Archive for category Movie Reviews

Bagman: Podcast by Rachel Maddow – Review

Bagman, a podcast by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, is not only providing an amazing peek into history during the #Nixon Presidency but is certain to keep the listeners riveted. A film is in the making, written by Adam Pearlman and Mike Yarvitz and with writer, director, producer, Ben Stiller.  Bagman tells a true story of one of the most brazen bribery and extortion scandals ever to happen at the scale it did. But lest you believe this was about the #Watergate scandal, it was NOT. This was an entirely independent crime concurrently happening at the same time that the country was occupied with the Watergate scandal.  

The subject of this scandal, the “individual 1” was not Nixon but who then? The year was 1973. Just the previous year, Richard Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew had handily defeated their opponent Senator George McGovern of South Dakota in a total landslide, receiving all but 18 of the 538 electoral votes. For the time being, let us keep the name of the chief perpetrator a suspense here. Despite President Nixon’s initial lack of knowledge about this crime, he soon learned about it and participated in covering it up with support of several Republican senators, including future President George W. Bush. 

Besides telling the incredible story of the chief criminal, the podcast also focuses in equal measures on a team of young federal prosecutors, Tim Baker, Ron Libman, and Barney Skolnik who started this investigation miles away from DC, in local corruption happening in Maryland where they found that local officials were taking thousands of dollars in cash kickbacks from companies that were awarded federal contracts. While the country was increasingly riveted by the Watergate scandal, these prosecutors were far away from the White House. But as they got deeper into the money trail it led them directly inside the White House. 

As these prosecutors began collecting evidence, they found that their case was becoming rock solid. If it was any other individual, that person would be indicted and in jail in no time. However, given the status of the perpetrator and the venue where the crime was opening occuring, they were stumped in how to proceed. We have often heard the expression that behind every successful man, there’s a woman. But perhaps behind a criminal man there are hundreds of women, enabling him and here was a criminal sitting at top leadership level in the country and enjoyed high popularity among women from the Republican party. 

These prosecutors took the case to their boss, George Bell and together all four of them drove to Washington D.C. to see Nixon’s AG Elliot Richardson. They fully expected to be told by Elliot Richardson something that would amount to shutting down the investigation. Elliot Richardson is the same AG who made history later that precipitated what came to be known as the Saturday massacre in the Nixon Presidency. At that time, President Nixon asked Richardson his AG to fire the special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Richardson refused to do so which led to him being fired by Nixon and then other events followed. But that came later. At thsi time, Richardson met with the four prosecutors from Maryland with stunning news of a totally independent crime taking place in the White House. Richardson gave them full cooperation to continue their investigation. 

As the investigation progressed, the perpetrator realized that he was in an incredibly deep quagmire. He got his assistant to call an attorney and keeping the name of the client a secret, the attorney was requested to come to a secret location. The attorney was informed that the client was someone at very high level in the Government. How high, asked the attorney? Very high, came the answer. A Congressman? asked the attorney. Answer: higher. Q: A senator? A: Higher. Q: A cabinet member? 

As the indictment seemed imminent, the news broke that “Washington was stunned today by the disclosure that the Vice President, Spiro Agnew is under criminal investigation by federal authorities in his home state of Maryland on serious charges of bribery, extortion and tax evasion. The country was already embroiled in the chaotic Watergate occurrences when this shocking news about the Vice President broke. 

Let us not forget that President Nixon and Vice President Agnew had won in a landslide and if they were both to go down then who would become the President? A secret 19 page contingency plan remained locked inside the personal safe of the Democrat Speaker and Congressman from Oklahoma, Carl Albert, as he feared he may be first in line of succession during this tottering presidency and scandals.

Meanwhile, Agnew went to appeal to Congress to impeach him. He felt that would be a better fate than being indicted criminally. He was laughed out of there. During all this while the prosecutors were in total agony as they were racing against time. Just as the Nixon Presidency was unraveling, Nixon’s exit looked increasingly likely and that meant the next in line of succession would ascend to the Presidency UNLESS they sped up the investigation and brought charges or reached some kind of a deal to get Agnew out.

And while President Nixon supported his VP Agnew and even participated in attempts to obstruct justice and shut down investigation into Agnew’s criminal conduct, he now perceived Agnew as a threat to himself and therefore wanted Agnew out. Not to be outdone, Agnew on the other hand, went on national television and confessed that he feared for his life on account of his own President and President’s law enforcement agencies. Can it get more juicy and shocking than this? Every juicy detail and most of private conversations are corroborated in the podcast with cross references and many from the tapes that Nixon himself had planted.

