Sunday, September 15, 2013

How I Met Your Country


BOOK REVIEW: The Redeemers

Published by Daily Times (Pakistan) / 15 Sep 2013

Author: Suresh Taneja

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Thank you Suresh T. for the review copy

‘The Redeemers’ can easily be in the fantasy / fiction aisle because of its ludicrous premise. It begins with India at the top of the superpower pyramid for starters’ and its citizens seen breezing through U.S. immigration sans visa. It then goes on to cast four conscientious youngsters responsible for its remarkable transition as narrators who step in to the ring and relive the heady years leading up to the year 2030. The glittering future demands an enormous suspension of disbelief, present day India however with all the spectacular excesses will make the South Asian community feel right at home. Suresh Taneja’s blue print for a new domestic world order can ostensibly be mapped on both sides of the border and not just because of unavoidable similarities in terrain.

The author is a Chartered Accountant with a conscience and a vision to alter the contours of (potentially) failed state syndromes. He will then propose a radical line up of ideas to prop up its shiny new architecture. Recruiting a motivated band of young ‘uns to lead the charge will be the next step - their grievances will be revealing, their optimism - blinding. Leaders out to ‘enrich themselves’ at the cost of national interest enter on cue; papers that carry only ‘morbid news’, a sensationalism driven media uninterested in ‘events of substance’, its sole purpose to meet commercial targets. The corrupt infrastructure depicted here is eerily similar – its tentacles spreading from politicians and bureaucracy to the smallest grunt laid out for the world to see prompting a flurry of soul searching on a nation-wide scale.

Readers already know where the plot is headed. How it gets there keeps them tuned in to the simplistic conversation between the band of protagonists / best friends referred throughout as G4, as they work on the dream and their well meaning parents (G3) brought in to cheer from the sidelines.

The ambitious premise attempts to reset the moral compass. Suresh ploughs through the objections and brings in the cavalry. But the only place where making children the gatekeepers of morality can work so well is inside a fictional realm. The storyline takes several detours to give readers a good sense of the treacherous waters the heroic G4 must navigate. ‘Who bothers about elections,’ they complain at one point, ‘...does it make a difference whether party A or B comes in power? I feel stupid casting my vote.’ The path to redemption will not be easy. That change does not come overnight and requires an ‘all hand on deck approach’ adds a layer of believability to the scenario; tapping into ‘Reality TV’ to get the stakeholders attention plays well in this environment.

The writer raises an entire empire from these outlandish outlines, and gives them a respectable sheen. His assertion that the books underlying appeal lay in its familiar structure however, has merit, and the portrayal of the endemic corruption that apparently plagues both sides of the divide does strike a chord. While Pakistan’s negative are amplified for global consumption, India’s problematic side is less evident due to excellent PR perhaps. It is an illuminating journey, filled with twists and turns, exposing the cracks in a seemingly perfect facade.

The odds will be stacked against these friendly neighbourhood crusaders. Suresh is not oblivious to the rigged nature of the system or the agenda driven policies that layer its foundation. The book chastises and condemns their chosen lot, bemoaning the stark contrast between an Indians behaviour abroad (law abiding) and home (not so much) punctuated with exposition. ‘We all need to be blamed too. We don’t want to pay taxes; we ask for out of the way favours; we don’t have patience to wait and thus offer bribes to speed things up. This has become the norm in our country.’

There are the usual ‘haves’ who find the system ‘convenient’; offenders who do not get their comeuppance and authorities blithely off somewhere making money. ‘....It is a win-win situation for these people;’ they realize, ‘......what suffers in the process are the moral values which should actually be non-negotiable for the character of a nation.’

The book will have a strange effect on readers – the exuberance is exhilarating – the language is a turn off, and the earnest tone is endearing. In many ways this is a bold manoeuvre, for it dissipates the ‘shining’ myth and in its stead places a more sombre, less sure-footed model on display. ‘The Redeemers’ also serves as dry run (of sorts) intent on changing their status from a cautionary tale ‘where doctors are medical businessmen chasing targets to a progressive state.

