Thursday, March 29, 2012

On posing for photographs & projecting writerly sexiness

There was nothing sexy about me. I didn’t know what it meant to be sexy. But at 17, I began to write. And when I looked up from my books, I realised that some girls were sexy. Slender and clear-skinned, they knew how to hold a stranger’s gaze as if they were appraising the response, waiting to be amused. They wore jeans that clung in the right way. I wanted to look like them. And I also wanted to write.

At 18, I won a college-level prize for poetry and was invited to co-edit the college mag. I began to believe I had some talent. I won more prizes—poetry, stories, essays, drama. Everyone else told me I had talent. I still wasn’t sexy.

I worked hard to knock off the kilos. At 20, my body was toned almost to perfection (though I wouldn’t believe it then). Recently, in the context of sexiness, a friend and writer, Prateebha Tuladhar mentioned a photograph of me taken in the college hostel.

I looked at that self across this gulf—a girl in a short woollen blouse, a pair of jeans two sizes too large, rubber Hawai chappals. Slender, clear-skinned, big-eyed. Her flat stomach is exposed and her fingers push back her long hair. This is how actresses strike ‘sexy’ poses for the camera and that’s the only kind of sexy she knows.

... Now that word and image constantly make war on our nerves, surely, writers need to grab potential readers by the eyeballs. And if a bare shoulder or thigh can do the trick, why not? This seemed to be the premise of Karan Mahajan’s essay in Tehelka last year. I was in it, posing as a sexy writer. Or a writer who is not afraid to be sexy for the sake of a new book, The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl.

The red chiffon sari was borrowed from my mother. The black blouse was meant for her, but the tailor got mixed up and sewed it in my size instead. I had been trying hard to look ‘natural’. I look at the photo now and wonder—was I really not afraid?

When I agreed to be photographed, I was doing it for a lark. I wasn’t thinking of the ramifications of writers becoming cultural non-entities. There was a vague assumption that my getting noticed would translate into my work getting noticed.

Well, I got some attention. But I doubt the photo persuaded anyone to buy the book. It might even have put off some readers. After all, even I remind myself sometimes not to judge books by the female author’s clothes. Women writers are victim to the idea that the public will read a book if a film of sexiness clings to the author’s body. But the opposite is true. A film of sexiness clings to the author’s name once the public begins to buy her/his books. Sexy photos are just a way of catching a reader’s eye on a crowded bookshelf. But nowadays, everyone looks nice in photos, and sexiness is coming out of our collective ears. So what did it matter?

In any case, I was reassured by the fact that others were doing similar photos. I hadn’t realised that the male writers would be in denim and leather jackets, and that would pass as ‘sexy’.

Oh Ramon! Ramon!

Some years ago, I’d been shoveled up on stage to discuss women’s literature and romance. The head of Mills&Boon, India, was also on the panel and the proceedings descended rather quickly into hilarity. A feminist editor-publisher read out an extract from a Mills&Boon book, wherein the protagonist of the novel was in bed and, despite not wanting to, was moaning out loud: ‘Oh Ramon! Take me! Take me!’

When the laughter died down, I made a public confession, which is necessary to repeat before I go on with this review. My last encounter with Mills&Boon was in 2000. It ended with me flinging the book across the room.

When I first began to read Mills&Boon novels (I call them ‘Millsies’), I thought they were just silly, harmless fun (discounting the sad loss of tree-lives). College friends would underline ‘relevant’ bits and read them out loud to share either information or the laughs. But after four or five of them, I stopped reading Millies.

At home, if I was caught reading one, I was embarrassed; not because of the ‘relevant’ bits as much as the literary contempt in which these books were held in my family. The heroines were weak-kneed wimps – always wanting to be controlled, always needing a rescue, always being proved wrong, never able to say ‘no’. The heroes were always in control and, although they were never poor, they had workmen’s muscular bodies. The love scenes were mostly predictable: rarely was the woman ever in control. I grew sick of the stereotype and then I began to resent it.

