For Spectacular Cinema, Hop Off the Chennai Express Train and Head to Madras Café

Over the last year Bollywood has seen a revival of espionage movies centered around the trials and tribulations of *Research & Analysis Wing agents. The resurgence came about with the slick but slightly prolonged Agent Vinod. About five months later arrived a spy flick graced with the grandeur that is Salman Khan, Ek Tha Tiger. More recently there was the propaganda-ridden yet entertaining D-Day.

Now Madras Café takes a few pages out of history textbooks for inspiration through the eyes of a fictitious protagonist (a la James McAvoy-Forest Whitaker starrer The Last King of Scotland). Plus, when the lead star who also happened to be the Producer, touted the intense fare as India’s Argo, expectations only soared.

Will this new political thriller be able to hold its own with Shah Rukh Khan’s latest release still dominating the box office and stiff competition from a similar genre, Satyagraha, lurking around the corner?

The answer is an emphatic yes albeit the numerous set backs in Tamil Nadu and the United Kingdom.

While the film does depict the LTTE groups in a violent light, it does not take a pro or anti stance. Protesters feel otherwise.

While the film does depict the LTTE groups in a violent light, it does not take a pro or anti stance. Protesters feel otherwise.

The film commences with former RAW agent Vikram Singh (John Abraham) during his state of self-imposed exile where he constantly drowns his sorrows in alcohol. He then ventures to an Anglican Church where he recounts his experiences as an agent who spearheaded covert operations in Sri Lanka. Through clandestine means, he was tasked with dismantling the guerilla *LTF faction that his government helped advance during the *Sinhala-Tamil conflict.

As Vikram delved deeper into his mission, he learned of a larger conspiracy amidst the Sri Lankan Civil War to assassinate the *ex Prime Minister. Aiding him in his pursuit of truth is idealistic British journalist Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri). The mission’s consequences also began to take a toll on the RAW officer’s personal life which further motivates him to uncover the conspiracy. The fact that Vikram’s bureaucratic handler Bala (Prakash Belawadi) makes life difficult for him only adds another layer to the conflict.

First and foremost, John Abraham deserves great adulation since he banked on the brilliant script written by Somnath Dey, Shubendu Bhattacharya, and Juhi Chaturvedi. His cinematic acumen is clearly serving him well in that he has switched gears from the delightful comedy Vicky Donor to this unorthodox political thriller. The screenplay keeps you hooked from the get go especially considering the lack of stereotypical Bollywood elements. Whether you are an avid politico or apathetic towards international relations, thankfully the film does not presuppose too much familiarity with the Sri Lankan civil war. The writers cleverly depict the vested commercial/diplomatic interests rampant in world affairs.

Director Shoojit Sircar was the right choice to man the ship because his vision  complements the screenwriters’ historical research and watertight plot. He effortlessly tests the political waters like he did in his directorial debut, Yahaan. However, this time romantic sub plots or colorful song & dance sequences are nowhere to be seen. Chandrashekar Prajapati’s crisp editing is worthy of praise as assembling material chronicling a decade long war into two hours is no laughing matter.

For those who have visited Sri Lanka or lived in India during the 80s/90s, Madras Café will take them back into time. Such is the authenticity of the production design, camerawork, and locations.

In his previous outing, Action Abraham delivered the most bludgeoning performance as Manya Surve. This time as Vikram Singh, he enacts his part with the right mix of subtlety and intensity. New Yorker Narghis Fakhri clearly has a long way to go before her Hindi becomes flawless. Luckily she only speaks English throughout the movie even when the whole cast predominantly converses with her in Hindi and Tamil. Nonetheless with the linguistic barrier taken care of, Fakhri’s histrionics, not her dubbed Hindi, speak volumes. Prakash Belawadi’s portrayal of the antagonistic and compromised RAW Director is enough of a reason for major award functions to bring back the Best Performance in a Negative Role accolade. Ajay Ratnam resurrects brings slain LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran back to life via his rendition of *Anna Bhaskaran. Raashi Khanna does well in her brief but important role.

