Sunday, March 29, 2009

In the Wake of the Wounded Woman

When I was a little girl, I equated rape with death. The movies (and bad pulp fiction and even comics) were to blame, of course. I did not know yet that men - and children - got raped too and I was too young to know what rape meant, yet I was convinced that if a woman was raped, either she got killed, or she had to kill herself. The only other alternative was to die whilst fighting the rapists.

Nobody told me this. It was just an association of ideas (thanks to Hindi movies, I also used to think that if someone saw you naked, you had to get married to him). While I was growing up, there was no concept of life, post-rape. The idea that a rape victim might want to live, and might want relationships and kids and so on at some point in the future - it just didn't occur to us. It wasn't just me. It didn't occur to classmates or cousins either (if it did, they kept it a closely guarded secret). Our films didn't show us. The books we were allowed to read didn't show us. And no adult even mentioned the word 'rape' or 'sex' in our presence.

I did have a vague idea that the police was supposed to do something but rarely did, and that this failure led husbands or brothers or beloveds to take up arms and seek bloody vengeance. I also remember thinking that it had to be the worst thing that could happen to you, because not only could you not do anything about it, you also had to kill yourself. It doesn't get much worse than that, does it?

In my teens, I watched a few movies where an alternate was presented - you could marry your rapist. Or rather, he married you. You even got to sing songs through the whole mucky business. (It is worthwhile noting at this juncture that the Supreme Court of India, even today, is passing orders that specify that an offer to marry a rape victim doesn't translate into bail for the rapist.)

The first time my ideas were shaken off their perch was when I saw Zakhmi Aurat (Wounded Woman). I cannot remember how old I was. I didn't have a clue about what rape meant but with this film, two things came undone. One, the way the rape itself was treated. Until then, rape scenes meant actresses running - usually in sarees or lehenga-cholis, sometimes in slow motion - or attempting to crawl backwards as they lay on the floor or bed, wherever they had been tossed. The villian would be struggling to pull away her pallu. Even when I was little, I used to wonder why the girl spent so much time and energy holding on to the fabric, clutching it to her chest, saying 'Let go!' Why didn't she just drop the saree and run?

I have seen Zakhmi Aurat only once. But one rape scene has never left my memory. Here was a young woman who dressed in pants. A cop. And she was being gang-raped inside her own house. She wasn't just an object being used to satiate a villian's ungovernable lust. She was being deliberately humiliated. In fact, she wasn't just being humiliated. She was being physically hurt. This was the first time I remember thinking: "Oh my god, they are going to break her bones, or crack open her skull."

This was the first time I saw a film that showed the trauma of life after. Because, instead of hanging herself from the ceiling fan, leaving an accusatory note behind, or complaining to her brother about her stolen 'izzat' and how she was no longer fit to show her face, this victim was living in her own house, where different objects and spaces were constant reminders of her pain and humiliation.

Most significantly, this was the only movie I had seen in which a victim takes some action barring murder. She puts together a vigilante gang of women who have been raped themselves, or whose family members have been raped. They start kidnapping rapists and castrating them. Surgically, mind you, with the man being placed under anasthesia.

Much later, I found out that this was supposed to be a controversial film. Some people had objected to the sheer number of rapes and the explicit scenes. I still don't fully understand the controversy and don't want to get into the politics of crime and punishment at the moment. All I want to say is that it was an empowering film for me.

For the first time in my life, I was being offered the idea that rape was brutal but it need not lead to death. For either victim or culprit.

There were other ways in which this film broke away from stereotype. It showed the rape victim being dumped by her fiance, but afterwards - after she is arrested and put on trial - he finally asks her to marry him. She is pleased to be taken back, of course. But even this - a happy ending - seemed like such a novelty in a film about rape. Besides, it got me thinking. I remember thinking that perhaps, the heroine should not be going back to her fiance, not after the way he abandoned her when she needed him most.

The only other Hindi film that helped me break away from stereotypes around the rape of the bhartiya nari was a black-n-white film called Patita (the one with that lovely romantic number 'Yaad kiya dil ne, kahaan ho tum...').

It was the first Hindi film I saw in which a rape victim is not only happily married - not to the rapist, thank god - but her baby is a product of rape, accepted and cared for by her handsome husband. It was the first time I saw a screen rape victim being allowed to sing romantic songs in the moonlight, allowed to be something other than traumatized.

Another scene from Zakhmi Aurat that surprised me was a song. The villain/rapist has just been castrated. He is back home and now his wife is demanding sex. She is attempting to seduce him and he is pretending to have turned spiritual, to have undertaken a 'Brahmachari' fast (which means that he is going to abstain). His wife sings and dances and finally strips him, which is when she discovers the truth.

