Friday, 9 November 2012

Thursday, 25 October 2012

My Blog in a Big Blog!!

The blog post that I wrote on Aiyyaa was accepted for publication on the Indian cinema blog f.i.g.h.t.c.l.u.b., also known as moifightclub.They asked me to watch the Marathi film Gandha, and that led to my adding further stuff to the post, so it is more an extended post rather than the same one.
Here is a link to the post: 
I follow this blog regularly, especially as it regularly features trailers of Indian films and documentaries that I do not otherwise get to hear about. It also engages with popular cinema, and usually the opinions and analysis posted on the site are more insightful than regular film reviews. I think most people who write for it are also writers, aspiring directors and so on, though I don't know that for sure about all that bloggers. So all my friends who enjoy cinema, do check this blog out. I'm very excited to be part of it :)

Monday, 22 October 2012

God, gods and superheroes: On Alan Moore's Watchmen

God exists and he’s American.
 - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen.

Superheroes emerge when heroes fail. One possible definition of the superhero is that he (and it used usually to be a ‘he’) is a being with extraordinary powers who fights evil and has a recognisable costume in which to do it. As the genre evolved, female superheroes emerged, as did superheroes who did not possess supernatural powers but who fought their battles on the basis of brawn, brain and/or technology, with Batman being a notable example of this kind of superhero.

I read Watchmen around 2 years ago on the recommendation of my supervisor, and have become a convert to comic book fandom since then. I enjoyed V for Vendetta, and delighted in the arcane Victoriana of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I follow Alan Moore's stand in choosing to call Watchmen a comic book rather than a graphic novel or (horror of horrors!) a mature-audience miniseries. Watchmen is a multi-layered comic book that not only deconstructs various (and various kinds of) heroes, but the very idea of a hero. (This argument is also made by Iain Thomson in "Deconstructing the hero" in Jeff McLaughlin (ed.) Comics as Philosophy.)

The world of Watchmen is a world wherein superheroes appeared ‘for real’, that is, real people dressed up as superheroes, for a variety of reasons, and took on the roles and responsibilities that went with the costumes. These ‘superheroes’ could not remain the ‘good guys’ for long. They were often needlessly cruel and were used by governments and/or armies to quell dissent and rebellion rather than fight crime. For example, in the alternate historical universe of the Watchmen, America won the Vietnam War while Nixon was never impeached, because a ‘masked hero’ killed Woodward and Bernstein. The fear and loathing that these 'heroes' aroused led to popular demonstrations against them, and a government Act sent most masked heroes into retirement while the few who did not retire operated like thugs and were hated by the general public. It is at this point, after most of them have retired, that the text begins.

This idea of the failure of superheroes and of heroism leads one to other failures. Arguably, the biggest hero to have failed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is God. In a circular argument, the violence and despair that characterise our world, living in the aftermath of two world wars and regular conflict, is used as both cause and trigger: ‘it is because the world is so violent that it becomes impossible to believe in God, that it becomes possible to believe that God does not exist’ can exist alongside ‘it is because people have given up on God that they are so violent and despairing’. According to the latter argument, violence, in both actuality and representation, gets more and more nihilistic in a world that does not believe in God, or in the consolations that the concept of God or any other substitute grand narrative make possible. The first Superman comic appeared in 1938, which allows it to be contextualised within the framework of the Great Depression. Similarly, I would argue that the ‘death of God’ is one of the contexts that allow a superhero to emerge within the popular cultural imagination. (I'm sure others have made this argument earlier, and will put in references here if anyone can direct me to them).

Image Courtesy: Lord Jim, Flickr,

Two characters in Watchmen appropriate God-like spaces but do so with unsatisfactory consequences. Dr Manhattan is the only conventional superhero in the text in that he possesses scientific/supernatural powers. At the end of the text, he leaves earth to create a ‘human’ population elsewhere, that is, to be a God and start another world from scratch, since this one is past redemption. Adrian Veidt, ‘the smartest man on earth’, comes closest to a ‘god-like’ decision when he kills half the population of New York in order to put an end to fighting and unite the world against a perceived external enemy. This decision, made on behalf of humanity, alienates him from it. His last appearance shows him aware of the terrible implications haunting him and unsure of whether his action will actually achieve permanent ‘peace’ or not. God has already failed mankind, and now both the major  superheroes do too. This crisis and subsequent failure of heroism, which constitute the moral universe of Watchmen, is a crisis that depends on a western conceptualisation of the hero. A superhero is necessary in a secular world where (and after) God has failed. Ultimately the God of Watchmen, whether he is the ‘real God’, Dr Manhattan, Adrian Veidt or Alan Moore (as per some fans!), is indeed American.

However, it would be interesting to regard the existence and the failure of the superhero as a concept when imagined with reference to a polytheistic universe. One way of examining this is through Hinduism. The biggest heroes of Hindu mythology are all too frequently not God-like but God-himself or God-themselves. Both Rama and Krishna are avatars (which could be translated as ‘versions’) of Lord Vishnu, one of the holy trinity of Hinduism. Though both are avatars of the same god, their strategies for dealing with the world are different – Rama relies on personal valour while Krishna is known not only for his mischievous and flirtatious behaviour during his childhood and adolescence but also for his stratagems and tricks, which help the Pandavas win the Mahabharat war.

This difference between the two is sometimes explained in the following terms: ‘Rama is the god to be followed while Krishna is the god to be enjoyed’. Keeping such convenient classification aside, if a god-like superhero is wrong, he loses some of his god-like stature, but a god, in his sojourn on earth, can lie and manipulate the people around him and still not lose his stature. The Old Testament has a vengeful God, which is arguably a human trait, but even after taking that into account neither the biblical God nor Jesus, the Son of God on earth, lie and take sides in wars the way Krishna does. Krishna’s behaviour sanctions the idea that strategy and flexibility are inescapable tools of worldly survival. This makes possible a deeper and more ambivalent understanding of morality, beyond the categories of good and evil. I do not, of course, mean this comparison as complimentary or derogatory to any one religion over the other. The point I am trying to make is that a monotheistic God can fail the world, but a polytheistic god who has lived on earth and lied cannot ‘fail’ his devotees in quite the same way. Krishna's lies in the Mahabharat are arguably "for the greater good", though the multi-layered nature of the epic means that this too can be questioned. This could be one of the reasons why representations of the superhero have not really captured mass imagination in India, where gods provide solutions to the problems of life (do this and you will pass your exam!) rather than fighting these problems on behalf of humans. At the same time, I would like to stress that I do not want to use Hindu religious beliefs and Indian religious beliefs as substitutes for each other.

