Monday, November 29, 2004

Jab Raat Hai Aisi Matwali - Mughal-e-Azam

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Byline by M.J. Akbar: Jab Raat Hai Aisi Matwali...-'Mughal-e-Azam' The Movie

Now that George Bush can confess to getting "teared up" and win an election, I can make my own confession. I am a total sap for movies like Mughal-e-Azam, the wondrous classic about Emperor Akbar, his son Salim, and the dancing girl, Anarkali. The casting is perfection. Prithviraj as emperor: no one has quivered quite like him. Dilip Kumar as Salim: no one has crossed a heart with his sword with such poetry. Madhubala as Anarkali: no beauty better deserved a prince. Give me a map of my country rising above a plasticine medieval-Delhi-skyline on a large screen, a sonorous voice saying ‘Main Hindustan hoon,’ dollops of the sweetest language in the world, Urdu, and my eyes fill up like a river in the monsoon. Thank God movie halls are dark. What I was not prepared for was the intensity of the rest of the audience. It was a late night show in the heart of Delhi and the hall was full for the colour version of a black-and-white film first screened in 1960. I thought that only Sixties’ groupies would turn up to relive their comparatively innocent youth. It was an age when virginal love was considered scandalous, so fantasy had a wonderful time. The Sixtians were there, and looked frostbitten by reality. They had found husbands instead of Dilip Kumar, and wives instead of Madhubala.

The young people in the audience were clearly anthropologists who had come to check out what made the Neanderthals tick. They must have been shocked to discover that it was songs like Pyar kiya to darna kya, jab pyar kiya to darna kya; Pyar kiya koi chori nahin ki, chup chup aahen bharna kya! (When I have loved, why should I fear? It is love, not theft, so why should I sigh from behind a curtain?) It would need a social historian better than I to convey how powerful, even revolutionary, the idea was that love transcended fear, for every father was an emperor then, demanding the destruction of love in the name of some higher social principle. Emperor Akbar would not allow his son Salim — the future Emperor Jahangir — to marry Anarkali, a kaneez, a palace girl much above a courtesan but much below a princess because the honour of Timurid blood and the demands of empire would not permit a leap over social walls that held the establishment in place. In thousands of mohallas across India, millions of fathers would not permit a leap over the walls of caste and religion and language. And just as Anarkali, played by Madhubala, accepted in the end, so did millions of women who dreamt of a brief moment of defiance and glory that they could call their own and take to their graves, secret even from their children. All around me every Madhubala had become just another mother. Sitting to my left was a lady who, midway through the movie, spoke very softly into her mobile, a transgression I forgave for she was talking to a hospital about a patient. As in the last moments of the film a frozen Madhubala walked away to freedom and misery, bereft of a love she had been forced to betray, and the song in the background became a chorus of catharsis for us all, I could not help singing along with Lata Mangeshkar: Khuda nigehbaan ho tumhara, dharakte dil ka payaam le lo, Tumhari duniya se jaa rahe hain, utho hamara salaam le lo (God protect you, my love, take a message from a trembling heart; I leave your world, broken, but rise and take my last salute). The lady next to me began to sing as well. I am sure that both of us wished, strangers as we were, that we had the courage to sing louder.

These are some of the things that could shock the young. In a film of 20 reels, unravelling over three and a half hours, there is not a single item number. There is no hint of cleavage. Even the men are overdressed. The highest-paid playback singer in the movie is the classicist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was given Rs 25,000 for Shubh din aayo and Prem jogan ban… at a time when Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi received about a thousand rupees per song. (Classical Indian music in a popular movie? Isn’t that truly shocking?) Bahar, Anarkali’s competitor for Salim’s affections, played by Nigar Sultana, arguably as beautiful as Madhubala, wears a light veil when she goes to meet a stranger. Madhubala says namaaz for the life of Durjan Singh, son of Man Singh, who has just rescued her at the cost of his life to keep the word of a Rajput. The emperor prays to Allah, through the sufi divine Salim Chishti of Agra, for a son, and accepts prasad from his Hindu wife, Jodha Bai, after she has worshipped Lord Krishna on Janmaashtami. I could hear the credulity of one youngish voice break down in the hall. The scene was set just before the epic battle between father and son (the battle itself is a masterpiece of fusion between K. Asif’s direction and R.D. Mathur’s camera). A maulvi ties a tabeez on the right arm of the emperor with the famous victory verse of the Holy Quran Nasrumminallah-e-fateh-un-qareeb. Then a Hindu priest blesses the emperor as well with a saffron mark on the forehead. "Arrey," asked a querulous voice, "yeh Hindu hai ke Mussalman hai? (I say, is this chap a Hindu or a Muslim?)" The times are more liberal now, but the understanding is much less.

