Suspended on Beliefs: Riding the faith cycle in Madhya Pradesh

(This. Because I’m on a nostalgia trip. Also because I’m wanting to run away from Big City right now. But mostly because this is one of the most memorable trips of a lifetime.)

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Our little boat is silently making its way across the river Narmada. The only sounds audible are of geese squawking farewell to each other in the distance, the melodic strains of the oar splicing through the water, and the rapid clicking of a camera — it is a beautiful clear sunset in the tiny town of Maheshwar, the kind that occurs the day after torrential rain. Our destination is the 200-year-old Baneshwar temple situated in the middle of the river, one that the more modern motorboats only circle around for the benefit of tourists. “Once we get there, take your time, take as many pictures as you want, there’s no hurry,” says Kaluram, our wizened 60-year-old oarsman.

He has an ulterior motive — while we do a quick round of the temple and dismiss it as just another one of Madhya Pradesh’s countless shrines, he shrugs off his holey rubber chappals, does swift ablutions in the river and gets on with lighting diyas, offering flowers, perambulating the temple with folded hands and eyes devoutly shut. Sheepishly, we look the other way, perhaps not wanting to invade his privacy. Once he’s done, Kaluram crouches on the steps of the temple, lights a beedi and proceeds to give us a brief history of the place.

“Every year, there’s a flood in this river — banks, houses, trees are all washed away. When the tide ebbs, this little shrine is the only thing still standing. We think of it as a miracle — which is why I come here to pray every day,” he explains. From our vantage point in the dimming light, Ahilya Bai Holkar’s massive fort looks dwarfed in the distance. Under a starry, moonless sky, we quietly make our way back to the ghat, now thronged by people sending off little betel leaf boats loaded with flowers and incense sticks into the river.

Maheshwar is a small town, quite off the beaten track, that thrives on a special kind of textile crafted here and because of adventurous tourists, mostly foreigners. Ahilya Bai Holkar, after being appointed ruler of Malwa in 1767, set up her capital here. Inside the fort, one of the few living ones in the country is a little house with a blooming angan where she used to live.

This space is now a museum stocked with her sparse belongings, countless portraits, posters and canvasses printed with poetry in praise of her piety, simple beauty and valour. Inside the fort are also countless shivlings, a school for girls, a Maheshwari cloth workshop run by old, widowed women and the poshest restaurant in town.

The people of the town seem to follow Ahilya Bai’s example dedicatedly — their visits to the smooth sandstone riverside are a daily ritual, says Kaluram. Not only does this serve as a release from the humdrum of everyday life, but it also acts as a binding force, instilling a sense of community. This spirit is quite in contrast with nearby Mandu, a more popular destination thanks to some wonderful historic architecture marvels, but which we are repeatedly warned away from due to brewing communal tensions. The issue at hand was a Hindu opposition to the Muslims offering namaaz at the local Bhojshala temple, a tradition that has continued for ages.

We’ve arrived here after a week of haphazard travelling — having hopped onto a train to Jhansi from Delhi, we headed to Khajuraho, “the land of the Kama Sutra”, as an American girl on the train put it. Khajuraho is, of course, particularly popular with the foreign tourists because it is a window to India’s heritage that celebrates all that is carnal. We cycle around the tiny cosmopolitan village that has cropped up between the eastern and western temples, populated with little hotels and restaurants serving a global menu. The temples themselves are beautiful — cut in sandstone, with statues depicting sexual positions studding the tall structures. Even the Jain temples to the west, known to be a tribute to sacrifice and abstinence, are designed thus, inspiring a sense of awe for those who are acquainted with the ways of the Hindu religion.

Pachmarhi, the Deccan’s only hill-station, is known to be an important destination on the Shaivite pilgrim’s map. Deep in the Satpura jungles is a cave, popularly known as Jatashankar, where you descend into a wet crevasse to discover a small shrine to the lord of destruction, guarded by tridents and a stalactite that looks like the hood of a cobra snake. An old woman wrapped in blue plastic sits on a rock and sings bhajans in a startlingly clear voice. When we compliment her, she gives us a toothy grin and demands I take a picture of her. Calling herself shankarji ki bhaktan, she says, “I’ve been here since I was a little girl — never married, no kids. He is my lord, my soul. I sing for his pleasure.”

Near the cantonment is the town Church, among the few survivors of the British contribution to this town. From a distance, it looks enticingly haunted, half-obscured by tall poplars, and we can catch glimpses of pretty stained-glass windows. But a woman selling cigarettes in front of the church intercepts us and, after some discomfiting questions (“Where are you going? Are you Christian? Catholic?”), tell us that tourists aren’t allowed in anymore. We find out much later that her tale of a mob coming and vandalising the church, post which it was only open on Sundays for mass, is a complete hogwash and just a ploy to earn some extra money on the side.

Our sojourn into the heart of India was not meant to be a religious one, but it seems that in Madhya Pradesh, faith just happens to be the driving force for pretty much everything. We leave Maheshwar with a heavy heart — our agnostic souls found peace sitting on the steps of the fort, as we watched breathtaking sunsets in silence. On the bus to Indore, the closest stop for a railway connection, we meet a maulavi dressed in a black achkan and white pyjamas, his silver beard flecked with red. We offer him our breakfast — delicious sweet and spicy poha wrapped in newspaper, for the princely sum of Rs. 5 — at which he smiles and begins talking about politics, religion and education, exalting the virtues of the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita and the Quran in a single breath.

As we get closer to the highway, we spot a poster by a local political party, calling for an end to namaaz in the Bhojshala temple and sporting one of the ‘sexy’ figurines from Khajuraho. While we’re busy guffawing at this, our new friend finds this violation of amity atrocious. “What is the point of religion if all it makes you want to do is force your ideas upon others?” he demands, his voice quavering. “I teach my pupils all the holy texts — and the only way to find true faith is to sieve the good out of these, because, I must warn you, they aren’t without flaws,” he asserts. It was ironical — he used the very factors that drive us ‘secular’ city folk into disclaiming religion to inspire a pluralist sensibility. But then again, in this land of convergence, such a manifestation of faith can hardly be surprising.