I am now an unapologetic feminist, a much less tolerant reader, and somehow, I am holding a copy of Aastha Atray’s His Monsoon Bride.

It would be unfair to criticize a book for being what it is – an unabashed Millsie. If readers are looking for stories where women are beside themselves with lust, and are lucky enough to meet a sexy men who incidentally turn out to be loyal and rich and honest and… well, then, that’s what they get.

What we get here are protagonists Mehtab Rathod and Amrita Piramal, who belong to the swish set in Mumbai. He is a gorgeous, super-rich, playboy type with ‘society’ ambitions. She is a poor little rich girl – motherless, virginal, not size zero, a reporter who wants to write about real (read: poor) people.

His Monsoon Bride has a distinct local flavour. Marriages being brokered or arranged is par for the course in India. But in classic Millsie format, this romance breaks no caste, language or even class barriers. Rathod may have been an undernourished kid but he looks like a prince, and he lives like one. She looks like an Indian princess – all curves and chiffon sarees – and needs to be kept like one.

But daddy faces financial ruin. Ever daddy’s dutiful daughter, Amrita bails him out by agreeing to marry the hunky Rathod. We know how this will unfold, but that’s fine. We pick up a factory-made product for its conformity to the template, not because it shattered the mould in which it was cast. We don’t pick up a Millsie to look for insights into the meaning of life. We pick it up because we want a dip into shallow, sensual waters, with zero risk to the self.

So, suffice it to say that the first kiss arrives in the first chapter, more or less as Harlequin mandates. As the blurb suggests, this is a marriage of convenience, so the wedding is fixed within the first three chapters.

But the real test of a romance is its middle. Mr and Mrs Rathod must first misunderstand and then understand each other. We already know that much. So what complex route will they traverse towards love?

His Monsoon Bride’ falters in this respect. There are at least two plot contradictions within the first few chapters. Besides, the same bits of information – such as Amrita’s relationship with her family, her apprehensions about size non-zero, Mehtab’s desire to forget his poverty-bitten past – are repeated, so that little room is left for a full picture of these characters. Mehtab is supposed to be rude, but he doesn’t come across as rude. He seems civil, if not charming, at almost every encounter. Amrita is supposed to be confused, but about what? Her sense of betrayal isn’t allowed space to grow into a real obstacle, and there isn’t enough time spent on the ‘only for public appearances’ aspect of their marriage.

Another problem is that the supporting cast of characters is too sweet. Father, nanny, housekeeper, boss – nobody helps to twist and turn the story. An ex-boyfriend poses a small challenge but he is quickly squashed. Subsequently, the plot banks too heavily on mis-communicated feelings. This makes it reminiscent of a ‘family drama’ from 1980s Bollywood. Or perhaps the current crop of TV serials, especially considering the fact that the story takes a giant leap of about nearly two decades.

That’s another problem. Writing a Millsie, it is a cardinal sin to look beyond. You put the heroine’s heart into the capable, large hands of the hero, and then you break the pen. It goes against the grain of a reader to think about the children these lovers will have, or whether they are still in love when they retire. The future must be a golden blob of fuzzy feelings. That’s what a Millsie allows us – an impossibly bright picture without any scary details of age, kids, health, politics. The book should have ended at page 148, but it lingers on and launches into a whole new romance, which wasn’t needed.

In her author’s note, Atray says she wanted to write a love story about how people don’t fall for each other’s exterior, but for a heart of gold. She has also worked in her own experiences as a reporter (a prize-winning one!), and some very real angst about size zero bodies. But reality doesn’t do a Millsie much good. Perhaps Atray should have chosen a different publisher for a broader (yes!) age- and size-defying love story. The Harlequin factory churns out old hat; there’s no scope for variation on its lust-hard-and-you-will-lusted-for-and-then-you’ll-be-happy theme.

In this factory, an independent woman’s shape, her innocence, her rebellious streak is only useful to the degree that it turns on a man. And I couldn’t understand why any self-respecting woman buys from this factory. But while reading His Monsoon Bride, I discovered why.

