A couple of weeks ago, I watched a documentary called Kakkoos. I had watched a trailer before and wanted to watch the full film, so when I found out that it was released on YouTube, I decided to watch. I remembered, from the trailer, that the documentary was about manual scavenging and that it seemed interesting but not much else.

When I started watching it though, I was shocked; some of the scenes were stomach-churning and sometimes so bad that I could not watch.

Let that sink in for a moment: I couldn’t watch scenes from a documentary where my fellow citizens clean shit (oops, human excreta) as part of their daily job.

Here’s the government’s definition of a “manual scavenger” (emphasis mine):

“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

The definition is descriptive but does not capture how horrible the task is and the term “manual scavenging” itself seems so sterile. Scavenging is not a word that you feel repulsed by, so manual scavenging seems benign. Maybe that’s why the bureaucrats chose the term; it doesn’t evoke disgust.

But, the documentary, which is shot in multiple locations in Tamil Nadu and has interviews with numerous folks engaged in this inhumane and soul-crushing work, does. It is a searing film because it exposes the reality of this work and the manner in which people are exploited and suppressed.

I can easily recall the faces of the people in the documentary and remember the despair, anger, and resignation in their voice; their stories are haunting and will jolt you. The genius of this documentary is that it makes you uncomfortable when you watch and disturbs you when you think about this later.

So, why even watch? Because if you live in your bubble and think that your country has “made it” because it’s going digital or because marketing slogans (Swachh Bharat) make you feel proud, this documentary will show the depths to which our fellow citizens have to go simply to survive.

It should shame us that even though there are machines to do this kind of work, we still have no problems with asking people risking their lives (yes, there have been deaths in sewers) and their health to keep our surroundings clean.

This is exploitation and it is oppression and we are complicit because of our silence and because we don’t want to know. So, make the time and watch Kakkoos ; I guarantee that you’ll be disgusted, horrified, and moved. And, it’ll be something concrete that people face daily and not an abstract term like “manual scavenging”. You owe it to the folks who do this every day to, at least, watch.

Voices from the New American Schoolhouse

Sometimes I take procrastination and forgetfulness to new heights. (In case you didn’t get it, this is one of those times.)

In June 2007, I wrote a post called Thinking differently about schooling, which was actually a post about a movie called Voices from the New American Schoolhouse. Somehow, the person who made the film, a very nice man named Danny Mydlack, read my blog and offered to send me a DVD of the movie. Really.

And he did send the DVD, which I received in March 2008. (Long story.) I watched the DVD a couple of weeks later and I intended to blog about it. Clearly, in my case, intention does not translate to action quickly.

Moving on to the documentary, it was an eye-opener. For those that didn’t read the earlier post, the movie’s about Fairhaven, a school in Maryland. (You can read about Fairhaven’s philosophy on their website.)

What’s unusual about this school is that it’s student-driven and it’s democratic. The students decide which classes they want to take, they vote on various school decisions, they are on a “judicial committee” to settle disputes, etc. The school doesn’t restrict students from classes based on their ages, so you can have a youngish student taking “advanced” maths classes. The students essentially can learn what they want to learn.

What makes the DVD endearing is that the narration is done by the students of the school and it’s really interesting to hear the students, of varying ages, speak about their school. You can sense the passion that they have for their school.

A couple of the students stood out for me. One was a teenager who spoke about how, every morning, he read The Guardian for left-leaning news and Fox News for news with a right-wing perspective to get a balanced perspective on the news. Seriously, teenager. The other was a young girl who spoke about her passion for maths (algebra and polynomials if you must know) and how she was taking classes with older students.

One thing that I hadn’t realised was that the documentary was created over a two-year period, which is a lot of effort. It’s worth it because the end-product is terrific — informative and more importantly, inspiring. It really shows how children can be educated differently and how they can thrive in a democratic educational environment. It really makes you think about how we are educating children and whether the route that everyone takes is the right one for children.

If you have any interest in education, teaching, or schooling, this really is a DVD you should not miss. Who knows, it could even inspire you to do something along similar lines. A big thank you to Danny Mydlack, the filmmaker, for his generosity in sending me the DVD and for creating an exceptional documentary.

P.S. 1: When I read about Fairhaven and saw the documentary, I remembered that Ricardo Semler is trying to do similar stuff with his school Lumiar. Semler’s company, Semco, is run like a democracy and it seems that schools like Fairhaven are “doing democracy” in their schools.