The song was supposed to be comic, I suppose. I cannot decide whether it is in bad taste or not. But it achieved something important. It showed that rapists might have non-aggressive sex lives too, that their relationships with their wives might be very different, that their wives might actually be happy, and completely clueless about their husbands' brutalization of other women. This idea came as a bit of a shock to me. I still find it a little hard to deal with, but it taught me to think of things that are flattened out of the frame when you allow for only uni-dimensional screen characters. It taught me that just as victims are stereotyped, rapists and their families are stereotyped as well.

Possibly, if I watched Zakhmi Aurat now, I'd find fault with it both from a storytelling perspective and a feminist perspective. Nevertheless, the film is significant.

Just like The Accused was significant. I was made to watch by a friend. In fact, her father made her watch it while she was quite young. Perhaps, he wanted her to know that she should never, ever, blame herself in case something like that happened. That it doesn't matter if you're drunk, or drugged, or promiscuous, or in a bar, or even if you have been kissing the accused. Perhaps, her dad was trying to tell my friend that even if other people are blaming you, or laughing at you, you shouldn't give up. Not when it comes to demanding justice for yourself.

I am grateful to my friend for leading me to the film. Like every other woman, I was brought up on the usual bullshit ideas that seek to shift blame onto the victim. The Accused once again shook up my ideas, forced me to look at rape with new eyes.

What really worries me is that over the last two decades, I have not seen any Hindi movies that take this a step further. I remember the horror of rape scenes in Bandit Queen, and there has been the odd rare film that puts rape in perspective within the context of another narrative (Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi did so), without allowing it to become the dominant feature in the female lead's life. By and large, either filmmakers avoid the subject altogether, or end up churning out rubbish that echoes old justifications for rape, such as how a woman dresses, and where she goes. The rest of the film is about everything else - from the horrors of westernization to the erosion of values among spoilt rich brats - except the rape itself, and the way our society deals with survivors.

Perhaps, the trouble with too many artists is that they forget their own power. The power of media. Films and books are as much a tool for challenging social ideas as they are tools for emotional discovery or just plain storytelling. You can break stereotypes. You can stretch limited imaginations. You can help others become less judgmental human beings. You can save children. But you have to want to.

(Cross-posting now on BlogHer)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Shame, shame

When I read that an editor in my country has been arrested, on the grounds of having outraged me, all I could feel was shame, and revulsion. For those who claim to believe in a god I can lay claim to, those who have kidnapped the prophets who were my inheritance. For those who buckled, despite having assumed the responsibility of ensuring that my rights were not violated in my own land. For governments and administrations that choose to arrest editors, instead of those who threaten them.

I am ashamed that we live in a country where someone is not allowed to call religion(s) oppressive. I may or may not agree with that view, but I want the right to say it, to agree with it, to put it into print, and to reprint it as many times as I think fit.

I am ashamed that not one newspaper in this country has seen fit to create some noise about this. That not one newspaper is running a campaign against threats to free speech from every upstart, self-appointed guardian angel of some random group's sense of self-esteem. That editors across the country have not seen fit to republish that so-called outrageous article, as a mark of protest.

And I am ashamed that an artist cannot show nudes at Jehangir Art Gallery any more, the place where I spent so much time hanging out, absorbing art, thinking, interpreting, sniggering, criticising. It galls me to spend time in that gallery now. When I sit in Samovar and order a cup of tea, I cannot forget that this is a place that didn't even bother to wait and find out if it would be targeted by the police, or random goons who are afraid of undressed people. It taped up its own face, willingly, before it could be gagged.

I am ashamed that we are so quick to bend into terrorised little kowtows, that we prefer to walk around with someone else's nauseous rags stuffed into our mouths. Really, this doesn't feel like the country I was promised. A democratic, sovereign, socialist republic that guaranteed free speech and free expression of ideas. I thought.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The the-80s-were-good-for-cinema post

Talking about films - or any art form - can be a draining exercise. I am often overcome with a sense of futility mid-way through such conversations, because you just cannot get the other person to see. For instance, that eternally raging debate about poetry and 'access'. Or that completely abhorrent debate about whether Shakespeare was a plagiarist, and whether there is any such thing as an original idea. Or whether violence in films has a negative impact on society.

I usually just shut up and smile politely when someone picks up one of these fatiguing threads in conversation. But the other day, I got into a bit of a discussion that took off from poetry and modern mediocrities, and ended with an allusion to our 80s cinema. To that era of Hindi cinema that is described as 'the dark ages'.

