Monday, November 21, 2005

Feminism, come again....

Was more than disappointed to return from a break and discover half a dozen of Indian bloggers debating feminism. Brought up in my generation, feminism is like one of those battles you learn about in the history class. At the most, you can only understand but you shall never be able to relate to it either in spirit or in sense. Yet to see feminism debated in Indian blogosphere with as much blind fervour as it was done with just reaffirmed my beliefs about the poor standards of observational perspectives amongst Indian writers.
Not that its something dear or of a major concern, but since we are already here, I’m just putting up my final frame on feminism.

Although it is popularly perceived otherwise, feminism, say for instance like socialism or hedonism is not a fundamental ideology.In other words feminism can’t survive on its own and hence it can’t be imposed on populations. And moreover feminism is not universal, it moulds into connotations of its own. It is, at it’s best, circumstantial. So one activist might be fighting to wear a garment of her choice while elsewhere another might be suing a colleague for inappropriateness on the same grounds of feminism. To suggest that both of them are same or even different forms of the same is preposterous.

So what then is the foundation of feminism?
The basic furniture of feminism has historically entailed a motivation and rightly so, to fight for equal rights of women and against discrimination based on gender. Since any such collective motivation invariably leads to a mass activity, it naturally becomes a movement- of course notwithstanding the fringe it might eventually amount to. And all movements have a goal, therefore an end.
And so did feminism- when erstwhile male dominated society abolished the apparent inequality between men and women. That meant, by statute, the state promised equal rights and equal freedom irrespective of the gender. Unfortunately this has not been applicable in some fundamental cultures, but it has been achieved in the open societies to such an extent that folks of my generation, including women (as much as I hate to point out) find it quite dismaying to be subjected repeatedly to the often mistaken and convenient notions of feminism.

One of such commonest cart of convenience in present days is of identifying empowerment for feminism selectively. Although it is imaginable as a distant offshoot of, in principle, empowerment is hardly feminism. In fact, empowerment is contradictory to the very values (not ideals) of feminism, because it encourages another form of discrimination in a graded manner by claiming victimhood. If having equal number of women as men on a panel is a supposed credit to feminism so it must be as well to have equal number of Nobel prizes reserved for women. All one needs to do is exercise a bit of imagination. The women, as always, would be suddenly worth it.

Another unbecoming surprise was to find out about this fancy to exchange labels of ‘male feminist’, ‘female feminist’ etc. And it’s not all that hard to hear ‘gay feminist’, ‘metro- sexual feminist’ and even perhaps ‘anti-male feminist’ not very far down the road. Sounds colourful, but lacks meaning.I mean what’s this inscrutable disposition? The very sound of ‘male feminist’ is quite strange because it carries a connotation of predator sympathising the prey. The irony, that makes it more tastier is that no one has a clue who is who?
We live in a post-modern world, which is essentially individualistic. And that is as simple as one can try to put it. So wouldn’t it make more sense to identify oneself as an individual than to collect a dozen of labels for an identity? And moreover when did we start defining ourselves in tokens of negative definitions* esp. like that of feminism. Just because you enjoy cooking or relate to women at large as a person it doesn’t make you a male feminist. And since one can’t empathise with women as well can’t identify with the ‘male feminist’ bunch one must then be ‘anti-male feminist’? But hang on! Wasn’t he the chauvinist a while back? Ah! joys of reinventing? As if anyone cared? And it is perhaps the reason why even though Kill Bill is perhaps the most blatant feminist movie of our days (in a traditional sense), it is only marked as an action thriller.

Just a word about chavumism, since it has sneaked in.Well, Chauvinism is a metaphor for misconceptions of its own. Perhaps one relevant point in the context is how some social manifestations of chauvinism, is taken as being anti-feminist(for whatever it implies). Both in aesthetic and metaphoric sense, 'eyeing the honey' is purely, for the lack of a better word, biological. If at all it is anything , it is most definitely not objectification and poisoning with testosterone. And I mean only ‘eyeing the honey’ as chauvinism and not eve-teasing which is, illegal, and pathological.

