Ashok Mehta, DoP of Bandit Queen, with respect…

It very rarely that a director can say that his learning and career graph was propelled by his relationship with a DoP. But I could say that openly and honestly about Ashok Mehta. I have only done one film with unfortunately. And that is because Ashok refused to come with me to the West where I pursued my creative goals. He refused to be taken away from his roots here in India. I still wish he had come. I missed him a lot.

Ashok unlocked my creative potential in Bandit Queen. He showed me how to be brave and not afraid of expressing myself through the camera and not just through actors and story/plot. He taught me that my instincts were good , but only as good as my courage to follow them through.

Ashok Mehta taught me to be fearless in my visual expression, something that I have now become known for in Hollywood.

Ashok has an innate sense of visual story telling. It’s not just about how he lights, but also how he frames. Subtle shifts in camera angles sometimes, and extreme angles that create inherent emotional charge in the audience at other times. He looks through the camera and instinctively knows what to do to accentuate that which is often hidden in the subtext of the scene.

Ashok Mehta is self taught. Originally from Afghanistan , he started by selling boiled eggs outside a Mumbai studio. Then got a job as a lowly ‘canteen boy’ inside the studio. He begged ?for a job ?as a ‘camera attendant’ graduating to a focus puller and then to cinematographer. ?And the rest is history as he redefined the art of cinematography ?in Mumbai. And taking risks. He shot the interiors Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal almost completely in candle light at a time when film stocks did not have as much latitude.

He does not ask too many questions. Ashok came on to the location of Bandit Queen when I had to lose an original British DP, and walked on to the set and took the camera from me ( I was filming myself by then) and quickly readjusted the lens and the angle and in five minutes and said “lets shoot” !! How did he know what to do – He did not even have time to read the script All I can say he has the ‘Gift”.

A gift that has gone somewhat unfulfilled in Indian Cinema unfortunately. For his attempts to raise the art of the image beyond the needs of stars, schedules and mundane plot lines ultimately frustrated him. I think he just looked to God and said “whatever !!”.

Ashok should film. He should teach. He has so much to give that it would be a crime to not learn from him. He is a visual genius

Bhopal: A voice of concern from Udipi in Karnataka

This is from a very concerned citizen, Mr Balakrishnan Reddy :

Sir, I saw and heard your comments about the Bhopal tragedy. We almost have similar situation happening in the coastal Udupi district of Karnataka. The 1200mw coal based power project is being built by the rich Congress MP Mr. L. Rajagopal’s company Lanco in total violation of the Environment Protection Act. They have shifted the project from the approved site, did not conduct public hearing, the chimney is on the flight path to Mangalore Airport and seems to be vibrating when a heavy vehicle passes on the nearby roads, vandalized the properties of the project affected with goons from the underworld, no rehabilitation, and compensation at the rate they preferred.

Several explosions took place in the site and a large of number of immigrant laborers died without even registering cases by the police. The seawater is discharged into agricultural fields and streams and a large number of drinking water wells are now poisoned. The Company cleverly is bribing the BJP govt as well as some in the Congress. Justice P D Dinakaran has not heard the PIL filed in 2005 and now not posting before other benches as he does not preside over the court at the moment. We are in a very difficult situation and though we do get coverage from the local press occassionally in Kannada it is inaffective at the national level.

I wrote several letters of representations to all the concerned authorities including Jairam Ramesh but no result. The only source could be the TV channels such as CNN IBN, NDTV 24×7 and Times Now who can expose the truth behind this power project. the proejct is granted without competitive bidding as required in Electricity Act and yet govt has offered soverein guarantee, escrow cover and revolving letter of credit and have also issued NOC for further expansion. I tried my best to attract the attention of these channels but they seem to be more interested in the North. I wonder whether you could help us to expose these people.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy : The great sell out by the government of India.

25 years after the greatest industrial accident in the world. 25 years after over 25,000 perished in an agonizing death on the terrible night when the deadly gas leaked out of the Union Carbide chemical factory in Bhopal, India. Or in slow tortureous deaths in the few weeks following that night as people saw their loved ones wither away with little medical help. And as the city of Bhopal began to look like a huge mortuary.

And 25 years later after the hundreds of thousands that were affected by the gas have mostly perished to it’s long term effects, the court finally delivered their judgement today.

It’s a completely irrelavant judgement. For those on whose shoulders lie the responsibility of this avoidable, irresponsible, completely mismanaged accident, have long since made their deals with the government of India and gone. It was one of the greatest and most brutal sellout by the government of India and it’s courts of the people of India.