P.S. 2: I found out later that Fairhaven is a Sudbury school. Apparently, there are a few schools like Fairhaven in the US.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

When I think about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the first thing that comes to mind is the character Maria Elena and the way she speaks and acts — and it makes me smile. Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz, stays with you long after the movie’s over. Though we meet her close to the movie’s half-way mark, she still manages to make an impact. Cruz is excellent as the super-talented, yet extremely fragile Maria Elena and I’m guessing that’s why they gave her an Oscar.

VCB is about two friends, Vicky and Cristina, who make a summer trip to Barcelona. Vicky is the woman who knows what she wants — she’s engaged, she’s in graduate school — and seems the more conventional of the two. Cristina is a dilettante and sort of a free spirit. They meet a painter, Juan Antonio, who then takes them on a trip. When Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena, things get really complicated and even more interesting.

When you recall the movie later, you realize that VCB is about challenging the assumptions that we have about love and romantic relationships and about how we think that it should be this way or that. VCB is funny but it’s also insightful and quirky, which is I guess a hallmark of Woody Allen movies. (I’ve watched only a couple, so I don’t know if I am qualified to make such a judgement.)

However you analyze the movie, the main thing is that it’s funny and enjoyable to watch. Those are good enough reasons to watch any movie.


I don’t know if Milk was released in Bangalore, but if it wasn’t then that’s a shame because it is a terrific movie. Milk is about Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay politician in California, but it is also, in a larger sense, about the gay rights movement in the US. (IMDB has a nice review of the movie.)

Milk won two Oscars for best actor and best screenplay, both deservedly so. Sean Penn is superb as Harvey Milk and the script never misses a beat, telling the story without sounding preachy and yet delivering a powerful message. (Interesting tidbit: The acceptance speech of the screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, was censored in parts of Asia during the “live” Oscar telecast.)

Gus Van Sant, the director, deserves a lot of credit as well There are scenes of men kissing and some suggested sexual encounters which will have made many people in India (and possibly elsewhere) uncomfortable. But, everything’s handled well and without a fuss, so props to Van Sant.

The issue of gay rights is especially relevant in India because our laws are slightly behind the times. (Add heavy dose of sarcasm here.) When you watch a movie like Milk, you wonder about people with alternate sexuality (LGBT) and about the kinds of problems that they face.

Put yourself in their shoes if you will. Firstly, it’s a question of accepting who you are because everyone else seems different. Then, there’s the issue of dealing with your family and friends, and in the larger sense, with society. Mix in the laws we have and think about the kind of problems you’d have to face. This is precisely why I feel that more people should watch Milk, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. It is a movie that will provoke debate and that debate will eventually (hopefully) lead to something good for the LGBT community in India.

As it is, this is one minority community that our media and our society doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge. And that’s sad.

On movie villains who gloat

I’ve lost count of the number of movies where the villain, instead of eliminating the protagonist, wastes time gloating and ends up having to eat crow or various other things.

Is this a form of deux ex machina that we are so used to as viewers that we don’t even blink? Or is it one of those predictable things that must happen in movies? Or maybe it’s got something to do with psychology — a person may feel the need to explain why he or she is doing something.

Whatever the reason, in some movies this is a plot element that is grating. It does work in some movies but it does seem like an overused element. The flip side is that if villains didn’t gloat you’d never have series like James Bond that span decades.

I’m reminded though of a scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, where Eli Wallach’s character (Tuco, aka Ugly) is in a bathtub and someone comes in and points a gun at him but doesn’t shoot. Here’s the dialogue from Wikiquote:

One Armed Man: I’ve been looking for you for 8 months. Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you. Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.

[Tuco kills him with a hidden gun]
Tuco: When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.

If movie villains heeded Tuco’s advice, my feeling is that doing this would tighten a story / script where the gloating was used as a plot device to help the writer resolve a situation.

Tighter movie = better experience for viewer.

Cinderella can still call Bangalore home

From today’s Deccan Herald Gorge till midnight, stop guzzling early:

Beginning with immediate effect, hotels and restaurants in the city will now remain open till midnight. But patrons at bars and pubs will continue to be served drinks only till 11:30 pm.

… According to a decision taken by the state administration on Tuesday, all movie theatres, including multiplexes, would now screen movies through four shows — 11:15 am (morning show), 2:30 pm (afternoon show), 6:15 pm (evening show) and 8:30 pm (night show).

