Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Men in black

Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent, was arrested in the US in September 2002 and later sent to Syria to be tortured. He was released after 10 months in confinement. Now, a Canadian commission, after a two-and-a-half year enquiry, has found that he was completely innocent. According to the Washington Post, "U.S. officials refused to cooperate with the Canadian inquiry". Arar's lawsuit in the US has been dismissed by a judge, citing "national security". Try and recall this the next time you watch "Law and Order" and marvel at the intricacies of the American justice system.

The Washington Post, with an eye for telling detail, claims: "Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black."

Black deeds they might be, but who says they have to be carried out in unfashionable attire ?

Friday, September 15, 2006


I recently watched Omkara on DVD. This hyped film is the second in a series of adaptations of Shakespeare plays by director Vishal Bharadwaj, who continues to be a very competent music composer for Hindi films. Omkara is based on Othello, and is a fairly successful transplant to an Indian context. The plot stays true to the original story line. The casting is quite good and the characters are well-etched. Saif Ali Khan is absolutely brilliant as Langda Tyagi, the movie's version of Iago. There are only two other comparably outstanding portrayals of villainy in the last 30 odd years of Hindi films that I can recall: Amjad Khan's Gabbar from Sholay and Sadashiv Amrapurkar's Rama Shetty from Ardha Satya.

One of the highlights of the film is its dialogue. It is carefully crafted, idiomatic, harsh and funny. It freely uses the Western U.P. dialect, which is close to Haryanvi. It is not easy to follow unless you know Hindi quite well. Cuss words, which have been taboo for so long in Hindi films, abound in Omkara. Gaalis referring to maa, behen and beti are aplenty. (If you are unfamiliar with Hindi, a gaali is a swear word and maa, behen and beti mean mother, sister and daughter respectively).

Strangely though, the script writers for this film (and others as well) suddenly turn coy for certain words. The ass is referred to, somewhat weakly, as the pichchwada. At one point, Langda Tyagi, in conversation with his sidekick, bemoans his fate by saying : "Teri aur meri kismat gadhe ke ling se likhi gayi hai" (Our fate has been written with a donkey's dick). Hundreds of millions of men who live in India and speak Hindi will readily be able to supply the correct words. I am not sure why this misplaced concession to good taste was made.

An interesting sidelight that caught my eye is that the main characters are all Brahmans, as is obvious from their last names - Shukla, Tyagi, Tiwari, Upadhyaya etc. My knowledge of Western UP is limited to recognizing it as the preserve of Jats and so the Brahman gangsters struck me as being unusual. A quick Google search reveals that gangsterism in western Uttar Pradesh is an equal opportunity employment scheme. I was worried there for a moment that the Brahmans were grabbing yet another coveted profession.

Gangster or Mafia backdrops are becoming quite common in Hindi films now. The first few of these were interesting for being realistic. Nowadays, the main point of the Mafia setting is to allow the director to show some gratuitous violence and to create a sense of menace. I generally found the earlier Mafia films (for example, Company) interesting for their reputed realism. Despite the highly competent performances and all round good film-making, somehow the Mafia goons in Omkara didn't feel as menacing and murderous as the ones in reality are.

Watch the movie if you get a chance. Saif Ali Khan's performance makes it worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Simple things

The 5th anniversary of September 11, 2001 has resulted in a lot of deep thought on the web and elsewhere about terrorism. Much American writing perceives this as a unique evil, a successor to fascism, nazism and communism. As America battled the great evils of the 20th century, so shall it win this "struggle for civilization", Bush said, and "lead the 21st century into a shining age of human liberty".

In all the noise about terrorism, I believe some simple things remain unsaid. I offer some here:
  • Terrorism is not a uniquley American problem. Defining terrorism as violence against randomly targeted civilians by non-state groups, we can identify several countries that have suffered for long: Israel, India, Sri Lanka and Colombia are examples. People in other countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, Britain and Spain have been victims of occasional, albeit brutal, incidents. If it is not a uniquely American problem, it is unlikely to have a uniquely American solution.
  • In almost every case of terrorist violence, there is a political context. This does not mean that the political context justifies the terrorism. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand the underlying political problem in order to solve it. Good police action will likely mitigate the problem but will not solve it. Terrorism is the symptom of an underlying disease. Treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease is a bad idea.

  • The elephant in the room is the unacknowledged political context of terrorism against Americans. The context has many dimensions, but one common underlying thread: the use and abuse of military and economic muscle to project power and earn profits around the world. In the middle east, what started with Iran in the 1950s is still continuing in Iraq today.
  • Terrorism is not an ideology. It may well be a tactic adopted by some ideologues, but that does not make it an ideology. Most often it is employed in the service of some political aims - Palestine, Punjab and Kashmir are good examples. Any particular strand of terrorism dies out only when adherents to its underlying cause dwindle in number.
  • Terrorism is too broad a category. Wanting to defeat terrorism is somewhat like wanting to end all violence. We may be able to curb violence (and control terrorism) but it is not likely that we will eradicate either of the two.
  • A good analogy for terrorism is cancer. Cancers are of many different kinds and depend a lot on context and individual circumstances. There is no panacea for cancer. Prevention and careful disease management are the keys to prolonging life. There are no guarantees that a particular regimen of treatment will be successful. (It is surprising how far the analogy goes. Radiation therapy is like the often brutal action by security forces. It damages healthy tissue without necessarily curing the sickness).

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration had declared a war on cancer. After about 35 years, even with the best scientific talent that the world has had to offer, cancer is not completely understood, let alone vanquished. I don't foresee the current war on terror faring that much better.