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by tjmHolden

2 May 2007

Well, this might give it away at the git-go . . . but some of you are simply going to be quicker than others. It is, after all the nature of things. 

In this land in which I currently sit—the one that you are trying to deduce, the one the I have turned into a puzzle in the process of having traveled to—there are trees no different than those in the land I have just vacated. These regal subjects you would tend to know as “cherry blossoms” (”sakura”, they are called in the land of the now-departed ReDot).

The pictures, above, have these sakura in full flower. That fact tags these photos as dated—or, as I’d prefer, paints them with the taint of artistic license; for, as the botonists among you will immediately grasp, cherry blossom season was in full flower (so to speak) well over 3 weeks ago.

And although some hold-overs and recalcitrants and malingering stubborn few might still be spied in more northerly quarters, by the time I return almost all of these glorious bouquets will have long faded from the frame. Petals pushed to the ground, then swept away by the winds and shopkeep’s bristled brooms.

Such is the inexorable, unforgiving, determinsitic logic of life. For better and worse.


by Farisa Khalid

1 May 2007

Leading men in Bombay film-speak are referred to as “heroes.” The word means something different in India than it does in Hollywood, and when it’s spoken in lilting Hindi, (“heeeero”) it encompasses an entire culture’s vision of unironic idealism and reliability. The men here are not the aggressive Tough Guys of the masala action movies or the earnest Ever Guys in breezy romantic comedies. They’re the handsome matinee idols audiences long to see onscreen, reminders that male beauty is still present in a squalid, fast-paced world.

Matinee idols were a common mainstay of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the arrival of the Kapoor brothers, Raj and Shammi, signaled a new way of looking at the leading man. Influenced by the reigning Hollywood stars of the time (Clark Gable and Cary Grant) Raj Kapoor was a dapper, graceful presence onscreen. His frequent pairing with the enchanting Nargis made them the first iconic screen couple of Indian cinema. But Raj Kapoor’s real contribution was as one of the most innovative and commercially astute directors of all time. Inspired by the Chaplin’s comedic style - a melding of slapstick and the somber - Raj Kapoor directed and starred in

, a Preston Sturges-like on-the-road tale about a rakish Bombay street hustler and the idealistic schoolteacher who longs to reform him.

Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, the hits kept coming: Andaz, Awaara, and Barsaat, to name a few.  By the time Raj Kapoor retired from acting and focused solely on directing in the ‘70s, he revealed an uncanny ability to tap into the desires of the mainstream audience. He knew instinctively the kind of movies people loved to see - unrequited love stories, family melodramas of the love-against-all-odds sort - and was brilliant at making them. It’s not acknowledged as much these days, but the Bollywood of today owes a great deal to the inventiveness Raj Kapoor.  He, more than any other star or filmmaker, knew what a commercial powerhouse it could be.

Raj’s younger brother, Shammi, was a phenomenon in his own right. Few male stars in India have inspired the kind of hysteria that Shammi Kapoor induced when he’d swivel his hips and lip-sync to ‘60s Hindi pop. His Elvis pompadour, arresting attractiveness, and keen comic timing made him the reigning heartthrob of his day: part Ricky Nelson, part Rock Hudson, all verve and masala.

Dev Anand was the one of the early pensive, introspective leading men in Indian cinema. There was a Gregory Peck quality to his steady onscreen presence, particularly when he was serenading his costar with a melancholy ghazal, a controlled, lingering technique he mastered for the camera. It seems easy, but it is really quite difficult for most actors to simply look and be graceful. Dev Anand’s thoughtful performances and his inner sense of grace are rare qualities for most Indian male actors, many of whom are jaded by internalizing the day-to-day grind and hustle of living in Bombay.

Raj Kumar, like Dev Anand, made up the last of a handful of urbane, sophisticated leading men of the ‘50s. Raj Kumar reminds me so much of the great, now relatively unsung, matinee idol of the Hollywood silent era, John Gilbert. The similarities are uncanny—the chiseled, dark handsome, mustached face, the graceful sense of movement, and (in spite of the masculine presence) the almost squeaky, high-pitched voice (what finished poor Gilbert when the studios transitioned to sound). Raj Kumar is more famous now for being glorious arm candy for legendary actresses like Nargis in Mother India and Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (“Pure One”). It was his role in Pakeezah however, as the young nobleman who defies the wrath of his grandfather to defend and marry the woman he loves - a prostitute - that made him beloved to all.  It was the sort of Officer and a Gentleman type part that every sentimentalist roots for and remembers.  He was such a standard in Indian cinema that for years, from the mid ‘50s up until the early ‘70s, he epitomized the quintessential leading man.

