Whistleblower's musings... Then some trivia. Write to me at ranjanyumnam@gmail.com

Monday, January 30, 2012

Where are our better angels?

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has written a book that can change our perception of violence and give us a rare insight and a reason to smile about in this age of revolutions, cruel deposition of dictators, wars, civil strife, terrorism, and arms race. In his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, he tells us in our face, jolting our common sense, that we are living in the most peaceful period in the history of our species and that human beings have become less violent and nicer, more empathetic and caring about one another. Sounds like a crazy idea, isn't it?

This hypothesis of people becoming more serene goes against our gut feeling. If you turn on the TV, you will see news channels flashing images of terrorist attacks, bomb explosions, murders, rape and all sorts of violent crimes against women, children, minorities, animals and nature. Our newspapers are filled not with the triumphant declaration of truce, but with diktat for economic blockades with implied threats of violence to whoever not heeding it, never mind the worst affected are the helpless common people who just happen to be earning their livelihood and trying to keep the hearth in their kitchen warm. Hand grenades are easier to find than one gallon of petrol. And a dead body is cheaper than a detonator. I rest my case.

Not yet. Prof. Pinker contends that we are suffering from presentism bias, the impression that recent events are more significant and because of it, bigger incidents in the past are likely to be overlooked or belittled. Genghis Khan, the Mongol invader who lived in the 13th century, killed more people than the number of fatalities from September/9 and the America led war in Irag and Afghanistan put together. Our own June/18 is nothing compared to the number of people who got martyred during the Seven Years Devastation during 1819-26. Yet the more recent the incidents are, the stronger is the impression in our mind of their being grander in magnitude in terms of their sinisterness and outrageousness. The explosion of media and the traditional approach of media to focus on and magnify negative news have also given rise to this false impression. (Few had won an award or a grant for reporting the positive news).

Due to this notion, we have forgotten that violence was a way of life in the past and not just freak incidents like fake encounters. Digging into the statistics and data culled from the prehistory till the modern time, Prof. Pinker concludes that a person in the olden times was more prone to violence and more likely to die of it at the hands of another human being. Savagery was not a part of the cultural menu, it was the only menu.

"Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution--all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history," Prof. Pinker writes.

There are four major factors that have led men towards the peaceful path. The first is the monopolization of violence by the State which has had the effect of obviating the necessity of taking pre-emptive strikes by individuals against real or potential opponents and the vicious cycle that perpetuates it. It is now taken for granted that the State exists to protect the life and property of the citizens.

Second is the increasing lifespan of Homo sapiens due to better healthcare. Life is seen to be more precious and valuable now then in the Middle Ages when the life expectancy at birth was just 30 years or so. We can expect to live longer and enjoy life with the evolving marvels of modern technology. So, gratuitous violence that can end or hurt this prospect of an amazing life ahead is best avoided.

Third, societies have realized that symbiotic coexistence and reaping the peace dividends through trade and commerce is more beneficial then waging wars and destroying the scarce resources. The collateral damage of wars is too high, and if wars are won they are most likely to be pyrrhic victories.

Fourth is the growing general revulsion against violence and discrimination of any kind directed at people because of their nationality, race, colour, gender, political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation or physical characteristics. In short, the Rights Movement has changed our attitudes. Our moral compass has never been on a higher pedestal and has moved beyond human rights to include rights of animals and natural resources. Violence has lost its cowboy allure. It is a taboo.

Because of all the above factors, world has become more peaceful and even our neighbouring States have enjoyed its fruits and taken strides in development. Yet we remain an island unaffected by the global trend towards a conflict-free existence. Manipuri society is deeply embroiled in a culture of violence and it is getting more pronounced, which begs the question: What's wrong with us, the Manipuris? Why can't we abjure violence and adopt a more humane approach to address our grievances? Is the trigger for violence built into us from birth?

There's nothing wrong with us at the physiological level. We have not descended from the African cannibals. Our chromosomes are still normal. Our frontal cortex has not shrunk. Our testosterone levels are well under limits.

The problem with us, as Prof. Pinker might diagnose, is that none has been able to exercise monopoly on violence. There are too many dispensers of violence. Violence has been democratized and the number of its franchisees has exploded in this strife-torn State.