And what of the comic book in India? I get regular updates from Jabberwock about new Indian comics, new innovations happening within the Indian sphere, and I hope I'll get to catch up with them someday soon. The comic books I remember from my childhood were usually derivative of American comic books, with bits and pieces from Indian mythology thrown in. Such interesting hybrids were usually comics written in Hindi that brought together suggestions of sensuality with religious motifs and an exaggerated sense of nationalism. Most English-language comics were aimed at children and incorporated, ‘general knowledge’, the much-valued commodity of Indian childhood. As a cultural phenomenon, local comic books and animated films struggled to find audiences, while international comic books operated as cultural capital, circulating among a select few.

So then how does Indian culture conceptualise the hero? If one considers Ramayan as the prototype and examines popular Indian cinema and television, the ideal hero is constructed through a network of relationships – the ideal hero is the ideal son, the ideal brother, the ideal husband, the ideal father, the ideal citizen, the ideal king and so on. In the case of Ram this is open to questioning because he abandoned his pregnant wife Sita in order to be the ideal king. However, the use of the term "maryada puroshottam", i.e. "the best of all men", for Ram, suggests that he is popularly seen in some contexts as an ideal to be followed. Another interesting aspect to this is that one can be a hero without saving the world. And without needing to. The idea of heroism is thereby tied up with being in and participating in the world rather than rescuing it.

This creates an interesting situation wherein Indian audiences accept superheroes in Hollywood films and through the syndication of American shows, both of which find sizeable Indian audiences. Thus the Batman franchise makes a lot of money in India, while Ra.One earns more from merchandising and distribution deals rather than audience footfall. Superhero films made by Mumbai filmmakers usually find few takers. An exception to this is Mr. India (1987), which was a successful fantasy superhero film, but it is the only exception to the rule so far. Also, Mr. India tapped into middle-class frustration with Indian systemic failures in a way that was as much reminiscent of the "angry young man" syndrome in Indian cinema as of superhero narratives.

Iain Thomson says that "our heroes help tell us who we are, what we stand for". (Deconstructing the hero, p. 100). To return to Watchmen, these heroes help tell of a world in crisis. The crisis, however, is of the western world, and non-western modes of being and imagining speak of different worlds, of different crises and of different heroes.

[This blog first appeared as an MnM Commentary and is available here]

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Aiyyaa - On making an idiosyncratic film

Aiyyaa is a difficult film to like. It can be easily dismissed as having no plot, and dragging out one idea for too long into the plot, and then jumping into a quick conclusion. The tone does not help either - it is neither entirely realistic nor entirely parodic. The actors seem to constantly shifting from subtle to over-the-top, which makes them irritating both as characters and as actors. We left the movie thinking of it as a waste of time, energy and money. However, I've been thinking about the film. It hasn't grown on me, nor will I claim that it is actually a wonderful film that has been misunderstood. I want to use this blog post to think through certain things that I found interesting about the film, and about my reactions to it.

The premise of any story can be outrageous, and it is up to individual viewers whether the story resonates with them or not. Logically, it is absurd to suppose that a wife would not know her husband (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) or that a man could pass off a concentration camp as a massive game (Life is Beautiful). I've heard people tear the former apart while waxing eloquent about the latter. I'm sure there are also people out there who love Rab Ne and don't mind the logical inconsistency. I'm not saying that the two films are at par with each other. The point I am trying to make is that both films accept seemingly outrageous premises as givens and go ahead with their narratives. As I strongly feel that films/books should be allowed to tell the stories they want to rather than those that seem more logical or natural to any individual viewer/reader, an outrageous premise rarely bothers me. 

Aiyyaa too has a premise that seems illogical, that of a woman who is attracted to the way a man smells. Come to think of it, smell is difficult to convey on film. You have to rely on familiarity and on audience experience. Like all human experiences, smell is subjective. It is difficult to explain the power of the smell of the mud after the first rains in India to someone who's never smelt it. It took me time to appreciate the smell of winter in Australia, though now I love the smell of the nip, though I still hate feeling the cold. It is easier to make films about colour, about touch, about sensation and Aiyyaa too brings in colours - yellow for Rani and blue for Prithvi - and uses them to play around with notions of smell. Perhaps they thought that colours would make smells more tangible. Aiyyaa also reminds one of the odour that one so completely takes for granted in India, showing public toilets and garbage lying open on the streets. Who in India has not scrunched one's nose, and then passed on?  

The other major motif of the film, intertwined with smell, is desire. Meenakshi desires Surya, and is somehow convinced that he is not the monster that everyone else thinks him to be. There is no logical reason behind this belief, and part of the disconnect you feel with her character is because of how illogical her behaviour is. Yet it is good to see female desire in Bollywood cinema, though of late this has become quite regular. Dreamum Wakeupum (and Ijjajat papad!) is pure genius on the part of Amitabh Bhattacharya. All those thrusting, pumping, heaving dance steps in all those Hindi films over the ages - they were all metaphorically sexual, and this song dispenses with the metaphor.

The other major problem area in the film is the falling in love narrative. Meenakshi tries to speak to Surya often, but never actually gets to do so. Until one miraculous evening, wherein they talk, the mystery about him is solved, they confess their feelings, and get engaged to one another, all in the space of one evening. This is again something that induces impatience - how illogical can you get? Behind this impatience however is the assumption that other things that are shown in more realistic narratives are more 'natural', whereas they just have become more sedimented in our minds as ways of being in love, ways of performing romance.

Aiyyaa juxtaposes desire, as represented through smell, and the stifling nature of social life in India, as indicated through the odour of the garbage that haunts Meenakshi even in her dreams. The film finds some subtle moments here and there - walking around the clean, rose-garden terrace of a man whom Meenakshi does not find attractive does nothing for her. This garden of red roses must presumably smell great, and brings in notions of conventional romance, but she is entranced neither by the smell nor the appearance of this ideal space because this is not the man for her.

Ultimately, my reaction to the film is as much about my expectations as about the film itself. I like films to stick to tones and genres. I liked the realistic feel of a college library - the old computers, the library membership cards, the dust on the books. The presence of an overtly sexualised librarian, however, was jarring - such a person would never exist in such a space. But do films have to necessarily be either realistic, or fantasy as accepted by Bollywood convention (i.e. either melodrama or a fantasy of excess, a la Karan Johar or Salman Khan), or totally bizarre? Can a film not be a little bit of each?

The attempt to make a film that is a little bit of each is jarring, but I think that it is a brave attempt. It would not have been that difficult to make Aiyyaa a bit more like Vicky Donor and English Vinglish: emphasise the Marathi - Tamil aspects of both families, show them as more lovable and less quirky, remove the bizarre, give the hero-heroine more conversations, show the heroine as the underdog who finally convinces her family that she has the right to choose her own life partner and so on. I do not think Anurag Kashyap and co. are stupid enough to have not thought of this alternative, safer option. It would have been an easier option to sell too, and that is often a big criterion that drives the way films get made. While I do not like the final product that Aiyyaa is, I do admire the fact that they made it their way - bizarre, quirky and idiosyncratic.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Two feminists in my life

A couple of weeks ago my friend Shivani Mutneja, who is also a brilliant poet, wrote this poem on her blog Mock-ethic

Get out girls!
Get out girls!
Get out at unearthly hours.
Get out wearing low cut blouses.
Get out in skirts and shorts.
Get out with friends.
Get out alone.
Get out girls!

