Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year-end Grant

[A poem I wrote in 2009, at a New Years' party. Setting it free today. Ainwayee.]

I had heard of human love, thwarted
by the underworld: one backward glance
and all is lost! 
For the gods are cruel and quick
to snatch.

So I expected no generosity, stepping over shards
of sozzled gloom, I stalked the night for
sandpapered hopes: It's new year's and I've paid 
my dues.

On every floor, a bruising joy
brushes past like a metaphysical conceit
that no longer expects to be understood.
Glitter lines two streets - those eyes! - and hair hangs
heavy on balustrades.
Knees pump, sucked-in bellies, a yowl
of beseeching.
The air parts - warm cake 
with rent hearts
of strawberries.

I turn away, but
too late!

The gods have sidled up
and caught my hair, icy hands
on my neck, they whisper: Now! 
Make a wish. Quick!
The countdown begins: ten, nine...
We give you, here, someone to hold.
Eight, seven, six... Scream, hop about, 
kiss... Three, two...

I creep up the steps, tumbling
like plastic glasses of abandoned rum,
I try to hide in a loo where a woman weeps 
(except it is a man: beads, cleavage painted on);
A god follows me in, grim
under that sussurating yawn.
He pretends concern, says: Come!
This is not done. Make a wish.
We're happy this year. Really. 
And even for gods, good times don't last
Don't be this way, don't piss me off.
It's new year, come on, 

The gods are cruel and quick
to snatch, and I had heard
of human love, thwarted
by the underworld: one backward glance...

But when a god stood there, screaming: Ask! 
I lost my head; I felt cowed.
And that was how, this year too,
I went ahead and asked for you.

(C) Annie Zaidi

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not legitimate

I’ve been reading a novel from which I want to share a few lines: “… says it does not matter if you lie to …. They have no right to silence, even if they know speech will incriminate them; if they will not speak, then break their fingers, burn them with irons, hang them up by their wrists. It is legitimate, and indeed … goes further; it is blessed.

Can you fill in the blanks? What and who are we talking about?

These lines are from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, set in the sixteenth century. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, is talking about ‘heretics’, people who have different ideas about what the Christian faith is all about. Such people were arrested, tortured, and — especially if they had no money or political influence — burnt in public. The public rarely protested.

I know. Not a cheery memory during the festive season. But I bring it up because it struck me that the writer could easily have been talking about modern India. Nationalism is our sworn faith, and the state can snatch up people who have different ideas about what loyalty to India means, or what development should be. And the public still doesn’t protest.

Consider the fact that the National Human Rights Commission has recorded 14,231 custodial deaths in India between 2001 and 2010. That’s about four people a day. Not just slapped around or hung up by their wrists. Dead.

Read the full piece here

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Of potatoes and smashed glass

It doesn’t matter that much whether or not Walmart arrives. We already have Reliance and More and Big Bazaar. As a buyer of potatoes and multi-grain atta, it’s the same to me. I’m basically looking at a glass-fronted alternative to the subzi mandi.

Is this good for me? Probably not, given that fresh food is always better than food kept for days in cold storage.

Is it good for the environment? Probably not, given how much paper and plastic packaging is used by big corporations in their packaging of food.

Is this good for farmers? We only have to look carefully at districts where corporations are acquiring foods directly and figure out whether farmers’ lives have changed for the better, particularly small and marginal farmers. Besides, if elimination of middlemen is our chief concern, the best thing to do is to set up farmers markets in every suburb of every town, where farmers are free to come and camp every day, and bring us absolutely fresh, chemical-free food.

So what exactly does the big supermarket give the consumer that the local vendor cannot? Well, toilets for one. I’d much rather shop in a competitive, open-air market but a customer cannot be king in matters of retail if her/his bladder (and dignity) is at stake.

I was covering a protest rally in 2007, in Delhi, when a vegetable vendor called Dulaare Lal complained about how ‘companies’ — foreign or Indian — are treated with respect by the state. They have the benefits of electricity, water and endless space. In contrast, Dulaare Lal didn’t have a license to operate on the roadside.

Dulaare Lal paid Rs50 every day to be allowed to sit at Gol Market.

But he was allowed to sit only between 5pm and 8.30pm. Dulaare Lal had one little bulb hanging overhead. Dulaare Lal knew that customers — the ladies especially — need toilets. He and other vendors had been begging the municipality to build facilities, for they were forced to relieve themselves in the street nearby. But there was no toilet and no running water. When it rained, vegetables rotted because there was no shelter and the municipality wouldn’t permit vendors to have plastic roofing.