Ideally, the State should exercise all the coercive powers to ensure that no extra-state authority has an incentive to commit acts of violence. Sadly, the existence of the State forces has not deterred the non-state players, and they have struck at will. Where a strong State should be the sole arbiter of violence by concentrating all the powers of meting out violence in its hand to enforce rule of law, what exists on ground is a competition for domination of the violence landscape in which the State is just another contestant.

The State has become too soft and its writ has been compromised by bandhs and blockades, bomb blasts, kidnappings for ransom, shootings and killings which it has not been able to stop.

If the spiral of violence has to end, then it is to be thwarted by the threat of a greater violence upon the perpetrators by a Supreme Authority enjoying a monopoly on violence. The State should reclaim the position of that Supreme Authority. It should be quite obvious that people resort to violence when it seems the better bet. They resist it when it seems riskier than the alternative.

The trick is to make violence too risky and counterproductive for a person to even contemplate it by projecting the overarching specter of a punitive and invincible State force that can decimate the potential sources of violence at their roots.

Having said this, concerns remain of the State becoming too powerful with its monopoly of administering violence, in which case institutions must exist to apply checks and balances. The democratic institutions must rap on the knuckles of the State at the slightest hint of it committing excesses intoxicated by its own might.

As Mao Zedong said, "power comes from the barrel of gun". The statement is still true and the only common language the world knows is love-and ironically violence. As one study found out, 80 per cent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don't like. When stripped of all our basic inhibitions, we are still the hunter-gatherers in Armani, grappling with the constant internal battle between our id and ego.

The happy news is: comparing data across millennia, violence has unmistakably declined in its degree of brutality and quantitatively by its occurrences in proportion to the size of the population. But apparently because of some adverse planetary configuration at the time of our racial origin, peace seems elusive for the Manipuris. Our inner demons are strangulating the better angels, while the State is too soft and has not been able to contain and defeat our dark urges.

This gloomy situation can turn around for the better without waiting for an external Messiah to save us. The key to peace resides in each of us and to find it we should bring forth and act on our inner values of empathy rather than schadenfreude, love rather than enmity and harmony rather than discord-the better angels in our nature.

And that's why I say, ladies and gentlemen, let's give wings to these angels.

(The Better Angels of our Nature is published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books) and can be ordered from flipkart.com. Price: Rs. 550).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Republic Day, 2012

At the Republic Day, 2012 in Imphal on...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

