Sunday, February 15, 2009

Just Another V-Day

I think it was somewhere in the 90s that the idea of the Valentine’s Day gained ground. From an innocuous day in history when a poor saint was executed for uniting lovers to becoming a momentous day in the battle between fanatics and liberals, it has been quite a journey for this day; as if love were not complicated enough. St. Valentine (may his soul rest in peace) would be horrified at the cultural spin that this day has undergone (especially in the Indian context).

Valentine’s Day is a wonderful corporate creation; a day when poor lovers shore up their pockets to celebrate a non-event and make money for the entertainment industry. The strategy was again put into use (initiated by World Gold Council, jewellers and banks) to make Akshaya Tritiya a religious event; who’s ever heard of the significance of buying gold on this day before the marketers gave it an auspicious spin?

Nevertheless, V-Day would have merely remained a day where lovers and wannabe lovers splurged money at the altar of love if not for the kind intervention of moral and religious guardians of this country, who want to protect the youth from evil forces. It is ironic that in their efforts to do away with the V-Day, they have unwittingly given it a fillip and so Feb 14th has suddenly come to represent a clash between 2 Indias (actually, there are many more Indias who are quite indifferent to this).So, Feb 14th every year is a now a media story where panelists discuss the Right to Freedom – the right to be in pink chaddis vis-à-vis the requirement to be in Indian dresses.

The definition of Indianess and Indian culture has become highly significant now. Groups like the Shiv Sena and the Sri Ram Sene have been bandying the word freely in all their interactions. Suddenly, Indian culture is a very homogenous term and the traditions are defined by Indian men who have a very narrow concept of nationalism and plurality.

So, wearing a sari and being a quintessential Bharat Mata (a figment of Hindi film industry) are Indian attributes while wearing jeans and going to pubs/bars render you un-Indian. With such narrow definitions of cultural nuances, is it any surprise that the guardians of culture have never thought beyond these silly symbols of Bharathiyatha?

Two things here –

Who defines what is Indian Culture, if there is something called an “Indian culture”? Is there something as amorphous as an Indian culture which actually dictates our way of life? Culture and society are terms that grow with time and vary across geographies. A Punjabi in the North has much more in common with the Pakistani than a Malayali like me scribbling my thoughts here?

Our dressing, social customs and are attitudes in life are largely shaped by our family and immediate society. In larger cities like Bangalore and Mumbai, where people from different languages and cultures work together, there is a greater mixing of these cultural aspects, which brings a beautiful heterogeneity. It is this heterogeneity that we have been taught to be proud of and celebrate.

Is it necessary to live by the so-called Indian culture? Even if by chance, someone does something which is not in sync with what is generally accepted and understood as Indian culture, does it give anyone the right to take law into one’s hands and attempt to institutionalize acceptable culture? Why is it necessary to live within these walls and subject oneself to rules which are of no significance to the individual? There is a dangerous cocktail of culture and nationalism being mixed and attempted to be force fed to people who oppose this.

As long as the Freedom to Expression does not infringe upon others’ rights, there is no reason why we cannot allow people to celebrate. I believe that Valentine’s Day is purely a commercial event but my conviction cannot prevent someone else from celebrating it. Bringing in the talk of Indian culture and traditions is just a ruse by these fringe organizations to publicize themselves.

Isn’t it ironical that something as silly as Valentine’s Day has become the rallying point for liberals in their fight against cultural nationalists? The Pink Chaddi campaign is smart, innovative and appealing but there is a real danger of creating the empowered women stereotype – the Modern Indian women who believes that going to bars and pubs is the way forward.

This does not in any way represent the educated women just the same way as the loony world of the Sena/Sene does not represent Indian culture. Ideological clashes lead to a polarity of thoughts many a times and it would be unfortunate if the real debate gets lost in the din of chaddis and saris.

A mature democracy allows a healthy debate among its various constituents and does not undermine the right to disagree with the majority. The Freedom to question, imagine and debate is an intrinsic part of our lives and if and when we lose the right to celebrate this plurality and freedom, the country becomes a mere geographical tract of land where boundaries are manned by aliens like Pramod Muthalik, who masquerade as Indians, protecting us from cultural attacks.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Celebrating the Slumdog

About 3 years back, as I stood at the Crossword Book Store in Powai, I picked up, for some unknown reason, an innocuous book called Q&A by an Indian diplomat, Vikas Swarup. The book had a rather incredible premise of a slum kid winning a Who Will Win a Billion Show and his story. It was an easy read and found its place in some remote corner of the house, meant for books that have a read and throw impact (Of course, it was a bestseller and translated into 14 languages).