To conclude, the very need to reuse the visage of feminism in the forms of second and third waves is a glowing evidence for the fact that feminism is dead and done with, unless one wants to pass it for something else unrelated- means of exploitation and a sense of college nostalgia.
Feminism for all it's virtues has become, to put it mildly, a tool of convenience, an instant headache of escape! To speak of it as something greater is perhaps a wishful ideal and we all know about such ideals.In these times, it is a seismic defeat even indulge in thoughts of supposed feminism; a debate to resuscitate the buried is nothing but an exercise in futility.

The future is the past passing by the minute. Unless one wants otherwise.

But what to I know? I hang out with female pigs!

Long live Queen Victoria.
But of course six feet under.

*Definition built on negation- like atheist: I dont believe in God.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bollywood :“ A trilogy on the questions of parenthood”

I saw three Bollywood films recently, which, in my view dealt with the same theme. Now Bollywood films are much maligned, and rightfully so, for being a song and dance about nothing. Time and time again, I am torn between throwing up in exasperation at the hundreds of dancers who descend into cinematic space, out of nowhere, to bring us feet tapping numbers and campy choreography, which, I am not shamed to admit, does get me quite happy, by its sheer mindlessness.

To critics of Bollywood films, (even as part of my split personality quietly stands with them) I have one single request. To understand Bollywood, and to truly appreciate it, one has to experience folk theatre, much like “Jatra” (Bengal) “ Nautanki” (North India) and mythological dramatizations like Ramleela (plays involving stories from Ramayana, part of Dussehra celebrations) Raas Garba (dance forms involving the Krishna cavorting of young men and women), which have been performed for hundreds of years. These forms represent a dramatic form, which thrive on melodrama, songs, and folk music to illustrate a theme, which may range from a social message to a spiritual exploration. Bollywood is hence a unique art form, in my view, for the common person, and not the Westernised Indian, who can never ever recognize that art is a collective and social expression and not merely an individual form of artistic achievement. Coomaraswamy refers to this huge distinction between the way art is viewed in the West and East. He would have been happy to see how Bollywood unashamedly sticks to its kitschy form. Hence, even though cinema is a modern technological art form, in India, it has followed the same patterns of music, drama and entertainment which connect, collective, social, inspirational themes to create a whole. To criticize Bollywood, without understanding its simple social uplifting experience for its “common” audience is to view this form with a Western eye, and not recognize the folk dramatic forms that preceded this form of entertainment.

The simple messages of “family relationships”. “good overcomes evil” “all live happily ever after” “deviation from social norms brings tragedy” are all common themes and provide simple uni-dimensional clarity for audiences oppressed by moral relativism of modern lives. Is watching narratives like these a simple case of escape of a higher desire to connect with themes of meaning which integrate the heart and mind? The very fact so many enjoy these films at a simple level of experience is of value. To over-intellectualize it and expect the sophistication of intellectual discourse is to not recognise the very valid need for this clarity of role models in social discourse.

I recently watched three films, all equally silly, full of silliness of the sublime kind, and exaggerations that will make many of us cringe in discomfort. These films were: “Bunty aur Babli, Waqt, and Salaam Namaste” There was a common thread running surreptitiously through all these films, aimed at the masses and severely criticized by the intelligentsia. The central theme in all these films is of the role of parenting in creating self awareness and hence growth. In this, what stood out for me was the central sacredness of the family as a unit of social structure, something a traditional society like India at the crossroads of modernity is grappling with. These films, all examined in their own pathways of exploration, the conflicts inherent in modern and traditional ways of living and their bearing on the creation of family. All three emphasized, in different ways, what being responsible for a young life can do to the ways young people make choices in life. If the form of making these very esoteric and serious explorations about the nature of family and parenting takes Bollywood form, I’d say, more power to it. However, let me illustrate further.

Bunty aur Babli’s central premise is finding a common ground between the two worlds of youthful ambition and sense of adventure with a sense of purpose in life. The two protagonists flirt with the edge of law and lose every sense of proportion in indulging their sense of fun and youthful energy which finds little expression in traditional oppressive social structures. In the form of capers and humor, this anguish takes the form of comedy. The small town meets city life through the eyes of small town ambition gone awry in the face of frustrating experiences. What brings balance and meaning to this craziness is the birth of a child which compels the pair to recognize consequences of what seems to be entertainment. Is it pedantic? Not really. Is there is a question about responsibilities and finding a meeting point between adventure, ambition and responsibility? It may not succeed stupendously, but there is a definite attempt to address these issues. In this, a silly film rises above empty song and dance fare and provides a practical approach to youthful angst.