5 wackiest ideas in school reform

(That’s not going to happen!)
By Ranjan Yumnam
I have been thinking about how we can do to improve school education in Manipur for quite a while, and who won’t think about schools when no one is going to school and education has been put on hold as if it were a commodity that can be bought anytime at one’s own sweet will. Of course, admission into schools and books can be bought but nothing can compensate for the vibrancy of receiving education in the classrooms.
After family, it is the schools and the teachers that prepare the future generation with essential life-skills and familiarise them to the core values of a society, like love, respect, tolerance and social-mindedness. With the current impasse still stuck like an arrogant mass of chewing-gum entangled in the hair, I am beginning to think in ways that only a character in Harry Potter could have thought. Here are my five wackiest ideas to rev up school education.
1. Throw away the textbooks: Yeah, I wrote it right. As kids, we had to literally buckle under the heavy load of books and notebooks in our rucksack. While weight of the books can be back-breaking and physically hazardous, quantifying education in Kilos on our back is retrograde and sends out the wrong message that education is narrow and limited. Education has no limits and no boundaries; you can’t hit a sixer in education, because knowledge is boundless. The goalposts keep shifting and the horizon of intellectual exploration is infinitesimal. Yesterday’s genius is tomorrow’s jokers. Albert Einstein’s theories will tumble someday like a pack of cards in the hands of a clumsy child, mark my words. My point of contention is that textbooks are not sacrosanct. They are only a pointer to discussions and further analytical thinking. Textbooks are like the bricks in the wall, a mental block. If we have excellent teachers, We Don’t Need No (Textbook) Education. The small print not only cramps the children’s outlook but also confines their learning to just what some potbellied professors prescribed as what we need to learn. That defeats the very purpose of education. Education is all about learning to think for ourselves and not to kowtow to some indoctrination of the current fad of what education should be. Our children need exposure to more exciting sights and sounds in the form of project works and practical hands on training. Our kids should be groomed as innovators and not just some fools regurgitating arcane mathematical formulas and Victorian English idioms. Schools education should be conditioned as an ice-breaking flirtation with the subjects of one’s aptitude which he/she can major at higher level. Take my example: I am a middle level administrator and the value of Pie that I learned in school never mattered to me in the course of my work. In fact, it will never be of use to me. Conclusion: learning in schools should be fun—a sensitisation and a socialisation process that is not supposed to be a Rote and Rot system.
2. Abolish private schools : Private schools create an oasis of privileged education in the desert and by having two sets of educational institutions; we are artificially dividing the students into two classes of humanity: Government school students and private school students. Education should be equitable, and I am saying it not because I am a Marxist but I dream of a system where everyone is assured of an equal and decent quality of education, irrespective of which family background a person is born into. Having only Government schools will also mount pressure on the State to improve the quality of its education delivery system. The State will be duty-bound to provide a uniform standard of schools system, owing to the lobby of parents, teachers and most important, the kids themselves. Let’s disown private education.
3. Fire all Government teachers : Nationalise the private schools but privatise the teachers and schools’ management. Fire all of them, if need be. Let teachers earn their salary, not steal it. Who told them in the first place that they are entitled to their pay-checks like the birthright of a princess? No work, no pay should apply to all teachers to curb the absenteeism that is rampant in schools. And with no Government teachers, qualified contract teachers will, of course, be the norm and they will compete like jealous lovers. They should love the kids anyway.
4. Make education democracy-free zone : This is the most politically incorrect statement but is also a nice way of saying “get rid of politicians”. Democracy is a doubled-edged sword. While it purports to bestow power in the people’s hand through their representatives, the same system also sabotages the ultimate welfare of the people. Instead of promoting a society based on merit, patronage and nepotism has taken over, courtesy democratic constraints or obligations of pandering to mob’s whims. As in so many other sectors, electoral politics has killed the rational planning of education.
5. Make education compulsory and free : Make the world unlivable for the uneducated. Deny them their passports, telephone connections, PDS, NREGS jobcards, whatever except on rare cases of mental retardation or physical disability. You talk of civil rights and liberties, I talk of empowering people. Make dropping out of school painful and nearly impossible. For this to happen, school education should be fully residential and free. Education should not pose a burden on families. It should be a liberation movement without blood and gunshots.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Pregnancy taste

How many kids you want to have? This is the question that population researchers have been asking, and as expected answers vary from one country to another—and within a country, from one society to another. One very interesting fact emerges out of such surveys: the number of kids a woman gives birth to is always one more than she would normally want. The reasons could be illiteracy, lack of access to contraceptives, male domination or recklessness in bed.

The good news is, all over the world, the fertility rate is falling below the replacement rate of 2.1. As we know, fertility rate of 2.1 is the magic number that causes the population to stabilise at a particular point while producing enough numbers of children to sustain it. In India, the southern States have achieved that kind of fertility level, but northern behemoth States like Bihar and UP seem to be runaway baby factories and adding numbers to their population like mad.

What is significant and the point which I want to highlight in this article is the correlation between the fertility level and well-being and prosperity of the society—or family, if we take the smallest unit. It has been borne out by several studies that falling fertility goes hand in hand with rising standards of living. What is the effect and what is the cause of this phenomenon? One social experiment was conducted in the Matlab district of Bangladesh, where the researchers divided it into two demographic groups. One group was provided all sorts of family planning assistance and tools; and the other (control group) was left on its own without any access to birth control strategies. The outcome was, the households with access to birth control witnessed a marked fall in the family size and rise in the living standards. Just the opposite happened to the second group.

It is crystal clear then that family size does matter. If you want to enjoy life—and as the LG ads would want you to say “Life is Good”—then have fewer babies. And this makes sense too as our society has changed. Our grandfathers used to depend solely on agriculture and the vagaries of monsoons. Now that is not the case. From an agrarian society, we have slowly made a transition to a service economy, where education, sanitation and employment in tertiary sectors have become more important.