I didn't like that. It suggests that Hindi cinema during that decade had stooped to lows that it had not seen before, and has not seen since.

I'm not sure I agree. When I was growing up, all I saw was Indian cinema - mostly Hindi, but thanks to Doordarshan, some other languages too (Sound of Music, which I was subjected to six times at least, does not count). But having been only a small child in the 80s, with very few tools of analysis, or indeed any real judgment, I am no longer sure whether my memories of that cinema are true.

So before I said anything further on the subject, I decided to go do a little research. (And having stayed up till 5 am to do this post shows just how strongly I feel about this subject).

What exactly was the 80s cinema?

Was it all about loud, regressive, violent, formula films (another post on this term, another day) where heroines were being raped all the time, and then committing suicide, and where the villians were evil beyond measure and the heroes were from amongst the great unwashed and looked it? Where things were black and white too often, and all characters were unidimensional? Where the song and dance routine was increasingly looking like an aerobics class crossed with, with, I don't know, genetically modified moonwalkers? Where Bharat natyam costumes were being mated with bikinis, and sarees with minis?

Maybe some of it was. But a lot of it wasn't. In the year 1980, we had movies like Aakrosh, Khubsoorat, Karz, Sparsh, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and other widely acknowledged brilliant films which I have not seen. There were others which weren't bad at all (in my opinion), such as Kala Pani, Shaan, The Burning Train.

In 1981, there was Laawaris, Ek Duje Ke Liye, Love Story, Umarao Jaan, Zamane ko Dikhaana Hai, Kaalia, Dhuaan, Naram Garam, which I liked. And 36 Chowringhee Lane, Chashm-e-Baddoor, and Silsila.

In 1982, there was Angoor, Arth, Bazaar, Gopichand Jasoos, Namak Halal, Namkeen, Bemisaal, Nikaah, Prem Rog, Satte pe Satta and Shakti, many of which I've watched multiple times. (Besides, IMDB tells me there were also titles like Bachche Teen Aur Daaku Chhe, which I must make an attempt to acquire, some day).

In 1983, there were films like Himmatwala and others in that genre, which I didn't care for. All the awful stereotypes apply. But, but, but!

But there was Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron! The year 1983 gave us this awesome film and there's been nothing like it since. And there was the equally awesome Ardhya Satya and Mandi. Other films that I am content to like included Betaab, Disco Dancer, Kalaakaar, Naastik, Sadma (wherein I am told, I howled the movie theatre down, repeating "But mummy, why did she leave?").

The year 1984 gave us Saaransh, Mashaal, Utsav and (though I have not yet seen it, I have heard so much about it that I'm going to put it down as a positive) Mohan Joshi Haazir ho! It also gave us Tohfa (which I'm not a fan of), but that's in the Himmatwala category.

From the 1985 list, I liked Meri Jung, Aitbaar, Jhooti, Khamosh, Pyari Behena, Saheb. (And as a matter of principle, I must try and watch Aurat Per Ki Jooti Nahin Hai). Though I don't remember these too well, I think I didn't mind Aakhir Kyon, Bhavani Junction, Ghulami, Pyaar Jhukta Nahin, Mohabbat, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, and actually, even Bhaago Bhoot Aaya. Not great, but I could live with them.

In 1986, I liked Anubhav, Chameli ki Shaadi, Ek Chadar Maili Si, Naam. There was also Jaanbaaz, Nagina (so sue me. I liked it) and Aakhri Raasta, which I will include on my list of likes simply because of its unashamed self-spoofing in the song "Gori ka Saajan".

The lyrics go something like: Yaad karo tum filmon mein/kya kya scene dikhaate hain/ Leyt ke baatein karte hain/ daud ke gaana gaate hain/ Main peechhe bhaaga/ tu aage daudi/ Lo ji shuru ho gayi love story..." and all the while, the hero and heroine are happily running, lying down, singing. Matching-matching action to word. I love it.

In 1987, there was Mr India, Ijaazat, Kaash, Ye Woh Manzil To Nahin. I vaguely recall having liked Pyaar Ki Jeet and Mohre too.

In 1988, there was Tezaab, QSQT, Hero Hiralal, Malaamaal, Main Zinda Hoon, Pestonjee, Rihaee, Salaam Bombay!, and a film which most of us have not seen but I have heard so many wonderful things - usually in the realm of hyperbole - from those who have seen it that I will include it in this 'the 80s gave us good cinema' list - Om-dar-ba-dar.

