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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The new celebrity circuit

When the A-list drops into India, where does it go?

By the time you read this, the great starship Oprah will have departed our shores after getting a taste of India (‘it’s life Gayle, but not as we know it’). The Winfrey whirlwind started in Mumbai and then tore through the rest of India with a breathless intensity. Oprah partied with Bollywood, was serenaded by children, went shopping in quirky little stores, stopped by a temple, attended a literary festival, and even managed to squeeze in some paparazzi-bashing (quite literally, as her bodyguards manhandled the media entourage waiting to greet her in Vrindavan).

But while nobody got a real sense of what Oprah Winfrey is all about – except that she is an expert manipulator of her own image – by the end of her visit one thing was clear: India now has a new celebrity circuit in place. Sure, the old delights still feature and Oprah dutifully dropped by to be photographed open-mouthed at the Taj Mahal in Agra, but there is a brand-new itinerary in place for visiting celebs.

First up is Bollywood. It is now a truth universally acknowledged that any A-list visitor to India has to hook up with some Indian film star or the other. Hugh Jackman danced with Shah Rukh Khan at an event when he visited Mumbai. Tom Cruise was shadowed by his MI 4 co-star Anil Kapoor during his recent visit. And Oprah’s first stop in Mumbai was at the Bachchan residence where she renewed her acquaintance with Aishwarya and Abhishek (who have appeared on her show) and met their new-born daughter.

Next up is Parmeshwar Godrej. You clearly don’t rate as a bona fide celebrity unless Parmesh throws a party for you. And her guest list is pretty eclectic taking in everyone from Imran Khan and Jennifer Saunders to Richard Gere and now – yes, that’s right – Oprah Winfrey. The beach shimmers, the champagne flows , the stars shine bright and the conversation sparkles as Mumbai’s A list queues up to have its picture taken with the guest of honour.

And then, there’s Gregory David Roberts of Shantaram fame, who is to Mumbai what Mother Teresa was once to Calcutta. If there is a celebrity in town, then Roberts won’t be far behind, organising a visit to the Mumbai slums that featured so prominently in his book. Madonna and Oprah were only the latest celebrities to have been given the grand tour, but you can be sure that they won’t be the last.

In fact, poverty tourism itself has become quite the rage as visiting celebrities vie with one another to visit the ‘real’ India (you know, the one that featured in Slumdog Millionaire). Cue, trips to deprived neighbourhoods, shanty towns, orphanages, crowded railway stations, even sleepy villages. The entire entourage descends on the chosen spot, wearing horrified expressions, SPF factor 50 sunblock and baseball caps, clutching bottles of mineral water in their sanitized hands and trying very hard not to inhale. Some go back home and write cheques to assuage their guilt, others just wash away the grime under the power showers in their 5-star hotel and move on to the next stop.

Those whose sensibilities are not quite up to all this hard-core stuff, get their ‘slice of Indian life’ stuff from the temples. Ever since the Beatles fetched up at Rishikesh to stay at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in the 60s to learn a bit of transcendental meditation (and a spot of levitation while they were at it) India has been the favoured destination of spirituality junkies. Pushkar, which has the only Brahma temple in India, is a favourite stop as are some of the more famous shrines in south India like Tirupati.

But the recent success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love and its movie version featuring Julia Roberts has given a fresh fillip to this industry. Now, there is a new influx of celebrities descending on India, keen to find themselves through fasting, meditation and some light chanting. Madonna was seen at the Nathdwara shrine in Rajasthan, Mick Jagger is said to be a regular visitor to temples in and around Jaipur and Udaipur, and Oprah herself put in an appearance at the Ma Dham in Vrindavan to film the widows (without permission, as it turned out, but that – as they say – is another story).

On the scenic front, too, things have changed. Rajasthan is still a great draw, but the celebs are increasingly plumbing for small, off-the-beaten path, family-run properties like Deogarh over the big hotel chains. Goa is now officially passé. Kerala is where it’s at, with the backwaters scoring effortlessly over the beaches. And Dharamsala is the new Rishikesh, with the Dalai Lama proving to be an irresistible draw to all those newly-minted Buddhists in Hollywood with Richard Gere (yes, him again!) leading the way.

Yes, there is a new celebrity circuit in India now. And once Oprah airs that India special on her cable network, I’m guessing that it’s going to get a tad crowded.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unkindest cut

Now that it’s time to tighten our belts a little, which luxuries are you willing to give up?

