Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Damage to Sri Lanka’s wondrous Sigiriya frescoes—5th-century depictions of lovely women with ample and mostly bare breasts—sent President Mahinda Rajapaksa clambering up to the rock fortress that houses them for an anxious look. Yet contemporary portraits of the barely-clad female form offend the eye of Mr Rajapaksa’s po-faced regime.
Since he was re-elected in a landslide in January, Mr Rajapaksa has sought to make good on a campaign promise to “create a society with good values and ethics”. In Colombo, this has meant police tearing down “indecent” posters and flyers. Citing a law against obscene publications, the officer who led that operation said he had ordered his men to remove any image of “women with their legs out”.
In a country whose textiles firms turn out thousands of racy bras and frilly knickers a year—including for Victoria’s Secret, an American apparel firm with longstanding ties to Sri Lanka—at least one lingerie company has stopped advertising. The crackdown will spread to other cities. But it has been delayed while Sri Lanka’s own vice-and-virtue squad launch another assault, on internet pornography.
Real-life lewdness is also out. In July police rounded up hundreds of red-faced couples caught holding hands, cuddling and kissing in public. In Kurunegala, a town near the centre of the island nation, they scoured hotel rooms for unmarried lovers. Similar crackdowns have been reported in many other places.
Prathiba Mahanama, a legal expert at the University of Colombo, says arresting consenting adult couples is illegal and suggests the victims could sue. But these efforts are popular. They are also backed by Sri Lanka’s powerful Buddhist clergy, whose support Mr Rajapaksa has carefully fostered. In March Sri Lanka denied a visa to Akon, a Senegalese-American singer, after he was pilloried by Buddhist monks for a pop video that showed women in bikinis dancing around a statue of the Buddha.
Victims of Mr Rajapaksa’s moral rage might wish to reach for a consolatory drink. But that is also frowned on. Advertising alcohol is banned to the extent that televised scenes that show drinking are pixellated. Oddly, parties flowing with free booze were a common feature of Mr Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign.
- The Economist
“Is it possible to have some milk for my tea?” enquires Kiran Rao expectantly and the attendant flunkeys swarm in with everything from artery-clogging full cream to a watery substance that’s trying to pass itself off as milk. The hedge fund managers, think tank boffins and quango executives lunching on ludicrously expensive fish and white wine at the imaginatively named May Fair Bar at the May Fair Hotel gaze curiously at the tumult at the far end of the posh establishment which has been taken over by the London Film Festival. Rao's directorial debut "Dhobi Ghat" is screened at LFF 2010 and she is doing an upstanding job of concealing any nerves, remaining ebullient and chatty in spite of the scrum of journalists, Film Festival cronies and PR hangers-on.
No wonder Rao is hot property at the moment. "Dhobi Ghat" was first screened to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival at the toe end of the summer. And after its first showing during the 54th BFI London Film Festival the audience cheered and applauded. There's a triumphant air about Rao as well as a sense of relief that the acclaim and admiration has nothing to do with the fact that she happens to be married to Amir Khan; the most popular, widely respected, not to mention bankable actor in Bollywood today.
Set in the teeming, monsoon-drenched megalopolis that is Mumbai, “Dhobi Ghat” is a tale of four lives. Arun (Amir Khan) is a dour and troubled artist (as if there ever was one that wasn’t dour and troubled). Shai (Monica Dogra) is an affluent banker on a sabbatical from New York who moonlights as a photographer and is – like many NRI’s – utterly charmed by the beauty, chaos and contradictions of her motherland. Munna (Prateik Babbar) is a rare specimen of a hunky laundryman (dhobi) with dreams of making it in Bollywood. On the fringes of this triumvirate is Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a young bride trying to navigate her way through a new domestic arrangement in an intimidating new city. The film casts a contemplative look at the lives of these people from vastly divergent social backgrounds and how their lives interact. The Dhobi Ghat – a vast space filled with row upon row of concrete wash pens manned by vest-clad men pounding away at the city’s dirty laundry represents a sense of rejuvenation, rebirth, the cyclical nature of life and the city itself; eternally dying and resurrecting itself. Ultimately, "Dhobi Ghat" is a graceful and intimate homage to a city that thrills, terrifies and intrigues in equal measure.
It’s an impressive debut for the 35-year-old Rao who also wrote and co-produced along with her husband. Originally from Bengal, Rao has called Mumbai home for the best part of her adult life and her love of the city comes through elegantly. Having worked numerously as a producer and assistant director on a number of high profile productions including ‘Lagaan’, ‘Swades’ and ‘Monsoon Wedding’, it’s a massive - not to mention intimidating – moment for the diminutive director. "It was slightly terrifying screening in London. Having sat in your dark little cave and created something, only for it to be put out there in the open to be judged. It is nerve-wracking and after the screening finished I could feel my entire body just aching from the tension. But it was such a relief that people connected with it as well as they did", she says.
And of course being Mrs Amir Khan and the writer-director of his new film brings with it a whole new set of expectations, not least because “Dhobi Ghat” is Khan’s follow up to 2009’s “3 Idiots”, a critical as well as commercial triumph, the box office success of which took on proportions unseen in India. “While we were making the film we didn’t even think about what expectations there would be. We just wanted to create something that we believed in; an art-house film that would appeal to a global audience. But after Amir Khan was cast in it, the expectations began to build up. And of course even more people are interested in what Amir Khan’s wife is making!” she adds candidly.
Whilst anything that features a star with such mainstream appeal as Amir Khan in a starring role can hardly be called to belong to the Indie, Art House genre, "Dhobi Ghat" remains at its heart, a small, intimate, unpretentious and deeply personal work. Rao’s screenplay is excellent, creating a story that is thought-provoking if unexceptional. “When I wrote the screenplay, I didn’t think of a particular genre. I wrote it the way I know how to write, which is not in a very structured form but adding some structure later on to these people's lives. After I had finished it, the one thing I did know was that this film would be made on a really small budget - under a million dollars. Primarily because I knew it wouldn't be easy to sell the film in India. And I didn't want anybody to be out of pocket because of me! But then Amir came on board and the budget kind of went through the roof. I don’t hold a grudge against him though!”
With a superstar on board, the budget ballooning and expectations on the rise, it would have been far easier for the first time director to have switched gears, altering the tone and pitch of "Dhobi Ghat" and pitching the same film to a mainstream audience. To her immense credit however she resisted the temptation. “Once Amir was on the film, I was trying to figure out how we should keep to the original premise of the film and escape pandering to mainstream expectations,” she says.
The most attractive thing about "Dhobi Ghat" is its unresolved state. Rao says the idea of the film sprang from her experiences of moving house in Mumbai, a city where residential space is at a premium and vacant spaces are snapped up as soon as they become available. One of the things that "Dhobi Ghat", at its heart, reflects is India’s eternal battle between the desire for personal space and an environment that is ever more crowded and inhibiting. "I had to move a lot in Mumbai when I lived there as a single woman”, Rao says. “You’re constantly forced to inhabit a space that was occupied by someone else literally hours before you moved in. A place which was intimate to them and they called home and where they suffered, celebrated, cried and where their deepest secrets were kept. All of a sudden it became a space where I was now doing the same things. I began thinking about what I shared with those people and whether they had left part of their legacy behind, part of their fate in what I was now calling home. There were times when I wondered who was going to come and occupy this space that I've lived when I leave and whether they will in turn think about my secrets and disappointments and joys.” That dynamic between tenants past, present and future and everything unseen that exists between them is ultimately manifested in the work of the artist Arun; giving it colour and texture and attempting to give meaning to that which inextricably binds us all.
"Dhobi Ghat" is also an attempt to shed light on the social and cultural disparities that continue to diminish the achievements of the new India, a subject that Bollywood has either shied away from or is prone to view through rose-tinted lenses. “The idea that love can conquer all and that your wealth or social standing or anything else is unimportant have always been very easy to get past in Hindi cinema. In spite of Mumbai being very progressive, where caste and social prejudice rarely affect personal relationships, there are still these invisible divisions that exist between people. I wanted to explore how far a relationship between two people from different backgrounds could go”, Rao says pensively. “The problem is that people don’t share common cultural spaces. For instance, a middle-class person could have a great relationship with a Dhobi or a sweeper woman but they would never sit at the same table and have a meal together because those delineations are so deeply rooted. Beginning to share a common cultural space is vitally important. I think it is happening, very slowly, but it is happening”.