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I now pronounce You.

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One of the trailers for Shuddh Desi Romance begins with, of all things, a statistic: “77% women feel it is wrong to kiss on the first date” (or something to that effect). This is followed by a shot of Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) going at it, presumably on their first date; after which comes yet another ticker: “If you disagree, come watch our movie” (or something to that effect, again).

This, of course, is complimented by a week full of afternoon news on TV channels with headlines like: “27 KISSES!!! IS Sushant Singh Rajput the new Emraan Hashmi?!” Forget food security, riots in UP, Wawrinka’s almost there genius, Syria and the rest of the world, because this, really, is quite the crucial question that all our lives depend upon. But, umm, I can’t overdo the sarcasm bit at this point because I, after all, did go watch this film, intrigued as I was by the prospect of seeing that beautiful man locking lips and acting skills with not one, but two, women! (voyeur much?)

So, ladies and gentlemen, imagine my disappointment when, by the time the intermission (or bathroom break, as they call it in the film) has arrived, I realise that he’s done nothing but kiss so far, and that his acting skills seem to be some kind of a mirage, an illusion that emerged thanks to those glistening bronzed six-pack abs that took our collective breath away in Kai Po Che, his debut film. As Raghuram Sitaram, he plays the tour guide + local loafer + baarati available on hire, who falls in love (at first sight) with a random girl he meets on a bus, en route his own wedding. What should’ve been an awkward but adorable guy comes across as horny and not a little retarded with his repetitive ‘kya hai’s.

Now this girl he’s fallen in love with is your average Indian cutesy thing, who talks about her previous boyfriends, and smokes, incessantly. And this girl (Vaani Kapoor) he’s about to leave at the altar (at the pretext of taking a leak, no less) is a beauty of epic proportions and seems to be the well-behaved, demure kind that is the stuff of Indian guys (and their mothers’) wet dreams. But the heart wants what it wants, so run away we must, safe in the knowledge that we shall find her.

After a rushed, incoherent proposal, Gayatri and Raghu end up in a live-in relationship (which lasts for 15 mins screen time, but I hope is supposed to mean at least a month?). After a few ups and downs, and a lot of dancing at the camera to a song that goes “ab chali meri love life” (along with smoking, drinking and shaving together), they decide to get married one drunk night.

To cut a long story short (and to avoid spoilers, and because the plot is not what I want to talk about), let’s just say that there’s a love triangle brewing. All three have commitment issues, get cold feet easily and are in the bad habit of leaving without saying goodbye. There usual excuse is that they must visit the loo right this very moment. Rishi Kapoor and his royal moustache are a pleasant break from the monotony of secret looks and winks and nudges that this film relies on. And the choice of Jaipur and Jodhpur as backdrops make sure the aesthete in you is satiated. And the stylistic moorings of the film are fresh and deserve praise.

But, finally getting around to what I actually wanted to talk about: This film attempts to put the spotlight on live-in relationships. Jaideep Sahni, the man who’s given us gems like Khosla ka Ghosla and Chak De India! in the past, experiments with the modern-day idea of a relationship — speedy, raunchy, naughty and with an exit always in view. For this, he looks at the concept of a live-in relationship and, it seems to me, approaches the subject like a star-eyed little child: there’s presumption aplenty and a thought not well-executed.

Since I belong to the generation of people he’s put his lens on (and seems quite sympathetic towards), I feel that his characters are just caricatures. These semi-etched people then fall in and out of love in the wink of an eye, think themselves street-smart but are actually blind to the motions of cupid and dear old Goel saab, and are also quite scarred by the travesty that is life. Towards the end, while analysing (or rationalising?) his behaviour, Raghu finds blame in all these fake weddings that he sees day in and day out. “How can I bring myself to commit to someone when I bear witness to the sham that Indian weddings are?” he asks of his companion (as promised, no spoilers).

This is where things get problematic.

First, weddings do not a marriage make. I mean, of course, you can’t have a marriage without some sort of ceremony to put you in binding contract, forever and for always. But there’s so much more to making a marriage work than simply the rituals. Yes, we do go crazy, bordering on intense insanity, during weddings. Yes, there’s ample posturing. But beyond that, what you make of your relationship is entirely based on your mutual capability and will to adjust.

Second, our main characters here seem to choose a live-in relationship as an alternative to, quite in rebellion of, marriage. All the people I know who prefer to do live-ins are actually opposed to marriage as an institution, not tired of weddings (or out of money to buy a good pair of Nikes). In Shuddh Desi Romance, the raison de etre for a live-in relationship just seems to be an aversion to being “forced” to be in a relationship.

Third, this “being forced” comes from the assumption that marriages are forever. For characters as independent and strong-minded as these, divorce or separation can’t be out of the realm of possibility, logically speaking. So, for Raghu to say “this getting married business doesn’t suit me” because it feels like imprisonment, is a little out of character too.

Sahni’s intention is clear — he wants to normalise the idea of a live-in relationship by placing his film and the characters in a tier II city, a little away from the melting pots that metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai are becoming. He also wants to show what factors could lead up to a couple choosing to keep in informal. But, the reasons he finds along the way are confused, and end up portraying an entire generation of people as thoughtless, naive and childish. Can’t see this going down too well around here.

Momentum

This time, they sought
the dark corners of the Web
to hide in. Anonymous, shedding
off all identity, this is where
they would let it blossom. For now.

They’d tried, and failed,
to keep a low profile. No public park,
heritage monument, or obscure cafe,
brimming over with so many like them,
could contain the music

Of their rising, overwhelming
affection for each other. Public
display was another matter —
They weren’t sure who had earned
the right to witness those moments.

