Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Why novels and printed books exist in the age of Netflix

Consider the difference between watching a film in a foreign language and trying to read a book in that language. The film will still give away a lot, but the book will give you nothing unless you’re willing to work hard to interpret the words. It is you who bring words to life.
A book is an extraordinary intellectual and emotional pact between writer and reader. Cinema can seek a response, but watching is a more passive exercise. Once you sit down to watch, images and words unfold. You can leave the hall or turn off a gadget, but the creation is what it is. When you return to the same film, the actors will still be wearing what they were wearing. If the girl wears a yellow hat in a book, it may be a bonnet or a fedora or a wide-brimmed floppy hat. It could be canary yellow or the colour of daffodils, and it might be edged with white lace. And if you don’t know the meaning of “hat”, you may imagine the girl wearing a yellow scarf.

Read the whole essay in GQ India mag: https://www.gqindia.com/content/novels-books-print-endures/

Monday, July 16, 2018

A button jab worth of equality

One of my favourite experiences while traveling in more developed nations is the button you can press whenever pedestrians want to cross the road.

I love those buttons affixed to poles at every crossing. They makes a pedestrian feel like she's something too. Something resembling a human citizen rather than a scurrying insect trying to get out of the way of unseeing, unstopabble metal beasts. It makes you feel like your life is a little bit more valuable than ten seconds in the lives of people who happen to be in cars. It reminds you that you are equally human and the fact that you're using your own two feet to get around makes you more deserving of consideration, not less.

This thing about bicycles and sidewalks and the constant dismissal of pedestrians as a component of street traffic – it's basically a class problem in India. There are hierarchies in developed nations too, but the class groups aren't watertight compartments. Those who drive cars also ride bicycles and also take long walks. Those who walk to work may well possess cars, choosing to drive only on weekends. People may drive to work but prefer to walk to restaurants or clubs in the evening.

In India, class is a visible phenomenon. Usually, the pedestrian is at the bottom of the heap. She, or he, does not own any motoring assets. And so, what right have they to expect that they can actually cross the road safely? And if they do cross, they must do so at their risk, and only after a patient wait at the traffic lights. They certainly don't get to control how long they must wait, or how much further they have to walk before they can find a proper zebra crossing and a traffic light?

Those who ride bicycles often cannot afford motorcycles or scooters or cars. Cyclists are mainly men running errands, not doing it for pleasure or exercise. Errand boys, tradesmen, freelance professionals may be carting packages as heavy as their own body weight. They could also be young students from middle class families but increasingly, in bigger cities, students take buses, trains, or rickshaws.

The adult middle class cyclist is an anomaly in India (I know of only six such among several hundred friends and acquaintances). I also remember the time when one of them was barred from entering a complex where discussions and arts' events are hosted. He was riding a bicycle and clearly didn't fit the security guards' image of someone who deserves to access art or join interesting conversations about society. It wasn't until he began to argue in English that class privilege was re-established and the guards relented.

Nowadays, some states are talking of barring cyclists and cycle rickshaws from major roads. There is not much noise about this, so I am guessing that most middle class people would prefer it that way. Or would they?

There must be a knot of worry in upper class hearts about bad times. What happens if they cannot afford chauffeurs to ferry kids to school and drive retired parents to hospitals? Will they have to find worse ways of making more money to pay for cars and fuel and chauffeurs, and houses with more parking space? What if all investments backfire? Will the kids die, trying to cross a road?

Surely, even the elite must prefer the idea of a country where such questions weren't necessary.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The making of a river goddess

Somewhere in the Haryanvi village of Mughwali, there is a little acquifer. That is to say, there is a hole in the earth, bricked around, and a circlet of still water. There's a frog paddling in it.

Nothing about this image suggests “river”. As farmer Jarnail Singh points out, a river is that which flows; this is groundwater. Others disagree. This water, they insist, is the same river Saraswati, the one mentioned in the Rig Ved. Built around contestations of what it is, what it can achieve and what's at stake, is a 20 minute documentary film, “Searching for Saraswati”, showing tomorrow (July 10) on the New York Times website.

