Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Riveting Rockstar

I watch a lot of movies. From the ones I like, I segregate three or four and air my views on them in the same post. I am making an exception in the case of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar because it is an exceptional film and deserves to be analysed at length. There are multiple strands running through this film, each more delicately nuanced than the other. And for any cinema literate viewer to relish the work, it becomes important to hold on to all of them.

The first and the most obvious among them is that Rockstar is a modern day retelling of the epic love story, ‘Heer Ranjha.’ From the names of its lead protagonists to their family backgrounds, faithful tributes are paid to the original. And that the boy plays the guitar instead of the flute is only fitting in this modern adaptation, given the milieu of the film. There is also a clever subversion by the writer and director here. He knows his female protagonist pining for her lover even after being married to another man may offend the purists, so he evokes the legendary Heer through the name. We are constantly reminded that the woman from the fable who acquired sainthood because of her love for Ranjha was also married and it did nothing to dim her ardour for her lover. If our traditional society can accept her, they jolly well respect her modern day avatar.

The film also vests this love fable with a subtext that the original did not have. Why did the rich and aristocratic Heer lose her heart to a poor and uncouth Ranjha? Ali decides to debunk all that nonsense about spiritual love that is woven into immortal love stories to make them respectable. Instead his female protagonist is driven by an unusual desire, hitherto unexplored in Hindi cinema. She falls for the rustic because he makes her feel dirty. For someone who has grown up in a clean and antiseptic environment, that isn’t an unusual motivation. The need to experience sleaze first hand. The desire to explore the underbelly of existence. And yet his heroine has a strange dignity even when she is giggling and watching ‘Junglee Jawani’ in a stinking theatre or wanting to touch hookers. There is something curiously feminist about her.

As for her Rockstar lover, his ‘rites of passage’ gets beautifully documented in the film. In a particularly poignant scene, he asks his inspiration ‘Meine pehle bhi kiss kiya. Fuck kiya. Lekin ye ehsaas pehle kabhi nahin hua.’ She tells him to stop as it would only spoil things. He sums it up succulently, ‘Ab mushkil hai.’ The tragedy of the lovers in the film doesn’t have to do with societal pressures. They know even as they embark in the perilous journey of love and passion, that they are going to eventually destroy each other and Ali nails that bit brilliantly. Helped in no mean measure by his two lead actors. Both give scintillating performances.

There is something about Ranbir Kapoor, maybe just his genes, that makes him give himself unconditionally to the camera and it repays him back by making him do very little to capture our attention and imagination. In this respect he is like Kajol. The new girl, Nargis Fakhri, has been criticized a lot but she too is a natural. And looks like a million bucks. What more do you want in a Bollywood aspirant who wants to make a career in commercial cinema?

Not content with weaving a compelling love story, Ali decides to chronicle the protest of an artist who starts by reacting to the injustice done to him and soon learns to integrate greater causes into his rage. It’s a pity that the censors have been so eager not to offend China and cut out all the Tibet bits. Otherwise this strand wouldn’t have come across as being puzzling sometimes.

And finally Ali mounts his work against the backdrop of an extended rock concert. The all nighters of the college festivals we all grew up on. The backdrop and the corresponding music evocatively set to tune by A R Rahman, angry and protest driven, only highlights the vision of the film. Besides being a brilliant design, it also explains why the film is getting to be so popular with the youngsters. It has all the makings of a cult classic.

Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Imtiaz Ali have redefined the grammar of Hindi cinema. That Ali has done this while remaining faithful to the song and dance cliché is a tribute to his genius.

I loved the film.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I Too Hate Eve Teasers and Murderers

I rarely feel the need to defend anything I have put down in writing. But I think my last post has confused some readers. They have read it as a defence of the Mumbai eve teasers and murderers. How and why I have no idea. Because I don’t condone the crime and the criminals in any way in my post. I merely try to explore social and psychological processes that contribute to crimes like these.

I don’t think sexual harassment is a malaise that breeds only in slums and economically deprived neighbourhoods. It is classless. The only difference I observe is while these poor and uneducated goons will stand in street corners and harass women, the affluent aggressor will go a step further to carjack a victim and rape her in his vehicle or shoot a female bartender in the head for not serving him a drink.