This podcast marvelously recounts the details of this scandal concurrently happening at the same time while Nixon’s own karma was bringing him down. It is so riveting that once you start listening, you will not want to stop until the end. I highly recommend it – it is a piece of history so beautifully narrated, incredibly well researched, impressively presented and packed with information and details, some of which has never before come to light. This is a must-hear podcast not only because it brings important piece of history to light very comprehensively BUT there are many lessons for the present and likely for the future, at anytime, when our democracy comes under threat.

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street – Series Review

This 4 episode series, starring Joseph Scotto as Bernie Madoff, currently streaming on @Netflix gives an insight into Madoff, the man and the largest ponzi scheme in history that he managed to keep going for decades. 

So what’s a ponzi scheme? It is a form of fraud that lures investors and any profits accrued to them are paid with funds received from more recent investors. Madoff had a small legitimate business where he involved his sons. However, his huge illegal ponzi scheme that operated from the 17th floor in the lipstick building (which later became the crime scene) did not do any trading. 

There are no dearth of people who engage in such schemes and it is not surprising that Madoff began running his business this way. What is completely mind boggling is that Madoff managed to perpetrate a scam that defrauded investors around the world and kept it going for more than 20 years and enlarged it to nearly $64 Billion dollars, making it the largest financial fraud in history.  Madoff Investment Securities was found in 1960 and Madoff pled guilty to eleven felony charges that included money laundering, perjury, false filings with the SEC and fraud, in 2009. For all the interim years, Madoff’s fraud continued to grow. 

The series tells the story of how there were warning bells going on and yet this fraud was not properly investigated by the SEC. One of the earlier persons to ring the warning bell was Harry Markopolos, a financial wizard and analyst who later became an investigator and spent nearly a decade on Madoff’s trail. At one point, he submitted several pages long, point by point evidence of why Madoff’s was not a legit business and he did not have any significant footprint in the market because Madoff never traded stock. Nonetheless, all of Markopolos’ warnings were largely ignored by the securities regulators. 

It is a riveting story of a crime that one story teller describes as different from a violent crime where a body drops before the crime comes to light. Whereas in a financial crime, bodies drop after a crime comes to light. This crime induced incredible stress to huge numbers of people, including Madoff’s own family. One of the earlier people to be impacted was a French aristocrat/ money manager, Thierry Villehuchet, who had put his entire money and all the monies of all his family and diverse group of friends and clients that included aristocrats of Europe, into Madoff securities. He killed himself after losing over $1B in this scheme.

I do believe most of the times when people do bad deeds they meet their Karma in a number of ways and rarely do they get to enjoy the fruits derived from their Karma in peace and without guilt or stress. Sadly, after Madoff went to prison, his family refused to see him; later one son, Mark committed suicide and soon after that his son Andy died of cancer. Madoff’s sister and her husband were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide in 2022. In 2020, Madoff requested early release and his request was denied on the basis that his crime was “unprecedented in scope and magnitude. Madoff who ruined so many lives and unleashed devastation on so many families, died in prison in April, 2022.  

The series is sure to keep the audience riveted as to how such an enormous financial fraud occurred and how it unraveled with a potential to shake up the world economy.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Trial by Fire on #Netflix – Serial Review

Trial by Fire – Serial Review

Currently playing on @Netflix, seven episode series “Trial by Fire” is a true account of a horrific tragedy and is based on the book by the same name, written by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnnamoorthy. Rashshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol deliver flawless and understated performance as the couple Neelam and Shekhar who lost both of their children in the fire and smoke at Uphaar Cinema, the largest theater at the time in New Delhi, on the fateful day, Friday, June 13, 1997.

But the series does not simply revolve around the actual events. In fact, actual events of the tragedy are more in focus only in the 7th and last episode of the series. Directed by Prashant Nair and Randeep Jha, the series depicts the struggle of these parents, of other victims, their families and survivors to bring those responsible to justice. Krishnamoorthys soon found out that they could not get answers. The rich and powerful people who seemed to be responsible had a myriad ways to interfere in the investigation. Shekhar announced to his wife that they would be stronger together and they need to bring in other survivors and families seeking justice. The owners of the theater, the Ansal Brothers (Gopal Ansal & Sushil Ansal) kept a tight lid on the expenses and operated their several properties with focus on making profits under all circumstances. Under persistent leadership of grieving Krishnamoorthys, a group AVUT (Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) was formed. 

