Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hardly Insignificant

Hope. Compromise. Failure.

Arvind Kejriwal embodies all three and in 95 minutes of an extraordinary documentary, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla let the camera tell it like it is.

In retrospect, what Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) managed was nothing novel. In the make-believe world of Indian commercial movies, it happens all the time. Though the real India is one of the most corrupt nations on earth at every level, in our movies it is always a happy ending. The corrupt system chokes the good guy, who then takes on it and after many trials and tribulations, wins.

That someone would be mad enough to attempt this in real life and make it happen was what took us by surprise.

Irrespective of what side of the political spectrum you fall on, do watch this documentary.

“An Insignificant Man” (AIA) will not change your opinion of who Kejriwal is nor does it try to. 

At the same time, you can plunge head-on into the teething problems of a new political outfit in a crazy democracy like India.

The folks at VICE have done us the courtesy of sharing it for free (YouTube link here) while ensuring that at least some income has been generated for its makers.

As Kejriwal and team cross that shaky bridge from activism to active politics, the camera ruthlessly reveals the discomfort and exposes the now-required hypocrisy. Immediately after a combative interview with an Aaj Tak journalist, Kejriwal is shown in deep study of his lowermost shirt button, his on-camera bravado now bogus and his awkwardness very real. In one riveting section, Kejriwal is taken to task by his volunteers for abandoning his ‘volunteers will choose who will get tickets, not me’ stance for a very dictatorial ‘I am the only one without an agenda so I make the final call’.

AIA is strewn with moments of cinematic gold like that where the practical world combats idealism and noble intentions are quietly buried. The impact of the scenes is only doubled when you remind yourself that this is not a story, this is real life!

Also visible in full measure, is the optimism people still leftover in people, despite decades of corruption, oppression and all-round hopelessness. That people still believed in the possibility of an honest political party is a credit to both Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the common man’s naivete, if you want to call it that.

If what I have written so far makes the documentary sound like a hit job on Arvind Kejriwal, my apologies.

Kejriwal is definitely the star of AIA and the deep faith that people have reposed in him has also been given due emphasis. But to not highlight Kejriwal’s and AAP’s deviations from the ‘high ground’ would have been dishonest of this brilliant documentary and it takes special care not to do so.

AIA does a great job of capturing Arvind’s surging popularity, specifically in the 2011-2014 period when for the long-fooled public, he was the messiah. Making issues like corruption, water and power central to his manifesto instead of the usual communal/patriotic pitches of the mainstream parties, he really carves up a special place for himself and his party.

The suspicious death of Santosh Koli, a popular grassroots level MLA candidate for his party and its impact on her co-revolutionaries is also very poignantly captured. It leaves one thinking whether it is really worth the trouble standing up to the powers-that-be. We are lucky that someone somewhere always does, leaving us to enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice.

The sheer disregard and disrespect that the BJP and the Congress had for AAP, which gradually turns into fear and very soon sets up them for spectacular electoral defeat - is the most rousing arc of the story. The reality of electoral promises and processes cause AAP to re-calibrate their mission in ways they had vehemently opposed in the past, right down to allying with the same party they had thrown out of power.

It is possible to do the impossible but as it turns out, impossible is only a variant of the possible, not the polar opposite of it.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Eaters of the Old

It’s not like we haven’t been insulted before. Yet some insults sting more than most.

It appears that some folks in China, says the Guardian, call us ken lao zu which loosely translates to “the generation that eats their parents”.

As a card-carrying member of that generation otherwise known as Millenials — I quit my standard secure job as an engineer to pursue my passion and am presently writing this from home… my parents’ home to be precise — that insult really hit home.

Lazy, self-indulgent, ambitious beyond our talents — all the perceived failings of our generation tied together in one grand put-down. One which must be replied to.

In the classic tradition of a debate, dear Chinese Millennial bashers, let me begin with what the prior generations are right about.

Right about the Internet in general and social media in particular flooding Millenial lives with generic 'night sky background, inspirational quote foreground' images.

Right about the fact that being different is such a fad in our generation now that even different is another form of mainstream by now.

Right about the You Live Only Once (YOLO) philosophy, that you accuse us of inventing and implementing, causing a noticeable ripple on the surface of surety.

Now for what may not be exactly right.

Beginning with the origins of YOLO. Making the most of the moment, be it the risky thrill of a skydive or the LOL hilarity of a cat meme are shallow, short term stimulations which suggest classic Millenial, don’t they? Say hello to Horace, a real toga wearing Roman poet from 2000 years ago. He first asked humanity to “Carpe diem” i.e. seize the day. Here we are, finally following up, on his wise old words albeit with a funkier interpretation.

Classic Latin and classic Millenial are not as far apart as you would think.

Then there’s our constant urge to be different, which may seem faddish to those who came before, but it is only because at this point, it is quite feasible to be so. Ideas spring lightning quick and near instant advice is easy to get. So, it is entirely possible for more engineers to make a living as full time artists and that more illustrators digitally design their wildest dreams. 

Millenials are not out to promote anarchy and instability. It’s just that it is a relatively good time to be chasing unconventional dreams and therefore more YOLO-ness.

This chase in itself is a common reason to be dismissive of the Millenials. Who do they think they are? Art, engineering or any other skill take at least a lifetime of effort to master, if not two or three. What would 140-character authors and filter-ish photographers know of the struggle and sacrifice required to get there?

This is where, dear Chinese Millenial denouncers, it is necessary to separate the hidden from the hyped.

Remember how Millenials are supposed to be careless mavericks? A 2017 Deloitte survey of Millenials revealed that 70% of them preferred secure full-time employment. Don’t go merely by the grand boasts of our social media personality.

The real us is someone fairly reasonable and quite sensible.

How about me then? Am I not the quintessential vampiric Millenial feeding off my parents?

Well, I must clarify that I put in 11 years of 11-hour workdays at my steady engineering job before taking up an interest of mine and in which no doubt, I will have to put in a lot more. I continue paying the bills around here, especially the Internet, as my home also happens to be my office.

Just because I am chasing my dream, it don’t mean that I am doing it with my eyes closed or at someone else’s expense.

Lumping Millennials into one pre-defined template is another fallacy. The earliest Millenials are already 37. On the other end, there are Millenials who just touched 23. Older Millenials like me clearly remember childhood sans the Internet and prefer that the camera be used for purposes other than taking pictures of one’s own face. Within the supposedly same generation, experiences and memories changed drastically.

But I do think that I speak for all Millenials when I say that we, the core consumers and producers of memes and viral videos and cheap celebrity antics, are very cynically aware of how virtual life differs from the real — of the time sucked away from important tasks, of the desperate tactics employed for Likes and of the fakeness of projected perfection.

Dear Millenial rebukers, as it was for every generation including yours, our behaviour has only been shaped by their times. Just because we didn’t prioritize stability and settling down as much as you, it don’t mean that those things are irrelevant. It so happened that we were dazzled by alternatives and continue to pursue them. Sure, it may seem that 30 is the deadline to turn ‘serious’ but recall that once upon a time, that age was 20.

Believe me, we too worry and care. We worry about the epidemic of fake news, the vitriol of online hate and what the neighbours would think.

In fact, today I ran into a senior neighbour of mine, for the first time since I quit my regular job. When he asked “How’s the job?”, being entirely truthful about my new 'job' would take some explaining. I went with “You know… just the usual!” instead.