Read full piece here

And here's another interesting piece on FDI retail in India from the food inflation and is-it-better-for-farmers' perspective:

"If organised retail is the dampener for inflation then it follows that countries such as the UK, Brazil, Thailand and Malaysia among others where the penetration of organised retail is high should have had minimal or very low rates of inflation. In the US where retail stores account for 83 per cent of the market share, inflation has not been so easy to control. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for the first quarter of 2011 reported food price inflation in the UK at 5.5 per cent and rising to 6.3 per cent in the third quarter of 2011.
According to a September 13 bulletin put out by the UK Office for National Statistics, the most significant upward contributions to the commodity price index came from food items such as meat, bread and cereals where there was a 7.1 per cent rise and much higher for processed foods. In India meanwhile, inflation is showing a downward spiral with food inflation down to 6.6 per cent from a high of 20 per cent, and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee predicts that if the trend continues, “we may perhaps have the year-end inflation at 6 per cent-7 per cent.”
Modern retail chains invariably squeeze farmers’ margins and the cartelisation of purchases by the biggest chains has come under scrutiny in the EU and in the US. In the EU, retail chains have become “gatekeepers” controlling the only access that farmers have to consumers (see ‘Abuse of power by EU, US retailers’ p39). The trend in Asia is unlikely to be any different.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Spat upon

A friend’s friend got spat upon while he was riding a motorbike. The traffic light was red. A passenger riding in a bus in Mumbai just poked his head out of the window and spat. Our friend was mid-trajectory.

As the traffic moved ahead, our friend accelerated, stopped his bike right in front of the bus and forced it to stop. Then he climbed into the bus, located the spitter in his window seat, grabbed his collar, and spat back at him.

The weird thing is, in our country, if you want to prevent people from urinating or spitting on a wall, the only way to do it is by putting pictures of gods and goddesses or some other religious symbol. All that worship and stated respect for ‘Dharti Maa’ and here we go, spitting at her all the time.

I have often wished that there was some technology that would make spit bounce back at the faces of spitters. Some kind of anti-gravity film with which we could coat our streets and walls. Perhaps some clever inventor will make it some day.

In the meantime, we spit at our own great structures — the landmarks that define our existence. Residential buildings, court-houses, government offices, police stations, railway stations, even the inside of (air-conditioned) railway compartments — spit, often paan or gutka stained, is all over the body of our republic. And it is, quite literally, corroding our structures.Believe it or not, even solid structures like the iconic Howrah Bridge are in danger of collapsing.

Read full piece here

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

There’s a man. His name is Bhagwati Sahu. He was a ‘Janpad’ member, a kind of elected representative for the local population in Rawaan, where a cement factory had been set up. This was the Ambuja-Holcim plant, in Raipur district... The police say Bhagwati has criminal antecedents, and listed 18 cases where he is named as an offender. These turned out to be five cases listed over and over again, most of which are relevant to his activism work.

The Chhattisgarh High Court has refused him bail.

Remember Soni Sori? Yes, that school teacher who was arrested for being a Maoist. Yes, the one who didn’t trust the Chhattisgarh police, and ran all the way from the bloodied forests of her home to the national capital, seeking protection, saying she feared for her life. She was probably hoping that there would be some sanity, some semblance of justice in Delhi. If not in Delhi, then where? But the judiciary had handed her over to the Chhattisgarh police almost immediately. Remember how she had ‘slipped in the bathroom’ almost immediately after the Chhattisgarh police got their hands on her? Remember how she was in no condition to even walk into the courthouse in Raipur because of head and spinal injuries? Well, they did some scans in Kolkata and found ‘foreign objects’ insider her. This school-teacher had already complained that the cops were pushing pebbles into her private parts.

I suppose they call it interrogation. I suppose that’s how things are.

Read the full piece

Friday, December 09, 2011

Love me tender?

There is a question I have been wanting to ask for a long time now, particularly of my filmmaker friends: Can you name ten tender love scenes from Hindi films made in the last five years?

Can you? Because I can't. I can't even think of even five. Of course, people's interpretation and judgment might differ, but when I say tender love scenes, the emphasis is not on love scenes. The emphasis is on tenderness. Which involves a measure of gentleness. A certain degree of empathy, even respect.

