Saturday, June 4, 2016

Wine & Popular Perception In India

Last month I was on a holiday in Italy with my family. Of the many charms it has to offer, and to be sure the place has many, one is the excellent quality of wine. Even for budget tourists like us the wine quality was exceptional. Small local restaurants selling house wines at about the same price as water could give some of our top end hotels, with their super expensive wine list, a lesson or two. Quantity and variety on offer was staggering too.

Walking down a street in the non-touristy part of the city we encountered a shop selling wine to the locals. It was around 5.30 PM and the place had a longish queue. They were mostly people returning from a day’s work and were buying food and drink for the evening meal. The shop’s modus operandi was simple. Bring your own bottle and have it filled. The whole operation was more akin to a Mother Dairy booth in Delhi than the sleezy desi theka/daaru shop that I have come to associate with alcohol sale in India. In the supermarkets wine was being sold in bottles, bag-in-box and even in tetra packs sitting right next to packs of orange juice. In fact the multiple packaging options reminded me of our own lassi on a supermarket shelf. In short wine was everywhere. With the minimal of fuss people were drinking or not drinking the stuff the way we would quaff water.

So, being a good Indian balak brought up on moral science lectures and sermons about the evils of alcohol I kept a lookout for obvious signs of decadence. Alcohol brings out the devil in man and all that sort of thing. To be honest I even felt a little smug. After all I was armed with the right education and cultural moorings. Bollywood had done an excellent job of reinforcing those beautiful moral science lessons by painting vinos as villains. Surely the crime levels must be very high in Italy due to their wayward policy on alcohol. The streets must be overrun by drunkenness and resulting lewd behavior.  The men must all be wife beaters. Alcohol consumption must be leading to higher incidents of rape and other crimes against women. It must be unsafe to step out of the house after dark. So on and so forth.

Boy, was I disappointed. In a fortnight of tramping around Rome and Florence I didn’t meet a single drunken-wife-beating- rapist- eve teasing degenerate. Not one. I met many happy people going about their lives peacefully. I met some people who may not have been too happy but I think that was mostly because they didn’t like my asking if they were drunk and might be planning on indulging in some dodgy behavior. And yes, I met one self-righteous woman (I think I’ll call her Medha for want of a better name) who was making everyone very unhappy because she was blocking the way to a bridge, shouting loudly about the sins of alcohol, whilst distributing pamphlets that messed up an otherwise clean walking path.

So, what does one make of it? None of what I was told to expect was happening. The higher moral ground that I thought I was on wasn’t so high (pun unintended) at all. In this society a glass of wine is the same price as a cup of coffee, and is sold side-by-side, and still there is relative calm on the streets. There is no prohibitive sin tax on wine in Italy. The government is not actively campaigning to wean its citizens off wine. And sale of wine isn’t restricted to special jail like structures. In short no Nitish or Amma making moral promises to rid their citizens off the curse of alcohol. And even though I am sure the Italians have their own well meaning but slightly stupid NGOs (remember Medha from the bridge?) nobody seems to be listening to them and allowing them to influence government policy.

On the way back we flew over the Gulf with those wonderfully rich oil countries. Thankfully we didn’t land there so I can’t really profess to possess any great insights into their culture. But from second hand knowledge acquired from books and papers I knew that most of them have banned alcohol consumption in their vast and beautiful lands. I am assuming they’ve done this for religious and social reasons. Probably believing, like we in India do, that alcohol is the devil’s tool.   I am sure due to this astute decision there is no crime against women in this part of the world. Nobody must worry about lewd behavior on the streets that’s the work of drunken louts. Addiction to substances- Alcohol or others- I’m sure does not exist. And wife beating is surely unheard off as I am sure are other forms of domestic violence. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a video about a preacher teaching his flock how to beat a wife.  YouTube has this in the form of a full instructional video. As I learnt from the video some people in beautiful Arabia weren’t beating their wives enough or even doing it right.  I couldn’t help but wonder -What the hell is going on?

Humor and sarcasm aside I think we in India have our lines mixed up. Our attitude towards alcohol has been shaped by many assumed truths. While a correlation does exist between alcohol’s role in the above mentioned social ills there are other factors that play a role which go uncorrected because we focus solely on alcohol.

