Sunday, March 31, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 280 ( A brutal rape, the police procedural that followed, and “The Delhi crime” - a Netflix crime series.)

Jottings - Slice of life - 280 ( A brutal rape, the police procedural that followed, and “The Delhi crime” - a Netflix crime series.)
On the sixteenth of December 2012, on a cold and hazy weekend evening in Delhi - the crowded capital of India - a rape was committed, that unsettled, horrified and paralyzed the moral conscience of a conservative nation. The repercussions of that single night, and the story that subsequently unfolded would forever change the course of legal treatment of rape, and the punishment for those who commit bodily heinous crimes against women. On that fateful winter evening, a young girl of twenty-three, returning from a movie (ironically, a life-affirming movie “Life of PI”) with her boyfriend was brutalized in a moving bus by six young men present in the vehicle. In a male-dominated society such as India, rape against women is not an uncommon assault. It happens frequently and in various shapes and forms. In most cases, such violations remain unreported due to the stigma attached to the act. But in Jyoti’s case, there was no need for anyone to report. She was found on the side of a road of a normally busy underpass in no-man’s land. Police patrols, who arrived at the scene based on pedestrian reports, spent some time debating and owning jurisdiction before they thought it wise to call the South Delhi division. When officers from South Delhi division arrived, in response to the emergency call, they found the naked and bleeding body of Jyoti, carelessly flung over the side of the road, bleeding, crumpled, distraught and moaning with physical pain. Little did the policemen realize the extent of the damage on the girl, or the insanity of the act committed on her. They immediately dispersed the crowd, carried the collapsing girl and her injured boyfriend to the nearby Government hospital. Jyoti was profusely bleeding hip down, and by the time the police reached Safdarjung hospital, she was unconscious. The two officers who accompanied Jyoti in the police van had a vague sense that this was not a usual rape. They didn’t know why, but there was something eerie and wrong about it. The officers were right in their premonition.
The true extent of the crime and the physical condition of the girl they brought in would trigger an unending nightmare for the Delhi police force and the nation at large. As hours passed, and the doctors diagnosed and unfathomed the trajectory of the injuries, they were aghast and numbed. The bodily condition of Jyoti revealed a horrible picture. The violations on her body, the sheer animosity of the act that could have caused such inhuman mutilation of womanhood, was something the doctors attending to Jyoti were appalled to behold and treat. And within the next few days, an entire nation would hear, cringe and cry with Jyoti as she oscillated between life and death, holding on precariously to the last shreds of her young and promising life, before giving it up twelve days later. The shocked country would rise in unison against the outrage, and demand instant death penalty for the rapists, and in the next few years, the painful death of Jyoti would catalyze the rewriting of archaic laws on rape and punishment. But for Jyoti, and her parents, a painful price was extracted without ever a chance of recompense, reconciliation or closure.
The six men who committed the violent rape belong to the economically and socially underprivileged sections of Indian society. Nearly, seventy-five years of independence hasn’t managed to create a strong bulwark of social institutions capable of raising the common living denominator of Indians. The financial and cultural disparities between different sections of society are only increasing with each passing day. Especially, in the urban towns of India which have seen phenomenal growth in middle and higher income groups, mass migrations from villages to the Metros, triggered by the lure of city-life, fill the vacant spaces of the city as slums, and most of the young blooded males who come in to such cities pick up menial jobs to sustain themselves. It is the pride of working in a “city” that is foremost in their minds; and it doesn’t matter what the nature of the work is, as long as they can feed themselves, enjoy the thrill of living among the elite, and be spectators, or sometimes participate, in the numerous diversions cities can offer. With no prospect of upward mobility, lack of educational opportunities and a deep-seated inferiority complex, many of these young migrants soon develop a sense of restlessness, and in many cases turn repressively violent. In addition to this, the constant bombardment of the senses by what they see others enjoying, but cannot indulge in themselves, only fuels the growing discontent within. Such frustration only exacerbates the psychic dichotomy that lies dormant within.
