BilluCAST: Irrfan,Shah Rukh Khan,Lara Dutta,Om Puri,Rajpal Yadav,AsraniDIRECTOR: PriyadarshanOnce upon an ancient time,an exemplary friendship illumined our land: tales of Lord Krishna and his childhood pal Sudama,perhaps apocryphal,perhaps mythical,still continue to regale and delight us.Monster Malyalam hit Katha Parayumpol becomes Billu on its way to the Hindi heartland via Priyadarshan. In the remake,Irrfan plays the barber who shared tiffin with superstar Sahir Khan when they were carefree schoolchildren. Now all grown up,Billu is still dirt poor,living with wife and two kids in a spartan hut,and Sahir is the badshah of Bollywood.The film,geared towards the climactic point of the two opposite poles meeting,is supposed to thrive on the tensions built by the director,in the lives of Billu and Sahir. But except for a couple of sequences which hit the emotional spot,Priyadarshans latest is devoid of the essential drama that would have made Billu a memorable film.Can you put a high-octane performer like SRK and a fabulous actor like Irrfan in one film and draw a near blank? Priyan has done exactly that by abandoning his usual exuberance,which makes his films such loud,take-you-out-of-yourself experiences. Here he goes uncharacteristically sedate,and keeps everything so toned down that almost nothing lifts off the screen.Too much time is spent getting Billu and Sahir to meet,and the interim passes slowly. Irrfan is wonderful,but is surrounded by a lot of dead wood: except for Asrani,the rest of the bit parts never go beyond their lines. Or are just plain uninteresting. How many times can you see a mustachioed Om Puri (playing a greedy money-lender) drive up to Billus little shop in the middle of a village chowk (note to the filmmakers: sets will always be sets,and never the real thing: a UP village will never have a round circle dotted with subziwalas,naiees (barbers),and other bric-a-brac,its always intersecting galis),and yell at him? And Lara as a village belle may not be as much a stretch as the one she was in Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost,but only a tad: her flawlessly cut low-back cholis are a fashion statement you wont find in villages.SRK,playing a character as close to himself as you wouldnt notice (and youre not supposed to),charges up the scene every time he comes on,saying something pithy. Which happens too seldom,because hes too busy boosting the film with item numbers with Kareena,Priyanka and Deepika. Happily,he does reserve some lovely lines for himself: Im the only movie star who has more men than women around me. Hes saying that apropos of the macho security men who surround him,but ha ha,read between the lines. He also uses the film to launch broadsides at people who say nasty things about the Khans and Bollywood rivalries,and pompous types who do not respect actors: not for nothing is he the smartest of them all.Watch it for Irrfan who gets every shade in,from self-respect to bafflement to misery,in his portrayal of a poor man whos got too much pride to remember himself to a friend whos gone so far ahead of him in lifes sweepstakes. And for SRK playing SRK. Just dont pay too much attention to the film.
State Department Will Try to Take Up Slack After US Military Exits Iraq. As the U.S. military prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, the Obama administration is planning a remarkable civilian effort, buttressed by a small army of contractors, to fill the void. By October 2011, the State Department will assume responsibility for training the Iraqi police, a task that will largely be carried out by contractors. With no U.S. soldiers to defuse sectarian tensions in northern Iraq, it will be up to U.S. diplomats in two new $100 million outposts to head off potential confrontations between the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. To protect the civilians in a country that is still home to insurgents with al-Qaida and Iranian-backed militias, the State Department is planning to more than double its private security guards, up to about 7,000, according to administration officials who disclosed new details of the plan. Defending five fortified compounds across the country, the security contractors would operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress, the officials said. "I don't think State has ever operated on its own, independent of the U.S. military, in an environment that is quite as threatening on such a large scale," said James Dobbins, a former ambassador who has seen his share of trouble spots as a special envoy for Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia. "It is unprecedented in scale." White House officials expressed confidence that the transfer to civilians - about 2,400 people who would work at the Baghdad embassy and other diplomatic sites - would be carried out on schedule and that they could fulfill their mission of helping bring stability to Iraq. "The really big picture that we have seen in Iraq over the last year and half to two years is this: The number of violent incidents is significantly down, the competence of Iraqi security forces is significantly up and politics has emerged as the basic way of doing business in Iraq," said Anthony J. Blinken, the national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. "If that trend continues, and I acknowledge it is an 'if,' that creates a much better context for dealing with the very significant and serious problems that remain in Iraq." But the tiny military presence under the Obama administration's plan - limited to several dozen to several hundred officers in an embassy office who would help the Iraqis purchase and field new U.S. military equipment - and the civilians' growing portfolio have led some veteran Iraq hands to suggest that thousands of additional troops would be needed after 2011. "We need strategic patience here," Ryan C. Crocker, who served as ambassador in Iraq in from 2007 until early 2009, said in an interview. "Our timetables are getting out ahead of Iraqi reality. We do have an Iraqi partner in this. We certainly are not the ones making unilateral decisions anymore. But if they come to us later on this year requesting that we jointly relook at the post-2011 period, it is going to be in our strategic interest