They always came, invading
upon their continent of silent,
imagined kisses. But this at least,
they believed, was worth it.
Worth protecting. Worth preserving.

Even matchbox-sized rooms,
with the sun drawing needle-thin
lines across the terrain, was not
enough. They always came,
wondering what was being strangled

Or birthed. Contain. Compress and
compose. Words, now, were
their choice of coitus. Only, they feared,
no turn of phrase ever invented
could describe the enormity of

This accelerating crescendo.

The Wrath of the Spurned: How Acid Attacks Life Beyond The Moment

(Now that the Supreme Court of India has made the laws regarding acid attacks more stringent — imposing a rather difficult-to-implement ban on sale of acid, and a more respectable amount of financial aid — it is worth looking at how this might change things for the better. You can also read this here)

Pragya was sleeping on the upper berth in a sleeper compartment of a train to Varanasi when she felt a burning sensation on her face. She woke up with a start — she literally felt her skin on her cheek come away when she touched it. “I jumped down and began screaming with pain. It was 2 am, my clothes had melted and people around me thought I was going mad. If it weren’t for the foreigner who recognised what had happened to me and called a doctor, I would’ve perhaps not survived,” she says, recalling with vivid clarity, the moment she was acid attacked in 2006.

The attack came merely 10 days after her marriage and, as she and her family were to find out in the following weeks, was the repercussion of a rejected marriage proposal. “The man was at least a decade older than me and apparently already married. They caught him and put him in jail in the next few months, but he’s out on bail now. None of it changes the fact that it took me over two years simply to recover physically,” she says.

Recently, two men on a motorbike threw acid on four sisters in Shamli. The case has made national headlines, as did another incident in Patna where two teenage girls were also victimised in their sleep. It is heartening to see an increased focus on reporting sexual crimes against women, following the December 2012 protests that were triggered by the gangrape of a girl in a moving bus in the capital.

It is important to recognise the special nature of acid attacks, seeing as they are generally perpetrated by somebody in the know. In the Shamli case, one of the accused is the brother-in-law of the victim. The girls wanted to go to town about their illicit relationship, and this was his way of containing the situation. In the Patna case, the attackers were spurned lovers.

“A general perception is that the male ego cannot take rejection lightly and seeks to overcome his rage through such an attack. This is complicated with the impulsive spirit of today’s youth, which cannot handle what we call ‘delay of need gratification’ – they don’t seem to find any sense of illegitimacy to their actions. Another explanation would be the lack of accessibility – the feeling of “if your attractiveness can’t be available to me, I will make sure nobody else can have it either”,” observes Dr. Arvind Mishra, professor of social psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The notion of revenge is critical to acid attacks, since its intent is to ruin the victim’s life without actually ending it. Such attacks cause disfiguration that lasts for a lifetime, because the social stigma attached to deformation ensures that the victim would no longer have access to a social life, nor will she be considered a viable candidate for marriage. The fact that acid is easily available at kirana shops and supermarkets across the country, doesn’t help the situation.

The consequences of acid attacks can be very dire – considering the fact that this form is particularly popular in the low to lower-middle classes of society, the victims’ access to medical help might be limited. Basic operations to keep the victim alive could result in bills as big as Rs 50 lakh, or more, at times. Also, the facilities to treat first degree burns are few and far between. It was due to the lack of proper medical treatment that 23-year old J Vinodini died in Pondicherry after being attacked by her neighbour, and battling for life for over three months.

It is also within the momentum created by the December 2012 protests that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed recently, recognising the various forms of such violence and raising the punishment bar for rape, voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks. Up till now, all these offences were clubbed under the ambivalent label of ‘grievous hurts’ in sections 320, 322, 325 and 326 of the Indian Penal Code, punishable by imprisonment upto seven years – legislation, or lack thereof, that itself showed just how seriously violence against women was being taken by the state.

Under the amendment ordinance, acid attacks, along with the others, are recognised as specific crimes and are punishable by imprisonment of upto 12 years, along with a fine of upto Rs 10 lakh. While this is a definite improvement, it still seems to fall short of the correction required in cases of acid attack, from the point of view of the victim. “The government has made provisions for a parallel amendment in the Criminal Procedure Code to provide compensatory medical and private aid for victims. But whether this will be followed through remains to be seen,” notes Madhu Mehra, director of Partners for Law in Development.

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She is sceptical because of two factors – the speed of convictions in India is nothing to boast about, and it isn’t possible to adjudge the capacity of the accused to pay the stipulated fine. “The government needs to recognise that this is among the most physically debilitating crimes. It must also acknowledge the fact that violence can create polities of its own kind. For the victim, it would be more important to get back on her feet. You can either make sure that you take up social transformation, but when you can’t even tell the Khap panchayats to shut up, you could at least ensure that the schemes or provisions you draft are water-tight,” she states.

In such a situation, does regulating the availability of acid make sense? “Not really,” says Mehra, “because it isn’t the ‘weapon’, but the intent that needs to be inspected. Ten years ago in Mongolpuri, we heard of a case where men on motorbikes were slashing women’s faces with razor blades. The government could slap restrictions, but there’s always a way to get around the law, especially for a product so cheaply available. We just can’t deal with disfigurement and that is what needs to be addressed.”

Today, living in near-complete anonymity in an undisclosed location, Pragya believes that she’s been luckier than most, thanks to a supportive husband and family back home at Varanasi. “I have no friends though – when I walk on the road, people ask me what happened to my face. There’s plenty of sympathy, but they don’t really want to associate with me beyond that,” she says.

She has now started working with Stop Acid Attacks, an NGO working to help victims with medical and financial aid. Her aim is to help girls come out of the trauma through counselling and group support sessions. “I don’t think I am abnormal – it is feeling that a lot of girls develop when their faces and bodies are maimed in this manner. I want to help them get back to their lives as before,” she says.

