Friday, 22 July 2016

The Best And Worst Indian Prime Ministers

If I had to rank the four Indian Prime Ministers (in chronological order) who did the most to build India's economic foundations, they would have to be:
  1. Jawaharlal Nehru (built India's agricultural, industrial and higher educational foundations, preserved democratic institutions)
  2. Narasimha Rao (the famously "indecisive" executive presided over some of the most far-reaching reforms)
  3. AB Vajpayee (invested a lot in physical infrastructure, divested loss-making public sector units, was bold enough to conduct nuclear tests and force the world to make exceptions for India)
  4. Manmohan Singh (continued to expand reforms, laid the foundation for many schemes that Modi is now taking credit for)

You can see I am not biased towards the Gandhi family or even towards the Congress.
The worst Indian PMs (in chronological order) who did the most to damage India's interests, both economic and otherwise, were:
  1. Indira Gandhi (she more than made up for her positive contribution of splitting Pakistan, by declaring the Emergency and mounting numerous other assaults on democratic institutions. Indian democracy must have breathed a sigh of relief when she died. I certainly did.)
  2. Rajiv Gandhi (He created the 1991 balance of payments crisis with his profligacy, and was complicit in the first mass murder of its scale (the 1984 riots), plus his response to the Shah Bano verdict created an enduring social wound, and who can forget the Bofors scam in which he was most probably guilty? Awful, awful man.)
  3. IK Gujral (the bleeding-heart Punjabi dismantled India's elaborate spy network in Pakistan overnight. He should have been punished by being deported to Pakistan and forced to live there for the rest of his life.)

Most other prime ministers were either somewhere in the middle, with their positives and negatives neutralising each other (Morarji Desai, VP Singh) or did not last long enough to make an impact even if they showed promise (Lal Bahadur Shastri, Chandrashekhar). IK Gujral therefore has the dubious distinction of being the only PM who managed to make such a huge impact in such a short time.

And Modi? It's too soon to tell where he belongs. As of now, I think he has the potential to make it into either list. He has shown promise in both directions.

Friday, 24 June 2016

England And Wales After #Scorexit

Post #Brexit, the topic on people's minds is the exit of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK (#Scorexit), and what that will mean for the country.

Being an amateur vexillologist, my thoughts went at once to the flag of this new political entity.

As most of us probably know, the Union Jack is an amalgamation of three crosses, those of St George of England, St Patrick of Ireland, and St Andrew of Scotland. The latter two are diagonal crosses called saltires.

Here they are.

The cross of St George of England

The saltire of St Patrick of Ireland

The saltire of St Andrew of Scotland

And this is how they go up to compose the Union Jack.

The flag of St David of Wales is missing in the UK's flag, but perhaps the exit of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the union may be just the trigger to create a new composite. So here's my attempt.

The cross of St George of England

The cross of St David of Wales

I applied some commonly accepted principles of flag design, especially the one about colour placement (colours such as black and red should not be adjacent to one another, and 'metals' (white and yellow) should not be adjacent to one another either).

And ta-daa! The new flag of the United Kingdom of Lesser Britain!

Friday, 1 January 2016

Movie Review - Bajirao Mastani (An Allegory For Modern Indian Society)

Bajirao Mastani - a period romance with a subliminal political message for modern India

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's blockbuster movie "Bajirao Mastani" starts with a grand and ambitious allegory. The candidate for the post of Peshwa (prime minister and de facto ruler) of the Marathas under the nominal emperor Shahu is the heroic and confident Bajirao. Challenged to display his worth by splitting a peacock feather in two, Bajirao fires an arrow and apparently fails - the feather remains standing. Bajirao then asks the Maratha court to examine the lower part of the feather that was anchored to the soil. His arrow has indeed cut it in half - not along its length, as his challenger had implied, but into two shorter lengths.

Bajirao demonstrates his political allegory with a peacock feather, just as Sanjay Leela Bhansali does with his film

Bajirao's allegory then follows. The soil is India, and the feather is the Mughal empire of the Muslim invaders that has entrenched itself in Indian soil. If one cuts off its supporting lower half (the stronghold of Delhi), the Mughal empire will crumble. If made Peshwa, he proposes to establish the power of the Marathas by conquering Delhi and deposing the Mughals.

