Friday, June 20, 2008

Movie Dasaavatram is the Flavor of the Season

Movie Dasaavatram is the Flavor of the Season
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Lord Vishnu has incarnated in various life forms through different ages in situations where Hindu religion was in danger. In Hindu mythology, there are ten incarnation of Lord Vishnu; Tortoise, Fish, Boar, Narasimha, Parasurama,Vamana, Krishna, Rama, Buddha and Kalki.

The Tamil movie Dasaavtaram staring Kamala Hassan has supposedly taken a cue from the 10 aavtars of lord Vishnu and its named as so. However its storyline does not seem to have any linkage with the avatars of Vishnu and its all about a deadly virus that find its way out of a well guarded lab in the US and is ready to destroy the world, but its impact gets mitigated eventually by the killer Tsunami waves that had hit the Coramandel coast in 2004.

It could really have been a great mythological movie, if the 10 avatars of Vishnu could have been fit into this story of good verses evil. Many movie goers who had gone to the theater with such expectations came back saying it’s a mish mash of a film having nothing to do with their religion.

Dasaavatram had a perfect opening with all hype and hula built around this mega film much ahead of its release. The Vaishnavites sect of Hindus filed a court case praying this movie hurt their religious sentiments. The Madras High Court rejected their plea on the ground that they were complaining without seeing the film. Then the Supreme Court was moved that too rejected the plea saying the contention lacks circumstantial evidences.

All this happened because the story line of the film was kept a well guarded secret. Its promo tend to suggest that the movie had strong religious aroma but when it was released in theaters on June 13, 2008, the moviegoers came out saying Dasaavatram had nothing to do with the Hindu religion.

The movie opens with settings in the 12th century Tamil Nadu which was a hot bed of fight between the Shaivites and Vaishnavites followers of the Hindu religion. The Shaivite King orders a Vishnu devotee Rangarajan Nambi (Kamala Hassan-1) to utter “Om Namah Shiva” (I bow before Shiva) who refuses to do so and instead says “Om Namoh Nariyana” (I bow before Vishnu). For this Nambi is punished and tied up with the idol of Lord Ranganatha and taken in a boat and thrown into the ocean. The character of Nambi ends there in the movie, only the idol of Lord Ranganatha resurfaces in the end, when the Tsunami struck the Coramandel coast in 2004.

The moviegoers are wondering about the connection of Nambi’s character with the rest of the movie. ‘Why this was there at all, it looked the last shot where the idol reappears, was meant to justify the opening,’ said Vijay who had seen the movie first day first show. He did not seems to be happy with the quick end of Nambi’s character and calls it a patch work not meant for this movie at all. ‘Perhaps Kamala Hassan was planning a period film and so shot this character with a different story line altogether, but that project could not materialize and so this character was patched up in Dasaavatram. Such things are common these days among the musicians and this has happened in this case as well,” Vijay said adding that the common people have been coned.

Another moviegoer, Raghav tries explaining this puzzle in a different way. ‘Kamala Hassan’s movies are like abstract paintings and one has to look at it from that point of view, maybe the linkages of Nambi’s character could be traced at the abstract levels to seek justification,’ he says.

Dasaavatram’s release was hyped up with the audio release of the film. Hollywood actor, Jackie Chang flew into Chennai with his bodyguards to attend the star studded function. Hindi movie’s super star Amitabh Bachachan too came to Chennai to attend the function. Controversy dogged the event, when bollywood’s sex bomb, Malika Sharawat who acts in this movie, sat on the stage with legged crossed in micro- mini skirt. While the 85 years old Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karaunanidhi, could only give her side looks, that too with one eye behind the dark glasses, the audience sitting in front had a theme for a dream that evening.

Dasavathram supposedly made at a whopping cost of Rs 60 crore created enough excitement before its release. The movie sold its audio rights to Sony BMG for close to 2 crore rupees. Theatres across Chennai were booked for the next ten days with almost all the multiplexes having 6 shows a days. In the end the promise of a cinematic extravaganza turned out to be a dam squib, just a flavor in the season of entertainment.

The film actually begins in United States where an Indian scientist Govind Ramasamy (Kamala Hassan-2) discovers that a deadly virus that could be used as a biological weapon goes missing from his lab. He launches a man hunt for it and the plot takes the line of “War on terror.”

American president George W Bush (Kamala Hassan-3) makes appearances on the screen several times, urging the rest of the world to combat this evil design. The American president is shown as a buffoon contemplating a nuke war.

The most interesting part of the plot is here the terrorist are not the Al Qaeda or of Afghan variety, as the Hollywood flicks tend to suggests but are reputedly referred as American terrorists. What the movie tries to convey that the destruction of the world could necessarily not be at the hands of turban headed Islamic jihadist, but the Americans wearing western cloths could also trigger the catastrophe.