For instance, a family owning a large swathe of paddy field with no tractors and mechanical devices in the 19th century was justified in birthing more kids because of the advantage of getting more hands that outweigh the cost of feeding the extra mouths, but it is uneconomical and plain foolishness to have a large family in the modern age. Education, for one, costs money, and if the trend of bandhs and strikes continues unabated, you might want to send your wards to pricey foreign educational institutions. No prize for guessing how much you have to fork out to provide that kind of world class education to your kids. Same goes for the cost of maintaining a decent standard of living like enjoying good nutrition and pleasures of life. It is simple arithmetic.

It is not so simplistic either if you throw in the dynamics of politics of democracy as is being practiced in India. While I vouch for We Two, Our Two, the Good Life, Good Standards of Living line, there is another school of thought which contends that minority groups like us should not worry about standard of living for the time being but keep making babies to boost our population.

This, in fact, is a pregnant argument. Even in China which has an authoritarian regime, minority groups are beyond the purview of its One Child Policy. There is a genuine fear that larger groups might gobble up the tiny ethnic groups and eliminate them from the face of the Earth.

That is our dilemma. We are faced with a very difficult trade-off between attaining a quality lifestyle pitted against the larger common issue of collective survival as a society with its own distinct identity. Democracy has to share the blame for giving rise to such a situation.

Democracy rewards numbers and the numbers translate into power. UP and Bihar are being rewarded for their runaway population growth allowing them to usurp more political mileage and bigger pie of resources, while well behaved southern States like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have seen Central grants reduced over the years and possibly fewer MP seats in the future. It is unfair; while we try to control population explosion, the rogue States are given prizes and the performing States are being whipped.

Bihar has the highest fertility rate at 4 followed by UP at 3.8. This has great implications for the whole population of India since these two States are giant elephants of the Indian population.
At present, Manipur has a fertility rate of 2.8 against the national average of 2.7. So what model should we follow? Imitate Bihar and risks plummeting further into chaos and erosion of social fabric? Follow Kerala model and risks being penalized?

As with education, I would rather go for quality than quantity. It’s better to have quality human capital that can compete with the world than raise a bunch of semi-literate, poor and angry uncontrollable freaks that would lead to more law and order situation and pollute the world’s ecosystem.
And by the way, if we look at the human history, it is amazing how much change one person can bring in the world, for good or for bad. We just need a good leader, some more superstars in sports, arts and culture, and then jack up the education system to produce confident players in the global intellectual and economic arena.

So don’t listen to the population bigots. Keep your family small and make your State proud by producing model citizens. From More to Moods!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Me, Myself and Manipur

FROM whatever angle one chooses to look, Manipur’s problems defy solution. There are several intractable issues and there is no quick-fix formula for what many observers believe are probably problems of Maipuri society’s own making, that which stem from indecisiveness, lack of resolve and self-serving orientation. This last is the most critical.

It will not be wide off the mark to suggest that most Manipuris behave like an island unto themselves and, if given the choice, would hoist their own flag and establish foreign missions. Self-interest, rather than public interest, has become their motto and a yardstick to determine their course of action in private and public life. Call it ambition or egoism — the choice is yours — individual advancement and glory are what the average Manipuri craves, compelled by the prevailing circumstances.

An example: Manipur reels under severe power cuts, yet everyone blames the government instead of doing something to alleviate the sufferance. One may marvel at their apparently sadistic stoicism, but, no, they are also defaulters when it comes to paying electricity bills. “If you don’t pay up, then shut up, no more free lunches,” says the government, even if that is a little harsh for its grilling citizens with a three-hour power cut every day. Clearly, Manipuris are suffering from electricity anorexia.

They love bandhs, dharnas, strikes and joint action committes, but not when it comes to a case of “let there be light”. Which makes one wonder whether these are the same people who erupt in uncontrollable rage against the murder of a Manorama Devi, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Nagalim issue. Mind you, this is the same society that gave birth to Irom Chanu Sharmila, an icon of the struggle against the Army’s presence!