Read the full article on The Quint

Sunday, July 08, 2018

On trolling and rape culture

To call it filth is to dress it up. To call it a disgrace is to lend it grace. Let us call it what it is. It is the manifestation of minds so steeped in rape that it is rape that drips from the tips of their fingers onto the screens of their smart phones.

The meaning of rape is a not-yes. It is not waiting, not listening, not looking for a shade of nuance between yes and no, or I'm-feeling-trapped, or what-might-be-the-consequences-of-this-decision? The meaning of rape is forcing people to do things they do not want to do.

Anyone can do it. Sometimes it is done by mobs, sometimes by friends, sometimes strangers ganging up on one who is not able to protect himself. Or herself.

An unsavoury, undemocratic political culture builds upon rape culture and vice versa. It preys upon the vulnerable and seeks to attach blame to its victims. Just as rape or sexual harassment are assaults upon a person’s physical and emotional autonomy, attacks are launched upon citizens who demonstrate an independent spirit, or exercise the smallest vestige of power, as our Minister for External Affairs, Ms Sushma Swaraj, has regretfully had to discover.

Friday, July 06, 2018

On literary loans and Bollywood

When does a borrowing turn into a theft?

The answer is obvious – ask before borrowing, and do not go about saying that the goods are your own property. There’s no way of returning borrowed words. The most we can do to avoid insinuations of robbery or mal-intent is to publicly credit the source.

With creative artists, credit is not a straight business. We respond to poems with fresh verses, and build upon foundational myths; we wrench a new politics, a deeper insight out of old tales. With film songs, crediting is especially tricky since much of popular Bollywood music borrows heavily from folk songs and the great Hindi/Urdu classics.

Recently, a very hummable song from Baaghi 2 was being discussed on social media. ‘Allah mujhe dard ke qaabil bana diya’ borrows in two ways. The first is a clean “lift” of one couplet:

“Betaabiyaan samet ke saare jahaan ki
jab kuchh naa ban sakaa to mera dil banaa diya”

This couplet is credited to Najmi Naginvi on Rekhta.org, though it is also often credited to Jigar Moradabadi. The latter is a more famous poet and one of his famous ghazals certainly uses the same meter, rhyme and refrain. Sample this:

“Laakhon mein intiḳhaab ke qaabil banaa diyaa
jis dil ko tum ne dekh liyaa dil banaa diyaa”

The second way in which the Baaghi 2 song borrows is by taking the structure and similar ideas from Jigar. In the tradition of Urdu poetry, this may not be considered outright theft. There’s a phrase for it: ‘zameen udaana’. Translated loosely, it means, to take the ground in which a poem is rooted. Another poet may take the same rhyme and refrain, and create something new. However, the full verse borrowed is nothing but theft.

The lyric credit for this song on the official T Series channel on Youtube is listed as ‘Arko’. Neither Najmi Naginvi nor Jigar Moradabadi are mentioned anywhere. Interestingly, ‘additional vocals’ are credited but there is no room for the original source of the song’s theme, words, or its lyrical structure.

This is not unusual for Bollywood. The famous song Dillagi ne di hawa, thoda sa dhuaan utha, in the film Dostana, includes a line “Ankhon ka tha qusoor churi dil pe chal gayi”, which is from a ghazal by Jaleel Manikpuri, also sung by Mehndi Hassan.

The question of originality is tricky. In Urdu poetry, there is a longstanding tradition of paying tribute or treating a great master's work as the starting point from where you push off your own lyrical boat. There are even ‘tarhi’ mushairas where a new generation of poets is given an existing line of verse and asked to create a new poem around it.