Take for instance wife beating. Which is, to be fair to the anti-alcohol campaigners, a horrible problem. But I am going to argue that alcohol cannot be the only reason for it. Of course alcohol does embolden a person to do rash things and might impair his judgment. But to say that because a person drinks he is going to beat his wife is silly. The real problem lies in the society’s attitude towards women. Men in India feel they are vastly superior to women. They also feel that they are the providers and in some way the woman ‘belongs’ to them. Ownership or this subconscious equating of the woman to property gives the man a sense that he can hit/humiliate his partner without fear of social and/or legal repercussions. The same man is unlikely to attack another man after a few drinks. The same man is unlikely to hit another woman. And the same man is most unlikely to hit a cop or his boss or anyone perceived to be stronger than him. So clearly alcohol may have impaired his judgment and emboldened him but not enough for him to do something that might have serious repercussions.

Much is said about domestic violence and it is indeed a very serious issue. I don’t want to trivialize it here. But it is my contention that governments in India have been barking up the wrong tree all along. Tokenisms like banning or attaching a sin tax upon alcohol haven’t achieved desired results.  When a government takes the easy way out and blames everything on one evil they don’t deal with the issue in its entirety. Banning alcohol is far simpler than education or changing how society thinks. And we know that most politicians will take the easy way out. Denial of access to alcohol is automatically equated with a solution to a social problem. At best this is an ill thought through measure. At worst, as a conspiracy theorist I believe that this part is truer than anything else, it is a cynical manipulation of the stupid, as well as opening up of a new business vertical. This business vertical allows managers of the state in a different avatar to become businessmen and provide illicit alcohol to the needy. Creating a parallel monetary system. So, instead of cleansing the system of the problem they create a more profitable, for themselves and their cronies, version of the problem.

When confronted by the European example I’ve often heard powerful people say something like – “it’s not in our culture” or “Our people don’t have the sense to drink responsibly”, whilst sipping their favorite whiskey and soda or something similar. This is the worst kind of response. It assumes a patronizing attitude, which is offensive to all Indians.

Indians are like humans anywhere else.  Humans are unlike any other animal. We seek enjoyment beyond the bare necessities. It is in our DNA to seek out sensory pleasures. We seek pleasure in food, smell, drink, music, art, humor and even in intoxicants. Coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, marijuana etc. are all recreational drugs. To say one out of them is not a part of ‘Indian culture’ is stupid. And if you deny humans one sort of intoxicant they will find a replacement. An example is in the form of Cigarettes. They’ve been made so expensive in the last few years due to the sin tax imposed on them that now most poor people have started chewing tobacco, which is cheaper. A walk down Mumbai’s roads will convince you if my saying so doesn’t.  Public spitting has assumed epidemic proportions thanks to the habit of chewing tobacco.

So, why then does alcohol get such a halo (unhalo?) when compared to other intoxicants? Is it because Gandhi was against it? It might well be. Or it may be because of religious slant against this one intoxicant.  But it is my opinion that Gandhiji and religious teachings are just a convenient crutch for many very poor administrators. Having failed to do their jobs in the field of education they’ve always looked for the first available fall guy.

Nobody can deny alcohol’s addictive effects. There are people who are more prone to addiction. And the sad fact is they will find alcohol or other substances no matter how many bans you hide it behind. One of the reasons alcohol attracts such a large number of youngsters is because of the mystique created around it mostly by government policies. Getting drunk is a big deal for many youngsters because it shows off their ability to challenge social mores.  It’s almost like a challenge to the male ego- a Mardaangi test of sorts.  One of the easiest solutions is to demystify and dismantle the halo around alcohol. This can be done very easily by segregating alcohol into categories. The higher concentration of alcohol in a beverage could still attract a sin tax. Drinks like wine and beers which are low in alcohol content should be taxed and sold under a more liberal regimen. Once you club beer and wine with other non-alcoholic beverages you make them reasonably unattractive to an adventure seeker. This is exactly what the European countries have done. While they have their own battles with addiction they have at least reduced the crime related to illicit liquor. And they’ve got a more honest and less hypocritical relationship with alcohol than we do in India.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Politics and Indian Education.

Yesterday I was helping my daughter prepare for her class 5 History exam and came upon this chapter. I am no expert in education but something seems seriously amiss in this chapter. Do our kids need to study about Medha Patkar or Mallika Sarabai or Sharukh Khan? Are these the best examples of achievers in this country? Do we not have scientists or businessmen or sports people who could perhaps be better qualified to be on these pages?  I am surprised that Teesta Setalvad isn't a part of this chapter.  I am sure if someone from the HRD ministry tried to drop some of these obviously dubious names it would be called saffronization  of education. Prof. Amartya Sen and Dr. Verghese Kurien are the other names that make up  and sort of redeem this chapter.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

What Makes Me A Good Indian?