It all boils down to the fact that self-aggrandisement and comfort, more than a collective shoring up of the public good, is the accepted commandment. Instead of chiding the government and following through, Manipuris resort to convenient, if not blatantly selfish, shortcuts — like buying inverters and gensets. Those who can’t, rot in darkness. Idealism, morality, civic sense, political conviction, fairness or patriotism are forgotten principles.

Every general election is instructive of these virtues (or the lack therein) among Manipuris. It is normally fashionable for them to lambast the shortcomings of the government and politicians, but come an election and they change colour overnight. Even the harshest critics rush to become cheerleaders for contesting hopefuls. Patronage in the form of jobs, plum contracts and access to the corridors of power are guaranteed if they hobnob with the right candidate. The bottomline is individual enrichment, not altruism.

So it makes for amusing reading when commentators in the local press talk of how the last assembly elections came to fruition with the peolple’s participation, and that Indian democracy had triumphed over secessionist forces. That is a hard pill to swallow given Manipuri fickle-mindedness.

That insurgents are very much involved in the election process is an open secret. Every political party or candidate is backed by one insurgent group or the other and it is difficult to agree with analysts who say that the smooth conduct of the electoral process is a clear rejection of militant organisations and people’s affirmation of their faith in Indian democracy. The ballot triumphing over bullets? That’s wishful thinking! During polls there’s calm enough, but the last ballot has been cast, the bullets take over. Bureaucrats serve merely as rubber stamps for underground organisations, and ministers too must do their bidding.

The point is, a typical Manipuri has no opinion about anything. Ask a woman if she favours the insurgents or the government and she will probably draw a blank. Depending on whether you classify her as a commodity or a confirmed opportunist, anyone can command her loyalty. She would sprint to the camp that gives her the best odds to quick and easy booty. Which is no surprise for a small state whose only bloodline entails scarce resources that everyone has an eye on. Getting access to them is guaranteed by either of two means — guns or political patronage. Mind you, the competition is tough so don’t blame Manipuris for being what they are. Their fate, until some miracle happens, is sealed.
(First published in the Statesman)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

AMADA and Global Warming

Going green and promoting environment consciousness is not the business of speciality NGOs alone. I mean not any more. Very few entities in the near future can claim to be socially responsible without espousing and embracing some form of green practices.

Climate change is real; it is no longer a fashionable term that we talk about to appear sophisticated and educated in cocktail parties, like AIDS used to be once upon a time among the elite circle. In many respects, it is even more dangerous than HIV.

We can avoid HIV if we take preventive measures and don't put ourselves in the harm's way. But with global warming, it's not that easy. It's hard to reverse the amount of heat trapping gases accumulated in the atmosphere if it exceeds a threshold, and that threshold is fast approaching.

Climate change is not their problem; it has become the common problem of humanity. And as the world has become flat—to use Thomas Friedman's distinctive phrase—we can no longer remain isolated islands of pristine air and be immune from the adverse effects of climate change sweeping across the globe.

My only grouse against AMADA—and here's the connection between AMADA and environment—is not with what they do with the drug peddlers and addicts, the twin parasites of our society, but with what they do with the contraband stuff they seize from them afterwards. Here's the reason for my disquiet.

AMADA's volunteers employ one of the most inefficient and dirty means of disposing their catch: setting them on fire. I suspect AMADA might have chosen this method as it guarantees a TV friendly spectacle and drama. PR is everything in a world increasingly defined by media created images and perceptions.

And by saying this, I am not implying by any stretch of imagination that AMADA is a rogue organisation that should be banned like the liquor it bans. I would be the last person to assert that burning a few litres of booze by AMADA's activists in Imphal could melt glaciers in the North Pole and raise the sea level.

On the contrary, I wish to see a perfect AMADA which is as passionate about environment as it is about its drive against drugs and alcohol consumption. Its crusade against substance abuse is laudable by any yardsticks. In a short period of time, it has demonstrated and set an example of how civil society can lead the way where the state, angels and meira paibees have tried and failed and now fear to tread.

Because it has spawned competition and inspired other organisations to join the anti-drugs movement, we may be now encountering fewer drunken slobs in the streets, in our homes, at the local tea-stalls and at our workplaces. Every alcoholic caught and chastised by the AMADA also means one abusive and irresponsible father/husband/neighbour less in the society, not to talk of increased productivity due to precious man-hours saved.