From Bhojpur to Bambai, in song & spirit

(You can also read this here)

Kalpana Patowary and Ramanujan Pathak (Below) in stills from the film

On a sultry Mumbai evening, Vijaylal Yadav is on stage, singing songs of home, love, loss and belonging. “The wife wants a pair of jeans, but her husband refuses. ‘I can give you a mobile phone, but not pants’, he tells her over the phone,” Yadav explains in Hindi, before he starts singing in Bhojpuri. The ‘wife’ is now pining for her husband, calling him back, demanding to know where he’s gone, leaving her all alone. The audience cheers.

Another evening, another dais. A young girl and boy, flanked by dancers dressed in sequin-laden lehengas and garish makeup, are singing love songs, flirting in rhyme for the benefit of a rather massive, excited audience. “I poke my beak in your cup of nectar,” is the (translated) refrain that the boy directs at his duet-partner, who simply giggles in return and eggs him on. Meanwhile, the audience, largely comprised of young, seemingly hormonal men, are more interested in watching the dancers with mouths wide open. Some are even taking pictures or shooting videos on their mobile phones, seduced by the song, the dance and the warm Mumbai night.

Shooting these ‘scenes’ as they play out in real life, with an unobtrusive camera, is filmmaker Surabhi Sharma. Bidesia in Bambai, her latest documentary on migrant music, covers a musical culture that is now transforming itself into an industry in the suburbs of Mumbai. As she walks through the alleys of Adarsh Nagar and Nalasopara, both residential spaces far away from the main city, and questionable in terms of legality, she finds yet another example of how music becomes the reason for and means of survival for an entire community.

“In 2008, I completed a film called Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean, which was about a different manifestation of Bhojpuri migrant music. Chutney, with elements of both Bhojpuri folk and Bollywood, gave me my first experience of making a film on music. It made me wonder about the kinds of histories that musical cultures can hold within them,” says Sharma.

In the film, we see several examples of these histories that Sharma set out in search of — the Bhojpuri appears as a migrant, a poor man, a taxi/auto driver or rickshaw-puller, a man proud of his language and assertive of his space in this city constantly at war with ‘outsiders’. We also witness the processes of a bustling metropolis viewed through the eyes of this man, and of how he attempts to negotiate with it.

The music, too, as any contemporary form, has the power to re-invent itself and assimilate foreign influences. Apart from folk songs of departure and arrival that Ramanujan Pathak specialises in, there are also the raunchy ditties, the bhajans, the Bollywood style beats in Kalpana Patowary’s studio sessions and songs devoted to their identity. “Unlike Bollywood, this is a brand of music that is not even attempting to reach out to a pan-Indian audience,” points out Sharma. In other words, it might be welcoming of foreign influences, but it is also proud of its own legacy, and caters to an identity.

Bidesia in Bambai is the latest example of a growing trend — that of looking at music as more than just a cultural artefact. It is now viewed as a carrier and capsule of that very culture from which it emerges. Sharma says that Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade, a documentary that put the spotlight on protest music by dalits in Mumbai and brought the Kabir Kala Manch to fore, reassured her that it wasn’t necessary to explain the music to create a narrative about contemporary politics, society and culture. “Now, there seems to be a conscious acknowledgement that music can be the site where socio-political tensions are released,” she observes.

Defence, Disarmament and Global Wars in the age of mecha

(Also read this here)

jaeger kaiju

The high point, quite literally, of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, Pacific Rim, is the moment when our hero Jaeger (outdated but strong yet, thanks to its drivers) slashes off the evolved, ever more dangerous Kaiju’s wing in mid-flight. The Kaiju, a futuristic dinosaur, is now flying as it zooms in on the Jaeger for its final kill, but like the proverbial trump card, out comes a sword (please note the irony) from the Jaeger’s right hand, just in time to pierce through the monster. Dismembered, the Kaiju returns to the ocean with a resounding splash; and the narrative is back to being a rather humdrum, predictable one.

Released worldwide on the July 12-13 weekend, Pacific Rim has, on an average, garnered lukewarm critical response. This lumbering spectacle of an apocalyptic war against aliens is a delight to watch for its expertly crafted action scenes. After all, what’s not to like about humungous robots and monsters fighting each other to death?

Disappointment is inevitable — lead characters Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) are all given back-stories that are rushed through; and the plot, like the Jaegers of seven years later, needs a severe upgrade. But then, this movie isn’t as much a psychodrama as it is the latest offering in the mecha genre of Hollywood cinema — with a history of movies like Star Wars, the Godzilla series,Transformers, and Sucker Punch — and revives the giant robots vs. monster trope, possibly the oldest idea in Japanese anime.

Pacific Rim does inspire some thoughts on the evolving nature of weaponry and the state of warfare. The Jaegers (German for hunter) are run by two fighters, located in the head of the machine. They must meld their brains, hearts and memories with each other as well as the machine, in the process becoming a ‘maschinemensch’ or machine-human — a trope explored often enough, and first seen in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis.

Although this ploy isn’t quite the same thing as drone warfare (since the fighters are very much a part of the action, ‘remote’ only in the sense that there is minimal bloodshed), which in itself is more in vogue today, it does endorse the idea of ‘sanitised’ battles. In the aftermath of a fight, you as a viewer don’t see maimed and tainted bodies, blood or gore — which one can easily presume to be part of the scene — but, instead, witness broken machines, shattered buildings and, poignantly, Mori’s lost red shoe. Whatever ‘blood’ you can see on screen is glowing blue acid dripping from mutilated Kaijus, which is not nearly as disgusting or dread-inspiring. In that sense, Del Toro panders to a notion that is by now the staple of sci-fi and even action cinema — war doesn’t have to end in visible human casualty.

