Thursday, July 26, 2012

Kya Picchar Hai, Baap!

Disclaimer: I am currently in the process of educating myself on the subject of social responsibility & the artist by googling 'Social Responsibility & The Artist'. Until then, below are my thoughts.

A couple of years ago, I joined Bollywood in its outrage against then health minister, A. Ramadoss, who tried valiantly to get Indian courts to uphold a ban against showing smoking & drinking in films and on TV. I believed wholeheartedly in the idea that art's 'job' (if there is such a thing) is to reflect the world we live in, not tell the world how it should be. (I'm very allergic to the word 'should' and am currently on steroids to deal with the matter). A. Ramadoss became a joke, an object of revulsion even. He was The Man and we had to band together and fight against The Man.
Perhaps the fact that I enjoyed my whiskey & occassional smoke had something to do with this.

Then in the last few weeks, two film experiences made me do a full BJP-style, double-standard turnaround. Both films also came closely timed with horrible incidents of criminality that have outraged & horrified the general public. One film made me plain mad. The other made me confused.

The first was Cocktail, over which I have expressed great anguish on Twitter and this blog. First, and importantly, purely as a cinema goer, I was thoroughly bored by it. At one point in the film, someone got hit by a car, making it the only redeeming moment in a dull screenplay (that the victim did not die, was a severe disappointment). This complete disdain, then, facilitated my righteous rage about the stereotypes it perpetuated. At first, these stereotypes were simply annoying (read: Spot The Slut if you haven't already). But after the Guwahati incident, they went from being simply annoying to dangerous.
What took me from a state of being offended to scared was this: The film is marketed and packaged as a hip, young, cool & progressive story of love and friendship that is actually built on highly regressive values. Dressed up all nice and fancy, it's difficult to notice what a sexist, lecherous & frustrated douchebag Saif Ali Khan's character is or what a potentially powerful and moving character, Deepika Padukone's could've been in spite of being scantily clad. I saw an instant connect between the values exhibited in the film and the terrible acts committed in Guwahati. I'll admit, I wished the film had never been made.
Perhaps the fact that I hated the movie and not just its politics had something to do with this.

Last evening I watched 'The Dark Knight Rises' and from the first frame I was hooked. Purely, as a cinema goer, I thought the grammar & symmetry of how its characters, technology, writing, cinematography & editing came together made it a fantastic experience I wouldn't have wanted to miss. Then came the first big shootout scene and I looked away from the screen, towards the exit doors of the cinema hall. "Was this the scene, where Holmes came in on those unsuspecting people in Aurora?" I thought. I quickly banished the idea and turned back to the movie. But how does one turn back from that? How does one disregard the glamorously brandished automatic weapons in the scene, the sexiness of the deranged bad guy? Or not wonder if one is losing ones mind? 
What made me feel torn between the two states of exhiliration & morbid terror was this: The film skirted dangerously between fantasy & psycho-social reality (in fact all Nolan-directed Batman films do). I am used to comic superheroes being exaggerated characters in exaggerated situations (perhaps created as a reaction to prevalent social issues of their time...Who knows? That's my next topic to google.). When I walk away from George Clooney's Batman, it's simple for me to distinguish between him and the real people I meet in the world. 
But the Nolan films aren't content to remain in fantasy land - at least not psychologically, socially or politically. For me, the lines often got too blurry, too rapidly. Maniacal characters like Bane (and the Joker) weren't just comic villains - but people with subtexts & stories I could relate to all too easily. If I were just that much more insane than I am, would I have wanted to emulate them? So I'll admit, even though I enjoyed the film thoroughly, I wish it had never been made.

I still don't know where I stand on holding art responsible for triggering society's ills. Through all my ire at Cocktail or discomfort with The Dark Knight Rises, I have never called for curtailing the rights of either filmmaker to create what they want. If I have a serious issue with them, I would rather bitch, moan, blog, tweet and text all my friends not to see the films. The idea of blanket bans makes me uncomfortable, because so much of who I am today is informed by art that's considered dangerous by someone else. At the same time, I've experienced the double-standards of my own subjective impulses to accept one artistic piece as admirable and the other, not.
So am I looking to unleash my inner A. Ramadoss on anyone? Not any time soon.