But strictly speaking, there is a flimsy link between this organisation and the global warming. Our concern, however, is not with the real effects of AMADA's activities on carbon density or their magnitude; the issue is how a mass-based organisation projects its sensitivity towards environment protection—the symbolic part that can influence people's attitudes.

The act of burning toxic materials as a way of disposing them is increasingly becoming obsolete, politically incorrect and morally pugnacious. So when some of our flagship civil society organisations tend to throw matchsticks at anything that is inflammable, there is a cause for concern.

The need of the hour is to set an example for our future generation that going green is not just Al Gore's fad, but a necessity if this planet has to survive. We can't do that by exposing our children to images of mobs setting up toxic bonfires every time they watch the ISTV news.

All these are not issues of mere academic interest. Already we are experiencing abnormal seasonal change, erratic monsoons, unprecedented level of air pollution and freak temperature fluctuations. Before we realise, the monster of climate change has reached our backyard, and its co-conspirators are our complacency and ignorance. Which brings us to the thought that if you are not worried by climate change, you are either a sadist or a very phlegmatic person.

Apart from that, our burning spree also reveals a little dark secret about ourselves. It is a manifestation of our obsession with violence and pent-up frustrations. As a society we need to introspect. We have developed a disturbing habit of setting ablaze to anything at the drop of a hat.

We raze down government buildings, our own schools and colleges, hospitals, vehicles and almost any public property—never mind the fact that it is the taxpayers' money, your and my hard-earned money, that is being annihilated.

We never ask ourselves, much less establish a deliberative culture: Will burning down an office property raise our salary; will turning our college into ashes confirm our part-time job; will petrol-bombing the library restore our linguistic heritage...

Did we ever question ourselves: Is natural justice being served to the family of a criminal when we burn their house for one person's fault; is putting the liquor on flames the only means of destroying it...the list is endless.
In most of these cases, the answer is no. Our fiery zeal for destruction reveals a vindictive psyche that pervades through all sections of society. It is not a healthy sign, nor a civilized behaviour.

So may I—as a well-wisher—suggest to AMADA that it adopt better, more peaceful and environment-friendly ways of disposing the bootleg that it seizes from vendors?

Can't it be just thrown down the drain? If this can't be done and if you are determined to kindle it anyway, then at least put the booze to a useful use, like using it as an alternative fuel to meet the energy needs of the AMADA's Mayai Loisang.

Making bonfires of liquor in plastic pouches increasingly looks like a primitive tribal ritual of spectacle, and a dirty one at that.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Whose cinema is it anyway?

