Saturday, June 19, 2010

The issue of banning Tamil speech in schools

I had a chance to interview my esteemed nephew, Arjun - he was transitioning from 8th std to 9th std. In the middle of his very busy schedule of watching TV and listening to "Singh is King" songs, he allocated ten minutes for me. I will write the detailed interview later, but for now, I wanted to highlight something. The interview started with him asking me a question about writing in Tamil.
"Why would you write in Tamil? Write in English and a lot of people will read it", he said.
I said, "I have tried writing in English. It is not my native language and I write Indian stories, which sound stilted in English. My English is not fit enough for first class writing."
He understood this to mean that I had scored low in English. He said, "I get lots of marks in English."
I said,"But think about your logic everyone around the world should be writing in English. There should not be any Spanish, French or Turkish writing at all. That is not the case, right? There are enough people to read those languages and that is so in Tamil too. There is no real first or last in languages. Every language is equally good."
He responded with this: "If what you are saying is true, why does our school prevent us from talking in Tamil, ever?"
I was stumped.

A couple of days after this discussion the school near my home had announcements. It was the opening day and the principal gave a long, rambling talk as usual (in bad English - I have written about this here). This was the person who had banned facebook and promised to put cameras in every classroom.
In the middle of her talk she said this:"I don't want my students engaging in bad activities, such as talking in Tamil. I don't want that."
There were many parents standing at the door, since it was the first day of school.I wondered what they thought of this.

Where does this come from? Why is this not called fanaticism? How could any sane society tolerate that its schools ban its own native language?
I have wondered about this, but failed to come up with any good reason. It requires a bunch of sociologists to figure out what is going on here.

Fixing the Fanaticism
There is an important issue in balance here. You see, schools have a right, as private entities to fix any rules they deem necessary, as long as they submit to the education departments' requirements. The government cannot directly go ahead and legislate out Tamil hatred from schools.
There are two questions:
1. Why did we reach this stage?
2. How can we fix the underlying reasons?
It is easy to call the school principal an idiot. She is ignorant, sure, but she is responding to some kind of pressure or confirming to some social tradition, when she bans Tamil.
Where exactly is that pressure coming from? Is it coming from the parents? They are the demand side, the "buyers" of education. Are they expecting that schools completely ban Tamil within the campus?
May be to a certain extent, but education is a seller's market. A parent is constrained a lot in shopping for a good school - it is not like shopping for a product in a store. Your school has to be close to home, for example. It is not as if a parent would seek out a school and then can AFFORD to decide, "No, this school bans Tamil. I won't admit my child here." They can't, that is why there are long lines in front of every school.
Sure, we have reached this stage starting from colonial times. Knowing English was no doubt an advantage then. But what happened after independence? In particular what has happened in the past 40 years when ostensible Tamil lovers have ruled this state?

The Failure of English Education
Here is my shot at an explanation:
You start out first with the fact that your range of jobs immediately expands if you learn science and technology in English. We are a developing country and not at the forefront of research and development in most fields. The words that we use at work (Kalai Chorkal in Tamil) are generally in English. The process of translating Kalai Chorkal to Tamil is slow (although it continues to be done by admirable people). You are a better hire if you know learn technical subjects in English. This explains why schools offer two streams, Tamil and English medium, with English medium charging more. That is just Economics at work.
The next step is to speak English fluently - not just knowing technical terms or understanding documents. Ideally, (think about this carefully), your school education would be SUFFICIENT for this purpose. That is, if you took English as a language in your school, then that class education should make you fluent in English.
We all know that is not the case - just as that is not the case with any subject in our system.

If English is to be taught as a foreign language, then it should be taught right - with practice sessions and interactive classes - not as you would teach any other subject like History. If English was taught correct, it will be enough to learn it in the English class.

My point is that the school principal near my home forces kids to talk all the time in English because she KNOWS that her own school curriculum is INEFFECTIVE in teaching good English. If her school was effective, she won't care what language the kids speak outside of English class.

Thus, the myth has taken root, that you can talk English fluently ONLY if you talk in English all the time. That is what the schools are attempting and they do seem to make it a selling point.

So, my theory (I could be wrong) is that schools force kids to speak in English all the time because they have no faith in their own English teaching system. But you can't blame them. They are probably right in their belief. As I have explained before (in this article), the examination system decides how you educate students. I believe the examinations are all wrong. So that is what you get in your education.
How then, can we go about correcting this situation?

