Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More reality than fiction

Source: The Hindu

The better films of last year were heavily influenced by the real world.

All worth a watch: (Clockwise from top left) “Charlie Wilson’s War”, “Persepolis”, “The Namesake”, “Kite Runner”, “No Country for Old Men”, “Superbad”.
Even as I wrote this, the Golden Globes were conducted off the red carpet this year. With the writers’ strike casting a shadow of gloom over the awards season in Hollywood. it is perhaps just as well that documentary makers Michael Moore or Al Gore have no horses in the running for the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards this year.

Nonetheless, reality continues to inform fiction in the movies. This probably explains why the influence of the volatile situation in West Asia has weighed heavily on world cinema this past year. As the U.S. continues to be mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no clear way out of a seemingly impossible political and logistical impasse, the West is taking a closer look at West Asia; far closer than the “battle of civilisations” paradigm under which the conflict has been framed so far.

West Asia and the West

In Mike Nichols’ and Aaron Sorkin’s “Charlie Wilson’s war”, a colourful Democratic congressman from Texas, egged on by Joanne Herring, a charming Houston society diva and honorary consul for Pakistan, takes on the invading Red Army in Afghanistan by arming the dispossessed Mujahideen with over a billion dollars in anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

For a film this sensational, the treatment is astonishingly even-handed. Tom Hanks’ Charlie Wilson and Julia Roberts’ Herring are no war-profiteers; they are convinced they are doing thing for the right ideals — to do right by the Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The Russian invasion into Afghanistan also forms the backdrop to the first half of “The Kite Runner”, adapted from Khaled Hosseini’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name; as the Reds come marching into Kabul, the young protagonist Amir and his father are exiled from his childhood home to suburban California. In the second half, Amir goes back to Kabul to find the city that he knew desolate, depopulated and ruled by the beard-police who patrol the streets enforcing Sharia. Even though political turmoil is essential to the plot, it is impossible to view “The Kite Runner” as mere political commentary. It is ultimately about two boys – Amir and his kite-runner friend Hassan – in Kabul; and about friendship, betrayed and redeemed.

The other surprise from West Asia, comes to English speaking audiences via France. Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” is, like “The Kite Runner”, a personal journey of a child who sees authoritarianism replace relative individual freedom in her homeland, and who is forced into exile in the West. In “Persepolis”, which is quite unashamedly political, Satrapi uses the head-scarf, which has been political tinder in French schools over the past two years, as a metaphor of the struggle between religion and individual freedom in rapidly polarising Iran during the Islamic revolution.

High school laughs

Two of my favourite films screened this past year were psychological comedies about high school and coming of age. Both “Juno” and ‘Superbad” are more complex than the high school farce of “American Pie” or the cloying love stories of the 1980s. For one, neither film is constructed around that most hallowed of high school rituals in the U.S., the “Prom”, which no one outside North America really cares about.

“Superbad” is a semi-autobiographical look at the hormone-charged high school experience of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote the script and directed it. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Fogell — the coolest nerd since Napoleon Dynamite — who attempts to buy alcohol from a store with a fake identity card in the name of one McLovin (no first name) from Hawaii, and is hauled into a riotous adventure with a couple of reckless cops played by Rogen and Goldberg in cameo roles. The film contains more smutty dialogue and bawdy anatomical humour than any other film this century, and so is unlikely to pass the censor board in India.

“Juno”, which has earned Diablo Cody a Golden Globe nomination for best original screenplay, tackles the tough subject of childhood pregnancy with much-needed forthrightness and irreverence by steering clear of the morality debate in any form and making it personal. “Juno” is solely about one girl, the boy she likes and her parents and friends. When asked how she is allowed to stay out late, Juno replies with complete nonchalance: “I am already pregnant, what other shenanigans do you think I can get into?”

Both “Superbad” and “Juno” are about individual experiences in familiar situations. Their characters are not cardboard cut-outs of jock, nerd, geek, popular kids, Goths and other Hollywood stereotypes, but are individuals in their own right. They get into trouble, but refuse to play victims. They are the part of the vast anti-stereotype of real teenagers in the West, or anywhere in the world where the West has influenced social and cultural mores. One may well argue that the American high-school movie, not unlike high-schoolers the world over, has matured.