"I used to think; now I read the Economist," says Larry Ellison, billionaire and founder of the Oracle Corporation. Any columnist or a newspaper would only dream to be eulogised in such lofty heights by a genius like Mr Ellison (his company makes softwares that make most of the e-commerce and internet banking possible on the World Wide Web).
Well, for all my admiration for the magazine, the Economist is not without its failings, which is quite human (it supported the Irag invasion). And that's exactly the point I want to convey to the readers. That nobody has a monopoly on truth. That often, in the absence of hindsight and facts that vested interests conceal from us, we can only make an educated guess, a surmise or a wild conjecture at best.
What's important - and I think more important than finding the truth in the post-modern world of hyper reality-is asking new questions, expanding the horizons of public discourse, breaking taboos, challenging the dominant views and giving a chase to sacred cows. And as for the verdict, let's leave it to the history - and if we are lucky to the foreseeable future.
With this note of human fallibility and man's indomitable spirit, beginning today, every fortnight, this writer wishes to start a friendly CONVERSATION with the readers on a flat platform. I say friendly conversation because I believe the era of an all-knowing columnist who pontificates, sermonises and preaches has had its best days.
Yet there are extraordinary occasions when we feel so irritated by something that we might wish to punish the subject of our ire to a gruelling lecture. In this case-no, it's got nothing to do with insurgency, which the Economist called "a racket" a few days ago - it's the Manipur's filmmakers that should be meted out this treatment.
Here's why. There are cinemas and there are cinemas. What distinguishes a national cinema from another is in the degree of originality of their craft, in terms of form, content, thematic treatment and visual aesthetics.
With all my respects to the doyens of the Manipuri cinema, the plain inconvenient truth is: we have been mere copycats of foreign cinemas, movement and trends, right from our first recorded film to the last. From Mainu Pemcha (made in Hindi, ouch) to the slew of today's digital pseudo-films, one word can sum it all: creative bankruptcy.
If it was the so-called French New Wave cinema (smuggled into India by another famous Indian pirate from Bengal) during the seventies, it's now the Bollywood, Tamil and Malayalam films that serve as the stylebook of the Manipuri films along with their inevitable song and dance sequences, pelvic gyrations, musical noise, warts and all.
Yes, our films did win awards at international and national film festivals, but we need to ask on what strengths did they achieve that recognition. I have a suspicion that they got noticed for the simple reason that they conformed to the tradition of the dominant cinema of the times.
The motivation of the directors of the celluloid era was most likely: "Hey, if I make a film like the Bengalis (read: arthouse), I stand a chance at this and that festival". The idea was conformity dressed up as non-conformism, and the product was Bengali realism, that was itself an offshoot of European cinema.
To be fair to the pioneers of the Manipuri cinema, despite their failings, they should be given the credit for introducing this medium in an age where most of the Manipuris wouldn't have seen even a still camera.
Nevertheless, I keep asking whoever is related to the Manipuri cinema a straight question: What is Manipuri about the Manipuri films? Most of the time, I get blank stares, a grin, a snort or a contempt for an answer. I fear there is no positive answer to this poser, and worse, we are in the denial state.
The first thing that pigeonholes Manipuri cinema as a regional cinema is our mindless adoption of the cinematic style, codes, gimmicks of attractions and devices of the Bollywood cinema - hook, line and sinker.
Songs and dances that remotely relate to the Manipuri culture are forced-fed into our films like they are our trademark. In films after films, they have been repeated so often that it has reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the tipping point, from where there is no return.
I don't say songs and dances per se are bad. One has to see the context. Minus the hysterics, the escapism, the melodrama overdose, the running around the trees, the lavish costume and settings and the songs and dance extravaganza, can one ever imagine Bollywood? To Mumbai based films, songs and dance are as natural to them as phanek is to Manipuri women. It is their identity that sets it apart from other national cinemas.
The problem is if we really want to establish an identity of our own, a distinct Manipuri national cinema in the pantheon of world cinema and not remain contented with the status of a poor cousin of Bollywood, then our filmmakers have got to wake up and stop playing second fiddle to an alien cultural product. Certainly we can't do it on the plank of plagiarism, as impossible it is as a cat trying to become a peacock however much it tries.
All is not lost though. There are young breed of filmmakers who understand the crisis in the Manipuri cinema and are trying to change the status quo of originality void. It's to them that we owe our support and blessings. On the brighter side, the task is not that tough also. We don't need to burn midnight oil to study the obscure film theory of Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisentien, European auteurs and rummaged through the archives of great cinemas of the world. The beautiful thing about being original is being effortless. And being effortless means being natural - being ourself.
The audience is also waking upto the great rip off that is happening. There is hardly any film now which runs for more than two weeks in the theatre, and this despite the convenient ban of Hindi entertainers. All this reminds us of the dotcom boom in the nineties and the eventual burst of the tech bubble.
Manipuri films are going through a similar phase. According to a source from the Film Forum, Manipur, in 2005-2006, there were about 70 films released. During 2006-2007, that figure has slid to about 30 films - a drastic reduction of over 50 per cent from the previous year's record output.
The message is loud and clear: no matter which foreign location you take your crew for shooting or hire helicopters and camels to make your actors look like John Abraham, people are not going to fall for your subterfuge. The novelty factor of the digital medium alone would no longer be able to attract the audiences. That era has passed. People now want substance, not some cosmetic layer of sophistication that is showing signs of cracks.
Fret not. Originality in making films or building an identity is not a rocket science either. If you can make a film that portrays the reality of our society, her ideals, values, aspirations, contradictions and conflicts, then you are already starting to make a difference and escape the suffocating mould.
Our films should help us shape the contours of our public debate and showcase Manipuri society to others. Filmmakers should understand that they have a responsibility towards society, besides the commercial motive. Otherwise they might as well as make porn.
It is desirable that filmmakers addicted incorrigibly to the Bollywood approach should start making silent films and documentaries to exorcise the ghosts of Mumbai from their systems. This exercise, I believe, will also force them to use visual metaphors and similes and learn the distinct language of cinema.
Many a time, our directors forget films are not radio plays based on dialogues. Secondly, please spare us the songs out from our films. As long as we have them in our films, our claim to being a national cinema will be ridiculed and forever be doomed. Ask yourself whether you want to be a great copy of Ram Gopal Verma or yourself.
What perplexes me is: Why don't we find lip synching artistes funny as we would if we see Tom Cruise bursting into a romantic melody chasing Drew Barrymore in a Manhattan street in the unlikeliest of events. That's strange to me.
There's one more reason why we should now be ourselves (and it's not asking for moon). Alas, there are no more Hindi/Tamil films to be copied from; such is the speed with which we ape them.
And here comes what might be the slayer of the Manipuri digital cinemas: the very Bollywood potboilers, the mother of our lazy filmmakers, are all coming back to our living rooms, thanks to the DTH technology. And it's nobody's case to say that people would prefer the fakes over the originals.
So how would one define Manipuri cinema at this nascent stage? Perhaps as a visual radio marked by heavy imitation of Bollywood's aesthetics of attractions, songs and dance sequences and melodrama overdose that are incidental to the plot and narrative. And sorry, it's not worthy of being called a national cinema.
I don't know about you; it makes me mighty depressed.