One way is simply a blanket ban by the government on such rules by schools. But it would be thrown out of court, at least for minority institutions to whom the government has no right to dictate. I believe that such a ban would also be an infringement on the rights of private institutions - who knows what else the government will ban next?

Second is to focus a lot on English education - this is completely paradoxical. But if you had excellent resources and require good English education standards at the English SUBJECT level, schools simply may not feel the need to ban Tamil. I realize this sounds very contrarian.

I also think that the Tamil Nadu government should do a LOT more to save the language from extinction. It IS the government's responsibility in this country. But that is for a separate post. Two related points here:
1. Modernise Tamil education too - stop the stupid "Manappaada paattu".
2. Teach some post-modernist thoughts at school. There is a common view that languages (or music or art, for that matter) are hierarchical and that there is a single path to modernity. The past forty years of post-modernist thought has completely broken this view, but it is not yet taught - as a concept - in our schools.

PS: Tamil society, in the world outside school, has fought against such school bans. There is a reason words such as "Peter" or "Mary" entered popular Tamil lexicon. In school and college the kids who spoke in English all the time (without reason) were thought to be uncool, when I was growing up. I don't know how it is now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bollywood is not about movies

I will make a case below but let me lay out my conclusion first - Bollywood is not the Hindi film industry. Films are simply ancillary to it. Bollywood is a brand, a brand that helps corporations sell products using a small clique of new aristocrats. It is really about manufacturing artificial demand, by a tie-up of big media, consumer goods producers and film corporations. The movies and their release are at best ancillary to their purpose. The original Hindi movie industry has been taken over and supplanted by these corporations.

A Voyage of Discovery
I remember watching the Hindi movie "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" in Devi theater, Chennai, back in 1999. This was Karan Johar's first directorial venture. The movie release was preceded by the usual promotions. One of these was an article in the magazine India Today. The magazine had a photograph of a college lobby with lockers for students and Sharukh Khan walking bouncing a basketball. The article said Hindi films were going through a resurgence in costumes, artwork and stories (I guess in that order). When I watched the movie I could feel it. The college in that movie seemed "like in America". The students had individual lockers (while my college barely had a bathroom). Kids went to a giant summer camp and the actors went from country to country. You would be forgiven for thinking that colleges in Bombay actually looked like the newer ones in the United States.
Later I learnt that the movie was a big hit in the United States and UK. Nothing critical came to my mind while watching the movie.
A few months later India Today again published a "puff piece" (as journalists call it) on the Hindi film world. It said that the movie industry was attracting the interest of corporations, both in India and abroad. The article mentioned that story discussions were now done using powerpoint presentations! There was talk of bound scripts and market analysis and such. The article thought it was a great thing. What could go wrong with that?
This corporatisation of that industry was more and more associated with professionalism. There was excitement that our movies would now be as "good" as Hollywood movies - after all Hollywood movies were made by corporations and now, so are ours! People talked of "genre" movies and much was made of Ram Gopal Verma's "Factory" production house.
Ten years later, there is not much to show for that corporate revolution. The powerpoint presentations seem to have made the situation worse. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Soon I was in the United States and the flood of promotions even there was astonishing. The movie Devdas was on the (desi) airwaves, television and online all the time. The movie did not do well in India, but it did well abroad. Suddenly we were in Cannes, for no good reason. Our movies were still bad, but Aishwarya Rai was on the red know, the carpet reserved for white people! Who designed Aishwarya's wardrobe? and so on.
Initially this was amusing but me and many of my friends were annoyed that Hindi movies were so "westernized". A standard movie started like "A guy and a girl are sitting in the Waterloo station, London, talking..". Most Hindi movies that we came to know about (that is, that were promoted) were very weird, to say the least. Almost all the movies were set abroad. Even if they were set in India, it was an India that most of us had not seen - it had palatial buildings in which NRIs landed in helicopters, for one. You would not see a normal road or tea shop.
Even "Dil Chahtha Hai" which was a great story, showed a "global" Indian - a person who flew to Australia and went to operas.
It would be fine if there were a couple of movies like this, but every movie was this way. It was as if the stars will not act in "local" settings.
It revolted me and many of my friends so much that most of gave up watching Hindi movies.
To make fun of this trend, I wrote a blog post four years back - here. That post is still one of the most popular posts in this blog. But I believe I got it fundamentally wrong.