Man and machine have come together on various instances in cinema previously. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Lock Martin played the alien robot Gort, controlled by Klaatu, with a message for earthlings; Star Wars had Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker play ‘droids’; Bladerunner and Robocop simply assimilated man and machine to form human-like androids; and most recently, Avatar dwelled on the notion of man controlling a morphed, mechanised version of himself. Through them all runs common theme of bettering the human condition, perfecting his survival skill and instinct through ‘mechanical enhancements’.

In our real, brutal world, however, man does not inhabit the machine (yet); he is far, far away, working on his surveillance or targeted bombing from safe, often undisclosed, locations. The ‘enemy’, for the last decade, has been hiding among his ‘own’, and has had to be ferreted out and hunted down like pesky rats. In this clash of civilisations, identity marked the ‘other’ and ‘ours’, and has been the crucial factor in deciding what is worth fighting for. Pacific Rim, like other sci-fi movies in its league, locates its enemy in the predator whose roots are alien, outside the realm of this planet in this space and time. These may be like all the other unknown threats from ‘out there’ threatening our world, but the movie departs from tradition in pulling upon all of humanity’s strength to fight this war.

Unlike his predecessors, Del Toro is more inclusive — his concern is not the US Pacific coastline alone, nor are his rangers strictly American. His heroine is Japanese; Beckett’s comrades are Russian, Chinese, British and Australian. Of course, in the end, it is Beckett, the American who saves the day. But in an industry where directors are used to casting at least one race/religion/nationality in the underdog/villain/sidekick role, this movie does give the idea of a global war a different twist.

Will Pacific Rim live long in pop-culture memory? Most probably not, thanks to its forgettable, repetitive story. But as a moment in the history of mecha, overwhelming sci-fi cinema, it could still make a lasting mark, for its representation of a world in flux.

Reel Rumination: Who is the Indian Woman?

(So, there are some advantages of not emptying your inbox regularly, even though Google keeps threatening to brim over and drop dead. I found this old piece I’d written as a measly assignment in ACJ back in 2008, and I find myself quite surprised! Mostly because I don’t even remember the plotlines of Meghe Dhake Tara and Charulata, but even otherwise, this seems like I’ve put in some decent effort. A bit long, but do read and comment!)

Benedict Anderson, in his book, Imagined Communities talks of a nation that largely exists in the collective psyche of the members of that nation state. Indian nationalism, in the absence of pervading literacy, depended on the more popular forms of art and cinema to grow. And since visualization is essential to the imagined community, India began to be identified with the icon of the mother. So, as India strove to become independent and, later, was endorsed as the land of opportunities, India became Bharat Mata for the masses. In such a scenario, Indian cinema produced its own interpretations of the Indian woman, an identity highly contested.

Indian cinema emerged as a popular art form, as well as one of mass entertainment, at the same time that the idea of the independent Indian nation was being given serious thought and substance. As the democracy’s roots grew deeper, newer identities emerged. The colonial, and his sidekick, the Zamindar, were being pushed backstage by the new-found educated sophisticate and the Indian woman, who again was probably the most conflicted identity of all- existing or arising. While on the one hand she had to live up to the strength and valor she had been endowed with in the process of attaining an iconic status, on the other, she was also the site on which Nehruvian idealists were cultivating India’s image as a fast developing one.

Questions about who the Indian woman was in the emerging context had many answers. There came up a number of interpretations and representations in the cinema of the time. The greatest Indian auteurs of all time had something to contribute to this debate. This paper intends to look at three films in particular- Mother India (1957) by Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1960) and Meghe Dhake Tara (1960) by Ritwik Ghatak, all of which were stories about women of the time, but in different frames.

MeImagehboob Khan’s magnum opus, Mother India, was a colored rendition of his earlier movie, Aurat, which came out in 1941. Possibly in a bid to promote the story in front of a larger, more diversified audience, he retold the story, produced it in Eastman-colour format, and made it revolve around the Radha, the protagonist, played by Nargis. The movie tells the tale about this woman, who marries Raj Kapoor, and comes into a household which is completely under the financial grip of the landlord, Sukhilala. As she deals with more failure and abandonment by her husband, the viewer is witness to the transformation of this good homely bejeweled wife into a hard, driven survivor covering herself in the mitti of her land, because she loves and identifies deeply with it. Her two sons, Ram and Birju, are the two diametrically opposite strands of moderation and extremism that characterised  the Indian national movement. When, finally, she shoots her younger son in a bid to save society from imminent danger, she acquires the iconisation of Mother India, in both a religious and a nationalist sense.

The toil and sweat that goes into cultivation and growing a crop is in itself a character in the film, painted in the red and brown hues of earthiness. Mehboob uses the form of melodrama to acquaint the viewer with the exaggerated extent of suffering of this woman. He uses the archetypes of the evil landlord, the unrelenting mother-in-law, the sly uncle in addition to the lead characters in a bid to characterize the typical setting of rural India. “At its deepest level, Mother India is a study of culture in conflict with itself. Birju and mother represent headlong, near-suicidal rush to change an impossible situation, and the inner force of the system fighting back, trying to alter the system ‘peacefully’,” says Iqbal Masud. Finally, Mehboob endorses Nehruism in his reference to the Community Block Development Movement, which brings to the film a sense of resolution and opportunism.

In another tale of suffering, Ritwik Ghatak shows us the flip side of the coin- Meghe DhakeImage Tara is the story of Sita, a young working woman who is the sole bread earner in her family, her father having retired, one brother aspiring to become a musician and the other still in the process of completing his studies. But instead of being independent, which is the logical consequence for most of us in such a situation, Sita is oppressed nevertheless. Her mother does not want her to get married, lest their only source of survival be taken away, her younger brother intends to run away from the household as soon as possible, her older brother lives for dreams at the cost of pragmatism and her sister is disinterested in everything except finding a suitable boy to marry.

