Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Life inside a glass house

Why do we find reality television so irresistible?

They say curiosity killed the cat. There is, perhaps, a lesson in this adage for modern audiences — what with millions fine-tuning their voyeuristic side by watching people’s intimate moments on TV. But reality TV, as we know it, is not true voyeurism, because the terms of the content have been agreed upon. The contestants in the Celebrity Big Brother house know they are being watched, in fact they are there to be watched.

Reality TV, in case you’ve forgotten, is for the media savvy. Every couple that signs up for Temptation Island, every contestant who is vying for a job on The Apprentice, for every Shilpa Shetty wanting to revive her sagging career, or a Rakhi Sawant, who just likes being on TV — manipulating the audience is the key to success.

But why do we like reality TV? Is it the social experiment that appeals to us, its odd reflection of real life? Granted, we don’t normally experience stylised situations and we certainly are not stuck in a house with strangers for two months at a time, but the characters are people we can relate to: the bully, the beauty, the attention-grabber, and the quiet one in the corner. We love to love them and love to hate them.

Is it ethical to watch such fare? Does it even matter? The Bachelor, apparently looking for love by making a collection of pretty girls fight over him, is a sham. So what’s the catch? It seems we like to build up celebrities, and then we like to watch them. British psychologist, Geoffrey Beattie, has proposed many theories as to why people like watching TV. There is the ‘fairytale factor’, where people get interested in the lives of celebrities in the hope that, perhaps, they too can go from rags to riches; and then there is the ‘Schadenfreude Effect’, where people like watching the suffering of celebrities. That’s the catch. Going on a reality show doesn’t guarantee you become a media darling. Ask Jade Goody. The tricky part is that when you jump into the ring, it could go either way. Goody could have been the outspoken and brash one, but she became the bully. Shetty could have been the boring one, but she emerged the finest example of poise under stress.

Steven Reiss’s study on why people like to watch reality TV suggested that those indulging in this guilty pleasure have a trait of feeling self-important and, to a lesser extent, feel vindicated, free of morality and romantic. What he found was that people watched television to stimulate the intrinsic feelings they value the most. But, at the same time, life presented as a narrative is appealing — just see America’s Next Top Model. This is life in a microcosm — you face challenges, you cry, you learn and, at the end of it all, there is a big group hug. The highs and lows all rolled into one fluffy ball, with some fine editing to keep you on the edge of your seat.

If curiosity killed the cat, remember satisfaction brought it back.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Oscar's eye view

Picture writ large

While the Oscars are considered the highest accolade in filmmaking in the US (and even for international participants), many movie critics believe these nominations also reflect the mood of the country. Take a look at 2004, the year when Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won. Along with it, Mystic River, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander and Seabiscuit were nominated. A loose translation of the overarching themes of the movies that made this shortlist reveal the need for overcoming overwhelming odds, and fighting for what is right. The year started with the Iraq war, loss of the space shuttle Columbia, spread of SARS.
Now, a look at the 2005 nominees: The winner, Million Dollar Baby, was accompanied by The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray and Sideways. They won acclaim in a year that saw Bush’s re-election amidst a renewed sharpening of America’s cultural faultlines, the Atlantic hurricane season, Ronald Reagan’s death. It was the year of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The movies were ‘people’ stories putting the individual at their centre.
And if the Oscar nominations do offer clues to what’s on America’s mind, in the next year, 2006, the biggest movies highlighted a new questioning. While Crash exposed racism, Capote dealt with identity, as did Brokeback Mountain though in a different vein, Good Night and Good Luck searched for integrity and courage, and Munich explored the pain and anger in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Themes had shifted from the personal to the societal.

