Gold-laden Indian brides defy prime minister as culture triumphs

Updated 29 January 2014
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Gold-laden Indian brides defy prime minister as culture triumphs

MUMBAI, India: As the sound of traditional drums, trumpets and cymbals ushers Amrita Mannil into the wedding hall, she’s adorned by four finely crafted necklaces, rings, 16 bangles, a glistening belt, dangling chandelier earrings and a stone-encrusted headpiece to match the silk borders of her dress. She’s wearing about 800 grams (1.8 pounds) of gold.
Amid the music and the chanted prayers, a gold chain is placed around her neck as the 25-year-old advertising executive marries Vimal Mohan in a traditional Hindu ceremony attended by 500 friends and relatives in Kozhikode, about 112 miles from the city of Kochi in Kerala.
“Gold is an asset the girl carries,” 28-year-old Namitha Shyam, the bride’s older sister, said after last month’s ceremony. “The values, status and wealth of the family is represented by the gold the girl wears as she gets married. The more gold you wear, the more pride you have in your family.”
The jewelry worn by the bride is typical and represents the cultural and social affinity Indians have had toward gold for centuries, making the country the world’s largest consumer last year. Demand in India and China helped bullion to climb by more than $1,000 an ounce since 2000 and helped to curb this year’s 23 percent rout.
At the same time, the resilience of Indian demand, and the fact the nation imports almost all the bullion it uses, poses a challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as he seeks to trim a record current-account deficit and stem the rupee’s 15 percent slide this year.
Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram responded by raising import taxes three times this year to curb consumption which represented about 20 percent of world demand in 2012.
Prices more than doubled in India since 2008 and reached a record in August. The increase gave pause to Ramesh Babu, the 61-year-old father of the bride, who bought Amrita less gold than he did for her sister’s wedding five years ago. He bought 100 sovereigns, each weighing 8 grams. “We are moderate,” said Babu. “There are people who give 300 to 400 sovereigns.”
Indians purchase gold at festivals and for marriages as part of the bridal trousseau and as gifts in the form of jewelry. Demand will be 900 to 1,000 metric tons this year, from 864.2 tons in 2012, the World Gold Council says.
Demand in India has helped curb this year’s slump in gold prices after some investors lost faith in the metal, a traditional store of value, as global inflation remained low. Bullion plunged 23 percent this year to $1,290.20 an ounce on Friday, poised for its first annual retreat since 2000. Prices in rupees have declined only 1.7 percent.
The slump in London prices erased about $64 billion from global exchange-traded products, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Central banks added to gold reserves the last two years even as they lost about $573 billion in value since bullion peaked at $1,921 an ounce in September 2011. The $350 million PFR Gold Fund of billionaire John Paulson declined 62 percent this year through September.
For Indians, gold is not so much an investment as a cultural experience, said Pallavi Rao, assistant professor at the School of Communication, Manipal University, in south India.
“When you think about the great Indian wedding, you cannot think about it without all that gold jewelry,” said Rao, based in Manipal, about 250 miles from Bangalore. “Gold buying itself becomes part of the wedding ritual.”
Mannil’s family spent more than six hours selecting the chains and necklaces Amrita wore at the wedding. An Indian bride without gold “is like rice without salt: bland,” said Sheela Ramesh, her mother, while fiddling with her own Thali, or gold wedding locket.
“I got married in 1984, and the same tradition is being followed even now,” said Ramesh. “My parents gave me gold, and we give our daughters,” she said, as three other mothers, gathered at a pre-wedding ceremony to decorate Amrita’s hands with henna, nodded in agreement. “In our custom we wear only gold, no artificial jewelry.”
The insatiable appetite is good news for retailers such as Gitanjali Gems, Malabar Gold and Diamonds, Titan Industries, Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri and Kalyan Jewellers. The stores represent 10 percent of the market estimated at about 1 trillion rupees ($15.9 billion), Edelweiss Securities said in a report last month.
“In the long term, the fundamentals of gold demand are still intact,” said Haresh Soni, chairman of the All India Gems & Jewellery Trade Federation, which represents 300,000 jewelers and bullion dealers. “For Indians, gold buying is not just a cultural or traditional compulsion but also acts as social security. From birth to death, gold is involved in all aspects of our life and used in our prayers and rituals.”
To lure customers, jewelers are spending more on television and outdoor commercials and signing up Bollywood stars from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Award-winning South Indian actor Mohanlal is a brand ambassador along with actress Kareena Kapoor for Malabar Gold, which has 102 stores in the Middle East, India and Singapore.
The Babus purchased all their wedding gold from Malabar’s flagship store in Kozhikode, a city famous for being the first trade link between India and Europe after Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama landed on its shores.
“It helped that Mohanlal is my mom’s and fiance’s favorite actor,” said Amrita, drawing laughs from those gathered at the henna ceremony.
There are about 5 million weddings in India every year, said Prithviraj Kothari, managing director of Riddhisiddhi Bullions and a director with the Bombay Bullion Association. The average purchase is 200 grams (7.05 ounces) , he said.
The government is seeking to cut imports to 800 tons in the 12 months through March 31, from 845 tons a year earlier, to reduce the current-account deficit. The gap results mainly from bullion and crude oil imports, according to the Reserve Bank of India. The curbs caused a domestic gold shortage and buyers are paying a premium for supplies, according to the All India Gems & Jewellery Trade Federation.
“The more negative statements the government makes about gold, the more people are attracted toward it as they think that the government might ban imports,” said Bachhraj Bamalwa, a director with the trade group. Farmers also invest in gold because it helps when crops are poor and some rural people use it to store wealth rather than bank accounts, said Bamalwa.
Prospects for a better-than-average harvest are fueling demand. Rural India accounts for 60 percent of consumption and the best monsoon rain in six years has boosted rice, corn and cotton crops, increasing farmers’ incomes.
“A major chunk of our income goes in development of the next season’s crop and some of it is invested in gold, especially if there’s any marriage in the family,” said Sandeep Chakane, a sugarcane farmer from Bhigwan, a town about 100 kilometers from the city of Pune.
Futures traded in Mumbai surged more than fivefold since they began about a decade ago, reaching a record 35,074 rupees per 10 grams in August.
“Price is not an issue at all,” said Jyostnarani Sahoo, a 41-year-old mother from Angul in the eastern state of Odisha, who drove 15 miles with her husband to buy a necklace and earrings for her daughter. “In our tradition, it’s a prerequisite thing in weddings. Gold prices will only rise, so we didn’t want to delay it further.”
Higher tariffs and central-bank rules linking foreign purchases to re-exports may cut official gold imports in the second half of the year to less than 150 tons, from 478 tons a year earlier, said the federation’s Bamalwa.
That’s spurred smuggling from the Middle East, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Indian laborers working in the Middle East are acting as couriers for gangs in return for a ticket home and a few thousand rupees, said Rishi Yadav, assistant commissioner at the Mumbai customs department’s Air Intelligence Unit.
“When you have social compulsions, there are many ways of overcoming restrictions,” said Babu as he sat in his house a day before the wedding. “Irrespective of what the government does, Indians will find a way to get around this because every wedding has to have gold.”
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•With assistance from Pratik Parija in New Delhi


Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

Twenty-five years later, director Jon Favreau has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. (Supplied)
Updated 56 min 16 sec ago
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Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

  • Jon Favreau, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner discuss Disney’s latest blockbuster remake.
  • ‘We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being,’ says Favreau.

DUBAI: There are few movies as resonant as Disney’s 1994 classic “The Lion King.” From its beautiful animation and memorable songs by Hans Zimmer and Elton John to its devastating emotional punch, the film has become a touchstone for an entire generation, one of the few films that unite nearly every person who has seen it across the world.

Now, 25 years later, director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book”) has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. Sitting in London, the first thing Favreau asks Arab News is whether we were part of the “Lion King” generation, and we were, mentioning to Favreau just how expansive the film still feels to us.

 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Director and Producer Jon Favreau and Donald Glover attend the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood. (AFP)

“That’s part of the challenge here! We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being. We would watch it next to one another and there’s certain sequences that hold up incredibly well that we tried to follow shot-for-shot like (the opening sequence) ‘Circle of Life,’ but there’s other areas where we had the opportunity to update it and make it feel a bit more grounded in reality,” Favreau tells Arab News.

Remaking it for a new generation seems obvious, but — to borrow from another Disney classic — it was a Herculean task for Favreau and the huge animation team that supported him. This version remains fully animated, but uses cutting-edge technology to make the entire film photo-realistic. The characters, story, and songs remain, but the film looks more like a David Attenborough nature documentary than an animated movie.

It wasn’t just the technology that proved challenging, either. Making sure that audiences still connect with these beloved characters without the expressiveness of classic Disney animation was something that gave Favreau pause.

(Supplied)

“I worked on ‘Jungle Book,’ so I had some experience in this area,” he says. “Pretty early on, we got to try some different things and when you go to human, you think it would make you feel more but it really feels kind of bizarre, at least to me. I was limited if we were to go photo-real. If you go stylized like Pixar it’s great, you can do whatever you want. If we go ‘Madagascar’ you can make them stick their tongues out. The minute you start hitting photorealism, you hit the uncanny valley when you push the performances beyond what the real animal could do. Part of what makes it look so real is we limited what we allowed the animators to do.”

To be sure that audiences would connect with the characters, Favreau relied a lot on the voices that supported them, bringing in an all-star cast including Beyoncé as Nala, Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa.

“If you look at a character like Pumbaa, to me he’s the most fun example, because when people saw pictures of Pumbaa they were like, ‘Oh my god! That’s horrifying! That thing looks like a monster!’ But when you watch the movie and you hear Seth Rogen’s voice coming out of it and the way the animators animated his body and what the character represents and feels, you have a tremendous connection to it. It’s a testament to the power of using techniques that we borrowed from documentaries or other films, where we limit ourselves to not anthropomorphize the characters,” says Favreau.

(Supplied) 

Eichner and Rogen both tried to remain true to the characters, but also stay true to themselves. “My idea from the beginning was that Jon cast us for a reason,” says Eichner. “He could have cast pretty much any actors. Anyone would have killed to do these roles and be in this movie. It wasn’t the right time to try a new persona. It would have been very strange had I all of a sudden had a deep resonant baritone. I figured he wants Seth to sound like Seth and me to sound like me — or at least what our public comic personas sound-like — and hopefully they’ll complement each other, which they did. Our goal was not to try a new character but to be as funny as possible together.”

As funny as Rogen and Eichner are in the film, it is still aimed firmly at kids — something Rogen hadn’t really considered prior.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen at the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood . (AFP)

“It wasn’t something that even occurred to me until we were making the movie and I was performing the bully scene,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is for kids!’ I have never done anything that was ever trying to instill any wisdom into kids in any way shape or form.”

The film’s wisdom, like the original, is far-reaching, exploring truths not only of family and loss, but of the corrupting nature of ambition and power, which Ejiofor explored in his role as Scar.

“Often, when people are obsessed with power and status, they aren’t really worried about what they do with it, they’re just concerned about getting it. It’s not something that’s connected to any kind of nurturing aspect for a community or anybody else. It becomes about the nature of obsession — obsession with power and status, and maybe status more than power, even though they are related,” says Ejiofor. “That’s one of the things that’s engaging and fun about the film and its themes.”