Monday, November 30, 2009

bollywood gets real

By Jason Overdorf | NEWSWEEK
Published Nov 27, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Dec 7, 2009

Midway through Vishal Bhardwaj's 2009 movie Kaminey (Scoundrels), the hero is captured by thugs looking to recover $2 million in stolen cocaine. As the goons torture him to find out where he's hidden the drugs, they run into a problem: he stammers so badly that they can't get a word out of him. So sing, they say. Out come his answers, to the tune of a popular song. Problem solved. Except the hero the thugs have captured isn't the thief. His twin brother, who lisps, stole the dope. And the twins haven't spoken to each other for years.

For those unfamiliar with Bollywood films, the scene, like the rest of Kaminey, plays as if it were directed by Guy Ritchie. From the tortuous plot twists to the ludicrous double speech impediment, Bhardwaj treads the tightrope between comedy and camp—keeping it just straight enough for the audience to suspend disbelief. But for aficionados of the Hindi-language genre, Kaminey is a revolutionary manifesto. It takes classic Bollywood tropes—estranged brothers, a case of mistaken identity, high drama approaching slapstick comedy—and presents them with Hollywood-style realism instead of Bollywood's wink-nudge mix of melodrama and posturing. At the same time, Bhardwaj makes clear that he sees Kaminey as a counterpoint to the terrible films Bollywood has churned out over the past two decades. The song that the stutterer uses to answer his interrogators, for instance, comes from Karan Johar's schlocky 1998 romantic comedy Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens). To Bollywood fans, the message is clear: Bhardwaj is staking a claim as the true heir to the industry's classic legacy. "I have grown up on these kinds of films," the director says. "They are there in me, and there is nothing wrong with them. They have high kitsch value. It's just a matter of presentation."

For years, as competition from satellite television and Hollywood has hardened audiences to the old formulas, Bollywood producers and directors have been striving to create a new idiom that retains the charm of the genre's classics but is fresh enough to pack thea-ters. With a few exceptions, they've failed. But now a new crop of young directors, led by Bhardwaj, is reinventing the Bollywood film. Their movies still have songs, but the characters no longer lip-sync, and the dance sequences have a natural, unchoreographed feel. They've scrapped the cheesy multicolored costumes and are more likely to set their films on gritty streets than in glamorous mansions. "Kaminey would be able to compete with any film in the world in terms of its design, per-form-ances, inherent narratives, editing, pace—everything," says the Indian-born Hollywood director Shekhar Kapur, whose 1998 film Elizabethwas nominated for seven Academy Awards.

The stakes are higher than ever. The Indian entertainment and media industry is projected to grow 11 percent a year from 2009 to 2013, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers—well above the global average of 2.7 percent. Hollywood studios, encouraged by the global success of India-inspired projects like The Namesake and Slumdog Millionaire, want a piece of that pie. This year UTV inked an agreement to distribute movies for Walt Disney Pictures in India, following Disney's $200 million investment in UTV in 2008. With the release of this year's Chandni Chowk to China, Warner Bros. became the third major Hollywood studio to produce a Bollywood film. Indian billionaire industrialist Anil Ambani recently formed an $825 million joint venture to produce films with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. And early next year Ambani's film company, Reliance Big Entertainment, will release the multicultural romance Kites. Starring Bollywood hunk Hrithik Roshan and set in Las Vegas, Kites—purported to be India's costliest film ever—will get a heavy push in the U.S. market. "Indian companies are starting to realize that there's a world outside India, and you can make a difference by looking at the global market," says Timmy Kandhari, who heads Price-water-house-Coopers's India Entertainment and Media practice.

The new wave of competent, realistic, story-driven films is already beginning to overshadow the big-budget projects at the box office. This year both Anurag Kashyap's Dev.D and Kaminey outperformed Chandni Chowk to China. In 2008, little, innovative flicks like the terror-plot drama A Wednesday and Rock On!, the story of a Mumbai rock band reuniting for one last gig, earned better returns than more conventional Bollywood fare like the superhero action flick Drona.

