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Parmesh's ViewFinder
Published: Volume 17, Issue 12, December, 2009

A New Year Full Of Verve....
PARMESH SHAHANI reports from Mysore and New York City

Last year at this time our lives had changed forever. As with everything else it has endured, Mumbai got back on its feet, but for those of us who lost friends and loved ones, something changed after these particular terror attacks. Everyone internalises tragedies differently, but for me personally, I decided to value each moment and try and live it to the fullest. I also resolved to look for the good and the positive among all that was out there in the world. My final resolution was to seek knowledge; in an environment that was in constant flux, knowledge was the one true luxury, I decided. I am happy to report that these resolutions, unlike ones from previous years, have stood me well through 2009. In fact, much of my busy social calendar in November was spurred by these resolutions.

First up was the TED India conference in Mysore. Any TED is a transformative experience, and given that this was being held in India for the first time, my expectations were sky high. I was not disappointed. I felt incredibly lucky when I was selected to attend as a TED Fellow, one of 100 individuals chosen from around the world for their future potential, but it was terribly intimidating when I actually met the other members of this group in Mysore, especially old college mates like Rikin Gandhi. Now, the last time I saw Rikin was in 2005, at breakfast on a frosty April morning at the cheap and cheerful Sunny’s Diner in Boston. Then he was all set to join the US air force as a fighter pilot after completing his MIT Masters in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, with the eventual aim of becoming an astronaut. A chance visit to India some months later led him on a Swades-like journey of self-discovery, and from setting his sights way up in the sky, Rikin found his calling down to earth, in rural India.

At TED, Rikin spoke simply but passionately about the non-profit that he has founded - Digital Green – which spreads agricultural information to small farmers in India through video, and ultimately aims to cover thousands of villages all over India and enable hundreds of thousands of farmers to overcome poverty. This was a very different Rikin from the one I knew. “Is it easy,” I asked him, “to give up a dream for something larger?” He replied that it isn’t but there are some things in life that we do, because we must.

Each of the other Fellows I met in Mysore was equally awe-inspiring – whether it was Olympic sailor Rohini Rau, 18-year-old inventor Ashutosh Patra, Ambulance Access for All founder Shafi Mather or Nigerian lawyer-activist Peace Anyiam-Osigwe. The work they do is changing the world. Their spirit energised mine. Our bonding experiences include loud songs till 4 a.m. on the Infosys campus; memories that will soon become legend via Facebook reminiscing and real world meet-ups whenever we visit each other’s cities.

I must say that I felt quite proud of the innovation coming out of my grad school. Rikin was just one example; the conference showcased many other examples of MIT work that were being produced by Indians or directed towards India. Professor Pavan Sinha of project Prakash (providing eyesight for curably bright children) and Media Lab wunderkind Pranav Misry lived up to their hype (see Pranav’s talk online at www.ted.com on how his Sixth Sense technology will change the way you use gestures to connect with the world around you). However in general, I found most of the big name speakers to be flops, and these included people I had eagerly been waiting to see, like C K Prahalad, R A Mashelkar, Tony Hsieh, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, Shashi Tharoor, Banny Banerjee and Hans Rosling. Instead the speakers that I loved the most were names I had never heard of earlier, like photographer Ryan Lobo, with his eerily calm talk on forgiveness accompanied by haunting images from Africa, or Anil Gupta from the Honeybee innovation network, or Anupam Mishra, who spoke of ancient water systems in rural Rajasthan, or 16-year-old school headmaster Babar Ali, from Bengal, who I had the privilege of sharing breakfast with on my first morning in Mysore.

Each conference has a unique soul, a sur that vibrates through it and it is often not what the organisers intend it to be. In the case of TED, I gauged this sur to be woman-power and social change. The most memorable stories for me were about women innovating against all odds and their capacity to heal themselves, forgive others and inspire multitudes. Kiran Bir Sethi (Riverside school), Kavita Ramdas (Global Fund for Women), Mallika Sarabhai and Eve Ensler gave riveting talks. But the undisputed star of TED India was a diminutive lady called Sunitha Krishnan. If there is just one talk that you see online, make sure that it is this one. Sunitha’s talk did not have a fancy presentation or dazzling technology. She spoke from the heart, and without resorting to any isms. Yet, within 18 minutes, there was not a single person in the audience who did not have tears in their eyes.

Gang raped by eight men when she was 15, Sunitha could have remained a victim. Instead she has become an anti-trafficking superhero. Her foundation Prajwala has rescued over 3000 young girls from sexual slavery to date, and provided them with shelter, education and job training, often against very difficult odds. The tears that audience members shed that afternoon were not tears of compassion, but of admiration because despite her struggles, it was Sunitha’s optimistic spirit that shone through.