Go to pubs, do a few shots,
Go dancing, swing your hips
Go to forts, glide on streets
Go against wisdom.
Wander aimless,
Walk fast,
Walk slow,
Run frantic,
But do not stay at home any longer!
Be overt,
Be shy,
Be rude,
Be perverse,
Be sexy,
But do not be afraid any longer!

On streets! on streets!
You are needed on streets!
You are needed in trains!
Get out in large numbers!

Get out girls!
You owe it to those
who were picked,
raped, molested,

You owe it to
your hands
and legs
and breasts.

You owe it
to your city-
so get out
Reclaim it!
I loved Shivani's poem. Over and over again, I read of women being attacked and molested in public, and it seems like the only 'reason' behind it, if any, was that they were there. Misogyny is not dead, and feminism has a long way to go. Its not just India - all around the world, conditions are becoming more difficult for women even as the 'feminism has won and women now no longer face any problems in being who they truly want to be' rhetoric gains ground. Women work longer hours in jobs where they are paid less than men, they are discursively framed to seek meaning and validation in romantic relationships and consumer items, they are often left shouldering single families, and excessive sexualisation has made public spaces unsafe, while enabling a corresponding 'get back to your homes and stay safe' intervention rather than 'let us change our public spaces'.

Two days later, Vipul gave me a printout and said that Shivani had added to the poem, and posted an update on Facebook. Here it is:
Get out boys!! 
Get out boys
At dusk or at night
And when the afternoon is bright

Look around with drunken eyes
You surely will find a Girl or two
Or a group of them waiting for you
 To be touched, molested, or laughed at,
And if you have a car, po’er, or banknote
You must not hesitate to use force
How else would you qualify as the
Man of the society of women.

Make sure you tell them firmly
that they need to learn the lessons.
Disclose that it is not you
who is perverse or spineless,
it is they
who are provocative and mindless
and consequently need a reminder of our traditions.

Get out boys!
Be bold and adventurous
Try ganging!
Be funny and capricious
Try recording!
 Be aggressive and contentious
Try tearing!
Be moral and conscientious
Try blaming!

Get out boys!
Don’t you worry
Laws will protect you
Cables will applaud you
Society will hide you
Convention will side you
And when more of you do it more often
No one will keep up.

I loved this version too. And as I discussed it with Vipul, one of the things I said was "There is a lot of anger in the poem - this issue must still anger her, for her to go on adding to her earlier version". The next morning, Vipul told me that he had written the above poem, inspired by Shivani's earlier one. And he had not written it in anger. I got a lot of ribbing about my discussion of the poet's state of mind, but then I believe in the intentional fallacy - it is erroneous to judge a text by the intention of the creator.

As I pointed out to him, Barthes argued that the reader creates their own text, and in that sense the author is dead after creating the text, so I still stand by my interpretation. I still see anger in both the poems, and I for one am glad to see it. In fact, Vipul's poem is more pessimistic than Shivani's - she talks about reclaiming the streets and the city, whereas his ends on a note wherein nothing is going to change. Both poems encourage me to keep thinking about issues, and getting worked up over them. I'm thankful to have these two feminists in my life, as I am thankful for all the people I know who care deeply and get worked up over things.

Incidentally, he has time to write poems when he is in the university, and does not have time to do my proof-reading? Now that's even better cause for anger!

Friday, 24 August 2012

Creating narratives of Creation

“In this old world, there is nothing new but ourselves”
I was saddened to read of the death of Gore Vidal last week. It is difficult to know exactly what to say when one reads of the death of someone one is only just discovering through his work, except that the usual platitudes sound silly. I’ve started reading his 'Narratives of Empire' series, and they offer a fascinating insight, not just into American history, but into historiography, and the way in which a nation comes into being, which give me all sorts of interesting ideas about my work.
The line above is from Creation by Gore Vidal, that was my first introduction to his work. The ‘old world’ quoted in the line above is the world of the 5th Century BCE, and the speaker rues that everything that can be thought, said, imagined or invented, has already been done so. While this may make twenty-first century reader feel suitably superior to the na├»ve fifth century narrator, who does not yet know how many new things are yet to be discovered by this old world, it is equally true that by this time certain questions have been asked and certain issues have been raised that, across the centuries, we have returned to rather than invented anew, such as questions about human society, religion and the meaning of human existence.
The book follows the travails and travels of Cyrus Spitama, grandson of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. As ambassador of the Great King Darius, Cyrus travels to ‘East’, i.e. to certain kingdoms of present-day India, and to ‘East of the East’, i.e. to Cathay. Both diplomat and religious seeker, in India Cyrus converses with Mahavira, the 24th Tirathankar of Jainism, with Gosala, the founder of the Ajivika movement and with Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. In Cathay, he learns from Master Li, founder of Taoism and from Confucius, founder of Confucianism. I discovered to my surprise that this is historically possible - most of these thinkers were contemporaries, and the German philosopher Karl Jaspers has referred to this age as an 'Axial age', a moment in time when certain philosophies and religious ways of thinking came into being that influenced entire civilizations.
Cyrus' conversations with the people he meets frequently return to two motifs: creation, i.e. “how did the world come into being?” and on annihilation, i.e. “what happens after death?” The different cultures that he encounters have developed their own answers to these questions, their own narratives – tales of many gods, of one god, of cycles of births and re-births, and of ancestors. All the co-existing cultures in Creation, whether they be Persian, Buddhist, Jain, Tao, Confucian or Greek, are charmingly convinced of the superiority of their own narratives and dismissive or indulgent of the narratives of others. What are stories of gods to those who think of this life as but one of many cycles?
As a Zoroastrian, Cyrus believes in and follows Ahura Mazdah, the Wise Lord, as the one true God, opposed to the old Aryan gods, the ‘false gods’ worshipped by quite a few of his Persian contemporaries. In a universally pantheistic paradigm, Zoroastrianism is the only nascent monotheistic religion. As such, the religious opinions that Cyrus voices are the closest that we get to a ‘modern’ monotheistic ideal of the divine, and that too as an upstart contender rather than as the dominant paradigm. Eastern conceptions of the divine comprise ideas of circularity, dispensing with the idea of a definite beginning and an end, and they regularly dismiss Cyrus’ beliefs as juvenile manifestations that their philosophies have already left behind. The text suggests that Cyrus’ sense of certainty in definite and knowable good and evil, and in linearity, is shaken by his eastern encounters, and by their questioning of his ideas.
Gore Vidal by Van Vechten Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number LC-USZ62-103965 DLC], image courtesy wikimedia commons
Creation constantly plays with history and historiography. The novel begins with the now old and blind Cyrus holding the perilous position of Persian ambassador to Athens. Cyrus’ age and recent blindness allow him to function as a wise and prophetic seer-like narrator, a suggestion heightened by the anecdotal recollection of his having been the only witness to a vision of the Wise Lord at the death of Zoroaster. At the same time, Cyrus is an unreliable narrator. He narrates his life story in flash back as a corrective to a public recital of the Persian wars by ‘a self-styled historian’, the Greek Herodotus. Cyrus’ account is motivated by the desire to provide a counter-history to the Greek version, and to show the Greeks how insignificant they are in the grander scheme of things. Thus, his autobiographical narrative is a fashioning both of himself and of the Persian Empire, a self-conscious attempt ‘to set the record straight’ against the Greek telling of the tale.
This also arguably makes Creation post-Orientalist. At the beginning of Orientalism, Said identifies Aeschylus’ The Persians, ‘the earliest Athenian play extant’, along with The Bachchae of Euripedes, as marking the inaugural moments of the discourse of Orientalism, a discourse that sets up a hierarchy of the West’s superiority over the non-West. Creation is not post-Orientalist because of its temporal or geographical settings. Setting a text in the 5th Century BCE or in the Persian Empire rarely means the absence of Orientalism. If anything, it usually indicates otherwise – most ‘historical fiction’ can be remarkably Orientalist in the way in which in recreates the Orient and the West for modern consumption. What makes Creation post-Orientalist is that it renders a world wherein Greek culture is just one among the various contemporary ways of being in the world. Creation imagines an Orient without positing the West as a superior reference point, and in refusing that hierarchy, becomes post-Orientalist.
Creation is neither a counter-history nor an anti-history, i.e. history written from a subaltern or alternative point of view. Instead, it is a historiographical history. That is, it is a narration of events that does not distinguish between “events” and “the narration of events”, that does not represent reality as existing outside of and prior to the narration of it. The events are constituted within the act of narration itself, i.e. various narratives of different kinds, both mainstream and marginal, together discursively constitute the reality of the world being described. It is not a static medieval period, with all the labels that we retrospectively attach to it, but a dynamic living and breathing history that confronts us. For example, a series of wars are referred to as ‘the Greek wars’ or ‘the Persian wars’, depending on who is doing the telling. How is one to tell the more ‘accurate’ term? Creation constantly highlights the process of narrativization at work in all matters – personal, political and religious. What we label ‘philosophy’, ‘religion’ and ‘storytelling’ flow into and merge with each other. Whether it be Zoroaster, Confucius or Buddha, none enjoys the luxury of unmediated enunciation; there are always interpretations, oral and written, by disciplines, devotees, students, observers and so on.
Creation has so many layers that it is possible to unpack it endlessly, making a book that one can return to over and over again. Even as Creation reinforces the futility of expecting original enunciation, I wish to give Gore Vidal unmediated last words here: “The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space; everything else is merely human thought”.
Note: This blog first appeared as an MnM Commentary here. Creation is available for purchase here internationally and here in India.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Homosocial spaces in Cocktail