Honestly, I’d never have thought about the book again if not for Danny Boyle making such a super hit out of it. I have been searching for the book in my house but no trace of it – it never made to my Best Read list and I think the same fate awaits Slumdog Millionaire, despite all the hype about it.

Cinematically, Slumdog Millionaire could not hold my attention for the entire span; it seemed like the Bollywoodisation of a Hollywood movie. The language and accent of the so-called “Slum dogs” put me off (this is not a fantasy movie that I had to believe in all this). Aren’t movies like Satya, Company and Black Friday more compelling in their outlook on Mumbai but then not being made in English means that these movies will never achieve the cult status of the Slumdog.

Other than Jamal Malik (the name in the novel was Ram Mohammed Thomas), most of the characters are either caricatures or have negligible screen presence and do not register in one’s mind. The romance also seemed pretty half-baked and seriously, did Freida Pinto actually become a celebrity for a movie where she has a blink and you will miss role? The story premise is definitely different but then merely being different is not a good enough strength.

The quizmaster, played by Anil Kapoor, is upset at a slum kid walking away with 20 million rupees (someone forgot to call it lakhs and crores) but if I were the producer of the show, I’d be tearing my hair at the quality of the questions – C’mon, how can the 20 Million Question be as simple as who is the Fourth Musketeer; I am sure they’d have this question in the elimination round of Paanchvi Pass? Jamal can recognize the man on the American dollar but not on the Indian Rupee!!!! Don’t even wonder how using a gun makes you know that Samuel Colt invented the revolver!!! Well, well, well, talk about being Lucky by Chance…

A R Rahman is, undoubtedly, a musical genius and we are all happy that finally, he has found recognition outside India. But there is no way that Jai Ho and O Saaya are going to wind up as Rahman classics; even after repeated hearing (imperative for Rahman’s scores), I am sorry to say that the songs have not made much of an impact on my musical psyche. Songs from Roja, Duet and quite a few of his Tamil movies top my list of all time Rahman Favourites; while the background scores of Thiruda Thiruda and Swades are probably unbeatable. How about nominating the music of Dilli 6 or Jodha Akbar for the Oscars this year?

Seeing Gulzar’s name being nominated for the lyrics did make for funny reading-after years of brilliant poetry, being nominated for an average song at an international level. The contrast between English and vernacular cinema never seemed so obvious. Of course, the last Oscar nominee has clearly reasons to be proud about – Rasool Pookutty has been nominated for sound engineering in the movie. Winning a technical award at an international level is serious business and this award is probably more significant..

Maybe, we are all just over reacting; the Academy Awards are not the Olympics. These are American awards nominated and voted by Americans while the rest of the world applauds the Big Brother doling out awards on the basis of what they make out of world cinema. There is also a perspective difference in our perceptions of this slum world vis-à-vis the West.

Danny Boyle in an interview to Anuradha Sengupta in CNBC TV-18 says that he sees “an incredible amount of energy in these slums” and is humbled “by their ability to survive against all odds”. When we look at these slums, how do we react to it? Most of us want to avoid them (I include myself here) and look at the city through the rosy, tinted glasses of our class. It is uncomfortable to see poverty, stench, people sleeping on pavements and children begging on the streets. This is the India that we want to avoid as we rush to our offices, oblivious of the plight of the people struggling at the other end of India.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of the West making money out of Indian squalor and poverty –c’mon, put money where you want and if people want to watch it, who cares. Quite a few people have been offended by this “slum tourism” that Boyle has marketed in his movie but it isn't all unreal, right? There is a massive underbelly that 20th Century India still carries which seems to offend perpetrators of the Modern Indian Economic Miracle, as seen in Karan Johar movies.

Rocking and Rising India is still loyal to the 80-20 Pareto principle and is not something that we can simply ignore. Ignorance cannot wish away the reality of a massive penury lurking underneath – funnily, this is not an underbelly but actually quite visible on the surface and Mumbai is probably the most conspicuous symbol of this.

Is it too much of a coincidence that as the world struggles in the midst of one of the biggest recessions that it has seen, the world of art and cinema has sought to honour Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, both works that look at India’s seamy underbelly with a somewhat no-holds barred approach.

Of course, The White Tiger is pretty dark and does not actually present any form of redemption to the reader while the Slumdog viewer goes back happily with the thought of the 2 lovers meeting finally and performing a dance to everyone’s satisfaction. Maybe, we should simply rechristen 2008 as the Year of the UnderDog or better still Year of the SlumDog………