I remember a time when there was no cable TV. The only films we saw were either black-n-white state-approved films from the 60s and 70s, or some colour flick that stumbled into our little township thanks to the traveling projectionist that wandered past once in every few weeks.

This was a time when there was no kissing on screen. At least not of the lippy kind. There were quaint sprints through gardens and nodding roses, occasionally boy and girl would disappear behind a bush. The rest was left to your imagination. If you were adult enough to guess, well, you guessed.

Then came cable TV. Our local cable-wallah showed Mr India when he had nothing else to show. This was supposed to be clean family entertainment. We all saw it at least half a dozen times. We had Sridevi's wiggling, writhing moves in the rain by heart. I was too young to make sense of the writhing but even I knew that this was seduction of a kind.

Was it tender? I don't know, but it least it was clearly pleasurable for the woman on screen.

Barring these rain-dance sequences, and some athletic, even aerobic kind of moves on grassy slopes, we saw no sexual loving in films. We did see plenty of rape. Or near-rape scenes. Filmmakers took their own sweet time over chases where some poor girl would be running for her life, clothes askew. Or her clothes were being ripped off, and she stood there paralysed by fear, eyes wide, begging for mercy.

When filmi boys wooed girls they tended towards stalking and harassment and when they were shown as wanting to get intimate, they did things like grabbing wrists, pulling a somewhat reluctant girl towards themselves, or trying to kiss her though she kept turning away.

Towards the late 90s, things had begun to change; we saw Hindi films with what we used to call 'French kissing'. Raja Hindustani was an eye-popping revelation for us girl students. We used to think only foreign peoples kissed like this.

Then came the new millennium. There were more and more and more films with love scenes. Impassioned scenes. Kissing scenes. Violent scenes. But where was the tenderness?

I have been watching newer films with a fair degree of concern because when a filmmaker does include a love scene in a Hindi film, it seems shadowed by something unpleasant or negative. Perhaps the story is about unfaithful partners, or about a character's obsessions or just youthful experimentation. Very rarely do we get to see lovers being really tender with each other.

Why does  this bother me so much? Because I do believe that films impact us profoundly. Our imaginations are shaped by what we see. Films are a social, collective experience - mostly approved by families - and now that they come to TV sets so quickly, they are usually a shared family experience. Soaps and reality shows are mostly a de-sexed business, despite the constant references to affairs and pregnancies. But toddlers are getting most of their learning from TV and even if they are shielded from darker, more adult cinema, they will soon be exposed to ideas of love and longing and togetherness via the screen, much before they experience it in their own life.

It has been years since I saw a balanced, equal, gentle kind of intimacy between lovers in Hindi films (there were glimpses of it in the recent Rockstar, which is another reason I liked it). I am worried because what do young boys learn as an appropriate first move? Or young girls? It seems as if stereotypes continue for the most part. Women are often being pushed into bed, or carried there, which kind of reinforces the idea that women are weaker, lighter, and need to be led somehow. And being grabbed by the hair or wrists is not a particularly respectful treatment.

Even in scenes where the woman is shown to be equally eager, the couple seems inflamed by uncontrollable passion so that beds might get broken and clothes get ripped off without pause for thought. And there is room in this world for passion, and then some to spare. But if anything can sustain a romantic relationship, it is our solid, remarkable capacity for gentle love. If a relationship is worth having, it must have some mutual respect and empathy too.

And yet, most films do not bother with this aspect of love, particularly in its physical aspect. Rarely does the camera or the filmmaker's eye pause and rest on gentle intimacy. Go over most major film releases over the last decade and see if even ten percent of Hindi films have imbued their vision of physical intimacy with tenderness.

It is almost as if they are embarrassed by real tenderness. And I wonder why that is. If we are unable to envision it, capture it, savour it, how do we communicate the power of such moments to others, especially to young people?And if we are unable to communicate the one thing that is worth communicating, then what exactly are we communicating instead?

This Blog is part of the Men Say No Blogathon, encouraging men to take up action against the violence faced by women. 
More entries to the Blogathon can be read at Join further conversation on &

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What we get, we praise (sort of)

Thanks to Rockstar, I've been reminded of the one artistic element no artist can hope to control: the audience.

I was having a conversation with a friend who didn't like the film. At all. He said I must have been in a sappy mood to have liked it. I pointed out that I'm always in a sappy mood. He insisted the film was not about love in any real sense, that the lead character was irresponsible, that he slept with a married woman without trying to 'fight' her marriage in a proper way.