Union Carbide (a US corporation) that sold an outdated and unsafe technology to it’s Indian co, did a $ 470 million pay out to the Government of India and completely absolved itself of all responsibility, blaming local mishandling. Their CEO, Warren Anderson was spirited out of India, aided and abetted by the Government, within a few days of the accident – never to return despite summons by the courts. Had this accident occurred in the US and be bound by US laws even 25 years ago, the legal compensation would have wiped out the market value of Union Carbide and many Insurance Co’s with it. It would have run into 10’s (if not 100’s) of billions of dollars. And the compensation would have continued today as the people of Bhopal continue to suffer from the thousands of cases of cancer and incurable birth defects in children born to the parents of the people that inhaled the gas on the terrible night. And as toxic waste continues to seep into and through the ground water 25 years later.

But who cared about the poor people of Bhopal ? Certainly not our own Government who like cannibals preyed upon their own people. Apparently very little of the paltry $ 470 million that was paid went to helping the people that suffered, a large part being diverted to the pockets of corrupt officials. The excuse used was that you could not tell who was a victim of the gas tragedy and who was not. As if.

25 years later, are we making the same mistakes ? The law is supposed to be a deterrent to crimes being committed again. This judgement just proves that you could do anything in India and get away with it. Even kill thousands and thousands of people.

If there are people who read this blog and would like to share personal experiences in Bhopal on that tragic day, I will happily publish them, just so we do not forget, nor forgive.

Heart of Darkness, Guest Column by Sudhir Mishra

The Naxal crisis has blown up in our face because of our vanity. We have failed to see it as a valid militancy because at the heart of it is desperate poverty. Extremism is often the curse of the impecunious. While the insurgency in Kashmir can still be seen as a diplomatic tangle, or terrorism originating in the North-East as a war of identity, the Naxal crisis is naked in its despair. Unless urban India rises up to the obscenities of inequality that have underlined this militancy, it will be akin to Nero, the Roman emperor of yore, fiddling his thumbs whilst Rome was burning.

Lets start with a very simple beginning: lets pay attention to the crisis. One obvious symptom of the malaise is that the only interface between the government and the people cannot be the police. It must be development work.

One argument could be that how can development work start when extremism is so rampant. To this, I wish to say, that even in Uttar Pradesh, where I am currently, there is barely any Naxal activity, but there certainly is no developmental work happening either! We need to stop asking the question, Why is Bihar poor That is elementary. Let us instead ask ourselves, How did Bihar become poor If this crisis is about tribals losing their land because the government wants to go on a mining binge, let tribals too participant in this orgy. There must be a vision of a state, and it must be shared by all. There are some very respected names who have worked on a grassroots level with very specific areas, men with a deep knowledge of peoples grievances and unjust histories. The government should be eager to engage them. I dont see that.

I am not proposing Gandhism, even though some great Gandhians have done radical work in the worst-affected zones in the Naxal heartland, districts that have seen generations of negligence. What I am saying is that given the problems of a pluralist society such as India, if there can be a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), there is always scope for a Special Government Zone (SGZ).

That said, Naxals will have to give up violence. There is a deep irony at the heart of this bloodshed: a poor policeman posted in the middle of nowhere (nowhere for us on the fringes, geographically at least) is also choosing such a job out of desperation. He must be poor. Killing him is not the way to win a war. The war can only be won by consensus. And our urban classes, that can celebrate a Fashion Week with exotic variations of fabric, but fail to see the irony of a cotton farmer killing himself a hundred kilometres away, will have to see the grotesque injustices that still exist at the heart of their beloved nation. We should lose our vanity and come to terms with the fact that there is a desperately impecunious nation at the centre of all this. The economic liberalization has hugely benefitted the urban middle-class. Let us begin to share the spoils, as they say.

The answer to the Naxal crisis is dependent on urban Indians reaching out. They owe a great responsibility to the disadvantaged, because if a nation is to progress, it must take all people along with it. I want to be optimistic and believe that this may be possible. But as Desmond Tutu of South Africa once said, Of course there will be forgiveness. But first let there be justice.

(Published in the Mumbai Mirror on May 30th 2010)

Sudhir Mishra has been blogging on cinema at PassionForCinema, and has now begun a new blog on cinema as well as life beyond just cinema, at <a href=”http://sudhirmishra.wordpress.com”>http://sudhirmishra.wordpress.com</a>

Paani research pic, under the mumbai flyovers

just am

born

without questions

about existence

accepting that I

just am

but now

i learn every moment

who i am not

before i know

who i am

and then, simply

that i am not,

we die

as we are born

Cannes diary : Dining in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

It’s very exciting to be on the Jury of the Cannes film festival. Especially when the Jury is headed by the man I affectionately (but also seriously) call ‘the Salvador Dali of Cinema’. Tim Burton is a compassionate and gentle person that is so eager to learn about other people and cultures. He is also completely fascinated by India, so I have invited him to come and see if there is something he would like to shoot in India.