However, if a film runs a longer time, theatre owners will be permitted to get half-an-hour to wrap up the movie by 11:30 pm. The new timings will come into effect from May 22 in the city.

In today’s AYSM moment, our home minister explains why they don’t want to extend the timings for pubs / bars.

Asked why the Government was against extending closure time for pubs and bars, Acharya said after the serial bomb blast in Bangalore in July last year, security was being tightened in the city. “We do not want to take any chance. So, we have decided not to extend the closing time for bars and pubs,” he stated.

So, it’s okay for restaurants, some of which serve alcohol, to be open till 12.00 but not pubs? What about the security for people who are coming out from restaurants? And, aren’t there more restaurants in Bangalore than pubs anyway? I’m not sure if this is a roundabout way of moral policing because we do know the BJP’s stand on “pub culture” as they call it.

Also, instead of ensuring better security and proper intelligence mechanisms, it is easier to curtail freedoms. It was a similar logic, earlier, that was used to explain the ban on women working in night shifts.

Notice also that nothing has been said about the live music ban, which I guess is still in effect. It’s really difficult to provide security to people who are drunk on music or music and alcohol.

The issue here is not about whether a pub can be open or not. It’s about allowing people the freedom to be able to live their lives without being subject to arbitrary rules under the guise of “security” practices.

P.S. Why Cinderella? Because of the “must return home by midnight” clause.

P.P.S: AYSM – Are you shittin’ me? is a term borrowed from the movie Sweet Home Alabama.

The Reader

I watched The Reader a while back but somehow I neglected to tell the 3 people who read this blog about the movie. In case you haven’t heard about the movie, read the IMDB review (see link above) which is well-written. This is the movie for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar for Best Actress.

The movie was an interesting take on a complex situation: an affair between a young teenage boy and an older woman and how it affects their lives. It is a serious movie but the suspense is always maintained and that keeps you always wondering what’s going to happen. The performances from the actors playing the central characters were fabulous.

The Reader is intriguing because it forces you to think about what love really is and about what’s right and what’s wrong. Through a compelling story, it drives home the point that human emotions and actions are incredibly complicated and that can’t really be sure about how we would act unless we are really put in a particular situation.

PS: Roger Ebert’s review is worth reading as well. Be warned that it has a lot more details about the movie’s story line.

The deal with Slumdog Millionaire

I watched Slumdog Millionaire a couple of weeks ago. I read reviews that were critical of the movie and some that praised the movie, so I went in with minimal expectations.

I ended up being surprised by the movie, mostly in a good way. I hadn’t realized that the movie would have a nice thread of suspense holding it together, which made it interesting to watch. The movie was also nicely paced so it never felt boring. There were parts of the movie which made me cringe because they were difficult to watch. More on this later. Overall though, it was a pretty good movie and definitely worth watching.

Now, to the controversy regarding what the movie showed about Mumbai (and India in general). I had no problem with most of the stuff that was shown in the movie. The poverty that was shown was essential to the movie, given that the main characters were from the slums. You can’t gloss over all that.

So, I cannot understand the holier-than-thou attitude that some people had about the movie. Is it not a fact that you see poverty and filth and squalor in India? Do we not see children begging, children working, children being exploited? Maybe we are so used to it that it doesn’t register to us. But, it is there and it is a part of the India we live in. That the movie was written by a Westerner and directed by another Westerner makes no difference–it was mostly accurate in what it portrayed. And, remember this is a work of fiction we are talking about.

Also, to the people who complained, I’d like to ask them why they don’t complain about the authenticity of most of the films that Bollywood makes? They’re so fantastic, and by that I mean fantasy-like, you might as well call them fantasy movies. Think of the number of Bollywood movies that show the “real India” as opposed to the ones that don’t. So, if someone’s showing a part of India that you don’t like to see on screen, tough luck. Do something about changing India rather than attacking the director and the script writer of the movie.

The fact that is probably hardest to digest, and this sorta hits you when you watch the movie, is that India is still a third-world country. In spite of the wonderful strides we’ve made, we are still a nation that has so many people who don’t make enough money, who can’t afford to eat a nutritious meal, and who don’t have access to clean drinking water among other things.

To go after Slumdog Millionaire is just ridiculous and it’s just happening because it’s a soft and an easy target because of its success. Please.

What I didn’t like about the movie was that it was sometimes over the top. The one sequence where the young Jamal tries to get Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph was, pardon the pun, a load of crap. It was over the top and unnecessary and it was unrealistic.

