fantastic beasts, not to mention a whole new classification of wizards that are unique to America! Coupled with great effects of the kind necessary for such a grand tale, and this movie had all the ingredients of perfection (as expected from one written by JKR). However, the only drawback is its pace - it can get quite slow and boring at times, and I admit to having dozed off on the flight a few times. Nonetheless, a wonderful movie worth every moment. (OTFS)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Revisiting High School

The Best Short Stories of O.Henry
Edited by Bennet Cerf and Van Catmell

If I think back to my high school English literature classes, two names (aside from Shakespeare, of course) stand out distinctly: Guy de Maupassant and O.Henry, both masters of the short story, from whom I took much inspiration in my days in Kshitij. Therefore, before I wrapped up my summer reading and headed for a vacation, I decided to revisit some of O. Henry's stories.

Now, some critics dislike O. Henry (which is a pseudonym) for his rather repetitive style and typical use of an anti-climax. However, I think they miss the point: his stories enjoy such a power anti-climax because of his peculiar style of writing, full of excruciating detail about seemingly minor things, and periodic outbursts of philosophy, all so that the reader remains focused on too many things until it is too late. While this formula sounds simple enough, it can be hard to perfect without simply boring the reader, which is where O. Henry's succeeds.

There are plenty of good tales in this collection, starting of course with The Gift of the Magi. The Pendulum in particular brought back some fond memories. Good reading! 

Too good to be true

The Rainmaker
By John Grisham

So with the debacle of historical fiction behind me, I decided to lean on my old mistress - legal thrillers - in the hope of finding some redemption. No, I was in no mood to take any risks, so I did not pick up an esoteric writer in some strange country. Instead, I decided to go with good old John Grisham and his novel, The Rainmaker, which is so mainstream that there's a movie about it too.

The novel is perfect. Too perfect. There's the underdog, there's the big, evil corporation. David and Goliath all over again. And like the biblical tale, it just goes perfectly - a series of unending coincidences and lucky breaks for the core of the novel. However, as unbelievable as the story might be, it does stay interesting, with Grisham having written plenty of drama and emotion into it: not less than three subplots are active at any given point in the book!

The Rainmaker is what I'd call a pop novel: there's nothing too intellectual about it, nothing to get you nervous. It's just a nice and simple read, which is exactly what I needed. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why did Glee flop?

Over the last few months, I've entertained myself by watching what I was told is a hit American TV show - Glee. Yes, without any more episodes of Star Trek to entertain me, and while I waited for the next season of Suits to go live on Amazon Prime, I dared to watch a rather unusual genre of TV that I would usually never watch. And it was... pretty good, for the most part. Yes, Glee requires you to suspend your rationality for a bit, as people seem to know how to sing and dance all the time, and musicians are taken virtually for granted. This wasn't hard, after all, I've grown up on Bollywood, where this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The real strength of the show was its characters, who really brought the story alive... for the first three seasons. Indeed, I think the New Directions' victory in Chicago constituted the high point of the show, after which it was generally downhill. Season 4 saw a whole new cast being introduced, and half the season being devoted to developing them, only to be e unceremoniously dumped afterwards. What was the point of introducing characters like Ryder and Marlie if they were not supposed to stay on long enough to win anything? Added to that was the fact that the old characters would simply not go away, somehow reappearing in Lima, Ohio whenever they wanted to, irrespective of where they were supposed to be! And of course, the tragic death of Cory Monteith was handled very badly by the producers, which made it even worse for the show as a whole.

In the end, I think Glee ended quite poorly and well below its potential because the writers forgot its true strength - the characters, and their stories. It became about just one character, and a belated attempt to introduce a few new ones was also botched up. It was a relief to see it finally end in a ball of flame. As they say - you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself turn into a villain. This should've ended with Season 3. 

Return to sanity?


Miley Cyrus is perhaps the greatest proof yet that the music industry in America simply does not understand its audience. A child star that was already famous, Cyrus launched her adult music career in the most outlandish way possible - through an extremely vulgar, hyper-sexualized series of videos and an oddly-concocted story of her coming out as a lesbian (which was pure marketing with no actual facts). Throughout all that, Cyrus' music was still as good as it used to be, but the videos and her behavior at concerts became so frustrating that she was largely dumped and forgotten after the initial hype.

Now, with her new hit single Malibu, Cyrus has begun to claw back from those mistakes. The new music is as good as her music always way, but this time there are no theatrics to serve as an unwelcome distraction - the music is pure and good by itself, and the music video just complements it. This should serve as a lesson for others, such as Charlie Puth (who also appears to be going down the same road), that audience rewards good music. You can get some cheap publicity by selling sex in the short-run, but it will be temporary, and you'll be forgotten with the next star.  

Waiting for the next catastrophe

After an unprecedented stand off that lasted nearly three years, the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly's two houses passed a budget for the state by overriding a veto of all three bills by Governor Bruce Rauner. The override in the House was particularly momentous, because it was led by Rauner's arch political enemy, Chicago Speaker Mike Madigan, who is all set to be the longest-serving Speaker of any state in US history, and has reigned over half a dozen former governors from both parties. Madigan's House managed the successful veto override by flipping several Republican votes to its side, just barely crossing the minimum number needed.