Why hasn’t a chain of Mughal-e-Azam boutiques opened up? K. Asif brought master tailors from Delhi, and specialists in zari from Surat to create an exquisite array of clothes. But the piece de resistance is the jewellery, made by goldsmiths from Hyderabad and craftsmen from Kolhapur. It was the most expensive, as well as the slowest, film made till then, and the passion shows in every intricate detail. The clothes may not find takers in a culture of pace, but the jewellery that Bahar wears would lead to competitive bidding in any elite environment. It could even be called the Bahar line. I visualise a jewellery fashion show ablaze with Mughal gold, ruby, sapphire, emerald, diamond and baskets of pearl. The models would wear jewellery and nothing else, of course. That would put their pictures in every newspaper and magazine around the world.

Bahar’s high moments come during two qawwalis in which she is matched against Anarkali. The first, Teri mahfil mein kismat aazman ke ham bhi dekhenge, Ghari bhar to tere nazdeek aakar ham bhi dekhenge (Let me test my fortune in your presence, Let me spend a moment near you), establishes the interplay of character, ambition, opportunity, love and tragedy. Prince Salim judges the two women. The rose goes to the upbeat Bahar, the thorn to Anarkali, who knows that tears are so often the price of love. She accepts the thorn, and tells the prince, "Kanton ko murjhanein ka gham nahi hota… Thorns never have to face the sorrow of decay."

It is a line that gets derailed in English.

With the ebb of Urdu a civilisation has diminished. Urdu is utterly civil, rooted in values and anchored in two words that supersede translation: tehzeeb and akhlaq. A "practical" Urdu-English dictionary defines tehzeeb as civilisation, etiquette, manners, politeness, courtesy, polish, refinement, instruction, education, discipline, culture. It is all this and much more, including that very delicate wit that nuances an idea or a sentiment with a sensitivity that becomes a bridge between lovers and a gulf between antagonists. Akhlaq is the practice of tehzeeb.

I wondered about the Urdu-deficit in the Delhi theatre hall. Forty five years ago, a film could be made in superb Urdu for an India-wide audience. Mughal-e-Azam also made marketing history in 1960 when it was released in 150 theatres simultaneously. Today film language is a pidgin patois bred outside known cultures. This does not make it good or bad. To state a fact is not to pass judgment. The relevant point is that the Mughal-e-Azam audience of 2004 seemed entranced by the music of words, and in the music lay the meaning. Urdu lives.

The denouement is marked by a qawwali that Bahar sings alone, for the conflict with Anarkali is over. Love has been defeated by power. There is pyrrhic victory for both women. Anarkali is permitted to become queen for one night, not — as the emperor taunts, because a laundi (slave girl) cannot give up the dream of a crown — but because, as Anarkali retorts, she does not want a future emperor of Hindustan to be remembered as a man who could not keep his word to a slave. In return, she must drug the prince to sleep while she is led away by guards to death (in the legend) and desolate freedom (in the film). Bahar has won the night, but lost the future, for she does not replace Anarkali in the prince’s affections. But she is permitted her final taunt, and she sings:

Yeh dil ki lagi kam kya hogi, yeh ishq bhala kam kya hoga

Jab raat hai aisi matwali phir subah ka aalam kya hoga!

How will this passion ever diminish, this love ever wither?

When the night is so delirious, imagine what morning will bring!

I have rarely come across a more startling and poignant metaphor for power. This is the story of every government, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Everyone in power is permitted the luxury of just one night, and no one ever believes that the night will come to an end. Deceivers promise a dawn filled with wine, when the truth is that dawn will bring a drug that will put the miracle to sleep. And you will wake up with nothing around you except loss; the mind swooning with the memory of what was, and the mouth bitter with the ash of what might have been.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Noh Drama

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  • Byline by M.J. AKBAR : Noh Drama

    Sincerity is Dr Manmohan Singh’s strength. He began as a reluctant Prime Minister, which itself is a rarity in the grab-culture of Delhi. No one thought that his reluctance was a sham, as is so often the case with politicians who torture renunciation to death. Over the few months in office, this sincerity has created ripples of goodwill that have reinforced his credibility and built a bond of trust with the nation.