2010 has pledged much in terms of Bollywood films which promised to appeal to a global audience, an audience which is increasingly in thrall of the confounding charms of India. By and large however these films have failed to deliver, instead offering up slightly edgier variations on hackneyed Bollywood themes. “Dhobi Ghat” has certainly broken that trend and is an accomplished and compelling work helmed by an exciting young talent and starring a star beloved in India and abroad.
- Vijitha Alles
Thursday, 23 September 2010
10.00 pm. Wednesday, 22nd September 2010. It wasn’t a good time to be South Asian in Britain. Huw Edwards – along with his dynamic upper lip – has been replaced on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news by the normally unflappable George Alagiah, son of persecuted Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka. How ironic. And what bad timing, particularly given the people around my table, the Daily Mail-reading, white, middle-England parents of a (consequently Socialist) friend; here to enjoy my attempt at fusion cooking; Lamb Ghosht with er...mashed potatoes and some horribly deflated Yorkshire pudding.
The bulletin begins with the New Delhi Commonwealth Games fiasco. The reporter gleefully pointing out a newly built water fountain in the Games Village spewing a liquid that has a suspicious yellow tinge to it. The camera cuts across the gleaming facade of newly built apartment blocks and rests on an adjacent body of water that looks utterly foul; its putrescence seems to crawl out through the TV screen and envelope my carefully cooked Lamb. Then follows video of the Commonwealth Games Moron...sorry Commissioner...stating with not a hint of insincerity that “Hygiene Standards are different from country to country. Athletes shouldn’t be worried. Arey baba, that’s not excrement on the tiles, that’s called ‘shit-effect tiles’; the latest rage na!”
As the icing on the cake (or should that be excrement on the tile?), the report cuts to an Indian news channel discussion involving an anchor with tremendously hirsute pectorals, a sports writer and a morbidly obese, barely awake, government servant with a 1000 Rupee note hanging out of his left nostril. They’re having an animated discussion about how one construction worker at the Games Village, having unsuccessfully looked for a place to empty his bowels, reportedly did the business underneath a newly installed mattress, which the Steeple Chase champion from New Zealand will sleep on for the coming two weeks.
Thankfully, the reporter spares us details about the kids working as rubble-movers and being paid in plastic bottles; workers dying of heat exhaustion and any worker who gets out alive dying a few years later as a result of inhaling some sort of chemical on site; and dozens of people pocketing the money that should have gone towards installing portable loos. ‘Bring on the games’ I say excitedly (and hopefully) as my guests do a double take of the Lamb.
Alagiah’s eyebrows are now on an inexorable march towards each other. He then moves on to Afghanistan. The story is about a dispute between Barack Obama and his generals. The highlight of the piece though is Hamid Karzai – the puppet...sorry, president...installed by the CIA...sorry, the Afghan people...as chief collector...sorry, leader of Afghanistan – is reportedly (and unsurprisingly) a manic depressive who refuses to take his medication. This, I surmise, is perhaps because medication usually brings clarity, which would enable him to reconsider purchasing his 78th luxury apartment block on the Palm Deira, Dubai, which will in turn provide affordable housing for his expanding harem of astonishingly beautiful Russian...er...medical students...who only accept Apple iPads as payment.
My head swirls with images of Karzai’s physician bringing in a little tablet on an oversized, gold-plated tray only to find Karzai pacing furiously around his palatial room, muttering to himself and wearing nothing but his Karacul hat – incidentally made of the uterus of a woman recently stoned to death. The Lamb’s not going as fast as I’d have liked.
The news promptly moves on to Kashmir where more than 200 people have been killed this summer alone; mostly bored young boys armed with nothing fiercer than plastic bottle tops, shot up by equally bored but petrified young soldiers, wondering when the next silly bugger will come walking up to them wearing C4 instead of a pair of boxers. The report then proceeds to show streets emptied by curfew, a grieving widow repeatedly bashing her own head and a 12-year-old boy with a couple of entry wounds on his stomach. How pleasant.
By now, Alagiah’s forehead shines bright, like a school boy who’s overdone the saliva-hair gel and has walked out in the mid-day sun. He tries to force a smile through gritted teeth and introduces the sport.
Now, in spite of all that’s gone on this summer, I wanted Pakistan to win the final ODI on Wednesday and try to go out on a high. And, despite being favourites going into the match, they made a complete hash of it, unable to provide some cheer after a dark and distressing summer. Worse still, Shoaib Akhtar makes an utter mess of trying to conceal the fact that he repeatedly tries to open up the seam to gain a bit more reverse swing on the ball, which had accounted for a third of the English batting line up, which was eventually saved by er...an Irishman. “Dodgy to the end” is how one of my guests described the Pakistanis.
The horror however, didn’t end there. After the news, I switch over to BBC 2 to see who Paxman will impale on Newsnight, only to find the lead report is titled “Why is Pakistan so messed up?” or something along those lines. The report starts with a clip from a Pakistani TV show where a government minister states that corruption is a way of life in Pakistan and those who refuse to join the bandwagon, are...like...totally...like...losers man!
A man from the Pakistan High Commission is sitting opposite Paxman, trying to look confident, but you can tell he’s never watched that John Howard interview or seen Newsnight in his entire life. It is a given that Paxman is going to make meatballs out of the man and send them to Ikea restaurants around Southern England to be served with chips and strawberry jam. The man flips his left leg over the right, and begins with “Well...” Oh god.
Unable to watch and having already downed half a bottle of cheap, supermarket brand ‘French’ brandy (conveniently placed in one of those crystal-effect decanter things) I look around; my eyes trying to focus through the haze, as my guests sing “Shame...shame...puppy shame...your Lamb Ghosht is truly lame!”
- Vijitha Alles
Tuesday, 21 September 2010
Monday, 20 September 2010
President Rajapakse – once a vocal opponent of the country’s all-powerful executive presidency – returned to power in early 2010 on the back of a surge of popularity following his military’s demolition of the LTTE. The ‘Tigers’ – as the LTTE billed itself – were once considered the world’s most ruthless and sophisticated terrorist outfit, and had pillaged its way through 30 years of war in a bid to carve out an independent state in the north and east of the picturesque Island.
The Rajapakse government was uninhibited about such things as collateral damage in its quest to rid the North of the ‘Tigers’. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed – by both sides. Human rights and aid agencies were barred from the battle zone; journalists were kept even further away.
The military victory was achieved with the support of such agreeable regimes as China, Pakistan and Iran (which has since agreed to supply Sri Lanka with copious amounts of oil and natural gas at 20 pence a barrel). Soon after, keenly aware of his popularity (The Shock Doctrine), the president called for a general election. His main opponent however turned out to be the head of the army which had routed the LTTE, General Sarath Fonseka, who also enjoyed tremendous public support. Fonseka decried the fact the president and his younger, defense secretary brother had hogged all the limelight in the aftermath of the military victory and of course Rajapakse’s autocratic ambitions. After Fonseka lost the election by a ridiculously small margin, he was promptly arrested for having the gall to challenge the president, instead of retiring to a plum diplomatic post in an exotic Far Eastern state. Fonseka remains locked up to this date.
Anyone silly enough to speak out against such blatant abuses of power has either been killed (in the case of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga) or transferred to locales with no plumbing and to subsist on Rabbit food. And now…the 18th amendment.
The fear is that President Rajapakse, a deceptively charming and agreeable man when he’s er…not being agreeable and charming, is laying the groundwork for several generations of Rajapakse’s to remain in power. One of his sons – who, as a student in London, had a penchant for turning up at Black Tie events in ripped jeans and tight t-shirts – is already an MP.