I believe if crimes against women have to stop, women will have to rise and take stances when they see other women being harassed or violated be it within their own family or outside. There is no point in talking about feminist texts and how they point out to the inherently manipulative nature of a patriarchal system that forces women to co-opt in anti women processes. Those of us with basic intelligence know that. What next? Surely you don’t expect the same men who are powerful, who are beneficiaries of this rotten system to turn against the same system that gives them privileges to harass, to rape, to molest. In every war, every riot, women become one more of the wages. They are raped, they are turned into sex slaves. All kinds of things are done to them. Obviously men enjoy doing these things. Otherwise why should they have done it from the time wars were waged to more modern ones? Men are beyond hope. Women need to step in and ensure things change.

But as long as women condone men and more importantly women for acting against women, there is no hope. I refuse to join in the frenzy against the Mumbai eve teasers not because I have any sympathy for them. But they are behind bars now and will be there because they aren’t Manu Sharma or the Yadav brothers to ensure the Chief Minister or ‘senior authorities’ get them out from the back door.

In a strange way I do understand these murderers and why they did what they did. They are from backgrounds where their fathers beat their mothers daily. What respect will they have for women? One of the outraged comments to my post was respect for women is not about affordability. It is about how you are raised. That is precisely my point. How are these goons raised? What in their backgrounds can make them respect women? And sister, don’t tell me they should direct their anger and frustrations against their own lot. What do you think happens to girls and women in slums who have these goons as their neighbours?

Many years ago, when we lived in Kolkata, our domestic help used to come with her ten year old daughter to work in our house. We grew fond of the little girl. Three years later, our help told us she is getting her daughter married. My wife and I were outraged. We started giving long lectures to our help about how she shouldn’t spoil her daughter’s life. Every day we used to try and dissuade her. One day she had enough. She turned to us and told us it is all very well for you to talk like this but where I live boys have started hovering around my house. They get my husband drunk. One boy has already told my daughter, he will marry her and take her to Bombay. Do you want my daughter to be sold to a brothel? That was that little girl’s career choice. Either get married to a potentially abusive, much older man or be confined to a life of sexual slavery. We assuaged our conscience by giving her some money for the wedding. This is what these boys learn in their own context. That they can bully women into the kinds of lives they want them to have. It’s not as if these guys are nice to girls in their own neighbourhood and eve tease women from outside. Can’t you see that? Unless they are in a context where they can respect women, they will carry the same hate and aggression with them to the streets.

And yes my anger is far more against a Manu Sharma and Sheila Dixit than these Mumbai eve teasers. Dixit organizes parole for Manu Sharma because she says she was moved by his mother’s plight. Wow! And he comes out, goes to another pub and gets into another scuffle. Thankfully, there were no women around. Otherwise they would be dead too. And the whole issue fizzles out within a day. Dixit should have been made to resign over this issue and women in India should have forced her to do so. But instead we are supposed to understand Dixit’s compulsions. We are expected to buy into Manu Sharma’s mother’s grief. What nonsense is this? Why didn’t we have the same outrage then?

Also, what has happened to the Ruchika Girhotra case? Why is the media so silent on that? Why aren’t they hounding this sick man and his equally depraved wife who was defending her husband for molesting a girl as young as her daughter and driving her to suicide? Why did our feminists let her off so easily? Because of her compulsions? If this hideous couple, especially the wife, deserve our understanding, then surely the mothers of these Mumbai eve teasers and murderers do too.

If you want to get entangled in compulsions, don’t espouse causes. It’s as simple as that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Metro Ride, The Story That Must Not Be Told, Mumbai Eve Teasers and Manmohan Singh

Yesterday I spent the day in the city, running chores, meeting a friend and taking a ride in the Metro for the first time. In all the loafing I was doing, I also read an excellent article by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen on how the India story of the past decade is both a glowing success and a resounding failure when it comes to growth and development . Success because the growth rate we have been seeing is truly spectacular and failure because it has just meant more deprivations for the poor.

On another note, a writer friend Kavery Nambisan wrote a brilliant novel that was published more than a year ago and recently got its due by being shortlisted for the prize in Jaipur literary festival. The book is called ‘The story that must not be told’ and Kavery wrote this book because having worked with the poor and underprivileged as a doctor in rural as well as urban areas, she is convinced that millions of poor Indians are not going to take it for too long. We drive in swanky cars, shop in swankier malls and haggle with our maids and drivers when it comes to giving them a 500 bucks raise. The dam will burst one day and we won’t have a place to hide when they come after us with knives and chains. I agree with her. And that’s the reason why I have not commented on the Mumbai tragedy that the media is playing up as an ‘Eve Teasing’ story.

I am convinced that one is not an open and shut case about harassment of women, however much it may anger feminist friends of mine. And before I get on to explaining my stance, let me make one thing clear. As a man, I try very hard to be in a space where women are truly equal. I am saying I try, because I think it is next to impossible for an Indian man however liberated he may claim to be, to truly endorse gender equality. On an odd day, we will enter the kitchen to cook in order to help the spouse. But the cleaning afterwards is always left to the women. And often women more often than not contribute to this process of inequality.