Post 2006
In the last few years, the Hindi movie industry increased in its weirdness - which they now called escapism. Watching a movie like "Black" or "Saawariya" or "Jaane tu ya Jaane Naa" or "Kabhi Alvidha Naa Kehna" was excruciatingly painful. They all acted like they were born and brought up in the West, while talking perfect Hindi. The colleges, costumes and everything seemed..incongruent. It did not make any sense.

Please note that in the last ten years, Bollywood, in spite of its insistent rebranding and propaganda (that is what it is), is still a loss making industry. They mostly depend now on a nostalgic NRI community. Most Hindi movies flop.
You have to wonder, then, what is going on. I had noticed these trends:
1. That the national film awards committee now gave more awards to Bollywood movies and presented more of those movies in foreign award shows.
2. That the actors and actresses were generally drawn from a small pool of models, celebrities or star children. There were rarely any "normal" actor who was promoted. This is unlike, for example, the Tamil of Malayalam movie industries (although the trend is noticeable now in Tamil).
3. That the movies rarely addressed any "real" issues or social issues. They showed, at best, relationship problems. There were no comments on caste, or women's issues or even traffic.
4. That the stars rarely seem to suffer from a flop - they simply act in another flop movie and then another and so on.

Realization sets in
I decided early last year that I would look for economic reasons for people acting a certain way, instead of blaming individuals or culture. I wrote a long post on this here.
What are the incentives for Bollywood? That was the question I wanted to answer. In my post making fun of Hindi movies, I had assumed that their "imitation" of the West (that makes movies look like fancy dress competitions) was born out of foolishness. I thought they were simply like the idiots who wore flowing gowns to coffee shops.
But what if they were not? What if we are the real idiots?
In other words, what are the incentives that makes Bollywood run the way it does? How can they make so many flop movies and survive on the same cycle of incongruent stories, huge promotions and finally bad letdowns?
The answer came from a close friend. She asked me to look up the term "brand ambassador" and a few actors' names.
For example, if you search for Abhishek Bachchan and brand ambassador, you see that he is promoting Videocon DTH, Motorola, BIG 92.7 FM, Idea! and so on.
Hrithik Roshan, who has been giving out flops for a long time, is the brand ambassador of Acer, Provogue, ITCis John Players, Reliance Mobile and so on.
Well they are established actors, after all.. how about new comer Ranbir Kapoor? He has only acted in three movies of which two were flops, right?
He is the brand ambassador for Pepsi, Nissan and Panasonic India!
Where am I going with this?
The "actors" are not really actors. They are really fronts for an elaborate corporate game.
What has happened is this:
1. Corporations move into making movies
2. They realize, quickly, that instead of going the hard route of actually making good movies, they can make a lot of money for themselves and the stars by USING the movie as a way to sell merchandise, music and consumer products.
3. The actors now can make more money by making advertisements than in movies (By the way, in spite of all the talk about Hollywood, Hollywood stars do not act in many advertisements). Indian movie actors have become, basically, advertising models.
4. The actors tie up with products, the movie corporations tie up with products - and so people make money whether the movie is a flop or not.
5. Then they sell the movie for television viewership and make a lot of money there too.
Shyam Benegal described this in a recent CineBlitz interview - the focus is on becoming a star, because as a star you can make money sheerly out of a "brand" name. All that you need is name recognition. You do NOT need to have acted in any successful movie.
In other words, the movies are actually "events" which help companies launch product prmotions. They do not signify ANYTHING more than that. What we look for, story, screenplay, acting, camera - all of these are really irrelevant for the ECONOMICS of the Bollywood industry.

Hence, I present you the retard looking Ranbir Kapoor, the unibrow Imran Khan and the building of a brand.

In a giant tie up between corporate media,corporate production houses, consumer goods sellers and corporate PR firms handling each and every aspect of an actor as a brand - the Hindi film industry is now taken over by a bunch of carpetbaggers.

You know this - look at the amount of propaganda unleashed on us by the media houses prior to the release of, say, Gajini or recently, Kites. There is such a network of product tie-ups that is difficlut to untangle.
The sole purpose, now, of a Bollywood movie is to launch advertising campaigns. It has NOTHING to do with a movie.

This explains some of trends I commented on earlier.
1. It explains why the star pool is open to a small clique - because the members of the new aristocracy have better connections and better name recognition. If all that you cared about was branding, why would you use a nameless actor from Bikaner?