But here's what niggles at me: Perhaps the fact that I'm neither that girl in Guwahati, nor an unfortunate victim trapped in a cinema hall in Aurora, has something to do with it.
Read also: Stupid For Art by Mark Mann

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Morning: A Short & Miserable Story

Last evening I went on a bender, which in old lady speak means I went to a nearly empty pub at 4 in the afternoon and after saying a couple of 'No no no, I can't drink - I have to drive. I can't drink - I've given up alcohol. I shouldn't drink because I'm trying to maintain my weight loss...', I gave in and had 6-8 pints of Budweiser.

Then I was punished for my lack of coolth by the stupidest hangover ever.
Of all the Sundays of the year, this had to be when my boss emo-blackmail-bullied me into attending a seminar that had nothing to do with work, just to suck up to the seminar organizer (who happens to a guy of immense coolth).
I'd been up for most of the night nursing my hangover (when you start drinking at 4 and end by 12, the hangover begins at 3am) and the head poundage and generally gross state of booze-sweatiness had succeeded in eliminating all traces of joie de vivre from my usually buoyant personality.

I staggered out of bed - not my bed, a friend's bed...I hadn't made it home (see I can still summon up some coolth) - at 7.30am, hoping to make a quick getaway and promptly bumped into friend's parents, who were happy to meet me after many months. Postponing plans of peeling off my grotty skin, I had to instead be nice & polite and talk to them. Meanwhile the humidity rose in proportion to the headache.

Made it out. Strapped into my vehicle, plugged in my ipod and Norah's promise of 'Happy Pills' helped me make it home in one piece. A quick shower & Ibuprofen and off I went to attend the lecture. At least the roads would be empty on a Sunday morning.

I got caught in the worst traffic jam ever. What kind of old lady hangover hell was this? Cars crawling like millipedes, creepy taxi-driver in the adjacent car trying to lean across and look down my shirt (for reals!), and the ever-exploding temples. By the power of Cumberbatch, I prayed, let me get out of here intact and un-hurled.

Intact is a relative term so let me just say, I reached, checked my pulse and was relieved to discover I was still alive. Onwards, warrior, onwards. And into a seminar hall with only 6 people in it! There would be no skulking to the back of the room and gently drifting off to sleep, while great science was discussed in the front of the class. Some pretense of attention-payment would have to be made. 

Luckily the speaker was the most boring sod in all the land. Not even my land, as it turned out. Japanese, with a thick Japanese accent and even thicker Japanese ppt slides ("I aporogize, I cannot make Engrish sride."). 

I tried valiantly to keep up - but not just in the interest of science. My boss, seated next to me, kept nodding off & sliding down his chair. Turns out there were two hangovers in the house and every so often, I would revenge-poke him awake with my pen. We strove on. The talk was all over the place but to my credit I managed to figure out its central theme of how mankind had smartypanted itself into hastening its own extinction and that if we were going down, we'd be taking everything else down with us.

As the clock ticked and the talk approached the 2 hr mark, I suddenly snapped awake and realised the purpose of this entire ordeal. This sequence of seemingly disconnected & pointlessly tortuous events was in fact leading up to a single moment of enlightenment. At first I thought it was God trying to show me to be stronger-willed, to push past the pain and emerge on the other side, having smashed through personal limits of endurance.

Turns out God just wanted me to know that when a Japanese person enunciates English words, chances are the Earth suddenly becomes the Arse.

It's On Amazon, Yo

Friday, July 20, 2012

Happy Birthday

There was a young man Cumberbatch
Who struck gold with a role perfectly match-
-ed. To his looks that could kill,
With mad Shakesperean skill,
Now even my Amma agrees he's a catch.