Sita ends up making the biggest sacrifices for the happiness of her family- first of love, then of her own mental health. Towards the end, when she has realized that her lover is now no longer hers, but is in love with her sister, and is walking away, the close up of her face as she feels trapped in her situation, and the crack of whiplash in the background, makes an effective visual depiction of her hopelessness. In the exaggerated portrayal of the lower classes, Ghatak is determined to alienate his audience, ensure that there is no sense of identification or empathy towards his pitiful protagonist, which was thought to be very important for the spectator to be able to criticize and participate.

ImageFinally, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, based on Tagore’s novel, Nashta Neer, and set in 1859, tells a different tale of womanly woe- Charulata is a housewife in a rich Bengali household. Her husband is too involved in his newspaper and the politics of the time to pay her much attention. She is left to her own devices and is too intelligent to be content with playing cards and enjoying ice cream, like her sister-in-law. A fan of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s work, she also represented Nabina or the ‘new woman’, in contrast to her sister-in-law, who was Prabina or the ‘old woman’. Charulata comes close to emotional betrayal when she grows an attachment for Amal, the cousin, and this the husband realizes only towards the end.

Satyajit Ray was a Realist artist- he believed in the deep focus technique and subtle initiation, and abhorred close ups or low angle shots, which meant iconisation. The movie is a pleasant concoction of music, scenery, emotions and characterization which is far from typical. Charulata’s situation is not a common one, especially in an India that was under British rule, or even after independence, when the largely rural landscape did not allow such financial and temporal liberty to women. But she did represent a small class of them, who were the unfortunate fortunates. As she attempts to while away time by looking out the windows through an opera glass, since she was restricted within the four walls of her house, the orchestrated on-screen and off-screen sounds allow the viewer to feel her loneliness, and when her husband walks away, absorbed in a book without paying her any attention, the authoritarian sound of his boots on the floor impress upon the audience her utter and complete desolation.

In all three films, we see the dilemmas that the Indian woman faced at the time, and we also see the problematisation that Indian society had in defining this Indian woman, and her boundaries of existence. While Ray explored the psyche of the Indian woman moving towards self- realization, Ghatak sought to unearth the loopholes in the grand Nehruvian plan. Mehboob manages to identify and place the Indian woman in the context of the nation, which in itself was visualized as a newly acquired bride, who had the powers of sustenance. Through both melodrama and realism, Indian cinema of the 50s and 60s, also known as humanist cinema, persevered in depicting the sorry state of the Indian woman.

You [already] Stink and Burn

Perhaps it should have been heartening to see so many people finally coming out on the streets, crying for ‘justice’, whatever it is that they mean by the word; demanding that our roads be made safer, that rape cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps it is the ever-growing cynic in me who just cannot find a hint of satisfaction or relief in the drama that is unfolding every moment in pristine Lutyen’s Delhi, in these beautiful winter days.

Perhaps they will pass a new law, there will be a new CM, there will be more police on the roads, the papers and TV channels will follow rape cases more doggedly.

BUT!

This is not the first time a woman has been raped to the brink of her death. This is not the first time the CM has shrugged off responsibility. This is not the first time the common man and his kin have come out in the streets. This is not the first time they’ve increased security. This is not the first time there’s so much excitement. This is not the first time – and it won’t be the last. Not the way we seem to be going about it!

Because rape isn’t an under-the-table act, where both parties can leave with some sense of satisfaction, gratification. It isn’t an assembly line product that has come to dominate psyches, turned into a status symbol, something that one MUST have, a sign of one’s affluence at the cost of another’s impoverishment. It isn’t a man, a regime that has his/its own way all the time. It isn’t an ideology, a religion, a policy, a piece of property. STOP calling your picnic a fucking REVOLUTION, for heaven’s sake!

Because if you think what you’re doing out on the roads – shouting slogans, burning effigies, calling authorities names, getting a shower-down by policemen, demanding death by hanging and/or castration – is a revolution, you don’t know shit about what it is like walking on the road, alone, everyday, with a mix of fear and stubbornness swirling inside you, making you nauseous and pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream all at the same time. Knowing that any moment now, you will face an ugliness that you never dreamed possible, even in your worst nightmares.

You don’t know shit about how everyday, you see it in their eyes, everywhere. That you’re being undressed slowly or hastily, depending on just how his highness likes it, your breasts are being weighed, your buttocks are getting spanked, and this may not just be foreplay. You know it because you can see the bulge in their pants that they will continue to thrust into your behind, your shoulder and everywhere else as you jostle for even the littlest space to stand in an overcrowded bus.

You don’t know shit about that lecherous uncle / cousin / male relative (even fathers!) who will leave no stone unturned to be with you in a closed, isolated space, touch you whenever possible, wherever possible, however possible. And just how the sight or sound of them fills you with an inexplicable dread, a sense of terror that can paralyse you down to your very puny soul.

You don’t know shit about how your dreams, your identity, your entire being is subservient to your safety, which is just politespeak for your family’s honour, that nondescript sense of selfhood that rests almost completely on the girl’s sorry shoulders. You have a job that keeps you out late? Imagine the possibilities! How can you not be panicking yet? After all, worrying is our prerogative, beta.

(By the way, if you do know all this and are still screaming your head off in the streets, for your and fellow sufferers’ rights, then aww, you poor little naive thing. Even my rant here on this webspace that nobody reads isn’t half as bad as yours.)

Why do you talk about it, and those who do the deed, as if it were exclusive to you and your environment? Rape isn’t an isolated act, much as it may require isolation as a condition to facilitate its happening.

Rape doesn’t happen because the girl (or boy) was looking soo unbearably sexy that no power in that dot on the time-space axis could’ve stopped her (his) molestation.

