Mersal, Mitron and the New India paradox!

For those outside of South India, a week ago, the word Mersal would have called for a detailed introduction. Today it doesn’t. The leaders of BJP in Tamil Nadu with their outbursts against Mersal, have ensured that the film became a National hashtag! I watched Mersal and frankly my take was that it was a regular masala pot boiler meant strictly for the actor Vijay’s fans.  Towards the end, Vijay gets into a monologue against the corrupt medical system in the country looking into the camera lens.  In between, he also trashes the recently introduced GST with what are clearly illogical and false arguments. Somewhere in the beginning of the film there is an innocuous line taking a dig at Demonetisation as well!

In Mumbai where I watched the film, there was no applause or whistle for the GST lines. Probably there were, in other parts of the country particularly Tamil Nadu. Enough for the TN wing of BJP to take offence and call for muting of these lines in the film. Some other leaders of BJP went further.  They dragged the religion to which the actor Vijay belonged – apparently Christianity and pointed out that, it was the reason there was another line in the film where his character says it is better to build a hospital than a temple in the village!

Inane arguments and counter arguments occupied national prime time in the week following Diwali and at the end Mersal, which would have been anyway a super hit became a super-duper hit. I’m certain that remaking rights in other languages will go at a fancy premium now. One can only get Mersalled (meaning “Amazed” in colloquial Tamil) looking at these developments!  The particular clip with the GST lines went viral that too with English Subtitles and what was just meant for Tamil Nadu is now being consumed by people all over!

The same last week we saw another “Mersalling” development. A short clip of a mimicry artiste by name Shyam Rangeela went viral on WhatsApp. In that clip, you can see Shyam doing an immaculately close mimic of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This act was originally part of a Star TV show – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. But after the clip attained gigantic viral velocity, the producers decided to edit off this portion. I watched the clip and was “Mersalled” by the talent of this guy. His act of Modi was spot on, with liberal throw ins of Mitron and Bhaiyon Aur Behenon,..  just like how Modi does in his speeches.  After this development, I am sure his phone must be ringing endlessly and he has already become a mini celebrity in the highly competitive 24*7 sound bite seeking world!

Those who are tuned to the FM Station Radio Mirchi would be familiar with their very popular satire show “Mirchi Mitron”. In this satirical program again, there was a voice which could be identified with Modi having conversations on current topics with different people. Though this was popular, in a surprising move, this section went off air since early this year.

In all this, there is a clear pattern. Political satire in India is on a ventilator where pulling the plug comes easily. It looks like it’s no longer cool to take pot shots at the ruling party or its leaders. Either the party will take strong exception and flex its majoritarian muscle to come down heavily on the perpetrators of these satire (the Telugu version of the film Mersal is still languishing at the censor table) or eerily the creators develop a sense of self-censorship and exercise restraint (Like in the case of Star TV and Radio Mirchi). In any case, these don’t augur well for a New India!  Has New India’s leadership lost its sense of humour? Is political satire so damaging??

In the “Old India”, political satire was thriving and flourished peacefully. In Tamil Nadu, where BJP made a ruckus about few lines against the Government, one gentle man by the name of Cho Ramaswamy used to shred parties and their leaders with his sharp wit, that too for 60 years till his last breath last year. Being a man of multiple talents, he used multiple platforms – from Theatre to films to Magazines to TV to take his political satire to people. In his heyday, he didn’t spare any of the ruling party or its leaders. And naturally Indira Gandhi and her Congress party for most of his life were at the receiving end of his relentless jibes. Never to make a personal attack on his adversaries, Cho used wit, sarcasm and comedy to drive home the point. Later on, he trained his guns on the Dravida parties. The magazine Tughlaq was popular when he edited the same. His TV shows gained high TRPs among middle class Tamils. His plays were usually sold out. And the irony starts here. In spite of Cho’s continuous attack, Tamil Nadu was among the handful states in the country that withstood the Anti-Indira wave in the aftermath of the Emergency in the 1977 Loksabha elections. So, the people of Tamil Nadu enjoyed Cho’s satire but made smart, practical choices while voting in the elections! They used to vote for Congress at the centre and one of the Dravida parties at the state!  My point is that people by and large don’t take these political satire seriously. They do enjoy the same but make their own smart choices.

We keep hearing that the New India is about being confident, looking ahead and keeping insecurities aside.  But, it looks like the leaders in BJP do not think so. While I am not sure if the Prime Minister is himself against satire trained against him or his party, it is clear that in his party there are those who send clear signals to that effect. And that doesn’t augur well for the New India which the PM is persistently pitching for! So why not he openly invite Shyam Rangeela to perform the Mitron,… act in front of him in a public meeting in his next Man Ki Baat address???  That could be his best tribute to Cho, undisputedly one of India’s best political satirists whom Modi himself considered as one of his mentors and well-wishers!

Postscript: This is now part of folk lore. R.K Laxman had just caricatured Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 war against China in his own inimitable style. Did the TOI editor get a call from the PMO to demand an apology the next day? Well, Laxman got a call from Nehru himself the next day where he told him, “Mr. Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?”

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Kumarakom yesterday, Vagamon tomorrow!

If there is one state in India, which has almost got its act together on tapping its tourism potential, it must be Kerala. I say, “almost” and mention Kerala in relation to other states of India. For a relatively small state, Kerala boasts of varied choices for a traveler from beaches to hill stations to back waters to Ayurveda to Culture and more.  In a strange twist of irony, for a state which still has its ideological moorings firmly tilted to the “Left”, it is “smart marketing” that has played a great part in positioning the state as ‘God’s Own Country’ over the years. To its credit, certain gaps notwithstanding, Kerala does live up to this tag line to this day.