I think the below piece by a journalist named Tisaranee Gunasekara captures brilliantly the president’s unconcealed craving for power. More significantly, it also encapsulates the indifference of a populace still in shock after the end of a brutal and soul destroying 30-year conflict and consequently bemused by the political shenanigans taking place in Colombo. Whilst she has an annoying habit of putting a famous quote before every article, and uses words like “unctuous”, there is a fire in her writing that appeals.
- Vijitha Alles
MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE - HERE FOREVER IT SEEMS...
Sunday, 20 June 2010
It’s all supposed to be part of Bollywood’s new ‘global’ attitude. Whilst ‘Kites’ premiered in New York, ‘Raavan’ held its lavish do at London’s storied Southbank, complete with an appearance by Shah Rukh Khan, hundreds of delirious fans, live TV coverage and erm…a former Big Brother contestant.
And of course, like ‘Kites’, ‘Raavan’ boasts a galaxy of stars pooling their talents; aside from Abhishek and Aishwarya, the film’s third lead is played by Vikram Kennedy, one of the biggest stars in South India; the film’s directed by Mani Ratnam, and the music has been composed by the increasingly ubiquitous maestro A R Rahman.
‘Raavan’ is a loose adaptation of the ancient Indian epic “Ramayana” and tells the story of ‘Beera’, played by Abhishek Bachchan. He’s a Robin Hood figure to some, a bloodthirsty brigand to others and rules the roost in a remote part of Central India. After his (adopted) sister is arrested and abused by local police, Beera goes on the rampage, targeting police officers and generally getting up to a lot of mischief. The hapless local police enlist the help of the tough and righteous inspector ‘Dev’ (Vikram) to help bring Beera to book. But even before Dev has finished giving the usual pep talk to his troops, his wife Raghini (Rai) is abducted by Beera. The film follows Beera and his fellow pirates of the rain forests as they play hide and seek with the frantic Dev and his troops.
Visually Stunning and a Pulsating Score…
If there’s one thing that Mani Ratnam does consistently well it is showcasing the breathtaking beauty of India in all its grandeur and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. ‘Raavan’ feels like an extended commercial for the Indian Tourism Development Board. The locations are astonishingly beautiful and the director astutely captures the colour, vibrancy and translucence of the land that evokes wonder and dread in equal measure.
Adding to the striking visuals is A R Rahman’s phenomenal soundtrack. Ratnam’s films seem to bring out the best in Rahman and his effort here puts ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ firmly in the shade. The pulsating score fuses a vast array of musical influences from African drum beats, Indian folk songs and Sufi rhythms to beastly screams and synth-pop. It’s mesmerizing, moody, uplifting and visceral all at once, taking you to the very edge of sensory overload without quite tipping you over. It’s also one of the few things that helps lift the film.
The other is Abhishek Bachchan. As the villain ‘Raavan’, the junior Bachchan is largely convincing, managing to capture the rabid, sadistic anger of the antagonist, swaggering about callous and crass, and evoking absolute fear and loyalty. The problem is his character is so thinly drawn and Abhishek’s portrayal is inconsistent, especially towards the end of the piece when you’re left questioning whether he’s a suicidal maniac or a maniacal softie.
At least Bachchan can act, which is more than can be said for his real-life wife Aishwarya. She may still confidently lay claim to the title of World’s Most Beautiful Woman but wistfully staring into the distance with those knee-shakingly beautiful eyes is just not enough. As a thespian she is so ersatz that it’s embarrassing at times. While she tries to make a fist of displaying fiery defiance as Raghini, she’s so prone to overacting that even a director of Ratnam’s experience is unable to rein her in. Her role provoked even more apathy because of an absolute lack of chemistry between her and Vikram; in the few scenes that they are together the two are wooden and unconvincing. To her credit, this is perhaps her most physical role, clambering up slippery hills, plunging through trees and appearing constantly bruised and battered. She also spends so much time in the rain that I’m surprised she didn’t end up with the consumption.
Vikram’s obviously a massive star in South India and he plays to type, looking exceptionally good in uniform and with just enough intensity to pass muster. The supporting cast are a lot better, including the always funny Govinda as a Forestry Officer (who is supposed to represent Hanuman) and Ravi Kishan, playing Beera’s febrile younger brother.
Too many things…
The film’s biggest disappointment is Mani Ratnam’s direction which is erratic and unresolved. Whilst it might seem a fresh idea to re-imagine an epic like Ramayana, Ratnam doesn’t seem to know which direction he wants to take it. He wants the film to be too many things at once; an epic piece of cinema to please the senses, a social critique, an unconvincing love story that elicits indifference as opposed to empathy but none of these things seem to work. His twisted mind does come through once in a while but the script is lacklustre, and the lead actors spend too much time ponderously going through the motions. ‘Raavan’ may be visually stunning, but Ratnam has failed to marry a compelling human story to the striking imagery for the film to be truly entertaining.
The ingredients were there, the resources and the acting and producing talent. But ultimately they have conspired to make a complete hash of it; the bizarre ending felt like Aishwarya Rai agreeing to go out for dinner with me only to cancel at the last minute owing to road closures in Mayfair.
If Bollywood’s aim is to appeal to a global audience, the stories need to be far more compelling and authentic than this. Producers need be able to attract the attention of those who have been exposed to global cinema, global sensibilities and who want a bit more than mere escapism. The new India is far more subtle and nuanced and cynical even. Bollywood needs to move with the times and take those traits into account if they are to be critically and commercial successful inside and outside India.
Wednesday, 9 June 2010
Kabir Bedi has an unhurried gait, a contended demeanour as he strolls through London’s Hyde Park; the languidness perhaps shaped by a lifetime of extraordinary experiences and fame that extends from his native Punjab to Latin America. When he happens upon Speaker’s Corner he stops, contemplating for a moment before getting up on to a platform and making an impassioned plea. His magnificent baritone voice carries across the park, people gather, rapt, as Bedi decries the atrocities taking place in Tibet and Burma while the world mourns oil-splattered wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. The crowd mill around, drawn to his magnetic personality. The entire world seems to be his stage.
Later the same evening we meet at the cold, minimalist Cumberland Hotel for an extended chat, a few days before the London premier of his new movie ‘Kites’. The frosty, unwelcoming design of the setting is at odds with the old world charm and grace that Bedi exudes. The first thing that’s apparent is his imposing stature; tall, barrel-chested with shoulders like the famed Murcielago. Age has not been unkind and those famous eyes are as captivating as ever. And as he orders drinks in that measured baritone, the ladies swoon and the men grind their teeth to dust. There’s no entourage, no complaints at the fold of the napkin or the weather; he is exceedingly polite, warm and eager to chat.
It’s been a busy month for perhaps the most prolific actor in Bollywood. He has just visited Scotland, accompanying the Dalai Lama to a conference and is back in London – a city he calls the most perfect in the world. In London he is promoting ‘Kites’, the $30m Rakesh Roshan blockbuster in which Bedi puts in a devilish turn as a rich and domineering casino owner trying to scupper the romance between the improbable character played by Hrithik Roshan and his lover. It’s fitting that Bedi – one of a handful of actors who has successfully bridged East and West – has been cast in a production aimed at globalizing Indian Cinema.
While ‘Kites’ is impressive as a showcase of what Bollywood is capable of, as a cinematic experience, it is distinctly average. In fact, Kabir Bedi is one of two highlights (the other being the fantastically flexible Hrithik Roshan) of the film and reaffirms Bedi’s status as the most underappreciated Bollywood actor of his generation.
A vast array of influences…
Born on 16th January 1946 in pre-Partition Lahore, Bedi grew up in an invigorating environment with a colourful array of influences. His father Baba Pyare Lal Bedi – a direct descendent of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak – was an Oxford graduate, author and Marxist who was forced, as a student, to flee Germany as Hitler swept to power. Kabir’s mother Freda was from Derbyshire who first met Lal Bedi at Oxford. After marriage, Pyare Lal and Freda moved to India in the 1930’s, when Freda became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and was arrested several times along with her children for agitating against the British. Later in life she converted to Buddhism, dedicating herself to social welfare activities. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Freda was entrusted by Prime Minister Nehru with ensuring the welfare of Tibetan refugees fleeing to Dharamsala following the Dalai Lama. His parent’s pursuits meant the Kabir household was forever frequented by activists, artists, writers, poets, thinkers, revolutionaries and spiritualists of every hue.