The movie’s only blemishes lie in minute details though. For instance, one of Madras Café’s central themes elaborates on the negative consequences of *blowback resulting from intervention in other countries’ affairs. This was briefly touched on in the first half when Jaya states, “initially we supported and furthered the LTF, now we have switched sides to the *TNA out of opportunism.”

Not to justify Rajiv Gandhi’s slaying, but it was his turncoat behavior that planted the seeds for his untimely death. Madras Café downplays that fact and instead attributes the overall blame for his killing solely to Machiavellian entities that felt threatened by the leader of an upcoming nation. Additionally, why does Nargis Fakhri’s character have an American accent despite being a British national?

All in all, this is a treat for those who enjoy the interweaving of historical fact and fiction. Get off the train(wreck) that is Chennai Express and head to Madras Café for some appetizing South Indian filter coffee.

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*Research & Analysis Wing – India’s external intelligence agency

*LTF– aclear reference to the LTTE

*Sinhala-Tamil conflict – The ethnic demographics of Sri Lanka consist of the Sinhala majority, roughly 70 percent of the population and the Tamil minorities, 30 percent of the population. After independence from the British in 1948, Prime Minister Solomon Bandranaike implemented certain language policies and educational legislations that began the gradual process of marginalizing the Tamil population. The Sinhalese believed that prior to independence they had been disenfranchised by the British while the Tamils rose to prominence. Hence the special interests (certain backward Sinhala communities) pushed for policies that the educational gerrymandering and unfair ‘Sinhala-Only’ Language Policy. As Tamils’ were relegated to the sidelines, a militant group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (which was the breakaway faction of Tamil nationalist parties/movements) used guerilla tactics to advocate for Tamil rights. Yes, the LTTE may have legitimate qualms, they resorted to terrorist tactics for the Tamil Agenda. India furthered the group by providing arms and training to them. India did this while acting both as a mediator between the LTTE and Sri Lanka and simultaneously propping up the group. All this just to appeal to the Indian Tamils who were also a major voter base. Eventually the Indian government deemed the LTTE of no use were of no use which is why they the group was rebuffed.

*ex Prime Minister – the ex PM was modeled after former PM Rajiv Gandhi

*Anna Bhaskaran – a character heavily based upon LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran

*blowback – unintended consequences of a covert operation that are suffered by the civil population of the aggressor government

*TNA – Tamil National Alliance, a rival group of the LTTE

‘Where there is blood on the streets, buy property’ – Baron de Rothschild

As clichéd as it is to start any piece with an oft quoted saying, I just could not resist it this time because it very much applies to the current state of our world. Plus what seems like real estate advice has instead become the law of the land. So here goes nothing.

Baron de Rothschild, member of the French-Jewish banking dynasty shrewdly advised, “Where there is blood on the streets, buy property.” Before I get accused of anti-Semitism, let me state that one of my best friends is a Long Island Jew and I was invited to his sister’s Bat-Mitzvah.

The past, present, and the most probable future indicate that this trend is alive and flourishing. Whether it is Iraq or Libya, so much blood has been spilled in the name of delivering democracy to the deserts and disposing of tyrannical despots. Let me further preface this by stating that by no means am I an apologist for these oppressive dictators and the terror(ism) which their regimes breed.

After this Al-Arabiya story of the Hezbollah’s alleged attack on the Syrian Rebel group   FSA (Free Syrian Army) broke, I knew I was witnessing a classic case of divide and conquer which only furthers the bloodshed Rothschild speaks of.

Rewind back to 2003 when George W. Bush directly invaded Iraq to topple tyrant Saddam Hussein and in hopes of uncovering Weapons of Mass Destruction. Even though at least the former goal was accomplished, the country is rife with more sectarian violence and a puppet Prime Minister who ‘cannot’ stand for the next elections. At least the then Commander and Chief invaded Iraq with American troops.

Now however, instead of directly taking military action in Libya or Syria, American foreign policy is going back to its roots by just providing insurgents with Uncle Sam’s finest weaponry. It is like they took a page from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Rule six in the third section, Attack by Stratagem, reads “Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting, he captures their cities without laying siege to them, he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.”

