Monday, April 5 2021

This was an own-goal, we’re unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan…. The tweet did not receive proper scrutiny. We need to hold ourselves to an extremely high accuracy bar at all times, and that is especially so when we are criticizing the comments of others.

That’s Amazon sheepishly apologizing to a US member of Congress for attacking him on Twitter. Mark Pocan had pointed out that many Amazon workersunder pressure to meet delivery timesoften pee into water bottles to save time. Amazon’s handle aggressively pooh-poohed Pocan, only to later acknowledge that he was indeed rightbut only after an Intercept investigation unearthed internal documents that confirmed the embarrassing fact. The main culprit for this debacle: Jeff Bezos, as Vox explains. Also: Why thin-skinned multi-billionaires tend to be crap at PR.

Big Story

So long Oscars, hellooo Bhaskars!

The TLDR: Okay, there is no summary for this one. You’ll just have to come along for the ride, and we promise that it will end in a super-fun destination. 


The great hubris of the Oscars

Back in the 1980s, the Academy claimed that 1 billion people around the world watched the Oscars every yearan outlandish number that paid little regard to the number of TV sets in the world, the number of countries where the show aired, or even minor obstacles like time zone differences. 


In 2020, the same awards ceremony barely drew 24 million eyeballs even in the United States.  But none of this has stopped the Academy from awkwardly calling itself “the world's preeminent movie-related organization.”


Of course, 2020 was also the year when ‘Parasite’ became the first foreign-language film to win best pictureand its director Bong Joon-Ho hilariously shrugged off the awards, saying: “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” Aww, snap!


So are the Oscars truly global?

Sure: if you view the Academy as part of Hollywood. The top 20 box office hits in history are all Hollywood flicks, which draw the greatest global audiencemore so than any movie out of India, China etc. So yeah, the movies honoured by the Oscars do indeed “connect the world” as the Academy claims.


Also, yes: if you consider how much money Hollywood makes from its overseas markets. As of 2017, a whopping 60% of its revenue was global.


OTOH, are the Oscars parochial?

Yup: if you consider that both the nominations and final winners are picked by members of the Academy—who are mostly men, mostly white, and mostly American. 


  • At the top sits an executive board of governorswith just one Black man and one Chinese-origin woman. 
  • The committees for specific fields—direction, acting, editing etcwield considerable power, and are again mostly lily pale and LA-centred. 
  • Finally, of its 9,412 members, 33% are women and 19% belong to ethnic or racial minorities. And that’s a big improvement achieved over just the last two years—thanks to a big push on diversity. 
  • Of the 819 new invitees to the Academy in 2020, 49% were from overseas—including, FYI, Hrithik Roshan and Alia Bhat (yay?). 


But for all that, the Academy remains a white American male bastion of privilege—which then results in a gaping diversity problem in the Oscars lineup. Non-diverse voters tend to make insular choicesand that isn’t rocket science.


Also, yes: If you consider how many people around the world actually get the opportunity to watch the Oscar nominees. Last year, studios mostly didn’t bother to release their Oscar-worthy movies either in theatres around the world, or even on a global streaming platform—and in a pandemic year when some of the biggest blockbusters went straight to streaming.


And now with just weeks to go for the ceremony, they are being rolled out in haste—as a cursory nod to their global credentials. Here’s when Indians could see some of this year’s hottest contenders for best films:


  • ‘The Father’: No release date available in India.
  • ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’: theatrical release only, March 5
  • ‘Nomadland’: theatrical release only, April 2 
  • ‘Minari’: theatrical release only, April 16


Point to note: FYI, you can watch ‘Nomadland’ on Hulu in Detroit or Dallas, but better be ready to rush out and brave the corona if you want to watch in Delhi.


And all this adds up to….???

A couple of interesting questions—which we (maybe) mulled over a drink or two.


One: Shouldn’t a supposedly global award ceremony honour movies that have actually been watched by a global audiencenot mainly by folks in America? 


Two: What would the nominees look like if they were picked by an audience that actually watches stuff from around the world? Rather than a mostly American group of Academy members with their, er, unique viewing biases?