"Salaam Namaste" is a remake of the film “9 months” which was a comedy. The essential difference is Salaam Namaste is not a comedy in the Bollywood world, even if it attempts at it through the silly character of Javed Jaffrey mouthing “eggjactly” at every given moment and disrespecting a white dumb woman who is his wife(?) Is this a post colonial fantasy of subjugating the white woman who has no brains? What I found interesting is not much outcry was visible at this portrayal, while I could imagine how audiences would remark if the reverse were true. Is this the crass level fantasy of the oppressed? It left a really bad taste. However, an unplanned pregnancy did not leave many feeling as sorry for Preity Zinta as they would have for Julianne Moore. However, to its credit the film does examine the reckless actions of a young couple with empathy, even as it leaves viewers thinking, “ What did people expect would happen if one had sex in a no commitment relationship?” I definitely do not see people in middle India sympathizing with such issues, although in the urban world of sexual experimentation, these become good questions. Why would a woman expect support from a man who clearly states he doe not want to be tied down? The film stood out in the way both protagonists step outside their own mental boundaries to examine how the other person feels, a true human achievement. In this element, the film stands out as it brings a human ethical question to the forefront, rather than getting entangled in unnecessary moral debates. Twenty years ago, such a film would have no place in popular cinema. That is does today, and finds an appreciative audience too, is a wonderful thing. That it comes to the conclusion, that irrespective of moral approaches to sex, parenting is about human ethics towards each other and towards a young life, is the film’s sole achievement.

“Waqt” was the weakest of this parent trilogy in my view. It took the traditional family and the overprotected son who knows no sense of responsibility and continues in adventures and actions that border on pure idiocy. There was nothing humorous in the silly escapades in the beginning and Akshay Kumar’s marriage to Priyanka Chopra who makes the big (?) sacrifice of giving up her heated swimming pool to marry a guy who has a normal pool. There are many other such retarded attempts at humor in the film. Then the clich├ęd cancer situation for an indulgent dad, played by a completely ridiculous Amitabh, creates the necessary filial responsibility to effect change. It showed that the love of a father can change the most wayward son in a crisis as there have been huge deposits in the bank of love. The film in not recommended at all, but it did well commercially and redeemed itself through this one message. Of course, this message is not meant for the conscious sophisticated urbane viewer, but it had its place and found a value for parental love and family duties in the web of madness that constitutes the film. That was encouraging.

Films of this kind are not philosophical investigations of the relativistic kind. Sometimes the ethical certainty of the issues of parenthood are probably best addressed in such simplistic modes. In these non –intellectual approaches to big questions of life, I feel Bollywood sets an example for other kind of media. Its even full of song and dance, which I like.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Unintentional Exoticising

Thoughts on and around "On strangeness in Indian writing" by Amit Chaudhuri (Hindu Literary Review Oct 2, 2005)

The Hindu is still leagues apart from anything else that you get delivered to your doorstep under the category of Newspaper. Sometimes I think the categorization is wrong, or at least clubbing of Hindu with other excuses of daily publications are wrong. Hindu's Literary Review, for instance is, in my knowledge the most sweeping tour of the literary landscapes - Indian and otherwise, that you'd find in any Indian publication.

It's in there that I stumbled upon On strangeness in Indian Writing -- Amit Chaudhuri's immensely thought-provoking review centered around Arun Kolatkar's Jejuri. On the onset, let me say that I've not read the book (a sequence of poems) or had never heard about it, despite Kolatkar being a Marathi (bilingual) writer. But I'm aware of Jejuri -- the religious town (of the deity Khandoba) -- that's the setting of the poem(s).

Using the work itself and reactions to it (including an essay about Indian writing in general by Bhalchandra Nemade, a distinguished Marathi writer) Chaudhuri opens up a sensitive topic.