Ansal brothers rarely appeared in court and employed an army of rich attorneys to fight on their behalf. They bribed, implicated others, employed people to deliver threats to anyone seeking justice. During the decades-long struggle Krishnamoorthys muddled through the cumbersome process, going through several attorneys after realizing that some attorneys were just not interested and others were often bribed by the Anals. In the process, they also uncovered several problems and the trail kept leading them to the owners. However, Ansals kept succeeding year after painful year in evading justice.
Occasionally some episodes meander through somewhat unnecessary details, but overall the series is sure to keep the audience riveted through the heart-breaking saga of grieving families.  Despite the lack of success for years, through the painful process of seeking justice for their loved ones, the group manages to get success on their many additional agendas – for instance, every public school in Delhi, is henceforth required to have working fire extinguishers on every floor. Fighting through the bureaucratic process, even while mourning their loss, is no small feat. Their struggle is both immensely heart-breaking and absolutely inspiring. 


Some additional facts (spoilers) & a small personal story 

Uphaar Cinema fire and smoke claimed 59 lives and 100+ people had severe smoke inhalation and other injuries. 

Almost 900 plus people were in the cinema hall that tragic day.

The people witnessing the event on that fateful day frantically ran with pots and pans to save lives. Others procured mattresses from the stores close by to put on the ground for those jumping out of the window.

The AVUT group fighting for answers and justice got some resolution in the last couple of years, after nearly 25 years since the fire that claimed so many lives. 

During the two plus decades, since the victims group has been fighting in court, the rich and powerful Ansals employed several tricks, postponements, bribes, and threats to evade justice. They also shifted the blame down the line and that led to jail time for some and loss of jobs for others.

AVUT group’s decades-long struggle to find answers and get justice for those who perished on that fateful day uncovered many safety violations, severe disregard for public safety and single minded focus on profits. The theater had faulty transformers, no public address system in place, no emergency lights when power was out, few or no working fire extinguishers and hundreds of people in balcony were trapped inside with doors locked so no one without a ticket can get in – but that also meant the people inside had no means of escape and the entertainment hall became their tomb.

When grieving Krishnamoorthys lost their two children Unnati (17) and Ujjwal (14), they were in their 30s. Many advised them to plan more children, but they refused saying their children were not toys to be replaced. They have not seen any movies in a theater since then.

Anslas were finally sentenced in 2021 but only after 6 months they were released due to old age.

Victims were compensated about Rs. 25 crores after 25 years.


Personal story

When I visited India several years ago, I had a US Green card but an Indian passport. Despite going through other countries, no one had checked that my passport had expired about a year ago. I had to renew my passport before I could return to the US. I went to the passport office in Mumbai. After standing in several lines in a crowded hall that did not have all working fans (with over 100 degrees summer heat), I managed to get access to an officer. He asked me to go there two days later on Thursday. My husband said he will never go with me unless I participate and find someone to bribe and I told him that I will get it done without bribing. He told me then I was on my own. 

I went to the passport office on Thursday. Unlike my previous visit, the entrance was not busy and there were no people around. One lone guard sitting on a chair stopped me and said I could not go in. I asked why not and he said आज साहेब किसीको  मिल नहीं सकते. आज पब्लिक को मिलनेका दिन नहीं है.  Today Sir cannot meet anyone, today is not for the public. Seeing that he was determined to not allow me to enter, I sat down beside him, right on the pavement. He asked me – what are you doing? I said, brother can’t you see, I am sitting down next to you because I will not go back without meeting sir. He said, but I told you, he won’t meet you today. I said, don’t worry, sir is here right? In that case, I will meet him later. He said, he won’t meet you at any time today. I said, look brother, I am sure sir may go out for tea or for lunch or at least he will go home in the evening. It is 10 am and in that case I will sit here and give you company this entire day but I am not leaving until I see him. He looked at me in disbelief. Then he went inside and I saw him talk to a couple of other people. Then he returned with a piece of paper and a pen and asked me to write my name. Then he went in and came back again and told me to go in. I went in and met the officer and got my passport renewed. 