Spoiler alert: the following is a discussion of the film, and as such refers to the plot in detail.
Cocktail has been criticised in the Indian blogsphere and social media for reinforcing the very stereotypes that it sets out to challenge - namely that the good Indian girl is always better than the Westernised/modern Indian girl. The most articulate of these criticisms was Shoma Chaudhary's opinion piece in Tehelka, available here. I do not disagree with these opinions, and am aware that the film's core choice is misogynistic. At the same time, I had guessed the story more or less accurately from the trailers, and did not expect the film to be any different from what it was. Perhaps that was why I was pleasantly surprised by the strong homosocial moments of the film, and its emphasis on homosocial relationships, i.e. on same-sex friendships.
In most discursive frameworks, whether it be Bollywood or Hollywood films, all other relationships are subordinated to the heterosexual relationship. Love, therefore, has to then carry the burden of having to be the most significant and the most sustaining of all relationships. Perhaps love should sue - it is overhyped, oversold, overworked and more is demanded of it than it could possibly deliver. Friendships, on the other hand, are recast as the new family. As the family that you choose yourself, it is assumed that the idiosyncrasies of the family are herein erased. Through generations of American sitcoms, (Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother and so on) we have learnt that friends are those who will help you laugh when parents drive you mad. Both love and friendship are then cast in comfortable slots, with clear places in the hierarchy - love comes first, friendship second. Family may come third. Any kind of social commitment to other people or to an ideal - er, when did that have to be on any list?
To return to Cocktail, it is Veronica who does what the hero usually does, and 'rescues' Meera in her hour of need. The two of them become friends and support systems for each other, and in that sense it is almost their story rather than a romantic one, since the man, though he has made an irritating appearance, is not yet significant to either of them. Even after he enters their space (both figuratively, by becoming involved with Veronica, and literally, by moving in with them), he is not immediately the most important. In a significant scene, Meera suggests that she should move out, leaving the couple alone together. Veronica asks her not to do so. She points out that men will come and go, but when they go, it will be her friend who she will need. At that point, she also says "You've turned that house into a home." Its a testament to how important friendships can be, and a nod to the many more things that they could be.
The Westernised girl has always existed to be rejected and sacrificed, but most narratives give this rejection a token "smiling with tears in eyes/is crying but hiding it in front of the hero" shot. What stands out in Cocktail is the amount of time the story gives to Veronica after the rejection, instead of summarily dismissing her narrative as done. After Gautam and Meera, improbably, fall in true love with each other, the film focuses on Veronica's sense of betrayal, pain, and self-loathing and, to a lesser extent, on Meera's guilt for having caused her friend that pain. Meera is quite clear that the reason she cannot be with Gautam is because her friend loves him. And the film cannot reach the traditional 'happy ending' until amends have been made to Veronica, until she intervenes to show Meera that she is all right with their relationship. This could be interpreted as Meera being the good Indian girl, but I would argue that it is also about moral responsibility, about acknowledging one's role in causing pain to another, about being answerable not just to your friendships but to yourself. The weakest person in the film, morally speaking, is Gautam, because he initially looks after Veronica at Meera's behest, and only then gradually seems to grow into it. He may be the source of love, but he is not the source of strength for either of the two women - both find their strength from within themselves. Ironically, they assert this strength through the same gesture - of rejecting Gautam.
This is why, for all its flaws, I thought that Cocktail had more to offer than is generally suggested. It is what happens in the interstices of the main plot that is open to alternative readings, and to possibilities suggested by such readings.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she killed young