With this budget, the can has effectively been kicked further down the road than it was already before. The headline number is, of course, the 32% increase in individual income tax that begins with effect from Jul. 1, 2017. But the budget also raises many more taxes without freezing already sky-high property taxes, as the Governor demanded. What's worse, the budget does not include any spending reforms or changes to Illinois' out of control pension system that has been deliberately under-funded by politicians for decades. By all standards, this is a desperate budget passed by a desperate house to avoid a bond rating downgrade.

The problem is, that downgrade has not been avoided - it is still imminent in the future unless the state can clean its mess up. Unfunded pension liabilities and unpaid bills from the last two years together form massive pieces of debt that the budget simply does not address. Yes, essential services like IDOT and the university system, not to mention local school districts, do get a much-needed breath of life (despite cuts), but a crisis will come soon enough to bring everyone back to square one. This budget is a disaster and bad news for the residents of the state. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

On the verge of history

Tomorrow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin his three-day visit to Israel, a historic event that will be the culmination of a 25 year long process that began when Prime Minister PVN Rao established formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, although informal, and particularly intelligence-related, relations, have existed since Indira Gandhi established RAW with the assistance of Mossad. But it's not just the post-Independence history that is worth remembering: India's relations with what is today the state of Israel goes back thousands of years, as far back as the Roman Empire, and of course the Liberation of Haifa, which is memorialized at Teen Murti in New Delhi (which is not about Nehru).

Israel has been India's strongest, one-sided ally since Independence. Thanks to the appeasement politics that swept the nation following the loss of territory to Pakistan, Indian leaders bent over themselves to appease Arab Muslim kingdoms by being strongly vocal against Israel - in many cases, even stronger than many of those countries! India has repeatedly voted against Israel at the UN for decades, and given space to anti-Israeli NGOs. And yet, Israel has patiently worked to befriend New Delhi, always taking India's so-called principled stance in their stride. Never has Israel interfered in Kashmir, not has it used the gun of human rights to corner India, although it had every reason to do so. In 1999, at the height of the Kargil War, Israel readily supplied India with crucial radars, even as no other country wanted to get involved in the stand-off. This, to a country that for fifty years refused to recognize it.

PM Modi's visit serves as a historical course-correction to the silly idea that India can condemn Israel in public and yet purchase weapons and share technology from it, while also sharing similar security issues. Israel and India are natural partners for anyone who can view the world from outside the Muslim appeasement lens - and strong, public ties with Israel are merely an acknowledgement of that. Furthermore, by refusing to visit Ramallah on the same visit, PM Modi has finalized India's dehyphenation of Israel and Palestine, which to Israel is much like how the US dehyphenated India and Pakistan under President Bush. As the leading Arab states have covertly done, India must view the two as separate countries, and leave them to bilaterally handle their problems.

For Israel and India, the potential for collaboration is immense, from sectors as varied as agriculture to space. 
From a historical perspective, it is akin to a ghar wapsi for an Indian civilization that has long had contacts with the Jewish people, and with whom we have much history to share. A people whose civilization was wiped out by invaders, a people who have rebuilt an old civilization together with a modern state, and a people who have and continue to face brutal terrorism that seeks to wipe out their existence. For the Hudim and the Yahudim, it is a visit that will change history.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Join the rigmarole

STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016)

Produced By: Paramount, and others
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, and others
Pros: Good SFX, Star Trek nostalgia
Cons: Stale story, tired acting
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Yes, yes, you know that I'm a Star Trek junkie. I've seen all the episodes from all the TV series (yes, even DS9), and I've also seen all the movies. Therefore, there was no way I'd miss Star Trek: Beyond, regardless of what its review was like. The fundamental fascination with warp speed, alien worlds, and interstellar alliances is just too much for me to resist!

That said, it was mostly a waste of time. Don't get me wrong, it's not a particularly bad movie, but it is a little below average. There's the token consideration for LGBT rights, and Chris Pine as Capt. Kirk, but it all felt very forced - it's almost as though Paramount felt is simply had to make a Star Trek movie without any great plot, so it went ahead and made this one. The story is stale, with a lot of ideas just rehashed from older movies, and whatever was new was not particularly interesting. The acting was tired and distinctly lacked any energy, especially some comic scenes that simply fell flat.

The only saving grace was the good SFX, particularly the visual description of what warp speed does to the surrounding space-time. However, as is the case with the Transformers franchise, effects can only do so much, and even nostalgia couldn't help this movie. In the immortal words of an infamous man: Sad! (OTFS)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Another beauty

DUMMY (2008)

Produced By: Format Films, Highwire Films, and others
Director: Matthew Thompson
Starring: Thomas Grant, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Emma Catherwoord, and others
Pros: Strong story, good acting, good music
Cons: Slow
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

An, the Indie-scene: so full of sad movies, and yet every now and then in the dense mound of coal, you find a diamond. OzLand is still fresh in my mind, with a few other good ones whose names I can't recall. Thus, it was no surprise that I decided to watch Dummy after reading the synopsis: coming-of-age, British, and Indie... strong credentials!