In countries where things don’t work for all citizens, only the rich and powerful can live stress free lives and enjoy all kinds of benefits; have law and order work for them, justice bends to their will and they can get their tasks accomplished. For majority of the population however, everyday tasks present a multitude of challenges and there’s frustration every step of the way all the time. It takes enormous effort, persistence and high ideals to continuously struggle to live with integrity and honesty.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Double XL: Bollywood Movie Review

Double XL: Movie Review

Flim, Double XL, directed by Satramm Ramani tackles an important subject pertaining to standards of beauty levied on women and the judgements that accompany women who may not fit within defined societal norms. 

Saira Khanna (Sonakshi Sinha) is an urban Delhite girl who dreams of her own fashion designer label one day. Saira is deeply in love with her boyfriend, only to find out that he is a philanderer who neither cares to win her love, nor to support her in her aspirations. Rajashri Trivedi (Huma Qureshi) lives in the heartland of Meerut and dreams of becoming a sports presenter. Meanwhile, her mother, played by Alka Badola Kaushal, is constantly making attempts to find a suitable boy to wed Rajashri.

When Rajashri meets her potential groom that her mother has found for her, Rajashri announces to him that she aspires to become a sports presenter and he asks, “woh jara jara se kapde pahenke mech ke bich ghumti hai woh ladki”? Rajashri replies “Woh cheer leaders hote hai. Aur woh jara jara se kapde nahi, costumes hote hai”.  About this time in Delhi, Saira has lost her opportunity to lead a fashion travelog, and she is lamenting “Saira Khanna ki purani aadat, aukat se uncha sapna dekhneki”. At a low point in their lives their paths cross and after lamenting and crying over how society views women of their size and all opportunities close out even before they have a chance, Saira and Rajashri get a brainwave of how they can support each other. 

When Rajashri is a overwhelmed, Saira tells her “bhale hi tum fashion na samjo, lekin passion jarur samajhti ho” and when Rajashri is ready to call it quits, Saira supports and encourages her. The duo then find that as they shed their emotional baggage, they make strides in their professional aspirations and also meet two men, Zorawar (Zaheer Iqbal) and Shrikanth (Mahat Raghavendra). Keeping with Bollywood’s happy ending preference, Zorawar and Shrikanth look beyond the girls’ large size and support Saira and Rajashri’s aspirations.

What I liked about the movie is that with increasing frequency, Bollywood has begun tackling  “weighty” issues and in this film they have taken up the issue of how large women are viewed in society, how that can affect their professional lives as well as their chances of finding a life partner. And yet, the movie falls short in its handling of the “weighty” issue, and it seems it is handled a tad too lightly. 

I rate the movie as 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent. 

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Milli – Bollywood Movie Review

Mili currently streaming on @Netflix is directed by Mathukutty Xavier and is a remake of Malayalam language film Helen. Mili is produced by Boney Kapoor and Zee Studios and Janhvi Kapoor in the role of Mili has done a great job. 

Mili lives with her widowed father (Manoj Pahwa) and works in a fast food restaurant while studying for her nursing degree. Mili and her father share a deep bond. Mili is a kind and happy girl with big dreams of migrating to Canada for better circumstances. Mili’s boyfriend Sameer (Sunny Kaushal) appears less responsible and also does not seem to have high aspirations. He seems content with his life with Mili and spending time with friends. 

An accidental, sudden situation traps Mili in conditions where she has only a few hours to survive if she can use her intelligence and creativity. There is reasonable suspense along with the accompanying drama of a concerned father, distraught boyfriend and inept cops, to keep the audience glued to the screen.

I liked the movie and rated it 4.2 on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being excellent.  

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Serpent (Series on notorious Charles Sobhraj) – Review has spoilers

If you’d like a peek into the psyche of a sociopath, a man without scruples, without any ability to feel guilt, remorse or concern for any other human beside himself then you’ll get to see it in this serial. Most people in their 40s or older have likely heard of the notorious fraudster, thief and murderer, Charles Sobhraj. Early in the series, you see him confide to his sidekick Ajay that upon killing first human, “I expected to feel guilt, but I did not. I felt free, free from judgment; mine and God’s”. Taher Rahim as Sobhraj, Jenna Coleman as one of his girlfriends, Marie Andre Leclerc and Amish Edireweera as his sidekick and partner in crime, Ajay Chowdhury, are very realistic in their roles as notorious criminals. While Sobhraj and Ajay feel no remorse of their actions, Marie feels the remorse from time to time but when the opportunity for riches appears then she quickly gets over her remorse, and actively participates in the crime, sliding into the new identity that Charles gave her.