On Cynicism

I'm fascinated by cynicism. My own as much as that of others.
When I think about it I realise I'm most cynical about things that I've been upset about or suffered in a very real way (yes, you rapey people, I'm looking at you) but not actively participated in changing.

Then there are other projects of change I've actively participated in. For years and years I've pegged away at them, moving an inch when I 'should' have moved miles. I've been frutrated, exhausted and very dejected along the way. But now that I think about it - they've never made me cynical. I've never thought it was pointless just because I wasn't getting expected results.

Which makes me then think that being cynical has got to be the most boring thing on the planet.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Is A Guwahati? What Is A Goa?

Guest Post By Maya Ganesh

Today I walked down a lonely and very beautiful village road somewhere in Goa. On my left a quiet cove went shhhhhh, and on the other, the jungle rose like an iridescent fungus on the back of a red earth monster. I felt like I was in a magical forest of the kind you find in children's storybooks – anything is possible here and everything will enchant you. Houses lay hidden behind dense foliage lining the rain-slicked path through the magic forest. Stray dogs defended their territory like cowards do: all sound and fury. Old ladies in wrinkles and faded flower prints clutched their rosaries and smiled.

I'm muttering something to myself. Thoughts arise and vaporise. I think about how what we pray for changes. I'm praying to the jungle to bless me with fecundity of spirit. I ask to mirror the ritual of the sea in my return to writing every day. I pray for an awareness of beauty, which endures like the thin, grating whine of a window creaking in the night.

I think about friends who have moved here and what it means to live here, as opposed to just dropping in for a holiday. What is Goa, really? Where is it, what is the here that a tourist will never see?

My dusktime reverie is interrupted by the ache of an engine in the distance, one that becomes acute very quickly. They zip by leaving plastic fluttering and dust rising. Roughly three minutes later they speed by again and then come to an abrupt stop, swerving in the gravel in front of a shuttered 'Rock Roof Bar & ChillZzone'. I hear them but cannot see them for there is a bend in the road. I'm calm but aware that I'm going through a drill in my head.

Be alert.
Assess distance and speed of bike.
Assess pace, by comparison.
Try to remember where the houses and shops are along this windy, quiet road.
Locate phone in bag. Feel reassured that phone is in outer flap and not buried in voluminous but trendy Ladies Holiday tote.
Locate keys in bag for eye-jabbing if required.
Prepare adrenaline to R U N.

Don't be ridiculous, nothing will happen, I tell myself. I square myself and amble along. I have fought off and attacked attackers in a New Friends Colony park. I've spat at and clawed my way out of a mob of Holi-bhanged-up boys in Egmore. Nothing will happen that I cannot deal with. Thing is, I just don't want to have to deal with it. What I was actually feeling was monumental annoyance and peevishness (more than fear, actually) that the burden of management of this crime rested on me and that I'm supposed to be good at it. Prepare for the moment, manage it, manage the outcomes. By now I am very alert and grumpy, like I've had four espressos.

And then they come by again, this time grinning, the wind in their hair. Nothing will happen. A stray dog, a stray car, something will come roaring out and establish that I am not alone. Nothing will happen. They dismount and walk around seemingly aimlessly. They don't pull out their cellphones. They aren't really talking but they are looking at me. They fiddle with the drawstrings on their raincoats.

I know I'm being paranoid. I try to push away the headlines. Single Indian woman traveler found dumped in forest in Goa. Identified by tattoo and ridiculous T-shirt.

I'm writing this because of Guwahati, Gurgaon, Pune, Mangalore and Whereverpuram. I'm not particularly distressed by what happened in Guwahati, in a sense. I am fairly accepting of the fact that shit does happen and it stinks.

What does bother me is how we think about violence, not that we don't think about it enough, and how what we think about it informs how we consider responses to it. I tire of the breastbeating (no pun intended), the story-sharing and feel like there's something being pixellated out.