Gulzar, one of the greatest contemporary lyricists, is rooted in this tradition. He often builds upon a single phrase by an old giant, such as ‘Zeehal-e-miskeen, makun taghaful' by Amir Khusrau, and ‘Jee dhoondta hai phir vahi fursat ke raat din’ by Mirza Ghalib, or changes a ‘Thaiyya thaiyya’ by Bulleh Shah into ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’. However, these verses are centuries old and there’s no dispute about their authorship. 

He did run into rough weather when he modified the first two lines of a poem by a near contemporary, Hindi poet, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena who died in 1983. Gulzar had changed ‘Ibn Batuta/ Pehen ke joota’ to ‘Ibn Batuta/ Bagal mein joota’ for the film Ishqiya. True, the rest of the poem was totally different but it can’t hurt to list Saxena’s poem as a source of inspiration, since he is not as well known as Gulzar.

There is a long tradition of poets being called out by other poets if their borrowings become apparent. I was speaking with one of the young, upcoming voices in Urdu poetry, Abhishek Shukla, who tells me that even Ghalib was accused of borrowing ideas from Persian writers; a scholar called Yagana Changezi has pointed them out in a text called Ghalib-shikan. There are several such anecdotes about similarity of verses, and there may well be an authentic ‘khayaal ki takkar’, an accidental collision of ideas. Shukla says it has happened to him too and he is happy to acknowledge the similarity of the couplets in print as well as on social media. But some poets hide behind ‘takkar’ when caught shoplifting.

There’s a story about Firaq Gorakhpuri at a mushaira, where he heard a younger man recite his (Firaq’s) couplets. Firaq asked if those verses were indeed his own work, and the young man said, yes. But, starting to realize that he had blundered, or belatedly recognizing Firaq, he took refuge behind ‘takkar’. Firaq reportedly said that it is possible that a bicycle collides with another bicycle, or with a horse-carriage, or even a car. But what are the chances that a bicycle will collide with an aeroplane?

In another instance, Khumar Barabankvi was hearing his own ghazal being recited at a mushaira by a younger poet. When he stopped, Barabankvi said aloud: Young man, you may as well read out the last two couplets too.

If a poem is going in print, it doesn't hurt to add a footnote or use quote marks or italics for a borrowed verse. For film songs, however, it is incumbent upon the lyricist to mention it in the credits. If it is a tribute, it is evident only to the well-read who are familiar with the original. In a cultural context where most people do not read poetry but do listen to film songs, to not credit the line is very problematic.

However, within the film writers’ community, nobody wants to confront unpleasant questions such as the nature of creative pursuit, and who deserves how much? Finally, it all comes down to a writer’s personal work ethic. Varun Grover wrote a song based on Dushyant Kumar’s Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai and has acknowledged it. The official Zee Music Company channel on Youtube mentions it. Grover also did the hard work of running about to get permissions from the late poet’s descendants to use two lines, and he reached out to the publishers too. Many others don't want to do the work.

The other problem is that producers are parsimonious when it comes to writers. Even if the sums of money required are small, they are reluctant to pay it. I would not be exaggerating if I said that major production houses hesitate before paying writers even ten thousand rupees, but don’t bat an eye before coughing up two crores for filming the song.

In the internet age, due credit is a peculiar nightmare. One lyric website lists the very famous poem, “Ye daag daag ujala, ye shabgazida seher' as written by Gulzar for the film Firaq, while the actual poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz is listed as 'singer' (http://www.glamsham.com/music/lyrics/firaaq/yeh-daag-daag-ujaala-yeh-sabkajida-sehar/949/2312.htm).

Film writers would do well to stand up not only for their own rights, but also for establishing base rules and norms for writing credits. The merit (and income) of a lyricist is directly linked to an ability to generate fresh words and images, binding them into a succinct verse. If he (or she) chooses to give credit where it is due, he will only gain the respect of his contemporaries. Unless, of course, he is unable to write songs without the help of borrowed lines. In that case, what can other writers offer him except compassion?

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