The other problem I had was with the accents of the brothers when they’re still children but slightly older (after they’ve escaped their horrible situation). They sounded like convent-educated English speaking kids and that part of the movie was jarring. The younger kids were so believable with their accents primarily because they spoke in Hindi. I wish the director (and script writer) would’ve stayed with a mix of Hindi and English for the movie because I think that would’ve made the movie feel even more authentic.

About the child stars who portray the youngest Jamal, Salim, and Latika. They were terrific and it was some of the best acting I’ve seen from children in an Indian movie. For me, they were the true stars of the movie: they were believable, you felt empathy for them, and you were moved by them. Credit should go to the script writer Simon Beaufoy (and Vikas Swarup, the author) for creating such realistic characters.

So much has been said about Rahman’s music but didn’t we all know that he was/is brilliant. It’s just that the world’s finding out about him now. He is really something and if there’s one person I’m rooting for in this year’s Academy Awards, it’s him. If he were a Hollywood composer, he’d be a highly decorated one, so here’s hoping that he wins an Oscar for his contribution to this movie.

If you have not watched Slumdog Millionaire, you should. It may not be the best movie of the year, it may not win an Oscar, but it still is a damn good movie and it is worth watching.

Quantum of Solace

I watched QoS yesterday and I enjoyed the movie, just like a certain Mr. Scalzi did. You really should read Scalzi’s mini-review of the movie.

QoS picks up where Casino Royale left off and while you aren’t at a huge disadvantage if you missed the earlier movie, it certainly would help understand this movie better if you watched CR. Daniel Craig in his second Bond flick is as impressive as he was in the first. Some of the stunts in the movie are crazy (but good) and they explain why so many injuries took place while making the movie.

I can understand how some of the fans who liked the earlier Bond movies and its usual trappings may feel a bit disappointed with the movie. For me though, it was a good action/thriller with Bond in a different avatar than we’ve seen him in the past. Bond’s character in the two Craig movies has been edgier and serious and someone that you are ambiguous about, whereas in the past Bond has tended to be playful and charming. I like the new Bond, he seems more human this way.

Olka Kurylenko is well-cast as the atypical Bond girl, Camille, someone who has her own agenda and happens to find Bond. Gemma Arterton is the other Bond girl whose role is a bit more conforming to the stereotype but is still different.

QoS is not a movie that all Bond fans will like, but it’s a good movie and is worth watching. Just cast away the Bond of the past and enjoy the new, redefined Bond.

Pan’s Labyrinth

After having waltzed with the decision to watch Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del fauno) for the longest time, I finally decided to rent the movie. What a terrific choice that turned out to be.

Part reality, part fantasy, PL is set in Spain in the 1940s when the regime of General Franco was asserting itself. It is against this backdrop that a young girl, Ophelia, and her pregnant mother travel from the city to the countryside to join Captain Vidal, who is Ophelia’s step-father and the father of the unborn child. On the way, when the car stops in the woods, Ophelia meets a grasshopper-like insect which follows her to her new home.

When she sights this insect again, she follows it into a maze before the housekeeper, Mercedes, catches up with her and tells her that the place is a labyrinth. Ophelia, who loves reading fairy tales, reads stories to her unborn step-brother. When the insect shows up again, she follows it into the labirynth and meets with a faun, a sinister-looking creature, who gives her three tasks to complete to fulfil a prophecy.

What follows is a young girl’s attempt to fulfil the tasks in fantasy-land, and the reality of living with the cruel Captain and the challenges faced by Ophelia. Writer-director, Guiellermo Del Toro, does a fabulous job of unravelling the story against the backdrop of the rebels fighting the captain’s army. The imagination of Del Toro and his execution of the script are a treat. The suspense is constant and the movie never flags, which as any filmmaker will tell you is a hard thing to do. The movie is sometimes dark and brutal but it is handled tastefully and you can’t help admire the director’s touch.

Ivana Baquero playing Ophelia takes your breath away as the ten-year old caught between the fantasy and reality. Maribel Verdú, who plays Mercedes, is also terrific as the housekeeper who is a spy for the rebels and has a soft corner for Ophelia. Sergi López portrays Captain Vidal as a chilling, cold villian beautifully.

I would’ve loved to understand the Spanish dialogues of Pan’s Labyrinth, but the sub-titles are pretty efffective as well. Guillermo Del Toro deserves a great deal of credit for making such a fantastic movie. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do with The Hobbit. If his previous movies are any indication, we’re in for a heck of a ride.