Thursday, November 07, 2013

That Day After Everyday: A Commendable But Flawed Effort

Since December 2012, when the brutal Delhi gang rape (and murder) shook India, discussions of violence against women (VAW) have not only gone mainstream but taken on a new urgency. Television slanging matches, social media debates, miles of newsprint, and of course the generally ridiculous statements from political and religious leaders have shone a not particularly flattering light on the state of women in the country.  It is in the context of this renewed discussion that Anurag Kashyap's short film That Day After Everyday  (see film above) was released earlier this month.

An aside: I wonder if we should count the short, despite its online release, as the director's 'Diwali release' (to use that much hyped term). In purely audience terms, it has certainly garnered the eyeballs necessary to count as a success! 

Kashyap has long made 'realist' cinema his signature (with caveats of course), depicting a gritty, dark reality of India, often ignored by more mainstream 'Bollywood' directors. In many ways, his films are heirs to the 70s 'parallel' cinema, apparently more 'intellectual' as opposed to the 'fluff' produced by the industry. Just to be clear, this is not my classification or description but a distillation of commonly held and aired views by film critics and scholars about Kashyap's oeuvre as well as 'Bollywood' vs 'parallel'/alternative/new/multiplex cinemas. In my own view, over the past century of Indian cinema, the 'fluff' makers have often better, more insistent and regular at engaging with complex social concerns than many self-conscious 'parallel' film-makers, and with the added advantage of reaching a wider audience. However, that is a discussion for another time.

That Day After Everyday, as much of Kashyap's work, has high production values. The camera work is stellar, adding to both the sense of claustrophobia as well as fear of the protagonist. His use of mobile phone cameras to capture digital stalking of the women highlights the sense of micro-violations that is a daily experience for Indian women (and yes, I will not 'caveat' that - it is a rare Indian woman who has not experienced sexual harassment, gender-based intimidation, micro-aggressions and violations. And that rare woman will have to live in rarified socio-economic atmosphere available only to the likes of the country's super-elite such as Priyanka Gandhi). The constant sounds comprising of horrific news reports of VAW, crass comments by various colleagues, casual sexist comments by family members are effectively utilised. The actors are uniformly good with special kudos to Radhika Apte, the protagonist. The costumes, make-up, setting all signal a 'realist' non-glamourised, non-Bollywood world, similar if not the same as the one inhabited by most Indian women. Then there is the script, tightly structured with a couple of sharply etched and readily recognisable lead characters. Written by Nitin Bhardwaj, it works well to create the claustrophic, sinister lives circumscribed by casual sexism and persistent micro-violations.

So far so good. But then come the discomforting moments: the film ends with the harassed women fighting back (after getting trained in self-defense). While this makes for a suitably feel good moment, it also feels cliched and for a Kashyap film, surprisingly 'Bollywood.'  I must also say that I found the fight sequences less than convincing, as Kashyap seems to jettison all rules of self-defense and hand-to-hand combat to grant his 'heroines' their 'feel good' victory. Really? A knuckle duster? Which is seized by the opponent before even the first contact and then thrown away? The 'victory' such as it is feels contrived and unrealistic. Given the gritty realism Kashyap brought to Gangs of Wasseypur, Gulal or Dev D, the fight sequence and its conclusion feels gauche and heavy handed.

Then there is 'Didi' (played by Sandhya Mridul), the woman who apparently teaches the protagonist and her friends self-defense. I suppose there is some comfort to be gained in the non-heteronormative way she has been represented: short hair, 'butch' clothes, cigarettes. In my more sympathetic moment, I thought of her as a hopeful representation of female queerness in Indian cinema. But then I wondered why does a character bending gender-norms have to be represented by simplistic and reductionist masculinization? Why is her body language so gendered and in such cliched ways? Why did she remain in the background during the fight? There is a clever but unexplored cinematic moment as Didi and the husband stand on two ends of the fight, watching the harassers-turn-avengers. That tiny moment could have opened news ways of representing and seeing female characters; instead it re-inforces the masculine gaze that the film fails to subvert. Finally, she left me wondering if even our best 'alternative' filmmakers are open to considering gender and sexuality in ways that are not caricatured and stereotypical.

But the discomfort does not end there. The film ends on a 'humorous' note - of the demanding, sexist husband now cowed by his 'warrior' wife into making her tea on the morning after the fight. And yet this scene is heavy with tragedy as he asks her about the amount of sugar she prefers, indicating yet again that despite his new (temporary?) demeanour, he has made little or no effort towards the marriage. For Kashyap and the film, fear, not affection, and definitely not choice, appears to be the only motivation for men behaving kindly, gently, humanely towards women!

The ending in many ways encapsulates the problems I have with this film: in guise of making an inspirational short, the film peddles age-old victim-blaming narratives, this time from the other end of the spectrum. If the family members in the filmic text tell the women to not fight back as a way of avoiding sexual harassment, the film seems to assert that the only way to not be harassed is to fight back physically. In both cases, the onus is squarely on the women who are the victims of harassment. There is never any mention of the perpetrators, nor is there any real critique of them at any point in the film. The implicit message seems to be 'men are brutes that women must protect against.' That is a bizarrely regressive message from a director lauded for his 'progressive' films!

