Friday, November 28, 2008

Shooting at the icon

These are days of shock and horror. Not just for those of us who reside in the city which has seen incredible mayhem in the last 50 hours, but for the entire nation, even the world. How different it is to drop a bomb and run away, even blow up as a human bomb in a flash. But to enter a city, to fill it with terror and then seize its softest points at gunpoint and engage in a long, endless battle without a thought of leaving it alive, is unprecedented and terrifying beyond belief. The key to winning a battle lies in the belief that the opponent will make an effort to save his life, but how much more difficult is this battle when the other wastes no thought to life - someone else's or his own. The Joker is always the most dangerous enemy.

Is it at all relevant that it has happened to India? Or that Pakistani nationals planned and perpetrated it? Perhaps, to a degree it is. But neither is the target limited to India, nor is the perpetrator confined to our neighbor. It is a war on all progress, made by all detractors of progress. Would engaging in a communal violence, which seems a possibility, or engaging in a war with Pakistan solve or eradicate any of it? No. Did American bombing of the wastelands of Afghanistan solve anything? No. If America has not seen a major terror attack since 9/11, it is more for its efforts to secure itself than its eradication of a country miles away. To save ourselves from terrorism, we need to wear a protective cover, for we cannot intercept every bullet.

The country we love to hate, and where perhaps a lot of this attack was seeded, is a country itself in deep trouble. We put their officials and leaders on hot seat and hurl accusations. But to lead a country full of fundamentalists and steer it towards open mindedness and progress, is a task for generations. Yes, they could come down with an iron fist on all these fundamentalist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba. But in all likelihood, that will draw these organizations into greater focus, generate for them sympathies in the name of religion. Which will perhaps all end in the massacres of those who uphold something other than fundamentalism in the country. Can India take over this country and eradicate the communalistic sentiment? If not, what will be achieved by this war or by freezing any peace talks? Almost everyone who planted a bomb on our trains was an Indian - does it mean that we wage a war on ourselves? What about the Indian National who funded this operation? Or the people living in UK for years?

How much power do our leaders have when they try to fight internal fundamentalism of a different nature? The Nucleur treaty was opposed, without reason or rationale, and the Government had to be a mute witness. It does not mean that the very sensitive and progressive Manmohan Singh stands by those ghosts of ideas. But what good would it be for the country to dissolve yet another government and see another, equally fragmented mixture come up. The issue was tackled, slowly, but to effect. Tact remains the ultimate resort of a government which is not autocratic. And we may like to remember that before breaking off the resemblance of ties with a neighbour.

The fingers should not point towards a country. Yes, the country and its community needs to set its house straight, and not at this painfully slow rate. It is not the world that is marginalizing them, but they themselves. But that aside - even our country needs to set its security straight. Yes ours is a country of a billion people, and it is much more difficult to control it. But to let the planning of an operation of this scale go ahead without information is unbelievable. After knowing that sea route was used for transport of RDX for earlier bombings, a sleeping coast guard is unpardonable. Where is the department of Homeland security, which should have been formed after Dec 1991, then 1993, then 2002, 2003, 2006? To blame governments, demand resignations are simply political ploys that should be shunned by any self-respecting citizen. Which of the many governments that have held the centre been able to save anyone from threats?
What is the solution? A very involved intelligence. A crack team that can handle such situations in a short span of time. Securing of major buildings with escape routes - these are some of the obvious answers, the low-hanging fruits. In the longer run, the election commission could ensure that there be no political party that can campaign on the basis of divisive politics, or woo 'votebanks'. It should be made unconstitutional to do so. Moving to a bi-party systems, where the governments can take more firm decisions and be responsible for them, in stead of engaging in compromise politics. And education, education and more education that can guide those misguided towards truth and justice in stead of letting them waste themselves in the name of religious warfare. May be these are idealistic thoughts, and some problems cannot be solved. But to continuosly brave those problems and putting up the resilient Mumbaikar spirit is not a plus but hopeless foolishness.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Deborah's Theme: Once upon a time in America

Theme music from Once upon a time in America

Monday, November 10, 2008

Once upon a time in America

With once upon a time begin most stories from the past. Even this one looks through a keyhole in a man's past: a past of many complexities – friendship, crime, choices, love and guilt. And even though he is not a man easy to like, his complexities evoke a heartfelt sympathy.

The movie begins in the 1930's, which is presumably the present. From there we journey into the future of the 60's and look back into the past of 20's. (The transition from one period to another is nothing less than poetic). In the present, Robert De Niro as Noodles is being hunted by gangsters after something terrible has happened and his partners are found dead. He first hides in the opium den of a Chinese theatre and later escapes, to return to the town 30 years later. It is here, that he begins to tumble into his childhood and then to his adulthood, his memories interspersed and often triggered with episodes from his old age.

A child criminal, Noodles finds a friend and partner in Max and they move on to bigger crimes. On growing up they form another gang of Jewish mobsters, earning money off prohibition and robberies. Their friendship is often marred by their ideological differences, which continue to widen. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Noodles played a role in the deaths, something which had been thus far suggested by the miserable look of guilt in old Noodles' face. The story then comes back to the 60's, where Noodles has been called to the town for a last job. As he tries to track the person who is trying to hire him, and to meet his childhood sweetheart, he stumbles upon people and facts that steal his past away.

A widespread interpretation of the movie is that it is an opium dream, a theory triggered by an enigmatic last scene in which Noodles is seen smiling after an opium shot, presumably after he has discovered the deaths of his partners. In the story, through subtle and later direct references Max is shown in a negative color, which is interpreted as Noodles justifying the incident and unburdening himself of the guilt in his dreams. This is definitely an interesting and inviting interpretation, though not the one I had after watching the movie. I think the dream theory would take away some of essence of the movie, and make it less about guilt, betrayals, seduction into crime and more about transference of guilt.

Whatever be the interpretation, the movie is a work of brilliance. If you have the patience to sustain the first half hour, which is confusing and annoying it with its shrill telephone rings, the movie will draw you in for the remaining 3 hour 15 minutes. The background score by Ennio Morricone pulls the movie together, and says more than dialogues. It is this music which expresses Noodles' terrible guilt and then his unspeakable sorrow, and gives the feeling of ethereality, which also could be an inspiration for the dream theory. As I remarked earlier, there is a constant shuffling between times, and each shuffle is seamless and beautiful. Despite its slow pace there is a tension in the movie, which is borne out of a strong plot: the mystery of deaths, the mystery behind Noodles' new assignment, the friendship and rivalry between the two anti-heroes. The slow pace is deliberate, and gives space to art in the surrounding action. The photography is beautiful, especially the scene in the accompanying picture (also used on all film posters) – the old America is artfully created to make an impressive, epic image. Robert De Niro gives a wonderful performance, as does James Woods. Both Max and Noodles are not great men – they are petty criminals with no heroic qualities, people you would like to dislike for their unseemly atrocities – esp against women. It takes a stronger skill to portray such pitiable creatures than to portray heroes or evil villains. Their childhood portrayals are also as powerful and convincing as the adult ones. Everyone else has so much as not performed at all, which is also because none of them get much screen share, apart from Elizabeth McGovern. Despite the length of role given to her, she does a very ordinary task, particularly incomparison to Jennifer Connelly who plays the younger Deborah (Noodles' childhood sweetheart) and looks angelic.

It is intriguing that cinema continues to remain fascinated with and nostalgic about crime. The legend of Robinhood never leaves the stories about gangsters, even when they commit horrendous crimes like rape their girlfriends. The movie and the audience continue to feel for them, to cry over them and experience their desolation with a sense of loss.