Chaudhuri touches a raw nerve when he says:
In India, where, ever since Said's Orientalism, the "exotic" has been at the centre of almost every discussion, serious or frivolous, on Indian writing in English (tirelessly expressing itself in the question, "Are you exoticising your subject for a Western audience?"), the aesthetics of estrangement, of foreignness, in art have been reduced to, and confused with, the politics of cultural representation. And so, the notion of the exotic is used by lay reader and critic alike with the sensitivity of a battering ram to demolish, in one blow, both the perceived act of bad faith and the workings of the unfamiliar.
I think this is the dilemma that most writers of our generation will have to contend with. It's the tightrope walk between unintentional exoticizing -- a result of urban upbringing, which makes some of the writers as much aliens to the subject matters, as an Indian living outside India or even a non-Indian -- and forced agreement. But when we stop dissenting, in the fear of exotifying, we are not honest to ourselves. So Kolatkar's outsider (to Jejuri, and the culture that surrounds it) has as much right to be as the insiders. In the days of post-colonization, these outsiders, these recluses are torn between a world they can't relate to and a world that they can but don't want to elope into.

Then he raises the subject of the intended audience. It's another dimension of this same tightrope walk. Can you not legitimately write for a fringe -- provided you don't exotify for the covert gains (acceptance by the foreign readership and critics, who want a certain idea of India reinforced?). For instance Nemade 1 asks: (quoting from Chaudhuri's essay with the context)
"An Indo-Anglian writer looks upon his society only for supply of raw material to English i.e. foreign readership." He mentions three instances of what, for him, are acts of "aesthetic and ethical" betrayal: Nirad C. Chaudhuri's The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Narayan's The Guide, and Kolatkar's Jejuri. And the now-familiar question, still relatively fresh in 1985, is asked and sardonically answered: "What kind of audience do these writers keep in mind while writing? Certainly not the millions of Indians who are `unknown' who visit Jejuri every year as a traditional ritual... "

But what does Kolatkar have to offer to those millions of Indians? And if he doesn't wouldn't it be counter-productive trying to say things that one doesn't know? And for every such millions there are at least a hundred urban Indians who Kolatkar can talk to, only in English. How does talking to them instead of the millions constitute an act of treason? In all fairness, I must read Jejuri first to judge Nemade. But then there are questions which spring to your mind without the inner judge's consent.

The essay goes on raising many such pertinent questions in reader's mind.
In fact, estrangement becomes, once more, a form of cultural distance, and the notes a narrative about alienation; a narrative, indeed, of semi-articulate but deep undecidedness and uncertainty about what constitutes, in language, poetic wonder, citizenship, nationhood, and in what ways these categories are in tension with one another.
But surely there's a third level in the poem, in which a significance is ascribed to the mundane, the superfluous, that can't be pinned down to religious belief; and it's this level that Jayakar herself finds inaccessible, or refuses, for the moment, to participate in.

And then we're back at the exoticism vs defamiliarisation -- the following is very very jargony, but the point that it is making is worth mulling over:
I think Jayakar's and Nemade's response to the superfluous and random particular in Jejuri (comparable, in some ways, to the impatience Satyajit Ray's contemporaries felt with the everyday in his films) is symptomatic, rather than atypical, of a certain kind of post-independence critical position, which obdurately conflates the defamiliarisation of the ordinary with the commodification of the native. With the enlargement of the discourse of post-coloniality in the last two decades, the critical language with which to deal with defamiliarisation has grown increasingly attenuated, while the language describing the trajectory of the East as a career has become so ubiquitous that, confronted with a seemingly mundane but irreducible particular in a text, the reader or the member of the audience will almost automatically ask: "Are you exoticising your subject for Western readers?"

All in all a very gripping read, the essay itself. Now it's time for me to go hunt Jejuri.

1. Nemade got into limelight due to his Marathi book Kosla which I've read. Curiously, Kosla is inspired from Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and is sort of an Indianized version of the book -- where the protagonist, a loser of sorts, struggles at coming to terms with the way the society around him is. He has done a brilliant job of localizing the angst. But then isn't this parroting of sorts too? How does this parroting become more acceptable?

Friday, September 30, 2005

Aparajito and Ray's craft

Aparajito (The unvanquished, 1957) is perhaps the most accomplished of all Ray movies. The screen play, shot selections, techniques, characters and above all the specters of life and death are interwoven to create this timeless piece of art. It’s amazing to find Ray's precision of frame, space, speed, shot selection and the composition of individual scenes and how eventually they sequence themselves to perfection. In many ways this is a student's bible for film craft while establishing an august presence in the world of cinema.