When Sunitha finished speaking, something magical happened. Young entrepreneur Rose Shuman from the audience raised her hand and spontaneously pledged 10,000 dollars to Sunitha so that she could start a permanent shelter for Prajwala, if eight other people would do the same. Almost immediately, more than twenty hands went up in the air. Within an hour Google had offered employment to Sunitha’s children. By the end of the day, several TED India attendees had committed over hundred thousand dollars; others were planning trips to Prajwala so that they could donate their time in helping out in whichever way possible.

TED India was all about this kind of celebratory sharing. When one shares, one feels immense joy. There were many joyful spontaneous outbursts at TED. In my memory, Sunitha’s standing ovation blurs into the audience members singing ‘We are the world’ with Usha Utup on day one, which in turn blurs into everyone taking to the floor for coordinated Bollywood dancing alongside choreographer Longinus at the palace party on day two. The dancing continued in the conference aisles on day three, as Sivamani pounded away on empty water bottles, suitcases, brass knick knacks and oh, occasionally, some drums….

But by then I was gone, jiggying my way saat samundar paar in a jetlagged haze to New York. It was time for the 9th annual Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival or MIAAC as it is popularly known (Do see the fun pictures from the event in our Pomp section at the end of the magazine). I have been fascinated with this festival for the past few years, because it is several things all at once – a space for entertainment to mix with patriotism for the viewers, a venue for American and Indian corporate sponsors brands to try their globalisation strategies, a platform that enables conversations between Indian and diasporic filmmakers through their films and also through their physical presence in New York city. As with previous years, I was particularly interested in observing how the hyphen in the very word Indo-American connected several things, including Mumbai, LA and New York, by imagination and how the festival was in fact nurturing an independent Indian cinema community using different circuits from institutions like the IFFI festival, that is held in Goa each year.

AT MIAAC, I was also impressed by the different concurrent tracks within the larger event. Business related panels hosted at HBO’s Times Square offices, were sold out. There was also a concurrent academic track at New York University, with discussions that ranged from The State of the Indian Screenplay to Queer Bollywood. It was a comprehensive week of exploring the different aspects of global Indian cinema. Just like at TED, what impressed me most at MIAAC was not the work by the old masters like Shyam Benegal (Well Done Abba) and Sudhir Mishra (Tera Kya Hoga Johnny) but the unknown names. Both the films of the two debutante directors who stole the show at MIAAC deal with my beautiful city of Mumbai.

Deepti Naval’s simple Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish paints a memorable tale of the intertwining lives of an ageing prostitute, her wheelchair-bound son and a gay lyricist, and it was by far the audience favourite in New York, with two houseful screenings. Joseph Mathew-Varghese’s Bombay Summer, another intertwining story of three artist friends in Bombay city, swept away most awards including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress (the electrifying Tannishtha Chatterjee – watch out for her, next year is going to be her year). The journey of how both these films got made is interesting. One is made by a director who has lived all her life in Bombay. The other is by an America based desi. But both have pitch perfect surs. Clearly authenticity is no longer the sole domain of the homeland. The diaspora can create authentic experiences too, and these need not be limited to the immigrant experience (as Aasif Mandvi’s sweet, but light opening night film Today’s Special was, at MIAAC), but instead can reach outwards and capture more complex physical and emotional geographies of the home country in a wonderfully nuanced way.

My heart continued to swell with diasporic pride a few days later, when I attended the New York Academy of Sciences Gala, which was presided over by new friend Ellis Rubinstein. This was a sexy, glamorous event held at Cipriani, that honoured R K Pachauri – the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi for their varied contributions in positively transforming our world. They weren’t the only Indians to win awards that night – post doc researchers like Sreekanth Chalasani from the Rockefeller Foundation also received a Blavatnik award for their work.

Last December, I had stated that Verve should tap into the spirit of Fearless Nadia as we tackle the challenges of 2009. I have sensed this spirit within all the inspirational women and men that I encountered last month and it is making me very excited for the kind of world that we are going to build in 2010 and beyond. Sunitha Krishnan, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Indra Nooyi, Rikin Gandhi are just a few fearless people, who are conquering life on their own terms, activating their limitless potential and serving as role models for others, in India and for the rest of the world. This is what it means to have verve, and what I wish most for our dear readers as we enter 2010. May this be a year in which we all reconnect to the verve within ourselves, and within others.

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