Dharmendra was the first movie star to really exude sex appeal. It’s amazing that for the initial 50 years of Indian cinema, the popular leading men were of the elegant, sexless variety. The country’s conservatism preferred safe, reliable men, dapper in tailored kurtas who loftily recited Urdu love poetry and with quivering, feigned passion, railed about defending the family izzat (“honor”). But the by the late ‘60s, things loosened up as India joined the Sexual Revolution. Mia Farrow and The Beatles rocked out with the Maharishi, bras came off, pants fit tighter, Bollywood actresses frolicked in bikinis, and Dharamendra burst onto the movie scene with the charisma of Marlon Brando - simmering male sensuality. Physical presence aside, Dharmendra’s appeal was also that of a deft comedian, his earthy Punjabi rustic humor added playfulness and vitality to his movies, Sholay (“Flames”) and Seeta aur Geeta (“Seeta and Geeta”). Both starred his wife, Hema Malini). Even in his most conventional he-man roles, Dharmendra’s intelligence shines through to reveal a sly, vulpine knowingness behind the movie star smile.

Hrithik Roshan, one the most talented leading man of the last ten years, has been in danger of not being taken seriously simply because of his appearance—his green eyes, his lithe six-foot-something frame, his alabaster complexion and his chiseled, Greek sculpture features. He’s just too handsome to be true (He’s the real life embodiment of what Derek Zoolander deems, “really, really, ridiculously good looking”).  His debut film, the masala modern-day mythological revenge saga, Kaaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000, “Say This is Love”) stunned audiences with the presence of an actor who possessed the kind of kilowatt glamour rarely seen in most stars. On top of it all, his dancing abilities are the best of any Indian star before him.  The Fred Astaire-fluidity of his movements is so deft and graceful that Hrithik Roshan seems like a special effect, a celluloid phantom darting across the screen.

Saif Ali Khan was born into talent and glamour.  His parents represent everything rich and exciting about India: his mother, the celebrated ‘60s starlet, Sharmila Tagore, a descendant of India’s great national scribe and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and his father, “Tiger” Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and a prince who can trace his lineage back to the Mughals. It’s easy for any child of such illustrious parentage to become intimidated or complacent, and subsumed into anonymity within the family legacy, but Saif Ali Khan has carved out a niche for himself as an interesting and intelligent actor. After several mediocre, smiling, handsome-young-man parts, he struck gold with Parineeta (2005, “The Bride”) as the wealthy, spoiled son of an industrialist growing into his own humanity. He played the sinister Iago figure in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006) with the perfect amount of sexual charisma and malice, and more recently, the reluctant heir to a Rajasthani kingdom-state who finds himself reevaluating his morals to protect his father in Eklavya (2007).

Though the actors in this group are all unequivocally good-looking and charming, none of them are predictable. They’ve resisted the banal conventionality that can come with being an attractive star by broadening their range as actors, playing villains, losers, men difficult to tolerate or forgive. The entire country looks to them as a source of unwavering heroism, so venturing into challenging acting material is a bold risk that usually means.

Raj Kapoor, ‘50s

Shammi Kapoor, ‘60s

Dev Anand, ‘50s

Dharmendra in Yaadon ki Baaraat, circa late 70s

Hrithik Roshan, circa 2000

Saif Ali Khan, Parineeta, 2005

by Rob Horning

1 May 2007

Daniel Gross raised an interesting point in a Slate column about bottled water:

Bottled water’s swift transformation from glass-encased luxury good to déclassé, plastic-wrapped menace was entirely predictable. Over the past century, we’ve seen numerous examples of products that, so long as they were available only to a select few, were viewed by those elites as brilliant, life-improving developments: the automobile, coal-generated electricity, air conditioning. But once companies figured out how to make them available to the masses, the elites suddenly condemned them as dangerous and socially destructive.
So long as only a few people were drinking Evian, Perrier, and San Pellegrino, bottled water wasn’t perceived as a societal ill. Now that everybody is toting bottles of Poland Spring, Aquafina, and Dasani, it’s a big problem.