Party in the global village

This year, however, nominees for Best Picture cannot be swept under one rug: The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima.
But the complete list of nominees is far more revealing. 2007 is the most ethnically diverse year in terms of nominations. While there have been African-American winners in the recent past (Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx), this year sees a further opening up. You have Will Smith, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Djimon Hounsou and Forest Whitaker. Although there is some amount of anger and suspicion that Dreamgirls was not nominated for best picture because of an all-black cast, the movie has in fact earned eight nominations.
Hispanics are represented as well, with Penelope Cruz getting a nod for her performance in Volver, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s movie Pan’s Labyrinth earning nominations as well as Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s nomination for Babel.

She’s all that

In the past nine years no woman above the age of thirty-five has won the award for best actress. This year could be the difference. Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep have been nominated along with Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet, raising the average age of actors in this category.
Could the Academy be highlighting the new environmental trend that is sweeping America? Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is nominated for best documentary feature.
P.S.: Water has been nominated for best-foreign language film as a Canadian entry. If a section of India had not been so unwelcoming when it was being shot in Varanasi, we could have taken more pride in its success.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

subversive? moi?

I feel so Oscar Wilde-ish today. You know, when he says (in The Important of Being Earnest) "that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious and studied things of life with sincere and studied triviality"

Ironically, working at a paper has made me a duller girl. Well, not in terms of real life, I don't think very much can tie me down, but definitely in terms of writing. I've allowed myself to become a little.. boring.. if you will. Anyway, all these thoughts were racing in my head as I was looking through my archives, and wondering why I've stopped reading books right now. I was reading Shantaram but I didn't quite finish it. I want to pick up another book recommended by a friend which is about modern India, but haven't made my way to a book shop since I picked up Plum Sykes for a friends birthday.

Now, while I tackle these retarded tragedies in my life, the world has been quite abuzz with news. We're buying weapons from Russia again. By the way, it was pointed out to me last night that while Russia does jack up the prices of spare parts, the US does exactly the same. I quote my mother "they simply turn off the tap." Putin's our chief guest this year, and while on the subject of Republic Day may I add a side note? I was driving to work today, and with the roads blocked and flags all around, I just felt so in love with Delhi. I'm a sentimental git like that. Anyway, back to matters of importance. I know all eyes are on America now, with Hillary entering the race. I support her, no offence to Obama, but I just feel like she's got the guts (and much needed brains) to put that countries foreign policy on the right track. But I did come across this really interesting article the other day. It said the best way for America to break out of this funk is for the candidates to run on a bipartisan ticket. Guess who the first person to do that was? Lincoln! And as Kerry was willing to take on McCain as a running mate, this year too a Hillary-McCain ticket (or anyone else) could do wonders for the problems and morale of the country. After all, if you only say no because the others are saying yes, making partisan politics even more pronounced, there can be no forward movement.

I also want to ask, what the hell is wrong with the Incredible India people? While I totally understand that their 'open-letter' inviting Jade Goody was a funny/ironic/silly idea, now the woman seems to think or might even have to be an official guest! This is what you get for making racist remarks on national TV and then catapulting to international infamy for being a bigot. Ah. The irony. But another world about this Big Brother-Shilpa Shetty matter. The others in the house, Goody and co, were really not the sort of people you put above racist remarks so I'm not very shocked that things were said. Personally, I have never been a victim of racism although I have lived in other countries. But for many British Indians, it really hit home. After all, you build a home in another country and may I add contribute quite significantly to its culture, economy and the like, and you have to accept with a defeated sigh that the whitest of the white are still going to look down upon you and called you a 'bloody Paki'. Which also made me wonder (and my Paki pals, please don't send me slapps) but are we Indians just much more acceptable than the Pakis in Britain? Because 'blood Indian' just sounds like something you will ONLY hear in a movie set in the colonial times. Just a thought. Your mileage may vary.

A last point about the dangers of being so damn ignorant. A Romanian friend sent me the link to a really funny video last night. This Australian guy went around the streets in Texas asking people simple questions to which (of course) they had to answers. He took a world map and labeled AUSTRALIA as North Korea and no one knew the difference. When he asked people what country America should invade next, answers ranged from Italy (I mean, c'mon) to France to Saudi Arabia to anything else. And whats more, when he randomly made up the fact that Bush called 'x' country a threat to national security, most people said they supported its invasion. It still shocks me that the country with the most ignorant people has produced the best minds.