It was a bunch of six such people who were in command of that private bus, Jyoti and her boyfriend Awindra boarded that late evening. When the couple settled down in the front row, it wouldn’t have stuck Jyoti and Awindra as odd at all that that they were the only passengers in the bus. Delhi, After all, is a brave city, and young couples are used to traveling alone in the nights. When Ram Singh ( the main accused) observed the urban-bred Awindra cuddling closely with Jyoti, anger fueled by the fire of lust, envy and pent up frustration erupted in him and spread to the others in the group. All of them were drunk, and they only needed a nudge, a push down the precipice to act on their wild impulses. In the darkness of the night, drowned by the droning sound of the engine, driving along the city roads where pedestrians and others are either indifferent to the shouts emanating from the bus or preoccupied in their thoughts, six men, one after another brutalized Jyoti in a manner inconceivable to a sane human mind. To call what they did as rape is an understatement; it was an act that violated the very premise of being human. They desecrated the young body of Jyoti with all the virulent hatred they possessed. For forty-five minutes, with the screams of the girl bellowing out of the bus but reaching none around, the drunken men ripped her body apart in the literal sense of the word. What remained of Jyoti when they dumped her body on the roadside was only a sterile physical form writhing in unimaginable pain, devoid of any respect and dignity. Nothing more need be said.
In seven days time, the Delhi Police under the command of Chaya Sharma, the then DCP of south Delhi, grabbed all six perpetrators hiding in different corners of the city and the country. She led a team of Inspectors and sub-inspectors who knew the way around the Indian criminal system. Given the gravity of the crime and the absorption of the country in the savage details of the act,, not many people realized during that stressful period the stupendous job of the police in cracking this case, that had so quickly gained national and international attention and media time. Political and civilian pressure to nab the culprits and mete out justice was intense, and police leads were often misleading and elusive, but IPS officer Chaya Sharma let her policing instincts rule over emotional sentiments. The police had virtually nothing to go by. Through scant and hazy camera footage collected from the Hotels along the road where Jyoti was found, along with sketchy descriptions shared by Jyoti’s boyfriend ( who miraculously or some would say suspiciously got away with very minor injuries) Chaya’s team was smart enough to identify the white bus in which the crime was committed. With that single lead, police would nab Ram Singh - the principal brain behind the savagery. Ram would commit suicide in custody within months, but within a day of his arrest, through careful interrogation, the police were able to connect the dots and orchestrate the arrest of all the remaining rapists, among whom was a minor boy not yet eighteen. The political and civilian pressure on Delhi police was enormous, and the public wished to draw blood instantly. Despite the pressures from different quarters, mounting civil unrest and dire aspersions cast on the ineptitude of the police force, Chaya and her team did their job with alacrity and precision within a system that isn’t exactly co-operative or transparent.
It has been seven years, since the tragic rape and death of Jyoti. A lot of positive changes have happened in the intervening years in amending the process of law for rape victims, and legislating sterner measures for rapists. There is now in India a more acute awareness of the consequences of rape. Though, the rate of rape hasn’t plummeted ( it has increased year on year), at least there is the hope of shifter recompense to the victims and their aggrieved families if that is any consolation to anyone. It is time someone spoke for the Police too. The story of how the Delhi police managed to locate and arrest the six culprits in incredibly quick time, is something that is not widely known or acknowledged. The new crime series on Netflix “The Delhi crime” attempts to do that. The seven-episode mini-series brilliantly captures the details of the police work that led to the conviction of the rapists. In recent times, among the hundreds of movies and serials on the quality of policing in India, none does more justice to the acumen, professionalism, work ethics, their travails, handicaps and above all the conditions under which Indian Police work, than “Delhi crime”. In my radar, this mini-series is the best police procedural drama I have seen. Richie Mehta, an avant-garde filmmaker researched the case for seven years. In an interview, Richie says: “ He was amazed with the precision with which this case was solved, and so quickly”. The smart police work, the ups and downs during the frantic search, deserved a deeper and elaborate treatment than a mere feature film of two hours. Hence Richie decided to direct a mini-series. The theme of the project was not to delve on the gory details of the rape, which constantly remains as a shadow throughout all the episodes, but focused on portraying the smart persistence of the Delhi police, against all odds, with the singular goal of solving the crime. It is not the glorified police procedurals fed these days ( especially the Western ones) with well dressed and articulate officers, with access to elaborate databases at the touch of a key, and an intimidating team of prosecutors assisting the officers on the case. It's quite the opposite. “Delhi crime” demystifies police work in the Indian context. Frame by frame, Richie, explores the ground realities of what it means to work in a system where police stations do not have sufficient budgets to pay for electric bills, inspectors and lower cadre officers are disgruntled and not respected enough in society unless they are from the Indian police service, or how the stations are so under-equipped that it becomes difficult to conduct day to day business, or the sheer poverty in the lives of the guardians of law themselves.
