So ‘The Print’ has found its cause celebre – free speech. And has mounted this initiative in collaboration with the legend… wait for it… dary ‘Facebook’, which itself is mired in controversy over #Fakenews, along with BITS Hyderabad. I am sure The Print and FB have India’s best interests at heart. There can be no doubt. The fiery Richa Chadha, whose fame came riding on the back of some very interesting roles in Gangs of Wasseypur, a grimy epic saga of mindless violence and toxic masculinity, Fukrey, a crazy comedy, and Masaan, a tragic love story of blackmail and emotional survival, is known for her feminist stance. And may her tribe increase. So, when she appears at #DemocracyWall, it is newsworthy, at least for The Print anyway. https://twitter.com/ThePrintIndia/status/987637568136073217 And this is what she said at the event, among other things. Richa is right that movies are blamed for rising crime. And she’s quick to dismiss the role that films might play in impacting the psyche of its audience. She calls it simplistic to draw that connection. This is where I have a problem. I hope Richa has conducted a study to prove that audiences are not impacted by the content they consume. She will be surprised, to say the least. Whatever Richa might say, there is ample evidence otherwise: If the movies had no impact on the audiences, why would the government mandate the insertion of anti-smoking advisory? Going by Richa’s logic, the advisory can be removed because the public is discerning enough to know that showing SRK smoking and looking cool doesn’t mean they can start radiating SRK vibes just by smoking. You see, the movies are just mirroring the society. Okay, let’s take another matter: family values. You know the Sooraj Barjatya kind of movies? That’s mirror too. In our Sanskari society therefore, there should be no rapes. Bah, you’ll say. Finally, advertisements. If movies or advertisements did not have any impact in creating a desire or aspiration, where is the point in those millions of product placements and those glamorous ads that market everything from a sports car to a ceramic tile with the image of a scantily clad woman? Is this also a case of mirroring? So my ultimate question is, Richa, where do you get off? Where does Bollywood get off? Why do you think Pink, English Vinglish, Drishyam… and movies of this kind, even your own Masaan, make such an impact on the audience? And was it because you were just holding a mirror to us? Who draws the line between “hey, this is to cause an impact”, “this scene to mirror the society”, and “this is just for a lark!”? Who? You? You, who thinks Bollywood is the one that spoke up against #KathuaRapeCase, finally pressuring the PM to make a statement? When do you speak up against the rampant sexual abuse of women and men in the industry you so coldly defend? When you say movies get blamed, aren’t you just defending your cronies who insert titillating scenes of violence and abuse just to provoke people? What do you think Gangs of Wasseypur was all about? I admire you for what you have said (Link here ) on Section 375 and your comments on rape culture are truly commendable. But, that does not take away from the fact that movie makers have a responsibility to the society. It doesn’t serve any purpose to hide behind this mask of “Oh, I’m only showing what’s happening, not contributing to it”. Just like you and your industry shows that great deal of restraint in criticising certain religions, and it really really shows restraint in doing so to ensure the safety of its members, that same degree of concern for responsible filmmaking is absolutely essential. Just watch any of Kanti Shah’s films and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Here’s a link to the report of a student that committed suicide after watching 3 idiots, and a cluster of suicides were reported as a result. Here’s a link to the report of another such incident. Now, let me give you a short list of what your movies do not mirror: Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical genius. Shakuntala Devi, the human computer. Abbakka Chowta, the first Tulvuva Queen of Ullal who fought the Portuguese in the latter half of the 16th Century Jhansi Ki Rani, Indian women scientists who took India to space and many, many more such stories. If you really think movies mirror our society, I hope you guys get waaaayyyyyy better at your jobs because this argument will not fly until we hear the likes of you coming out against the abuse going on within the industry… we know it’s there, under the carpet.