After attending the Christian Sherwood College in Nainital, Kabir Bedi travelled to Delhi to study History at St Stephen’s College, a satellite of the University of Delhi. After university, Bedi travelled to Bombay to learn film-making spending 5 years producing and directing commercials for Lintas and Ogilvy and Mather, among others. He also found work performing in the city’s thriving theatre industry. In 1971, at the age of 25, he made his first impact with the play ‘Tughlaq’, playing a madcap, visionary pre-Mughal king. The drama was a huge hit in Bombay and led to producers falling over themselves to cast the young star in their productions. That same year also saw Bedi play a minor role in ‘Hulchul’ before embarking on a 5-year period in which he made no less than 12 movies whilst also performing on stage.
The Malayan Tiger
In 1976 came his big break, when an Italian production company came to Bombay looking for an actor to cast in Sandokan, a TV series based on a fictional 19th century pirate. “I was very young and probably impressionable and when I look back now I can appreciate that I signed up a lot of bad films during that initial phase in Bollywood. Another problem was while I could speak Punjabi, my Hindi was terrible. So when Sandokan came along I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed like an interesting story and an epic love story. It was definitely one of those fortunate accidents of history.”
While the series only spanned 6 episodes, Bedi’s turn as the strapping, smouldering Malayan brigand fighting Dutch and British rule in the Far East won him acclaim and an almost religious following. The show was not widely shown in the English speaking world primarily due the fact Sandokan spent his days kicking British colonial posteriors. However, in continental Europe, Africa, South America and the Far East, the series became a phenomenon. Repeats are shown to this day and in Italy, Bedi’s fame endures to this day, with the actor making guest appearances in soaps and featuring in chat shows and newspaper columns.
Paving the Way…
Sandokan also opened doors in the West for the tall and handsome actor with the green eyes, turning him into one of the world’s first travelling performers. There followed roles in such notable productions as The Thief of Baghdad and the villain Gobinda in the Roger Moore bond romp “Octupussy”. Bedi also found work with unprecedented regularity – unprecedented at least for an Indian actor – during a period in the 1980’s and 1990’s when he amassed an unmatched body of work, appearing in General Hospital, Dynasty, Highlander, Magnum P.I., and The Bold and the Beautiful among others. In between he also returned to Bollywood working in everything from the twisted Khoon Bhari Maang to the soppy The Maharaja’s Daughter. Perhaps most significantly, Bedi enabled Indian actors enter Hollywood’s conscience, paving the way for the likes of Naveen Andrews, Kal Penn and Sendhil Ramamurthy. “I think Anil Kapoor’s recent role in 24 was significant”, Bedi says. “Things have changed over the past decades for Indian actors. There are more possibilities today. It sure took a lot of lobbying from the time I was there; to tell producers that you cannot write roles for Indians and then give them to lily-white Americans. They wouldn’t dare do that to black actors. That’s what I fought against for years. In spite of the regular work, I was left constantly asking, ‘why is it when I audition for a role the room is filled with white actors and brown actors. But the minute you audition for a black role there are only black actors in the room?’”
The diverse body of work is also testament to Bedi’s creative appetite and versatility as an actor – whether it is switching from Hindi to English to Italian (which he speaks fluently), or whether he’s playing a Moroccan prince in the Bold and the Beautiful or an Eastern bloc spy in Magnum PI. That versatility also made him into a successful travelling actor. “In spite of finding regular work, I could never find a role that would define me because so little was written for Indian actors. I realized that there’ll be work for as long as you in LA but there won’t be any truly significant roles written for you. That’s why I left Hollywood and made my way back to Europe.”
His success as Sandokan stood Bedi in good stead however, with Italian producers casting him in such hit TV shows as “Vivere” and “Un medico in Famiglia”. In London Bedi also returned to his first love as an actor, appearing in the West End production of “The Far Pavilions”. The jump to Bombay was also made easier with Bedi cast in such major productions as “Main Hoo Naa” and “Bewafaa”.
His prolific acting career apart, Bedi is also well known for his personal life, one replete with drama, hedonism, unbridled love and tragedy. His first wife Protima was a model, dancer and fearless feminist who regularly rustled feathers in supposedly conservative Bombay society. She was renowned for her insatiable love of life, once famously streaking along Bombay’s Juhu beach in broad daylight. Bedi and Protima eloped in 1969 much to the chagrin of her family, enjoying a famously open marriage which bore two children – Pooja, who went on to forge a successful career in Bollywood, and Siddarth. In the 1970’s, as the marriage began failing, Kabir began seeing Parveen Babi, another sultry actress and sex symbol. Bedi and Parveen however never married. It was an extraordinarily bohemian and artistic time for the young and successful actor.
After the short lived affair with Babi, Kabir married British fashion designer Susan Humphreys in 1979, bearing a son – Adam Bedi – a ravenously striking product of East and West who became a successful, international model. After his second marriage ended in divorce, Bedi married Nikki Moolgaoker, the fresh-faced Anglo Indian TV and radio presenter better known as Nikki Bedi. That marriage too ended in divorce in 2002. “They were all incredible people”, Bedi says with a hint of melancholy. Whilst the strait-laced society in which Bedi found himself may see his personal life as a series of failures, in his mind, it is anything but. “I am aware that people think I’ve been various things in love, unlucky, unfortunate and a general failure, but I wouldn’t replace the time I’ve had with all of these fantastic women. They were so different from each other and they enriched my life and made me what I am today. Regrets? Absolutely none.”
Whilst he has had his fair share of desirable females and mind-enhancing experiences, Bedi’s also had his share of tragedy; his son Siddarth committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1997 after being diagnosed with Schizophrenia. “He had made attempts on his life and we had alerted the suicide squads in LA. He was suffering. He was such a handsome boy but had lost a lot of weight. I think he was very brave, he chose to go because he couldn't handle the pain and agony of living life in a fog. When Siddharth's friends came to his funeral, I felt it could have been any one of them. God chose my son. Really, there's no explanation for schizophrenia.” Two years after Siddarth’s death, a devastated Protima passed away as well.
Outwardly at least, the sanguinity on display at the Cumberland Hotel in London suggests that he finally feels a deep contentment with his life and his achievements. Bedi confesses that it is partly due to the new love in his life; Praveen Dusanj, a vivacious, London-based Social Researcher who seems to combine an irresistible nonchalance with a steadiness that seems to have disarmed and grounded Kabir Bedi. Whilst the two have been together for several years, there’s no rush – particularly on Praveen’s part – to plunge headlong into anything. “I think we have a very wonderful relationship”, Bedi says with a sparkle. “I hope it lasts forever; what form it will take we will have to wait and see”, he adds laughing. “I’ve asked her to marry me but she’s asked me to make absolutely sure because I’ve made the decision before.”
His passionate campaigning for Tibet and Burma has also given added meaning to his life. “For many years of my life I never took up any causes because I looked at my family who had given so much to society but had nothing to show for it in the end. I found that a bit futile. I think I needed to set my life in order first! It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I have taken up campaigning.”
Burma in particular has profound resonance for Bedi. “I spent a lot of time in Burma as a child, because of my mother’s Buddhist connections. I was actually ordained as a young monk in Burma so I know the country very well; when it was a democratic country, a happy country. There is a certain serenity that I recall about Burma, a beauty that has disappeared since the military took over and the country became one large repressed society.”
Bedi had similar experiences with Tibet, working with the emotionally and physically broken refugees streaming into India in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The young Bedi followed his mother around Dharamsala as she set up schools and taught English to Lamas who would then go on to travel to the West to campaign against Chinese rule in Tibet. “Today we are so conditioned by TV that if cameras are not in a particular place, a particular situation would not enter people’s conscience. Because TV crews are not there in Tibet and Burma we tend to forget the enormous injustices that happen in those countries. In the case of Tibet a whole culture is being annihilated.”