This illustrates why environmental politics tends to be a loser at the ballot box. It often plays out as a luxury only the effete elite can afford (latte liberals, etc.) and the Republicans are quick to exploit that sense that supporting environmental causes is an attempt to crash a party you weren’t really invited to. The dynamic Gross notes here is what makes it so easy to reconfigure environmental concerns as an alibi for It also illustrates why a conservative notion like conservation (note the etymological similarity) has no hold in American conservatism, which has come to rely on anti-elitist, quasireligious populism. 

That said, bottled water is wasteful and it augments a coming public-goods problem, when bottled-water drinkers decide it is not such an important priority to maintain safe, clean drinking water in the public system as our drinking-water infrastructure decays.

by Rob Horning

1 May 2007

In the course of an argument about income and substitution effects between economists Greg Mankiw and Robert Frank playing out on Mankiw’s blog, Frank raises the notion of context externalities, which I thought was a helpful way of reframing the question I keep coming back to of whether there’s a route to a more direct (a.k.a. “authentic”) experience of consumption, and if that route is even desirable.

As decades of behavioral evidence clearly demonstrates, virtually every evaluation is heavily shaped by local context. As Richard Layard put it, “In a poor society a man proves to his wife that he loves her by giving her a rose, but in a rich society he must give a dozen roses.” Because evaluation drives consumer choice, context is an important determinant of consumer demand. The upshot is that almost every consumer choice generates significant context externalities.
Consider, for example, a job applicant’s decision about how much to spend on an interview suit. His goal is to make a favorable impression. But his ability to do so depends far less on the absolute quality of his suit than on how it compares with those worn by other applicants. And when he spends more on a suit, he shifts the context within which other candidates will be evaluated.

Context externalities are pervasive. A good school, for instance, is one that compares favorably with other schools in the same local environment. The amount parents must spend to ensure that their children attend such a school is thus an increasing function of the amounts spent by other parents. The evaluations that guide an employer’s promotion decisions are similarly dependent on context. A worker’s odds of promotion depend less on his absolute performance than on how well he performs relative to his coworkers.

The dependence of evaluation on context lays waste to any presumption that individual decisions about how many hours to work or how much to spend on interview suits will be socially optimal. The general result predicted by theory is that if context shapes evaluation more heavily in some domains than others, too many resources will flow to the most context-sensitive domains and too few to the least context-sensitive domains.

I put in bold the sentence that started me thinking about whether there is anyway to disrupt that evaluation process and thereby restore a sense of agency to the individual (one’s consumerism would no longer be a matter beyond one’s personal control) while snuffing out these externalities. Those with an undying faith in the sovereignty of the individual might argue that a force of will is sufficient to put an end to such evaluation, that personal weakness is what drives invidious comparison. This has the ring of common sense (“What do you care what anyone else thinks? Why are you so insecure?”), but the fact that it seems like common sense should be enough to make us wonder how ideologically driven the reaction is.

Anyway I need to read further to see what solutions have been devised to control these externalities, and whether or not they are battling human nature itself.

by tjmHolden

1 May 2007

This is getaway week. The time when just about everyone in the country in which I live goes off to explore, experience, exploit, and exhume the esoteric and exotic, moving into and through places they normally don’t traverse. Perhaps it really ought to be called “X Time”, but it’s not.

Instead, it goes by the moniker “Golden Week” and golden it is—as it is a period in which 4 national holidays are strategically linked with a couple of weekends to form nearly 10 days of free time. And if one displays a little moxie, has accrued some on-the-job brownie points, and is in possession of an understanding boss, then a strategic sick day or two can transform this fortnight into a truly golden time, indeed.

If so, and strung together as an undivided whole, Golden Week enables Japanese to reconnect with the idea that they might actually be alive. Imagine that. Something more than automatons who are accorded a mere 18 paid days off per year—but hey: enough to rank them ahead of the paltry entitlements of fellow Asian work-a-holics residing in Hong Kong (7 days), Singapore (7 days), Taiwan (7 days), and South Korea (10 working days).

Be thankful for small favors. Count your blessings. Luck to the fortunate. Whatever works.


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