I watched with pride all the seven episodes. Some of it may have been fictional. But it doesn’t matter. What is important is to know that despite all the obstacles and inconveniences of poorly managed police system, there was during the Nirbhaya case, a team of five officers who rose above all the hurdles and bought the culprits to justice in no time. To them, we owe our gratitude. In the capture of the six rapists, they bought the country to rethink the laws on rape. Even if one of them had escaped, and remained untraceable, we would have cut a sorry face in the international arena and utterly ashamed of ourselves, and who knows, Jyoti’s case may have never seen the legal closure it eventually did.
if you have a subscription to Netflix at home, request every Indian to watch this series. It is worth the time.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 279 ( The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes - the poster girl of the Silicon Valley)

Jottings - Slice of life - 279 ( The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes - the poster girl of the Silicon Valley)
“Some in clandestine companies combine,
Erect new stocks to trade beyond the line:
With air and empty names beguile the town,
And raise new credits first, then dry 'em down:
Divide the empty nothing into shares,
To set the town together by the ears”
Daniel Defoe - “London”
The meteoric rise and ignominious fall of young Elizabeth Holmes, the former founder, CEO of Theranos, and a billionaire by the age of thirty-one is nothing short of a fairy tale, with the only twist that from the very beginning the fairy herself was flawed, never clean of intent or truthful of purpose. In his widely read book, “The extraordinary popular delusions and madness of the crowds” written nearly two centuries ago, in 1841, the Scottish writer Charles Mackay records many cases of what he calls “moral epidemics” — an irrational attachment to a crazy idea that starts off as a trickle but quickly generates enough momentum, gathering in its course, people from all walks of life, sometimes consuming an entire nation, to act on an idea or scheme, which in the normal course the individuals involved would never have undertaken by themselves. It is called the herd mentality, (or what we have now euphemistically rechristened as “crowd platforms”) The moral epidemic could be anything from a business scheme, to medical quackery to religious belief. It doesn’t matter what the idea is, but the snowballing effect it has on the populace is undeniable and nothing short mass hysteria, and for the period of time when the frenzy prevails, nothing can shake the confidence in people’s minds, about the venture, until the scam runs its course is suddenly revealed for what it is, and the duplicity of its progenitor and the bankruptcy of the idea stands starkly exposed in the public eye. When that happens the glass house crumbles with a resounding thud breaking into million pieces of no value whatsoever; and overnight, the heroes of yesterday are vilified as villains and monstrous schemers of today. The rise and fall of Theranos is a story that Charles Mackay would have loved to include in his book if he were alive to revise his 1841 edition. That an insane idea, with no medical backing at all, could lure hundreds of millions of dollars not only from middle-income groups, but from billionaires known for their financial and business acumen, and from former secretary of states and minister of defenses known for their judicious decision making - is nothing short of baffling. The story of Human greed and uninhibited ambition is as old as civilization, and no matter how much we progress outwardly, we never learn our inner lessons despite regular episodes of deception and malfeasance. Perhaps, the debacle of Theranos may be our moment of truth. But if past experience is anything to go by, I think, it will be foolish to assume so.