I have a mother and I love her very much. I love my country very much too. I must confess I find no special affinity towards a cow, at least no more than I would towards a goat or a hen. I have no confusion in my head about my mother, my country or cows.

I would like to state that I am a patriot and a very proud Indian.  In fact being an Indian is the one identity I value more than any other. Much much more than my religious or regional identity. Being a fauji kid I guess this part comes easy to me.

I don’t think a cow is equal to either my country or my mother.  My mother is not equal to my country or a cow. Similarly my country is not equal to my mother or to a cow.  I think it is important for me to state this because a lot of people are confused between the three.  It is possible for an intelligent person to compartmentalize logically.

So, am I a good Indian? Of course I am. “What is a good Indian?” you might ask. I’ll tell you why I think I am a good Indian.

I am a good Indian because I believe all Indians are equal. Of course I also believe that all people are equal in case some of you miss that.  
I am a good Indian because I believe in a policy of live and let live.
I am a good Indian because I pay my taxes honestly. Sure, I don't like it. But it doesn't say anywhere that I have to like it too.
I am a good Indian because I care about what happens to other Indians. I am capable of feeling empathy for fellow citizens.
I am a good Indian because I don’t discriminate against my fellow Indians.  Did I say that before? Maybe, but always nice to say it again and underline it.
I am a good Indian because I don’t incite violence against other Indians. Actually I don’t incite violence against other nationalities either.
I am a good Indian because I obey the laws of this country. Not just the laws that seem convenient to me.
I am a good Indian because I don’t believe I am right all the time. Actually, when I stop to hear the other point of view I am surprised at how often I am not right.
I am a good Indian because I concede that people I don’t always agree with are also Indians and they have as much right to India as I have.
I am a good Indian because I don’t lie as per my convenience.
I am a good Indian because I don’t cheat or steal.
I am a good Indian because I don’t defraud banks or other institutions dealing in public wealth.
I am a good Indian because I believe in paying for that I consume.
I am a good Indian because I don’t spit on the roads, streets or public spaces. Ditto garbage. 
I am a good Indian because I stand in queues like everyone else.
I am a good Indian because I question everything including second hand wisdom that is often handed down as gospel truth.
I am a good Indian because I don’t try to get ahead at the cost of other Indians. Be it in traffic or in any other aspect of life.
I am a good Indian because I don’t make up angst to suit my politics.
I am good Indian because I don’t forward, retweet or share like a cancer every unverified post, that suits my politics, I see on the Internet.
I am good Indian because I don’t play convenient politics over a dead person. Regardless of their religion or politics.
I am a good Indian because I don’t force my religion upon others. I also believe religion is deeply personal and doesn’t belong in public.
I am a good Indian because a laal batti normally works as a red rag for me.
I am a good Indian because I believe I am an ordinary person with nothing particularly special about me that make either my opinion or me more important than the next person.
I am a good Indian because I don’t suggest moving to Pakistan to anyone who disagrees with me. I have no quarrel with those who wish to live in Pakistan but I am not showing a red card to anyone and sending them off that way.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Playing Safe Is As Good as Being Dead

Ever watched a small film and felt like you’d seen it before? I was just watching a trailer of a forthcoming film and it suddenly struck me that I’d seen it many times before. The formula was down pat to the last comeback. The Hero just the right type of chocolate and the Heroine just the right sort of damsel in distress.  A flowing dress fluttering in the wind, wrapping itself across the hero’s face while he had just the right sort of ecstatic expression. Promo song shot in slow motion in just the right sort of exotic location. The heaving bosoms and chiseled abs doing just the right sort of orgasmic gyrations.  It’s not like there was anything wrong with the trailer, more a case of nothing being right with it.  It was just plastic. Commercially it had ‘Investors will lose big’ written all over it.  The poor sods don’t know it yet and nobody has bothered to articulate the reasons to them. Right now they’re probably popping champagne at a party to celebrate the anticipated success of their classic.

So, why is it that on seeing a trailer of a film most viewers can make out exactly what the film is going to be like? Why do viewers decide to drop a load of money on one film and give the other a complete miss? It’s because most viewers, unconsciously of course, can smell the sameness on offer.  This sameness works in opposite ways for different budget or types of film.