From books to films

“Atonement” captures the mood of the Ian McEwan’s original novel with surprising tenderness. A lot of the credit for that should go to the leads, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, whose tightly restrained performances set the tone for the film. As inevitably with novels that turn into film, it is hard to agree if some parts need to be kept to lend the film that certain atmosphere, or if they must be edited to speed the story along; descriptions and background plots rarely do as well on film as they do in a novel. “Atonement” loses its edge towards the middle but recovers from it brilliantly towards the climax.

The same could be said about “The Namesake.” Tabu executes a nuanced performance as Ashima Ganguli, overshadowing Kal Penn’s interpretation of Gogol, the film’s namesake. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction may be broadly, and perhaps not entirely accurately, classified as ‘immigrant fiction’. She writes about the “otherness” that Indian-Americans, first or second generation, feel in their newly adopted country. That remains at the forefront in Mira Nair’s treatment of the film. In one scene Ashima can be seen dragging a cart full of groceries through a snowy footpath; she is the only pedestrian on the street. Americans drive, only foreign graduate students need trudge through snow for provisions.

Action thrillers and crime capers balance out dramas in the Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations lists this year. If your impression of rural Texas is dominated by grainy footage of President Bush on CNN, pottering around with a scythe in his ranch, as mine has been for a while, let the Coen brothers show you how it’s done, real cowboy style. “No Country for Old Men” is a fast-paced action thriller, with the lingering threat of imminent violence that audiences love. But the Coen brothers elevate the genre. Breathtaking shots of the West Texas desert with calm saturated blues and desert neutrals form the backdrop to the ceaseless manhunt that is the subject of the film.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Slice of life: Flavours of the past

Source: The Hindu

In spite of modern trends, several traditional names from our mythology have survived.

A page 3 media report some time back mentioned that Narayani Shastri did not cut a cake on her birthday but spent the entire night dancing with her friends. I checked the name again; it was Narayani, a model and starlet. The name intrigued me and brought back memories of my grandmother, Narayani Ammal, who once got down on the wrong side of the platform at a railway station and walked away because she found it not crowded. It took hours to spot her.

I am also familiar with the byline of a Delhi journalist, Kaveri, which happens to be the name of yet another grandmother. It was a clear indication that names which were popular decades back are now back in fashion. Naming babies is never an easy job because several suggestions are offered by several people. According to tradition, the first daughter in the family bears the name of the paternal grandmother and the second one, that of the maternal grandmother. In the past, we had grandmother-like names such as Rukmini, Subbulakshmi, Parvati, Annapurni, Gomathi, Bhagirati and so on. They were also wholesome, nice names belonging to various goddesses. In the North and parts of the West, the rasi system at the time of birth was followed. Each rasi began with different sounding letters. If a girl was born under Tula rasi, she should be named after the “ra” and “tha” letters. Thus my wife was named Rupa. This system is still followed in traditional families.

Gradually, the naming process began to get modernised. While Sita was a traditional name, Rita, Mita and Neeta were not. Usha may be a traditional name but not Asha, Nisha or Misha. Many traditional names like Usha, Aarti and Kamala had a whiff of modernity and continued to be used. As the quest for novelty surged, parents began to refer to books which contained compilations of names to look for more exotic names. This resulted in foreign sounding names like Natasha, Shamita, Anita, Monica, Kunika, Sonia and so on.

Partial comeback

Yet, somehow, several traditional names from our mythology have survived. I know of several Kausalyas but very few Draupatis. Even the most ardent supporters of the Dravidian cause hesitated to name his daughters Kaikeyi, Surpanaka or Tadaka! Teaching in Mumbai’s journalism schools, where the majority of students are girls, I often came across names like Tulsi, Prachi, Rishiganda, Megha, Vibhuti, Sreshta, Parnal and Kusum. Here too modernisation took its toll. Two of my friends in the academic world with wholesome traditional names, Varalakshmi and Perianayaki, were known among their friends as “Vara” and “Peri”.

The Bengali influence is also strong in providing girls with names. Indian society is full of Mansies, Mamtas , Suchitras, Anupamas and Sharmilas. But my own favourite names (besides Rupa!) are Nilambari and Rutu. The last one is bestowed on a bubbly teenager who did not change like seasons but was sunny all the time as well as fresh as the spring. Parents in Tamil Nadu love their language so much they often name their daughters, Thamilarasi, Thamilselvi.

Back to the enigma of ancient South Indian traditional names. I wonder how far parents would go in this direction. In the Mumbai office of Reader’s Digest where I worked, I was surrounded by girls with the most modern names, Alba, Mani, Alice, Pat and Myrtle. But there was a gem in the ad department with the name Thailambal, which she carried cheerfully. That name made me wonder. Would we come across these days girls with names like Alamelu, Thiripura sundari . Abhiramisundari, Pankajam, Ambujakshi, Chellama, Jagadambal, Parvadha Vardhini, Kameswari and, of course, Apeethakujambal? Mind you, there was a B.C. Muthamma IFS in our foreign service who retired some years back after years of distinguished service. I am proud of her and her name.

Excitement ahead

We often name our daughters after women we admire. We have plenty of Indiras, Sarojinis, Sonias, Ushas and in the near future will have Sanias. I wish one of the best Tamil novelists, Dr. Thirupurasundari, had not changed her name to “Lakshmi”. Since I have not come across any young women with the name “Kodhainayaki”, I guess the late novelist, Vai.Mu.Kodhainayaki Ammal did not have many admirers.

Unlike the Britishers, who had to be satisfied with their Jane, Elizabath, Mary or Katherine, there is something charming with our traditional and historical names. When I meet a Padmini, I think of heroism and sacrifice, while the name Sivakami arouses memories of the great dancer-heroine of Kalki’s Sivakamiyin Sapatham who dedicated her art to God because she had to renounce her lover prince, Mamalla Pallavan. The last time, I visited Mamallapuram, I imagined I heard her dancing steps and the melody of the payal.

Patriarchal equations

Source: The Hindu

The portrayal of women in cinema and the reality are, often, miles apart.


In a patriarchal society women are predestined to play a fixed number of roles. What happens when a filmmaker tries to change this?

The most striking example is Shekhar Kapur’s “Bandit Queen” (1994). The real Phoolan Devi surrendered, had a book written on her and shortly after a biopic. She became a celebrity, was elected to parliament, then shot dead by a page from the balance sheet of her past. Could she have escaped this destiny had a movie not been made on her life?

New wave

What strikes you about Indian cinema is the ocean that separates the portrayal of women from their immediate reality. This is true for all kinds of cinema. Shyam Benegal’s women in the ‘Indian new wave’ of the 1970s and early 1980s — Shabana Azmi in “Ankur”, “Nishant” and “Mandi”, Smita Patil in “Manthan” and “Bhumika” — are earthy and sensual but their patterns of behaviour would have been difficult in the reality of the social milieu and time in which they were placed and would have alienated them from their moorings.

Bipasha Basu’s dance in the badlands of a U.P. bar hall in “Omkara” (2006) is wonderful for Bipasha the actress, but a real dancer would have been in grave danger had she actually performed that gyration in that costume. Similarly, in the freakishly wonderful film by Sudhir Mishra, “Hazaaron Kwaishein Aisi” (2003) — freakish because he never has come up with anything near that good — a woman like Geeta Rao (Chitarangada Singh) is too miraculously free-thinking to exist in the Naxalite-inspired Delhi University coffee houses of the 1970s.

When a Hindi film is shot with an actress in minimal western clothing on a Delhi street, there are a dozen assistants and spot boys to keep the onlookers out of the frame and out of touching distance of the girl. Molestations can and have taken place on location. A comparison between such a film shoot and the final film, with edited and cleaned up effects and music track, is really the difference between the position of woman on that street and the multiplex where the film is screened.

Popular films


Mainstream Hindi cinema cannot present women revolting against patriarchal society because of what Noam Chomsky describes as the function of media in manufacturing consent. Popular film is a consensus between the filmmaker and audience expectation, it is an agreement between people who finance a film and their expectation of recovering that money by entertaining an audience without offending their ‘sensibilities’. This includes their individual understanding of the position held by women in families and extended social groupings.

This is why domestic violence in the heroine’s home is rarely or never shown, even though, according to surveys, it takes place more frequently than on the street. Instead, in Indian films, it is the man in her home who, in the nick of time, saves the heroine from street harassment.



The exception proves the rule. That is why Shimit Amin’s “Chak De India” (2007), a film ostensibly about hockey, is the most unconventional film about women. All the hockey players are characters with opinions; they express themselves openly, are more articulate, more real, and have bigger roles than any conventional heroine in recent years.

The oppression in their homes is shown by their struggle to play the game against all odds of parents, boyfriends and harassment on the streets (the restaurant scene where the women beat up men who tease the girls from the North East). It is even implied that one or two of the players have survived domestic violence. Indeed, it may be the most progressive film about Indian women in recent times and one of Shahrukh Khan’s few intelligent contributions to cinema.

The interesting thing is that if we examine the career graphs of the girls who have worked in “Chake De India” not one of them has got significant work since. They acted well, have got terrific exposure through a ‘hit’ film, but are unemployable. This is because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

A mainstream heroine today has to come from the ramp. She has to come from consumer India. She must either be a Miss Universe or Miss World like Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta, or a model like Priety Zinta, Amrita Arora, Neha Dhupia, Bipasha Basu et al. In other words she has to be a movie star by consensus, not by talent. Skill, such as it is, is learned by these girls on the job. The first half-a-dozen films by the ‘non-actress’ of them all, Aishwarya Rai, is testimony to the market’s persistence in keeping faith with the most reliable ‘consumer durable’.

So how can an actress in mainstream cinema, even given the miracle of a brilliant script and a strong-willed director, turn turtle on her own entrance qualifications and act convincingly as a woman struggling against patriarchy?

In truth it is the Indian documentary film that can and frequently does portray women in an accurate light. The most brilliant and entertaining film on the position of women in a patriarchal system is Paromita Vohra’s docu-drama “Unlimited Girls” (2002). In this film the director discusses the issue of feminism in India, using an internet chat room as anchor, and explores women in all sections of society in Mumbai and Delhi. The film is cinematic, challenging, has terrific interviews, juxtapositions that are hilarious take-offs on male pretensions, and tells urban women exactly where they stand and where they can go.

More effective

Brilliant and entertaining: “Unlimited girls”.

That a documentary is often more effective than fiction to portray the position of women in India tells you about the power equations of patriarchy. A Hindi film is budgeted in crores; non-fiction can be made in a few lakhs. The system has to grant the crores, not an NGO run by women. The distributors, who represent male-dominated viewership, have to buy and exhibit the film. These are some of the factors that determine the depiction of relationships between the sexes, behaviour of women in Indian social hierarchy and female sexuality in mainstream Hindi fiction film.

Meanwhile, it might be interesting to revisit Sharmila Tagore in Satyajit Ray’s “Devi” (1960), a film about how a zamindar in 19th century Bengal (Chhabi Biswas) dreams one night that his daughter-in-law (Tagore) is the incarnation of the goddess ‘Kali’. He acts on the dream, declares her a ‘devi’ and shortly destroys her personality, her sexuality and her soul. The woman who plays that extraordinary ‘devi’, via a direct route from Bengali tradition to Hindi mainstream cinema, is now Chairperson of the Censor Board, certifying, literally, Indian patriarchy!

New Realities??

-Source: The Hindu

From silent sufferers to go-getters, heroines have come a long way. But do they portray the 21st century woman, wonders a leading filmmaker.

The much touted revolution in cinema seems to be only on the surface. Deep down the industry still remains shackled to the old myths on the male-female equation.

“Has the portrayal of the Indian woman changed over the years in our movies? Are they still shackled to the posts of cultural myths or have they broken free to fly where they will, in keeping with the myths that the 21st century has created in our so-called rapidly changing Indian cinema?” I asked Shabana Azmi, the icon who brought dignity and grace to the Indian woman both onscreen and off.

As the singers rehearsed to deliver their finales for the last episode of a reality show we were both judging, Shabana turned her gaze inwards. As she pondered on this, we heard the tantalising sound of a woman’s voice singing the raunchy beedi jalaile jigar se piya…, forming the background music for this serious question. It was almost as if the answer had been provided there and then on a platter.


But I was in for a surprise. With great patience, akin to the demeanour of a schoolteacher, she began to talk about the evolution of the heroine on the Indian screen. It is well nigh impossible to reproduce in this piece the complete conversation. However, it went something like this: In the 1960s, towards the end of the black and white era when the age of colour was being ushered in, the Indian heroine epitomised by Meena Kumari was a silent, suffering, tongue-tied entity who believed she was to be seen and not heard; so deep was her feeling of unworthiness. “Main Chup Rahoongi”, a blockbuster from South India, summed up what the men in India wanted their women to be.

The 1970s, which belonged to Hema Malini at one end and Zeenat Aman at the other, reflected the two sides of the Indian woman — one traditional and the other western — but still a part of a man’s world fulfilling his needs for romance, sexual gratification and procreation. The movies of the 1970s were so simple. It began and ended with whether the man would marry her or not. They had no connect with real life, yet they were so thoroughly entertaining, with their goody-goody heroines yearning for the hero’s glance in the richly wooded mountains of Kashmir.

The 1980s saw a change in the way the Indian woman was viewed, which was reflected in parallel cinema but not in the mainstream. “Arth”, with which I shot into the limelight, was undoubtedly a watermark. Films can easily be divided pre- and post-“Arth”, as it turned the tide altogether. In this film, the woman, after having rejected her philandering husband and being wooed by a lover, opts to walk away from both men in search of a career.

The 1990s swung in another direction yet again. Songs like Sarkai lo khatia showed the girl having a raunchy good time, totally unapologetic about her sexuality. Although it was still about sex and romance, this time the woman was an equal partner and not a giggly, coy thing who could not even think about sex. This was a quantum leap for cinema vis-À-vis women. This pleasure-seeking, pelvis-thrusting woman was the subject of great criticism from the elite and cultural purists. Earlier the good heroine catered to our pious aspirations and the wicked vamp stoked our carnal fires; but now the wife and the whore were mixed up together in a heady cocktail and this whetted the male appetite for more.


By the New Millennium, as globalisation became a reality, Indian homes from Mumbai to Raipur were flooded with erotic images of semi-clad women and bold sexual content. The satellite invasion had arrived. Images from MTV and Star World altered the moral references of the indigenous Indian population. So, in the winter of 2002, when Pooja Bhatt released her erotic thriller “Jism”, it ran to packed houses in the elite suburbs of New Delhi. The surprise here was that the hall was filled with rich women in silken shawls as well as the usual male suspects. The woman both on screen and off was changing.

No wonder then that Mallika Sherawat, a girl from small town India, became a big hit with my film “Murder”, in which she played an unfulfilled wife who crosses the Laxman rekha to gratify her carnal desires. But the so-called revolution in the portrayal of the Indian woman was only skin deep. To be honest, Bollywood, which manufactures illusions rather than capturing reality, has failed to project the 21st century woman. Except of course for a few brave films like “Page 3”, “Life in a Metro”, “Dor”, “Parineeta”, “Chandini Bar”, and “Dus Kahaniyan”. The much touted revolution in cinema seems to be only on the surface. Deep down the industry still remains shackled to the old myths on the male-female equation.

One of the most difficult aspects of adapting to rapid change — particularly when it is accompanied by complex technology and multiplying data sources — is one’s ability to give up an old construct and develop a new one based on current realities. Accepting a new version of reality and telling a new story requires cultural intelligence. But for that, we need the ability to observe, learn and understand not only our own culture but the culture of the others as well.

In a globalised world, where local markets are being destroyed by international brands, Bollywood had better wake up or its chances of being heard in the cacophony of the current market place are slim to none.

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