But while the failure of Western media to highlight the plight of the Burmese and Tibetan people certainly irks, he concedes the failure of the Indian media to shed light on what is happening on its doorstep is even more tragic. “In the first instance, I think the media in India are performing an extraordinary job in that in the absence of a quick moving judiciary the media are the only point of accountability. However they have failed when it comes to dealing with issues that affect us intimately in our neighbourhood. The coverage of these countries, even Pakistan, is highly limited. We get more news on what happens on Obama’s travels than China even. In that sense, the Indian media have failed.”
As ambassador for the Burma campaign UK, Bedi has injected new life into a dogged and movement which calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi; the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to remain imprisoned. Bedi’s passion suggests a new phase has begun; a new incarnation of a man renowned for reinventing himself again and again. While his campaigning continues there is also talk of writing and directing for the theatre and the big screen.
Whatever form his creations will take, one thing is for certain; he certainly won’t be found wanting for inspiration.
- Poonam Joshi and Vijitha Alles
Friday, 4 June 2010
Aaaah...what a lovely picture. The distinguished Mr Bachchan, head tilted, slightly stooped in deference. The slinky, sexy Jacqueline Fernandez (whose skin has the consistency of triple cream mixed with Fireweed honey), traditional Jasmine in her hair, dazzling in up-country Sri Lankan sari, greeting the Sri Lankan President. Picture was taken last month as Bachchan, the ambassador of the International Indian Film Academy Awards, unveiled Colombo as the venue for this year’s IIFA Awards, to be held this weekend.
The Island’s resplendent beauty was - unsurprisingly - a deciding a factor in the country being chosen to host the 2010 edition of the popular awards; the other shortlisted locations were Cape Town, Seoul, Sydney and Abu Dhabi. When he visited Sri Lanka in 1890, Mark Twain is alleged to have exclaimed, “Dear me! It is beautiful; all harmonious, all in perfect taste!”
It's a massive coup for the organizers, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board and will doubtless help put right the country's battered image, coming just a year after the end of one of the bloodiest and longest running Civil Wars in history.
In the run up to the event however, some activists and commentators - in South India and even in faraway East London - have stepped up calls for a boycott of the festival by Bollywood; saying it is inappropriate for the likes of Bachchan, numerous Khans, Dutts and Shetty's to be fraternizing with a government responsible for widespread repression of the media and the imposition of a ‘moral code’ on filmmakers. Others have even called for a total boycott of the awards ceremony (and Sri Lanka as a whole) given the treatment meted out to journalists, members of the opposition and anyone who criticizes the president’s choice of cufflinks, the president's brother's interview etiquette or the president's son's lack of decorum.
Journalists and ordinary Tamils in London are up in arms, saying it is hypocritical (not to mention insensitive) to be getting up in your most glamorous outfit and gyrating to Sonu Nigam when thousands of people continue to suffer, gyrating their way through barbed-wire enclosed internment camps.
Idealism is all well and good in our cosy little (Western) corner of the world where freedoms abound but Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have suffered enough for 30 years. It is true that the end of the Civil War has brought with it a host of new problems. It is also true thousands still languish in squalid camps as ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ in a country the size of Southeast England.
However, boycotting the awards ceremony would only impose further torment on the people of Sri Lanka and what’s the point in that? The European Union recently withdrew trade concessions for Sri Lanka’s apparel industry, citing the government’s human rights record. Who will ultimately suffer due this decision? The 2.5 million workers – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims – who rely on an industry that supplies everything from Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Marks and Spencer shirts, that’s who.
Remember the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990’s? While the scale and consequences may differ, Sri Lanka is in a similar situation. The people suffer while governments posture.
A boycott of the event would also be a slap in the face for the army of employees of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board who have worked tirelessly to bring IIFA to Colombo. It’s essentially a private organization staffed by some of the brightest marketers and communicators in Sri Lanka; people tasked with promoting a country that has long been viewed as a scarred paradise. They are people from various backgrounds – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers – who all share a deep affection for this tiny island of ours. It’s a love that drives them to promote Sri Lanka in spite of the bad image, in spite of all the calamities – natural and man-made – in spite of tight budgets. And it’s a job they’ve done staggeringly well, whether it is inside Sri Lanka or outside.
The ceremony itself will result in a massive increase in the number of visitors to the country this year. Boycotting IIFA will therefore be a body blow to the thousands of people – again Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim – who work in the tourism industry; from the major hotel chains to the little guest houses, from the owner of the swanky restaurant to the handicraft seller on the beach.
The choice between good and evil has long been an unattainable luxury for Sri Lankans whose lot has instead been about choosing the least malevolent from a multitude of evils. The country and its people sorely need the opportunity to shine and the IIFA awards ceremony is as good an opportunity as there ever will be.
Those journalists and visitors who have travelled to Sri Lanka should, by all means shed light on the negatives; it will hopefully cajole the powers that be (outside and inside Sri Lanka) to change tack.
But also write about how the warmth of the sun envelopes you; how the people make you feel at home; write about the food and the colour and vibrancy. Write about how the astonishing beauty and vibe of this little place transports you. Because ultimately it will only help the people of Sri Lanka; revitalize them and give them hope.
And then be thankful for the choices we have.
- Vijitha Alles
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Two years after charming audiences around the world, ‘Machan’, the hilarious and heart warming film about Handball and illegal immigrants, is released on DVD in Britain this week.
Based on a bizarre true story, ‘Machan’ was directed by Uberto Pasolini, the producer of The Full Monty. The story is set in 2004, when the Sri Lankan Handball Team travelled to Germany to take part in an invitational tournament, losing their first three games in spectacular fashion before vanishing into thin air. Bavarian police found a note in the team dormitory saying the ‘players’ and ‘coaching staff’ had crossed the border into France. Sri Lankan Sports Ministry officials were left scratching their heads; Handball was unheard of in Sri Lanka. Investigations later revealed that 23 hard up slum-dwellers from Colombo had invented not only a ‘National’ Handball team but a Sri Lanka Handball Federation, all in a bid to travel to Europe, abscond, and join the thousands of illegal workers on the continent.
Filmed almost entirely on location in Sri Lanka, ‘Machan’ (the Sri Lankan equivalent of ‘mate’, ‘dude’) became a darling of the film festival circuit in 2008 before being swamped – like many other gems - by the PR juggernaut behind the relatively mediocre Slumdog Millionaire.
The ‘real’ team members have never been found and Pasolini and his crew spent months in Sri Lanka researching and interviewing dozens of slum-dwellers. The men’s outlandish scheme defies belief yet symbolizes the audacity, determination and quick wit of the most marginalized of our societies.
“Once there…everything will be new…even I will be new…”
At the centre of the story is Stanley, a fruit seller who thinks up various money-making schemes doomed to failure from the start but whose eternal optimism endears him to everyone. Stanley is behind on his bills and spends his days dodging his creditors. His streetwise, fast-talking kid brother sees petty crime as an alternative to school. Stanley spends his days dreaming of going abroad, where “Everything will be new; even I’ll be new”. After discovering an advertisement for a handball tournament, Stanley enlists the help of his best friend Manoj – a waiter who tries to stay straight but is perpetually drawn astray by Stanley – to put together a team.
The duo promptly find takers aplenty within their slum; economically and socially impoverished men excluded by the mainstream, looking for one final roll of the dice; the struggling family man trying to provide two square meals for his young family, another whose only goal in life is to live up to his wife’s iniquitous expectations, the young layabout who plays Gigolo to overweight European tourists while planning for the future with his naive girlfriend; the bent cop who wants in but doesn’t want to pay, the labourer with a tragic past, and the list goes on.
