29 MARCH 2016
Bloodstains on the merry-go-round
The suicide attack in Lahore on Sunday marks a further escalation by extremist groups in Pakistan. At least 72 people were killed, including a large number of children, and over 300 injured in the attack at a popular park where many were out on Easter day. The attack shook one of Pakistan’s most tolerant and cosmopolitan cities. Photographs showed blood-soaked human remains, families of the dead weeping as they held each other, the injured being carried away, and children, bloodied and clearly in shock, lying on hospital beds. The provincial government in Punjab denied that the attack, which was all the more deadly as the bomb was packed with ball bearings, was aimed exclusively at Christians. However, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, underscored its intention to target the minority group. JUA spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan was quoted as saying, “This is a message to the Pakistani Prime Minister that we have arrived in Punjab.” The warning possibly forebodes a creeping wave of extremist violence, witnessed most violently in the attacks on churches and a school in Peshawar in recent years, into the home state of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
There is justifiable alarm over the spread of a narrow, intolerant view of religious minorities in Punjab province and across Pakistan. Sunday’s attack in particular appears to have been timed to capitalise on the anger of ultra-conservative groups at the execution on February 29 of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard-turned-assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Taseer was gunned down in January 2011 for defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman imprisoned and sentenced to death by a court under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. This was the same reason cited for the murder two months later of Shahbaz Bhatti, at the time the only Christian member in the federal cabinet. Earlier this month a rally of more than 100,000 people attended the funeral of Qadri in Rawalpindi, and riot police had to use tear gas to disperse protesters. On Sunday, thousands of supporters of Qadri broke through barricades and began a siege of Islamabad’s high-security Red Zone, where key federal government buildings are located. Their sit-in continued into Monday, to their demand that Qadri be declared a ‘martyr’. It is reported that at a meeting chaired by Pakistan’s Army Chief Raheel Sharif a decision was taken to give the Army and the paramilitary forces special powers in anti-militancy operations in Punjab. It will take more than that. After Sunday’s attack many Pakistanis said on social and mainstream media that to jihadis do not represent all Pakistanis. Yet if Pakistan is to survive this onslaught against soft targets, it must reshape the country’s political system stamp out intolerance of minorities. Or else the carnage in Lahore may be just another atrocity paving the way for extremists to become the dominant voice.
National Awards, pixelated
The announcement of the National Awards brings with it every year the realisation that despite that all-inclusive name, there is more interest in the number of awards won by films of a State, made in the local language. Thus, Tamil Nadu exults over the recognition for Ilaiyaraaja (Best Background Score for Thaarai Thappattai), Kishore Te (Best Editing for Visaranai) and Samuthirakani (Best Supporting Actor for Visaranai). In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh it is a huge matter of pride for Telugu film-lovers that S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning has been declared Best Feature Film. And yet, this parochial chest-thumping does not mitigate the importance of these awards, which are, if nothing else, an annual reminder that Indian cinema is more than just ‘Bollywood’, that there was even a film made last year in the Wancho language spoken by a tribal people in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. There are films being made in Khasi, Bodo, Manipuri, Maithili, Mizo, Konkani, even Sanskrit. There are films being awarded not only for performances and costumes and choreography and technical feats on the other side of the screen, but also for how attuned they are to social issues, to environment conservation and preservation, to the educational and entertainment needs of children. Is there another award body that hands out prizes for Best Children’s Film? Or Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film? Or Best Historical Reconstruction/Compilation Film? Or Best Film-Friendly State?
Critics may argue that there are too many categories, with many awards being handed out with an eye on appeasement rather than quality, for reasons more to do with politics than creativity. But that is perhaps only to be expected — for the National Awards reflect the nation, where several interests need to be balanced for the overall good. Hence the attempt to distribute the riches in a balanced fashion. If there are prizes given to gargantuan Bollywood productions (Bajirao Mastani, Tanu Weds Manu Returns), there is also recognition for Hindi-indie films such as Masaan, made for roughly the cost of a sequin on Deepika Padukone’s Bajirao Mastani costumes. The question that is usually asked at the Oscars — “but did this film really deserve this award?” — is rendered moot by the logistical nightmare the exercise surely is. Imagine picking, say, a winner for Best Lyrics from entries in so many languages, with so many region- and culture-specific allusions, and by jury members who have to rely on English subtitles that convey the essence but rarely the flavour. Still, one has to ask: Did Baahubali really deserve Best Picture? The answer is probably yes, for whatever the cinematic merits of the mega-blockbuster (and there were many), it managed to unite the nation’s movie-watching public as no other film in recent times, across regional State lines, even across the Vindhyas. For the first time, Hindi moviegoers endorsed, to the tune of over Rs.100 crore, a film made by South Indians. If that doesn’t merit a National Award, what does?