When yet another Gurgaon gang-rape occurred earlier this year, they pointed, as usual, to 'Jat culture' 'mall culture' and the predictable 'Western culture' bogey. Here is the thing. It is all also about Westernisation and Jat Culture but not in the way the blind brigade of the law, bigotry and bureaucracy see it. Westernisation as a reason for violence is fairly specifically sketched out as being made up of short skirts and late nights and bars; the oddest thing about this idea of Westernisation is that it is actually intended to serve as an antonym for something rarely articulated, something we seem less sure of:  Indian-ness. So Indian-ness is something that exists as an Other – if you are not a short-skirt-wearer then you must be Indian. Substitute short-skirt with bar/club/burgers/blender cocktails.

I'm talking about another version of Westernisation that lies uncomfortably with our Indian-ness. Gurgaon [Hinjewadi] [Electronics City] [Salt Lake] is the crucible where our rapacious (again, no pun) aspirations for 'development' have been forged, where our snaking desires for modernity and globality entwine with far older ties to create a knot of distress. How do we begin to understand what Gurgaon  is and the politics of its construction, physically, as a child of concrete in a land of toothless old farmers,  in the imagination and in public and urban aspirations? The hand that wants to tug at your hemline is the one that lovingly runs its precious-gems-to-ward-off-Shani encrusted fingers across the nameplate of a building called Mayflower or Oxford Greens. What are the multiple, confused and intersecting micro-economies of desire growing out of the plastic debris? How can you not expect that to transplant some San Diego lifestyle into the middle of Whitefield or Wherever is not going to have implications for what you think and feel your identity is? You may want to think I'm saying one thing is the cause of the other, but I'm not, actually, if you stop to think about it. There is a difference between correlation and causation. Neither am I saying that you shouldn't have some version of what some people tell [sell] you is a San Diego lifestyle. (“The only way I knew it was India was because of the servants”.) I think there is a particularly Indian brand of Shame Cream we smooth over all our desires. If the 1990s were about an excessive use of the word 'fusion' then it's time to actually think about what a tragic move that was, for we are, and always have been, hybrids.

Violence against women has always been around, it does however take on slightly different dimensions in Gurgaon, Guwahati and elsewhere. Think about the vast stretches of fairly empty road (at night) leading to and from Gurgaon, for one. How many bars are there in Guwahati and since when have women being going outside the house to drink? What kind of public dialogue do we have in this country around sexuality or alcohol or even just eating non-vegetarian food at a restaurant and hoping your parents and grandma won't find out? (There is an entirely different thread possible here about the first generation meat-eater and its collective responsibility for the irksome popularity of chicken everywhere).

'We demand justice for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators.' Who are these victims and perpetrators and what do they really want? Where does a sense of justice lie? How do we start to name and c0nnect with the girl who is clearly uncomfortable with her short skirt but has to wear it for work?  In today's Times of India Page 3 supplement I see Rinki, Gina, Tommy, Aseem, Riccie, Anamika flash-photographed at a party with drinks in their hands, looking sheepish, constipated and just downright uncomfortable. Who are these people and what is that combination of excitement and shame they're going to feel the next morning? Who are the boys in their scuffed, wheezing Maruti Zens pumping out Himesh Reshammiya remixes through their tinted windows? Who is this brazen gay boy in his tight pink t-shirt and zircon ear studs (three!)  flaunting his hypersexuality?  Who are these uncle-auntys who want their children to bring in call-centre/medical transcription firm/telemarketing salaries? What will this mean for their marriage prospects? Who is this Dalit boy who wants to conquer the world but is made to feel he has a place at the table? What does it mean to be urban, to share space, to experience difference? What is a Guwahati? What is a Goa? We have not even begun to unravel these questions and they're all connected to how we think about violence in public spaces.