At that point, I refused to discuss the film. I thought he just didn't get it. One of my aunties certainly didn't get it. She did not dislike it but she said, 'the film is about this new modern culture....'

I wanted to protest - no, it isn't about that at all. Other conversations with friends, film enthusiasts, aspiring film makers, film technicians, critics - all pointed the same way. I kept thinking 'No, they don't get it'. But then I saw the IMDB listing for the film. The brief description says: 'He woos... rises to become a rock-star - then self-destructs.' And I wanted to say, no, no, he does not self-destruct; he does not even woo.

But IMDB pages are usually put up by the guys who make the film, eh? Has Imtiaz Ali written that description? Is that what the film is about - self-destruction? Did I get it wrong?

And yet, I feel as if I really do get it. Despite my impatience with excessive romance in films, I felt Rockstar more sharply than other love stories, even the ones Imtiaz Ali has made before. In fact, I felt as if the filmmaker was pushing so hard to capture that emotion - a gnawing, unending hunger for love - that he forgot to be ruthless with the script.

A more rigourous application of Ali's (excellent) screenplay sense would have papered over the unwieldy bigness of this film's plot. One of his chief strengths as a writer is believably likeable characters but usually, he gives them only just enough screen time to drive the story forward. Not this time.

And yet, this film felt more honest to me.

Life allows us the opportunity to experience every shade of loss on the colour card of love. But none of us can quite understand another's compulsions until we suddenly wake up one morning and find ourselves transformed. So it is with our responses to certain films.

For instance, I was a child when I first saw QSQT. I could not understand why my older cousins liked it. It was a stupid movie, I thought. First they (the romantic pair) are stupid enough to run away and live in the hills. Then they are stupid enough to die. What's the point? And why would anyone want to run away with a boy?

This was the phase when I watched black-n-white films happily as long as there was Johnny Walker or Mehmood in the cast. Johar Mehmood in HongKong was my idea of a good watch. I liked Charlie Chaplin. I even liked a strange film where Sridevi was playing a fairy (have forgotten the title). I used to like films with kids in them, and I enjoyed child-like behaviour. Cake-throwing sequences were my favourite.

As a teenager, I began to enjoy love stories. DDLJ and KKHH marked a departure in my tastes. I understood the desire to fall in love before getting married (though I had never met a boy who even vaguely interested me) and I assumed it would be very hard to forget a 'first' love.

I did not know then that is is not only possible to forget first love, but also to feel ashamed of it. I also did not understand guilt in love. So when I saw Arth, although I felt its emotional honesty, I did not understand it fully.
There is a scene where Smita Patil (her character) is saying that she feels as if the tiny black beads of the mangalsutra (belonging to her lover's wife) are scattered underfoot. They hurt her skin. i.e. She finds it impossible to move without hurting.

I thought that was kind of crazy - a manifestation of a mental breakdown. It took me many years to figure out that guilt was driving her towards a breakdown.

For the most part of my 20s, I did not fully grasp the nature of marriage. I didn't know how deep the claws of social conditioning dig into our flesh. Despite consuming books and films about unhappy couples, I thought marriage was a permanent concept. That it was inevitable, and that any love outside it was vaguely unclean. All my friends and cousins thought the same way.

But life taught us new lessons. Married friends began to write back to describe their marital experience in one word: "Yuck!" My generation has seen itself go through undesirable affairs, divorces, abuse, despair, very strangely won loyalties. And so, when I see Heer (Nargis Fakhri's character in Rockstar) two years after she's wedded a stranger in a strange country, unsmiling, mentioning doctor's appointments, it makes total sense. I don't need scenes specifying how and why this girl is dissatisfied. I can fill in the blanks.

When I was younger, I had romantic notions about sacrificing your feelings for others' sake. I did not know that feelings could not be sacrificed. They can only be suppressed. I did not know then that suppression of feelings can kill you. Not all at once. But in small, everyday ways - through stress and depression, through mysterious aches and pains - we can all be destroyed.

So I had no difficulty believing that Heer was either mentally or physically sick. In my interpretation, Heer's cancer is entirely metaphorical. What does it matter, the name of the disease? Unhappiness itself is a kind of disease. Living with a person you do not love can be frightening. It carves hollows into your face. It strips you of all self-respect. And if you do not have a clear idea of who you might love instead, or how much, you grow afraid that perhaps you are incapable of love.