I love drama/melodrama. From drama and novels to cinema and television, all is grist to my mill. One of my favourite genres is the Victorian novel, the great age of British realism of the 19th century. One sub-genre of Victorian fiction is the novel of sensation, which, as the title suggests, are novels that depend on violent twists of the imagination for gratification. Novels of sensation are closely allied to Gothic fiction, and tend to involve a fragile, vulnerable and innocent female protagonist, subject to a sinister conspiracy to defraud her of her fortune, her virtue or both.
I recently read Lady Audley's Secret, available here as an e-book, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which turned out to be a delightful read. It turns most of the conventions of the genre on its head. Golden haired, blue-eyed, and poor to boot, Lucy Graham is definitely the right character, employed in service as a governess, with nothing known of her past. How much more vulnerable could the central character get? When she is rescued from poverty and servitude by Sir Michael Audley, one just knows that some dreadful secret from her past is just waiting to be found, making her susceptible to blackmail and whatnot. The secret is revealed to the reader pretty soon, and at this point in the book I thought I knew exactly what would happen next and how.
And this is where the book takes you by surprise. It takes a startling turn, and the fragile Lady Audley may, or may not, have committed a dreadful crime. If this were a silent film, this is how the captions would go: "Has she done it? So child-like, so innocent. Could she have done it? Is it not even a crime to think this of her, so pure in every way?" The rest of the book is about one man's journey to find the truth, to find out if Lady Audley is who she appears to be, or not. The conventions of the sensation novel are there: the female victim pursued by a male figure who slowly hunts down a 'chain of evidence' against her, even as she races against him to prevent his being successful and having any kind of power over her. Except that in this case the female figure in question may be (or may not be!) as much hunter as hunted, as it were.
The novel maintains a distance from Lady Audley, and the reader does not really get to know her. This is necessary, of course, to maintain ambiguity. For a good part of the book, the scenes she appears in describe the material possessions surrounding her in great detail - jewelry, ivory-backed hand brushes, gilded baskets of hothouse flowers, Indian tea-caddies of sandalwood and silver, perfume, shimmering satin and diapahnous lace - the various frivolous trinkets that she has amassed after her marriage. It seems done obviously to create distaste for her opulence, but can be read ironically too. She is open to suspicion because she has so much to lose - she is punished for marrying a rich man, punished for valuing and wanting all these pretty baubles, punished for not being able to say 'no' to him and to them. It is a universe where it is perfectly acceptable to have these things as long as you do not covet them or transcend your station to obtain them. As Tania Modleski points out in Loving with A Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, the paradox of all romantic drama, from Jane Austen onwards, is that the heroine is eligible to marry the rich man only if she does not actually care for his wealth. Woe betide her if she knows exactly how much he is worth!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Of Taxi Drivers

Taking taxis in Adelaide is always an interesting experience. Most of the taxi drivers here are Indian. Sometimes, as I get into the taxi, I can sense that the driver is a bit unsettled by my taking the taxi. I think that this is because Indian immigrants in Adelaide, though numerous, are most often first generation migrants, and still establishing themselves. This does not mean that every Indian in Adelaide is struggling or that I am a poster girl for affluence in this city. Poster girl for too lazy to learn how to drive is more like it. Yet I sense a frisson of discomfort most times I ask an Indian driver "Will you take me to Semaphore please?"
Most conversations in such taxi rides begin with curiosity. The three most common questions are "what do you do?" "which visa are you on here?" "how long have you been here?" Most of them are surprised to find that I am a student, and that we are still on student visas in spite of having been here for so long. I often get well-meant advice on how to secure residency. I usually like to provocatively say that we plan to return to India. Some times it is greeted with bafflement, but in most cases people tell me that it is a fine plan, as long as I don't leave without securing a residency. Just for security, for the future. I think this reaction stems from two contradictory impulses that seem to effortlessly co-exist in the minds of many first generation migrants that I see here: at one level, they do not believe that anyone will ever return to India, and at another level, they totally understand the desire to return.
Some people I meet are openly hostile. How is it that my qualifications get me work in the university, while others are struggling, when their education does not get that kind of recognition? A few take almost personal pleasure in my doing a PhD. Most are pensive. They ask me where I studied, and say 'ah... Delhi' as if that explains everything. Which it probably does, to a large extent. One taxi driver wistfully told me of his teacher, who would keep telling him to work hard, and how much he now regrets not listening to him then. Most see education as a panacea, blaming themselves rather than the institutional failure of the education system they were in.
One taxi driver insisted that his university, Lovely Public University, was a truly international university that had offered him the best education. When I had heard him talking about it, I wondered at how delusional he was to think that a university called 'lovely' should be, well, lovely. But the whole conversation nagged at my mind and I checked their website out. It claims to be the largest university in India. There are other similar private universities. The more I thought about it, the more I understood where his sense of pride in his alma mater had come from. In an education system that lays emphasis on rote learning, and on engineering and MBA as the only suitable occupations for men, a private university that offers the right courses, makes all the right noises about its quality and is put together in a corporate, glitzy manner, is so much more attractive than failing the entrance exam of a public university or having to study something other than engineering.
I feel far less understanding when it comes to disciplines though. I take great pleasure in informing people that I studied literature, and am now doing a PhD in history. I think all those years of "But you seem really intelligent... why are you studying Arts?" are still with me, and squelch any sense of perspective and/or generosity I may feel. Nor is this an old refrain, no longer in fashion, much as I would like to think of it that way. I routinely come across assumptions that what I do now must not require a lot of hard work, because after all, whether literature or history, it is 'all arts' and easy. That I have to read practically all the time strikes people as idiosyncratic, a personal choice rather than a requirement of my profession.
Not every taxi driver that I come across is Indian though. I've met some really interesting people from all parts of the world. I've yet to meet a taxi driver who grew up in Adelaide, or in Australia for that matter. I met a Macedonian whom I offended by saying "Macedonia... isn't that near, or an old name for, Greece?", to which I got a vehement reply to the effect that Greece and Macedonia are separate countries, thank you very much. I hope I partially redeemed myself by remembering that Alexander the Great was Macedonian, which seemed to mollify him somewhat. I met a Syrian who told me how beautiful Damascus was, and an Afghan who told him that the popular name of the country is Khorasan, and it is only the rich, the city dwellers and the foreigners who call the country Afghanistan. I met an Iranian who had a clear theory on racism and American hegemony. I met a Zimbabwean who told me about the similarities between Africa and India, and how we were both community based societies, dependent on families and community networks for happiness, "not like white people". Best of all, the Afghan I met had an extensive knowledge of history - both Afghani and Indian. He debated with me if there had ever been historically an India conceptually, i.e. he raised the questions I am attempting to raise in my thesis casually, as he brought me home. He will not get the opportunity to explore the tantalizing answers to those questions that perplex both of us, because he is outside of those institutional frameworks. That is the unfairness and contingency of life.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Of Signifiers and Signifieds