And that audience would be?

Indian, of course! We’re not claiming that we Indians are the world (wait, maybe we are! lol). But we certainly boast a far more cosmopolitan taste for entertainment. 


  • Just see Netflix’s lineup for what scored big here in 2020 (apart from Indian content): ‘Money Heist’ (Spanish), ‘Extraction’ (US), ‘The King: Eternal Monarch’, ‘Kingdom Season 2’, ‘It's Okay to Not Be Okay’, and ‘Start-up’ (all South Korea), ‘The Protector’ (Turkey). 
  • Even our taste in documentaries is diverse: ‘Bad Boy Billionaires’, ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘Money Heist: The Phenomenon’.
  • And 80% of Indian Netflix subscribers watched at least one movie a week—the highest in the world! See? We totally heart movies of all kinds!
  • In comparison, here is the US list: ‘Cocomelon’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, ‘Tiger King’, ‘Ozark’, ‘Outer Banks’, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, ‘The Umbrella Academy’, ‘Unsolved Mysteries’, ‘Cobra Kai’. 
  • Actually, if you compare the Indian hits with the top ten of any other Western country, we kick ass in terms of sheer global diversity.


Also this: We spend our hard-earned money to make sure we get as many choices as possible. Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar accounted for almost 80% of subscription revenues in the country! One big reason: Foreign content. And Hollywood's share of India box office revenue has been increasing by leaps and bounds. Another survey showed that 9 in 10 Indian moviegoers enjoy both Hollywood and Hindi/regional moviesand eight out of ten are upset they have to wait for months before they can watch the hottest Hollywood flicks (paging Los Angeles!).


Lol! Ok, I see where you’re going with this…

Yes, you guessed it! How about a new kind of global award to honour the best of 2020chosen by global Indians? We’re not doing the anti-Oscars or the alterna-Oscars but…


<big ass drum roll, please!>


The Bhaskars!

The best global movies, series, actors and directors nominated and chosen by Indians! C’mon, how cool is that?


Wait, why are we doing this? 

Because we are willing to bet that the results will be way more interesting, unexpected and wide-ranging than anything a bunch of Academy members can come up with. Also: it will be sooo much fun!!


Hahaha, ok fine, I’ll play....

Excellent! Here’s how it works.


Categories: Only eight to preserve everyone’s sanity: Best Movie, Best Series, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay. 


Criteria: Only movies and series that drew a global audience in 2020. So a lot of Bollywood and other regional movies or series won’t qualifysince they’re overwhelmingly watched by Indians. Unlike the Oscars—and in keeping with our own proud tradition of lingual diversity—the Bhaskars are NOT limited to English-language movies or series.


Nomination round: Fill out this Google form to vote for your list of nominees. If you think something truly amazing is missing, write it in under ‘other’. 


Please note: To eliminate duplicate votingand rigging, chee chee!you will have to log in using your Gmail account. But we DO NOT collect email addresses!!


Also important: Feel free to share the link widely to as many people you want. More votes the better. 


The winning round: kicks off on April 12 when everyone votes for the winner in each category.

The winners are… We will announce the winners on April 24 at a virtual Bhaskars award ceremony. No, sadly there will be no red carpet or even Zoom acceptance speeches. But we will be couriering a beautiful Bhaskar to each one of the winners to cherish (and maybe take a selfie with?). Nope, we’re not kidding. We are 100% all in on the Bhaskars, baby!

The bottomline: We all need something fresh and fun to jolt us out of these neverending pandemic blues! The Bhaskars are exactly what the doctor ordered! We hope you will enjoy this grand experiment as much as we plan to!

Sanity Break #1

This gorgeously immersive New York Times interactive feature offers a wonderful introduction to a 17th century miniature painting of Shah Jahan. This art history lesson is a sheer delight! PS: Some people took offence to the accompanying text.