Some of the biggest stars of the old-style genre films—Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan, and Priyanka Chopra, among others—have begun to embrace the new medium. Even Johar, who as the director of the glitzy but vapid films Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham remains the poster boy of everything wrong with Bollywood, has begun to show interest in coherent stories and realistic acting. "We're doing three movies with Karan Johar right now, and all three are much more heavy on script," says Ronnie Screwvala of UTV Motion Pictures. "Every single emotion in there is real."

As Kaminey's playful use of classic Bollywood tropes suggests, the best of the new movies still have at heart a self-reflexive interest in the old films. Kashyap's Dev.D, for instance, is the 10th remake of one of Bollywood's most successful classics, Devdas. Kashyap plays off previous treatments, which depicted the title character as a doomed romantic, to explore modern India's ideas about female sexuality. In his version, the elegant courtesan Chanda becomes a sex worker in Delhi's grimy ghetto, and the dreamy Dev is a filthy drug addict. But where prior versions condemned them to a tragic end, Kashyap allows them to find redemption in sexual love. And by practically throwing the audience's beloved story in its face, he turned a movie with the whiff of the art house—ordinarily the kiss of death in India—into a box-office hit. "Everybody thinks they know what Bollywood cinema is, and they often [associate it with] commercial Hindi cinema," says Emmanuel Grimaud, an anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, who worked on the film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. "But nobody really knows what it is because it is changing so much. 'Bollywood' is just a label."

It's a label that still carries a lot of weight. Everyone is trying to lay claim to the new Bollywood, whether through feebly acted, poorly written films like A. R. Murugadoss's Ghajini or savvy hits like Kaminey. But the challenges remain great. "The headwind we got on Kaminey was incredible," says Screwvala. "It took everything we had to keep it going and market it and get it out there." It's the kind of triumphant ending that makes you want to break into song.

With Anita Kirpalani in New York

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

how can 39 million buffalo be wrong?

Indian farmers discover the beauty of mozzarella.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
November 19, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — A few years ago, when my Midwestern parents visited me in India, my mother provided a running commentary as we navigated our way through a long traffic jam on the famous Grand Trunk Road, which runs through Delhi on its way to Peshawar from Bangladesh.

“Water buffalo,” she'd point out. “Another water buffalo ... another water buffalo.”
Uh. Yep. Are we there yet?

Turns out Mom was right. India — the world's largest producer of milk — is home to 70 percent of the world's buffalo. But until recently, the market for milk powder and ghee (clarified butter) was so huge that nobody ever thought of using the country's millions of liters of buffalo milk to make mozzarella di bufala, the glorious cheese for which some would say it was intended.

Now, though, as more Indians learn about Western cuisines and farmers explore the export market as a way to boost their incomes, your insalata caprese may soon come from the land of yoga.

“The total buffalo population in Italy is 300,000 buffaloes,” said Manmohan Malik, managing director of Himachal Pradesh-based food processing company Himalaya International Ltd. India has 39 million.

Three years ago, Malik sensed an opportunity for Indian producers. After discovering from the National Dairy Research Institute that India's buffalo are the same variety as those that Italy has made famous for mozzarella di bufala, Malik pumped $2.5 million into a cheese-making project that he soon learned would require a nearly complete transformation of the processes used by local dairy farmers.

“We put up a big project, but we hit roadblocks in terms of the quality of milk available, and a lack of infrastructure,” Malik said.

The company had to invest in chilling systems, collection centers and training for its dairy farmer associates to ensure it got unadulterated, hygienic buffalo milk with the 4 percent-plus protein required to make top quality mozzarella.

“We are crossing the major hurdles in developing the proper milk system,” said Malik. “We realized that is the reason that more companies haven't ventured into this area — because the milk quality in India needs a big improvement.”

Nevertheless, today, with the help of Italian cheese expert Raffaele Cioffi, Himalaya International produces about $1.5 million worth of buffalo mozzarella annually, or about 5 tons a week. Most of that quantity is exported to the U.S. as frozen curd, then stretched at a Pennsylvania-based plant operated by Malik's joint venture partner. Shipping frozen curd from India is much cheaper than flying fresh mozzarella from Italy, and once the curds are thawed and stretched the resulting cheese is almost identical in quality. So India's export product can compete against not only America's domestic producers, but against the best Italy has to offer, Malik says. Top chefs (and Italians) may disagree with that claim, of course. But Himalaya's mozzarella has found a ready market.