It also makes it easy to imagine the future should Pakistan go on a similar cleanse. Bin Laden might have been arrested for one long before those SEALS descended upon his lair, since the Abbottabad Commission Report claims he was stopped for speeding once but his henchmen settled the matter with the law. In ‘The Redeemers’ universe no one bribes a cop and gets away with it.

G4/G3 helps a morally upright nation with its priorities in order fast track to the top but not before brutally ripping apart the illusion as it approaches its fairy tale happy ending. While it can have the potential to spark the imagination, should it ever come to the silver screen, the most glaring flaw would be the execution and presentation. The editing and language both need to go through several revisions before they can be formally accepted.

Enterprising youngsters hoping to emulate G4 might face the same kind of reality check that Pakistanis confronted recently where the theme of changing the political culture captured the popular imagination and the subsequent elections brought them back to the corruption infested earth. The kind of change they expected was perhaps unrealistic but it did not deter the tidal wave of hope. This lot however, forges ahead in this unorthodox concoction of realism / fantasy that serves to inspire and entertain, and they cheerfully carry out their ambush hoping to right decades of wrong.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

OP-ED: A Veiled Threat


First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Sep 2013 issue

The ‘Avenger’ phenomena hit Pakistan sometime in late July 2013. The choice of the name had an instant effect - loud cheers, inaudible gasps, startled looks and a few boos were reported. A musician, composer and most recently Campaign Ambassador for ‘Save the Children's Everyone Campaign’, who reigned in the 1990’s as the front man for ‘Awaz’, and nowadays goes by the name of Aaron Haroon (redundancy alert!) is responsible for these seismic changes in the national topography.

Back then the band made history when ‘Janeman’ became the first Pakistani song to air on MTV; now another precedent has been set as Pakistan’s first animated, female super hero takes the stage.

It is different because the secret identity goes undercover in a burka. It is controversial for the same reason.

A school teacher by day, Jiya dons the invisibility cloak before setting out to conquer the world. A burka has been used here as a symbol of empowerment - more on that later. A Young Jiya aka the ‘Burka Avenger’ who happens to be faster than a speeding Tez-gam, leaps over short buildings or telephone poles, defies gravity and could well be Pakistan’s newest ally on the frontline of terror.

That she is a firm believer in the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ adage gives her an advantage. ‘Stationary’ makes for handy weapons in B.A universe and her costume allows her to wander the countryside undetected, like most women in that region and maybe a few ‘Most Wanteds’ from across its borders. In reality, this would not be functional as a uniform and is likely to put an end to those flying squirrel moves. Fantasy has rushed to the aid and an invincibility clause has been quietly added to the conservative mix. Regardless of the snazzy makeover, using the b - word as a centerpiece has drawn focus away from the shows noble cause and bold agenda.


The 22 minute segment uses a slick mix of humor, music and martial arts to sound the alarm and alter perceptions. The upbeat tone is padded by an endearing line up of characters including heroic young ‘uns and baddies with imaginative names like ‘Baba Bandook’ (a mean magician), ‘Vadero Pajero’ (a mean feudal). Haroon, along with other well known singers will make an appearance during the course of the show. As far as super heroes go, this is pretty standard fare but for the lady’s choice of attire and real life implications of her work.

There are plenty of monsters to choose from and territory to reclaim and the storylines are set against a somber backdrop. A few basic strokes have been used to render the life of an orphaned little girl raised by an adopted father figure/ resident Obi One Kenobi who trains her in the art of Takht Kabaddi, used to restore balance in a topsy-turvy world. Go Avenger. That she reaches for the most logical item to conceal her identity is understandable in many ways. Where super heroes stand out in their mitts, hoodies, capes and /or bunny/ bat/ cat ears, Jiya can melt into the crowd, and would be impossible to trace - a covert operators dream. Being outsmarted by someone in medieval gear is an added insult.

It enters a contentious zone when tools of oppression are shown to be interchangeable with power. Some might argue that fighting extremism in the one thing used to subjugate women would be considered poetic justice. Others would continue to glare at the offending burka and be reminded of tales where women in parts of Pakistan have been enslaved by invading bands of good/ bad/ evil Taliban running amok.