I was reading the book on the local trains and wondered what other passengers thought. Did they worry about my self-respect? I looked around. Scarred faces. Women who aren’t ‘curvy’, just thin or fat. They go home to arguments. They are numb from having fallen in love. They will never meet a man like Mehtab Rathod. They don’t believe in such men, or such luck. But over 179 pages, they might allow themselves the mirage of a world where a lonely woman lusts after a near-perfect man, and he loves her for who she is, and their clothes are nice, and the sex is perfect, and their health is perfect, and they are not finally betrayed by a perverse destiny. Who can grudge anyone such a mirage?

Monday, March 26, 2012

In a real democracy

A democracy is a system whereby all citizens have a vote, and a majority vote decides who will make decisions for the rest of us for a given number of years. By definition and in form, that is all it promises. Our constitution, however, offers us more than just a system of governance. It offers us rights and freedoms.

This makes for complex situations. Say, I want to play music at midnight but this interferes with the neighbours’ right to sleep peacefully.

A good democracy is one that allows us the right to make others uncomfortable, as long as we are not physically damaging them or their property. Which means that if I believe that you are immoral or indecent for wanting to strip down to your birthday suit as a form of protest, that’s okay. I can think and say what I believe. But if I assault you in response, that is not okay.

Therefore, in a real democracy, a small group of 13 activists can march about carrying placards, asking that cities be safe for women. The Delhi police should not prevent them from walking about with placards saying “Keep men at home after 8”. They certainly should not rough up the men who join such a march.

We all owe each other certain basic currencies of citizenship. I do owe it to my fellow-citizens to not murder them, or prevent them from earning an honest living. But I do not owe anyone the convenience of reaching to work swiftly, on smooth, protest-free roads, especially if your work and your air-conditioned offices demand the sacrifice of my children’s health.

Therefore, a real democracy does not send in 6,000 armed policemen to deal with a bunch of unarmed villagers who do not want a nuclear energy plant in their backyard. The villagers of Kudankulam (in Tamil Nadu) do not owe it to the rest of us to put up with radiation risks. Sure, the government and other promoters of nuclear energy can scream about how their fears are unfounded. They can promise jobs as compensation. But to send in policemen or paramilitary to deal with a non-violent protest, or arrest protesters for sedition is unconstitutional. And in a real democracy, it would be illegal.

Read full piece here.

Update: There's a open letter from an activist who is on a hunger fast against the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam/Koodankulam. He says there have been instances of the police trying to force fishermen to go fishing to keep up appearances of normalcy, and cutting off  food and other supplies to the protesters. Here's an extract from his letter

"The governments here are taking up a new weapon now and that is our alleged links with Naxalites (Maoists). They are fabricating evidences and concocting conversations to establish that we have connections with Naxal youth and trying to portray us as a violent group. The whole world knows that we have been struggling for the past eight months in a nonviolent manner with absolutely no violence or terror. They will fail as they have in the “foreign hand” and “foreign money” accusations. The governments are desperately trying to provoke our people to prove their theory that “ordinary citizens” of our country do not have a mind of their own; they cannot think for themselves; they cannot stand up for their rights and entitlements in a nonviolent noncooperation campaign; and most importantly, these fishermen, Nadars, Dalits, Muslims, women and children are all dispensable for the growth of the Chennai-based and Delhi-based multi-billionaires."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Time-time ki baat hai

Sometimes, I lie awake at night wondering what I might do if I was just walking along somewhere —maybe on a deserted road running parallel to a railway track, and I stumbled and fell and when I picked myself up, I saw that I had nearly rolled into an old mass grave.

It could happen. All sorts of things happen. For instance, I once heard of a salesman in the UK who put himself up for sale on ebay. I also read of a Bengali village where people sell kidneys — their own, and their wives’ kidneys too, as if it was a joint bank account.

A lot of bad things happen. I read something about a mother giving birth outside a public hospital in Madhya Pradesh, with a pig trying to drag off the newborn. And about a Dalit groom who needed police protection before he could ride a mare to his wedding. A Moroccan teenager killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist. Such terrible things happen and most happen ‘din dahaade’. In broad daylight.