“It is a specialty cheese used as fresh mozzarella in caprese and other salads, and by special, high-end pizzerias on the East Coast [of the U.S.],” said Malik. “A lot of Italian restaurants use it.”

Since Malik started making mozzarella, India has attracted several other cheesemakers, such as 27-year-old Italian Giuseppe Mozzillo, who runs Haryana-based Exito Gourmet. Mozzillo is still using cow's milk for his cheeses, but he is keen to switch to buffalo as soon as he can develop his supply chain, since buffalo mozzarella sells for about twice as much as cow milk cheese. Flanders Dairy, which operates a farm on the outskirts of Delhi not far from Mozzillo's, also produces bonconcini and Italian mozzarella. Even the Gujarat-based cooperative dairy giant Amul — a milk monolith that generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue — has dipped a toe into the water, making a bargain-basement mozzarella it markets as “pizza cheese.”

Their interest isn't hard to explain. Although there are big challenges to be overcome, the potential for Indian mozzarella is enormous. India produces about 100 million tons of milk a year, of which about 55 percent comes from the country's 40 million buffalo, according to the Animal Production and Health Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Along with the export market, there's also a fast-growing domestic market for mozzarella and other cheeses. Over the past year or two, domestic cheesemakers like Flanders and Poshtick Foods — which operates a chain of Passion Cheese outlets — have found that their niche is expanding with the proliferation of local food boutiques and foreign specialty shops like Le Marche (a subsidiary of French retail group Geant Hypermarket) as well as the mushrooming of high-end hotels and restaurants.

Meanwhile, the general shortage of buffalo milk has compelled so many of the world's mozzarella makers to use sheep's or cow's milk that the Italian region most famous for its production sought and earned “Protection Designation of Origin” status — making Campania the Champagne of mozzarella — under European Union rules in 1993. India has already begun to put pressure on the EU to remove non-tariff barriers to its agricultural products in exchange for access to its own enormous, fast-growing market. But there soon may be an even more compelling reason for the world to sample India's buffalo mozzarella.

“If you go around the south of Italy, you'll see very few buffaloes,” said Sunil Bhu, who runs Flanders Dairy. “But buffalo mozzarella seems to be sold from Italy all over the world. It's a big question mark.”

meet india's organic tea king

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost

November 21, 2009 09:15 ET

DARJEELING, West Bengal — Swaraj Kumar “Rajah” Banerjee swept into his office wearing the khaki-colored, Raj-era planter's uniform that he has made his signature style since the 1980s. The outfit gives him an air that is at once aristocratic and vaguely military — and hints at a genius for marketing that has made him the driving force behind the organic movement on Darjeeling's famous tea plantations.

A London playboy of sorts in his 20s, Banerjee was lured back to India in 1970 by the promise of a colonial lord's idyll of riding and shooting on the family tea estate an hour's drive from Darjeeling. But when he was thrown from his horse, he had an experience that he describes as transcendent.

“Before I hit the ground, I had an out-of-body experience,” Banerjee tells me, deadpan. “I went to that zone where the soul goes when we cross over to another frequency — there is no death. And there was this beautiful cadenzas — light, music, no pathos, but melancholic — and the trees connected and transmitted this ululating chant, 'Save us, save us.'”

That evening, he told his parents he was moving back to the tea garden for good.
“They were delighted for the wrong reasons, and I was not going to tell them what I'd experienced earlier, because I'd have been certified insane,” Banerjee recalls. “But I knew I had to stay and bring the trees back. The voyage began then.”