And I was not disappointed. The movie revolves around two brothers, Jack and Danny (one barely an adult, the other 12) and their lives after their mother dies. The story, unlike say, Manchester By The Sea, is not an endlessly-depressing tale, and there are some very nice moments between the two brothers. But of course, this movie is a tragedy, and the story is strong enough to glide the audience into the sad ending. Coupled with that is some brilliant acting by the stars - Aaron Taylor-Johnson, in particular, puts up a strong showing. Finally, the soundtrack is well-timed and balances the story, leading to a very good ending.

The only criticism I can think of is that the movie is somewhat slow (though not overly long), but that really is a general criticism for Indie films. It's not a big problem for those (like me) who are used to it, but it can rub you the wrong way. Nonetheless, a great movie that I enjoyed. (OTFS)

This is an Emergency!

Yes, you read the headline right - this is an Emergency. In Modi's India, a grave undeclared emergency is currently underway that threatens to change the very Idea of India and bring misery to a huge section of the population. That emergency is the conversion of the mainstream media into a factory of fake news, lies, and criminal spins. It is the complete and utter subjugation of honest reporting at the hands of activism and vested interests (of journalists). And, worst of all, it is the absolute lack of irony when these very same journalists decry fake news!

The mainstream media in India - and indeed, the world - is so compromised today that it is among the least trusted institutions in the world. People see celebrity journalists as politicians-by-other-means, very much married to a political party (though never acknowledged, for obvious reasons). The news is always one-sided (if it is true at all, that is), there is very little (if any) fact but a whole lot of one-sided opinion, and an absolute holier-than-thou attitude that seeks to tell the unwashed masses what to think. In short, the mainstream media has become a propaganda tool.

It may just be that the media was always a propaganda tool, but nobody really knew it. Sure, people suspected it, but then, such private thoughts are usually kept to oneself. Until the advent of social media, we never really knew that so many people suspected the same thing. And now, we can be pretty sure that those suspicions were right. If a free and honest press is supposed to be a pillar of democracy, and an emergency is when democracy does not function, then we are certainly in an emergency.

PS: No, I'm not talking about a few channels like Zee News that are pro-BJP. I'm talking about the vast ecosystem of pro-Congress journalists, academics, and judges, of which NDTV is just the tip of the iceberg.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Modi@3: Patience

This month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the third anniversary of his historic election victory, becoming the first PM in 30 years to enjoy an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Now more than half-way into his term, a lot of supporters and critics are asking questions about what his government has achieved, and what another term for him would mean. A common theme seems to be the tension between the economic right and the social right, both of which are represented in the BJP but rarely see eye to eye (the former used to be with the Congress until Sonia Gandhi all but decimated that wing). The argument seems to be that post-demonetization and upping the ante on cow slaughter, Modi has abandoned the economic right and is pushing through with a social agenda personified by UP CM Yogi Adityanath.

There are several problems with this argument. For, the Modi government has undertaken several economic reforms, including the two top ones: GST and the IBC. These are major economic achievements, and were only possible after Modi's government stabilized the economy from the train wreck that it was when Manmohan Singh left office. Indeed, by wrapping up the Planning Commission and the systems of Five Year Plans, as well as the FIPB more recently, the intent is decidedly on the right. The grouse then appears to be that of speed - the argument being that not enough reforms have been undertaken. This is understandable from an economic perspective, but electorally, it is difficult (but not impossible). Winning a Lok Sabha majority is not enough, you need to shift the ecosystem of the country towards the right, and that is a slow process prone to failure at every step. The fact is, despite the massive mandate of 2014, there is no economic consensus in India, and people want quick results by any which way, which inherently limits the speed of economic reforms. That said, the glass is certainly more than half full.

What the economic right does not seem to appreciate is that they are in a coalition with the social right, and the latter have a much bigger grouse. On issue after issue over the past two decades, the economic right has won - from de-licensing to liberalization to ties with Israel, the economic right has prevailed. They may have not gotten everything that they'd have liked, such as labor reforms or enhanced privatization, but they have achieved a lot from the days of Indira Gandhi. It is the social right that has continuously been at the receiving end since the loss of territory during Partition. What has the social right gotten? The RTE act, balkanization of Hindu society, minority appeasement to the extent of Hindus having to hide their traditions, vicious attacks on Hindu beliefs, state-control and plunder of Hindu temples, legislatively-imposed personal laws... the list is endless. The Nehruvian-state is fundamentally anti-Hindu and depends on appeasing Muslims to sustain itself, despite Partition's promise of ending that. This is the grouse that the social right holds, and they are far more mad that a right-wing government has done next to nothing on any of these issues. Three years since that historic mandate, they have gotten more tokenism than anything else, while a Mamata Banerje splurges on madrassas in Bengal.