I have to thank the current watchman of the Censor Board of Film Certification in India Pahlaj Nihalani for pointing me to the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ (Lipstick henceforth) because otherwise, I might have avoided it. Just like me, I am sure a lot many women (and men) were egged on to watch this movie after the fact that Mr. Nihalani had previously refused to certify it because he found it ‘lady-oriented’ and that it had dared to portray women’s ‘fantasy above life’. When this controversy erupted, many memes emerged on social media, challenging Mr. Nihalani for using ‘lady-oriented’ as an explanation. After watching Lipstick last week, I want to ask him what led him to think it REALLY was ‘lady-oriented’? Was it Plabita Borthakur playing Rihanna Abidi, a typical college-going girl-next-door desperately struggling to fit in with the well-heeled ‘hep’ crowd? If so, I can’t even start counting the number of movies that have such characters. Or maybe it was Aahana Kumra playing Leela, and her muddled love life – engaged to be married to one and in love (and to Mr. Nihalani’s chagrin, a sexual relationship) with another. Sure, we have truly come a long way in our portrayal of sex scenes, gone are the days when you saw flower bulbs slowly siding up to occupy the frame. Or, if it was a low-budget movie, then the camera panned up to reveal a ceiling fan. Nowadays, sex is portrayed somewhat like it really is, busy, noisy, shabby, and often not pretty. Was that the issue here? I think not. For then, so many recent movies, just to name a few, Delhi Belly, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Ram Leela, etc. wouldn’t have had it easy. But they did. So it has to be something else. Could it be that Leela actually desired another man, and had no qualms about it? But then, I have to ask, what separates this Leela of Lipstick and that Leela of Ram Leela? So no, it probably wasn’t that either. In any case, how is this lady-oriented? Both the Leelas were all about the men they loved. Extremely comfortable about stepping outside of their comfort zones and vocal about what they wanted. Now that could be a problem but the Sanskari Bollywood has moved on. Why not CBFC? Could it have been Konkona Sen Sharma’s Shireen Aslam – who has a secret life? Don’t get carried away. She is *just* a door-to-door saleswoman selling household novelties, nothing more nefarious than that. But, she must hide this from her Saudi-return husband who freely indulges his sexual peccadilloes – nice and plying with his girlfriend when outside and forcing himself upon his wife when at home. I wonder which part of Shireen’s story is ‘lady-oriented’ – A careerwoman in hiding? A woman trapped in a bad marriage? A victim of marital rape? Grimly enough, both have their precedents in Bollywood. Shireen’s lady-oriented life is all about fending off attacks from her husband – emotional, psychological, and sexual. Isn’t this the opposite of lady-oriented? Finally, could it be Ratna Pathak Shah’s Usha Parmar, a much older woman, a widow, known in the community simply as buaji? Buaji likes to be in charge of her business. She is a matriarch, and she has furtive desires. She usually explores these through her secret stash of books – a Hindi cousin of Mills & Boon, until she accidentally stumbles upon an object, a much younger man. She takes to projecting her desires on him. Know what? Maybe that’s the real problem. In our industry, only men are allowed to go after younger women. Like in Buddha hoga tera baap, shaukeen, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Cheeni Kum, right back to Baton Baton Mein, even Pati, Patni, aur Woh, we can talk about love but only when men need it from younger women. All the old women should just giddy up for a session of bhajan-kirtan. Except when they are in the Barjatya genre of family films – Maine Pyar Kiya, DDLJ… have had such aunty characters shredded to comic relief, ridiculously tip-toeing after old men who are themselves sidekicks to the hero’s sidekicks. Usha Parmar isn’t that aunty. She’s different. She’s above Shireen, Leela, and Rihanna, who ultimately toe the line even with their minor acts of subversion thrown in the face of authority. It was only Usha who had picked up the books with her ‘Lipstick wale sapne‘, and later on the phone, got her hair dyed, slipped into a sleeveless blouse. She was the only woman in a group of four who had her ‘Lipstickwale Sapne‘. Maybe that’s why her fall was also the greatest. So, how is this film lady-oriented, really? All four women end up stepping out of bounds of tradition and societal restriction, all four women get punished for their transgressions. Heck, this film is so lady-oriented, not one single frame could pass the Bechdel Test. It is all about the men, actually. And mostly, the kind you don’t want to see. It’s not lady-oriented, silly.