The silicon valley is a fascinating, yet strange place. Within those fifty square mile radius of the Bay Area, there is more wealth created than on any other patch of land on the human-inhabited globe. Dreamers are welcome there. Nothing is a taboo or inappropriate as an idea in the Valley, as long as one can fund and sell the idea. For those who seek millions in quick time, aspire to own lavish homes overlooking sunny California beaches, and drive expensive and handcrafted lamborghini’s, silicon valley is the place to be if they have the gumption, smartness and the ruthlessness to convert their promises into reality, and to live up to their dreams. It is not at all surprising then, that Elizabeth Holmes would, when the time was ripe, chose to make her fortune in the silicon valley. Nowhere else would one find the license to dream weird dreams, and hope to get away with it. As a child of five years old, when a relative asked Elizabeth in her home in Washington DC, what she wanted to become when she grew older; she responded without hesitation that she wished to be a Billionaire. That was the seed right there. Elizabeth’s parents were technically well off. Her father worked in a senior role in Enron, and her mother for the Federal government. Education, Money, and status was never an issue, and the young girl was innately precocious, intelligent and possessed that rare ( and sometimes) disturbing quality of getting what she wanted. Homeschooled in Mandarin, a language she supposedly liked, Elizabeth enrolled into Stanford - the mecca for the liberal-minded - in their summer program in Mandarin. Perhaps, it was at this point, that her ambition, which lay seething and throbbing inside began to finally sense its opportunity, and a vent in the fertile intellectual atmosphere of Stanford. Soon after school, she applied and got into undergraduate chemical engineering course at Stanford. Professor Phyllis Gardner, Professor of medicine at Stanford remembers Elizabeth as a hyper-intelligent student. Even before the idea behind Theranos was fully formed, Elizabeth discussed her thoughts with Dr. Phyllis, about a device that could run blood tests with just a spot of blood. The veteran professor dismissed the idea as incredulous and scientifically infeasible, but she vividly remembers with a shudder the look of nonchalance, nonacceptance, and a tinge of arrogance in those deep, blue eyes of Elizabeth when questioned. There was something about her inability to listen that troubled me", was Phylis cryptic comment about Elizabeth.
The idea of dropping out of college to make a fortune has been both the boon and the curse of the modern generation. From Michel Dell to Bill Gates to Steve Job to Marc Zuckerberg to Larry Ellison to many more, who left prestigious graduate courses in leading universities to forge their own paths has unfortunately created a contemporary archetype for dissenting adolescents to mimic role models without basis or integrity. The creed for modern breed of youngsters is: if one dares to drop out of college, then something good is up the sleeves. While this approach has worked for some, such an archetype can quickly become an excuse for prematurely ambitious and half-baked minds to embark upon a course action without necessary training and preparation. Genius and luck, together, are uncommon property, and few cases where it has come together and succeeded, cannot be extended as a general principle to be followed. Personalities such as Elizabeth’s wouldn’t understand or acknowledge this fact. Perhaps, it is the electrifying environment and the glitter of successful entrepreneurs all around - we don’t know, but Elizabeth decided that two years of Chemical engineering at Stanford and a three month of lab internship at the genome institute of Singapore at the end of her Freshman year was enough formal education to drop out and incubate her “revolutionary” idea of testing blood without the pain of intravenous procedure. It is typical of people with delusionary ambition and the impatience to get rich quickly; they don't pause to think of their own preparedness. They possess raw courage, without the tempering of patience and counsel. Elizabeth, even for a moment, did not question her own understanding of medical science or mastery over the chemical process needed to test blood, before she set out to commercialize this wild idea. She was supremely confident that she could pull it off with her magnetic personality, powers of articulation and force of persuasion.