Recall the time when the Afghan Mujahideen got similar assistance against the Soviets from the US. We remember how that turned out right?

While Republicans and Democrats continue acting like rival detectives trying to blame each other for the botched up investigation that is Benghazi, Libyan rebels continue to receive the same support. Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) describes it best,

“Republicans smell a political opportunity over evidence that the Administration heavily edited initial intelligence community talking points about the attack to remove/soften anything that might reflect badly on the president or State Department. Dems in Congress have offered the even less convincing explanation for Benghazi, that somehow the attack occurred due to GOP sponsored cuts in the security budget at facilities overseas. With a one trillion dollar military budget, it is hard to take this seriously. It appears that the Administration scrubbed initial intelligence reports of references to extremist Islamist involvement in the attacks, preferring to craft a lie that the demonstrations were a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic video that developed into a full-out attack on the US outpost.”

He also goes onto state that the extremist rebels who destroyed the US consulate in Benghazi were the ones propped up by the United States to oust Muammar Gaddafi. All this so that most NATO members can ensure the sustenance of their war-based economies during the Great Recession.

Mr. Rothschild, you still remain immortal till this day as is evident through this perpetual war on terror and the vested interests of so called democratization. If one has failed to grasp how any of this applies to the aforementioned aphorism, I’ll put it this way. This is not a conspiracy theory. It is just a study of history that just keeps repeating itself.

“Where there is blood on the streets, buy property”

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“Destroy a country, profit from rebuilding it”

How to Gain a Filthy Awesome Literary Experience from Mohsin Hamid (for the third time)

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a few plot details from The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

*Desi – term that refers to people from South Asia, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh

As the sun rises in the east and arguably dwindles in the west, South Asian youth would be blind not to see the opportunities Rising Asia throws in front of their eyes. Fading are the times where ambitious *Desi youth yearned to pursue one of the North American Dreams or infest the lands (and airports) of the British .

In this rags-to-riches narrative, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the nameless city of prosperity which could be Karachi or Mumbai is a mere 2-4 hour bus ride away from our opportunistic hero’s rural village. A city in which the have-nots are slowly becoming the soon to haves.

Through the same second person narrator voice used in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, author Mohsin Hamid lets us wear the hat of one of the pivotal characters of his latest book. In TRF, the protagonist Changez referred to the foreign visitor in the Lahore café as ‘you.’ The reader was placed in the position of the American visitor conversing with him. The reader/visitor listens to Changez share his story about why he returned to Pakistan to become a debatably dogmatic professor after renouncing his life as a glamorous Wall Street executive. As the professor walks the foreigner back to his hotel, the visitor reaches into his pocket for a shiny metallic object. Then the novel abruptly ends.

The cliffhanger ending implicitly permits the reader to decide what that object was. Some claimed it to be a fancy business card holder while others believed it was a gun. Depending on your opinions of Changez’s decisions and the evolution/degradation of his beliefs, you have the final say in Changez’s fate. If you sympathized with him, the metallic object could have been that business card holder. If you absolutely despised what he had become, you could be an undercover spy disguised as a tourist sent to put a bullet in the extremist professor’s head.

While you and the principal character are synonymous in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, nothing is left to your discretion nor can you cater the unnamed protagonist’s fate to your own ideals. Consequently Hamid is candid in outlining the 12 lessons you need to go from being a have-not to a have it all. Each lesson below takes the form of a chapter listed below. They are certainly not meant to be satirical but rather instructive.

rules

The writing is brutally direct like the cut-throat environment in which the central character has to brave. Even if the reader may not be underprivileged, the author wants you to experience the harsh struggles and realities (financial and political) that motivate the have-nots to better themselves. Hence, Hamid constantly reminds us that to succeed in rising Asia you must have the same fire that fuels the economically disadvantaged even if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Therein lies Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant ability to make us root for the novel’s hero since we are absorbed into the soul of this cunning underdog.