The serial isn’t focused solely on Sobhraj and his gang of criminals. This serial celebrates the humanity, dedication and commitment of Herman Kannipenberg (Billy Howle), his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber), Nadine (Mathilde Warnier and Paul (Tim McInnerny) to stop the killings. Theirs was an uphill battle considering that authorities in Thailand did not take them seriously, and Sobhraj evaded capture with multiple fake identities and by bribing the police.  Hermann, a Dutch diplomat, couldn’t get it out of his head when he found out that two young tourists were never going to go home. He tells his wife, “my mother made sure we always had books and bicycles. She insisted, wherever you want to go, you must go. We all talk a lot about freedom. I don’t think I really understood it – the sacrifice of it and that some mothers are never going to see their children again”. Paul offered several times to end the nightmare by shooting Sobhraj but Kannipenberg insisted that it must be done legally. Painstakingly and sometimes at great risk to themselves he and his group of friends gathered the evidence and time and again approached the authorities until they got someone’s ear.

And yet, Sobhraj evaded capture in Thailand where he would have gotten the death penalty, since he evaded capture for some time and then got arrested in India and while he served time there, the statute of limitations in Thailand expired. Sobhraj’s killing spree continued for several more years and in the end he killed 20+ tourists in several countries including France, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Thailand and Malaysia.

Sobhraj risked capture if he visited Nepal and yet such was his ego that he not only visited on fake identity but also took pictures and publicly posted his pictures. When captured, he insisted that he was a different man and he had never visited Nepal before. But the police officer questioning him said that Sobhraj had not only visited but on his previous trip years ago, the same officer had questioned him. And yet due to lack of evidence Sobhraj would have been let go but for the dedicated efforts of Kannipenberg. 

Sobhraj served 19 or his 20 year sentence in Nepal but was released on December 23, 2022 (just two days prior to my writing the review) from Nepal and extradited to France to live as a free man at the age of 78. Sadly most of his young victims will never get to grow old and will never go home. The serial is dedicated to “all the young intrepids (fearless adventurous souls) who set out with big dreams and never made it home”.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Swimmers: Movie Review

The Swimmers on Netflix

Movie, The Swimmers on @Netflix is a heart-rending true story that centers around the Issa family of Syria. Directed by Sally El Hosaini, the film stars real-life sisters Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini and Manal Issa as Sara Mardini. Other stars include Ahmed Malek in the role of their cousin Nizar, Matthias Schweighofer as Sven, Ali Suliman as Ezzat Mardini, Kinda Alloush as Mervat Mardini. 

Yusra and Sara lived in war torn Syria and like typical teens, they focused on school and parties. Their father Ezzat was a swimming champion and coached his two older daughters, Yusra, Sara and his youngest daughter, hoping to help them make it to the Olympics.  He advised his girls, “forget everything and everyone – in the water you are on your own. Focus on the goal you want to achieve”. Yusra was immensely goal focused. And yet the realities of the war cannot be ignored. Some of their friends died in the bombings and sometimes bombs landed so close that they were lucky to survive. Sara was more spontaneous, a risk taker, independent minded and never felt limited by external boundaries. Sara made a case to her parents that she and Yusra should make their way to Turkey and from there to Europe and try to enter Germany and with Germany’s open door policy for Syrian refugees, obtain refugee status and seek asylum for the whole family.

After getting their cousin Nizar ready to go with them the girls managed to convince the parents to permit them to undertake the perilous journey.  The film documents their perilous journey from Syria to Turkey via plane, then on foot and bus to the coast, then via boat to Greece then on to Macedonia, through Serbia, Hungary, and Austria to Germany.  As the three young people make their way to Germany, they pay smugglers hefty sums of money, meet others in similar circumstances and make new friends like Shada (Nahel Tzegai), Emad (James Krishna Floyd), Bilal (Elmi Rashid Elmi) and others from various countries including Eretria, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and more. Often their safety and their life is in serious jeopardy and in the end, some of them make it, some are caught to be sent back, and some sadly, perish on the way.