There was also Zakhmi Aurat, about which I will do a whole post some day, because it was an important film, even a life-altering one. And there was also a rather sweet children's short film called Angootha Chhaap, which I might never have seen except for the fact that Doordarshan once decided to show two shorter films instead of the regular Sunday evening movie. All these years later, that film is still there in my head!

These I didn't think were so bad: Dayavan, Pyaar Ka Mandir (the title song is still stuck in my head), Hatya, Khoon Bhari Maang.

In 1989, there was Chaalbaaz and Chandni, Maine Pyaar Kiya and Daddy, Parinda and Prem Pratigya, Raakh and Ram Lakhan and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro - all interesting for very different reasons. And there was also Nigahen (shut up! okay?) and Tridev.

So these were the 80s for me as a film-lover. It is true that I suffered through Loha, and Paap Ko Jalaa ke Raakh Kar Doonga, and Mardon Wali Baat, and a hundred variations on 'khoon' 'insaaf' 'insaan' and 'suhaag'. But so what?

I also suffered through Bal Brahmachari (introducing Puru Rajkumar), in the nineties, and that was the first film I actually walked out of. Since the multiplexes came in, I have become picky about what I watch on the big screen, but I'm sure there are several films made in this decade that you wouldn't wish upon your friends.

Can you think of more than five or six decent-to-good films made in a single year, in this decade? If this is our average count now, and that was the case in the 1980s too, what's the difference?

Somebody is bound to pipe up now with the 'Oh, but you are counting parallel cinema' argument. I don't buy that argument. Hindi cinema is Hindi cinema. You cannot cut films like Arth or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron out of the '80s Bollywood frame. No more than you would cut Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi out of this decade. The point is not big names or big money. Even now, the biggest names and the biggest money is associated with sub-standard movie-making. Even now, the really different films, the experimental films - a sort of parallel cinematic movement, if you like - are made on smaller budgets, and fresh talent.

So what, then, makes us so tolerant of 'now', while dismissing the 80s as the dark age of Hindi cinema? Is it just that we are tolerant of anything that is ours - our children, our cultures, our cinematic eras, ourselves? And if that is not the case, then please, explain.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Chewy introspects

A few days ago, a friend had handed me a copy of A Grasshopper’s Pilgrimage and asked me whether I’d like to review it on this blog. I was a little surprised because I’ve had very few such requests, and besides, reviewing is something I do very reluctantly, because it feels like too much of a bother having to explain why a book or film worked, or didn’t. But here goes:

I must begin with a disclaimer and a confession. I am totally not into spiritual reading. I shy away from books that come with spiritual/religious tags and over the years, I’ve become suspicious of anything that describes itself as a ‘journey of the soul’ or something along those lines. Which is not to denigrate the genre. It is just that I personally start to get restless and irritable at the mention of the soul.

It was, therefore, with a small measure of trepidation and guilt that I agreed to do this review. It isn’t fair to approach a book with shelf-sized biases. That said, I have to confess that this book was a pleasant surprise. It was smooth reading right through. Author Manjushree Abhinav chose to tell an honest story instead of wrapping up a sermon in a novel’s cloak.

A Grasshopper’s Pilgrimage takes you through confusion and heartbreak, and the romancing of Gopika’s soul. The protagonist is a young, attractive woman from a family of atheists and finds herself inexorably drawn to Gurus, meditation centers, ashrams and the like, much to the consternation of her revolutionary grandparents. Each time she thinks she has found a solution, she is forced to reconsider – questions, answers, solutions, free will, screws, all of that.

Those are big words and big dilemmas, yes. But I think what works in this novel is that the protagonist is very real. Her language feels real. Her family and social context feels real. Her disappointment about love not being such a pat little affair, and her fears about not being good at her job, not knowing what she is good at – these are themes anyone can identify with, regardless of how deeply rooted they are in the spiritual realm. For a spiritual book, this turned out to be surprisingly temporal fare, and I’m glad I read it after all.

My personal take-home from this novel: it forced me to think. Mostly about why I resist spiritual reading (or viewing) so hard. I think I found some answers too. But that’s for me to chew on, alone.

To others, I would recommend the book if you’re looking for reading that isn’t so light that it becomes meaningless, and yet is not so heavy that you’ve got to shake your head every ten pages to make room for more verbiage. Finally, it is a well-written account of a young woman looking for – presumptuous of me to say this, but I’ll say it anyway – herself, and of the people who helped her get there. It is a story well-told and that’s why we read, don’t we?

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