For a large budget film, for example a Rohit Shetty or Salman/SRK film the sameness works as an advantage. The audience knows what to expect. There is comfort in knowing that the formula will be exactly as per template. It is like going to a well-known buffet meal at an average restaurant. The standards are set not too high, yet they seem high enough, and there is a bit for everyone.  Minor variations in story and execution make the experience predictable and therefore enjoyable.  The audience doesn’t want sushi suddenly replacing their chicken tikka. Predictable is nice and comforting.

Now when a mid to small budget movie tries to do the same thing it falls flat leaving many producers/distributors bewildered. After all didn’t they play safe by sticking to a template that works? They dismiss their leading actors as unlucky or worse untalented.  But look at it from the point of view of a viewer. Where is the attraction? Why would a viewer commit to paying money to watch a small film that looks like something that s/he’s seen before?  Using the buffet meal analogy imagine going to a roadside eatery for a buffet meal. The vegetables are less than fresh, the cheese cheap and the curries made with rancid oil. Add to that poor ambience and plating and…. you get the drift.

It is important for filmmakers to understand where they stand in the scheme of things. You don’t need to be Einstein to work out that you are not making a big budget extravaganza.  Even while I concede that there isn’t a formula to bring the audiences in one thing is certain; they’re not coming in to watch tired reruns.

Why then do filmmakers insist on playing safe? I must have been in a thousand meetings where producers have told me how to make the project ‘safe’.  As an investor in a small or medium budget film when you set out to make a ‘safe film’ you are essentially setting out to take the most unsafe punt you can possibly take.  The comfort of B list stars, 5 songs, a love story, 3 act structure, a dying mother’s love and a sappy happy ending are actually no comfort at all.  These devices may have worked once upon a time but now they are sadly out of date. 

Risky is the only safe bet available. 

No matter how much of an oxymoron the previous sentence sounds like it is a truth that producers would do well to understand. Stories that are unusual, stories that are uncomfortable, stories that push you to think, stories that break away from conventionally established norms are the only stories that can bring in audiences for a small film.  The promise has to grab viewers and shake them up.  But before that the filmmakers have to allow themselves to be shaken up. They have to buy into a story that scares them. They have to invest in a story that seems risky or wrong to them. Playing safe is not an option because there is no ‘safe’ anymore. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Odd-Even and More!

Delhi in January 2016 is going to become a laboratory for the rest of the nation. If Kerjiwal’s ‘Odd-Even’ formula works it will show the way to most of our congested cities. Without qualification I think Kejriwal needs to be supported in this endeavor.  The problem is just too huge to not support any and every effort regardless of political affiliation. 

Like most thinking Indians I too have thought about the traffic mess that our country has become. Would I recommend the Odd-Even formula for my city? Probably not. Here’s what I would have recommended.
(Disclaimer: I am not an expert and most of what I am suggesting seems like common sense to me. I may be wrong but I can afford to be wrong on my own blog. )

  1.  Define rush hours.
  2. Make it mandatory for all cars entering specified areas/roads to carry at least 4 passengers during rush hours. Those not carrying 4 passengers should be sent a one time bill, a congestion charge, which is steep enough for them to reconsider their choices (say Rs. 500).  So, if you are in a hurry and in dire need you can still use your car but you have to pay for using it if you aren’t carrying 4 passengers. Definition of dire need would change quite quickly I suspect. This can all be done electronically. London is an example.  
  3. Encourage offices to provide shared transportation. I mean buses, car pools and suchlike. To encourage businesses a small reduction in their tax (0.5% reduction in service tax should do it) could be introduced.
  4.  Smaller offices/businesses could share buses with other similar offices in their buildings/ office hubs. An unintended benefit of travel by car pool/bus will be a more disciplined work culture. This would benefit a huge number of workers who hang around in offices just because they think they have to.
  5. Cities must encourage people to live close to where they work. This is a big one. The number of people travelling long distances to get to work is simply unsustainable. Though most of it is a function of real estate prices, which are governed by market forces, I suspect in some cases it is because of the hassle involved. Buying and selling of property should be made easier and more cost effective. Today if a person were to sell their flat for 2 crore rupees and buy a similar flat close to work (Let’s assume both places are similar in real estate prices) s/he would still end up losing about 20 to 25 lacs in municipal taxes, stamp duties, brokerage fees etc. Nobody can afford to pay that kind of money simply to be close to his or her place of work.

There was a suggestion of faster car lanes for cars with 4 passengers but I’m not sure that would work. If it didn’t work for the BRTs I doubt it would work for cars.
I did also consider cycling. But lack of infrastructure and weather conditions in summer would make sure that it doesn’t become a popular option.

That’s my two paisa worth gyan. Feel free to add and keep the discussion going.