Therefore, three years after Modi's election, the economic right should be thankful that they have actually gotten the majority of the reforms. They should also remember that, on their own, they cannot win an election - the coalition of the economic and social right wings alone can deliver a government. And in a coalition, one side reaping all the rewards is not sustainable. Right now, the cultural right has a genuine grouse, and their glass has been emptying since 1947. The economic right needs to be patient and understanding, instead of throwing fits and making threats (as if Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi would do them any good!). 

A shameful bargain

President Donald Trump returned for Memorial Day from a nine-day, three-nation tour that saw him being played by the Saudi dictatorship like never before. Outside of all the pomp and gallantry, Trump has all but handed over America's Middle East policy to the Saudis, both in policy terms through a wholesale adoption of the Saudi posture towards Iran, as well as in military terms through a $110 bn sale to the absolute monarchy that is responsible for much of the world's Wahabbi terrorism. Ironically, the sale was facilitated by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner without a squeak from the Senate, which should have a say on such a large sale to a country that is currently at war.

Trump's complete and total servitude to the Saudis was on clear display, and gives an excellent template for other countries to sucker him - impress him, lavish him, and he'll sing like a canary. No wonder then that, after such a 'successful' trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump has caused a major diplomatic row through his tweets on Germany, which was not all to kind to him during the NATO summit (smaller countries are obviously too scared to even take him on, although on paper they disagree with him on several things). But perhaps the most memorably asinine part of the Saudi Arabian tour was Trump, and later his SecState Rex-T, condemning Iran's elections and calling for reforms, while sitting in a country that is an absolute monarchy where women are second-class citizens, by law. The irony is simply too much to miss.

I supported Trump during the campaign, so why am I whining now? Two reasons. Trump has already performed his most important function - defeating Hillary Clinton, for which we must all be thankful. Indeed, the spectacle in Saudi Arabia would've actually been along expected lines under a President Clinton. But more importantly, Trump was supposed to speak from his heart, and say uncomfortable facts - such as the fact that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, or that Saudi-funded imams have been radicalizing Muslims across the world, or that Saudi money has buttressed extremist groups, or that Saudi Arabia is causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Instead, we got a Trump who inaugurated an incongruent anti-extremist center in Riyadh - which is only less ironic that calling for free elections in Iran from Saudi Arabia.

Trump has been suckered. So was Obama, but he eventually saw through the Saudi (and Pakistani) double-game. How long will #45 take? 

Courtroom Drama as it should be

DENIAL (2016)

Produced By: Participant Media, BBC Films, and others
Director: Mick Jackson
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, and others
Pros: Great story, excellent acting, crisp plot
Cons: None
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

When it comes to courtroom dramas, there's not much to select from. Aside from A Few Good Men and 12 Angry Men, I can't think of any that's managed to hold my interest. And that's why I was so pleased with Denial - a movie that was both courtroom drama as well as a Nazi-themed film, both of which I enjoy. The movie definitely joins the league of my favorite movies.

The biggest strength of the movie, as with any good movie, is its story, which is based on a book (and apparently real events - I paused for sometime to read Wikipedia!). There are facts (including filming in Auschwitz), and there are courtroom procedures, and the director does a splendid job of keeping the two in check to avoid making the movie too academic. On top of that, the actors, especially Rachel Weisz, pull off a brilliant performance that really holds the audience's interest. The plot was fast-paced but not confusing, and there was no information overload that could shake the audience off.

Overall, an excellent movie that I highly recommend. (OTFS)

A let-down

Spartacus: The Gladiator
By Ben Kane

It couldn't have lasted - years of reading great works on historical fiction had to eventually give way to a bad book. It is inevitable, it is the main lesson you learn from a PhD. And it happened. Ben Kane, an author that I recently became a fan of after his two books on Hannibal (I'm yet to find the third), disappointed me with the first of his books on the Third Servile War, or the Spartacus War. It's not that the book is historically inaccurate, but that there isn't that much historical record to go by, due to which Kane added a lot of his own imagination. That's fine - this is not supposed to be a textbook - but the additions were downright boring. And that's something I rarely say about a writer.

The book was boring. I skipped a lot of parts with a yawn and it didn't really make that much of a difference. Plots were stretched thin, unnecessary conversations were abound, new characters were introduced for seemingly no reason. Kane's description of the mechanics of war were quite good as always, but those parts were few and far in between. This is a huge disappointment, and I might just take a break from him for sometime. 

A Huge Mistake

President Donald Trump, in less than six months in office, seems to have made a huge mistake that may end his presidency. By abruptly firing FBI director James Comey, Trump has alienated Republicans, who rightly believe that Comey played a decisive role in stopping Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency, and also Democrats, something that Trump clearly did not bargain for. What was he thinking? Was he trying to cross the aisle to please the Democrats? If that's the case, then his lack of political experience has shown bright as the sun. The Democrats and their Establishment hate Trump, because he defeated their biggest insider, Hillary Clinton. Nothing Trump does can change that, but will only backfire on him because he does not really enjoy the support of the Republican establishment either.