I lie awake at night, sometimes, wondering if the protagonists of these true stories lie awake at night worrying about what they might do to prevent bad things from happening.

What could the villagers sell when there’s nothing left to sell? What do the young people think, knowing that a market that doesn’t want anything from them — not even the strength of healthy bodies. Just their vital organs, so that the lives of others might be prolonged? Do they think that if they just stay home all day, or at least, don’t venture out after dark, their kidneys will be safe?

Did the mother worry about dogs and cats in addition to marauding pigs in case she happened to deliver the baby at night on a public footpath? What could she do to prevent giving birth at night on a public footpath?

And the girl who had acid tossed at her ‘din dahade’ in a public place — does she lie awake wondering if things might have been better if she had picked a different time of day to venture out? And that young woman who was sexually assaulted by a gang of men in Gurgaon? Would 8 pm have been safer? What about 7 pm? What about never?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Here a slap, there a slap, everywhere a slap-slap

I got off lightly. I mostly suffered communal slaps. When I say ‘communal’, I mean it was a community experience. The whole class would be lined up and the principal would deliver a slap on each cheek, one after the other. Thwack! Thwack! Next, thwack!

Eventually, my mother cited CBSE rules and put a stop to thwacking once she took charge of the school. But by then, a whole generation had grown accustomed to violence, brushing it off as part of a normal schooling. So I, for one, wasn’t surprised at the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) survey, which shows 75% of students are caned and 69% slapped. An older study by Saath Charitable Trust also found that in most schools surveyed, teachers carried a stick, or kept one in plain view.

I’ve been shocked, though, at the severity of punishments as reported in newspapers. A history teacher makes three little girls hold fire. A 3rd standard girl beaten for not shutting her eyes. A principal beating up a 10th grade student for scribbling farewell messages on friends’ uniforms. Student losing his eyesight after being beaten for forgetting a book!

This isn’t discipline. It’s torture. Perhaps I’m doubly horrified now that I can see: most adults hit kids because they get away with it. Little wonder then that more vulnerable kids (6-12 years old) are punished more often. An older survey by the Educational Research Centre also showed that 50% of fathers believe corporal punishment is okay (as do 30% mothers). They also found 700-1,000 ‘severe cases’ reported, but less than 1% of the guilty teachers were punished. Which isn’t surprising given that parents hit children too and are reluctant to file cases.

Often, a child must die or be maimed before someone takes action. The La Martiniere School for Boys banned corporal punishment only after a student committed suicide. In Tamil Nadu, it took the suicide of a 16-year-old boy. The Delhi government was reluctant even after a petition was filed by the parents of a 12-year-old who lost 20% vision.

Severe cases might be accidents in the sense that the teacher didn’t mean to kill the student. But then, a drunk car driver doesn’t set out to kill either. So parents and teachers need to take equal responsibility for not protecting children. It is sad that the state should have to intervene legally, but since matters have come to that, it is best to spread the word that corporal punishment is already illegal in India.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, clearly says that “No child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment.” It allows for disciplinary action against teachers. All states and union territories have not banned corporal punishment yet but they will have to, once the state adopts the NCPCR guidelines.

Read full piece here.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Review: The Other Country: Dispatches from the Moffusil

The Other Country is a collation of Mrinal Pande’s recent columns for newspapers like the Mint, Telegraph and The Hindu. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is Pande’s insights into the forces that push, pull or distort the world’s largest democracy, and a fearless liberalism that isn’t trying to squash itself into pat little moulds of right or left. 

She seems impatient with easy assumptions about India’s forward march, and she doesn’t pull her punches, whether she’s criticizing literature festivals (she likens conferences like Translating Bharat to ‘priest-giri’) or activists who try to beatify brothels by glossing over the brutalization of little girls.

Her sharp tongue is in evidence too and the critique is often peppered with delightful phrases such as ‘the milk of human kindness was never more tax deductible!’(My personal favourite is the (Mallika) ‘Sherawatting’ of the women’s rights movement.)