One look at Elizabeth Holmes in any of her pictures over the last eight years, and what strikes us with intense force is the glassy look in her eyes and the carefully orchestrated body language. There is something in those wide, deep, blue pair of eyes that uneasily stirred the depths of the viewer. Like the deep sea, the surface shimmered with dazzling light, but one could instantly sense a quality of deep brooding darkness underneath. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, the master stylist, who described one of his female characters in a Father Brown story: “ She had the eyes of startling brilliancy, but it was the brilliancy of steel rather than of diamonds. She was one of those women whom one always thinks of in profile, as of the clean-cut edge of a weapon. She seemed to cleave her way through life…” This description fits Elizabeth perfectly. From the time she floated Theranos ( formed with the words “Therapy” and “Diagnosis”) to commoditize her idea, using the college money she had, Elizabeth transformed herself into a different persona. Her voice became more of a baritone, an octave less to make the words come out deep and intense, the costumes changed to mimic Steve jobs black turtle necks ( which she ordered from the same designer Jobs’ employed), her body language on stage and in interviews was carefully practiced to look more flamboyant and expressive, and more importantly, she held a crystal clear narrative in her head, which she expostulated to audiences and investors with passionate zeal and a contagious conviction. Between 2003 and 2016, in a span of 12 years , she managed to attract money in millions ( around 750 million dollars) from capital investors, opened offices in the heart of Silicon Valley, attracted top talent from Apple, many of whom, blown away by her vision joined Theranos leaving behind financially valuable shares in Apple. in 2014, at the age of thirty, Elizabeth Holmes was ranked by Forbes the youngest self-made billionaire and her assets valued at over nine billion dollars. She had reached the pinnacle of her dreams, and she was single-handedly instrumental in changing the way the world perceived women entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley. Elizabeth’s success in a predominantly male-dominated valley was on the verge of rewriting history.
That brings us to the question: What exactly was Elizabeth’s business proposition and what went wrong. The idea was simple. For patients, who need regular blood tests done for a variety of reasons, the traditional method of drawing blood using syringes can be painful, and the results from such tests can often take days or weeks to process, keeping the patient waiting in a state of anxiety. Elizabeth hit upon the “bright idea”, based on her rudimentary understanding of biology and the chemical testing process that a drop of blood from a pinprick is enough to conduct over 240 tests using a proprietary portable Theranos appliance called Edison, which would use the capsule of blood as input, and yield accurate results within a short span of time. What made this idea especially enticing to the public and investors is that in cases of emergency, blood tests performed through Edison can quickly identify a serious medical problem, which could then help in saving lives. In a way, Elizabeth’s vision, if true, would have changed medical science in a profound way. After all, blood tests are the heartbeat of most medical diagnoses, and if a revolutionary technology like what Theranos was proposing, could expedite the process and make it less painful, it would definitely prove to be very beneficial in cases of emergency and in circumstances where there may not be enough time for a conventional intravenous blood test to be administered — for example, on the battlefield (which was incidentally one of Theranos claim that her method worked on the battlefield in Iraq saving valuable young lives) However, there were three key elements to make the idea work: The quality of the blood samples taken, the manner it was stored and the reliability of the appliance to generate accurate results based on those minute samples. Theranos began commercializing the product even before any of these factors were thoroughly tested and certified by FDA (Federal drug Administration) Patients cannot, at any cost, be subjected to inaccuracies in testing methodology, and consequent results. In 2006, Elizabeth, through carefully managed articulation, managed to fund the idea, and set up a thousand strong company staffed with creme de la creme of talent from Apple and other places. She did not pay attention to the fact that the patented machine Edison ( which was to test the blood samples) wasn’t producing right blood results even for a few simple tests, let alone over two hundred of them as claimed by Theranos. The technicians, alarmed and frustrated, repeatedly bought this fact to Elizabeth and her partner Ramesh Balwani ( an Indian immigrant who had made millions in venture capitalism and was living with Elizabeth for few years); but it fell on deaf ears. Theranos as a brand was overwhelmed with money and adulation. It didn’t matter that idea and the methodology it evangelized was skewed, misdirected and driving headlong over an inevitable precipice. It was only a matter of time before the charade ended.