2. Very importantly, it explains the SUBJECT matter of these movies - if your whole goal is to increase consumption and promote a lifestyle that "looks" rich, then you can see why Bollywood movies focus on relationship issues in New York or action sequences in the Bahamas. Why would they ever show actual issues? Why would they ever show caste or communal issues? Most movies look like an American teenager's (a particularly stupid one at that) fantasy. This is not escapism - they have simply called it escapism to justify their path.

3. Also, it is pointless, given this, to accuse movie makers of copying other movies. If your core problem is that your movie industry is about selling products rather than movies, then who cares if those movies are copied?

The corporations have taken over the mantle of all those who came before them, in an actual movie industry and then replaced them with Public Relations images. And they have sold those images to us.

Who is the loser in this? The Hindi movie audience has been had for suckers.
Ten years after the much-hyped corporate entries, this is the result.

PS: There is a possibility that someone would read this whole piece and decide that the issue is really that I am culturally backward or anti-Western or even anti-Corporations. I will just point out a couple of things for such people:
There are many movie industries around the world that are run by corporations. Although they do have issues sometimes in quality and some bias in favor of corporatism, none seem to have reached the low-point of our industry. The Hindi movie industry was not at a very high standard even during the 90's. There was already nepotism in the industry. But the corporations took all that and made it the current monster (The only consolation seems to be that the movies still suck but at least they show London around). Reflexively cheering corporations was wrong.
The incentives now are set up to ignore good movie making. They think that is INCIDENTAL to the "product" success.
When I say good movies I do not mean "Pather Panchali" type. I know people jump at that. I mean commercial movies like Munnabhai, at least. Do not pass of Krish as some kind of great movie so that we all feel happy that "our" India made a super hero movie. That is all I am saying.
Finally, before you accuse me of being anti-Western, anti-progress (people think both are the same) and all that, hold on. I just don't think there are ANY colleges in India where the kids look, dress or dance like in the movie "Jaane Tu Ya...". I would love such colleges, believe me, I would hang out there all the time. It is just that the movie looks like it is a fancy dress competition where you say, "let all of us pretend that we are all in an all-Indian Ivy League college somewhere in the UK and that we are all born and brought up there and talk in Hindi and our parents are all Indian but let us just say we have English customs...and so on".
That is not escapism, it is pathetic. As I explained, that movie was really about launching another set of product promotions and making Imran Khan a brand so that he can become another brand ambassador.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My post in DailyKos on Israel and the USA

The below post was originally written for The article and comments on it can be found here.

After watching the coverage of the flotilla incident and the Israeli attack, in the blogosphere and on television, I could not understand initially why there seemed to be so much complexity in the debates in the United States. Here is my shot at an explanation. (I am an East Indian, and I could be wrong about some American history here).
The history of 20th century and the lessons that we should learn from it are a big part driving the flotilla and the blockade narrative in people's minds. And the media, government and intellectuals in the USA are UNIQUELY incapable of learning certain of those lessons.

Because the USA (as far as I know) has never been an Imperial country that maintained colonies and faced broad enough anti-colonial forces against it.
So, we have a) Britain, France, Italy etc who were colonizers and who faced very successful anti-colonial struggles on the one hand.
We have b) China, India, countries in Africa and West Asia, colonized countries that fought against such colonizers.
And then we have c) the USA, the current global power.
Countries in sets a and b know this to be true: that the twentieth century had SEVERAL great struggles - NOT just the one against fascism.
Thus as an Indian I know that the big fight that our country faced was not our small but significant participation in WWII. It was the fight against colonialism that really determines the lessons we learnt.
I think the British or the French also see the 20th century as fights against fascism (on which they were on the right side) AS WELL AS fights against colonialism (on which they were in the wrong).
This means that we both consider the lessons and history of colonialism to be important.
But this is not the case with the United States. Intellectuals in the USA seem to give singular importance to the fight against fascism and totalitarianism, while completely being ignorant of the behavior and lessons of colonialism. The American people I talk to are certainly ignorant that there is a point of view on issues held by the formerly colonized peoples around the world, and that point of view is VERY, VERY significant.
What has this got to do with Israel?
Simply that the tactics and rhetoric used by Israel "smell" very similar to a colonizer to an Indian, while the Palestinians come across similar to ourselves and our predicament hardly 60 years back. We "get" Palestine - while intellectuals in the USA (even those who support Paestinian statehood) seem to be engaged in a rhetorical quagmire.