    Could candour become a weakness? He was candid when he said in Srinagar that he had no mandate to change the geography of his country, implying that the best deal that Pakistan could expect from any negotiations over Kashmir is the status quo defined by the Line of Control. This was construed in Islamabad as a snub because President Pervez Musharraf has said more than once that if the LoC was going to be the solution then it could have been found in 1948. President Musharraf’s instant reaction was to check the voltage of the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Indo-Pak relations are both about horizons and process. Process demands a succession of open windows that both sides must strive to keep open. The offer to talk is not tantamount to a retreat from held positions, otherwise there would never be any space for diplomacy. Process is about optics and semantics as much as public negotiations and private parleys. It is a game of discretion in which patience is the ultimate virtue.

    President Musharraf has been throwing any number of balls into the air in order to check which of these might come into play. This is fine, and necessary. But the temptation to score a point comes in the way of scoring a victory because, paradoxically, this is a game which can be won only when both sides can declare victory.

    There is also the thankless task of preparing the minds of people, including of those whose minds have been sealed by the rigid glue of hyper-patriotism. This is a fever that Army establishments are particularly prone to. President Musharraf must address both the cantonment and the country outside, heavily populated by jihadis who have created a five-decade vested interest in war with India. Prime Minister Singh has to look over his shoulder for the Modi brigadiers who believe that they can win elections only by demonising Muslims and Pakistan.

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  • Monday, November 15, 2004

    Eid Mubarak & Happy New Year!

    Eid Mubarak to all Readers and Happy New year to all....

    Religion is a faith that is observed by a mass of people in their own special way. Muslims walk with the faith of Mohammed whatever their division be, the sunni or the shites. The principles of truth lies with charity, generosity, love, unity with the Koran preaching’s, the five pillars of Islam - Faith in Allah, Praying, five times a day, Almsgiving, Keeping the Fast and Pilgrimage to Mecca. Mohammed once told his followers when they returned from battle that ‘You have come back from lesser to greater struggle’ On asking to elaborate the statement, he said ‘The greater struggle is the struggle within’.

    Happy Eid

    The Koran Fatiha ...this one's a beautiful prayer....

    In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
    Praise belongs to God, Lord of all Being
    the All-merciful, the All-compassionate
    the Master of the Day of Doom
    Thee only we serve; to Thee alone we pray for succor
    Guide us in the straight path
    the path of those whom Thou hast blessed,
    not of those against whom Thou art wrathful
    nor of those who are astray.

    Islam means ‘submission’ (to the will of God).
    A Muslim is ‘one who submits’ who is guided in every daily act by the word of God. Koran preaches man’s fate, judgments, rewards, and punishment - Paradise & Hell.Koran says ‘Peace is one of the God’s name. Those who seek to please god are assured of the sixteenth surah that they will be guided by him to the ‘paths of peace’ and according to Koran, God does not love fasad or violence. This is action which results in disruption of the social system, causing huge losses in terms of lives and property.

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  • Uma Swarthi

    Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

    Byline by M.J. Akbar: Uma Swarthi

    It all depends of course on what you mean by ordinary and extraordinary. The dictionary definition of "ordinary" is "expected". In that sense, the Uma Bharti outburst at the BJP meeting of plenipotentiaries and high officials last Wednesday was ordinary.

    Uma Bharti is a saffron-humbug power-addict who has climbed the greasier part of the BJP ladder by a careful use of petulance and virulence. Her petulance is reserved for her Hindutva colleagues. Her virulence is concentrated on Muslims. Even her saffron is humbug, for she is as far from renunciation as anyone could possibly be. Flaunting it as a uniform cannot disguise the fact that her addiction to power is pathetic.