But to a real enemy of America, the Iranian president, Admadinejad. Most of the country is not as hard-lined as he is, in fact, many Iranians see the benefit in having friendly relations with America. Bush and Ahmadinejad can afford to keep fighting with eachother publicly because it manages to distract from their domestic failures, but we hope not for too long. But there is the catch: if Bush pushes Iran too much, then it would seem that the hardliners have been right about the US all along and could crush the growing push for a freer society. Sidenote - perhaps you read my post called 'Talking Politics', out of all the people I spoke to, it was the Iranian who asked me not to quote him. Mull it over now.

Did you also notice that the Oscar nominations have become more culturally diverse? That finally the US is not cutting Pakistan so much slack over allowing Al Qaeda to operate? That even though Israel's President has been accused of RAPE, which scares me to the bone. That Siddhu, our road rager who beats up old men, is still being supported by the BJP? That we still are not sure what happened in Nithari? That Bush might be pushing for a troop build up in Afghanistan next? And that soft power is becoming a buzz word again.

Ah, what is soft power you ask. Well, as Shashi Tharoor (who I will forever love for his book the Great Indian Novel) explained in a speech reently: (and I quote) It means giving attention, encouragement and active support to the aspects and products of our society that the world would find attractive -- not in order directly to persuade others to support India, but rather to enhance our country's intangible standing in their eyes. So Bollywood, Yoga, Goa pants, what have you. It is not a substitute for hard power, but definately keeps up good will for the country. Like how McDonalds made us all so happy when it came. We love you America for giving us FRIENDS. But, according to Joesph Nye, American soft power is at its weakest, as was obvious by events at Davos: it seems popular opinion is that only Israelis, Indians and Vietnamese have a good opinion of the country.

Anyway, I better be off. I have to decide what to wear this evening. And catch the dog and make her wear her coat which is going to be a challenge cause she’s chasing some imaginary arch nemeses outside. Ah. This crazy thing called life.

Monday, January 22, 2007

How about trickle up?

*I had written this when the reservation debate was in full force but somehow it got lost in a sea of articles. Then last evening I was talking to a friend who told me that it was only when he went to the States to study that he understood how to 'learn. Unlike learning by rote which is the way things go in India, in the States you apply the knowledge in real life. I have to agree, because outside of McGill and Westminster, only Mrs. Dayita Dutta of Welham Girls (my boarding school) showed us how to imbibe... not just memorize. Anyway, thats my little background to my little theory -- the importance of trickle up education.*

The questions of reservations have been growing; they went from employment to education to politics- they grew from OBC to Muslims to Women. Those that support reservation believe that the less privileged need a leg up; others believe that solid primary education is the key. Concentrating on the OBC's and Muslims as the only disadvantaged groups is a grave mistake. And counting on reservations alone is even worse. The Left points out that despite more private educational institutes in the country- the criteria for admission has remained money and that same goes for many high school and college performances; the secret is the after school tuition. The clamour and frenzied debate reflects birthing pangs of a developing country- where mercifully, two of the most coveted resources are education and employment.

This key element- the demand for education is what the government needs to tackle. Because, we will end up derailing the progress that India has made because we will have less merit based candidates in the educational sector- that means their performance cannot be guaranteed.At the same time, if the employment sector continues to grow, it will be essential that we have a work force up to the challenge.

But here's the rub: does all this reserving and arguing actually translate into quality education? The International Herald Tribune answered this question [26/11/06] claiming that only the top tiered universities forged the way to well paying jobs while other second tiered universities led students to meager paying sales jobs. As one student lamented, it is almost the same as not getting an education. While companies need candidates for their jobs, the kind of student
that is getting churned out across the broad spectrum of India's educational schools and colleges, is simply not good enough. It's the spark of creativity and initiative that is missing.