Headlines that matter

A bloody attack in Chhattisgarh

Twenty two jawans were killedand 31 injuredafter a four-hour battle with Maoists. This is the highest death toll imposed by the militias since April 2017. Here’s what we know about what went wrong:


  • It started as a massive security operationinvolving five teams and 2000 personneltargeting two districts: Bijapur and Sukma.
  • They were told that a highly wanted Maoist leader Hidma was in the forests, along with a large number of rebels. 
  • But when the security forces arrived in the area, there was nothing there. One jawan says: “Both the villages were emptied out and we realised too late that something was wrong.”
  • As they decided to turn back, the soldiers were ambushed by 250 Maoistswho had them trapped along two kilometres of forest.
  • Most security sources are convinced that the entire exercise was a trap: “We are being played. The kind of fire we came under, and the positions they took, show it was well-planned. They knew we would find nothing at the spot, and would return. When our team did, they were waiting, with very little escape route for our men.”
  • Now, there are accusations of intelligence failure and poor leadershipwith security experts alleging that standard operating procedures were not followed during the operation.
  • The Telegraph and Indian Express have the most details.


A dizzying rise in India numbers

The daily new cases have breached the 100,000 mark—making India only the second country to do so after the United States. We now have the highest daily total in the world. Our previous peak was 97,894 in September. The government blames the crisis on a collapse of all social distancing. It is also expediting the rollout of Sputnik V—the Russian vaccine, which was recently denied emergency authorisation due to concerns about its storage.


Meanwhile in Maharashtra: The numbers have crossed 57,000, and the government has imposed the strictest lockdown since the early months of the pandemic. Apart from a night curfew, all restaurants and bars will be closed except for delivery. There will be a total lockdown over the weekend. All schools are closed, as are malls. Times of India has more. Also in Maharashtra: Akshay Kumar and Govinda tested positive.


Meanwhile, at the IPL: The cricket board is determined to hold IPL matches in Wankhede despite the lockdown in Maharashtra. President Sourav Ganguly says: “Lockdown in a way will be better since not many people will be around. So it will be restricted to few people who will undergo regular tests inside the bio-bubble.” Not helping the cause: An increasing number of cricketers who are testing positive, including Axar Patel.


Bad news for Covaxin: Brazil blocked the import of India-made Covaxin—accusing Bharat Biotech of violating good manufacturing norms. This is likely to make it harder for the company to get approvals from the WHO and other countries. OTOH, closer to home, Covaxin got the okay to test a booster shot to be administered six months after the initial jab.


Two good Covid reads: This thread on a Ken story flagging the rising number of cases of liver failure due to people taking herbal supplements to fight Covid. Also: New York Times looks at whether vaccinated people can spread the disease. TLDR: we don’t know yet.


A political crisis in Jordan

The former crown prince Hamzah bin Hussein—the half-brother of King Abdullah—has been placed under house arrest. And he released a video claiming that this is part of a campaign to crack down on dissent and silence his criticism of the government’s corruption and incompetence. The government, in turn, has accused him of conspiring to destabilise the country. BBC News has details on the Prince, while Axios has more on the government’s response.


Yet another Facecbook data leak

The user data for 533 million users—including 6 million Indians—is freely available online. It includes phone numbers, Facebook IDs, full names, locations, birthdates, bios, and—in some cases—email addresses. The data was scraped back in 2019—before Facebook fixed a hole in its security. Even though the data is old, it can still be misused in cyber scams. According to security experts:


“[F]rom a security standpoint, there's not much Facebook can do to help users affected by the breach since their data is already out in the open—but he added that Facebook could notify users so they could remain vigilant for possible phishing schemes or fraud using their personal data.”


Business Insider has more details.