Moreover, as it has turned out, Trump may be in trouble for obstruction of justice, which may get him impeached. Of course, as unpopular as he might be, both parties will think twice before impeaching him - Republicans for fear of a massive backlash from Trump's base, and Democrats for fear of having to deal with a real politician, Vice President Mike Pence. However, obstruction of justice is a real crime that got Nixon nearly impeached (he resigned first), and could get Trump into a soup that he may never recover from.

For now, this huge mistake has led to the Justice Department assigning a special prosecutor that Trump will (most likely) not be able to influence, but which may take all of Trump's current term to finish its investigation. This is a stop-gap move though, and Trump must be careful in the future. He is already very short on political capital, and is only a few mistakes away from becoming untenable. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Complete Double Standards

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the contentious issue of Triple Talaq of Muslim women, a practice that every Islamic country has banned, but which remains on the books in India through the convoluted system of religious personal laws. Going by some of the observations of the court that reporters are pointing out, it seems that the Court is determined to know whether the disgusting practice is really a core component of Islam or whether it can be struck down. This smacks of double standards.

That the Indian Republic has a distinctly anti-Hindu bias is no surprise - a simple reading of the RTI Act, sections of the Constitution that provide extra protection to religious minorities, the ownership of religious places of worship, and much more, all point out to the fact that, while declaring India a secular country, the founding fathers certainly seemed to believe in the Two-Nation Theory. The farce of a hearing in the Court simply reinforces that, for when it comes to Hindu cultural and religious practices, the Court seems to have no trouble in ending thousands of years of tradition. The chaos that reigned in Tamil Nadu after Jallikattu was banned by the Court is just a case in point, and it eventually led to the legislature having to step in to reverse the damage, for which the Court never seemed even mildly apologetic.

In the Triple Talaq case, the fact that the system leaves women to the arbitrary whims of their husbands, the fact that the future of children can be wrecked at the drop of a hat, or the simple fact that it is dehumanizing and causes particular angst to Muslim women, all seems to have been missed by the Court, which only wants to know whether the practice is sanctioned by Islam. So what if it is (it isn't, by the way)? Beheadings, lashings, cutting off hands and much more are also sanctioned by Islam (and practiced is the most Islamic country of all, Saudi Arabia). Does that mean they're OK? Where does the Court draw the line? And if religious traditions are really so important, what stops the Court from allowing the Ram Temple to be constructed at Ayodhya? If Triple Talaq is to crucial for Islam, then the birthplace of Ram is equally crucial to Hinduism, whereas Ayodhya does not even appear in Islamic scripture.

Let me call a spade a spade - the Court is as anti-Hindu as the rest of the Nehruvian government system. And because of the colelgium system, it is not going to be fixed by merely an election. When it comes to Hindu traditions, the Court is willing to run roughshod over all voices to impose its social view. But when it comes to minorities, specifically Muslims, it needs to be extra generous. If this is not Two-Nation Theory, what is? Separate electorates ("only Muslims can represent Muslims"), separate laws, separate courts - what was the need for Pakistan when India could've just continued to be a Mughal Empire?

I think that the Court is going to do nothing about Triple Talaq. The way it simply brushed off the related issues of polygamy and Nikah Halala points to that. In the case on Sec. 377 too, the court simply shrugged off its constitutional role in protecting fundamental rights, choosing to throw the ball at the legislature instead (but on Hindu traditions, it would never dream of waiting for elected representatives unless it is to clear the mess that the Court itself created). The court will simply say some wise words and leave it to the legislature. Welcome to the anti-Hindu Republic of India. 

A 21st Century Colony

Pakistani newspaper Dawn revealed details of a supposed long-term plan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a part of China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that the Pakistani leadership has been selling to the world as the panacea to all ills of the country. As many commentators have rightly pointed out, far from some sort of benevolent Marshall Plan, the long-term CPEC plan is a textbook outline for the Chinese colonization of Pakistan, possibly making it the first colony of the 21st Century.

Consider this: the primary aim of CPEC is agriculture, to create raw materials that will then be shipped to manufacturing units in Xinjiang, which will then presumably shipped back to Pakistan and beyond. Sounds exactly like the East India Company. But that's not all - Chinese nationals are to have visa-free travel (obviously, it won't be reciprocal), a vast surveillance grid is to be established in all cities so that the Chinese can have a say in law and order, and Pakistani state television will have to broadcast Chinese 'culture'. And to add insult to injury, Pakistan is already raising exclusive military units to protect CPEC assets! Furthermore, none of this will be through aid, it will largely be through soft loans that Pakistan will have to pay back, or else. The less said about environmental clearances the better.