After finding refuge in Berlin, Yusra’s challenging path to swim at the Rio Olympics in 2016 begins with coach Sven while Sara is contemplating her future role in helping other refugees in their own journeys. 

The former President compared refugees to murderers and rapists and it simply shows massive ignorance and lack of understanding of how immensely perilous their journeys often are. Very rarely criminal elements will attempt such harrowing travel, to reach a destination where they can find new roots and live an honest life. When law and order is breaking down in war torn regions, criminal elements find plenty of opportunities, even as ordinary citizens lose livelihoods, limbs, lives and loved ones. 

In 2015 alone, nearly a million refugees and migrants arrived on the European shores, fleeing persecution, violence and conflicts. Currently there are 30 million people living as refugees worldwide. Nearly 6 million Syrians are estimated to have become refugees since 2011. Half of all the world’s refugees are under the age of 18. German Chancellor Merkel often asked for a coordinated world response to the refugee crisis. Understandably, every nation cannot take in every person fleeing a war torn region, every time. And yet, humanity cannot naively turn a blind eye to the plight of innocent people and what they have to endure simply because of the accident of their birth. 

This is an inspiring movie that shows the plight of real people leaving their homes and livelihoods so they can survive and their children get a chance to grow up. Sharing about the actual filming of the movie, the director said, “We quickly realized that the most authentic way was to do it for real. We really put a boat on the water and filled it with 25 people; there were children, there was a baby, we set sail, and filmed it for real”. People actually threw up in the choppy waters and there were people who had actually taken the harrowing journey themselves. Interwoven in the larger story around the refugee crisis, are human stories of various people including heart-rending dynamics of interpersonal ups and downs between two sisters with diverse mindsets and life goals and how they persevere to reach their goals. Both sisters now work in different capacities to shed light on the plight of the refugees and say that the filming of the movie helped them better understand one another and brought them closer.  On a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being excellent, I rate the movie 4.8 and it’s currently streaming on #Netflix.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Empress on #Netflix – Serial Review

I love historical dramas and I frequently read some history and look for accuracies or lack thereof between actual history and the show. I often end up watching how the person’s life unfolds and how it ends – so often I watch the show after I get all the spoilers – LOL. 

The Empress, currently streaming on @Netflix is in German language with English subtitles. By the end of the series, you will know very well a few words like Bitte and Danke, if you already do not.  The Empress is a spellbinding series on the life of Princess Elisabeth who later came to be known as the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary. In fact when she passed away, the inscription on her coffin read, “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria. The Hugarians were outraged and the words, “and Queen of Hungary” were hastily added. Nicknamed Sisi, she was born into a royal household in Bavaria and her informal childhood had not prepared her for a royal life. I won’t give all the spoilers but will share a bit about the series below.

Sisi’s refusal to mold herself into a proper woman, fit for a worthy marriage into royalty, frequently exasperated her mother. Sisi’s mother was related to the Empress of Austria and together they planned an alliance between Sisi’s sister Helena and the young emperor of Austria. However, destiny had other plans.

Utterly ill prepared for life in a royal court, Sisi instead wed emperor Franz.  Court processes and rules shocked and overwhelmed her. For instance, doctors and priests were required to check for the imperial bride’s purity and determine her ability to bear an heir to the throne.  On her wedding night, her stern matron, Esterhazy advised Sisi, “for the final wedding night ritual, you are to perform the act. The marriage is not valid unless the act is performed. Pain is normal. Remember this act is not for pleasure but for God and for the Hapsburg empire. It will be best that you lie perfectly still and let the events happen”.

Frustrated by court rules and stern and authoritative mother-in-law who curbed Sisi’s activities in nature (like riding, hunting, mingling with commoners), Sisi decided to leave after being given a choice to leave or to obey and follow the rules. She told her court maiden that she was not the one to follow the rules. When the court lady advised her that to play the game and win, she must follow the rules, Sisi said, “I didn’t come here to win anything”. 

Franz was torn between his love for his wife, pull of his mother and shenanigans of his younger brother. He told his mother, “the world is changing, the question is whether this family will or not”. And yet, Franz’s royal duties required him to adapt in ways he didn’t like. Franz’s mental thought processes were more aligned with his wife but his actions were often more aligned with his mother who wanted to follow traditions, rule Austria with a stern hand, and wanted Franz’s wife to primarily be a birthing vessel and provide heirs for the throne. 