When Elizabeth’s photo was splashed on the cover of the 2014 Forbes magazine, she was at the height of her fame. Her descent began soon enough after. By 2016, her carefully constructed empire started disintegrating. A few key whistleblowers broke their silence, and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal picked up the scent to penetrate this hoax. About the same time, business partners like Walgreen began to sense that Theranos was massively violating federal regulations, and the blood samples, as promised to the public, weren’t tested on site, but flown into a secret basement at Theranos’s silicon valley office. Patients also began to note wide discrepancies between blood tests performed at more established labs. Many patients also felt odd that Theranos technicians, more often than not, drew blood using syringes along with prick on the forefinger, when the company’s advertisements clearly stated that syringes wouldn’t be used. The whole business was beginning to sound murky, mired in confusion and misinformed. Based on published reports, In 2016, the securities exchange commission stepped in to investigate and quickly noticed widespread scam and lack of integrity. The company was violating basic principles of a public enterprise. Instantly, the market valuation of Theranos fell from billions to zero in no time, and Elizabeth was prohibited from joining the board of any public company for a period of ten years. During her lengthy deposition to the SEC, the usually confident Elizabeth was hesitant and unsure of her answers over 600 times. She couldn’t clarify her position on critical questions regarding Theranos technology or the application of it. Her plain, ashen face, devoid of the usual meticulous make-up, showed visible signs of confusion, strain, and failure. She did not, however, accept any wrongdoing, and denied knowledge of what happened at the grass root level.
Elizabeth is now facing criminal charges along with Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her accomplice in the adventure. If found guilty, she could land in prison for decades. But that is a battle still going on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth continues to live in the Silicon Valley, and rumors have it that she is engaged, and is contemplating a new business idea, for which she is soliciting capital. Recently, on Hulu and HBO, documentaries on the meteoric entrepreneurial career of Elizabeth and her personality have attempted to answer a few critical questions. Is Elizabeth a Sociopath whose narcissism blinded her to facts ? or is it that she genuinely believed in the efficacy of her idea, and hoped she could get it right before the avalanche of money submerged her good intentions? or is she a product of modern times when our role models are billionaires who have made a name and fortune for themselves selling an outrageous idea and lead rich lifestyles, and imitation of those Demi-Gods becomes the ultimate purpose of one's life and career? or is it just a plain case of deception and fraud in the world of business? There are no answers right now. Elizabeth Holmes is only 33 years with a full life ahead of her, yet it seems she has lived a dream with nothing much left anymore. But Elizabeth will resurrect. That is who she is. In an event couple of years ago, just after the sham was publicized she said:
“You’ll get knocked down over and over and over again, and you get back up, I’ve been knocked down a lot, and it became really clear that this was what I wanted to do, and I would start this company over 10,000 times if I had to.”