We must know ourselves in these Goas and Guwahatis even as we learn to identify victims and perpetrators. Most of us in these public spaces are desiring, and desirable, consumers, and citizens. Some consumers are also 'the masses'. Not all of the masses are citizens. Our identities are complicated enough by caste and class and religion and now we must also negotiate a new set of identities borne of our aspirations, the market, globalisation and geopolitics. We have some fluffy notion of agency in our cities, our marketplaces, our voting booths and in front of our mobile phone cameras. We want our sushi and we want Mika remixes thudding off our mojitos and chili paneer manchurian crostinis. We like our short skirts and big AC cars. We want Crocs and iThings. We want our mod-cons, our glittering Karwa Chauth parties, we want urban efficiency, clean streets and clean politicians. We feel like we have choices. And yet we do not feel that we have enough of a sense of entitlement to question to what these choices are about, who served them up and what it means to actually choose. 

I spent the first seven years of my career at a Violence Intervention Centre and in retrospect I feel like we rarely reached out into a broader sort of imagination around talking about violence. Our advocacy tended to be reactive and involved demands to be heard. No one was listening. Our words didn't connect. We were sometimes shrill and that is because it was all incredibly frustrating and dispiriting. A language of rights is no place to begin when you ignore one set for another, or when you fail to see that rights to multiple rights exist within the body of the same person. 

Last night my friends brought up Harassmap and there's something new in Delhi that has been inspired by it. I've profiled and spoken with the creators of Harassmap and initiatives like it form one part of my work at Tactical Technology Collective. I have to disagree with an Indian spinoff of Harassmap. I don't think a crowdmap is enough. In Cairo there was an unwillingness to acknowledge street based violence so Harassmap was something of a revolution.  In urban India, we need something beyond Harassmap. Delhi is not Cairo.We know what happens here, we even have shaky, ridiculous laws about it that have been around a long time.  A map is a flat representation of something discovered and known. I believe that there is a psychological and cultural landscape we're traveling but haven't begun to really explore.

Maya Ganesh (@mayameme) is the Evidence & Action Program Director at Tactical Technology Collective. Views expressed here are personal. 

Other things to check out:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's a great day on the internet when something this ridonkulous:

...leads to something this lovely:

*music by Sebastien Tellier

Monday, July 16, 2012

Imma Stop You Right There My Friend

Have a look at this very interesting PSA on women's safety sent out by the Delhi Police via the well-meaning Farhan Akhtar:

For simple folk like me who'd rather not hit 'repeat play' on videos of sexual violence committed in this country (specially since a sizable majority of us have experienced such horrors in varying degrees in our own lives), it's easier to focus on smaller matters.
Like when Farhan makes this case for us: Woman are, by virtue of being daughters, mothers, sisters and wives (but not mistresses, whores or bosses), exempt from being assaulted. 
And as daughters, mothers, sisters and wives (but not mistresses, whores or bosses) women must also take charge of their own safety. 
Because, you know, shit happens.

Watching this ad (during a welcome break from the film 'Cocktail', where the 'broken', alcohol drinking, pre-marital sex having, white-man kissing woman doesn't have a hope in hell of securing a happy ending), riled me up a bit. Well, more than just a bit. More, even, than that disgusting Guwahati video doing the rounds (it's funny how we're uncomfortable listening to a woman talk about being raped or assaulted but we'll have the video of it go viral in 2 days).
Because here's the case I'd have preferred Farhan to make: Woman are, by virtue of being human (and not inanimate objects), exempt from being assaulted.
And as human beings (and not inanimate objects) women must also take charge of their own safety. 
Because, you know, sexual violence is vile and absolutely unacceptable in civilized society.

Deepak points out (I'm guessing with regard to lines like 'Zulm karna ya sehna, dono gunah hai' line): "If I were in your shoes, I'd bring up the point of false equivalence: That perpetrating sexual assault is nowhere the same as being a victim of it."

Also check out this fun, fun, fun anti-street harassment video: Shit Men Say To Men Who Say Shit To Women On The Streets  

Then if you have the time, do read Natasha Badhwar's gut wrenching piece on sexual violence here. It truly struck a chord.