    Her tantrums are an instance of acute withdrawal syndrome after she was lured out of the chief minister’s chair in Madhya Pradesh by a relieved BJP high command since her quirky behaviour was guaranteed to destroy the party. A quick search on the Net throws up this definition of "Causes and Symptoms": "Acute withdrawal syndrome begins within hours of abstinence, and includes a full range of physical and psychological symptoms. More long-term, or sub-acute, withdrawal symptoms, such as intense drug craving, may occur weeks or months after detoxification has taken place." Substitute the word "drug" for "power" and you have an accurate diagnosis of Uma Bharti’s malaise.

    What I found extraordinary is that Advani should have opted to rebuke his assembled functionaries in front of television cameras. All party presidents have to throw the rule book at offending deputies from time to time. Defeat is always a bad period for morale, and when you can’t fight the opponent you naturally choose the next best option, which is fighting between yourselves. This is the therapy of despair.

    So why did Advani invite television cameras to record an internal castigation? Does he believe that self-flagellation works only if accompanied by public humiliation?

    This may well be true of the BJP’s Generation Next. Six years ago, with the exception of an Arun Jaitley or a Pramod Mahajan, they were nobodies. Six years of unexpected power spoilt them. Some — not all, I hasten to add — have deeply benefited from the gravy train on which they got first class seats from the lottery of life. One Cabinet minister, to provide an example, was leader of the rickshaw union in his constituency when, to his surprise, he won the election of 1999 and, to his total shock, rose quickly to become Cabinet minister. Today he leads the nation from a multi-crore farmhouse.

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  • As you enjoy, or cringe at the cacophony let loose by Uma Bharti and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, remember one thing. The silence of Narendra Modi is more eloquent than the hysteria of Uma Bharti.

    Sunday, November 07, 2004

    The White Revolution

    Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi

    BYLINE BY M.J. AKBAR : The White Revolution

    The relevant question about Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, who took their revenge upon liberal hectoring and New York Times bestseller lists by electing George Bush, is not whether they are white, or whether they are men, but whether they are stupid.

    We know they are white. 77% of the American electorate in 2004 was white, and 58% of this group voted for Bush, with only 41% going for Kerry. You can already see where the election was lost. Since this is a national statistic, the percentage of white men voting for Bush becomes significantly higher in the states where he won, some of them by lopsided margins. A parallel fact: 88% of black voters supported Kerry, as against 11% for Bush. Now cue in the most interesting observation about this election that I have seen. Place a map of pre-civil war America over the electoral results of 2004, and you discover that Bush won in every one of the slave states and the territories open to slavery, while all of Kerry’s victories came from the free states. Bush is President because he picked up Iowa and Ohio from the free states.

    We know that they are men, a three-letter word that defines, more or less, that species of the American male which, like Mao Zedong, believes that power grows from the barrel of the gun (and which he once used to eliminate Red Indians and terrorise slaves). He has a strong code, partly moral, partly secular, that treats abortion as sin; sneers at gays and is shocked at gay marriage; equates morality with prayer in schools and church on Sundays; and prides himself as a tough, silent guy (on the weekend before the election a CNN poll reported that mustard lovers wanted Bush over Kerry by a margin of four points). A number of such men also believe that Jesus was white (possibly with blond hair) and spoke English, which reinforces their self-confidence. Statistics show that, across divisions of ethnicity and colour, 51% women voted for Kerry as against 28% for Bush; and that 78% of "white evangelical or born-again Christian" voters cast their ballots for Bush against only 21% for Kerry. For 22% of voters, the largest bloc, the issue that mattered most was ‘moral values’, and 80% of this segment rallied to Bush, with only 18% voting for Kerry. Such moralists are not necessarily ethical, or logical. The anti-abortionists, for instance, will change a government to save an unborn American life, but happily support a man who has destroyed 100,000 human lives in Iraq.

    But are they stupid?

    It is difficult, and even presumptuous, to dismiss a group that has just elected the most powerful man in the world as stupid. I know the old jibe authored by the ranking American cynic, H.L. Mencken that no one "has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people". There is evidence that Bush never lost any votes by doing so. It takes chutzpah to make the jobless support tax cuts for the rich. Merciless disinformation, unwavering propaganda, and an unblinking determination never to be distracted by facts, help. That is why 75% of Bush supporters are convinced that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was an ally of Osama bin Laden or was directly involved in 9/11. On another level, during the campaign, a member of the Bush Cabinet, its commerce secretary, Don Evans, dismissed Kerry as unreliable, and possibly more, because "He looks French". There is clearly no sharper insult in redneck America.