Govind has an Indian friend who has a Japanese wife and he gives information to the American terrorists that the biological weapon is in house. The terrorists come looking for the weapon and in the process kill him and his wife. The Japanese wife has a brother called Narashashi (Kamala Hassan-4) in Japan who is a marital arts expert and he plans to take revenge against his sister’s killer. In the course of the hunt for the biological weapon, Govind travels to India. He is chased by a CIA agent, Christian Fletcher (Kamala Hassan-5), the villain of the film. The bio weapon is accentually parceled to India from US to an old woman, Krishnaveni (Kamala Hassan-6), who yearns for the return of her son. When Govind reaches India, he is hauled by a RAW investigative officer, Balram Naidu (Kamala Hassan-7). Naidu a light and interesting character is meant to provide comical relief to the audience.

The plot gets disjointed from here and characters get connected through some unconnected events and others quite predictably in an accidental way. Suddenly a Sikh pop singer, Avatar Singh (Kamala Hassan-8) comes up, who is fighting a loosing battle against cancer. The story then wavers to a social activist, Annachi (Kamala Hassan-9) who is fighting the sand mafia in Tamil Nadu. Then attention shifts to an eight foot Tamil speaking Pathan, Kalifullah Khan (Kamala Hassan-10) a buffoon of a character.

The movie ends up in a high voltage drama centered on the Tsunami of 2004, when Fletcher tries using the bio weapon to destroy the world but is sucked by the Tsunami whose salt water neutralizes the bio weapon.

As we see, the story of Dasaavatram is not only weak but quite complex. The high pace of the movie sustains the tempo of the movie that does not allow much of thinking. Music is mediocre, and songs by Hindi playback Himesh Reshammiya is terrible. The only saving grace is its background score.

This jumble mumble of a movie however stands out for its excellent technical work and versatile actor Kamala Hassan’s extraordinary performance in several characters. So excellent is his make-up and voice modulation that it is a difficult task picking any one character as outstanding.

Tsunami shots are perhaps the outstanding presentation in the movie. Top class visuals, superb special effects and the background score together created a big impression on the moviegoers.

In sum Dasaavatram may well go down in the history of Indian cinema as a unique experiment in the commercial circuit but its span may not last beyond a season of entertainment.


Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted a

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"The 99" Comic Books- A World Class Brand

"The 99" Comic Books- A World Class Brand
Syed Ali Mujtaba

What is common between Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men? Well they all are comic books with Judeo-Christian archetypes that shape the minds of the younger generation the world over.

However, since these characters do not sync with the culture of the children brought up in different traditions they can’t be superheroes to all.
In order to fill this void, a Kuwait based entrepreneur, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa has created a superhero comic series that incorporates an Islamic identity to the world of comic books.

A Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, 37 year old Al- Mutawa, aims to provide positive and inspirational images to Muslim children drawing inspiration from Islamic history, culture and traditions. It is with this intention in 2003; he started the Teshkeel Media Group ( whose growing success has already secured it two rounds of funding totaling $25 million.

Teshkeel’s core focus is to cultivate themes intrinsic to Islamic culture and deliver a unique, values based, multi media experience to children in the 9 to 12 age group with a global appeal. At the end its business goal is not selling comic books but, just as Marvel Comics (owners of major global superhero brands), to build Intellectual Property/ brands on a global scale and enable lucrative licensable business propositions.

Already, Teshkeel comic book sales are second only to Superman and Spiderman in the Arab world (which by the way are also distributed in the MENA region by Teshkeel), they are expanding to South and South East Asia, they have licensed merchandise being produced in France, are planning an animation series, and a whole theme park around its characters.

An Idea is born…

Al-Mutawa’s interest in creating children's literature began when he created a series of children's books that won him an UNESCO award. While practicing Clinical Psychology, the passion of writing for children always stayed with him and he knew the potential for marketing such concepts in his region which has the fifth largest children's population in the world.

Talking to Dinar Standard Al-Mutawa said that after a hectic few years practicing clinical psychology he needed a break from it and decided to pursue an MBA, however he wasn’t sure of his subsequent plans.

“That was the summer of 2003. I was in a cab with my mom and my sister. My sister basically turned to me and said: 'Naif- promise me you will go back to writing after school.'”

“This is where I was kind of fate struck and said to her, if it is for me to go back now, it has to be a concept that has the potential of Pokemon - otherwise it doesn't make sense, having a Doctorate and three Masters Degrees.”

“So in my mind I was thinking what reaction people would have against next thought was my God what has happened to Muslims, what happened to the tolerance of the libraries of Baghdad and the libraries of Alexandria…then I thought of Allah and how disappointed he must be…my next thought was Allah has 99 attributes, and ironically this brought me back full circle to the concept of Pokeman and by the end of the cab ride I had the beginnings of the idea ” Al-Mutawa said.

