Madhu Trehan is the founding editor of India Today, founder of Newstrack, senior journalist and writer, and also founding partner of newslaundry. She found the time to author the book - “Prism Me a Lie Tell Me A Truth, Tehelka As a Metaphor”. No. She couldn’t think of a shorter title.
Danny Boyle Slums It – Again
For any Indian who is used to raunaq over everything, arrival in London was a shock. Not a soul to be seen until we had driven 45 minutes from the airport. Then too, only a lone girl on a skateboard. The city was a ghost town. Londoners had been told there would be chaos and traffic jams. They were instructed to stay home. Even the regular tourists had stayed away. Shops were empty. Taxis were always available. You could get bookings anywhere. Shops and hotels which expected good business just did not happen. There were no lines at any place. I wish we could package and export our penchant for hulla gulla. Some countries would definitely benefit from it.
According to CNN’s website on London’s Olympic Opening Ceremony: “A billion people across the globe tuned in for the three-hour, $42.4m show, which featured 10,000 adult volunteers, 900 children, 12 horses, 10 chickens, nine geese, three cows and a flock of sheep.” (The Beijing Olympics had cost $100 million.)
Unfortunately, for visitors from India, the numbers of people and animals are a normal day in the life of India.
When The Telegraph (UK) rounded off a self-promoting article about how the world’s media glowed with nothing but praise, who is going to announce: The Emperor has no clothes?
The ceremony opened with what was supposed to be an idyllic pastoral scene: a horse going around in circles on a patch of mud, sheep grazing, children sitting around a maypole.
A friend turned and asked: “Why are we here watching Old McDonald’s farm?” But more seriously, according to the UK Agriculture website, British agriculture is in serious trouble with empty fields, declining output, incomes falling by as much as 60%, declining workforce, animals and prices.
So what did Danny Boyle want to communicate to the world when he put these poor volunteers in drab clothes to walk around aimlessly around fake farms?
We are instructed by volunteers dressed in white overalls, on what to do with lights behind our seats: wave them in the direction she points at and to follow her cues. Also a blue cloth will unravel over us, which we are supposed to roll down over us and not hang on to. Of course, I’m tempted to ruin the whole thing by snatching and hanging on to it. It begins to feel like forced audience participation at a Seventies’ hippie happening.
Kenneth Branagh appears under a tree in a Dickens costume. He is minuscule in the stadium and recites from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Pretty weird choice since the words are by the character Caliban, half-man, half-beast, and recited when he is about to kill a colonialist ruler. Why? Who knows? You have to give Danny Boyle more than poetic licence, I suppose. It sounded so Shakespeare, so British and so uppity, so it confounded spectators suitably. What can be better than the inscrutable British?
Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal reports that the beer queue is 15 minutes long. Lines for toilets are even longer. I look desperately for a dirty toilet to photograph. No such luck. By the end of the long night, paper had run out, that’s all.
Rather abruptly, we are introduced to the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who walks on a stage set on the side of the stadium to much applause. Should we blame American commentator on NBC, Meredith Viera, when she said, “If you haven’t heard of him, we haven’t either”? Her co-anchor Matt Lauer joined in, “Google him”.
The atmosphere becomes dark dark dark with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Boyle uploads a sulphur smell in the stadium to give a feeling of being in a factory. (We need that, really? Why not the smell of horse dung in the farmers’ scene?) Suddenly, the stadium is filled with “workers” in factory worker clothes who roll up the grass and carry it out on carts. Another day in India. Fabric pillars go up and workers climb up the smoke stacks. Most unimpressive. The pillars are not very high and the climbers are attached to visible ropes. Compared to Beijing where we saw drummers hanging upside down with six-foot drums from breath-holding heights, this was near pathetic.
Rowan Atkinson joins the orchestra and does a funny one finger stint on a keyboard.
Paul McCartney appears on the stage. Looks really tiny in the stadium and sings ‘Hey Jude’ in a thin, aging voice. Hey Jude? It was written for Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s son, when his parents were going through a divorce and Paul saw the sadness when he visited them. Why not something more uplifting like – ‘We All Live in a Yellow Submarine’?
The orchestra goes into the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in walk a group of volunteers dressed in the Beatles costumes for the album, holding two Yellow Submarine balloons, the size you get at India Gate. Our Republic Day pageants do better.
A skit by Daniel Craig and the Queen – “The Queen acting?” She says, according to script: “Good evening, Mr Bond.” Oh hell! Okay. The film ends with the Queen’s double climbing into a helicopter. The chopper is over the stadium and Bond along with the “Queen” parachutes out. But because there are so many wires criss-crossing the stadium, they cannot land in the stadium but float over it and away. You get a funny view of the “Queen’s” knickers. (Sorry there is no other word for things shaped like that. Not panties by any stretch.) The real Queen arrives in the same pink outfit. “God Save the Queen” is sung by kids in pyjamas, don’t ask me why. The sound system is so weak that what should resound and echo in the stadium, appears like a tinny car radio.