Rape doesn’t happen because the rapist harbours exceptional degrees of lustiness. Nor does it happen because the night brings out their romantic side.

Rape happens because society, and you, let it happen. Because you don’t stand up against offences of any nature in public places such as, say, the Metro. Heck, you don’t even get up to give your seat to the old/ pregnant lady standing in front of you, that’s how blind you are! Rape happens because we live in a repressed society where girls and boys are segregated, having boyfriends is seen as criminal, sitting and talking with a boy in a public place warrants a lock-up, being beaten-up, where prostitution remains illegal and sex is seen as a depraved, corrupt activity. Rape also happens because Hindi cinema glorifies masculinity, which in turn has its source in violence and sex. Rape happens because power equations across class, caste, gender lines are changing – lines that were drawn by the very people who are climbing lampposts and posing for pictures at India Gate today, not-waiting to put them up on FB to show they’re so with it. Rape is not one man’s crime, it is even yours when you tell your daughter/sister/mother to stay indoors at night, even though all you want to do is protect them.

At this rate, rape will continue to happen. Even as you lot are ‘protesting’ – which, come on face it, is just asking for revenge – there were at least three more cases reported in today’s newspapers. Do you think your shouting is loud enough to drown out their urges inside their heads? Doesn’t look like it.

Rape will also keep happening as long as you think that women need to be protected. The presumption here is the male is and always will be an animal, naturally. That’s like, WTF? And all you women, you buy into this crap because it makes you feel better in your cramped existence too.

Rape happens because in the friction caused by shifting plates in the continent of patriarchy, there’s a little squeak that the woman manages to edge in sideways now. Because when boys with bloated heads from small towns arrive in the National Chutiyaap Region, otherwise known as the land of promise, they see all these…the girls!…calling the shots! How could this be? Meri ma toh mere baap ki jooti ki dhool chaat-ti hai, ye kya anarth ho raha hai yahan?!

Rape will keep happening because you mothers don’t slap your sons enough and continue to let them turn into such egoistic, horny bastards.

Rape will keep happening as long as educationists and the moral police (who should be sent back to the 17th century) believe there’s much glory in segregation and separation, not realising that in the process, they turn this ‘other’ into this fantastic, exotic creature that must be had at all costs.

There are other reasons for rape to happen too, but the overarching reason it actually goes DOWN (ALL puns intended) is because the girl’s body is thought of as a site of control. Even as you yell from the ramparts of the Parliament for equality, what you should be fighting for is to gain control of your body. Free it from this omnipresent gaze, free yourself from being conscious of this gaze.

The only way you can really stand up for the poor girl struggling to get off ventilators now is by swearing to change how you think and how you let others around you think.

By some twist of fate, she’s a hero today instead of being a victim for life or even dead, and that is the only good thing to come out of this charade. She will live respectably where countless others have perished.

But her life will be in vain if you don’t realise that this is not one incident, this is not the 9/11 of India, but something that, sadly, happens everyday, several times a day.

The answer, my friend, doesn’t lie in retribution, in castration, in revenge, because that is only enabling a vicious cycle. It lies in education. Unless we learn lessons from history, as modern as last year’s fascinating summer, things will never change.

That is, of course, unless all you’re looking for is cheap thrills over the weekend, in which case, ignore all that you’ve read so far. Obviously, you are the MAN of the moment.

Last Call: What the FUCK do you mean by a rape CULTURE?! Can you please think before you let these words come out of your mouth?!

Sampling Sandunes at Jodhpur

(This is a travelogue I wrote for the paper that pays me to do such stuff — yes my life is that awesome, sometimes! — and I am rather proud of it. Also, Jodhpur is a fun place to visit, especially at this time of the year. Another reason you might want to pack up your bags and head for the edge of the Thar is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, which promises a rather intriguing cocktail of rustic tunes, camels, forts and food for the nomad soul! See you there, perhaps!)

A view of Mehrangarh Fort from Pal Haveli’s terrace. Go to the Indica restaurant for its view, the cool desert breeze at night and cheap liquor. Photo: Akash Gupta

In a tiny ‘Bishnoi’ (Vaishnav, as per the Hindu caste system) village called Salawas near Jodhpur, an old man, browned and lined by a lifetime of physical labour, shows us around his humble abode – mud-caked houses, thatched roofs with goats and cows tethered, with a couple of peacocks frolicking close by – and treats us to some home-made afeem (opium) and chai.

“Salman Khan shot his infamous black bucks in our village only,” he states pompously, as he unwraps his stash with a flourish. Scraping off bits of the dry stuff, he directs us to eat it and says, “Ab hum aapka apne ghar mein swagat karte hain.”

Singh then proudly shows us his afeem-making machine, a fascinating contraption carved out of wood, with a crusher, two cones for accumulating the juice of poppies and a little serpent idol. He explains that afeem is not so much an addiction as a way of life. “No marriage is sanctioned unless the father of the bride gives his new in-laws some of this. We celebrate, commemorate and cure with the help of this flower. Of course, we cannot grow it here nor have we ever thought of marketing it,” he laughs, his white whiskers, which could be the envy of any royal heir, twitching with mirth at the tourist’s surprise.

There is a practiced aura around all of Charan Singh’s movements. We are instructed to give the man a little token of appreciation. Not that one minds, especially since the man has given us a peek into a hitherto unknown world. We are then driven on to a potter’s and a weaver’s houses – at both places we repeat the routine. Clearly, the burgeoning trade of tourism in Jodhpur has infiltrated the suburbs too, in spirit as well as in economic returns.

This delightful little ‘trip’ is unexpected as our train Mandore Express pulls up earlier that morning into the railway station, disgorging us at an unearthly 5 am. We’ve only planned a romp in the lap of old-style affluence, basking in the reflected light of this warrior clan’s heritage, even as we sample some of that famed Marwari hospitality. Clearly, we are to get much more than we’d bargained for.