Needless to say, Bajirao's soaring rhetoric and inspiring allegory, not to mention the display of his martial prowess, win over the emperor and the court, and he is duly crowned Peshwa.

But what follows in the rest of the 160 minute movie is itself a grand allegory, and if the box office returns are anything to go by, its intended lesson is being welcomed in India as enthusiastically as the Maratha court welcomed the feather analogy.

But first, let's dispense with the superficials.

The sheer splendour and opulence of the palace scenes fill a viewer with awe. I knew that the Marathas rose as a major power in India towards the end of the Mughal empire, and might have gone on to conquer all of India had the British not made their appearance. But seeing their glory in such exquisitely rich detail is something else altogether. If nothing else, Bajirao Mastani inspires me to read up on the Marathas in more detail.

The battle scenes are dramatic too, although the very last one where Bajirao single-handedly takes on the entire army of the Nizam is over-the-top and unrealistic.

An early battle scene - Bajirao takes on Muhammad Bangash in style

Bhansali has clearly pulled out all the stops in making this a larger-than-life period drama. If his intention was to evoke awe at the grandeur and tumult of early 18th century Indian history, he has clearly succeeded. The entire movie is a visual treat.

The opulence of the palace scenes is dazzling

Speaking of visual treats, the human elements of this drama are delectable eye-candy too. One finds it hard to look elsewhere when Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao's wife Kashibai appears in a scene.

Time and again, we are reminded why Priyanka Chopra was crowned Miss World 2000

Deepika Padukone as Mastani is not so much glamour girl as warrior princess, and she is magnificent.

Whether defending her kingdom Bundelkhand against a Mughal Nawab or defending herself and her child against Maratha would-be assassins, she fights like a tigress

And Ranveer Singh as the great Bajirao does justice to his role as a giant historical figure.

As I will argue, Bajirao's heroism extends beyond the battlefield to challenge society itself

My personal favourite bit of eye-candy is the bath scene with a buff Ranveer Singh and the ever-ravishing Priyanka Chopra.

Eroticism needn't be sexist - this sequence can do something to men and women alike

On to the more substantive part of this review, then!

The entire movie has a subliminal political message. It is Bollywood's allegorical exhortation to Indians to be inclusive, and is aimed mainly at Hindus.

In the style immortalised by the Four Word Film Review, I would summarise Bajirao Mastani as "Hindus, don't be hardhearted".

The Maratha empire stands for Hindu-majority India. In contrast to that other period romance Jodha-Akbar, Bajirao Mastani is a story of Hindu ascendency, not of Muslim triumph. The timing of the movie's release is significant. The mood in India in 2015 is palpably different from what it was just a couple of years earlier. The Hindu nationalist BJP won a decisive victory in the 2014 election, and the saffron flag now flutters everywhere in India, virtually unchallenged. There is a mood of triumphalism among Hindutva supporters. This mirrors the rise of the Hindu Maratha empire in the early 18th century and the resurgence of Hindu pride.

Nothing secular about this state - Bajirao on his temporal throne with the figurative backing of Ganesha 

Set against this larger trend as background, the character of Mastani is an allegory for the Muslim minority in India. As a matter of historical fact, Mastani was half-Hindu and half-Muslim, and she herself had developed a syncretic identity (as her father says in the movie,"She worships both Allah and Krishna"). Such syncretism is of course viewed as heresy by Muslim fundamentalists, who allow for only one "true" god. In contrast, Hindus claim to subscribe to a more liberal, many-paths-to-one-truth philosophy. Yet Mastani's bridging identity was never accepted as such by the Hindu Marathas, and she was seen as purely Muslim. Moreover, she was not even accepted as a royal since they considered her father's Muslim wife as only a concubine.

To this day, India's Muslims, who are Indian by blood but following a faith that is foreign by origin, are often treated as invaders and foreigners, not as natively Indian. It is a matter of record that Indian Muslims are the most integrated and least alienated of all Muslim communities worldwide, yet that seems to cut little ice. The constant attempts to position Mastani as a courtesan rather than a queen represent the RSS view of Muslims as nothing more than second-class citizens.