At the turn of the previous century, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure worked out certain theories about his field of work, i.e. linguistics. Should linguists study ancient languages and their changes over time or contemporary spoken language, as a living, changing entity? Is it possible to derive certain rules that would then apply to the study of all languages or should linguistic rules change as the language changes, for example, are the rules for studying the Romance languages different from those of studying Sino-Tibetian?
Saussure evolved certain ideas that would have far-reaching consequences. In this blog, I would like to discuss the concepts of signifiers and signifieds. A tree, ped (Hindi), jhaad (Gujarati), l'arbre (French) are all signifiers, that refer to the same signified: "the concept of a tree". Saussure pointed out that there is no essential relationship linking a signifier to a signified, i.e. there is nothing in the sounds ped, jhaad or tree that tie them to a tree. Saussure argued that this gave language both variability and invariability: words could change over time because there was no essential relationship, while at the same time being invariable as there is little reason to change them. I could pass an edict to the effect that what is now called a tree in English should be called remanu from tomorrow. If I become dictator of the world I could also enforce that edict by law. Over time, depending on various circumstances, it may become common to use remanu instead of tree, or it may not. In either case, neither tree nor remanu have any a priori relationship with the concept of treeness, and neither option is 'better' or 'more natural' than the other, but is made natural through custom and usage. Through generations, if it is accepted by a large majority of people that the following is an image of a remanu, this word would become naturalised, and invisible in that sense. In such a scenario, someone who referred to this as 'tree' would be seen as old-fashioned, and perhaps a bit eccentric.
All of this sounds interesting, but a bit theoretical and esoteric. After all, not too many people want to go around the world changing the words for things like tree and house. The implications of Saussure's argument, however, opened up 'the whole wide world' and the ways in which we think about it. The signified(s) that we attach to signifiers come into being historically, and are not inherently attached to them. When a large number of people unquestioningly accept and attach a particular signified to a particular signifier, it becomes naturalised, part of our 'common sense'. It is this which makes most people think that almost everyone else means the same thing by things that they do, whereas even cursory conversations reveal that what we think of as 'decency', 'honesty', 'good acting', 'responsibility' and so forth need to be attached to precisely similar signifiers, and could differ in specific situations. Our popular opinions as a whole are similarly shaped as much by historical contingency as by anything else. It is common sense now to believe that people should be punished through imprisonment, just as at one historical point of time it was common sense that they should be hanged publicly and spectacularly. This argument, of course, is Foucault's opening gambit in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
I am not arguing for a non-politicized "you have your opinion, I have mine and we are all entitled to our opinion" position. That is a simplistic escape from reasoned debate. Concepts like truth and justice are constructed, and we give them meaning by attaching specific signifieds and not others to them. At the same time, this does not mean that every construction of truth is equal. All concepts are equal to the extent that all are constructed, but the contents of their constructions are open to debate, rejection and assimilation. For instance, development and progress are commonly understood as a visibly high standard of living, demonstrated in grand buildings, availability of a wide variety of consumer goods, and so on and so forth. By this logic, America is a developed country. If development were to be understood as the absence of poverty, or the availability of equal opportunities, America may not come across as a very developed country. A lot of political struggles are struggles around signifiers. A particular set of population has been variously referred to as 'Black', 'Coloured' and as 'African-American'. This fight is not a fight for political correctness but for dignity. The fight for a different signifier is the fight to bring into being a new relationship between oneself and the world.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Of A Doctor

There are mainly two kinds of doctors: there are those who are mere physicians. And there are those, nobler in the mind, who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, force heart, and nerve and sinew to produce a thesis, thereby earning the right to be called a doctor. It is to this august company that Vipul is to be admitted today. Yes, he is graduating today, and has already received the letter that allows him to call himself "Dr. Vipul Pare". Naturally, I am super excited, and very happy that the parents will be here for the graduation.
At the same time, this is the end point of a long process, and it is the process itself that has been a learning experience. Having a lot of friends in the academy, I have heard horror stories of people nearing the end of their dissertations - of people becoming 'drama queens', making massive life changes, wearing their frustration and desperation on their sleeve and so on. I can say most truthfully that in Vipul's case this never happened. Yes, he got stressed, and as he got more stressed, he went quieter, more preoccupied with the arguments he was going to make, thinking constantly of the writing process itself, working harder and harder as days went by. He did not complain about the external factors that had affected the writing process adversely over the 3 years, and he never indulged in self-pity when things got more difficult, as they invariably do. The biggest lifestyle changes that he made were an increased dependence on coffee and a greater interest in photography.
It is this grace under pressure that I wish I can emulate 2 years down the line, as my submission deadline draws near. For now, I am just going to rejoice in Vipul's glory, and know that he deserves every moment of this happiness. It is the end of one journey, and the beginning of another.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Welcome to Australia!

Vipul's parents and my mom came to Adelaide this morning. They are still tired and jet lagged, and I am super excited! I've been waiting for their trip for so long.
For the two moms, it is their first trip abroad and I'm keen to see what they make of it. I've been thinking about what things they'll like and find exciting, and what things will seem strange to them. Adelaide is a quiet city where everything closes at five in the evening, and I think it is going to take some time for them to get used to such a slow pace of life. I just hope they do not get bored!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Of Dubai

Hello all. I've been back from Dubai for quite some time, but have been both unwell and lazy, hence the late update.

Like all cities, Dubai is full of contradictions, and my response to it was ambiguous too. At the most obvious level, Dubai is a fantasy of excess. Every structure in the city is overpoweringly immense. A friend remarked that certain areas of the city make you feel as if you are on a movie set, to which I added "Not just any movie set, but a Rajnikant movie set, to be precise". Almost every metro stop is a mall. The different stores in the mall are a veritable 'who's who' of luxury living. There is even a surreal 'ski-slope within a mall'. I kid you not, as the picture below will show. I saw it on my first jet-lagged morning, and it took some time to believe that I was not hallucinating.

Book stores in the malls are mostly chains like 'Borders' and are disappointingly limited to Western bestsellers and the Western canon. It took me around two hours to locate what I'm sure was the only local book in the store, somewhat obviously titled The Sand Fish: A Novel from Dubai. It was about a young 'spirited' Emirati woman doomed to be the third wife of an old Arab man, and the very first chapter was so dismally Orientalist that I gave up on it. I wish I had been able to find some interesting local writers. I'm sure there are quite a few, though they must be distributed elsewhere and possibly write more in Arabic than in English.

The conference organizers were warm and welcoming, and I had a great roommate. The issues that came up persistently across the two days were familiar: what does home mean, and how does one define being at home? what is identity? if you're a second or third generation migrant, does speaking Gujarati at home and eating Gujarati food make you a Gujarati, even though you've never been to Gujarat? One participant raised what I thought was a crucial question: these are questions that all migrants deal with, so what is specifically Gujarati about it? Diasporic communities will come up with similar answers: 'I am more Punjabi because I dance the gidda at community functions', or 'I am more Bengali because I can read and write the language' and so on. I would argue that there is no essential difference between being Gujarati and being Punjabi, Marathi, or Bengali and so on. Most of the characteristics that are seen as essential are usually socio-cultural and part of the socialization process. For example, in terms of Gujarati characteristics, it would be said that a Gujarati is fond of a sweet flavour to their everyday food, and is more business minded, whereas a Bengali is more cultural, while a Punjabi is fond of rich food and drinking and so on. But if you were to place a Gujarati infant in a Bengali or Punjabi household, and she were to grow up there, she may grow up disliking sweet everyday food and be more 'cultural' or 'arty' than business minded. All communities tell stories about themselves, but such stories are usually more constitutive of reality than indicative of it.