So what is the real reason? Is it the syllabus- is it the method of teaching? Is learning by rote totally obsolete in a world where questioning and independent research is the norm? The quality of teachers needs to be called into question. Does the government have an internal audit system by which they check the performance of the teachers in their schools? Are teachers sent for further training so that they understand new teaching methods and have new tools that they can use? Does the government provide books for all students? These are very basic questions at the very basic level that need to be addressed.

Despite the argument of reservations; a very basic point is this: why are we not making the efforts required that if a student needs to be accepted into a college, he can get accepted on his own merit? And for all students to be capable of acquiring the marks that are needed for this to happen, reservations are certainly not the answer. Now, imagine this: a student who studies in a primary government school, be it Hindi or in the regional language, finds that science and economic technology- which is in English after class 10, is completely alien to him. He learns English, but is uncomfortable to speak the language because his peers do not speak it either. In this case, the education is there, but the support structure needed to truly imbibe this learning is not. Now, take the example of the child of a migrant worker. His child, now in an urban center, goes to school- the first generation to do so. Again, he has the same problem. There is no money for tuitions, his family cannot help him because they are illiterate themselves. Now, just because he may not be an OBC or a Muslim, are we to assume he does not need help from the government? Observations such as these from NGOs operating in urban slums, such as CASP, need as much attention as vote mongering educational politics.

What we need to decide as a country is where we see ourselves in another fifty years, perhaps even another hundred and fifty years. Unless India aims long-term, other efforts will always fall short. The demand for educations and its necessity has been realized. In the midst of talk about trickle down economics, the reality (or perhaps the lack of) trickle up education has to be addressed. Accountability in the classrooms and support outside it- including adult education, which goes hand in hand with development- is crucial. Sure, reservations are one thing. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we could hope to become a merit based society and not crutch based?

Monday, January 15, 2007

crafting bush's legacy

Myth-making about the American president seems to have already begun

Sitting at a CII summit, listening to Brent Snowcroft — a former US national security advisor — give a history lesson to the audience (which included the president of CII, a former air chief, and leading defence experts), I wondered why he was engaging in this futile exercise. After all, if anyone understands that there has been a fundamental adjustment in world politics following the end of the Cold War, it was the people in that room. But then I read between the lines.

General Snowcroft had been NSA during Bush senior’s term. His speech made one point: the US is not used to being a superpower and because the nature of war has changed — it is no longer confined to battles between states — allowances for mistakes need to be made. Disingenuous, I thought, given that Bill Clinton did not end up earning the wrath of the world community for unilateral wars carried out under false pretences. But an alarm bell sounded in my mind. Just as Clinton became obsessed with his legacy at the end of his presidency, it is now time for the current president to make strategic moves so that he does not for ever remain as the man who went into war without an exit strategy and destroyed America’s economic surplus in the bargain.

So, here we are. The stage is being set. Snowcroft seems to be giving us the first rough draft of a George Bush mythology, by painting him a world leader in tumultuous times. It is an apologetic stance; the question put to you is, how can Bush be expected to have measured up to everyone’s expectations as the world undergoes this acute fundamental adjustment and when different regions have their own needs?

Now pay closer attention to this troop surge in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki, it is reported, does not want it but Bush’s spin doctors claim it is responding to Iraqi demands. If Bush wanted to salvage his legacy, should he not try and end the war in Iraq? Good question. But the answer, unfortunately, is no. Vietnam had a harsh lesson for the US: that withdrawal from a thankless war, which cost the country many young lives, could be political suicide. The failure in Iraq can be passed on to the next president — and if Bush is very lucky, it will be a Democrat president.

So what will his legacy be? It is going to be crafted slowly, carefully, until he leaves office. There is no re-election. So actions taken now have a different purpose. Watch and learn. If anything, Bush has taught us that the media can be controlled.