Monday, January 16, 2006

There is no such thing as a blogger

An extract from an article by Simon Dumenco:
There is no such thing as a blogger. Blogging is just writing -- writing using a particularly efficient type of publishing technology. Even though I tend to first use Microsoft Word on the way to being published, I am not, say, a Worder or Wordder. It’s just software, people! The underlying creative/media function remains exactly the same.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Power of positive thinking solved!

This is what positive thinking can achieve. A young mathematician solved an unsolvable problem thinking it was his usual homework assignment. He didn't know that it was difficult, because he reached his class late after his professor issued a warning of its toughness. Had he known that it was one of the most challenging puzzles, he would not have probably cracked it. An inspiring proof of man's spirit.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A fine way of putting it

How to win influential friends and win over people who matter? Simply invest in golf clubs and head to the nearest Greens.
Move over P3 parties with their share of air-kissing and falling hemlines, Delhi has found a more savvy way to unwind and network. So instead of nightclubs and discotheques, Delhi's creme de la creme are meeting at the golfing Greens. And why not, if such dos come with a snob quotient that can give any midnight revelry a run for its money? "For one, playing golf is expensive and a privilege of the few. A golf club membership cost as much as Rs 3-5 lakh and the equipments also costs a bomb," says Rishi Narain, golf manager and former Asian gold medalist in professional golf. The membership comes with add-ons like access to swimming pools, gyms, and restaurants, which are offered exclusively to the members at subsidised rates. "These are quite attractive to the spouse and family members," he adds.
The very nature of the sport also fosters social camaraderie. "There is no other game that provides four-and-a-half hours of solitude to the two players. It's more a social exercise than a sport," says SK Sinha, golf manager.
But why is golf becoming so popular in Delhi? Why not Mumbai or Bangalore, which have more corporate whizkids than Delhi does? "Delhi has beautiful surroundings and an atmosphere of old world languor. The city also has history, culture, and the monuments. And of course, it has the best infrastructure in the country. What else do you need for the perfect golfing experience?" explains Kapil Dev, who is an avid golf enthusiast. Golf has become such a big hit in Delhi that even those who don't know a birdie from a putt go to golf courses. "The putting greens are a refreshingly peaceful place where you can meet friends, and be in communion with nature. Other than that, a golf course is a place for social networking, where important contacts and business deals can be forged. If you want to go to a place where you want to meet the who's who, it has got to be the golf club," says model Shefali Talwar.
For the same reason, celebrities like Suresh Oberoi, Diana Hayden, Pooja Batra and Manpreet Brar are thronging the greens. For Manpreet, it's a style statement. "A game of golf is very refreshing," says Manpreet.