Jodhpur was founded by a king called Rao Jodha in 1459, with the nearby town Mandore functioning as capital initially. The Rathores, a clan of Rajputs to which Jodha belonged, ruled the Marwar region for centuries till it finally became a fief under Mughal rule and then a princely state under British rule.

We headed to Ranbanka Palace, a beautiful heritage hotel, situated a bit away from the main city’s bustle. At dawn, the place looked like an oasis of greenery bordered by sandstone in the middle of a rambling desert. The hotel used to be the residence of Prince Ajit Singh, Maharaja Jodha Singh’s (founder of the town) younger brother. Much of the opulence of earlier centuries have been retained and added upon – badges of honour in the form of stuffed deer heads, tiger skin rugs, photographs of previous kings and residents standing over hunted conquests find pride of place everywhere.

Ranbanka Palace at dawn. Photo: Akash Gupta

The present generation has a different sport to excel at – the bar exhibits Rajkumar Karan Singh’s (the current owner and also a cousin of designer Raghavendra Rathore) laurels at Polo. In fact, we’re informed, the palace hosts a tournament during the winters. We take all this in – the pink walls adorned with bougainvillea creepers, colourful frescoes for windows, rangolis on the floor combined with Jacuzzis, swimming pools, spas and wi-fi connectivity — and realise that the distance between old and new money is easily bridged.

Umaid Bhawan, an important spot of historical importance in the city, is another example of this phenomenon.  Commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1924, the palace took 20 years to build. Situated on a hillock, it glows a magnificent golden, the sandstone is intricately carved in the style in Rajputana style, and is surrounded by well-tended gardens. While a section of the palace is still the residence of the current king, Maharaja Gaj Singh II, the rest is a museum showcasing royal paraphernalia – jewellery, furniture, armoury, attire and an impressive array of vintage cars, including Bentleys, Cadillacs and even Humbers.

Quite uniquely, the main foyer houses LED displays that pay special tribute to the Edwardian architect of the palace, Sir Henry Vaughan Lanchester, and to interior designer Stefan Norblin, who can be credited for some stunning but slightly out-of-context Biblical murals to be found on the palace’s ceilings. A new gated colony adjoining the palace premises is the most intriguing sight before us. Umaid Heritage Estate is to be a high-end residential area for the industrialists and the super-rich, most famously Mankichand Panwala. Kumar finds this capitalist desire to be part of royalty quite awesome; in some way, this new development makes him feel part of it all.

Kumar tells us with immense pride that Jodhpur has its own culture, quite distinct from, say, Jaipur or Jaisalmer. “Look at the clothes – we invented the jodhpuris,” he laughs. The main part of the town, housing an archaic clock tower, is fairly ordinary, except for the amount of colour on display. From the men’s turbans, which are blue, white or multi-coloured depending on what caste they hail from, to flowing ghaghras in shocking pink and electric green, there is colour everywhere. Living at the edge of desert, one would want this kind of palette to keep the eyes feasting on some life.

We make a beeline for Gypsy, a popular restaurant, for a Marwari thali. We’re served a wholesome meal – daal, baati, choorme ke ladoo, dhokla, rotis soaked in ghee, gattey ki sabzi, pooris andsaffron pulao – and coaxed into seconds by the owner, Mr. Chandali, who waits upon his guests in person, carrying out his cultural duty of ‘Manuhaar’ (hospitable persuasion) with elan. Replete with satisfaction, we head out to the next must-visit place in Jodhpur – the Mehrangarh fort.

Rajasthani Marwari thali at Gypsy. Slurp! Photo: Akash Gupta

The fort, situated on a hillock for strategic reasons, is a ramshackle giant of a site that is visible from anywhere in the city. It truly does look like the work of ‘angels, fairies and giants’, as Rudyard Kipling said way back in 1899. From its higher vantage point, one can see an ocean of blue houses winking up at us. Today, it wears a haunted look – threadbare, swept clean of life, unlike the living fort of Jaisalmer. It is perhaps this quality that led Christopher Nolan to feature the fort in The Dark Knight Rises as the backdrop for the prison-well in the middle of nowhere.

Within the fort, a few rooms are open to the public as a museum – on display here are accessories of the subject’s life, cultural investments that the kings endowed the kingdom with and religious strains. Miniature paintings between 1725 and 1843 that depict the transition from portraiture of the monarchs to sketching out abstract ideas of Vaishnavite religion find pride of place in the Diwan-e-Am (the court of the commoners). And we also spotted a more expensive-looking version of the afeem-making machine in a glass case here.

As the sun goes down, we ascend to new heights of magnificence. Strains of the sarangi, fused with sounds from the city below, waft in through exquisitely carved wooden doors and windows, cannons and other outdated armoury, and domes of all shapes and sizes, giving the evening a scintillating hue. We look upon the city milling about in the everyday, and are struck by the many contradictions that history has ordained this long-surviving nub of civilisation with.

Like Aldous Huxley once rather floridly stated: “From the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the gods must hear from Olympus, the gods to whom each separate word uttered in the innumerably peopled world below, comes up distinct and individual to be recorded in the books of omniscience.” Perhaps this over-the-top description was also an inspired conjecture on some afeem-swilling night.

The Blue City. At Mehrangarh Fort. Photo: Akash Gupta

The illogic of small big-big things.

Beware of the night, they whisper.

In the black, there are always, and only, shades of grey.

A vortex, it will slurp up the white, like a Hoover,
Burp and beam, from Jaapan to Jalandhar.

Replete with satisfaction, it will leave red.
In your face, on the road, on your sheets.

And then Society will come a-knocking.
And all they’ll be able to see anymore is the mud.
Horrors. No blairwitch, this. “She wouldn’t listen”
Is all they’ll have to say, passing it on.

*Facepalm*. Life’s sucha bitch.