It is not the case that all foreign investment is colonization. Countries can work with each other to build infrastructure and assets - almost every emerging market does it. But the key is reciprocity and fairness - for all the concessions that Pakistan is making, it seems the Chinese have virtually nothing to lose except the risk of having to directly administer their new colony should it become unstable. And that risk is quite worth it given that CPEC gives China a direct land route to the Indian Ocean, thus bypassing the American armada in the Pacific. Pakistan, of course, hopes that CPEC will create infrastructure and hence, economic growth, but economic growth is not possible if the country is to be reduced to a supplier of raw materials - which is what CPEC seems to be primarily geared toward.

The worst, of course, has to be the fact that the Chinese have demanded a role in Pakistan's internal law and order mechanism through surveillance, and a dissemination of Chinese culture to a land that is completely alien to it, whatever the elite might think. These smack of British colonialism. Of course, for a country that seems to values Partition more than independence from the British Empire, making old mistakes should not be a surprise. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Humans of Manchester-By-The-Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

Produced By: Amazon Studios, K Period Media, and others
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, CJ Wilson, Lucas Hedges, and others
Pros: Strong story, excellent acting, good music
Cons: Too long
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

The Academy Awards just don't gel with me - I've never heard of most of the nominations and I usually end up hating whatever movie wins anything at all, especially the big Best Motion Picture award. So when I heard Manchester By The Sea had won two of them, I had to think hard and deep about watching it, despite liking the trailers. I'm glad I did watch it in the end, though, because is is a well-made indie movie that you can't expect from mainstream movies.

The movie is very strong on two fundamentals - there is a strong story, and the director tries very hard to stick to the story without going off on a tangent (which he does a few times, unfortunately); and the acting is very good, with Casey Affleck delivering the performance of a lifetime and truly earning his Oscar, and Lucas Hedges also doing a pretty good job. This is no mean feat, for most movies made today lack on either or both of these (cough... Zoolander 2...), and just that much is really enough for me to like a movie. It is a very depressing film though, so don't go in hoping for an underdog story. Added to that are some very soulful renditions that dot the movie, which really helped me stay engaged.

And staying engaged was really a challenge, because at over 2 hours, it is a long movie, and a lot of the parts were unnecessary and tangential. I can think of at least two distinct sub-plots that could've been disposed of. It's very easy to stop concentrating on the film and come back after a few minutes, and it really doesn't make that much of a difference either. Still, on the whole, each of the sub-plots, even those I found unnecessary, added up to a beautiful movie. Watch it, certainly, and take your young adults with you too.  (OTFS)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why I didn't #MarchForScience

Last month, on Earth Day (of course), cities across the US (and, for some reason, around the world) saw scientists and others marching on a weekend, 'for Science,' whatever that means. It was billed as an apolitical show of force from the scientific community in favor of scientific thinking, facts, and of course, funding for scientific research, all of which are commendable. A lot of my friends and relatives participated in it, or at the very least cheered it on at home. I didn't, and won't. Why? Because #MarchForScience was anything but an apolitical show, it was not about facts or scientific thinking: it was yet another attempt by the Left to hijack the academic community, this time the one committee where they have the least influence: STEM.

#MarchForScience was a very political march against Donald Trump and the Republican Party in general. It blended the new demigod of the Left - climate change - with other pet issues such as gender, refugees, feminism, etc. There was no scientific discussion in it, no papers, no experiments, no facts: just a lot of empty sloganeering. It did have real scientists in it, but they were not there as scientists, rather as citizens making a political point. And they are entitled to their protests and politics, but the hypocrisy of it all was that it was billed as an apolitical event, which is most definitely was not.

Why didn't I participate? Because I don't think scientists should get involved with politics of any party. This is not because of the fear that taking a stand against the establishment hurts chances for funding (although it does) - facts and data have their own sanctity and should not become subject to political favoritism. The reason is because the effects of giving the Left any leadership in academia are there for all to see: in the humanities, the Left has total and unchallenged dominance, and it is there that the most regressive ideas originate: safe spaces, the hijab as a source of freedom, nationalism as a dirty word, and the invention of an entire dictionary of terms that, much like George Orwell's 1984, makes language itself a pawn in a larger political game.

Those who participated in the marches, for whatever reason, possibly do not realize the danger of selling their science to the goons of the Left, for they are not interested in facts, but in using those facts to push an agenda. For, the first piece of data that opposes that agenda (and we all know that data can oppose a hypothesis at any point of time) will see the same scientists being placed before a firing squad. Do we forget that science had to favor the proletariat for it to be real science in the Soviet Union?

I refuse to participate in any movement that uses science to further a political agenda, and I encourage my fellow scientists to do the same. That said, every citizen in a democratic society has the right, and arguably even the duty, to express their opinions, however unpopular those might be. But don't use science to do it - if your convictions are true, and they are important enough for you, then you do not need to hide them behind science. As for the Leftists who talk about climate change without knowing how a spectroscope works - keep your lunacy in the humanities, you have already destroyed that beyond repair. #NotInMyDepartment. 