And finally, if you must know, read why Cocktail pissed me off so badly


After nearly a lifetime of experiencing and surviving some very unpleasant instances of sexual harassment & violence, I've come to the conclusion that I want to focus on the little things now: PSAs like the one talked about above, a seemingly innocuous mainstream film, a comment here, a grope there, the gentle banter of 'this happens, yaar' passed along like a frisbee at a picnic - it's here, in the tiny details that I find the seeds of the biggest crimes. To me, it's all connected and I can't just chill out about it. It might make me unfun for a while but you know what's really unfun? Molestation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Behenon, What Is This Bakwas?

Us Indian women have many, many pressing problems to overcome before we can claim to be emancipated in any way, shape or form: Female infanticide, dowry, lack of education, unequal pay, sexual harassment, domestic violence, auntyjis nagging us to get married/ have babies etc.

But let's start small. Let's start with this new and obnoxious upper middle class import from the Western porn industry: Twat waxing. Somewhere between my teens and thirties, this ridiculous bit of tomfoolery took on manic popularity and now mine might possibly be the last generation of women (who can afford to spend unseemly amounts of cash in a single day at the salon) whose nether regions can be distinguished from that of a 6 month old.

As my new heroine, Caitlin Moran writes in 'How To Be A Woman':

" I can't believe we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a fanny. They're making us pay for maintenance & upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's stealth tax. Fanny VAT. This is money we could be spending on THE ELECTRICITY BILL and CHEESE and BERETS. Instead we're wasting it on making our Chihuahuas look like a skanky Lidl chicken breast. God DAMN you, mores-of-pornography-that-have-made-it-into-my-pants. GOD DAMN YOU.

" 'But what about underarm hair? people will say - usually 40-something men (and guilty looking women who in their heart-of-hearts can't quite reconcile to their twat-baldness themselves - AqSt), who look uncomfortable when you use phrases such as 'lovely big Hair Bear Bunch-style minge' and then are downright alarmed when you bring porn into it.

" 'If you don't believe in Brazlians, do you shave your armpits? Do you shave your legs? And your eyebrows? You look like you pluck to me. What about your lady moustache?'

" And then they sit back, a little smug - as if they have just put a sausage roll in the bottom of the trapping pit and are fairly confident you're about to go in after it, and be captured.

" But the crotch, the upper lip and armpit are miles apart - well, on an average 43 cms apart. What happens to them, and why, is wholly different - primarily because armpits aren't intimately associated with sexual maturity or, indeed, sexuality at all, unless you're on some seriously specialist websites."

To this I would add: OUCH. Ladies, seriously? How does the brief twinge of pain on your upper lip when a tiny hair is uprooted, compare with the Spanish Inquisition-style torture in your pants that lasts for at least 24 hrs? How does a small razor nick on your calf stand up to the various grotty rashes that may pop up in your crotch as a result of allowing burning hot wax in its vicinity? Who are you doing this for? And would he/she really stop wanting you if you didn't? (If the answer is yes, you have bigger troubles than your fuzzy crotch.)

I won't lie to you. Somewhere in my 31st year, I had a serious sit-down with myself and wondered if I was doing something wrong by not going the way of all Brazilians. I seemed to be in a dwindling minority. Close friends were doing it, intelligent women. Was I missing something? The affection of a new-age desi boy, who, growing up in a sexually-repressed society like ours, expected women to look like the only ones he'd seen naked (porn stars)? The joyous experience of unveiling my cooch in front of a strange woman at the salon, every couple of weeks? 
Then I realised I was sitting down. Comfortably. And that sort of clinched it for me.

But I suppose at the end of the day, it isn't so much the mowing - how much or how far - that needs to be snipped down to an exact science. It really is about asking ourselves why we want to do it and whether we really want to do it at all. Are we in any way being coerced into this? Can we present ourselves with a logical argument that resonates honestly within us? If yes, by all means singe your pubic nerve-endings and you won't hear a peep out of me. But if there is any sort of shame or societal compulsion accompanying your decision, I'd urge you to reconsider. Look down at your darling beaver, appreciate its fuzzy goodness and then, stand up for it.