After the conference ended I had a couple of days in Dubai, and me and my brother-in-law had a gala time together on the first day. He treated me to some awesome street food, of which the 'methi ka paratha' at 'Paratha King' was the clear winner. A minor sandstorm meant, however, that we could not stay out for long, and had to spend the major part of the day inside a mall. I was actually quite excited about being in a sandstorm! On my last day in Dubai, I made an effort to stay away from the malls and explore the city. I tracked down a second hand book store, and there was something reassuring about the old market within which it was located. The books were mostly bestsellers again, but this store had a lot more variety than the bookstores in the mall. I found two books by Edward Said, two Toni Morrisons, an Amit Chaudhuri and Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, the first in a series of novels about a female detective in post World War I London.

At the same time, there is more to Dubai than the consumerist bubble and the exploitative labour trade. There is also something reassuringly familiar. The cabs play Indian music, the tv shows Indian films and there are familiar faces on the hoardings, but it is more than that. I would say it is the difference between being in a non-Western city as opposed to a Western one. Dubai's ways of being and becoming were familiar to me, and so reassuring. I felt at home there, while being alive to its problems.

I think being forced to stay inside malls because of the sandstorm, as well having to spend almost a day at Singapore airport on the return journey gave me a claustrophobic feeling about malls. Both Dubai malls and Singapore airport, which is just a huge mall with an airport attached, are spacious, and make deliberate effort to incorporate certain elements of 'nature', be it through plants, fountains, streams and what not. These two factors should fight claustrophobia, instead they seemed to induce it. A tension that I had not consciously realised was building up in me came to the fore when I got out of Singapore airport and was able to look at the actual city. I was still stuck inside a bus, but I experienced a sense of joy and relief when I was able to look at trees and plants in the open air rather than enclosed, and then realised how oppressed I had felt about being in an enclosed space, no matter how wide it was.

The picture above was a sign in a shop next to our hotel.I meant to ask the aata shop in question what the difference between 'Punjabi' and 'Gujarati' aata was, but ran out of time. In a way, it was good as knowing it is less fun than guessing the various things it could be. In my imagination, 'diabetic' aata is aata suffering from diabetes rather than the more prosaic 'beneficial for diabetics'. This is my favorite Dubai photo, and I hope you enjoy it too.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Off to Dubai

I am going to Dubai tomorrow, to present at the Gujarat Studies Association's 4th Biennial Conference. The conference is to be on "The Gujarati Community: Globalisation, Mobility and Belonging." Needless to say, I'm super excited. I'm excited about visiting Dubai for the first time. I am also excited about meeting scholars from around the world who work on Gujarat and Gujarati issues. I am also looking forward to getting a couple of days with my cousin's family there. Apart from the usual places, I want to check out local second hand booksellers, and try Persian zafrani tea there. Vipul is probably as excited as I am, at the thought that I shall be away a week!

Here's a copy of my abstract:
Telling Tales of Globalisation: Gujarati and British Narratives

In 1866 two texts England Maan Pravaas (Travels in England) by Karsandas Mulji and Up the Country: Letters Written to her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India by the Hon. Emily Eden were published. Mulji was a Gujarati social crusader on his way to England, ‘the great and glorious land of commerce, learning and benevolence’. Eden, on the other hand, was the sister of a previous Governor-General of India, and her letters indicate a desperate desire to be back home and a strong sense of exile. The difference in tone between Mulji’ excitement and Eden’s sense of exile also brings into clear focus the idea of the colonising world as the strong Centre, attractive to the colonised peripheral regions. Both these writers were subjects of and subject to the same overall political entity, the British Empire, though they were on different sides of the race and gender barrier, privileged in one but restricted in the other. These two gendered, colonised subjects negotiate and construct England and India in different ways. Mulji accepts subordinate colonial condition as natural. His tone is earnest and enumerative, whereas Eden’s tone is ironic and playful. My paper attempts to examine the ways in which their framing of the ‘foreign land’ is constituted by their subject positions, vectored by factors of class, gender and coloniality. These two texts illustrate the ways in which questions of belonging and longing are played out in the context of the hierarchy of the West and the non-West, nation and empire and hegemony and subalternity.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Govinda at the Oscars

Picture Clint Eastwood applauding loudly at Govinda's eclectic dance moves. Picture Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart smiling approvingly at the same dance.

This scene is not a product of my overactive imagination. It is a part of a film called Censor, a film that tops my list of "Bollywood movies that are so bad that they are good". If you have not had the pleasure and the privilege of watching Censor, here is an outline.

As the name suggests, the film is a satire on the Censor Board of India. Dev Anand plays a director who makes a revolutionary film about "Indian youth", that truly maligned group that all kinds of filmmakers make all kinds of assumptions about! The Censor Board of India refuses to pass the film because of its inclusion of sex and violence, not realizing that this is a profound film about "reality". I've forgotten most of the film within the film, because I was switching between Censor and something else. Yes, till that point in the film, I was still able to tear myself away from it.

The Indian Censor board declares that this film within the film cannot be released in India. One of the producers, Archana Puran Singh, decides to release it in America, where it is a runaway success and is nominated for the Academy Awards. From this point on, the film had me: there was no way I was changing the channel. Dev Anand used footage from actual Oscar telecasts in the film, and put it together with his narrative.

Naturally, the film wins the Oscar for Best Film, for which various Hollywood stars, including Clint Eastwood, applaud heartily. Not just that, in true Indian style, before the next award is announced, there is going to be a dance performance. And this is how Govinda gyrates on a stage, while various Hollywood stars look on approvingly. After Govinda's performance, Dev Anand wins the Oscar for Best Director, making a speech wherein he thanks his wife, and takes pot shots at the Indian Censor board. And Hollywood dutifully goes on applauding.

At that time, I couldn't stop laughing at how ridiculous this was. Today, I remember that hyperbolic moment most fondly. It was part of the fantasy of excess that made Dev Anand who he was, that makes Rajnikant who he is. More realistic cinema is all very well, but there are moods when I'd rather see something visually or imaginatively "over the top". It is soul food, but is definitely an acquired taste.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Arab Spring: Too radical or not radical enough?