The news of a New Zealand river being granted legal personhood by its Parliament was as widely shared in the #socialmedia as it was treated with a sense of subdued wonder. But, at least it wasn’t scoffed at. The river is called Whanganui. And it is now legally a PERSON – as in, it has the same rights as those of a New Zealand citizen. Apparently, this battle for Whanganui’s rights is 160 years old and New Zealand’s native people, the Maori, who fought it, sang the traditional waita folk song to celebrate this win. A personhood for Whanganui isn’t just about solving a legal tangle, it’s about identity, ecology, and human history above all else. It’s also about something else: Confluence of Maori heritage with ancient Hindu (Indian) heritage and cultural history. According to the article, the local Maori people have always recognized the Whanganui ― which they call Te Awa Tupua ― as “kin” and an “indivisible and living whole”. They view their own health as inextricably linked to the health of the river. There’s even a Maori saying that says: “I am the river and the river is me.” Indians still call the river Ganga, fashionably contorted in English as The Ganges, Ganga Maiya or Maa Ganga. Maiya and Maa both words mean ‘mother’. Ganga maiya also has very many mythological stories about her. She finds a mention in the Rig Veda, the oldest of ancient Indian scriptures. She is also the holiest, purest, and most sacred of India’s rivers. Ganga isn’t alone in her personhood and her divinity. She is joined in confluence by Yamuna and Saraswati, all three of whom merge into one another at the beautiful Triveni sangam (confluence of three rivers) at Prayag (meaning confluence, also a way of referring to Allahabad, a major city in Uttar Pradesh) in Allahabad. Whanganui’s personhood entitles her to ‘$80 million in damages as well as $30 million to improve the new “person’s” health and $1 million to set up a framework to represent the river’s interests’ (link to the HuffPost article). Her interests will now be represented in court by two guardians from the indigenous Maori community. While the modern New Zealand embraces its ancient culture despite its modernity, modern India has tried its utmost and continues to distance itself from that very culture that makes it great. As Indians, we need to keep in mind that when Ganga was Ganga maiya and not The Ganges, pollution and dams were not routine. That for us too ‘I am the river and the river is me’ was as true and pure as the life-giving powers of Ganga’s waters. But, all went downhill when Ganga Maiya became The Ganges, and commission after commission has failed to stem its decline into a highly polluted water body. If we want to become a modern country, we should do it on our own terms – by reclaiming our cultural identity. Our ancient cultures have survived because we learnt to live WITH our surrounding environment and ecology, rather than exploiting it. Whanganui’s legal personhood resurrects the need for this approach in our modern societies. Our emotional involvement with our environment is what makes us truly human, not the cutting off of it. Yes, we think rationally but our motivations have to come from a place of feeling and not logic. The sooner we realise this as Indians, the better it will be for our generations to come. Let us accept and embrace who we are as a people. Let others not guilt us into mocking our own cultural identity that made us valuable enough for them to come and ransack, loot, pillage, and rule us for control over what we had once built. Let’s join in the spirit of the Maori today…
I write this on the night of Mahashivaratri. The night of Shiva. In India, a Western-educated understanding of Shiva as a ‘deity’, a ‘God’, a ‘Divinity’ is common. He is Lord Shiva, I remember my class teacher at school telling us. Like Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, Lord Vishnu, and so on. Address them as Lord. Treat them with respect – this is where the love for labels and titles began. This behaviour was different from that of my elders. Generally speaking and during storytelling, it was Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu… but when talking about their accomplishments, their special attributes, they used the word “bhagwan”. When praying to them, they called them ‘bhagwan’, and it does not mean ‘divine’, it means one who is fortunate or blessed, one who has risen above the ordinary. It is an indicative word. And I would feel a special awe for my teachers, who taught us to respect Shiva and the rest as ‘Lords’. Like that was the right thing to do. Like saying Lord this and Lady that. It felt so cultured, so civilised, and so CORRECT, then. So, I believe all of us who have been through a somewhat elite education system in India, particularly the English Medium, have drunk some amount of this kool-aid. It lets us think we are somehow superior to those ‘others’ calling Ram, well just Shri Ram. Or Krishna, just Krishna. Or Shiva, Shiva. ‘Bhagwan’ was good but it was still Bhagwan, some word in the regional language while Lord was to revere our Gods as ‘Gods’. No lesser than their Gods – the almighty, the merciful, the ever-loving ever-forgiving punisher of sins, giver of life. That God who had a rival in Satan or Shaitaan for our attention. That God who had magical powers to wipe out sins, just not enough to wipe out Satan. The God who was eager to forgive all your sins just as much as he wanted to always watch over you while you went about committing them. The act was yours, motive His, guilt all yours, money His, Glory His. In front of them, Shiva, this crazy ash-covered dude with braided long hair, smoking a chillum (cannabis, yes), bluish body throat downwards, dressed in a leather skin as loincloth, holding a damru, snakes draped around his torso just hanging about, the river Ganges flowing out of his hair bun and the moon perched atop that