India is a country that accepts mythology and magic realism as an essential part of it’s culture, as does Tim Burton in is film making. It would be fascinating to see Tim Burton’s visual take on some of our tradition folk tales.

For the first dinner with the Jury, the Chef had designed the dinner as an ‘inspiration’ from Tim Burton’s movies ! Everything looked like it was from the Mad Hatter’s dining table. And while it was terrific looking an delicious, I kept waiting for the rice ! After all what’s a meal without rice and dal, or roti and dal ?

Just 5 days into the Water Crisis, and people of Mumbai are living in fear. And in thirst.

Death toll up to 7 in riot over water tanker in Malabar Hill, Mumbai

The driver of the water tanker, Suresh Salve succumbed to his injuries in hospital, as the death toll in the ‘water tanker riot’ rose to 7. Harish Malvade, the guard who fired the first shot killing Pradeep Amre, the 11 year old boy from the local slum, is fighting for his life even as the police waits to question him. Sources say the gun was unlicensed.

The riot apparently broke out as the people from the slum tried to stop the tanker and ask for water. The driver tried to force the tanker through the crowd, injuring some people, and riot broke out. The driver was pulled out and almost beaten to death.

Meanwhile the parents of the boy, Pradeep Amre are leading a morcha of over a 100 slum dwellers demanding an investigation into why a thirsty young school boy was shot for trying to steal a water from the tanker. The Mumbai police are trying to bring the situation under control as the riots threaten to spread to other parts of Mumbai. The water situation continues to be precarious and water tankers are being brought in to Mumbai, but are often unable to get to their destination as they are waylaid by armed gangs.

This is the 5th day of no piped water supply in Mumbai.

There are questions demanding to know why an armed guard was traveling with the water tanker. A news bureau report has confirmed that the guard was hired by the new Water Mafia that has emerged in Mumbai. Hotels and Housing Societies in the posher areas are now dealing directly with the Water Mafia to supply them with water as the BMC distribution systems have broken down, and the State Government is trying to bring the situation under control. Promising that supply lines will be restored as water becomes available. The reservoirs are low, as the demand in the city far outstrips the supply of water.

Meanwhile, the State Government has asked schools and colleges to shut down till the situation eases. Five Star hotels have become a refuge against the water crisis, and in the city are already full. Reportedly they are charging upwards of Rs 75,000 per night, but are not taking any bookings over two to 3 nights as they cannot assure any water supply beyond that. Hotels too apparently are dealing directly with the Water Mafia.

Airlines and trains are reportedly showing heavy loads of people leaving Mumbai, and airlines are putting up more flights. The water crises is a financial bonanza for airlines and hotels in the short term, but the chairman of one airline said in a press conference that in the long term such a crisis will drastically reduce the amount of traffic in Mumbai.

The US government yesterday issued a travel warning to it’s citizens in Mumbai, and are reportedly moving staff to their other consulates within the country till the water crisis eases out.

Citizen groups are co operating with the police and the State Government. The biggest fear is that sectarian violence will break out as local political parties step up their call for a ban of entry of people to Mumbai. The State Government has appealed for calm and said any panic will only make matters worse. They are promising to repair the pipelines that have been damaged. Reports are coming through that some of the pipelines were deliberately damaged by the water mafia to create the shortage.

In the meantime the Army has been called in to ensure that water tankers get through to Hospitals and other essential services, but there have been reports that some of that water has been diverted to the houses of ministers.

Just 5 days into the Water Crisis, and people of Mumbai are living in fear. And in thirst. NGO groups are angry, saying they have been warning of this crisis for a long time. Mr Debankar Rao of the Dekho foundation says that if the recommendations of the Infrastructure Committee had been implemented, this crisis could have been averted :

a. Better Water Management, with 30% of Water wasted in leakages etc, and stopping the nexus between the municipal corporations and the water mafia.

b. More equitable distribution of water through a steep rise in water charges beyond certain levels of consumption.

c. Creating employment and education opportunities in rural areas through implementation of the Broadband Connectivity Policy, in order to stem the pressure on population in Mumbai.

Did George Mallory ‘conquer’ The Mother Goddess of the World ? Everest.