to be responsive." The array of tasks that military experts and some Iraqi officials believe U.S. troops likely will be needed for include training Iraqi forces to operate and support logistically new M-1 tanks, artillery and F-16s they intend to acquire from the Americans, protecting Iraq's airspace until the country can rebuild its air force and perhaps assisting Iraq's special operations units in carrying out counterterrorism operations. Such an arrangement would need to be negotiated with Iraqi officials, who insisted on the 2011 deadline in the agreement with the Bush administration for removing U.S. forces. With the Obama administration in campaign mode for the coming midterm elections and Iraqi politicians yet to form a government, the question of what future military presence might be needed has been all but banished from public discussion. "The administration does not want to touch this question right now," said one administration official involved in Iraq issues, adding that military officers had suggested that 5,000 to 10,000 troops might be needed. "It runs counter to their political argument that we are getting out these messy places," the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, added. "And it would be quite counterproductive to talk this way in front of the Iraqis." The Obama administration had already committed itself to reducing U.S. troops in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August, a goal the White House on Wednesday said would be met. Administration officials and experts outside government say, however, that implementing the agreement that calls for removing all U.S. forces by the end of 2011 will be far more challenging. The progress or difficulties in transferring responsibility to the civilians will not only influence events in Iraq but will provide something of a test case for the Obama administration's longer-term strategy in Afghanistan. Preparations for the civilian mission have been under way for months. One U.S. official said that more than 1,200 specific tasks carried out by the U.S. military in Iraq had been identified to be handed over to the civilians, transferred to the Iraqis or phased out. To move around Iraq without U.S. troops, the State Department plans to acquire 60 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, called MRAPs, from the Pentagon; expand its inventory of armored cars to 1,320; and create a mini-air fleet by buying three planes to add to its lone aircraft. Its helicopter fleet, which will be piloted by contractors, will grow to 29 choppers from 17. The department's plans to rely on 6,000 to 7,000 security contractors, who are also expected to form "quick reaction forces" to rescue civilians in trouble, is a sensitive issue, given Iraqi fury about shootings of civilians by American private guards in recent years. Administration officials said that security contractors would have no special immunity and would be required to register with the Iraqi government. In addition, one of the State Department's regional security officers, agents who oversee security at diplomatic outposts, will be required to approve and accompany every civilian convoy, providing additional oversight. The startup cost of building and sustaining two embassy branch offices, one in Kirkuk and the other in Mosul, of hiring security contractors, buying new equipment and setting up two consulates in Basra and Erbil, is about $1 billion. It will cost an additional $500 million or so to make the two consulates permanent. And getting the police training program under way will cost more than $800 million. Among the trickiest missions for the civilians will be dealing with lingering Kurdish and Arab tensions. To tamp down potential conflicts in disputed areas, Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, established a series of checkpoints made up of U.S. soldiers, Iraqi army troops and Peshmerga fighters. But those checkpoints may be phased out when the U.S. troops leave. Instead, the United States is counting on the new embassy branch offices. Administration officials initially considered building five such branch offices in Iraq, but abandoned those plans as cost estimates grew. "They will be eyes and ears on the ground to see if progress is being made or problems are developing," Blinken said. But Daniel Serwer, vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally financed research center, questioned whether this would be sufficient. "There is a risk it will open the door to real problems," he said. "Our soldiers have been out there in the field with the Kurds and Arabs. Now they are talking about two embassy branch offices, and the officials there may need to stay around the quad if it is not safe enough to be outside." Another area that has prompted concern is police training, which the civilians are to take over by October 2011. That will primarily be done by contractors with State Department oversight and is to be carried out at three main hubs with visits to other sites. Administration officials say that the program has been designed with input from the Iraqis and will help Iraqi police officers develop the skills to move from counterinsurgency operations to crime solving. The aim is "focus on the higher-end skill set," Colin Kahl, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told reporters this week. James M. Dubik, a retired Army three-star general who oversaw the training of Iraqi security forces in 2007 and 2008, questioned whether the State Department was fully up to the mission. "The task is much more than just developing skills," he said. "It is developing the Ministry of Interior and law enforcement systems at the national to local levels, and the State Department has little experience in doing that." Crocker said that however capable the State Department was in carrying out its tasks, it was important for the U.S. military to keep enough of a presence in Iraq to encourage Iraq's generals to stay out of politics. "We need an intense, sustained military-to-military engagement," he said. "If military commanders start asking themselves, 'Why are we fighting and dying to hold this country together while the civilians fiddle away our future?' - that can get dangerous." [Grodon/Cleveland/17August2010] 2b1af7f3a8