felt comical, wild, crazy to say the least. It was so ‘unGodly’ to make him come across as the problem child among all these more civilised Gods – some of which you can visualise, others you are not allowed to. It’s like your hippie mom gatecrashing a kitty party at your best friend’s place where her mum is handing out finger food and cocktails in summer dresses. Look how much respect they gave their Gods. And look at us! We made them look crazy: Ganesh had an elephant head, Vishnu had so many arms, always relaxing in a river/sea of milk under the head of a cobra, Goddess Lakshmi floated around in a lotus, Brahma had three heads if multiple arms wasn’t enough; Ram was the most human-like but his rival, that evil Raavan had ten heads, was granted a boon by the crazy Shiva, and was basically revered for his knowledge; Krishna was beautiful and full of grace and human-like but he too had a viraat (large) swaroop (appearance) that a true devotee could see. Somehow all this imagination was seen as tacky and way too much but this imagination wasn’t – that God is like this guy who lives in the clouds and sends us people from time to time to talk to us, live amongst us – his deputies. He’s busy following each and everyone of us down to the last thought & deed but has no time to personally descend and talk to us, man to man. That this God turns water into wine and allowed one of his own to defy laws of physics, allowed him to walk on water, defy laws of biology and allowed a virgin birth. That Garden of Eden and that Noah’s ark. Somehow, that was all okay. This happened and that didn’t. It didn’t occur to me then. This took some time coming. But when it finally did, it came down to making a choice. I was going to go for batshit crazy. Because Hindu culture’s batshit crazy is pointedly ascribed with meanings, historical context, and humanitarian associations. It’s a culture, and not an -ism. Come Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh’s birthday) and one can see innumerable moortis of Ganesh playing the harmonium, dancing, even cooking – for those who want to be politically correct, reading a book, writing at his desk, and so on. Ganesh is seen as the ‘God’ of joy, the ‘Lord’ of auspicious beginnings. What’s wrong with celebrating ‘joy’? If Ganesha can be happy doing all these things – cooking, playing harmoniun, reading, and writing, so should we, right? It’s a culture that lets you be. Also, a word on the ‘moortis‘ (images – 2D as well as 3D). It’s different from an idol or statue – the same Virgin Mother all over the world. In the Indian languages, moorat/moorti is used to mean an image or form or embodiment of a person, concept, or idea. A mother (any mother, any woman who has attained motherhood) is seen as a moorat of unconditional love. The result may be the same – a statue, but the underlying context is different. Since the concept of moorti was so flexible, there was full chance that the image in your mind could be different from that in mine. Perhaps this is the reason why our Bhagwans have many hands and many heads. Perhaps that’s why our ‘Goddess’ Durga is invoked at all sorts of tableux during the Pujo in the state of Bengal, used to make cultural and political statements – She could be celebrating the Pujo in her ‘divine’ avatar or slaying rapists in the form of the demon Mahishasur. Imagination at its best. You see? Batshit crazy. You’ll see the good old Buddha lean and meditating, or fat, laughing, and celebrating. Beat that. Ever seen occidental Gods play football? Here’s our Ganesh with both his teams of more Ganeshas. And look who’s the referee – Shiva, Ganesh’s father. It’s a helluva existential match. Thanks to this batshit crazy imagination, some guys down here imagined the concept of ‘zero’. And no Intellectual property rights, too. Imagination in the right direction. They also figured out that the Earth was spherical, and the distance between the Earth and Sun, Earth and the Moon, without any tools or major labs or even a strip of paper – just mental maths. Also very many philosophical, political, cultural, and religious concepts. It’s thanks to this zero that I am writing here, self-publishing a post that can be seen across the world through the internet. Zero. Yoga. Ayurveda. Imagine the money the Indian Sub-continent would have made had all this been patented. Especially in the world of internet and space programmes. In the world of couples yoga and dog yoga. In the world of Golden turmeric latte and texamati rice. So, what better than to say Har Har Mahadev to this imaginative realm called the Hindu culture? Look at these beautiful posters… and tell me this isn’t imagination flying. And why not? We are celebrating Nataraja (lord of dance), the Adiyogi (the first Yogi, smoking a chillum), and the Shiva (In whom all things lie, pervasiveness, also liberation, moving from darkness of ignorance to light) today. Such was the power he had attained over his body that poison failed to kill him, and the mind was untouched by the harmful effects of cannabis. He was generous, gracious, and had attained extreme perfection in the two things he is known for – Yoga, and Dance. His third eye indicates his heightened sense of intuition, which is known as the highest kind of intelligence. If a man achieved this today, we’d call him God of yoga and dance, just like Sachin Tendulkar’s fans call him God of cricket. But because this happened aeons ago, it appears batshit crazy now. Except that this batshit crazy truly works – Indian classical dance is an amazing tool for story telling and expression of beauty. The yoga is helping more number of people in the West than ever to attain health, well-being, and money, even when practised and taught in an imperfect manner. Is he divine? Yes. Through his contribution to the human race. Is he batshit crazy? Of course he is. You’d have to be, right?, doing what he did?