The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture ... In a word they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizens' rights. - "We, or Our Nationhood Defined" by MS Golwalkar (the second supreme leader of the RSS)

Mastani arrives in Pune and sends back the soldiers who accompanied her from her native Bundelkhand. This is enormously symbolic. She has surrendered all power, and relies on the goodwill of the Maratha court to accept her. The analogy is clear. After the fall of the Mughals and other petty Nawabs, Muslims in India are no longer the rulers of the country. In a democratic setup with a Hindu majority, they rely on the goodwill of that Hindu majority to be able to go about their business as equal citizens.

Alone and vulnerable - Mastani arrives at the Maratha court to a hostile reception

By portraying Mastani in a piteously sympathetic light, the movie is appealing to the sentiment of its predominantly Hindu audience to accept their Muslim brethren as their own.

What stands in the way are several mental blocks in the Hindu mind, each symbolised by a character in the movie.

Bajirao's loyal wife Kashibai is India's Hindu majority, the original and legitimate claimant to the affections of the Peshwa (the state). Accommodating another woman in her marriage is asking too much of a wife. Why should Muslim citizens be accommodated as equals in a secular republic when India has historically been a "Hindu Rashtra" and Muslims arrived as invaders, as unwelcome interlopers? How could her husband betray her and cost her her pride by bringing home another woman?

Kashibai's "How could you?!" look

Nevertheless, Kashibai is the fairest and most accommodating of all the members of the Maratha court. She can see Mastani as a fellow human being. She thus also represents the accommodating and tolerant aspect of Hindu society,

The murderous and hardline priest Krishna Bhatt represents Hindu religious orthodoxy. It is the sentiment that invokes scripture to deny humane treatment of human beings.

Krishna Bhatt - The face of villainous orthodoxy

Bajirao's unbending mother Radhabai represents rigid social mores. She can acknowledge with pride that her son respects women and that he is fighting to give Mastani the respect that is her due, but she cannot take the next step to grant Mastani that respect herself.

Radhabai - "You may be right, but I'm not budging!"

Bajirao's elder son by Kashibai, Nanasaheb (who later becomes Balaji Bajirao), represents resentment and hatred. He cannot see beyond the fact that his mother has been humiliated by an outsider, and repeatedly asks Mastani to go back to Bundelkhand. The fanatical Hindutva hordes who harbour an unthinking hatred of Muslims and only want them to "go to Pakistan" mirror this attitude exactly.

Nanasaheb - a chillingly unremitting hatred born of resentment over perceived injustice

Together, the priest, grandmother and grandson are a dangerous trio. They will attempt murder and imprison the unwanted one the instant the Peshwa's attention is elsewhere. When a government fails to do its "Rajdharm" (duty of governance) and turns a blind eye to intolerance, the mobs will take the cue and go on a communal rampage to harm and kill the hated "other".

The issue of bigamy poses its own interesting allegory. The social injunction against bigamy ("No man shall have more than one wife") is analogous to MA Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory ("Muslims and Hindus are separate nations and cannot share a state"). Mahatma Gandhi's idealistic belief that Hindus and Muslims can live together in peace in a secular country mirrors the unspoken hope of Bajirao Mastani's audience that the two women can somehow reconcile to being co-wives, that the Maratha court and society can somehow find it in themselves to accept Mastani, and that everyone will then live happily ever after.

The contradiction here is what we all need to resolve in our minds. The law against bigamy, after all, takes no note of the will of consenting adults to enter into polyamorous relationships. The Urdu saying, "Jab miya biwi raazi, to kya karega kaazi?" ("If husband and wife consent, what can the law do?") comes to mind.

Cohabitation is a choice. We can choose to be rigid and doctrinaire in our ways, insisting on separation or apartheid under the excuse of irreconcilable differences, or we can choose to melt those rigid rules by consciously deciding to welcome difference as diversity and to live harmoniously with other people. By demonstrating how easily audiences will overcome their prejudice against bigamy in their wish for Bajirao, Kashibai and Mastani to be happy together, the movie is showing us that our mental barriers are of our own making and can be dismantled at will.

They're all good people. Can't they get along somehow? Is tragedy inevitable?

A tragic ending puts the final seal on this argument. Sad movies tend to leave a stronger imprint on audiences than others, as I discovered for myself when I watched Roman Holiday. The movie's appeal for inclusiveness is likely to be especially effective because of its unsatisfactory ending. The unspoken message is, "If you could end this story differently by making the Marathas more softhearted, would you?" Of course we would!