George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared a few hundred meters from the summit of Mount Everest in June 1924. In doing so they created the most enduring mysteries and myths of mountaineering. Did they get to the summit before the clouds covered them from the view of his comrades following them through binoculars from a lower camp ? Especially Mallory, for not only was he leading, but also because he is reputed to be the greatest climber the world has ever known. And if so, then Everest was ‘conquered’ long before Hilary and Tenzing did in 1953.

75 years later Mallory’s amazingly preserved body was found by another expedition. He had obviously fallen. Yet the mythology surrounding Mallory created even more of a mystique. Did he fall on the way up or the way down ? His body was lying in a strange position, almost supplicant to the peak. Like he was prostrating and praying to ‘Chomolungma’ – The Mother Goddess of the World – as the Tibetans call it.

So when I was asked to make a film on George Mallory by Julia Robert’s film Co, that was the first idea that struck me. I have been a sort of amateur climber myself, always attracted to the sheer immensity of the mountains.

Why is it that when faced with an immensity that threatens to challenge our own sense of individuality on this planet, something that threatens to make us feel small, our instinct is to challenge and conquer it, rather than sublimating itself to it and thereby being part of it ? One an act of incredible ego, ambition and violence, the other an act of letting one’s ego drop, of letting the individuality go. A great act of Love actually.

We talk of ‘Man’s conquest of Space’. Of the ‘Conquest of Everest’. And of course have just come to terms with the horrendous consequences of our attempts to “conquer’ nature on our Planet. Is a religion or a faith, for example, a conquest of people’s minds and hearts, or is it an embracing through love ? These are the thoughts and questions that drove me to consider the film. After all, why do a film unless it is a journey of discovery of yourself ?

I have no doubt that ambition and the desire to conquer was how Mallory understood his need to pit himself against Everest again and again. he went there three times. At a time when no one had used oxygen for climbing before, and there was none of the sophisticated mountaineering gear we have today. If you look at pictures, you would think they were climbing in tweed jackets and trousers! But underneath ambition and the need to conquer, was there an underlying need to discover one’s identity ? A need to discover who we are really, beyond the idea of being individual ? After all Mallory had just come back from serving in the First World War, and when you see so much needless death and destruction around you, your own place in the Universe must come into question.

When Mallory got the summit, if he ever did, did he feel a great sense of conquering, or did he finally find himself embraced by the ‘Mother Goddess of the World’ ? Did he finally sublimate himself to the immensity and become one with it ? Did he, perhaps, discover that which he was searching for all his life ?

Himself.

IPL: greed caught up with everyone,

IPL was an easy target for the power hungry to swoop down on. It was perfect. There was no land laws or farmer’s lands to forcibly acquire, no licenses for factories, no labour laws. Nothing but an escalating brand at a hyped values that seemed to have no limits. Hyped because the team owners are still in negative cash flow unless they cash in on the brand itself.

Perfect. So perfect that it seemed almost impossible. And so everyone that had power, either in cash or in political clout (often both) swooped down desperately to jump on a train that was fast leaving the tracks.

Except in that desperation they forgot to cover their own tracks. And in the mad crazy tussle that ensued for control and ownership, the contenders forgot an unwritten law in the nexus that has always existed between money, big business and political power. That you do not wash your dirty linen in public.

They did not contend with twitter either. A simple technology that was transferring power to individual voices. Even if those voices were from within the players.

So now the pandora’s box is open. It’s nothing that we did not already know, but for the first time the players are out battling in full public view. Like another game happening outside the stadium that the nation and media is also transfixed by. A nation that should pay more attention to other matters. Like poverty and hunger. Like the fast disappearing fresh water resources. Like terrorism. Like the rebellion from within the country in the form of a Maoist revolt.

I have no doubt that when the fun and games are over, when the media attention has died down, the warring opponents will find a way to resolve the issues and settle down in the same club as if this never happened.

I have no doubt that we will continue to enjoy the pretty fabulous and entertaining game that T20 is, barring those insufferable commercials that take up far more time than the cricket itself. And I have no doubt that other competitors will come in and break the stranglehold that the BCCI has over the Indian players. That will happen as young new players will rebel against the IPL team owners too, and would be willing to join another club. For IPL will gradually erode loyalties to the national team. Which is the real power base of the BCCI

And Lalit Modi will enjoy a quite retirement overseas with his yachts and jets. Shashi Tharoor will continue to win more elections, but will eventually give up and go back to New York and write more books.

And the political opponents will divide the spoils amongst themselves, and the media will divert our attention to some other great melodrama.

After all, does anyone remember the names of the young people that died in the Pune bomb blasts ?