That’s how the concept of “the 99” was born - creating a superhero adventure series--blending fiction with historical events in Islamic history and universal applicable Muslim values.

He adds; “the first round of financing was done in 7 months time and almost $ 8 million was raised from 54 investors from 8 countries. That’s why I say I have investors in the US, Mexico, China, Lebanon, Poland, Egypt. Around a million and quarter came from my business school classmates at Columbia University and the rest came from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, including four financial institutions, the leading retailers of the region,” Al-Mutawa said.

Teshkeel CEO Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa at the launch of the first Bahasa Indonesian versions of "The 99" by local publishing house, the Femina Group.

The launch coincided with release of "Fatah The Opener," a superhero of Indonesian origin. Toro Ridwan, a Jakarta teen discovers a mysterious stone that gives him the power to open and close instant gateways to any location.

“The 99” Adventure Series

Modeled on the 99 attributes of Allah, the 99 concept is based on the sagas of the battle of good versus evil. The narrative begins in the backdrop of 99 gems scattered throughout the world, each embodying one of the 99 characteristics of Allah. The setting is the thirteenth century sacking of Baghdad and the Spanish crusades and the action revolves around 99 individuals living in 99 different countries who become superheroes upon possessing one of these gems.

These characters are not all Arabs, but Muslims from all over the world. Jabbar, the enforcer, is a hulking figure from Saudi Arabia with the power to grow immense at a sneer. Noora, the Light is from the United Arab Emirates who can read the truth and help people to see it in themselves. Darr is the afflicter from the United States. Of the 99 super heroes, almost half of them are female and 31 of them wear hijab. However, none have the feminine characteristics. Batina, derived from the word meaning hidden, is superwoman. Mumita who hails from Portugal has unparalleled agility.

The 99 gems scattered around the world are a metaphor for the spread of Islam that takes on as many faces as the places it’s rooted in. The comic goes on to personify the modern Islamic Diaspora. Multicultural backgrounds are found in several characters. One such character is from Sudan but grew up in France.

Role Models

Commenting on creating heroes, Al – Mutawa says, “One thing that kept popping into my mind was the lack of real, proper modern day role models and heroes in our part of the world. Historical figures as role models have issues; it depends on what side you belong to. You know the whole George Washington Americans he's a political hero, to the British he's a political terrorist. So that’s the problem with historical figures in Islamic society as well. Except with the prophet Mohammad (pbuh), there are few people on whom everyone would agree as their hero.”

However, the concept of “the 99” doesn’t directly incorporate Islam, says Al- Mutawa adding, "it’s only about its positive values. When you read the comic, there's no mention of Allah or the Prophet (pbuh). Nobody is praying, nobody's is reading the Quran. There's no religion in the book. It’s based on the basic human values that we all share, the real virtues of Islam, the attributes of Allah…generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight and mercy. This is the essence of the 99,” he said.

Building a world-class brand with world-class talent

Al- Mutawa has assembled top tier talent for this job. “The writing is done by one of the writers of Xmen, the penciling and inking is done by the same people who work on Batman. Then I hired two of the managers that took Marvel publications through the 1990s. I have the former marketing head of Marvel working as my chief operating officer, and the former publisher of Marvel working as a consultant. Their expertise has made the 99, a top class product,” Al- Mutawa said.

The 99 comics have struck a universal chord and Al- Mutawa is a happy man. “Alhamdulillah we have licenses from two in Malaysia,a publisher in India- Chandamama is doing all of South Asia except Pakistan. We signed with a French based publisher in Morocco that caters to North Africa. We sold a merchandising license to a Spanish company for back to school products. Pencils and bookcases, which are licensed, are coming to the market this August to December” Al-Mutawa said.

Talking about its circulation, estimated at over 20,000 copies per issue, Al-Mutawa says, “the 99 comics are always either the middle or the top of our sales compared to the Spiderman, Batman and others that we sell. Sometimes its number two or three in the market, but it’s always more than Archies, more than Hulk...always more than X men.”

“Also, we have licenses for novelties in Archies comics and cartoon network for the region. We just basically translate and put out their stuff. This is basically the Trojan horse technique, where every copy of all these other comics has ads for the 99 in them. Sometimes, free giveaways in those comics. We are seeing steady growth in terms of circulation,” Al- Mutawa said.

Teshkeel recently announced partnership with United Entertainment & Tourism Company (UETC) of Kuwait to develop the region's first superhero theme park featuring THE 99 characters.

Licensing “The 99”

He laments that there is a relatively small market size for comics, but acknowledges the fact that the opportunities on its intellectual property aspect are tremendous. “We never expected to make money publishing comics, this is more of a way to develop the IP” Al- Mutawa said and adds it’s panning out well. “Newspapers are paying us money to publish the 99. In Kuwait a newspaper is publishing the 99 story every Friday. So does a paper in Saudi and in Abu Dhabi as well,” he said.