In other tech-related news: TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has gone to court to challenge the Indian government’s decision to freeze its bank accounts—which were blocked last week as part of a tax evasion probe. The company told the court that the action amounts to unlawful harassment. Point to note: thanks to the freeze, none of ByteDance’s 1,335 employees in India have been paid their March salaries. According to the company, authorities acted without any material evidence and gave no prior notice before such “drastic action.” Point to remember: The government banned TikTok right after the clashes with China in Ladakh last year. (Reuters)


A mummy parade in Cairo

The government put on a multimillion-dollar spectacle to transport 22 mummies—18 kings and four queens—which was dubbed The Pharaohs' Golden Parade. They were moved five kilometres from the Egyptian Museum to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. Famous ancient royals like King Ramses II were “carried on a decorated vehicle fitted with special shock-absorbers and surrounded by a motorcade, including replica horse-drawn war chariots.” BBC News has more details. See it below:


Also a spectacle: The world’s highest railway bridge, which will be completed today. The half-a-kilometre arch over the Chenab river in Kashmir cost Rs 14 billion (1,400 crore) and required a special 900-metre long cable crane made especially for this project—and is said to be the tallest in the world. Indian Express has more on this incredible (and controversial) achievement. See the bridge below: 


Two lying things

One: China has rolled out a propaganda musical set in Xinjiang—inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster ‘La La Land’. Conspicuously absent in the movie titled ‘The Wings of Songs’: detention camps, mosques or veils—even though half the ethnic residents of Xinjiang are Muslim. Example: the Uighurs. The movie instead is all about idyllic idealism:


“The movie... focuses on three men from different ethnic groups dreaming of the big time as they gather musical inspiration across cultures in the snow-capped mountains and desertscapes of the vast region.”


Two: Remember the Bihar farmer who was cultivating hop shoots—the most expensive veggie in the world? He even got himself props from IAS officers and an entire spread in a newspaper. A Dainik Jagran investigation reveals that he is a total fraud. The only crops he’s ever cultivated are black rice and wheat. (NDTV)


A very ill-tempered octopus

A geologist was attacked by an angry octopus not once, but twice! First, it lashed out at him when he tried to take a video of it in shallow waters. Then this happened:


“Then, after setting up his family in a sun protection tent, he put on some goggles and went into the water alone to explore crab shells. Once he was swimming, the octopus found him again and used its arms to lunge at Karlson, who felt a forceful sting across his neck and back.”


Why this is astonishing: Octopuses are generally shy animals, according to experts: “It's very unusual for an octopus to be aggressive like this but they have clear personalities, and you could describe this one as irritable or reactive.” Like we said, a cranky octopus. See the clip below:


Sanity Break #2

This is a lovely song by Kolkata-based acoustic band Fiddler’s Greencomposed in the midst of Bengal’s election seasonwarning of the perils of communalism.

Smart & Curious

A list of good reads

  • The Guardian offers a colourful account of what may have gone wrong with Ever Givenincluding Egypt-mandated pilots (to guide the ships) who often “must be ‘lubricated’ with cartons of Marlboro and goodies… leading to another crew nickname for Suez: the Marlboro canal.”
  • Also in The Guardian: Salman Rushdie writes on the 40th anniversary of ‘Midnight’s Children’and takes a grim view of the state of our nation.
  • In Level: The six most annoying job interview questions.
  • Will Burrard-Lucas in Atlas Obscura writes of the hunt to photograph the black panther and “the challenge of capturing something almost impossible to see.”
  • Is longer sex necessarily better sex? A sexologist offers answers in Well+Good.
  • Long Reads has a lovely essay on the reunion between John and Paulfive years after the Beatles broke up.
  • Vanity Fair has a delicious read on the case of the acrobatic and elusive book thieves in London.
  • The Atlantic has a thought-provoking essay on the real roots of midlife crisisand what the vast body of literature tells us.
  • MIT Technology Review looks at the consequences of millions of young women using face filters to alter their appearance. 
  • Hackers in China are breaking into home security cameras to get intimate footage and sell them as home sex videos. South China Morning Post looks at this scary trend.
  • The Hindu looks at the greatest pandemic effect: An epidemic of domestic violence!
  • Also in The Hindu: An interview with a team of engineers who built an affordable world class ventilator in just 90 days.
  • Rachel Brodsky in The Independent calls out female pop stars like Taylor Swift who offer ‘woke’ messages warnings against bigotry—but do very little to rein in their toxic mobs of fans.
Feel good place

One: Dancing makes everything better, even election season… as Kamal Haasan’s daughter and niece demonstrate.


Two: Chor, chor, chor…


Three: Dad dancing is the best!


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