Long before the organic movement took hold here, his mystical experience began to translate into monetary gains, both for the plantation and for its workers. To convert the tea estate to compost-based fertilizers, Banerjee created financial incentives for the tea workers to raise cattle and spread manure over the plantation's 550 acres of tea plants, and encouraged each household to raise five varieties of indigenous trees that he later purchased and used to reforest depleted areas of his land. The result is that today Makaibari has 1,070 acres of forest — including 300 acres of sub-tropical rain forest that are more than a thousand years old and play host to a greater variety of wildlife than many of India's national parks.

“His organics was a deeper organics than a lot of estates that would just follow the rules,” said Joseph Smilley, an organic certification expert with San Diego-based Quality Assurance International. “He created whole permaculture systems that allowed the people of the estate to benefit as well.”

Since earning organic certification in 1988, Banerjee has also built a biogas facility to convert surplus manure to cooking gas, a move that has stopped plantation workers from stripping the forests for their cook fires and also reduced indoor air pollution — which the World Health Organization estimates causes 1.6 million deaths a year worldwide, primarily among children and women. Meanwhile, though using organic methods costs as much as eight times more than using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the higher prices that the premium organic tea commands on the market — together with tea tourism and other initiatives — make up most of the difference. Makaibari's “single estate” tea has sold for world record prices at international auctions, for upwards of $400 a kilogram.

“It was approaches like that which differentiated him from some of the other organic growers who followed the rules but didn't do the big, transformational work to really make it successful both monetarily and ecologically,” said Smilley.

The success of the model is evident in the number of imitators, Banerjee says.
“The good news is that around 1988 to 1994 after we were certified organic, it was a very lonely time. People used to sneer at me,” Banerjee says. “[But] I'm happy to say that now 60 percent of the tea estates in the Darjeeling area are either under conversion or are certified organic.”

Featured in a documentary by French filmmaker Xavier de Lauzanne and countless travel and tea industry articles, Banerjee has emerged as the face of Darjeeling organics. And he's not quitting there. In neighboring Assam, tea gardens have been plagued by strikes by workers who allege that wages are pathetic and working conditions are inhumane. But in 2002, Makaibari became the world's first tea plantation to qualify under the Cologne, Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling Organization's standards, which allow producers of coffee, cocoa and (now) tea to charge customers a small premium to support a better standard of living for local workers. Under the scheme, the premium goes into an account managed by elected members — mostly women — from seven villages, who use the funds for development projects, such as setting up a computer center for the village children, creating a microcredit institution to finance medical care and education, and renovating village houses so they can be marketed to foreign tourists as “home stays.”

Though his success has driven his competitors to go organic, his love of the spotlight hasn't exactly endeared Banerjee to his rivals, who talk about his genius for marketing as though it hints at some inherent weakness in his tea. What they don't get is that by developing logos and distinctive packaging, Banerjee made Makaibari into the brand that stands for organic Darjeeling tea, as well as equitable treatment for his workers. And within the first five minutes of meeting the self-styled king of organic tea, it's clear that he could care less about detractors.

“It's difficult to give Raj too much credit, because he loves to take it anyhow,” said Smilley, chuckling. “You'd never use the word humble for Rajah, but basically the guy walks his talk.”

Banerjee's next step may be taking the organic movement off the plantation. Through Organic Ekta (or “Organic Union”), a joint project with U.S.-based Mercy Corps, Makaibari supports around 200 small organic farmers from local communities. Banerjee believes this could be the seed for something much bigger, and plans to branch out from tea and small farms to organic cotton fields and then on to pulses, rice and other Indian staple crops. He doesn't think it will take much. Some 80 percent of India's 800 million marginal farmers practice rain-fed agriculture — which means they have too little water to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In a sense, they're already organic, but they're too poor to capitalize.

“If we get networked strongly to enable the certification of these 640 million people and market their produce at a fair price,” says Banerjee, “then I think we're done: India will be the organic fruit bowl of the world.”

Let that steep for a few moments.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The asses of New Delhi

With a year to go before hosting the Commonwealth Games, Delhi targets the poor. Its donkeys, too.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
November 5, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — At the impromptu stables near Jawarhalal Nehru Marg, on the outskirts of Old Delhi — the Indian capital's 400-year-old core — a group of men in salwar kameez and skullcaps are seated cross-legged in the straw playing cards. A line of stubby-legged ponies and donkeys stretches along the stone wall. The animals ruminate placidly as cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws, horns blaring, race past on the adjacent road.