Meanwhile, Franz’s younger brother saw an opportunity for himself and thought if he professed maintaining traditions and supporting religious orthodoxy then he can get support from the Church and his mother to usurp the throne. However, the priest saw through his lack of integrity and said, “the problem is if you stand for nothing, what will you fall for”? 

Devrim Lingnau in the roles of Sisi and Princess Elisabeth, Philip Froisant as Emperor Franz and Melika Foroutan as Sofia, emperor’s mother, are all phenomenal in their roles. 

This is a spellbinding period series focused on the life of a woman who writes poetry about wanting to soar in the open sky like a free bird, likes to sit on a tree branch and paint, and laugh with abandon and party with commoners, is instead required to follow archaic rules and processes, know her place in the royal hierarchy, remember her duty to produce heirs for the throne, keep her distance from the commoners and is frequently forbidden to engage in spontaneous activities that give her joy. 

It was interesting to read that in her later years, the empress traveled widely and when in Vienna, she often stayed at the Shonbrunn Palace which is a tourist attraction that I have had the good fortune to visit. Elisabeth was charitable towards common people and was deeply loved by the the people, in turn. At her untimely death, her will stipulated that a large part of her jewel collection should be sold and the proceeds, then estimated at over £600,000, were to be donated to charitable organizations.

Apparently Emperor Franz of Austria was related to queen Marie Antoinette of France and his wife Elizabeth received a gorgeous necklace as a wedding present from her mother in law that she was later informed was worn by Marie Antoinette at the time her head was severed from her body at the guillotine. I just completed watching “Versailles” that centered around King Louis IVX of France and I am thoroughly disappointed about Netflix decision to not renew the show. 

Netflix has renewed The Empress for a second season and I can’t wait to see it. 

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Khakee, The Bihar Chapter on Netflix – Serial Review

Khakee is a 7 episode docu-series based on “Bihar Diaries” by Amit Lodha, an (Indian Police Service) IPS officer who got his first assignment in Bihar during the 1990s. The docu series currently streaming on #Netflix, centers around true events that transpired during the starting phase of IPS Amit Lodha’s career, in Bihar. Written by Neeraj Pandey and directed by Bhav Dhulia, while shining a light on the criminal activities in Bihar, the series also focuses primarily on one of India’s most wanted criminals from Ashok Mahto’s gang, Pintu Mahto, referred to as Chandan Mahto.  Actors Karan Tacker as Amit Lodha and Avinash Tiwary as Chandan Mahto play an intense cat and mouse game of strategy, fear and ruthlessness and keep the audience riveted.

When Chandan Mahto was abused by one of the corrupt public leaders (a common occurrence at the time), he was filled with rage and determination. His story thus begins – कहते हैं साधु और शैतान दोनो का जन्म दो बार होता है। उस रोज चंदन महतो का दूसरा जन्म हुआ।  Chandan Mahto joined with the rival of the guy who insulted him and committed himself fully to a no-holds-bar life of crime. Soon he began gaining notoriety, after killing Rajo Singh, a sitting Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) and other killings of the rival gang. After being nabbed by the Police, Mahto arranged for a fire to break out in the prison, killed several cops on duty, and managed an escape following a planned prison breakout. 

During 1990s and prior to that, Bihar considered one of the most backward states in India, was ruled by goons, thugs, criminal gangs, corrupt public leaders and inept police officers.  Mahtos belonged to a lower caste and initially waged a war against and killed several upper caste Brahmins, but later their ruthlessness extended to anyone standing in their way. 

During Mahto gang’s reign of terror, from 1998 to 2006, under sharp shooter Chandan’s leadership, the criminal gang is believed to have claimed the lives of over 200 people, including MP, Singh, MLA, Aruna Devi, several police officers, and even a child as young as six.  Chandan was wanted in 30+ pending cases of murder and abduction, but always eluded the police. 