Ordinarily, this would be a stroke of genius that helps its character maintain a low profile but in a bid to steer away from one stereotype – the super hero in the ill-fitting body armour – the creators have inadvertently opted for another - that of the invisible woman associated with this part of the world. Interestingly enough, there will be no burkas in Jiya - the school marm’s closet. She is a free spirit with moxie aplenty, not inclined to cover her head or conform to that standard issue image on conservative brochures – which is a refreshing sight in this era of creeping radicalization and holier-than-thou mugs plastered across the media.


The super hero community typically does not rummage through attics or go shopping for that perfect off-the-rack number and while they may trade looks for comfort, their iconic suits stay in view through-out the journey. There is Batman, in the reboot seen ordering those customized ‘Made in China’ masks that would not survive a ‘POW’ to the head; or the ‘Man of Steel’ known for re-using his ‘baby blankie’ for its invincibility but not his design sense. The creative should have considered the fall-out when rolling out the recycled collection.

Perhaps Jiya had a similar epiphany when she was raking her brains for a suitable dress to wear at the coming out party for her alter-ego and saw a chance to remake the cumbersome burka into a fetching guise. Her creators would have been within their rights to let her put her own spin on the name and saved themselves a lot of grief and time spent in explanations. The girl behind the mask, who casually bonks her foes with books, uses pens to impale and cut through the haze of mixed messages, propaganda and murky morality.

But Jiya, the courageous educator who refuses to conform and holds on to her ideals deserves to be lauded and is someone to look up to. ‘The lady in black’ as she has been referred to in the theme song is on a worthy mission. Instead of her formidable abilities, and an unambiguous stance on crucial issues – which is more than most politicians can say, the spotlight continues to remain on her fashion choices. In hindsight it might have been wiser not making the crusaders cape the lynchpin - a protagonist forced to navigate a hostile terrain while trying to talk her country-men down from the ledge, makes for a far better headline.

The show offers fun-sized doses of kid friendly entertainment wrapped in layers of comedy topped with a public service message, and will tackle other issues along the way. Taliban are never named directly and are not the only threat out there; a dangerous void that allowed extremism to take root needs to be countered and thus far the media has been unable to stir up support for an environmental cleanup. When the burial of a martyred Ahmedi soldier who receives full military honor becomes news as if his religious beliefs are in any way relevant to his sacrifice, it is time to rally around. But the call to arms often gets lost in the din and stories about the persecution of Christians, the murder of liberal crusaders, or ethnic cleansing resurface with depressing regularity.

Sending the invisible woman behind enemy lines marks the beginning of the resistance. Since she is an educationist, female literacy remains at the forefront. The ‘Burka Avenger’ was reportedly conceived before Malala (Pakistan’s real life superhero) became the spokeswoman for literacy and girls rights and a universal symbol of resistance. Our heroine is up against the same horrors with bigotry at its peak and justice in short supply but unlike real life, here she can get away unscathed and live to fight another day.

The show is broadcast in Urdu, available in English and there is a global audience breathlessly awaiting the Avenger’s debut. According to one report, Haroon is in talks with European broadcasters to have the series translated into 18 languages and broadcast in 60 countries. 13 episodes are set to air on ‘Geo Tez’ every Sunday though it is unclear if these airwaves can reach remote regions that need it most. It may be time to place an order for a stronger sounding board to avoid setting off multi-cultural minefields in the future.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

OP-ED: What’s In A Name(sake)?


First Published in Daily Times / 2 Sep 2013

A beloved cricketer’s name adorns the billboards but this is not a biopic. The cricketing world it allegedly represents provides a compelling front but it will not be a return to his old stomping grounds. Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) draws upon a living legend’s legacy to leverage the passion and throws in a cameo or two, but that is the extent of Afridi’s involvement. Meanwhile, somewhere in a small little village, a disgraced cricketer turned coach who trains a rag tag team will be moved centre-field. And the one thing that binds the nation together and provides the soulful soundtrack will become the anchor.