Many comparisons have been drawn between How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and The Great Gatsby as they share common elements such as the pursuit of material wealth, damsel in distress, and spiritual symbolism. For those familiar with F. Scott Key Fitzgerald’s literary gem, remember the pair of bespectacled eyes on the decrepit Billboard which symbolized God’s judging eyes towards society? Likewise in Hamid’s novel, there is a drone satellite that circles around the city skyline which possibly represents the high tech omnipresence of god.

Naturally, Mohsin Hamid’s powerful verbiage is evident through Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. However, the ‘self-help’ aspect of this book definitely draws from management thinkers who emphasize on political skill instead of talent. Those fond of idealism-bashing management gurus such as Jeffrey Pfeffer will definitely enjoy this piece of literature. For instance the first paragraph in the chapter ‘Be Prepared to Use Violence’ highlights the Darwinian aspect of capitalism:

“Distasteful though it may be, it was inevitable in a self-help book such as this, that we would eventually find ourselves broaching the topic of violence. Becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else. For wealth comes from capital, and capital comes from labor, and labor comes from equilibrium, from calories in chasing calories out, an inherent, in-built leanness, the leanness of biological machines that must be to your will with some force if you are to loosen your own financial belt and, sighingly expand.”

Also, the chapter ‘Avoid Idealists’ is sure to evoke nods from those who believe that mainstream leadership/management literature offers unrealistic guidance. According to these realists, such guidance is embellished with rosy spin on how conditions should be during the journey to success instead of how they are. It is that peachy outlook towards human nature which can destroy you in Rising Asia. That’s why Hamid is justified in stomping on the rose-tinted sunglasses through which the reader may or may not view the world.

The only complaint I have from this book is that Mohsin Hamid deviates from his clear-cut tone in that very chapter. That chapter is not solely about staying away from those who live life according to how things should be. The first paragraph reads:

“Surely ideals, transcending as they do puny humans and repositing meaning in abstract concepts instead are by their very nature anti-self? It follows that any self-help book advocating allegiance to an ideal is likely to be a sham. Yes, such self-help books are numerous and yes, it’s possible some of them do help a self, but more often than not, the self they help is the writers self , not yours. So you’d do well to stay away, particularly if getting filthy rich tops your list of priorities.”

The ‘self help book advocating allegiance to an ideal’ diplomatically refers to any religious text. Religion is sometimes the sole force that keeps someone from compromising their ethics when the moral compass no longer functions. For that reason, why could not Hamid just boldly tell the reader to refrain from religion? The book already offers strategic proposals that are either ways bound to make some uncomfortable. Maybe Hamid did not want to draw the ire of mullahs through the explicit suggestion of abandoning religion for the sake of affluence.

r vs r

On the whole, this book is definitely worth the time and money especially if you appreciate hard-hitting, succinct prose. Mohsin Hamid has definitely scored a hat trick with his third novel so I suggest you run to your nearest bookstore to buy this prospective bestseller.

Do you think How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was a forgettable and insipid one time read? Feel free to tell me why or why not below.

Gentrification: The practice of displacing Indian slum dwellers AND below median income North Americans

Last week I was watching a news story about Mumbai-based social activist Medha Patkar’s stand against the Shivalik Builder’s Golibar slum demolition. A 13 year old cousin of mine who was watching along told me, “illegal slum demolition and displacement would never happen in a country like the United States where the government doesn’t disregard basic rights of its citizens by pandering to builders.”

Although my teenage cousin has yet to become world weary, I still felt the need to kindly refute his naive statement. Before explaining my reasons for disagreeing, I read a Fountain Ink piece by freelance journalist Javed Iqbal to find out what exactly transpired in Golibar, Mumbai. After reading the article, it is easy to draw parallels between the Golibar slum gentrification and a more tactful version of the practice I observed in the Washington D.C. area.

American developers (or builders as they are referred to in India) are just as guilty of leaning on state/local governments so their construction projects can see the light of day. In India the removal of poor residents obstacles for the builder’s ambitious structures is done by overtly dubious means. However, American developers resort to more sophisticated methods rather than forced expulsion.