There are as many as 150 donkeys here and Delhi’s builders still find them useful for ferrying bricks and concrete from demolished building sites. But if New Delhi's plans come to fruition this month, another piece of the city's medieval heritage will disappear, and another group of poor people will be booted out of their homes and jobs.

“The government said they are going to come and take away the donkeys and force us out,” said Mohammad Shakir, a fierce-eyed man in a white kurta whose ancestors have been carters for more than 100 years. “It's not right. We live here. All our families are here. Our forefathers stayed, lived and died here. Our livelihood is here, and our kids go to school around here.”

According to Mohammad Salim, whose father is the leader of the donkey and horse owners, the government has already done a survey of the area and told locals that they must remove all the donkeys and clean up the area.

“Where will they take us and our livelihood and throw us?” Salim demands. “What if it's across the Yamuna River? Our work is here. They moved us all here about 25 years ago, because the government said let all the dirt be in one place. Now they are kicking us in the stomach.”

The donkeys’ owners aren't alone.

Delhi is awash with bukwas – Hindi for nonsense — about the Indian capital's supposed emergence as a “world class city” before the opening ceremony of the 19th annual Commonwealth Games, to be held here beginning from Oct. 3 next year.

Much of the talk centers on whether the city will be ready for the games. But the big question is not whether Delhi will make the deadline, but to what disastrous and wasteful ends it will resort between now and then.

Already, many of the plans strike observers as impractical, poorly thought out, unfair or simply impossible. To start with, in a country where the average person earns less than $1,000 a year, the state will spend upwards of $15 billion to prepare Delhi for the second-tier sports event.

And while much of those funds will go to needed improvements to roads and other infrastructure, critics say the various initiatives suggest the government's plans will make life better for the city's wealthy without doing much good for its long-suffering poor.

The city has promised a “signal free” stretch of costly flyovers and tunnels into the heart of town from Indira Gandhi International Airport, which will only make life more difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists — i.e. those too poor to afford a scooter. While the games venues include mostly public facilities, a hefty sum has been allotted to renovate the Siri Fort Sports Complex, an elite club that is closed to new members. Meanwhile, plans to use the money for athlete housing to construct dormitories that would later be turned over to Delhi University — where the shortage of rooms is more shocking than the state of its libraries — have been scrapped in favor of a scheme that will see the “Games Village” sold off as luxury apartments.

But that's not all. On the way to becoming world class — a feat that a five-minute walk in any neighborhood of the city suggests will take 25 years, not less than one — Delhi also plans to renovate one of its oldest and (though chaotic) most charming areas, sterilize the city's 260,000 stray dogs, stamp out Delhi Belly and send the city's 60,000 destitute beggars packing for parts unknown.

And then there are the infamous donkeys, though it seems the sacred cows get to stay.

For better or worse, though, this is Delhi, not Beijing. So locals are less concerned about the smart of the totalitarian stick than they are cynical about the eventual destination of all that cash. For instance, in Delhi's ancient commercial center Chandni Chowk, a bustling thoroughfare that has remained a top tourist draw since the 17th century despite overwhelming chaos and filth, the government has allotted a paltry $3 million — less than a tenth of what is being spent on some Games venues — to remove dangerous thickets of electrical wires, lay new water and gas lines, and convert the area to a pedestrian-only zone paved with Mughal-era bricks. And residents doubt that even that much will be spent as intended.

“Half of it will go in bribes,” said Chandraprakash Sharma, the 55-year-old owner of a sweet shop started here by his grandfather 80 years ago. “It's good they are doing the Games. But they should also look within themselves and think about the state of the country.”

In less than a year, that's what the rest of the world will be doing. But planners would do well to remember that the world doesn't want New Delhi to be another Beijing. What audiences will be looking for is proof of the moral character and sensitivity of the world's largest democracy — India's “soft power.”

That, and maybe a donkey or two.

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