To most people, the idea that Mahatma Gandhi was more violent than Adolf Hitler would seem preposterous. When you’re reading Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, however, such a suggestion is par for the course, as you can read here. Zizek argues that Gandhi led a movement that challenged imperial hegemony and articulated an alternative to it, whereas Hitler’s violence was oriented towards refining and protecting the system rather than altering it in any way.
Similarly, the Arab Spring is often understood and analysed in terms of its potential for radicalism. This test of being, or not being, radical forces it on the defensive. As opposed to the idea that the Arab Spring may become too radical, I would like to advance the proposition that it is not radical enough. It aims at more widespread participation in the system rather than any change in the system itself. An examination of the discursive frameworks within which the Arab Spring has been understood will help clarify this position.
People in different countries, in different socio-political conditions, some Arabs and some not, came together to protest the everyday conditions imposed on them and effect regime change.
The movement was termed the ‘Arab Spring’ and the initial international reaction to it was surprise. After all, these popular uprisings were happening in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya – places and people ‘without history’, as Eric Wolf termed it, not expected to have a political identity or consciousness. These were places and people who were always represented within western democracies through orientalist tropes: either indifferent to democracy or a threat to it. To an orientalist sensibility, the fact that these citizens had opinions or the courage to act on those opinions seemed in itself revolutionary.
Surprise soon gave way to other feelings. In large sections of other parts of the world, there is admiration for the movement, and it is credited with being the inspiration behind the Occupy Wall Street protests and other Occupy movements around the world. Orientalist fears are not too far behind. Variations of ‘the Muslim brotherhood will now take over Egypt’ appear from time to time, raising spectres of visible Muslim populations and visibly Muslim governments haunting the ‘secular’ West. If one of the consequences of the movement is that it allows religion greater sway in political processes, the revolution shall be retrospectively identified as ‘too radical’. If the Arab Spring were to put any system in place that is not western democracy the way the West defines it, rather than practises it, it would be deemed too radical. A too radical governing apparatus needs correction, through sanctions, invasion and so on; as the West still remains the arbiter of what is religious, what is radical and what is secular.
Speaking of secularism, how secular is the West? If the secular is taken to mean that religion is immaterial to political processes, American democracy would not count as secular. Fox News, which berated Obama for not mentioning God in his Thanksgiving address to the nation here, does not have the moral right to tell others to ‘separate religion and politics’. Religion is as much a part of political debate in western democracies as it is in other parts of the world, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged and hotly contested debates for and against abortion and/or homosexuality are rooted in alternative readings of religious strictures.
The liberal ideal of a secular separation of religion from political life is used frequently by the West to demonstrate its superiority to other parts of the world. It is somewhat similar to the use of feminism by western governments – an ideal of equality is set up in the developed world and then constructed as universal. If one were to examine the application of this ideal carefully, it would soon be seen that feminist projects in the western world are as incomplete as those in the non-western world. But this ideal is accepted as universally true and valid for all other nations and peoples, who are then judged and ranked on the basis of this ideal. Thus, non-western nations ‘fail’ the tests of democracy, of feminism and so on.
A similar failure on the altar of radicalism and secularism awaits the Arab Spring. It is radical in terms of what it achieved, but it has not been revolutionary enough in the sense that in many of these countries the emerging alternatives to deposed dictators are not very different or alternative. It is when the Arab Spring is not judged on the basis of how secular it is, when it is accepted that the people currently homogenously identified as ‘Arab’ have the right not only to write their own history but to write it in whichever way they want, that the movement will have achieved a revolutionary end.

N.B. The above blog post first appeared as a commentary on the MnM website, and can be accessed in that form on this page.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Ra.One's decolonial moment

What does one say about Ra.One that hasn’t been said already? The script is banal, and all its flaws have been summed up well by the vigil idiot here. There is one flaw that particularly irks me. A character with the name of Shekhar Subramanium dies, and first gets a Christian burial, after which his family is shown releasing his ashes in an unspecified English river, probably the Thames considering that the movie is set in London. But if you bury someone, there are no ashes!!! Ashes come from the cremation of a dead body. There are other flaws/loopholes/'what were they thinking' moments in the movie, but this one irritated me the most. In this post, however, I do not want to enumerate the faults of the film further. Instead, I want to explore the question: Is Ra.One decolonial?
My nephew, who turned 4 last week, loves Spiderman. He regularly ‘convinced’ his parents to buy every piece of Spiderman merchandise, including the Colgate Spiderman toothpaste. Then he saw Ra.One, and now he has the Ra.One and G.One toys. And we are only allowed to listen to “Sarrati sarrati raftarein hai” in the car. He has not forgotten Spiderman, but Ra.One is high in his list of superhero favourites.
I am not making the argument that replacing Hollywood corporate franchisee filmmaking with Bollywood corporate franchisee filmmaking is a grand decolonial step. I am trying to tease out the idea of the physical location of cultural imagination. As a child, I remember reading Enid Blyton and desperately wanting to go to Malory towers and drink ginger beer. It wasn’t just about the boarding school or the food – it was a longing to be a part of a world that I found in the books I was reading, a world that had no place for my world within it. I did read some Gujarati or Hindi books now and then, of which I remember Bakor Patel and Chako Mako most clearly, but they did not inspire longing.
For my generation, it was Enid Blyton. When I left India children were reading Goosebumps and Harry Potter instead. A few children read Indian books; most often slick retellings of Indian mythology as graphic novels. The key difference was not only availability, in that more and different books were available, but also merchandising: most of the products mentioned in children’s literature are available in the Indian market. Here longing, then, is training in being the ideal future consumer.
My first grown-up memory of this feeling came when I read Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters, in which the children retreat into the world of Enid Blyton.
Muffins, porridge, kippers, scones, steak and kidney pie, potted meat, dumplings. Their father said if they ever tasted this insipid foreign stuff instead of merely reading about it in those blighted Blyton books, they would realize how amazing was their mother's curry-rice and khichri-saas and pumpkin buryani and dhansak. What they needed was an Indian Blyton, to fascinate them with their own reality.
-- Family Matters, quote found on the blog onehotstove

That feeling was not just restricted to India either, as I discovered, to my surprise but not joy, when I heard the delightful talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. Incidentally, other things in the talk resonate too. I am often asked which language I spoke in Delhi, and people are disconcerted when the reply is English.

Ra.One’s decolonial moment is the moment when a train is speeding towards CST station in Mumbai, unable to stop and putting thousands of lives at risk. The superhero saves the day, albeit with the help of some divine intervention. What is interesting is that this is happening at CST, in Mumbai, rather than in New York or in London, the “centres of the civilized world as we know it”. In other words, the most familiar trope of a superhero movie is sundered from its always inevitably Western location and shifted to Mumbai, setting up a new cultural landmark. This geographical-cultural landscape is still thinly populated, and its features are not as familiar to us as Notting Hill or Manhattan, courtesy numerous books and movies. This imaginative landscape may eventually be left barren or become densely populated, though this moment in Ra.One does gesture towards a potential decolonial way of being.
There is another potential argument: that Ra.One is decolonial because they used Akon and apparently only Indian SFX experts and so on. I am not very enthusiastic about this, because in the interviews that I have seen, the point of reference has still been Hollywood/the West: “We can hire Akon too”, or “We did not use their technology”. The people who made the film must have been passionate in their belief and desire to do this as an assertion of identity and pride, and that is a different discussion. Ra.One’s decoloniality lies elsewhere.