Now the worst of the lot. Children in beds with illuminated bed covers arrive on hospital beds pushed in by doctors and nurses. This is hard to believe, but it is a tribute to the dis-reputed National Health Service. A huge creepy looking baby of parachute-silk balloons in the centre and unnervingly looks dead.
My husband who happens to be a doctor gets furiously indignant. What message are they giving here? Doctors and nurses dancing with each other? Dancing with patients? Struck by the incredulity of it all, he could not stop. Upset enough to propose leaving the venue, as if he would be held responsible.
Suddenly a scary rendition of JK Rowling and the finishing off of Voldemort seems bizarre, with kids celebrating his death.
On cue, we pick up our lights and wave them in the direction the frenzied volunteer is screaming. Real problem here. My husband is a true Indian and doesn’t take well to accepting instructions from a hysterical volunteer. Translucent balls appear and we have to bounce them around. The blue cloth rolls over us and I resist the temptation to clutch it. Am I at a college fest? A fabric house is raised in the centre of the stadium and different images are laser projected on to it. Paise bach gaye. Don’t need sets. Couldn’t look more shoddy.
Where are The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Spice Girls, Coldplay, Charlotte Church, Adele, Radiohead, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran, The Smiths, The Cure? Can you imagine them all jamming together?
Where are all the great actors? Maggie Smith, Julie Andrews, Colin Firth, Kate Beckinsale, Orlando Bloom, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Christie, John Cleese, Joan Collins, Timothy Dalton, Rupert Everett, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Fox, Jeremy Irons, Keira Knightley, Ben Kingsley, Daniel Day-Lewis, Hugh Grant, Gerald Butler, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Malcolm McDowell, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Sienna Miller, Roger Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Thompson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Rachel Weisz, Robert Pattison; hell, you could fill a page! Definitely a script could have been worked out to showcase some of them.
With all the great shows in West End theatres, even a snitch of each would have displayed the talent.
Give it to the Brits. They have the talent. Why did they decide to keep it so well-hidden and show a sad, pathetic story? To pick out periods of British history, the most wonderful to explore would have been the Renaissance when the printing press was used for great writers such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Ben Johnson. Renaissance music, art and architecture were glorious.
The Elizabethan era was known for its science, technology and exploration, and could have been interpreted. (I expected costumed Elizabethan women dancing on stilts.) The Imperial colonisation of the world would have been interesting, but perhaps they understandably wanted to bury that. World War II and the victory over Hitler, all could have been great fodder for a script that would include all the actors even if they had one line each. Their art and maritime history would have been a killer.
What else could they have included? The British invented amongst other things the electric motor, the corkscrew, the crossword, the flush toilet, the postage stamp, the radio, television, turbojet, and yes, heroin, but I guess they could leave the last one out.
You can check out some of the pictures on this blog. Please notice the fabric foam cloud. In this high-tech age, it looks like what mummy would put together for a school play.
Okay, what was good? The lead drummer, Dame Evelyn Glennie, was spectacular. She happens to be deaf and drums in her bare feet to feel the vibrations.
The glowing moths on bicycles were pretty, but I could not understand the context. Fireworks? Of course Beijing was bigger and better, specially the giant green laser steps walking towards the Nest Stadium. By the way, the Olympic Stadium is not in any way better designed than our CWG stadium. (The Aquatics Centre at the Olympics 2012 by Zaha Hadid is stunning.)
The lighting of the torch was a technical marvel and so were the five Olympic Rings.
The march of the nations began and we waited for India. Yeah, there was that weirdo woman not in uniform marching like she owned the place. Our contingent seemed subdued and almost timid and my heart went out to them. If those in the government cannot get their act together for our young athletes, they should be replaced by those who are passionate about and committed to sports. I resented the Chinese contingent, so confident and proud, walking like they were winners already.
They had the same problem we had at CWG, of massive empty seats at venues and no tickets to buy. Investigations are on. And, I don’t know if I’m happy to report this, but the class system in Britain is alive and well. We gave our tickets to swimming races we couldn’t go for to the hotel doorman who wouldn’t stop jumping in excitement, planning to take his whole family with free train tickets too. The next day we asked him if he had enjoyed it. He told us in a quiet sad voice, his boss had forbidden him to go. He was told, “Those seats are for VIPs and not for the likes of you”.
It seemed that Danny Boyle took a non-creative decision that there was no way they could compete with Beijing so why even try. But what about all their talent and strengths as enumerated above? I had trashed the CWG Opening ceremony as not good enough. I apologise to Shyam Benegal and Prasoon Joshi, who got an earful from me. I take back my words. Ours was better than theirs.