But aside from wit and startling observations, there are also heart-wrenching moments, such as Pande complaint that, “we women, bearers of life and death, are becoming like court jesters. We tell the horrible truth, everyone smiles in polite agreement, but it has no impact.”

This book raises important questions about language and power. But Pande’s best feature is her ability to draw out a string and weave half a dozen notions into a single loop. She hops from a lack of skilled workers to women’s juggling of responsibilities, to mangoes, to self-esteem and the President.

Importantly, she points at the joints in the twisted body of the nation to show how one set of problems feeds off, and bleeds into, another set. For instance, when she talks of the child marriage problem in Rajasthan, she touches upon not just tradition and patriarchy but also extreme poverty, whereby weddings and funeral feasts are sometimes a combined event.

Pande illuminates the links between linguistic racism, urban feminism and unethical media. There are introductions to women like Prabha devi, the only woman barber in her village, and Lad Kanwar, who explains why maternal mortality doesn’t hit the headlines the way farmer suicides do. There are all-too-brief forays into economic home truths, via tamancha (small desi firearm) manufacture in UP, a priest shortage in Maharashtra, Agra’s ailing ambulances, and Mineral Water Baba.

These are engaging and ironic and leave the reader hungering for more. Along with the diversions into Pande’s own memories of her family, her home state, or her attempts to prove an economic or feminist point, they make for good, insightful material. One wishes the book had more of these, and in a more fluid format.

The book would have held its ground if only Pande’s writing could be taken out of restrictive column-length jackets. The columns were written with an assumed familiarity with the current contexts on the part of the reader (as indeed, there would have been for a newspaper reader). It also subjects each piece to the unnecessary pressure of cramming in too much information, and constructing clear beginnings, middles and ends. 

All this book needed was to be treated like a book in its own right.

[A truncated version of this review appeared here.]

Aaj ka rangarang karyakram - filmi mahila kirdaar

A young journalist recently asked me some questions for an article about women characters in Bollywood films. I spent several hours going over lists of movies I've watched over the last decade, and thought it might be interesting to share whatever I came up with.

Interesting women characters who pushed the boundaries:

Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.

She made choices, paid the price for those choices, had a sense of social and emotional integrity, but she didn't give up on herself, or her country, or indeed, on love.

Paro (Mahie Gill) in Dev D.

What a fabulous new Paro! She's a full-blooded north-Indian woman. She tends to take impulsive decisions. But when she sees Dev for who he is, she is self-protective enough not to turn into a sucker for emotional punishment.

Shruti (Anushka Sharma) in Band Baaja Baaraat.

A confident girl who knows her mind. She bends the rules, but she also uses tradition to her advantage. She's practical, self-respecting, and when things go wrong, she pulls herself together rather than moan about the past.

Sona (Konkona) in Luck By Chance.

She's ambitious, painfully honest - about her work, her industry, her future. She gets rejected at work and in love. She picks herself up. And she does not accept her (eventually) much more successful lover, because she values her happiness, and understands where it can/cannot come from.

All the women in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd.

Each one is spunky in her own way. All of them are determined to take a stab at joy. All have clearly defined personalities. None of them takes much bullshit from the husband.

Alvira and Laila (Preity Zinta and Lara Dutta) in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Fun girls, both. One is a feisty upper class girl. And how she loves a yarn! She's willing to take a risk or two. The other is a chilled-out sex worker. She does not have a golden heart, does not complain of victimization. And she gets a happy end!

[I did think of Tabu in Maqbool, but the film was released several years ago. Besides, it is an adaptation of Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth is a central figure. Shakespeare gave her generous doses of conflict, ambition, guilt, and some great lines. So I don't know if I should credit Bollywood with her character.]

More regressive characters (or films) from recent years: 

A few I can recall immediately are:

Priyanka Chopra's character in Drona.

She's supposed to be the hero's bodyguard. But of course, the hero must save her later. Bleargh!

Kareena Kapoor's character in Kambakkht Ishk.