I’m certain that there are other states which are bigger in size in India that can provide a better offering than Kerala to tourists. Karnataka, for example. And some of them have now realized the potential, tourism as an industry offers and are boarding the bus, though late.  The tourism circuit of Kerala over the years has evolved from just back waters of Kochi and hills of Thekkady in the 80’s to now Kumarakom, Alleppey, Munnar, and spots in Malabar area like Wynad, Bekal,… Outside of this circuit are a few places that are in the verge of earning their stripes. Of them is Vagamon, a hill station in the Idukki district and closer to Kottayam in terms of access, which I had the opportunity to visit last week.

Being a native of Kottayam, I have had the chance to visit Kottayam many times. It was the default summer vacation option while growing up. And with family roots still entrenched there, social visits have been a regular.  Though Vagamon is just 40 Kms from our place in Kottayam, we never thought of exploring this location in the past. Not just familiarity, but proximity also at times breeds contempt isn’t it?  Having been hearing of this place as an emerging hill station, we decided to visit Vagamon and spend a night there during this trip.

For long, Vagamon was mainly known for its milk – Vagamon milk is popular in the surrounding areas. Like all hill stations of India, though the British were the ones who discovered this place, I understand that it is the Christian missionaries in Kerala who developed Vagamon and among the first to live there. A Dairy farm that still exists was the early business activity to flourish and hence the popularity of Vagamon milk!  So one can say that it is a place where honey and milk literally flows! The road leading to Vagamon from Kottayam is patchy having been battered by the recent heavy rains. For a Mumbaikar used to pot holed roads resembling craters of the moon, they were still bearable, but then Mumbai is no bench mark for a tourist destination! As you near the place, the scenic beauty of the place and the accompanying chill weather just enthrall you.  The views on the way give you an idea of what to expect.

The resort where we stayed (Treebo Adrak Summer Sand Resort) is right at the heart of the town and has fantastic views. Located next to the Pine Valley which is one of the places of tourist interest, is neat, clean and very well maintained. The property is great and picturesque. However, for such a nice property, the staff is inadequately trained and is marred by slow and laidback service. We see this dichotomy in many small towns in India.

All places of visitor’s interest are in a span of 5 Kms which include breathtaking viewpoints, idyllic Tea estates, the Dairy farm, the Pine Valley,… and could be covered within few hours. Being a fledgling tourist destination, the infrastructure is just developing. One of the popular viewpoints has now become a paragliding point where frenzied construction activity is going on. I realized that as of now, Vagamon is more of a one day outing place for those nearby during holidays and long weekends.  The result – all the points of interest were overcrowded and vehicles parked alongside the narrow roads clogging the approach. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was tottering, with people who bring food along eating alongside roads and littering the place with plates, cups and left over food! This was sad for a state which I always thought was in the forefront of Swachata. Though declared a plastic free zone, plastic could be freely seen strewn in places where people thronged.

The 3.5 hour drive back to the Kochi International Airport, half of which is through hilly terrain is quite scenic. Airtel 4G connection of mine failed the test, as in many places my phone was out of coverage. On the other hand, our cab driver’s JIO connection passed with flying colours when we need to access Google maps. Not to mention of the equally effective cell phone coverage of BSNL in those far off areas! The drive through also gives an insight on why the “Left” is so well entrenched in Kerala.  Red flags flutter in regular frequency in a gap of 10-15 Kms even in those remote areas.  Even in a non-election season like this, there was a nukkad meeting going on being addressed by a spirited leader with at least a 100 keen listeners!  But one cannot dismiss the flowering of the Lotus here and there.  In fact, the day we were leaving Kochi, BJP was kicking off its “Project Kerala” in Kannur with Modi as the main face in posters alongside the Kerala BJP President Kummanam Rajashekaran, who incidentally resembles Modi in some angles. Yet, it will take years of labour to dislodge the Left from probably its last bastion in India!

With Nature in abundance, Vagamon has immense potential to be the next Munnar or Kumarakom of Kerala. Additional place of interest for Westerners is a place called Bharananganam which is on the way from Kottayam to Vagamon. It is the abode of Sister Alphonsa who was the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  But, to get into the God’s Own Country circuit, Vagamon needs to be developed in terms of its infrastructure. Incidentally, the same day I saw a quote of the new Central minister for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam who hails from Kerala, talking of Vagamon in the same breath as Munnar as an area to focus for tourism development.

The jury is still out as to whether development happens first and then tourism picks up or the other way about. But there is always a tipping point. Like for Kumarakom, when in the last week of December in the Year 2000, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to ring in the New Year at Kumarakom.  The musings of Vajpayee from Kumarakom still reverberate in the air! Similarly, another event that catapulted Kumarakom to its today’s glory was Arundati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Set in the village of Aymanam which is at a calling distance from Kumarakom, the novel made many Western tourists include Kumarakom part of their itinerary!

May be Prime Minster Modi, who in his last Mann Ki Baat address called upon people to explore new destinations in India to boost tourism, could emulate Vajpayee and take a break at Vagamon during Diwali! Who knows, in that calm, cool and scenic setting far away from the political nerve centre of Delhi he may discover some new ideas to bring back John Maynard Keynes’ “Animal spirits” of the country!!!