100 Days of Very Little

Last week marked the 100th day of the tenure of President Donald Trump - a man who defeated every single friend and foe, who took on the big media, the Washington establishment, and compromised data scientists, to come out on top and become the 45th President of the US. 100 days ago, Opinions 24x7 described Mr. Trump as the new leader of a new world. Naturally, expectations were very high. 100 days later, they still are - but hope is beginning to fade.

A very honest assessment of Trump's first 100 days (a benchmark that he himself used tirelessly) is that it has been very disappointing. Far from being the deal-maker, he has doubled-down on using EOs to push through things quickly - much like his much-maligned predecessor. Indeed, a lot of his EOs were more like homework assignments to his underlings - directing them to figure stuff out! On top of that is the fact that Trump has barely made any headway in appointing all the necessary federal employees, which is partly due to the fact that Senate Democrats have been exceptionally loathe to approve any of his appointments, but also because his own team has been very slow at finding suitable candidates.

In the last 100 days, Trump's only real victory has been the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which was achieved by the extraordinary lifting of the filibuster for judicial appointments. Aside from that, it has been string after string of disasters - the thwarted travel 'ban', the failed AHCA, Sean Spicer's completely unnecessary holocaust gaffe, and of course, the wholly unnecessary U-turns on Syria. Right now, it seems as though Trump, having served his most important duty of defeating Hillary Clinton, is directionless.

However, I am still hopeful. He has made several promises about a new healthcare act (hopefully bypassing Paul Ryan), an infrastructure bill, and steps to defeat ISIS. Much more can be done, and there's plenty of time beyond the artificial deadline of 100 days. Let's wait and watch. 

Something is very wrong

Last month, India faced a diplomatic storm with African missions in New Delhi charging the government over inaction over racist crimes in Noida and other parts of the country (mainly around Delhi). During that fiasco, the Indian government as well as many elected representatives tried their best to show that Indians simply cannot be racist - for example, because 'they' live with 'black' South Indians! If this actual gaffe from an MP wasn't enough, let me, a full-fledged India who's had a chance to be on the other side (in America), say it.

India has a racism problem - a very deep problem. Dark skin is seen as a bad thing, mongoloid features are seen as a bad thing. I don't just mean 'bad' in the superficial sense of beauty - a dark-skinned person is (wrongly) seen as being less intelligent, less hardworking, and quite simply, a loser. This is so deeply ingrained that nobody actually realizes it - it's just a 'fact' that we grow up with.

The latest trend are these body-shaming posts on Facebook, such as the one pictured here. And this is not one-off: the picture is always of (a) a woman (b) a black woman and (c) a very fat or very skinny black woman. And these posts get thousands of likes and comments! It's distressing and shameful to see the kind of people who react with anything other than disgust at such pots - and these are not some psychos, but normal people who you could meet everyday. This racism is just so normal that there isn't even a discussion on it - just a stunned denial when it is pointed out.

India needs to talk about this - and a new generation is. But it is happening very slowly, and not at all among older people.

A coup on the judiciary

Pakistan is no stranger to military coups - since Partition from India in 1947, the country has been under martial rule for over half of its existence, with the all-powerful Army exercising not just direct executive control, but also being pervasive in all aspects of life, so much so that even the official censor, which is a purely civilian institution, has representation from it! In most, if not all, cases, the Army's takeover was welcomed by a majority, because of their aura of being above petty politics. And yet, the country has continued to be in an unending state of turmoil, routinely being labeled a failed state.

However, things did appear to change under President Zardari, with the passage of the 19th Amendment. However, for anybody who knows the history of Pakistan, something had to give. Cue to the deadly killings of schoolchildren at APS Peshawar, and the country created the institution of military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism. In a unique experiment, for a short period of time, the army would be welcomed in to replace the judiciary, with the army chief himself signing death warrants. Since then, Pakistan has dramatically increased the number of executions thanks to the much-reduced standard of evidence. For all of the Indian judiciary's problems, at least the entire nation has not passed a no-confidence vote against it!

But what was supposed to be a temporary measure to meet an extreme situation has not become the new normal. This month, the National Assembly saw demands for a group of university students who lynched a fellow student to stand trial in a military court. What is purely a civilian affair, without any connection to terrorism whatsoever, is seeing demands for the military to step in. It seems, after decades of executive dictatorship, a new brand of military control of the judiciary is evolving in Pakistan. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dangerous U-Turn

Over the last month, President Donald Trump has made some stunning reversals on his foreign policy agenda. A man who vowed to end the thoroughly unhelpful and endless US interventions in the Arab World, best highlighted by former President Obama's disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria, now seems to have completely overturned his own position and is ready to go beyond his predecessor in terms of regime change and, who knows, boots on the ground?

It all began with the horrific chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria, which the Trump administration has blamed on the brutal Syrian dictator Assad. If the allegation is true, it would not surprise anyone, for that is how Assad and his father before him ruled Syria with an iron hand. The US attack on a Syrian airbase from where the chemical attack was allegedly carried out was a just and fitting response to Assad - no dictator in this world should be allowed to use such Nazi methods without consequences. The attack oddly silenced the massive army of Trump critics in the US, with CNN going as far as calling him 'Presidential,' not that he needs the praise. As TAC rightly noted, nothing seems to please the Beltway like war. But this was not war - it was a warning shot to Assad, and the message was clear.