Crucially though, what should we see represented by the character who accepts Mastani, who wants her to be treated as an equal, who can bring up one son (Raghunath Rao) as a Hindu and the other (Shamsher Bahadur) as a Muslim, who loves both his wives and wants to keep both of them happy?

In other words, who is Bajirao himself?

He is our conscience.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Three PR Failures Of The Hindu Right

The BJP's General Secretary and RSS ideologue Ram Madhav recently appeared on Al Jazeera's Head to Head program, to face a tough interviewer and a fairly hostile guest panel and audience. His performance, which can be seen below, was nothing short of dismal, with a couple of needless gaffes thrown in.

It couldn't just be biased editing - the BJP spokesman was on the ropes or on the mat most of the time

While readers of this blog may watch the video themselves to draw their own conclusions, my analysis of Ram Madhav's failure is as follows.

1. On the topic of the interview itself, "Is Modi's India flirting with fascism?", he had the difficult job of convincing the audience that the situation on the ground was no worse than in the past, and that there was no climate of intolerance as the government's critics have often alleged.

2. On India-Pakistan relations, especially Kashmir, he had to sell non-Indians on the legitimacy of the decades-long Indian diplomatic position.

3. On the RSS/BJP's ideology, he had to make the case for "Hindu nationalism", explain what his organisation means by exhorting religious minorities to be "culturally Hindu", and to clarify related concepts such as "Akhand Bharat" (an "undivided India" that includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, on which I have written before), which could otherwise be construed as military expansionism.

At the end of the interview, it can be safely surmised that he utterly failed to communicate his party's point of view and to convince his audience on these three points. The angry buzz of right-wing sympathisers on social media, blaming everyone but him on the debacle (and indeed, blaming him only for being "too soft"), confirms my assessment that he got a shellacking.

What would I have done in his place?

On the first point, I believe there is little he could have done except engage in whataboutery. There is indisputable evidence that intolerance of criticism of the ruling party and its ideology has reached new depths. It would be dishonest of me to even attempt to formulate an argument for him to use, since I believe the allegation is spot-on.

On Kashmir, Ram Madhav had a wonderful opportunity to explain India's diplomatic stand, because a liberal audience such as the one he had is inherently favourable to an inclusive, as opposed to a parochial, philosophy. Madhav should have taken a step back from the Kashmir dispute to discuss its roots in the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.

He should have asked for a voice vote from the audience between Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of a secular state where all citizens would be treated equally regardless of religion, and MA Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory, under which Hindus were deemed incapable of living together with Muslims under a fair dispensation, and hence required to yield the Muslims their own state.

He should have pointed out how these two diametrically opposed philosophies predictably played out in real-life, since Pakistan's religious minorities decreased from about 23% of the population at independence to about 2% today, and the Muslim population in India increased from 10% in the 1951 census to 14% today.

Having won the voice vote, he should have proceeded to show how Pakistan's claim to Kashmir rested entirely on this parochial Two-Nation Theory, and was thus morally inferior to India's more enlightened and inclusive position.

Further, he should have pointed out that Pakistan made the first, pre-emptive and aggressive move in invading Kashmir in 1948 to take it by force, and that the line of control today dates back to when and where India stopped that aggression.

He should have ended with the hardline position that Pakistan has proven it cannot look after its minorities, and hence all of Kashmir should be with India.

On the Hindutva ideology, Ram Madhav would have faced a trickier challenge, since the Sangh's ideology is self-contradictory. It is true that there is an inherent liberalism of thought within the mainstream Hindu religion with regard to various schools of philosophy, yet the RSS itself has sought to make Hinduism less freewheeling and more rigidly doctrinaire in an effort to coalesce political support for itself. Nevertheless, if Madhav had downplayed the more recent Hindutva philosophy espoused by the RSS, and fallen back on the original pluralistic worldview of the religion that it claims to represent, he could have scored a few points.

From my own discussions with more moderate sympathisers of the Hindu Right, I can attempt to formulate a hypothetical line of argument for Ram Madhav, even if I don't agree with it myself.

