Monday, January 23, 2006

Munich- A fine but biased movie

Since George's review on Steven Spielberg's latest offering is going to take a while, I thought I may jot down some of my 2 pence thoughts on Munich. Spielberg does have a knack of overdoing things , his previous oscar winning efforts Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List are cases in point, where the scenes of grotesque violence were unbearably long. Thankfully, in this movie he does not harp on the atrocities as much but rather concentrates more on the characters and drama, which is quite intriguing. The backdrop of all that subsequently unfolds in the movie is the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre in which 11 Israeli atheletes were taken hostage and then gunned down by Palestinian revolutionaries. This action played out in all its horror on TV the world over galvanised the Israeli establishment into taking matters in their own hands. Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of CIA, formed hit squads to assassinate all those who were behind the events at Munich. One such hit-squad has Avner (Eric Bana), the story's main protagonist. Rest of the movie is about how Avner and his fellow Mossad agents go about their mission.

A high point of the movie is its realistic portrayal of the events under study. The story has all the elements of a highly charged spy thriller and there are some moments of pure adrenaline rush, but for the most part the movie underplays those sequences and concentrates more on the fate of protagonists. The story is told from the point of view of Avner, who develops a crisis of conscience while carrying out his hatchet job and according to the movie with good reasons. No matter how one interprets the events unfolding on screen, Israel and Mossad come out as villains. For example, most of the palestinian "terrorists" depicted in the movie come across as affable, academic, family men whose only crime seems to be that they are voicing the palestinian cause. They are never shown or even hinted at causing voilent terrorist activities. It is never clear whether those people were actually involved in the terrorist acts or were they merely part of the political arm of Palestinian organizations. The movie does more than hint that Mossad is using Avner and his group as mere pawns to eliminate everybody they perceive as threats- past or future. Towards the end Avner gets disillusioned with Mosaad as well as Israel and refuses to go back to Israel inspite of pleas from his Mossad boss. Unlike the audience, he is convinced that Israel is evil. No wonder pro-Israel groups are up in arms against this film, a fact which no doubt is going to hamper its prospects in the awards season inspite of movie's technical merits.

Its anti-Israel bias not withstanding, Munich is still a finely crafted piece of work which deserves a viewing. The work is largely based on a book, so any biases are probably inherited from there. To this day, Israel has not accepted existence of any assassination squads, a denial which is hard to reconcile with the sudden emergence of body bags containing Palestinian leaders in the aftermath of Munich. Spielberg enhances his reputation as a master story teller. His Munich is a fine effort in bringing one of the most long standing disputes in contemporary politics into mainstream Hollywood's focus.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Most Valuable Three Dollars

A lot of money is not likely to buy anybody love or happiness, a mere three dollars even less so. Friday, however, was one of the those rare days when those lowly three dollars-that too not my own- bought me immense satisfaction. The reason for this unexpected good fortune was an unscheduled visit to the local public library, which was having a book sale selling some eminently likeabale titles for little over hundred cents. A cursory browse at the biographies section yielded two gems - Abraham Pais's scholarly biography of Einstein 'Subtle is the Lord' and James Gleick's biography of Feynman 'Genius-The Life and Science of Richard Feynman'. I had never been happier parting with three dollar bills, not even after devouring a yummie Brownie Fudge Sunday at Steak & Shake.

Getting the books, even at such throwaway prices, is the easy part, actually getting down to read them is where the challenge really lies. Unfortunately, this is a challenge which I do not wish to undertake any time soon especially with regard to these books which apart from being scholarly biographies are semi-technical journal articles as well lasting well in excess of 400 pages. For now I will not let that worry me. I am just happy to possess these classics much like a vintage car collector who is happy to own some valuable cars without ever testing how they may actually drive.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Politics in Education

Government of India has passed 104th amendment to the constitution. This amendment overrides the supreme court judgement prohibiting government interference in the workings of privately run educational institution mainly pertaining to the question of reservations for minorities. The new amendment makes it mandatory for all non-minority privately run educational institutions(profit or non-profit) to reserve seats for minority students. Interestingly, minority run educational institutions have been exempted from the law. The motivation for such a law is obvious- politics of votes. Typically, politicians of all hue take up a socially important issue and instead of providing sensible, lasting solutions come up with ideas which are populist and more often than not do more harm than good. This really is the nature of profession of politics. There are a number of things which are wrong with a law of this kind, not least among these is its ineffectivenss-

1) At an ideological level this law is contrary to the principles of free-markets, less government controls and more economic freedom to individuals, which India is trying so hard to embrace. Privatley run educational institutions are like any other business. They are into it for the primary purpose of making money. This government decree is a direct hit on their potential profitability. The likely result is going to be a slowdown in the private investments in higher education meaning less colleges than there could have been and in extreme cases, a shutdown of some colleges because they are no longer profitable. In this day and age where India needs as much investment in education as it can get this law is a backward step.

2) Very interestingly, minority run educational institutions have been exempt from this law! This means educational institutions run by christian or muslim organisations do not fall under this law. At a basic level, this is discrimination against a particular section of population, mainly the majority and at a deeper level it is an assault on the fundamental right of individuals to form associations. The amendment implies that a hindu can not form a Hindu educational institution open only to Hindus whereas Muslims can form a muslim university open only to muslims. It is another ironic example in a "free democratic secular" India, where different laws apply to different sections of population fueling resentment and segregation sentiments.

3) A law like this is not likely to be effective in a country like India where everybody belongs to a minority of some kind. It is very easy to evade this regulation on paper. What we are going to see is a rush by for-profit institutions to register themselves as minority run institutions, which are exempt.

Problems of a society are rarely solved by active government regulations. An imaginative government would try to tackle the problem in ways consistent with the ideology of free-markets. A privately run business needs to be provided with incentives for contributing to higher social goals. For example, government can provide tax credits to an institution which actively engages in affirmative action, earmark funds for institutions which provide aid to poor students or encourage US style student loan markets. There are far better ways to tackle social problems but unfortunately in politics short term political gains almost always take precedence over sensible effective policies.