Badly conceived, overall. She comes across as immature, incompetent (as a medic), arrogant and supercilious (as a 'supermodel'), a man-hater, a relationship-destroyer, a friend-controller, and finally, mistrustful of her own sexuality. Fail, fail, fail!

Kareena Kapoor's character in Kurbaan.

Clearly, lady professors don't use their brains very much. And they're no good at self-preservation. Hapless creatures who need vengeful boyfriends of dead girls to rescue them. And their lives are supposed to be less valuable than their wombs, but nobody seems to be challenging that notion. Ugh!

Aishwarya Rai's character in Action Replayy.

She starts off being feisty. Then she must be cut down to size. She must fall for a rather unattractive juvenile guy, just because he learns to dress better. She has no clue what she really wants, it seems. And her feelings can be turned around to suits the male protagonists.

Besides, divorce is portrayed as some great calamity that must be prevented at all costs. People sticking together, despite their inherent incompatibility, is advocated. Triple fail!

All the women characters in No Problem (or any Anees Bazmee film).

One of them (Kangana Ranaut) thinks she is the most beautiful woman on earth and does not have any other thoughts in her beautiful head. The other (Neetu Chandra) is a gangster's moll and doesn't have a personality of her own, except a robotic kind of hot-ness. She is useful only when she can quickly switch loyalties, when one of the heroes begins to flirt with her.

A third (Sushmita Sen) is just outright crazy. Wants to kill her husband because he is not a clever, brave cop like her daddy. Although, on second thoughts, her character's kind of fun. It was amusing, seeing her character chase hubby all over with a knife or a gun, and the whole family running for cover. Progressive? Regressive? You decide.

Most striking change in how women are imagined on-screen today (And should we be celebrating the change, or have new burdens emerged?)

The one change I have noticed in Hindi films over the last decade is that we finally have women characters who seem less anxious about sex. (Or about virginity). But that's only true of a small fraction of Hindi films.

My main concern is that there are fewer films with women in key roles (compared to what I've seen of films from the 1950s and 60s). I have been looking at lists of 'best' (most successful) films of the last decade. Very few have women as strong central protagonists. They often exist as caricatures, or as ghostly shadows. Or objects of desire. This is true of even 'small' films, the critically acclaimed ones.

The result is that female actors end up not exploring their full range. Their principal job is looking slender and wearing not very much, and getting fake boobs as soon as they can afford them. I find it hard to name brilliant actresses, even as 'character actors'. Not because they don't exist but because we don't get to witness their potential brilliance. 

I think a big part of the problem is that there aren't enough women producers, directors or scriptwriters. Or distributors. On that front, we've made no significant progress since the 1950s (yes, there were a few women producers back in those days).

I don't know much about the film business, but I am deeply disappointed that the growth in middle class women's education and income levels has not translated into a louder clamour for better women-driven films.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

One of life’s minor joys is finding someone to admire.

Not many heroes are left to us, thanks to the mainstream press ignoring instances of quiet, sustained courage, and our own cynicism. I’m sometimes annoyed at ‘positive’ news that translates into interviews with students who have managed high scores, or interviews with successful businessmen or creative professionals. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s a difference between success and heroism.

We rarely hear about those who take a stand — unless they end up being jailed or tortured or killed for it. And then we begin to wonder if there is anybody at all who takes a stand, and whether it is worth it. And if nobody does, why should we?

So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Shyam Benegal and Gul Panag had withdrawn from the jury of a filmmaking competition organised by Vedanta... Corporations are powerful media forces. They control advertising in print and TV and, increasingly, movies. Filmmakers, actors and other creative professionals have a lot to lose when they criticise the people who sign the cheques. But when they do take the risk, they show us what they’re made of.

What, after all, does courage or morality mean? Waving to crowds at cricket matches or even doing a charity show is not especially brave, or moral. Besides, it’s been years and years since a Hindi film professional took a public stand that would actually cost them something (with the exception of Ranbir Kapoor and Bipasha Basu who do not endorse skin-whitening/lightening/brightening creams, soaps etc).

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