The men pay little attention to practising Handball and instead spend their time coming up with hilarious methods to raise the money required for the trip. Each member had to raise more than £4000 for everything from visas to uniforms and they proceed to beg, borrow and steal. Each also had to battle the debilitating fear of failure associated with applying for visas in the Third World, where every applicant – from a brain surgeon to a student – is viewed as a potential illegal; the excitement of a new experience, the grief of parting with family and friends and the stark uncertainty of what to expect once in Germany.
An authentic feel…
The script – by Pasolini and Sri Lankan playwright Ruwanthie de Chickera – is outstanding; the characters well constructed and credible. Pasolini’s direction is impressive, vividly illustrating the hopelessness felt by the men and portraying the setting of their lives in all its teeming vibrancy, hopelessness and humanity. With The Full Monty, Pasolini used humour to shed light on a serious issue and it’s a method that he uses to excellent effect with Machan, without ever straying from his unrelenting commitment to authenticity. The performers, made up of stage and working Sri Lankan actors, are uniformly good, in particular the relatively unknown Dharmapriya Dias, who gives a nuanced performance as Stanley.
Most importantly however, Machan breaks from the conventional wisdom of portraying illegal immigrants as feeble, vulnerable or criminal even, and instead depicts them as determined, highly motivated and extremely resourceful.
An absolute gem.
- Vijitha Alles
‘Machan’ (£15.99, Rated 15) now available at all leading retailers.
Thursday, 13 May 2010
Islam and Punk Rock are such conflicting concepts; they make Marmite on Chicken look like culinary fusion made in gourmet heaven. However, whilst they may not sit well together, they do make for an intriguing proposition. So the news of a film charting the marriage of these two strange bedfellows being screened in the East End of London (of all places) got me plenty intrigued, not least at the prospect of seeing a Muslim demonstration at the venue. Alas, the street facing the Rich Mix Arts Centre in Bethnal Green was instead occupied by a solitary, 7-foot-tall, stick thin, cross dresser, who appeared to be the off spring of Ru Paul and Pete Doherty, replete with lush beard and a vision in lacy black knickers, leopard print poncho and heels.
‘The Taqwacores: the Birth of Punk Islam’, a pulsating documentary by Pakistani Canadian director Omar Majeed, charting the… err… birth of Punk Islam, premiered at the recent East London Film Festival; known for promoting movies with controversial themes (and for men who wear skinny jeans and tea saucers in their ears). The screening may have flown well below the Asian community’s radar but the film is a little gem and relates a truly remarkable story; one which is perhaps the most significant for our troubled times.
The documentary is based on a 2002 book called ‘The Taqwacores’, by Michael Muhammad Knight, a 33-year-old American of Irish Catholic descent. Knight had converted to Islam in 1993 after reading a biography of Malcolm X (and running into his abusive white supremacist father for the first time). The following year, aged just 17, he travelled to Pakistan to study the religion, often praying for up to 8 hours a day and mingling with Afghan refugees and Chechen fighters. In the late 1990’s, by now bored and jaded, he returned to the US looking for inspiration and promptly found Punk Rock. Struggling to reconcile these two incongruent loves and disillusioned with what he calls the hypocrisy of the Muslim religious establishment, Knight wrote a book titled ‘The Taqwacores’. In it, he imagined a punk rock scene in Buffalo, New York, made up of disaffected young Muslim students struggling with religion and identity crises and voicing their frustrations through Punk.
Initially, the author made photocopies of his work, distributing it among people filing out of Mosques throughout the US Northeast before it was published by a small record company in California. Remarkably, the book’s narrative of jarring, non-conformist Punk rock confronting structured and dogmatic modern Islam struck a chord. The message was taken up by dozens of young Muslims who decided to turn fiction into reality by creating a music movement, now officially called ‘Taqwacore’ (‘Taqwa’ is an Arabic word meaning piety, married to ‘Hardcore’). ‘Taqwacores: The Birth of Punk Islam’ follows Knight on his journey through the US discovering the artists who were inspired by his fiction. Shot over a period of 2 years, the film provides a riveting insight into the genesis of an entire new sub-culture.
What not to do during Ramadan
Determined to spread the message of Punk Islam, Knight and his followers take a converted school bus from Boston to Chicago, in the process getting stoned, praying, stamping on the American flag and singing “I want to fuck you during Ramadan!” The musicians include Boston’s ‘The Kominas’ (Bastards in Urdu), founded by Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan; sons of successful Pakistani immigrants. Also on the trip is ‘Secret Trial Five’, an all female group founded by Sena Hussein, a Vancouver-based Pakistani Lesbian who named the band after a group of Muslims currently held without charge on suspicion of plotting attacks inside Canada.
In Chicago, the group manage to wangle their way into the annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America, where their unscheduled performances cause a riot with shocked organizers and cops trying to push them out of the convention centre while excited middle class Hijab-clad girls head bang.
In the film’s second act, the artists and Knight travel to Pakistan to explore the roots of Knights’ original metamorphosis and to introduce punk to the country’s increasingly resentful and disillusioned Muslim youth. And of course, they all get completely plastered on high-grade Hashish whilst plotting how to promote their burgeoning musical movement and avoid being turned into minced meat by a suicide bomber.
A two-fingered salute
It’s all one-and-a-bit hours of frantic fun, with darkly comic moments that are often reckless; the politically conscious young Muslims grab every opportunity to give a two-fingered salute to both the secular and religious establishments. Knight is treated with almost religious zeal by the Taqwacores, young men and women with seemingly boundless energy and an insatiable appetite for the Ganja. In turn, Knight plays the perfect foil, becoming a counsellor, guide and of course, bemused observer; in utter disbelief that an idea that took root in his imagination could give rise to an entire cultural movement. Knight’s remarkable spirituality and religious devotion helping to temper the adolescent movement’s chaos and rebellious nature. Director Majeed allows the main players to relate the story as they developed it, providing a wide ranging and hugely entertaining look at how Taqwacore evolved.
The Cultural Force
The Taqwacore scene has now transcended the book and Knight himself, although he remains an integral part in spreading its message throughout America and the rest of the world. The book is studied at several Universities in the US and has been hailed as one of the most important cultural forces in the new ‘Barack Obama world’. It has energized the Liberal Muslim movement in the States, which calls for a renewal of the sense of global community encouraged by the Qur’an, as well as a return to the pluralistic intent of the Muslim holy book. Taqwacore’s growing popularity is also down to the fact that there is no definitive ‘Taqwacore Sound’ as such. Artists are known to incorporate various styles, ranging from punk and techno to Bollywood and hip-hop (the fearless London actor, rapper and MC Riz Ahmed also makes an appearance in the film).
At its’ heart, The Taqwacore movement calls for the rejection of institutionalized religion and all that that entails, from priests and monks and imams and sheikhs to unilateral decrees and cover ups and of meaningless ritual superseding spirituality. It calls for a return to the essence that underpins all religion; a sense of brotherhood and compassion. Whilst increasingly authoritarian religious leaders call for submission, and an ever more dogmatic interpretation of Islam to contend the ‘many and varied’ ills of the modern world, the modern, cosmopolitan and religious Taqwacores demand a return to the pliant and accommodating roots of Islam.
The message may shock and offend but ultimately it is a positive force that should be embraced by all of us, irrespective of our religious beliefs.
- Vijitha Alles
Monday, 10 May 2010
The achingly chic PR girls are fidgeting and whispering to each other like infatuated school girls as we wait for Sendhil Ramamurthy to arrive. The girls are usually the picture of elegance and poise but Ramamurthy’s imminent showing is pushing up the girls’ combined temperature in spite of a typically miserable London chill hanging in the air.
As Sendhil saunters in to the imaginatively named Soho Hotel in, er, Soho, I can understand why. He is quite ludicrously handsome, classically tall and dark, sharply dressed and with features so finely chiselled that his jaw line could probably slice a frozen steak. Small wonder he’s twice been named in People Magazine's annual '100 Most Beautiful' list. To top it off, he is blessed with that buoyant and typically American graciousness that cynical Londoners find terribly annoying, but which certainly enhances his appeal. The former star of the monster hit US TV series ‘Heroes’ was in London earlier this month to promote “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife”, his first major film project in several years.