The argument is that there are three broad approaches to religious belief:

The first is what can loosely be called the "Abrahamic philosophy" represented by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although the three religions have irreconcilable differences among themselves, what they have in common is the exclusivist attitude that their view alone is the right one, and all others are wrong. Others must convert to their doctrine in order to be saved in a spiritual sense.

The second is what can be called "Western secularism", which operates by denying religion any legitimacy in the public sphere. Religion is deemed to be a private matter, which must not influence public policy. The state and church must remain separate, and the state must treat all citizens equally, regardless of the faith they may profess.

The third approach is the "Hindu" one, which neither denies the legitimacy of religious belief in the public sphere, nor claims exclusive validity for its own brand. This can be seen as positive rather than negative when contrasted with Western secularism, since it affirms rather than denies what is dear to a majority of the world's people. It is also inclusive in contrast to the Abrahamic religions, since it respects the beliefs of every individual as true and as a valid path to "the truth" and to their spiritual salvation.

Regardless of the factual merits of the above argument, it will undoubtedly appeal to many. This is the argument Ram Madhav should have used to justify his organisation's socio-religious position.

Flowing from this, he could have argued that an Indian belonging to a minority religion could be deemed to be "culturally Hindu" if they merely accorded others the respect that they expected for themselves. In other words, if they shed the intolerant and exclusivist aspect of their own religion's doctrine and adopted the Hindu approach of mutual respect, then they would be "culturally Hindu". I have no doubt that Madhav would have won over a sizeable proportion of his audience with that argument.

Further, he could have used this to explain Akhand Bharat (undivided India). He did do a half-decent job of explaining it in any case, by saying it was to be a voluntary coming together of the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at some point in the future, but it could have been an even more powerful argument had he linked it to the "Hindu" philosophy of mutual respect.

[As an atheist, I personally favour Western secularism, since I don't believe religion has any validity in either the public or private spheres, but we are talking here about what Ram Madhav could have said, not what I believe.]

To sum up, I think the Hindutva organisations need to do a much better job of explaining themselves to a worldwide audience, because they are losing the PR war pretty badly. To a large extent, they do deserve it, because their philosophy is intolerant, and their stormtroopers (both the street goons and the online trolls) have cemented that reputation. However, some of their main ideological opponents, i.e., Islamists and fundamentalist Christians, are no saints either. These latter groups deserve to face a strong intellectual challenge to their intolerance, and this is possible from a position that is rooted in the broader Hindu tradition (See Lisa Miller's Newsweek article "We are all Hindus now").

Unfortunately for the Hindu Right, the BJP/RSS is probably the last entity that can lay claim to that tolerant philosophy. Someone else needs to make that argument. Ram Madhav's comprehensive humiliation before an international audience should have made that amply clear.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Agnostic Argument - 10 (Is Faith "Religion" Or Just Superstition?)

I saw this witty riposte to an anti-atheist question, and posted it on Facebook:

In response, one of my friends wrote:

Disagree with the false equivalence.

Those who do believe in God do not deny science. In fact many scientists themselves were deeply religious. So there is no case for someone believing in God to deny themselves the benefit.

Quite different from the point being made that atheists should not avail religious holidays because it certainly is the case they do not believe in God.

Of course the reason I feel it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the religious holidays is because they are an entitlement earned by working for x number of days for a company and not a reward for one's religiosity.

I shot off an immediate rejoinder quibbling that those who believed in a concept like "god" without proof could not really be said to be practising science, but my friend's comment did make me think a bit more about the relationship between scientists (i.e., those who could be thought of as practising science) and their faith, if such faith exists.

Specifically, the claim that "many scientists themselves were (are) deeply religious", made me think about ISRO's (the Indian Space Research Organisation's) former chairman K Radhakrishnan, and how he took a replica of the GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket and Mangalyaan (the Mars probe) to the Tirumala temple to be "blessed". As one who believes it was the meticulous research and calculations of the ISRO team that were responsible for the success of these projects, I was offended by the eminent scientist's genuflection towards religion.

ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan praying at Tirumala with a replica of the GSLV rocket and the Mangalyaan Mars probe

I could not visualise the head of NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA) taking a replica of one of their spacecraft to a church to be blessed, and I could not help wondering why an Indian (Hindu) scientist would think nothing of doing this sort of thing.