When I watched the documentaries about her, I felt a trifle sad that such talent, nerve, and passion was wasted defending an idea that wasn’t intrinsically viable. Her idol is Steve Jobs, and in many ways, she imitated his work culture and mannerisms. But what she didn’t learn from Jobs was to never sell an idea before it can be thoroughly studied, researched, designed and tested. iPhone took remained five years in incubation, and so did the iPod before Jobs triumphantly announced the products to the world. Unfortunately, Elizabeth failed to incorporate this seminal work ethic of Steve Jobs in her entrepreneurial vision. Her goal was to make good money, with (let's give the benefit of the doubt) a vague notion of “doing good” for those who suffered from intravenous blood tests. But her approach, adamancy, and unwillingness to retract from her position despite good counsel from colleagues and others pushed her along a road doomed to failure. Her reckless attitude short-circuited her journey as a woman entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley, and knowingly or unknowingly her acts of deliberate omission and misrepresentation have cast a shadow on the creative world of Silicon Valley. It will take some time to heal the damage done by Elizabeth Holmes and the idea of Theranos. But there is still hope, as always.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 276 ( The disease of envy and its portrayal in “A star is born” and “Abhimaan”)
It is not for nothing that envy is listed among the Seven deadly sins. It is a silent killer. It may not visibly intrusive and glaring like some of the other sins, but the impact envy can have on a flowering relationship is similar to a cancerous growth that eats from the inside, slowly and deliberately and with suppurating inner pain. Some amount of envy is inevitable in any relationship, but when the Rubicon of moderation is crossed, and one ventures into that torrid zone filled with inferiority complexes, self flagellatory nightmares , emotional sadism and truckloads of self-pity ; then the end is near; not merely of the relationship; but the integrity of the personality itself. Literature, movies, and drama have captured this psychotic phenomenon of relentless envy in innumerable works. It makes for a great plot and builds enough cathartic and aesthetic tension to keep the beholder riveted to the book or screen. The trajectory of such stories often has a tragic ending casting doubt veracity of fame and adulation in the arts, or in few cases, the artist offers a different perspective of understanding and reconciliation. Either way, there is self-made pain and its panacea.
“A star is born" a classic tale of envy, has been remade four times over a century of Hollywood cinema. In 1937, it was Janet Mayor and Fredric March - a subdued black and white affair with a bewitching performance by Janet; in 1954 it was Judy Garland ( one of the best musical portrayals) and the debonair James Mason singing their way into envy; in 1976, the story was reprised with the ultimate diva of music Barbara Streisand at the height of her glory with the bearded, lanky Kris Kristofferson playing a fading second fiddle; and in 2018 the mercurial, eccentric and supremely talented Lady Gaga donning the character of Ally, the singer from a shady night club catapulting to singing fame in a matter of few frames, and reducing the alcoholic and self-tormented husband Jackson Maine ( played to perfection by Bradley Cooper), to physical and psychological shambles. In all four adaptations, the Hero dies, commits suicide, not able to come to grips with the rise of his beau who walks up the ladder of success using the Hero’s shoulders as a prop. The sheer abundance of talent propels the ladies into an orbit of their own. All that was needed was a launching pad, a pedestal to stand on — nothing else. Our love stuck heroes provide that pedestal driven by a genuine appreciation of their lover’s talent ; but quickly realize that the spark they helped kindle has transformed into something unexpected, something really big, a blazing fire whose artistic intensity subsumes everything in its wake, including the hero’s own artistic prowess, sensitivity, and status . In that vulnerable moment of insecurity, envy surreptitiously creeps into one's bosom, and before long, it stains and corrupts the purity and beauty of the relationship, that was responsible for bringing the talent to the forefront.
Lady Gaga, or Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, couldn’t have aspired for a better break than the latest remake of “A star is born”. The world knows Gaga as a performer, as a singer with wide repertoire of vocals, as a songwriter who could , when she wants to, write songs that touch the deepest chords in modern man, as a lady whose indefatigable performances on stage with the most incredible costumes and masks could throw thousands into state of delirium; and above all, as a young girl who rose from the streets of New York around 2008 to establish herself as a prima donna in the one of the most competitive and toughest spaces in art — the world of American commercial music. In a way, Gaga has always led a double life. Her exterior persona, which all of us know, is so larger than life with so much of hype and facade; that we have never seen the lady behind the smoke and lights. That she can act, and act with the great maturity and poise is indeed a revelation. As Ally, she quickly takes control of the movie, leaving Bradley Cooper playing second fiddle and made tp look little weak and average. Gaga's performance reminds me of Jennifer Lopez’s back in 1996. J. Lo ’s first appeared as an actress in“Selena” - a biopic that portrayed the tragic life of the Spanish singer by the same name. Her naive innocent face with an astounding voice and onstage persona fitted the role well, and the film proved to be a great launching pad for Jennifer Lopez’s incredibly successful career in Hollywood. Today, after two decades, Ms. Lopez continues to straddle the world of movies and music with equal ease; and I see Lady Gaga in that same mold and treading more or less the same path. Gaga, like Lopez, is a born entertainer with no inhibitions about herself and the world. “A star is born” has given her the perfect platform to experiment and explore her artistic limits. What struck me with great force is the ease of Lady Gaga in front of the camera. With a seasoned and talented co-actor in Bradley Cooper, it's not easy to stand out in the frame. But everyone who watched the movie would come out crediting Gaga for her sensitive portrayal of a role played by other great actresses in the past. It is difficult to infuse a new interpretation of a character that is already part of American artistic conscience. Not only does it require tremendous courage to attempt, but far greater audacity to pull it off. It is the singer Lady Gaga who ultimately walked away with the Academy award; but if her acting talent in this film is anything to go by, it is only a matter of time before she holds the golden statue for an actor in her hands.