You know that if you cannot love and be loved in equal measure, you are doomed. Before you know it, there is something wrong with you. A bad relationship usually translates into a bad self-relationship too. Lovelessness is all-pervasive. You cannot get rid of it by taking a walk or meeting a new set of friends, or shopping. There is only one way of getting rid of it and that is to find a true lover.

But to find love when it is clearly forbidden - that is difficult. It will not just disrupt your life. It will destroy your self-image.

In the cinema hall, there was a group (teenagers or people in their early 20s) seated a row behind me. After the scene where Heer kisses Jordan, then pushes him away, these youngsters started to giggle. They made comments about how they liked that part, because it was fun, and/or funny.

I found myself wanting to turn around and smack someone. I wanted to shake them and say: It's not funny, okay? This is not a funny scene. It comes from a place of torment. From holding yourself one inch short of happiness because happiness means going off a cliff of morality. And you don't want to fall.

Heer does not push Jordan because she doesn't know what she wants. Jordan doesn't want to kiss because he wants to sleep with her. He just wants to acknowledge the truth of their relationship. They used to be friends. They are no longer just friends. They have found unhappiness, and also found that there is a cure for unhappiness - being with each other. Kissing her is a way of telling her that he recognises this.

Heer also knows she is beyond the point of return. Some part of her is already past caring for consequences. But she pushes him away because she does not want to become the woman who has an adulterous affair at the first given opportunity. She is 'neat-and-clean', no matter how hard she tries not to be. She is curious but she is not the girl who wants to disrupt social structures. Nor is Jordon. Actually, gandh machaani in dono ke bas ki baat nahin hai. That is part of their tragedy.

As they begin their love affair in his hotel room, Heer cannot shake off her (social/moral) conditioning. She runs, afraid of what she has become, afraid of this feeling that has become stronger than her. Jordan has fewer qualms because he is still single. He need not feel burdened. But he will not chase her beyond a point. It is she who has to signal to him that their passion is equal. And the director conveys all of this messy emotion in about 30 seconds, with not one line of dialogue.

When I saw this deftness of touch being reduced to 'Ranbir acts so well' by critics, I felt I had to say 'not fair'. But then I realised that perhaps they are not seeing the same film.

I was seeing a very angry film. Poor Janardhan is furious because he hadn't asked for this kind of hurt. He wanted to make it big; he made it big. Now he knows that the glamourous, moneyed space was a trap. But it is too late to snap out of it. Or too soon. He is hurt but not broken. He is upset that he cannot control anything. He is angry that he cannot have a woman he is, in fact, entitled to. He wants her; she wants him. It should be simple. The world really has no locus standi.

Yet, the world butts in. It makes her run. It makes her try to break up with him. It makes her say things she doesn't mean. Later, when they manage to steal some time together, it comes crowding in to demand explanations. Stupid convention, law, tradition, media - it is ripping his life apart. And he will defy, defy, defy.

But finally, there is nothing to defy, because the story reaches a point when he is, actually, guilty. He's damaged his beloved. And his anger loses its heat. That last scene (in my reading of it) was supposed to convey a kind of defeat. A laying down of arms. When there is nothing left to win or fight for, what do you do?

You do what you can. You play music. You go to work. Perhaps you learn to live again. Perhaps, you die. Perhaps, you pretend to live. Who knows what happens to Jordan afterwards?

Every story comes from a point in the artist's heart, even if the events of the story are not from his/her own life. The rest is just craft. You are dependent on your medium to make yourself understood. But no matter how well-crafted a film (or book, or art installation, or photo exhibit) might be, understanding is not guaranteed. Because understanding is a two-way street.

I enjoyed it because, despite its flaws (some bad acting, definitely), I get Rockstar. I think. Not because I'm especially sensitive or too sappy (which might be true), but because the whole spectrum of grief interests me. I catch glimpses of it in every relationship. I puzzle over it. I hear it in songs. I read it. I write it. I watch it. And I am often dismissive of films that have no emotional depth. The filmmakers I love most are the ones who want to look at love and loss right in the eye and show me what they see.

I suppose, it is safe to say that beyond craft, beyond vision, plot, narrative, style, context or the combined talents of everyone involved in a project, there lies that elusive element - recognition. Every film, every book needs an audience who can recognise themselves in the story. Sometimes everyone can. Sometimes only a few people can. It is a bit like dancing to your own tune, except you do it in public. Those who are not in sync with that particular tune will be annoyed. And those who are in sync will fall in step.

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