Even years after the silent movie era in Hollywood had given way to the talkies, MGM, which was then one of the the biggest film studios, continued to cast Greta Garbo, one of its most phenomenally successful stars, only in silent films. There are varying narratives to account for this curious marketing decision. There were those who said that the studio feared that the Stockholm-born Garbo's thick Swedish accent might have shattered the trance that she cast over her silent-era audiences. Others maintained that it was MGM's grand marketing strategy intended to maintain Garbo's sultry mystique.
In any case, in 1930, perhaps as a concession to the march of cinematic trends, MGM decided to cast Garbo in her first talkie: it was a film adaptation of Eugene O' Neill's play Anna Christie, in which Garbo plays a Swedish woman growing up in the US with a dishonourable past. But by then, Garbo's English diction was so flawless that she had to actively work on a fake Swedish accent to lend authenticity to her performance.
The film was panned by critics as "dull" and "static and ludicrous", and even Garbo's first ever spoken line - "Gimme a whiskey, with a ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby!" - is far from epic. Yet, marketing wizardry manifested itself in publicising the film with the tagline: "Garbo Talks!"
Just the fact that a silent-era movie star had "found her voice" was enough to overcome the artistic limitations of the performance. The megastar was the message.
On Thursday, we saw another such epiphanic moment when it was revealed to us that Rahul Gandhi, who has thus far remained tucked away behind a purdah of carefully cultivated mystique, could talk.
For nearly 75 minutes, he held forth, on a platform provided by CII, on his idea of India, and of how the strands of economic growth, social inclusiveness, and communal harmony dovetailed in his worldview. It was, as many others have noted, a broad-brush artwork, not a miniature Mughal painting with intricate design; it was suffused with generalities and motherhood-and-apple-pie statements. And rather than offer solutions, he became yet again the critic of "the system" - of which he is an intrinsic part. And the topics that he studiously avoided talking about offered just as eloquent a testimony to his play-safe strategy as the feel-good sentiments he appears to have inspired among commentators and the cross-section of young audiences who made it to media studios.
Even so, the "Rahul Talks!" moment is welcome, since it amounts to the first real effort on his part to let us in on his politics, and show us how he connects the dots.
There is, it must be acknowledged, nothing exceptionable about the big-picture statements - in particular, about the need for social equity - that Rahul Gandhi articulated. But, in equal measure, the manner in which he framed the subject is open to criticism on many counts. The economic philosophy - such as it is - that Rahul Gandhi outlined represents an unwillingness or incapacity to learn from the fact that these are ideas that have consistently failed in the past. And yet, Rahul Gandhi continues to mouth these shibboleths unquestioningly, and advocates their continuance till kingdom come merely because he is new on the political arena and because his Discovery of India is still incomplete.
For instance, Rahul Gandhi framed the idea of "inclusive growth" in a manner that suggested that those who favour growth do not wish to see social equity. That is a colossal misrepresentation of facts. The philosophical difference arises only in the manner in which such social equity is best achieved. The Congress' approach, for three generation of leaders now, is premised on throwing good money after bad on "garibi hatao" programmes with no audit of the social or economic outcomes.
The argument that economic liberalism has had the best results worldwide in poverty alleviation has much merit in it, and yet, no politician in India will even begin to acknowledge it. Rahul Gandhi's failing, as a new-generation politician, is that he has bought too readily into the entitlement-focussed approach patented by his party, and projects any intellectual challenge about its efficacy in the very purpose it claims to achieve - poverty alleviation - as heartless and uncaring.
This is intellectual dishonesty at its worst, but you can't fault Rahul Gandhi for peddling it. After all, syrupy feel-good sentiments about social equity have kept the Congress party, of which he is the current brand ambassador, in power for much of the 66 years since independence, with virtually no challenge to the economic philosophy that it embraces. Even much of middle India has come to consider endless subsidies as their inalienable right, even though they stand to lose when all the costs are factored in. And even captains of industry, some of whom are beneficiaries of the crony capitalist model, made sure they were seen on camera gushing about Rahul Gandhi's "brilliance". (Their off-the-record conversations, however, were revealing, as this report testifies.)
It is this seductive power of the feel-good economic philosophy, with no consideration of how it continues to keep millions in poverty, that inhibits India from realising its economic potential. With his interaction on Thursday, Rahul Gandhi slipped us yet more of the same Mickey Finn that keeps us in a comatose condition and inhibits us from asking hard questions of our leaders for fear of being branded heartless.
But, hey, Rahul Talks! That alone ought to be cause for celebration...