My conclusion is that people (even the educated ones) from less advanced countries have more recently been at the mercy of forces of nature than people from advanced countries. Death, disease, destitution and other major misfortune are part of virtually every family's not-too distant history. (My own extended family, over just the last three generations, has had many examples of needless tragedy caused by forces of nature.) This leads to higher levels of fatalism and superstitious belief. These attitudes of fatalism and superstition are wrongly and charitably labelled "religion".

To be sure, sudden catastrophes, both lethal and economically crippling, overtake people in advanced countries as well, but these can generally be traced quite readily to human agency. Traffic accidents, homicide and drug overdoses are the major causes of untimely death in advanced countries. Retrenchments/layoffs and marriage breakups are the major non-lethal yet potentially catastrophic events in the lives of people. Yet if we think about it, all of these events can be readily traced back to human agency.

In advanced countries, natural disasters do not claim as many lives. Deaths due to disease or animal attacks are similarly rare. Droughts or floods do not cause the same scale of economic havoc. In other words, people in advanced countries are less likely to be affected by "acts of God". The factors that impact on their lives tend to be obviously traceable to human activity and human will. No supernatural force need be invoked to explain any of them.

So I'm forced to the conclusion that the wider prevalence of what we think of as "religion" in less advanced countries is probably the result of a sense of helplessness in the face of an amorphous, abstract and malevolent Nature, which has to be propitiated and appeased if people have to be spared its wrath.

It's not surprising to me that 93% of the scientists who belong to the US National Academy of Sciences self-identify as atheists or agnostics. They are the elite even among scientists, and their families have probably been insulated for generations from forces of nature. It's small wonder that they are not tormented by the same background fear that haunts those much less fortunate.

In conclusion, I don't believe it's fair to defend religious faith by pointing to scientists who are believers. There is a larger sociological influence on such believers than their scientific training, and this is what accounts for their belief in spite of their training. In any case, such belief is not a positive, "spiritual" quality but a manifestation of collective subconscious fear. As the world develops and begins to insulate more of its people from the vagaries of nature ("acts of God"), I have no doubt that superstitious beliefs (wrongly called religion) will recede. Those trained in science will always remain in the vanguard of scientific thinking, and those from societies that are less threatened by the forces of nature will remain freer from superstitious fears. As both scientific thinking and social progress spread throughout the world, atheism will gradually replace religion.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sabari's Lesson For Sabarimala

The temple of the bachelor-god Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala has courted controversy recently, but the issue is a longstanding one, and not something unique to Sabarimala either.

[Sabarimala means Sabari's hill. The word 'mala' is a Dravidian one that means mountain or hill. It is not to be confused with the Sanskrit word 'maala' meaning garland.]

The basic issue is that orthodox Hinduism considers menstruating women to be ritually unclean, and therefore they are not permitted to perform religious rites or visit temples when they have their periods. The Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala goes even further in its restrictions. No female between the ages of puberty and menopause is permitted to visit the temple. In other words, the very capability for menstruation is a disqualification for entry.

In our modern world increasingly informed by egalitarian feminist sentiment, it's only a matter of time before such restrictions begin to be challenged, and a chance remark by a temple priest (perhaps quoted out of context) has ignited a furore.

In the social media age, the appropriate hashtag #HappyToBleed has begun to trend. This campaign is to challenge menstrual taboos in general, not just to seek entry for women into the Sabarimala temple.

In the face of such opposition, the head priest at the Ayyappa temple has dug in his heels and stated the bleeding obvious, that he will safeguard the "purity" of the temple even if he has to resign.

However, it's time to ask some fundamental questions.

One does not need to ask the most fundamental question, i.e., why do people feel the need to worship or go to a temple in the first place? Let us accept that that's a bridge too far for many.

If we accept that people have a need for religious expression, then the next question would be whether it is fair to prevent some from exercising that right merely because of some aspect of nature that they cannot control. If a divine Being created human beings, with all of our bodily functions, why would that Being find these functions suddenly objectionable when these humans try to offer worship?

Indeed, there is evidence in Hindu scripture itself that the divine is not so pedantic.