In my own family, my mother whenever she has stayed with us after I got married has been unable to accept my entering the kitchen to make a cup of coffee for my wife. She would turn sullen about something as basic as that. This despite the fact for most part of my professional life, I have worked from home as a consultant, theatre person and writer and my wife has always had a 9-5 job. I have a sister who’s always held a high pressure career and my mother always encouraged her to be independent. But not just with my wife, but with her other daughters-in-law as well, she has had different standards. I think this story plays out in most Indian middle class families.

I have a friend who walked out on her husband because he was being unfaithful to her. It doesn’t take too much for my friend to launch into tirades against men. She has a brother who got divorced a month after he got married and has never had a partner or spouse after that. The story she gave all her friends including me was that within a month the couple discovered they were incompatible and that led to the break-up of the marriage. We believed her because that’s the friendship code.

You accept your friend and what she says unconditionally. However a few months ago I met the girl through a friend in another city. I got to know from her that her first marriage with my friend’s brother broke up because he was impotent. Not only did he want her to conceal this fact but also expected her to stay with him for the rest of her life as according to him ‘sex is not the most important thing in this world.’ More than her ex husband she was bitter with my friend for conniving with her brother and trying to talk her into not walking out.

When I started doing theatre in Bangalore one of the first friends I made was this tall, well built hulk with a frail beautiful wife, the daughter of a leading politician of Karnataka. I learnt later this guy used to beat his wife. She would take it lying down and from the accounts of those who worked with her in theatre, land up for rehearsals with bruises on her body. Later they got divorced and he got married to someone else. He would beat her up also. You may ask why did the women in his life put up with the violence? His mother had killed herself and he was the person in the family to discover her body. So everyone thought he was seriously messed up and it was ok for him to bash the women in his life. As far as I know he never went behind bars for his crimes.

I have another acquaintance in Bangalore with whom I have shared the same professional space for many years. He belongs to an industrialist family. A mutual friend of ours was invited to his house for a festival feast. She was shocked to find all the women in the family standing and serving the men and their guests as that was the rule in the house. The women in the family aren’t allowed to eat until the men and their guests have finished eating. Now this guy’s wife is educated and comes from a wealthy family herself. There is no reason for her to put up with this nonsense but she does.

I was in a retreat with other writers and this lady was waxing eloquent on how she is a feminist to the core. The whole thing made me angry not because she wants to be a feminist but because two years back she had shared with me a story when a young man from her family, a NRI, had duped an Indian girl into an arranged marriage and told her afterwards he was already in a committed relationship with another girl back in the US. He confessed to the new bride he had married her because he couldn’t withstand pressure from his mother. He wanted out within a month of their marriage and left. A year later he got back again and told this girl ‘Now I am ready to accept you.’ She told him to fuck off and according to the same feminist the girl was being too rigid by not agreeing. After all he was so handsome and well educated.

The point I am trying to make here is when men and women from our own educated and enlightened context are unable to treat women as equals, why expect it from a bunch of uneducated impoverished lot who are nursing a thousand grievances against the affluent. We engage in conspicuous consumption right in front of them when they are unable to afford basic necessities. Much as I admire the two young lads from Bombay who lost their lives, I can’t help feeling after the initial scuffle, they should have left the spot, instead of waiting for another attack to happen.

Instead of four, it may have been 40 who came back with weapons and more than two lives would have been lost. For the dispossessed, women are one more possessions of the haves that they are entitled to and unless we deal with the issue of inequality between genders in our own small worlds, precious little can be done to curb shameful incidents like these.

There’s no point in blaming the cops either. I believe the ratio of policemen to citizens in India is 17: 10000. The population is rising, there are less and less law enforcers on the road and the anger and resentment of the deprived classes is hitting the roof. Add to that the fucked up mind set of us Indians who are quick to point fingers at others but will resist one small change in their own context by not protesting against the injustice they see around them. Indians are mute spectators not only when they are on the roads and witnessing the violation of strangers, they put up with all kinds of nonsense within the four walls of their own homes.

Outside our homes we have this shockingly inept Prime Minister with his lopsided view of growth that has made our nation a smoking cauldron of hate and violence. Much as I hate the BJP, I can’t wait for Singh and his cohorts to be consigned to the dustbins of history after the next elections, for doing this to us.

It’s thanks to them that our streets are more unsafe than they have ever been.