"The 99" Village

Cashing in on the intellectual property Teshkeel Media has recently partnered with United Entertainment & Tourism Company (UETC) of Kuwait to develop the region's first superhero theme park featuring THE 99 characters. THE 99 VILLAGE will be created on the site of UETC's existing amusement park in Jahra, Kuwait. It is expected that THE 99 Village theme parks will soon follow throughout the GCC.

"This is incredible if you think of the history of theme parks in the past hundred years or so, only a handful of concepts have got the license.” he said.

Moving further on IP, Al-Mutawa says he is working on the idea to develop “the 99 animated television series. “Inshallah by the middle of next summer we will be announcing a major animation partner. Right now negotiations are on with a few, all of whom are top tiered international players. We are also negotiating a direct DVD dealership with somebody in Hollywood,” he said.

Al-Mutawa has received a second batch of financing of $18 million from an Islamic investment bank. The bank has a Shari'ah board and has approved the activities as ‘Islamic.’ Al-Mutawa says, “I don’t want to get into the controversy of halal or haram, because I am convinced that only this type of activity would take Islam in the media out of the gutter.”

A trailblazer in Muslim Life style products, Al-Mutawa’s vision is to see “the 99” become the first and foremost series in the world. “My dream is to make “the 99” a global IP asset, an effective global brand. Right now it’s just a seedling that needs the right nursing” he concludes.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

The copy right of this article is with Dinar Standered.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Unwind Center and a Summer of Love

The Unwind Center and a Summer of Love
Syed Ali Mujtaba

The Unwind Center (www. celebrated its 10 years of being in Chennai with a vocal music festival - called “Summer of Love” on May 31, 2008. My friend, John Christian, the director of the Unwind centre, had invited me for the show. John who uses to live in the US returned home to start a English music school and do some social service in Chennai. He called the place the Unwind center where young children were taught English music and to play the western musical instruments. Now there are two Unwind centers in Chennai and one in Bangalore.

Every summer the center organizes English music concerts. I still remember as a reporter, I had gone to cover the June Rock concert JRO in 1998. There has been looking back for the Unwind center since then. It has been hosting local musicians and bringing musicians from abroad as well. I have attended the one, in Bollywood music director Sandeep Chauta participated. Sandeep the music director of the movie “Maast,” jammed along with local guitarists for quite a long time. The next Unwind activity was my interaction with Pakistani Sufi band Junoon. My write-up on this can be checked in the following links.

The 10th year celebration of the Unwind center was called a summer of love. “Summer of Love” is not just a catchphrase but has a purpose, learning to love the people around you more, is the main theme, said John explaining to the audience gathered at the Museum theater Egmore. It’s to provide clean music without drugs and alcohol; it’s to counter the gun culture that’s becoming popular in our schools, and the bomb explosions that are recurring these days. Finally, “Summer of Love” is all about showing concern and compassion towards the underprivileged that need more than just NGO projects, John concluded.

Ahead of the “Summer of Love” festival there was a training session from April 15 to May 20, comprising 12 days of vocal training, one-and-a-half hours every day. There were three batches comprising of more than 10 people who learned 10 songs by artists of their chosen stream. The tutors from Chennai, Bangalore, Coonoor and the U.S taught the best choral to them. It all culminated in a two-day live performance On May 30 and 31, combining voice and dance called “Summer of Love.”

It was quite fun being there at the Museum theater. Most of the English songs of the 60 and 70s were sung. There was the Beatles, the Carpenters, ABBA, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, Brotherhood of Man and Billy Joel, Cat Stevenson and many others. The talent of students trained at the Unwind centre that actually formed the main part of the signing was amazing.

My friend Swaroop, was the main person conducting the entire event single handed, as well playing the guitar. He had a great interactive session with the crowed and made every one sing with him playing the guitar. The entire audience was involved in the singing activity and it was fun to see the old and the young get distracted from their mundane activities. Swaroop really had a big hand in that.

In between well known local soloists and rock musicians too gave their performances. However, my find was Ms Suniti Sarthi, who is a student of the Unwind center. Currently in college, she has already become a rage on the college cultural festivals. She sings Whitney Huston with so much of confidence, that one can close once eyes and visuals the song in the movie “The Bodyguard.” Suniti already has started getting musical offers and I am doing a video interview with her soon. This girl is going to go places and its early days for her.

As part of the summer festivities, the voluntaries of the Unwind centre every year distribute thousands of packets of cool butter milk to the traffic policemen standing in the hot sun and also to the construction workers in Chennai. The unwind center have also built accommodation for the widows and other destitute. It’s also running a school for poor children.

I have been following the activities of the Unwind centre for the last ten yeas and can certainly say with confidence they are doing great service to the cause of English music in Chennai as well serving the humanity in this great city.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at