The movie is the latest by Panjabi force of nature Gurindher Chadha. Sendhil plays a police officer drafted in to investigate a series of murders in West London, involving poisoned Indian curries and a mother’s quest to get her plump daughter married. The film is a typically cheery but underwhelming Chadha romp with plenty of fat jokes and, er, Zombies. Sendhil does try to make the most of a mediocre script, but the role barely scratches the surface of his undoubted well of dramatic ability. “...Afterlife” may not have won over many critics but fans are queuing up at cinemas and the film continues the evolution of Sendhil Ramamurthy from Tennis-loving son of brainy Indian immigrants to cross cultural, global superstar.
From Pre-Med to West End
Ramamurthy was born in Chicago in 1974 to characteristically overachieving, upper middle-class South Asian parents originally from Tamil Nadu; his father is an anaesthesiologist and his mother a neonatologist. Perhaps tired of the icy weather that often grips the Windy City, the Ramamurthy clan (Sendhil has a younger sister who is a doctor) moved to balmy San Antonio, Texas when Sendhil was 20 months old.
Growing up, Sendhil was a gifted Tennis player, participating in local and regional tournaments before being gently nudged by his parents to concentrate on his studies. The love for Tennis is still evident but the disappointment of not continuing and turning professional has been offset by his tremendous success in showbiz. “I still travel lock, stock and barrel to Tennis tournaments around the world and play whenever I can, especially in charity tournaments”, says Sendhil with a hint of nostalgia. Having relegated Tennis in his life’s priorities, he followed in his parent’s footsteps, studying pre-medicine at Boston’s Tufts University.
Much like all great thespian stories, Sendhil’s entry into the business of performing came about by chance. During his final year in University, when American students are frantically trying to complete their graduation credit requirements by taking up easy-to-finish subjects like The Fundamentals of Golf or The Philosophy of Star Trek, Sendhil Ramamurthy took up an acting course. Part of ‘Intro to Acting’ involved performing in a stage play, titled ‘Our Country’s Good.’ He recalls wistfully, “I was immediately smitten. The liberation you feel on stage is amazing and I knew straight away that acting was what I wanted to do for a living.”
His parents were unsurprisingly taken aback but decided to support him, even sponsoring a trip to London to study drama and work on the West End stage. “They were less than thrilled at first”, says Sendhil. “I was pre-med, so I was going to go into the family business more or less. But I came to my senses, luckily, and backed out, and decided to go to drama school. Now they're happy that I'm playing a doctor on TV at least. It’s funny, because they don't quite understand what the hell Heroes is all about. After each show I have to explain to them what exactly happened”.
Travelling to London was the first of two key decisions that laid the foundation for his eventual, global success as an actor. Whilst in the city, Sendhil took up roles in ‘A Servant of Two Masters’ and the acclaimed ‘Indian Ink’, and did a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company whilst studying. The second decision was to not take on stereo-typical roles created specifically for actors of South Asian origin; clichés like doctors and accountants with exaggerated accents, stingy grocery store owners or terrorists. “I’m just not into it”, he says. “I made a decision very early on in my career to turn down auditions for roles like that. I don’t fault other actors for doing that. Sometimes you just need to work. But for me personally, I would rather just go and do something else.”
Following his stint in London, Ramamurthy took on bit parts in movies, but more significantly joined the army of working actors on US Television; a part of Hollywood which has recently matched the movie industry in terms of revenue, global popularity and artistic excellence with such mega hits as ‘The Sopranos’, ‘24’, ‘C.S.I.’, ‘Lost’ and of course ‘Heroes’. Sendhil himself picked up roles in a number of acclaimed series, including Grey’s Anatomy, Casualty and Guiding Light, before landing his life changing gig as geneticist Mohinder Suresh in ‘Heroes’.
Ironically, ‘Heroes’ creator Tim Kring wrote the part for a 55-year-old actor. The 32-year-old Sendhil however, sent in a hastily prepared audition tape and was shocked to even be called in for a test. “I was saying, ‘Are you guys sure?’”, he recalls. “I almost talked myself out of the biggest job of my life!” Tim Kring says, “The character I wrote was in his late 50’s. We saw several auditions but the casting director kept coming back asking that we need to take a look at this one actor in particular. She said, ‘Trust me, you want to see this guy.’ Sendhil walked in the room and opened his mouth and we all looked at one another, so I went off and rewrote the entire character.”
The show itself was an expensive gamble for NBC with its effects-heavy production values, large ensemble and the geographic spread of the storylines. However, “Heroes” has become a global phenomenon, a commercial and critical success with weekly audience figures averaging 16 million. Sendhil recalls an incident in Singapore; “After the first season, the cast went to a fan event where they told us it would be like 500 to 800 people and we got there and there were just under 8000. That was freaky. It was scary but cool. These people screaming for you, you're kind of hoping they don't kill you too. When we came to Europe, we had an even bigger response. It's great to see that the show hasn't become just this genre, sci-fi show. It really has become this global thing.”
The cast have become international stars, not least Sendhil Ramamurthy. His good looks and distinguished accent (his character is from Madras but supposedly had a lot of elocution) has earned him an army of female fans around the world. His intense performance as the troubled son investigating his father’s mysterious death has won him plaudits from critics as well. In many ways, Sendhil’s character is the very soul of ‘Heroes’, a sort of counsellor for the ‘Superheroes’ coming to terms with their powers.
Desktop Screen Saver
Just a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for an actor from the parched South of the vast Indian sub-continent to enter the imaginations (and desktop screen savers) of countless American females, let alone be given acting roles that didn’t involve being a terrorist or the tourist with the funny accent. Sendhil joins real life edgy lothario Naveen Andrews (who plays Sayid in “Lost”) in forcing women around the world to fan themselves furiously.
The key difference between the two however, is that unlike Andrews, Sendhil doesn’t come across as the sort of heartthrob who will nick your wife, girlfriend or mother for that matter; but it’s an attraction that baffles Sendhil. “It is flattering but I can’t quite get my head around it”, he says, smiling sheepishly as the PR girls let out a loud sigh. Unfortunately for the girls and millions of others Sendhil’s been happily married for nearly a decade to Olga Sosnovska, an Anglo-Polish actress he met at drama school in London. The couple have two children – 4-year-old daughter Halina and son Alex, 2 who dutifully travel with dad whether he’s filming in Mumbai, promoting a show in Singapore or watching Wimbledon.
A total departure
Ramamurthy’s evolution continues this year with a new TV series titled ‘Covert Affairs’ in which he plays a volatile, womanizing CIA Agent in a total departure from his role in Heroes. Significantly, the role doesn’t have any ethnic undertones and is being executive produced by Doug Liman, the man behind ‘The Bourne Identity’; the internet is already awash with chatter about the series, months before its July premier. "I get to play a character very different from what I play in 'Heroes'. It's a childhood fantasy come true. I'll be running around shooting guns. I don't only get to play out an action fantasy I get paid for it.”
Sendhil is also spreading his wings beyond American TV, first with “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” and, later this year, with “Shor”, a Bollywood production by Ekta Kapoor, the gifted and prolific young Indian film and TV director. The 36-year-old Ramamurthy is set to play an Indo-American who returns to India as a humanitarian but gets caught up in the Mumbai underworld. Whilst his role involves a grand total of 20 Hindi words, the film will no doubt broaden his appeal in the land of his forefathers.
In spite of the multi-million dollar salary, the sex symbol status and global popularity, Sendhil remains modest, composed and even. “I pinch myself every day. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have consistently worked and to have worked my way up to where I am today”, he says.
Sendhil’s is a story of gradual accumulation, of hard work and – most importantly – of sticking to his convictions; of having the confidence in his abilities to reject hackneyed roles as well as leaving ‘Heroes’ just as the show threatens to fall victim to Hollywood’s “bigger and noisier is better” mantra. It is perhaps a reflection of his heritage and the work ethic that is characteristic of the South Asian Diaspora community. That heritage has also helped him remain grounded and focused on building a successful body of work and in the process break down cultural barriers and stereotypes; and becoming the embodiment of South Asia’s collective confidence, and global ambitions.