In the Ramayana, the exiled prince Rama (believed to be an avatar of the god Vishnu), came upon an old woman called Sabari (also spelt Shabari) during his wanderings. Sabari offered him some fruits that she had collected, but she only wanted him to eat the sweetest ones. So she bit into each fruit first to taste it, threw away those that weren't sweet, and only offered Rama the ones that were. Rama's brother Lakshmana was horrified, because of the cultural taboo relating to another's saliva. But the divine Rama looked beyond matters of hygiene to recognise the devotion and love of the old woman. He accepted and ate the nominally defiled fruits without a murmur.

Rama accepting fruits from Shabari that she had tasted first.
Moral: God cares more about devotion than about bodily fluids.

The lesson from the parable of Sabari is clear. God cares more about devotion than about bodily fluids. If the custodians of Hindu temples everywhere (including the temple at the hill ironically named after the old woman) learn that lesson, the practice of the religion would align better with its spirit.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Movie Reviews (Inside Out, Fantastic Four, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, Gentle)

I watched 5 movies on the 14 hour flight back from Dubai to Sydney, having slept throughout the 6 hour flight from London to Dubai.

Inside Out:

For an animated film, this is surprisingly deep in the seriousness of its content. While I'm no psychologist, I was impressed by its analysis of human behaviour and the functioning of the brain. The story is that of a hitherto happy young girl of 11 who is suddenly uprooted from familiar and pleasant surroundings and thrust into a markedly less pleasant world, with traumatic results. The five emotions in her brain, normally dominated by Joy, develop new dynamics when Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust also get a chance to exercise their influence.

The main takeaways for me from this movie are an improved appreciation of the so-called "negative" emotions. Sadness, for example, is useful to analyse problems and also to prompt connections with other people, Fear is useful to protect oneself from danger, and Disgust is also useful in preventing oneself from eating poisonous substances. One needs a healthy balance between all of them.

The best scene in the movie is the family dinnertime conversation between the three main characters. This is picked apart in fine detail using the mechanism of the five personified emotions within each character's brain.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Fantastic Four:

Compared to the 2005 and 2007 versions of the franchise, the 2015 movie failed to impress. I thought the characters were much better developed in the older series. Ioan Gruffud as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm were much truer to their comic book versions (and much more engaging as characters) than Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael Jordan and Jamie Bell in the 2015 version. Even the special effects, which one would expect to have improved in a decade, are not as good.

The 2015 film does attempt a change to reflect diversity. Johnny Storm and his father Dr. Franklin Storm are now played by black characters, while Sue Storm, still Caucasian, requires a change of background to become the elder Franklin's adopted daughter. While I favour diversity on screen to mirror society, I'm also a purist and therefore not sure whether tampering with the origins of comic book legends is such a good idea.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan:

They say people tend to cry more when watching movies on planes, and I was fully prepared to use this as an excuse when watching Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but thankfully, the much-anticipated need for tissues did not arise. Perhaps the combination of humorous scenes and some over-the-top situations made it far lighter. The film is a bold attempt at confronting both religious prejudice and ultra-nationalist sentiment within India, and it does succeed to a great extent. However, don't expect me to develop the warm-and-fuzzies for the Pakistani military and the ISI as a result of this film. Also, my negative feelings towards Salman Khan the actor prevented me from warming sufficiently to his character. You can't run over homeless people and ask your driver to take the rap in real-life, while posing as a sincere and devout person for the movies.

Still, when judged on its own merits, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a pretty decent film.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong:

I saw this movie on the way to Europe from Dubai, and I mentioned in my previous review that I wouldn't mind watching it again. Well, I made good on that by watching it again on the return journey. I have nothing to add to my previous review except to stand by it. It's certainly worth a watch.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.


I try to watch at least one example of "world cinema", i.e., neither Hollywood nor Bollywood, during every flight, and this time I chose a Vietnamese film ("Gentle"), mainly because it was just 84 minutes long. I found out during the final credits that this film has been loosely based on the Dostoevsky story "A Gentle Creature". The movie deals with the feelings of isolation and the tragic suicide of an emotionally delicate young woman who is married to a well-meaning but excessively formal and distant husband. Set as a series of flashbacks after the suicide, it has the depressing sense of hopelessness of an unpreventable train wreck. This kind of movie is definitely not my cup of tea, and I only watched it because it was short and I had not read the depressing storyline beforehand.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.