Having written about “ A star is born” and the performances of lead artists in the previous paragraphs; I must confess that my personal favorite among all adaptations of the artistic envy and its consequences on screen has to be Hrishikesh Mukherjee's unforgettable 1973 masterpiece “Abhimaan” featuring two wonderful actors at the cusp of their careers. The storyline is similar. A playback singer at the height of commercial success finds a young, soft-spoken village belle with the voice of a nightingale. He marries, brings her to the city, playfully nudges her to pursue singing as a career, not knowing that what he has precipitated would return to overshadow his own towering success. The young bride Uma ( beautifully etched by Java Bhaduri in her finest performances ever) reluctantly follows her Husbands advice, and soon finds herself much more in demand than her mentor. Amitabh Bachan, playing the role of the mentoring hubby (Subir) begins to feel the pressure of envy lurking at doors of their relationships. The slow development of the psychological rot, and its gradual infiltration into daily life, affecting every aspect of a loving relationship is explored with great depth and sensitivity in the masterful hands of Hrishida. The audience deeply sympathizes with both the characters. We lament with Uma while she anguishes over her alienation from her beloved, and we stoically empathize with Subir as tries his best to accommodate Uma’s success into her own orbit. We feel the pain when Subir’s initial enthusiasm and encouragement turns sour, condescending and sarcastic, and the tremendous strain in places on the young wife for no fault of hers. The body language of the hero exudes sheer aggression without the actual physicality of violence. The performance of Amitabh as Subir is definitely a high water mark in his illustrious career. And so is Jaya’s as Uma, in her subdued yet strong role as a wife who decides to repudiate her talent for marital stability.
The beauty of “Abhimaan” is in the positive ending of the story. Envy is not an insoluble problem. It is a psychological imbalance, no doubt, but nothing that cannot be understood in perspective and set right. The descent into drugs and alcohol to forget the problem is hardly a solution. It may provide temporary relief by numbing the pain; but when the soporific stupor fades away, the pain returns with doubled force. In all four adaptations of “A star is born”, the hero commits suicide. He briefly returns to sanity towards the end of the story, only to be pushed over the precipice over a trivial incident or conversation about his wife. In “Abhimaan”, however, When Uma is on the verge of collapsing into a state of irrevocable depression Subir is made to understand, realize the fallacy of his position and unethical demands. He comes face to face with his inner demons and wakes up with the self-realization that his madness and misdemeanor is about to consume a beautiful life for reasons utterly selfish and misplaced. Elders step in, to counsel and bring the wayward artist back to track, and in the climax of the movie, both the husband and wife together sing the song of their life with harmony and coordination that only can come after the arduous trial of self-discovery in a relationship. They sing effortlessly, as one soul in two bodies, and yet retain their individuality. That is the hallmark of a healthy relationship - artistic or otherwise. The music of SD Burman captured every nuance of Hrishida’s vision, and in the history of Indian cinema, Abhimaan would rate as one of those very few films that blended meaningful music with deep emotional narrative.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala