Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

At the end of most days, V. and I sit down to dinner with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. We record the episodes everyday, and though our recorder is almost full, we are reluctant to delete a single episode.

Jon Stewart is the one who first got me interested. The Daily Show... with Jon Stewart airs on Comedy Central. The humour of the show derives chiefly from showing the ridiculous inequitable and self-preserving aspects of the American socio-political process. Stewart is smart and passionate, a great combination. He mostly pillories the conservative, subaltern-hating American politicians and thinkers, who are both more outrageous and more popular than one would have imagined. Though not technically news, it has become the major source of news for a majority of its audience.

One of the candidates for the Republican Primary floated the idea of having an electric fence around parts of the American border to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. Another suggested that "kids of people who live in inner-cities and do not work", code for African-Americans, should be given jobs "cleaning toilets in schools" so that they "know that there are job options beyond being prostitutes, pimps or drug runners". One would think such outrageous remarks were jokes thought up by a comedian, but these are all suggestions by potential candidates for President, and the one who is outraged is the comedian.

Here is a video that gives some idea of the daily show:

There are very few videos from The Daily Show and of The Colbert Report on Youtube, though there are interviews and speeches of both Stewart and Colbert. All of their videos are available on their website, but are unavailable here in Australia. If they can be viewed from your location, I recommend:
http://www.thedailyshow.com/collections/best-videos-2011?itemId=394982 and http://www.colbertnation.com/

And then there's Stephen Colbert. Ah, Colbert! While it was Jon Stewart who drew me in, we are now both on team Colbert. Colbert was a writer/presenter on The Daily Show before he got his own show, and Stewart is the executive producer of Colbert's show. In The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert plays a character called 'Stephen Colbert'. This persona/character is a parody of conservative political commentators like Bill O'Reilly. Colbert's character is an ill-informed, prejudiced, xenophobic person who has strong opinions on everything and everybody without needing any facts to back those opinions up. Colbert rarely misses a beat, and he's always in character.

The intelligence of the writing on this show shines through. Colbert's willful ignorance is a constant satire on lack of thinking, and he takes right-wing positions to an extreme, highlighting their insecurity, foolishness and hostility. Not just that, Colbert loves playing with language at every opportunity, which I love. The show started in 2005, and the Bush Presidency was grist to Colbert's mill. He coined the word 'truthiness', which is a "truth that you know instinctively, from your gut, without regard to evidence." It is truthiness which supports the Iraqi invasion, for truthiness reassures you that there are Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. My favorite is 'wickiality', which is 'when Wikipedia becomes our most trusted reference source, reality is what the majority agree upon'.

Colbert frequently takes on the political system. American political parties can be supported by a Political Action Committee (PAC), and a SuperPAC, which can spend an unlimited amount of money on a candidate, making ads and so on. Colbert has started his own SuperPAC, done it legally and step by step on the show. Over episodes, the SuperPAC segments have revealed the bare bones of how big money influences the political process.

In 2006, Colbert was invited to speak at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and I wonder how many heads later rolled for the invitation. He stayed in character throughout, and at the height of American dissatisfaction with the American invasion of Iraq, he proclaimed his admiration for President Bush while making him squirm. Here's the entire speech:

Colbert is hilarious, and I've reached a point where I start smiling as soon as I see him, before he's said a single word. V. gifted me a copy of Colbert's I am America (And So Can You) for my birthday this year. And I am going to gift him a T-shirt that says "My wife only married me because she couldn't marry Stephen Colbert." Stewart and Colbert make me laugh at things while simultaneously despairing over them, illuminating the sordid nature of the beast we all inhabit.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Disappointing Picture

Silk Smitha, underneath the facade of being a semi-porn actor, was only looking for love and acceptance. Aren't we all?
My disappointment with The Dirty Picture is not that it humanizes a person supposedly outside the bound of respectability, but in the way in which it does so. This is how the film goes: Silk wants to be an actor, but becomes a sex symbol when being an actor does not work out. She is not apologetic about it, instead making the most of it. Her life goes on a downward spiral later, which is narratively tied up with two heartbreaks in her life. This is familiar narrative territory: after all, women are emotional, vulnerable to exploitation as they do not learn from heartbreak and go on trusting men. As for the men, almost all men are exploiters. I honestly cannot decide which sex should be more offended by such reductive categorization.
At the same time, there is always one notable exception to the exploitative man - and if the film is a romantic comedy that man is the one the woman will end up happily ever after with. In The Dirty Picture, that man is found too late for the happy ending. Even if the story is about them, corrupt women, though usually redeemed by remorse, are unlikely to be shown as living happily ever after. Think, too, of the pressure on love: as an eternal saviour it operates as replacement for deity in a secular world.
Commodification of the self is not restricted only to actors. We all sell ourselves in certain ways in the workplace. Some people sell the idea of themselves as sexual objects, some as intellectual objects and some as service providers. In the capitalist marketplace, we are all threatened by younger, more attractive or smarter replacements. That threat does get a token nod in the film. Silk may have been losing roles and money, but it is emotional betrayal that gets the most prominence as the reason for her depression and eventual demise. In such a situation, desire for love, and by extension, acceptance, is a way of re-inserting the heroine into respectable bourgeois morality and into universality.
At one point in the film, Silk declares that she only looks at her pictures in newspapers and keeps the good ones, but never reads the accompanying articles. When she does finally read them, she is upset about what is being said about her. The film had shown her laughing at the conventional morality used to judge her, but at this moment it affects her. This moment marks the beginning of her downfall. She becomes acceptable by accepting how unacceptable she is, not by questioning the strictures that mark some people as outside acceptability.
After Love, Sex and Dhokha I had expected more from Alt Entertainment. Should I be thankful that they did not show a dying mother and/or sister to justify Silk's agreement to be a sex symbol?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

My best friend's wedding

I remember my first evening at my Delhi room. I had left the hostel and was living on my own for the very first time. I sent a text to all my friends: “I have understood what being grown up means. It means having to do the dishes in the evening after dinner.” Most people sent commiserating or ‘you’re funny’ kind of replies. A., my best friend, sent this: “And not complaining about it! ;)”. It’s a small exchange, compared to other, more meaningful conversations that we’ve had over the years. It is an example, however, of how delightful even our most trivial conversations were.
A. is getting married in Delhi today. A. and D., congratulations :) I'm sure your wedding will be as wonderful as your life ahead. I have known A. for over 8 years now and she is one of the most independent, smart, funny, caring and passionate people I know. The fact that I did my M.Phil dissertation on time and well is thanks to her. She and I have enjoyed many trashy movies and shows together, giving to popular culture the respect and serious critical engagement it deserves. Her grace and dignity, even in the most difficult situations, is inspiring. As for her sense of humour, it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
D., you’re incredibly lucky to have found her. The price I pay for living so far away is that I’ve never met you and she has never met V. One day, the four of us are going to meet, and then all this time in-between will be as if it never existed at all. Here’s to that someday!