It’s that time of the year again. When the office grapevine begins to buzz with how the raise scenario will play itself out this year. If you are one of God’s chosen creatures, you will probably end up scoring a decent raise. But if you’re not – and given the state of the economy, I’m guessing this is far more likely – you will be fobbed off by a token increase that is risible given the rate of inflation.

And if the Fates truly have it in for you, then you will be sent a sad little form letter from the HR department telling you this is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the company by sacrificing their salary hikes at the altar of corporate profitability.

In that case, like millions of other hapless souls, you will be forced to live on a wage that buys much less than it did and doesn’t, in fact, go very far. And that means those dreaded words that strike terror in every middle-class heart: budget cuts.

Cuts. How cruel it sounds! Cuts: as in something that hurts, causes you pain, injures you and leaves you less than whole. But however traumatic we find it, cuts are something that all of us will have to make as our salaries fail to keep up with our expenses. And the first thing to go will be the little luxuries that make life a bit more fun.

But when it comes right down to it, what luxuries would you be willing to forgo? And which of them would you find impossible to live without? In other words, which of your luxuries do you need rather than just want? Which of them are just luxuries; and which of them have become that dangerous thing called Luxecessities – luxuries that have turned into necessities as you try to cope with your daily grind.

Speaking for myself, there are some things that I simply refuse to forgo, no matter how frivolous they may seem to the rest of the world. And on top of that list is hair-styling: highlighting, trimming, conditioning, blow-drying. The rituals just add up every year – as indeed, does the expense. But I don’t grudge a rupee that I drop at my friendly neighbourhood hair salon because it is simply the best pick-me-up in the world. Fine, go ahead and judge me (as I am sure you are!) but I consider the money spent here the best investment ever. It makes me feel good about myself, and there’s no substitute for that in an increasingly gloomy world.

To make up for this profligate spending I have given up on my coffee habit – well, after a fashion anyway. I no longer drop by Barista for an early morning cappuccino or two; I don’t send out for a couple of double espresso shots in the late afternoon; I don’t buy a tall glass of creamy cold coffee when I’m feeling a bit peckish. Instead, I’ve invested in a coffee-maker which is considerably less complicated to operate than it looks and spews forth coffee that would do any Italian restaurant proud. It makes espresso, it serves Americanos and froths up a mean cappuccino. (Word to the wise: use south Indian roasted beans; they’re a fraction of the price of Illy and Co and just as good.)

Another luxecessity I find hard to give up is book-buying. There is something so supremely addictive about the high that I get from browsing through book-shops that I find it hard to go cold turkey. I love the smell of freshly-bound books, the clutter on the shelves, the colourful covers, the juxtaposition of the sublime with the ridiculous. I love the inevitable dithering between two equalling compelling volumes and then heading home, warm with the anticipation of spending the evening curled up with my latest purchase.

To fund this addiction, I’ve given up on magazines. I’ve always been a bit of a mag hag, devouring everything from shaming gossip rags to elevated publications that lecture me about the state of the world. But of late, I’ve begun to feel that the expense is simply not worth it. There’s nothing here that I can’t get for free on the Internet. And if there’s some really compelling content then it’s easier and cheaper to download the app on my Ipad anyway.

Don’t ask me if any of my cuts have made the slightest difference to my household budget. I haven’t the foggiest. But just the thought that I’m trying to cut down on frivolous expenses does make me a little better.

If you’re looking to make a few economies of your own, here are some ideas.

• Cut down on eating out; restaurant bills have a way of piling up. And if you’re paying by credit card you may not even notice until it’s too late. Instead, tap into your inner Domestic Goddess (or whatever the male equivalent is) and turn cooking into a fun, family activity.
• Rid yourself of the multiplex habit. The expensive tickets, the popcorn and soda combo offers begin to add up after a while. Discover the joys of ordering movies on Showcase or the delights of DVD box sets.
• Forget about exploring exotic, foreign locales on your vacations. Revive those old-style home-stays you enjoyed as a child when you spent holidays in the houses of family and friends. Who knows, you may just end up gaining much more than the money saved.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The case of the missing handbag

Margaret Thatcher and Hina Rabbani Khar may have made them famous; but Indian women politicians are not fans

You’ve got to hand it to Meryl Streep. After bringing the glacial fashion editor based on Anna Wintour to life in The Devil Wears Prada, she’s now appearing on our screens as the redoubtable Mrs Thatcher, the Iron Lady who is as far removed from Wintour’s Ice Queen as anyone could possibly be. And yet, such is Streep’s ability to morph herself into any life form that rave reviews have already starting pouring in for her portrayal of the former British Prime Minister.