The actions of the Israeli government or the Gaza blockade are not at all that subtle or complex to explore - collective punishment, extreme responses to individual incidents and ritual humiliation have ALWAYS been tactics used by colonizers. To explore this further, I have chosen the incident of Jalianwala Bagh massacre or the Amritsar massacre on April 13, 1919 in Amritsar, Punjab, British India.

You can read a summary of the incident here.
The restive city of Amritsar was under martial law in April 1919 because of an attack against an English woman by a mob earlier. A group of peaceful unarmed civilians gathered in the grounds of Jalianwala Bagh on the day of Baisakhi, the spring festival.
General Dyer commanded a group of fifty soldiers who opened fire on the crowd for 10 minutes.
The casualties estimates range from 379 by the government to 1800 by the Civil Surgeon.
Now, given that incident what tactics of colonizers can we learn?
1. The propaganda that the Palestinians only understand force
All the below are based on this article in wikipedia on the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and Reginald Dyer:
General Dyer, perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab 1919 wrote an article in the Globe of 21 January 1921, titled, "The Peril to the Empire." It commenced with "India does not want self-government. She does not understand it." He went on to write
* It is only to an enlightened people that free speech and a free press can be extended. The Indian people want no such enlightenment.
* There should be an eleventh commandment in India, "Thou shalt not agitate."
* The time will come to India when a strong hand will be exerted against malice and 'perversion' of good order.
* Gandhi will not lead India to capable self-government. The British Raj must continue, firm and unshaken in its administration of justice to all men.

2. Extreme responses to certain incidents:
Brigadier Dyer designated the spot where Miss Marcella Sherwood was assaulted sacred and daytime pickets were placed at either end of the street. Anyone wishing to proceed in the street between 6am and 8pm was made to crawl the 150 yards (140 m) on all fours, lying flat on their bellies. The order was not required at night due to a curfew. The humiliation of the order struck the Indians deeply. Most importantly, the order effectively closed the street. The houses had no back doors and the inhabitants could not go out without climbing down from their roofs. This order was in effect from 19 April until 25 April 1919. No doctor or supplier was allowed in, resulting in the sick being untended.

3. The disputing of certain facts:
After the firing was over, hundreds of people had been killed and thousands had been injured. Official estimates put the figures at 379 killed (337 men, 41 boys and a six week old baby) and 200 injured, though the actual figure was almost certainly much higher; the wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew had been declared. Debate about the actual figures continues to this day.
In 1997, the Duke of Edinburgh, participating in an already controversial British visit to the Amritsar monument, provoked considerable outrage in India and in the UK with an offhand comment. Having observed a plaque claiming 2,000 casualties, Prince Philip observed, "That's not right. The number is less."

4. The support of the democractic people of Israel:
On his return to Britain, Brigadier Dyer was presented with a purse of 26,000 pounds sterling, a huge sum in those days, which emerged from a collection on his behalf by the Morning Post, a conservative, pro-Imperialistic newspaper, which later merged with the Daily Telegraph. A Thirteen Women Committee was constituted to present "the Saviour of the Punjab with sword of honour and a purse."

and so on.

I am not comparing Jallianwala Bagh to the flotilla incident. I am comparing it with the blockade and such ritual humiliations and violence perpetrated on the people of Gaza.

Now, if the USA had actually maintained a set of colonies the way Britain did and then faced stiff anti-colonialism, then it is likely that some of the above defenses and actions of Israel would be seen for what they are - after all the history of the last two centuries is mainly about colonialism (for the majority of the people on the planet).
It is not hard for most people to recognise it for what it is.
Instead there is an exclusive focus among American intelligentsia on the struggle against fascism.
It is natural, if you use that struggle ALONE as a guide to view 20th century politics, to swear to defend Israel in any way you can.
But unfortunately that is not the actual case. There were many actors in the 20th century world and the world was not so simply split between fascist dictators and democracies as American intelligentsia seem to represent.

This is why I have thought of the "defense" that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East curious. What does that statement mean? Democracies have been known to colonize and punish colonised people, and otherwise engage in severe inhumanity. Why do American media think that a democracy somehow is incapable of such behavior?
The answer is clear - if you look at the world solely through the prism of a struggle against fascism (because you happened to be on the right side of it), then of course, a democracy can do no wrong.
It is just that this is a very narrow view of world history (and, shall I say, very convenient for the United States and Western Europe).