A toast to culture in the times of liquor ad bans

A toast to culture in the times of liquor ad bans
When does a big city become a great city? Mum-bai is certainly big, one of the biggest, but does this make it a great city? If you think of the cities that fit the bill, say London, Paris and New York, they throb with life, have iconic landmarks dotted in and around them, offer a high quality of life for their inhabitants, and have many tourist attractions for the outsider. A great city also provides myriad cultural experiences as well as entertainment across every possible segment.

Mumbai has some of these qualities, a pulsating energy being high on the list — but till recently it lacked a vital part of city life: culture and entertainment. At least in this respect, things have begun to change for the better in the last few years: a virtually moribund NCPA and Prince of Wales Museum have come to life, and their ranks have been joined by the lively addition of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. In addition, nightclubs have sprung up and the resta-urant scene is booming. There are gaps of course: the Museum of Modern Art does very little of note and there is no permanent great collection of art as in every major city. Even the evening entertainment scene doesn’t give you the kind of choices that it should.

These thoughts came to me when I went to the Mehboob Studios in Bandra last weekend for an evening organised by liquor giant Diageo. We should be grateful to the government for its ban on liquor advertising: liquor companies therefore have to find innovative ways to keep their brands alive. This particular evening was innovativeness at its best. There were two film screenings, one a foreign film and the other Indian, with discussions with both directors; the Egyptian singer who became the sound of the Arab spring, belted out her melodic numbers and the pop group the Alan Parsons Project was the evening’s star attraction.

But for me the highlight was the Handspring Puppet Company’s full-length play Ouroboros, a love story between a poet and a dancer, structured across time and space, with mysterious references to Death as a constant factor. I can’t say I understood all its nuances (and I wasn’t the only one judging from my conversations later), but what stood out was how expressive and life-like the puppets were, and how poignant their ‘emotions’.

The Handspring Puppet Company is situated in Cape Town, South Africa and it achieved fame when its play War Horse premiered at the National Theatre in London. If you’ve seen the play (it later transferred to London’s West End, and is still running there), you would be struck by the main character of the play, a life size horse, made as a puppet by this very company. Three people were required for the horse puppet — two to operate the legs and one to control the head and neck.

If you were in the audience you found that after a while, one’s eyes subconsciously shut off the operators, and you began to believe that you were looking at a real horse, which was conveying all its emotions through its eyes and its body language. The characters of Ouroboros did just that, and we were always engrossed and often moved.

I learnt from the Diageo people that they plan to make this an annual event, but that’s only one evening out of 365. Who else will fill the gaps? If you ask people in the business they will tell you that the hassle of getting licenses and permissions to put up a show are so formidable that they act as a real deterrent.

In addition, enter-tainment taxes are high, and the rules governing them are absurd. For example, you have to pay entertainment tax in advance on the assumption that you will have a full house. When you don’t, you can apply for a refund which takes its own sweet time. You need minions and middlemen to do all this. That’s why Mumbai is the original M city.

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