What’s truly uncanny, though, is how much Meryl actually looks like Margaret in the film. There are the tweedy twin-sets, the blouses with a prim bow at the neck, the sturdy shoes, the impossibly bouffant hair. And then, of course, there’s the handbag.

Aha, the handbag. The accessory that was such a part of Thatcher’s look that it became the stuff of legend. Some speculated that the Prime Minister always carried a handbag in an effort to evoke a subliminal association with the Queen. Elizabeth II is never seen in public without a handbag dangling off her arm even though she famously carries no money (she has been known to refresh her lipstick at the dinner table though, so maybe the bag is for an emergency stash of make-up). And there seemed to be something to this theory as Thatcher started becoming more and more Queen-like as her reign wore on, even using the royal ‘we’ to refer to herself (as in “We have just become a grandmother”).

But, more pertinently, the handbag perennially hanging off her arm – ready to be wielded as an offensive weapon if the need ever arose – became something of a metaphor for Thatcher’s bullying style of politics. And those ministers and partymen who became victims of her iron-fist-in-an-iron-glove were described as having being ‘handbagged’, as in clouted about the head by her well-structured Asprey bag.

Such was the power of that image that even now, many decades after the event, we find it hard to picture Margaret Thatcher without her trademark handbag, swinging ominously by her side. It’s as much a part of her image as the poshed-up vowels, the helmet-like hair, and the slash of red lipstick. It signaled a certain purposefulness; it showed everyone that she meant business.

Yes, a handbag can say a lot simply by hanging off someone’s arm – and sometimes it says just as much by being conspicuously absent.

Look around you in our own political sphere. What do you see? I’ll tell you what you don’t: expensive handbags on the arms of our women politicians (with the exception of Mayawati, but more on her later).

Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful women politician in India by a long way, is never seen in public carrying a handbag. Sometimes when she attends AICC meetings or Congress plenary sessions, she carries a mannish briefcase bulging with papers and folders. But otherwise, her arms stay empty, swinging silently by her side, no matter where she is: speaking at an election rally, taking part in a political function, making an appearance at a wedding, or even attending Parliament.

Or take Jayalalitha, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. She is always impeccably turned out like the nicely brought up, convent school girl that she is. Perfectly groomed hair, flawless complexion, beautifully draped saris (sometimes with capes to match) – but no handbag. In Delhi, chief minister Sheila Dixit shows a similar disdain for arm candy of any sort. And then, there’s the fiery Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of Paschim Bongo, who also refuses to carry a handbag (which is just as well, because she is the most likely to use it to clobber some hapless soul senseless when in one of her famous fits of temper).

All these ladies have very differing styles of politicking. But the one thing that unites them is that the handbag is always missing. It’s almost as if they see it as an emblem of frivolity which would work against their being taken seriously in the public sphere.

Given this background, it’s perhaps easy to understand why we reacted with such outrage when the Pakistan foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, came to visit us with an enormous Birkin bringing up the rear. The bag took on a life of its own, occupying pride of place in every photo-op and effortlessly eclipsing poor old S.M. Krishna. And before you could say Hermes, a Birkin backlash was in full force. Khar’s judgement -- carrying an uber-expensive handbag on a state visit when she was representing a less-than-prosperous Pakistan – was called into question. And she herself came perilously close to being dismissed as a piece of fluff as a consequence, with her handbag doubling up as a badge of shame.

But strangely enough, the only Indian woman politician who makes a fetish of carrying a handbag has escaped that fate. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati is seldom seen without a designer bag hanging off her arm. In fact, one of her many statues had to be redone because the artist had omitted to graft a handbag on to her arm. But unlike Khar who had to deal with such derision because of her fondness for expensive leather goods, Mayawati has managed to sell her designer bags as a symbol of Dalit empowerment, a sign that she’s come a long way, baby.