If politics is the business of building bridges where there are no rivers, construction is the act of using politics to erect properties where people already maintain their humble abodes. The Indian builders’ methods range from public land grabbing to forced removal with the help of political figures. The ones displaced by the builders are the very helpless voting constituents of these politicians. On the other hand, destroying an occupied residential complex to coerce eviction would not fly well in a North American law and order landscape. Hard evidence of outright forgery and land grabbing supported by public officials would prompt instant legal action against the perpetrators. It has been established by the Indian citizenry that the construction-politics nexus exists to the detriment of many. In the western world, the construction-politics cabal is not referred to as such. It is diplomatically deemed as a public-private partnership of sorts.

Outside of D.C. in the town of Alexandria, the more politically correct brand of gentrification is underway through the Beauregard Redevelopment Plan. In May 2012 the predominantly Democratic Alexandria City council unanimously voted to let developers who own 5,000 apartments to demolish half of them in order rebuild more pricey living quarters. With the rebuilt and more expensive residences, the remaining 2,500 apartments’ rents will increase due to the rising values of the new surrounding apartments. As a result of those higher property values, the leftover tenants cannot afford the elevated rents. Hence, they are gently forced to move out.

Soaring rents are intended spillover effects from the presence of plush apartments, healthy climates for upscale businesses, and mass transit projects that many developers lobby for. A single new high end apartment complex, fancy designer boutique, or local train stop is enough to boost surrounding property values in a low-income area. When politicians appropriate funds towards infrastructure (mass transit, improved roads, and etc.), they indirectly displace the low-income and minority population.

It is troubling that the Democratic council members are of the party which supposedly caters to the working class and minorities. Most of the 2009-2012 term council members promised to work with developers who plan new projects in providing affordable housing for current residents. Refer to the issues section on the websites of certain Alexandria city officials for their false assurances. Here are the respective links for Frank Fannon (D), Rob Krupicka (D), and Del Pepper (D). Is it not ironic that these champions of racial/socioeconomic diversity approved a redevelopment plan that will discreetly homogenize Alexandria? It is almost like they support cleansing of this caliber but do not want to admit it.

There is a stigma that the political right plays dirty politics to thwart government-funded ‘growth initiatives’ for transportation projects. The hyper partisan political climate (on local, state, and federal levels) has only further galvanized liberal coalitions to support these growth campaigns solely due to conservative opposition. The mainstream media paints conservatives as the party detrimental to the middle and lower class. While that is somewhat true, at least the right wingers have explicitly disclosed their intentions towards socioeconomic minorities. However, the left leaning council in Alexandria has subtly revealed to the public how they feel about minorities. Nevertheless, I commend former Independent Councilwoman Alicia Hughes since she abstained for the final Alexandria redevelopment vote.

There are those who mistakenly claim that gentrification is not about the haves kicking out the have-nots. To them as regions transform and economies gradually require college educated workers, gentrification will continue to occur in areas that Gen-Y wants to live in. They are of the mindset that if a local is concerned about being displaced, he/she should push their kids towards education. If the kids are well-educated, the children can afford to live in their childhood locality once their area undergoes gentrification.

To assume that locals do not place emphasis on their children’s’ education is a myopic fallacy.  Protester Veronica Carzava asserted during the Beauregard Tenants association candlelight vigil, “we’re fighting for the right to have a house to live in, I don’t know where we would go and I have two children, and they go to school here, and I want they [are] educated here.” If that is not proof of a local’s desire to educate his kids, I do not know what it is.

Regardless of the party affiliation of builders or the policy makers they lobby to, affected Alexandrians took to the streets to protest much like the hard working people in Golibar, Mumbai. Does this mean that all property developers and policy makers are out to remove minorities and below median income populations? Absolutely not. I am sure there are many builders around the world who kept their promises of rehabilitating those who were in some way affected by their lofty projects. Now that is what I call real development.

Still think there is little or no similarity between the construction-politics cabal and the public-private partnerships? Sound off below!