Tuesday, 4 May 2010
“They need to be able to differentiate between tomato and tomayto, whether they are from Mumbai or ...er ...Muramgaonwhereisthatblastedwhatsitsname!”
Speak to immigrants and the general consensus – whether they are a student who has never seen the inside of a classroom or a British passport holder who came to this country 30 years ago – is that a Conservative government would signal tighter immigration rules; that the streets would begin swarming with Border Agency staff in knife-proof jackets and belts stuffed with Victorinox multi-tools asking people for ‘documents’.
And that’s in spite of the Tories shuffling to the center of politics, and admitting to strange urges like wanting to kiss a hoodie and hug an asylum seeker. The misconception is partly due to an annoying habit, particularly among South Asians, to arrive at startling conclusions with little valid information, and partly due to history. The BBC Asian Network’s DJ Nihal (himself the son of Sri Lankan immigrants and who often makes Jeremy Paxman look like Oprah Winfrey on a particularly blubbery day) chats with David Cameron about immigration, the BNP and arranged marriages.
Nihal: A lot of tough talk on immigration David, stealing the BNP’s thunder as it were?
David Cameron: I don’t accept that for a moment. I’ve always taken the view that immigration is a subject that you have to talk about with care and sensitivity and I’ve always done that but I also think we need to have proper and robust and sensible policies which we do have but I completely reject what you put in your question.
Nihal: Well that’s the way it comes across, certainly to certain members of the Asian community that talking tough on immigration makes the Asian community nervous. Does the Asian community have any reason to be nervous about Conservative immigration policy?
David Cameron: It has absolutely no reason to be nervous at all and actually many members of the Asian community in Britain have come up to me in this campaign and raised the issue of immigration with me, actually calling for more robust control, so I think it’s a complete myth to think that British Asians and others don’t want to see proper immigration. They want a fair system and I think that’s very important to understand.
Nihal: You say you want to promote integration into British Society and also there will be an English Language test for anyone coming here from outside the EU to get married. British Asians, many freely enter into arranged marriages David, with partners from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and often their new spouses’ English will be poor. Would you stop them from coming over?
David Cameron: Well I think there should be an English language test and also along with the government, we’ve argued for the raising of the age limit which has happened in recent years. And of course different communities will want to continue with the arrangements that they’ve had in the past but I do think that it’s important that in our country young women, young men feel they have a choice, whether they want to get married to someone in their own country, in our own community or whether they want to have an arranged marriage. I just think it’s important that people do have a choice and having met some of the people who have been victims of forced marriages, I do know that this an important issue that we need to get right.
Nihal: Nobody is trying to say that forced marriages are a great idea but arranged marriages cannot be demonised either and there are a lot of people that enter into arranged marriages with people who are from villages for instance may it be in Pakistan or India, whose English may not be up to the standard that you require, so you’ll be stopping them from marrying who they wish to marry?
David Cameron: No, not at all, what I will be doing is making sure that if they are going to enter into that marriage that they have to have a basic level of English, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I am not in anyway, just to go back to your question, demonising what communities choose to do in terms of arranged marriages but as I said, I think it’s important to make sure that young people have a choice.
Nihal: One of the things that came out of an election programme I did with some young Asians was that they were thoroughly hacked off with the rise of groups such as the BNP and the EDL. What would you do to stop the spread of far right groups?
David Cameron: The BNP as I’ve said, are a completely unacceptable dreadful bunch of thugs and I was very proud of a great British Asian, Sayeeda Warsi on, who I thought did so well on Question Time to uncover Nick Griffin. I think the truth is that you don’t beat the BNP by running towards them and shouting loudly about immigration and I haven’t done that. In four and a half years as leader of the Conservative Party, I have put in a sensible policy and I have always talked about it in a reasonable and sensible way. You beat the BNP by getting on the doorstop and talking to local people about the issues that concern them. The BNP fill a vacuum where the traditional politicians haven’t actually worked hard enough so we’ve got to get in there, talk to people about the problems of housing and tax and education and unemployment, yes addressing the issue of immigration but always doing it with care. Do that and we can stop the BNP.
Nihal: David, having done many phone-ins about radicalisation, there are those that believe the only way to stop radicalisation is to change UK foreign policy. Foreign policy, the perception of alienating young Muslims, British troops in Afghanistan, a perception that the UK Government favours Israel over Palestine. What do you think about that opinion?
David Cameron: I don’t really accept it. British foreign policy should be right for Britain, should be right for all of Britain but I don’t really accept the view that for instance, what we are doing in Afghanistan, which is actually at the invitation of an elected Muslim Islamic government - that that is an excuse for radicalisation. It isn’t and I think we have to be very clear about this and we do have to fight those that are poisoning the minds of young Muslims in Britain because that’s just not the case. Also, you can agree or disagree with what we’re doing in Afghanistan but that should not lead to a process of radicalisation, where people take up extreme views and then go ahead and do extreme things. I think we’ll get into a moral mess if we start thinking that’s somehow acceptable, it isn’t.
Nihal: David, a lot of British Asians, as you well know, are self employed and they run their own businesses. What will the Conservative Party do to make their life easier considering they are going through a pretty tough time at the moment?
David Cameron: Well they are and they’re the backbone of a lot of our economy. The first thing we will do is we’re going to cut out wasteful spending in government so we stop the national insurance rise which will hit so many family owned and small businesses across our country. If you put up national insurance contributions you’re putting up the cost of employing people and also the government plan to take more money out of people earning just 21,000, 22,000 pounds and we think that’s wrong so we’re going to stop that. For the future, we want a lower rate of corporation tax for small businesses, we’ve set out how to pay for that and we want people to set up new businesses and they won’t have to pay national insurance on the first ten employees. So we want to so a lot for the small business community that’s where the jobs are going to come from. With this opportunity on the Asian Network, what I’d say is there are many British Asians who have Conservative values about families, about enterprise but who have been held back from voting Conservative in the past because they’ve been concerned about ‘is the Conservative party really for me’. I think what we are demonstrating with the candidates we have and with great people like Sayeeda Warsi, candidates like Paul Uppal, many others and Nadhim Zahawi who is going to be a great candidate in Stratford on Avon, you can now vote for the Conservative Party, it is a multiracial party, it’s there for everyone and if you share our values about enterprise and family then come with us.
Nihal: David, you also say that a Conservative government will give every child the education that is currently available only to the well off, safe class rooms, talented and specialist teachers etc. How exactly are you going to make sure that a child from a poor working class background is going to get the same kind of education and privileges that you had. How much is it going to cost?
David Cameron: I believe in opening up state education, making sure we have more of the great academy schools and other schools coming into the state sector to provide really good opportunities. I was at the London city academy yesterday, a great example of this sort of programme and I believe the fact that opportunity is so unequal in our country and it is a real problem. Now of course this costs money but also some things in education like good discipline, like teaching the basics, like having competitive sports in schools. It’s not all about money, it is as I said, partly about money but also discipline and values, things that I think British Asians know are necessary in our schools and I meet a lot of British Asians who are depressed that these things aren’t available in our schools when they should be.
Nihal: Another thing – following on from schools to universities. We have a lot of graduate who are very very fearful of their future now and one who wondered whether it was even worth going to university and then getting into £20,000 of debt. What would you say to a new generation of students who are going to university and who are very fearful at the end of it, all they’ll be saddled with is debt and no job?
David Cameron: I would say, if you think university is right for you, it’s going to give you good qualifications go for it because we want to have well trained, well-educated graduates in our country to compete with the rest of the world. I’ll be frank though, we can’t afford to get rid of the tuition frees and the parties that say they can and the liberal democrat say they ‘re going to, but you look at the small print – they’re not going to get rid of them for 6 years. That’s beyond the next parliament. So I’m being straight with people and saying universities are good, we want people to go we can’t get rid of the tuition fees. Choose your course carefully, make sure you do the research that you’re getting a good course at a good university but it’s a really important thing we do as a country.