Lodha was a young officer, passionate about making a difference, committed to leading with integrity, brilliant and armed with engineering and IPS degrees. But there were important lessons he had to learn. Initially Lodha found it challenging to get a grip on the situation at hand and also dealt with transfers. आईपीएस अमित लोढ़ा का ट्रांसफर और ट्रांसफॉर्मेशन साथ साथ चलता रहा और दो साल उन्होंने पटना में बिताये। पटना, एक काल्पनिक, बेचेन और बेपरवाह शहर। ये शहर जितना ऐतिहासिक है उतना ही ज्यादा बदनाम है जहां अपराध, हत्या, डकैती वगेरे चीज़े रोज होती थी। ये घटनाए सत्ता पक्ष के लिए अप्रासंगिक हो सकती है, विपक्ष के लिए ये था मुद्दा। कौन सत्ता पर आये, पुलिस के लिए ये चुनौती का मामला था. और जनता के लिए? भगवान की मर्जी। Amit Lodha’s transfer and transformation moved together and he spent couple of years in Patna. Patna, a city that was mythic, restless and uncaring. This historic city was also gaining fast reputation for kidnappings, murders, robbery and other crimes. These events may be meaningless to the party in power, were an issue to be raised for the party vying for power, and for police, who came to power meant who got transfer orders and who got to be in charge. And what about people? For people, living and dying was in God’s hands.    

This was the state of affairs in Bihar when under the leadership of Lodha, the police made valiant efforts and eventual gains over the rampant criminality in the state. I have always found India’s history and its twists and turns fascinating. 

By the time India gained independence in 1947, it had been plundered, looted and ruled by foreign invaders and colonized by the British. When the British left, the country was not only divided into India and Pakistan but was thrown into utter chaos which unfolded as one of the worst human disasters in history. India was divided into castes, class, religion, multiple languages, backward traditions, norms, prejudices, archaic rituals and divided into states that literally could not communicate, because majority of the population in each of 25 states when India became of union from 562 princely states, spoke different primary languages. Some of these states were ruled by thugs and gangs who used public officials as their pawns. In the middle of such chaos, Indian leaders set out to put the country on a path of democracy, despite all indications pointing to an impossibility of attaining such a lofty ideal. And yet in such an India, a forward looking constitution pointed the way and there were people committed to making a difference, one village at a time, and gently bringing people out of prejudices, hate, discrimination and disunity, towards unity and inclusion, where country was placed above other divisions. This is a fascinating series about one such story and definitely worth a watch.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Pepsi, Where’s my Jet? – Serial Review

There is such intense rivalry and competition between PepsiCo and Coca Cola Company that years ago when I was doing training for one of these companies, we were told multiple times via a memo, in person, and through email that we were not to bring any products of the competitor company in the facility, nor throw any such wrappers in the trash. Both companies engaged in multiple intense marketing campaigns to boost their own product lines, especially their flagship colas. The competition became so intense in 1980s and 1990s that it became known as the cola wars.

The rivalry between the companies had escalated so much that both companies made several strategic blunders, presumably in their haste to gain an upper hand over the competitor in key markets, world-wide.  In 1985, during the peak of this rivalry, as Coca-Cola was losing market share to Pepsi, it launched a new formula Coke which became known as “New Coke”. Consumer backlash against the change pressured the company to make a strategic retreat and reinstate old Coke as Coca-Cola Classic. Similarly, in 1992, Pepsi sought to crush Coke in Philippines where Coca-Cola had over 75% of market share. Pepsi launched an aggressive campaign, Pepsi Number Fever, later known as 349 incident. Due to a strategic computing error, the campaign led to riots, deaths and 22,000 people took legal action against PepsiCo. 

Pepsi, Where’s my Jet is a fascinating story of one monumental blunder. I don’t want to give spoilers here. But the incident is well known and often referred to in legal briefs and colleges as part of contract law. In brief, a young 20 year old spotted a loophole in an ad offering to redeem several million Pepsi points to win a fighter jet. This is a saga of how he found an investor, the company brought out their big gun attorneys, the young man ended up hiring an attorney by the name of Michael Avenatti. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the attorney of Story Daniels, an adult porn star and a former stripper who had an affair with Donald Trump and was then sent hush money through Michael Cohen. Her own attorney Michael Avenatti was later found to be involved in fraud and was incarcerated.

This series playfully unpacks the details of a high stakes but in the end, a victimless strategic error that could have had many serious ramifications. Media went into a frenzy over the incident with the corporation trying to use its clout to get the shows to be canceled, when possible and even the Pentagon felt a need to get involved and issue a statement on the incident. False advertising can cause many headaches for an organization and haste can mean big waste not only in lost opportunities, loss of market share and revenues but also loss of trust, lawsuits and more.

The series is currently playing on Netflix.

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: