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The dumbing down of WikiLeaks

DID ANYONE else get the feeling that the Mayawati- Julian Assange exchange this fortnight sounded like the trailer of a romantic comedy? A trailer for the kind of film that has a raging, warring couple whose defences break down only in the last 20 minutes. The kind with a fiery Beatrice-like heroine who, when asked if Benedick was not in her good books, replies: No; and if he were, I would burn my study.

Listen to the rhythm of it. Julian Assange: She has a big ego and she likes her shoes too much. Mayawati: You, anti-Dalit, I will put you in a mental asylum. And I will give more power to my pals Shashank and Satish, what you going to do about it? Julian Assange: Go fight with Hillary, you betrayer of Dalits. And if you wanna fight more, pick me up from my house arrest, I will bring you British shoes. Is this a lovefest or this a lovefest?

Perhaps this cinematic encounter between Mayawati and Assange was inevitable. Perhaps all WikiLeaks is waiting for is a Nora Ephron screenplay. Certainly an encounter between WikiLeaks and Bollywood should not have surprised us. This week’s revelation was that Siddharth Roy Kapur and Akshaye Wadhwani, heads of huge Bollywood production houses, said to someone, “Following the Hollywood model, many film and entertainment companies are moving away from an actor or star-based system to a system more reliant on the production company’s brand, and its stable of producers and directors.” (Bollywood stars are overpaid. Surprise!)

Imagine this. Someone heard this tidbit somewhere and then someone sent this information via diplomatic cable to the US State Department, which then placed this information in the default setting of classified. As classified as the information that has emerged from other cables such as the Sultan of Oman being too busy these days to read, or that a diplomat ate sheep innards at a picnic in Eritrea. The security classification system that protects this information is said to have cost over $8.8 billion in 2009 alone but let’s not worry about how much money the US is spending. What is more relevant is why are the dregs of the leaked cables being given the gravitas of national security? And have we forgotten that the cables are less holy writ and more Chinese whispers?

If we stop being distracted by the gossip, we may notice the shallow analysis being unearthed by WikiLeaks. How disorienting to find diplomatic cables filled with sociological rubies such as “iconic celebrities such as Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan attract legions of fans, while millions of Muslims languish in poverty. Since Independence, three Muslims have been appointed as President of India, but Muslims are grossly under-represented in Parliament and other elected bodies”. That the West thinks it can understand non-western cultures with such clumsy juxtapositions is troubling.

Often diplomatic cables such as the one above bring on a vague sense of déjà vu. Where else have we seen such evidence of cognitive dissonance in the western cerebellum? Could it be something you read in the first few pages of Lonely Planet India? No, perhaps it is more like the writings of poor hard-worked Abbe Dubois, the 18th century French missionary writing of south India and troubled by ‘paradoxes’ such as Brahmins refusing contact with Dalits unless it is the height of summer in which case they do not mind accepting buttermilk from the hands of the same Dalits. A couple of hundred years later, here we are still reading the unfiltered marginalia of compulsive Caucasian note-takers to find ourselves.

Having made all these grim pronouncements of Orientalism, let us celebrate. WikiLeaks seems to have found its ultimate destiny — recycling celebrity gossip. We look forward to the WikiLeaks that ‘reveal’ the evergreen Dev Anand’s youthful appearance, the cable on Sonam Kapoor’s fashion sense and Ranbir Kapoor’s family connections.

If It is Sweet

THE THIRD World is so useful. Like that shirt you wore for 10 years and are now using to mop the kitchen floor, you can always find one last squeeze. In 2010, American giant Kraft Foods acquired old rival British confectionary Cadbury globally (including the Indian operations) for $19.6 billion. India is one of the big reasons Kraft wanted Cadbury. According to the Wharton Business School, acquiring Cadbury gave Kraft access to 70 percent of India’s $425 million chocolate market as well as a distribution network that reaches 1.2 million shops. Access, trust and cachet that Cadbury acquired by importing chocolates into India since 1948. At the other end of the pipeline is Ghana, the second biggest cocoa producer in the world where Cadbury has been buying cocoa beans for over a century. Ghana and its neighbours in West Africa have had a complex and bloody modern history that is tied closely to how much cocoa it can produce for export. Even after independence, West African cocoa farmers are fighting corrupt governments and greedy companies to be paid fairly. As in highly profitable businesses in India, unpaid or ill-paid young children form the bedrock of Ghana’s cocoa business. In 2011, Cadbury adopted a fair trade agreement with Ghana’s cocoa farmers. All good? All good. (Shut up, you sceptic in the back bench.)

So here we are in mid-2011 and Cadbury is making a heated attempt to sell Bournville to India — a market rather suspicious of dark chocolate. Picture a bunch of highly educated, smart copywriters getting together and saying: Yes, dark chocolate equals sophistication. Sophistication means exclusion. Hmm.

Then somehow, in a process that shall always remain mysterious (and as we find out, oblivious) to history, the creatives arrive at two television ads for India. Ad #1, shot in Sweden, in which a butler is grouchy because his employer has criticised him for being unsophisticated. He eats Bournville while his master is away. A piano falls on his head. A punishment from the cosmos because “you can’t just eat a Bournville, you have to earn it.” This ad, its creators said, was in the Wodehouse spirit. Strange homage since the success of the Jeeves books lay in the butler’s omnipotent sophistication. Old Plum would have slit his throat before putting Servant’s Pratfall as a gag. Even in a first draft.

Ad #2. White buyer in Ghana village at table is examining cocoa bean under a loupe and pronounces: “He will become a Bournville one day.” The next one he rejects, saying, “He is nothing.” The strange pronoun is explained when the bean suddenly turns into a weeping humanoid baby. European buyer says, “Tell him I am sorry,” looking less sorry and more embarrassed for the baby bean’s social solipsism. Gathered villagers, particularly an old man, looks troubled. Young man next to him (clearly an extra from Blood Diamond still in character) sweeps crying cocoa baby onto the ground and does a short rakshasa laugh. “Only the Finest Ghanaian Cocoa goes into making a Bournville.”

Ad films are often banal. They are sometimes sublime, gripping their tiny claws into culture in a way cinema is too hulking to. This Bournville ad is not clever or funny. It is cruel. And more troubling, it is incredibly ignorant.

The glory of globalisation lies in its amiable, ironic nested narratives Paul Auster would envy. So in 2011, the new emperors are not just squeezing Ghana and selling cocoa to India. It is also so comfortably assured of India’s amnesia that it can even use the process of squeezing Ghana to pimp chocolate.

This isn’t a call to ban this ad. That’d be boring. This is a call to fix an education system so myopic it allows smart copywriters to create this ad without a hint of the painfully revealing Rorschach test it is. This is a call to fix an education system so limited in its culture capital, it is producing us — people who conflate sophistication with good old-fashioned oppression. Us who will look at this ad and say, “So cute. Cocoa bean is crying.”

You can’t just buy cool. You have to earn it.

A Kenyan folktale tells the story of a Sultan's wife who wasted away in the palace and a peasant's wife who was plump and strong. The Sultan interrogated the peasant - what was he feeding his wife? The peasant replied, “Meat of the tongue”. But no fancy-shmancy meat of the tongue that the Sultan ordered by the ton made the Sultana robust.

So, he sent his wife to live in the peasant’s house. When the switcheroo happened, as it does in folktales and reality shows, the Sultana grew strong in the peasant's hut and the peasant's wife became hollow-cheeked in the palace. Marina Werner writes in From the Beast to the Blonde: “The tongue meats that the poor man feeds the woman are not material, of course. They are fairytales, stories, jokes, songs; he nourishes them on talk, he wraps them in language; he banishes melancholy by refusing silence.”

The newest Dastangoi performance (on 4 September at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi) from astonishing duo of Mahmood Farooqui and Dan Husain was a tribute to storytelling and a refusal of silence. First, the silence of Chouboli, the inscrutable princess who refuses to marry any man who can't make her speak four times in a night.

Chouboli is the heroine of a long Rajasthani folktale, one among many brought from the tongue to the page by the late Vijaydan Detha. Next, the silence around Vijayadan Detha himself, arguably Rajasthan's greatest writer (who told TEHELKA in 2006 that he had managed to avoid the press until his short story was made into the SRK film Paheli.) Two volumes of Detha's work were translated into English in 2010 by Christi A Merrill and Kailash Kabir.

It is unusual for Farooqui and Husain to perform stories outside the Dastangoi tradition. The few precedents are their popular Partition Dastan, and more recently, a superb story about the imprisonment of Binayak Sen. Word has it that a Dastan about Rabindranath Tagore is in the making.

As marriages go, the Detha-Dastangoi one looks fruitful. The witty register of Detha's Hindi was what dominated this production instead of the fabulous (fabulous of fables, as opposed to the absolute variety) Urdu of the regular Dastangoi evenings. The combination was satisfying even to some of us who understand only one in five words (as opposed to one in ten on a regular Dastangoi evening). Detha and the Tilism-o-Hoshruba are alike in the tallness of the tale-telling. The thieves are outrageously larcenous, the friendships are set like cement, the swords flash, arrows fly sky-high, the limbs scatter, the women are golden.

Detha's interpretation of moustache-twirling manly valour as slightly dim only gave the actors another layer of human folly to enjoy. So a minute after the performance begins, you are left marvelling at the fine thakur whose chief hobby is to shoot 108 arrows through the nose-ring of his terrified wife every morning, and then one night, by moonlight. And an hour into the performance you don’t think about the stamina required by two men sitting in white achkans to hold our fragmented attention. You don’t think too much because in the craning of Farooqui’s long, sardonic neck and in the dimpling of Husain’s roguish cheek is the next joke and you are damned if you miss it.

Farooqui and Husain are training a younger lot of dastangos, and blessed be their venture. However, right now the performances are rare and their performances blindingly brilliant enough to leave you with only two meta-thoughts—I am so lucky to be watching. Someday I will tell my grandchildren that I was lucky enough to watch.

The dastangos insist that applause is a dissolute habit and that civilised people should only utter waah-waahs of appreciation. But in the performance, even the darkness that falls when Chouboli's lamp is snuffed insists on speaking, insists on responding to the Portia-like cross-dressing thakurain storyteller. So who could blame the two ladies in the audience who yelped, “Arrey, arrey!” when it seemed as if a female protagonist was about to confess her intended adultery? They yelped “arrey-arrey!” The rest of us were silenced.

The dastangos paused. Then they said, “Waah-waah!”, kyunki hunkare ke bina kahani kya?

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