Yes, as far as political messaging goes, it’s all in the bag – both when it’s hanging off someone’s arm or missing in action.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

No offence

The new, resurgent India is confident enough not to care about those who take pot-shots at her

You may not have noticed but apparently Jeremy Clarkson was in India a few months ago to shoot a special episode of Top Gear. The show aired recently and in keeping with the general tone of fatuous school-boy humour, laced with generous lashings of the casual racism our Jeremy is so brilliant at, it took a few pot-shots at India, its slum-dwellers, the general lack of sanitation, etc. etc.

So, you had Jeremy driving around in a Jaguar fitted out with a toilet in the boot because as he described so elegantly on the show, “Everyone who comes to India gets the trots.” (That’s posh speak for what we call “getting the runs”.) In one memorable bit, Jeremy stripped down to his underpants to explain to his bemused Indian guests how to use a trouser press – because, of course, savages that we are, we couldn’t possibly know how to iron the creases out of our clothes. So far, so very predictable.

But what wasn’t so predictable was what followed. Nothing. Yes, I mean just that: nothing.

Nobody in India got their knickers in a twist (as Jeremy would no doubt have put it), none of the political parties held press conferences to vent about how India’s honour had been outraged, there were no processions by people upset at having their lack of indoor sanitation mocked at, and there were certainly no calls for BBC to be banned in India.

Sure, there was the odd article in the newspapers and the obligatory outraging on Twitter for a day. And then, everybody forgot about Top Gear and that naughty Jeremy Clarkson and got on with their lives (with or without perfectly-pressed trousers). If anything, the episode got much more play in the British press – where the knives are always out for Jeremy – than it did in India.

So, why did India not explode into rage at this insult to our great nation (the oldest civilisation in the world, now that you ask)? Why did nobody call for Jeremy’s head on a silver thali? Why were there no demands for the BBC to apologise? Or even calls to shut down the channel as punishment for Jeremy’s sins?

Was it just that Top Gear has no real traction in India? That nobody knew or cared very much who Jeremy Clarkson was – and thus couldn’t be bothered that his luxury car was fitted out a toilet in the boot?

Or was there something more to this? Could it be possibly be that we in India have finally grown up? That we now have the confidence in ourselves to not care about what other people say about us – even if it is on international TV?

Though there is probably some merit in the first position, I’m inclining towards the latter. Yes, Jeremy Clarkson is hardly a household name in India, but that can’t be the entire story. In the past, we have displayed an incredible gift for getting annoyed/insulted/mortally offended for things that didn’t have the slightest bearing on our lives.

In 1968, French filmmaker Louis Malle visited India to make a seven-part documentary series, L’Inde, Fantome and a documentary film, Calcutta. Malle thought his was a sensitive, moving portrait of India; the government of India thought he was needlessly focussing on poverty and portraying the country in a negative manner. Malle’s documentaries were duly banned and it was several years before the BBC got permission to shoot in India again.

Around the same time, a Hollywood film called The Party – in which Peter Sellers plays a bumbling young Indian actor called Hrundi (yes, seriously!) V Bakshi, who mistakenly gets invited to a posh party and proceeds to trash it – was released. Instead of recognising it for the comedic cult film it would turn out to be the Shiv Sena picketed the cinemas in which it was released and succeeded in getting it banned.

Contrast this with our much more relaxed attitude to the comedic turn that was Anil Kapoor’s minuscule role in Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol. Here too was an Indian character in a Hollywood movie being played for laughs (among Kapoor’s many cringe-worthy lines, this one is a classic: “Indian mens are hots”). And no, we were not laughing along with him as much as laughing at him.

Did anybody in India mind? Not particularly. There were a few jokey comments about Kapoor in the newspaper and TV reviews, social media duly piped in with its two-bits, and that, pretty much, was that. Kapoor may have played the Indian millionaire as a fool, working the teeny-tiny part for a few laughs, but we didn’t see any reason to treat it an indictment of every Indian. We were mature enough, and rational enough, to see it for what it was: a comedy cameo in an international movie.

It is this relaxed attitude that has made films like Slumdog Millionaire possible now. There was a time when one scene alone – where the boy hero wades through excrement to reach his idol – would have been enough for various ‘nationalist’ groups in India to get their dhotis in a twist (no, dear Jeremy hasn’t said that yet, but give him time). But in the new, resurgent India, nobody complained about the title, about the portrayal of grinding poverty, or about the besmirching of the image of India.

We may not be like that only. But thankfully, we no longer care very much if you think so.