    Investing in the "stupid" vote does not make Bush himself necessarily stupid. It might, as the results have shown, be the smart thing to do. But in dismissing the majority of the 77% of America that is white and votes, as "stupid" we may be missing the point.

    The circumstances that have re-elected Bush owe their origins to decisions made and attitudes shaped in a process that began four decades ago, in the presidential elections of 1964 and 1968. Bush should first thank a fellow-Texan, Lyndon Johnson. When he was elected in 1964, America was riven by another of its many revolutions, the challenge from the blacks for social, cultural and economic equality. The inspiration came from Martin Luther King but non-violence as a political weapon collapsed after his assassination. Ideologues like the Black Panthers radicalised the community. Johnson’s answer lay in wide-ranging economic liberalism that has not only lifted blacks but also eliminated the harsher levels of poverty among whites, particularly in the South and Midwest.

    Four decades later the poor are not an electorally significant demographic, which is why Kerry was constantly appealing to the "middle class". Such upward mobility is never only economic. With housing and social stability also comes a shift in values, or, if you like, "morality". While Kerry understood the economics of this change, Bush appealed to the more nuanced, more emotive and ultimately more powerful values. Prosperity is so often a relative term. Those who face hardships in an economic slump might yet consider life to be better than what it used to be. In any case, their prime area of self-definition is an assertion of values, for this, they believe, is what makes them legitimate members of a higher rung on the ladder of upward mobility. It is perfectly reasonable for them to resent an assault on these values, particularly when it comes from a more prosperous elite that displays more concern for gays than for God. At least one liberal (coincidentally, a gay) understood this. Wrote W.H. Auden in 1941:

    To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,

    Is a keen observer of life,

    The word ‘intellectual’ suggests straight away

    A man who’s untrue to his wife.

    And so to the second politician from that era who deserves a thank-you note from Bush. Spiro Agnew, like Johnson, is dead, although his critics will still tell you where to address a note to him. Agnew was crude and unknown when Nixon put him on his ticket in 1968. Agnew launched an unprecedented counteroffensive against liberals, with the "nattering nabobs" of the eastern media as his core target. Agnew drowned in his own sleaze; the poor little boy from the heartland was not averse to some old fashioned bribery. But his assault lived after him. Some 36 years later, despite the relapse of the Clinton era, the spirit of Spiro Agnew has become mainstream America.

    In the 1960s America witnessed the Black Revolution. This is the White Revolution.

    There is a new American civil war in progress, which is one reason why the divide is so bitter, why passions are so high, and why the queues at the voting booths were so long. The two Americas have separate media, separate geography, different icons, divergent values, conflicting convictions and a single White House. If the New York Times is the voice of liberal, intellectual and world-friendly America then Fox News and the God channel are the trumpet and saxophone of the self-centric, hamburger-driven, aptly-described heartland. Life might have been simpler, especially for us in the rest of the world, if America had two governments, as it had during its first civil war.

    You recognise the paradox, of course. Closed minds need each other. There has been much speculation about Osama bin Laden’s motives in releasing a videotape on the eve of election day. Apart from confirming that he is alive, well and out of reach, what did Osama want to prove? Osama bin Laden is not a Stupid Brown Man. He knows what he is doing. One British diplomat put it pithily when he described Bush as Osama’s best recruiting agent. Equally, Osama was Bush’s most effective vote-winner, and he knew it.

    Therefore? Four more years of war? I am not so certain. The dynamic has changed in one crucial respect. Osama may have been Bush’s most effective vote-getter, but Bush no longer needs any votes. His last election is over. A second term provides the ultimate freedom for an American President — freedom from re-election. Bush divided America and the world to win. He would be foolish not to recognise the price his country and the world have had to pay for his personal glory. It has been a victory of zealots, but zealotry is not sustainable policy, not at home and not abroad. If Bush and his friend Tony Blair believe that their war can be won in Iraq, then they need to recheck the meaning of victory. The scars of the world will disfigure America.

    Bush won because middle America rose against the sneers of the elite. If America continues to sneer at the world, Bush will lose. The election is over. The conflict is not.