Except that the very next day, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Healey, decided to declare war anyway, explicitly stating that regime change is the goal of the Trump administration as far as Syria is concerned. This goes beyond what the Obama administration did (declaring war and looking for regime change without committing direct military intervention or even publicly committing anything) and is dangerous, because it will leave a void for al Qaeda and IS to fill, which they readily will. Like it or not, Assad represents the most credible bulwark in Syria against terrorism, just as Saddam Hussein did before he was bumped off in the invasion of Iraq. For some reason, all this feels like an old, dusted story - does Trump really want to have an Iraq of his own to deal with?

Trump's U-turn is dangerous, for reasons that he himself has pointed out many times before with respect to Iraq. Assad is a brutal dictator, and it is best to keep him in a constant state of worry about International humanitarian intervention - but not regime change. For, without Assad, Syria will fall to IS and AQ, completing the vicious circle started by Bush Jr. (Iraq) and Obama (Libya and Syria). And it will be the US that will bleed the most, while Saudi Arabia's skeleton 'Islamic coalition' (which is not even on paper yet!) watches. This is a policy that the US can do without. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Dramatic War

Hannibal: Fields of Blood
By Ben Kane

My latest favorite writer of historical fiction, in my staple era of the Roman Republic/Empire, Ben Kane, continues to warm my heart with some action-packed wartime drama (what else from Rome?). Continuing from Enemy of Rome, Fields of Blood is the second part of the tale of the Second Punic War, and the fighting gets more fierce than ever.

However, as is necessary for historical fiction, the principal characters from the previous book continue to develop. Kane does end up creating a whole new ensemble of characters to justify some of the storyline, and that quickly became confusing. That did not, however, affect the general flow of the story, which was written masterfully. Most importantly, I did have to keep looking back at the map of Italy, which goes to show how well-researched the work is.

I'll definitely be reading more from Kane in the coming months!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A lesson from Modi to Trump

Chaotic is perhaps a charitable way to describe President Donald Trump's first two months in office. His defeat at the hands of Democrats as well as his own Republicans on the AHCA in the House, as well as his double defeat in court over his EO on travel from certain countries, have severely dented his image as a 'deal maker'. At this point of time, all he seems to be decent at are signing EOs and talking trash to the media (which is a skill in itself). So where does he go from here?

Trump seems to have underestimated the amount of resistance built into the system that he will have to deal with. In that, he has parallels with Prime Minister Modi after his spectacular victory in 2014 and once-in-a-lifetime parliamentary majority. No sooner did the BJP win that majority did the Opposition decide to turn the Rajya Sabha into a veto against a democratically elected government; indeed, the Upper House is so powerful that the government has time and again resorted to the Money Bill route to bypass the reckless opposition there. In Trump's case, the Presidential system makes this even more complicated, for even though his party enjoys a majority in both houses, they are not beholden to the President. Indeed, in the AHCA case, it was the Republican Party itself that sunk the bill, helped in no small measure by Speaker Ryan's odd tactics (hiding the bill in the basement, for example). In Modi's case, the government had to eventually buy peace with the Opposition - or use very creative means to break its unity and thus corner naysayers. Trump will clearly have to do the same thing, but whether Speaker Ryan can do that or not is in question after the AHCA debacle.

But even before the legislative tussles, Prime Minister Modi faced a problem: leaks. In a government that has a permanent bureaucracy that has been leached by the Deep Congress for decades, preventing information from getting out before it was time was going to be very difficult. Indeed, one of Modi's earliest campaign's was to discipline the civil service and end the culture of leaks. And that has largely been successful: in the initial days, all sorts of speculation and information kept leaking out to the media in a case of Sore Loser Syndrome. But by the time of the last Cabinet reshuffle, not one journalist knew about Smriti Irani's surprise removal from HRD, which was the biggest headline of that event. Demonetization was another exercise that would've been impossible without a water-tight information system. This is not to say that the media should not have information - it is absolutely essential they should - but there is a difference between information and access. The media has a right to obtain information and pass it on to the public; journalists do not have a right to privileged and exclusive access to information that rightly does not belong in the public sphere (yet).

For President Trump, the task is somewhat more complicated. The US allows for many political appointees who can be removed by a new president, so Trump is not hobbled by a permanent bureaucracy (although there are career bureaucrats in the underbelly of the Beltway). However, the US Government is much larger than the Indian one, and Trump has been extremely slow in replacing political appointees for all sub-Cabinet level positions. His top priority should be replacing all of them - a witch hunt of leak-providers is a sheer waste of time when there is a much more effective solution. On controlling the bureaucracy, President Trump, who has a phone call with Prime Minister Modi on the BJP's victory in UP the other day, can certainly exchange a few notes.