“One must face the reality of life. The point in life is to live it.”
- Apu in Apur Sansar

The movie is the second part of Apu trilogy after Pather Panchali. In it Harihar arrives with his family in Benares after the death of his daughter and when the dilapidated house is ruined by rain. He ekes out a living at the banks of river Ganga as a priest where birth and death have an intermingled existence. Harihar's wife Sarbajaya continues to struggle in domesticity and to complete her misery, Harihar dies. She is forced to work as a part time maid. Fortunately she meets with a distant relative who invites her to his village where he trains Apu to become a priest. Apu joins the local school and turns out to be an outstanding student who would leave his mother for higher studies at Calcutta. His mother becomes increasingly isolated and falls sick. Apu returns home to learn that his mother is no more. Finally he packs his belongings to take the fight back at life.Ray’s adaptation of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhyay's novel was very specific in recreating its intrinsic qualities with a firm grasp on the Indian vision of life, death and the state of continuous flux where the human actors are seen in the middle of traveling. Rather than dwelling on the entirety, let me talk about three scenes that Ray composed to drive the point home.

Scene 1: Apu prances about at the ghat (river bank) among the teeming populace who came in to take a holy dip in the moving water and first hand brush with karmic cycles of life, death and penances in between. The camera slowly moves away from the family and languorously widens the scope of the frame to people indulged in various activities such as funeral rites and dips and then on to exercising wrestlers, static boats etc in medium shots. Camera then pans along ghat across and beyond the actions progressing in the foreground. You learn the concepts of the passage of time symbolized by the river, the montage of the discreteness of birth and death and their quantum effect in the grand scheme of life. All in a masterful composition created in the medium of cinema, besides the essentials of Hindu thought.

Scene 2: Harihar is dying. He asks for gangajal (holy water from the river Ganga). Apu is sent to the Ghat. He scampers through the alleys of Benares and before he runs back home, pauses a few moments to watch the wrestler exercising nearby. Cut to a shot where a dome hanging onto the edge of river with a large flock of pigeons gather and you sense the impending event. Sarbajaya lifts Harihar's head for Apu to pour water from the pail into his mouth. Harihar inhales the last breath and drops back on the pillow. Cuts back to the pigeons fly away in a sudden swirl and stir while the background score evoke an exact same effect. You learn that the death is but an infinitesimally momentary disturbance in the eternal flow of time. Also you sense the moral and political stance of his camera that stays engaged as a keen observer.

“Mother, do not call me from behind
Don’t let your tear fibrils tie my legs.

Tread back after the half shut door
These teary eyes don’t see any path.
These cursed times never end.”
- Balachandran Chullikad, Yathramozhi (Farewell)1

Scene 3: Apu leaves home for Calcutta in wonderment to discover the world beyond the rail tracks along the boundaries of village. He must tear himself from the old world and go through the painful process of transition which meant his mother once again is left behind. Even though she sports a brave face while preparing for Apu’s departure she is shaken by the impending desolation and solitude. Her health deteriorates even as a determined Apu labors through his night shift job at the printing press and intermediate course at the university. Apu stays back in Calcutta during a short recess and a haggardly Sarbajaya hovers by the door at the quadrangle of house, hoping her son would arrive.

The last train is seen whistling past from a distance. In her delirium she hears Apu’s voice. The camera stays still at a medium shot and then moves in for a close up of her expressionless face. Now she has a vision of her own death when the night at the front yard is set alight by a swarm of fireflies.

Ray gave us a classic and he kept the pedestal very high.

Note: 1. Noted Malayalam Poet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


There is this outline that envelops our being when someone views us. This outline is a function of the time space coordinates we meet in.

What if these are not the only dimensions that exist?

Will that not blow this outline away?

And recognise that there might be a continuum, rather than a discrete reality?

This exploration is what physicists and cosomologists explore.

Can it have any relevance to our day to day reality?

Is there a reference point within which is the observer? Who is that observer? and what does that observer see?

At what intersection does the observer collapse?

These are questions of identity, of self, and this exploration is probably the most exciting one there can be.

I welcome you to join us on this voyage of discovery. Others may have their own voyages but there will be paths we all cross.