The newly minted flight is bound for cricket-ville and in some parts of the world that is reason enough to join in the festivities. Humayun Saeed, seen at the helm wearing a number of hats as the producer/actor enlists the classic underdog formula to launch his ambitious vision. The village club is in danger of being shut down, and must pin its hopes on a motley crew of dreamers, drifters and down on their luck celebrity cricketers including Afridi’s namesake, played by Noman Habib.

The filmmakers who work in contrasting colours of Pakistani society ensure that viewers stay invested in the journey by harnessing that energy native to the region. At times they can go a little overboard and scenes, however brief, designed for global consumption will leave many bewildered. They can be forgiven for summoning elements of escapist fantasy but not for setting the oldies in frat party mode, which will the rest cold.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons to root for this maiden venture. The way it tries to bring inter-faith harmony into the fold using the rivalry between a lovable Pathan fast bowler (Hamza Abbasi) and Michael Magnet (Ainan Arif), the brave Christian wicket keeper, for instance. The way it enlists a simple premise to explore the uneven terrain or make an ordinary carnival dazzle. And, the way it calls upon the land of sporting goods to hone in on the echoes of greatness in the mean streets of Sialkot.

The outlines, while not exactly cerebral, are striking and cultural markers have been liberally used to stock the stage with colourful banners and uplifting messages. Veterans like Javed Sheikh, Nadeem, Seemi Raheel and Shafqat Cheema occasionally loom in view and Summer Nicks — writer/producer of Seedlings, an award winning film — makes an appearance as the Islamabad coach. Ismail Tara outshines most as the club owner because there is no distracting camera work or ghostly chants of “Seeth Sahib Seeth Sahib” to mar his performance.

Sentimentality powers the core and sporting movie tropes merrily line its shores. With its engaging storyline (credit: Vasay Chaudhry) and careful casting, MHSA does its best to honour the game, and bar a few melodramatic missteps, stays on track. Its true appeal lies not within the gleaming citadels that lie beyond the reach of many but in the beautiful alliances forged on the field of dreams. The stereotypes are inescapable but have been gracefully handled for the most part.

That said, a black and white palette has been dusted off painting villains blacker than night and heroes with a touch of ‘man of steel’, invoking that suspension of disbelief. Also, wrapping our man Magnet in rosaries or surrounding him with crosses when his religion has already been established is uncalled for. As are the breaks in momentum with those flash sideways to the sick mother, disapproving father, or delirious sister. Granted these back-stories are needed to establish the stakes along with the challenges faced by these heroic youngsters but these side trips in the midst of a nail-biting clash of the desi Titans adversely affects the pacing. Fortunately for them, the gaming bits make up for these missed cues.

MHSA has been filmed on location and offers some breathtaking scenery. None-too-subtle messages of unity, faith, discipline beckon from every corner but a land darkened by conflict could always do with a reminder. Then there are song and dance sequences considered a staple for Pakistani film industry that have been used sparingly. With such a powerful core, the movie does not need to conjure the usual line up of suspects to keep interest from flagging. Nor should it be compelled to test the perimeters of good taste merely to generate publicity for that matter.

That a few characters get short changed is inevitable given the narrow scope. Neither the sister nor the wife is allowed to emerge from the shadows. One patiently waits to be rescued from her circumstances and lets her disability define her, not exactly a role model. Viewers can imagine the purgatory coach Akbar lived in for 15 years after losing his wife and child to the scandal that ended his career but how his estranged wife spent that time and if she made something of her life — join the family business perhaps — is not clear. All this could have been covered in one revelatory flashback instead of a revealing vignette.

A few technical glitches aside, a series of well crafted shots manage to send a jolt of life through a parched landscape and encourage misty eyed viewers to cheer on the Sialkot Shaheens anytime they stumble into the frame. Which they do often since Cricket season hits theatres from August 2013 onwards.

This is an ARY Films and Mandviwalla Entertainment presentation, directed by S Ali Raza Usama.

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