The film also individualises any fight back against VAW. Yes, by the end, the particular goons who have been beaten up may have learned the lesson against sexual harassment, but as any woman who has navigated public spaces in India can explain, there is no end to men who have not been taught that lesson by a mythical 'warrior' woman. There is no space in the filmic narrative to consider what happens to women who can't fight back, or if the same heroic protagonists are faced in the future by a new set of thugs. There is no understanding that the solution to VAW is not individualised punishment meted out by the state or citizens but rather structural changes in how women are perceived and valued.

Worse still, the film takes the simplistic route of equating class with VAW, and thus the 'fight back' is limited to the drunken thugs on the street, but not the men - both in the women's housing society and in the office - with cameras whose micro-violations are just as terrifying, sickening and unacceptable. Nor is the fight back aimed at the family members who are party to the embedded sexism and discrimination that aids and abets VAW.  As a result, Kashyap's protagonist, having learned self-defense can fight off goons on the street, but will stay in a loveless marriage where her husband can only muster up basic acts of sharing and affection (such as making tea) as a result of fear. There is in fact not the smallest attempt to even reference the structural aspects of gendered violence.

A corollary of this simplification is to set up men and women as irreconcilable antagonists, locked in fear and violence. Furthermore, in presenting a uni-dimensional view of men as predators or cowardly enablers, the film serves Indian men ill. Surely Kashyap can imagine a wider range of masculinities? Worse still, with the sole older woman in the film replicating and repeating misogynist narratives while the younger women battle alone, the film appears to set up VAW as a problem only for young and attractive (even if un-made-up) women. Thus the film repeats the long-held but false corollary of rape and VAW being about sexual desire rather than about power, and as such undermines its own intent, message and effectiveness.

I realise that the points raised here may well be rebutted with "it's only a short film." But even twenty one minutes are ample in hands of a sensitive, thoughtful filmmaker to make a truly revolutionary point. Perhaps if Kashyap had considered his film on the Bechdel test, he would have come up with a different story line, viewpoint and characters. Or perhaps if he had remembered his own varied cinematic examinations of contemporary Indian masculinities, the film would have had a different slant. Given Kashyap's skill and intelligence, I look forward to another film that can fully deploy his directorial skills towards making a truly inspirational film about the topic...of the current filmmakers in the country, he is one of the most capable of doing so.

Till then, I suppose we should be grateful for the scraps that India's artists throw out towards concerns of gender discrimination and VAW.

PS: I really wish this film had been subtitled. It seems a sadly inward looking to release a film with international appeal, and online, without allowing non-Hindi speakers access to it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Casual Bigotry and Daily Living

Initially this was a post I was planning on every day sexism, but as a woman of colour, and despite the many mainstream press articles by leading neo-imperialist feminists about how intersectionality does not exist, my experience as a woman is often exacerbated by the way I experience the world because of my visible racial markers and my not-so-visible sense of self that has been shaped (and continues to be) by individual and structural responses to those racial markers. So instead I am left trying to address a complicated intersection of casual bigotry - both misogyny and racism - that I experience on daily, painfully destructive, basis. These micro-aggressions come fast and furious on a quotidian basis. For most part and on most days, I like many of us utilise the myriad of coping strategies and move on. But then...there is always that one, slightly vulnerable moment, when the defenses are down, or perhaps just the micro-aggression is a little less micro and more socially sanctioned. In those moments, suddenly and without warning, all coping strategies fail and one is left feel as isolated, marginalised and devalued as ever. Then the casual bigotry stops being casual, and suddenly grows again into the destructive, horrific, nasty force it always has been.

We often talk of bigotry - both racial and misogynist - in overt terms: names called in the playground or street, laws enacted to limit our freedoms, safety, dignity, histories of structured discrimination and centuries of complex and Hydra-headed narratives that enable it. And for many of us who live the daily experience of bigotry, as a woman or a person of colour, or in that double-whammy, as both, we know that we have continuous legal, political, economic, social battles to fight, and struggles that continue regardless of how long we have been fighting. But there is another sort of bigotry that many of us face, probably more frequently, one that is more insidious, damaging and soul-destroying. It is also more prevalent and harder to counter.

This sort of bigotry is not as easy to counter with intellectual debates on structures of power. Nor is it as terrifying and upsetting as slurs or shouted abuse on the streets. Or as physically harmful as hate-motivated physical violence. It is far more subtle and insidious. And perhaps because it is none of the above, it is the one we often are taught no strategies to counter.

As a young girl, I was taught about personal safety, specially in face of sexual harassment or assault. The men and women in my family were enlightened or informed enough to teach me the four key points to strike in case I were attacked. I was taught, perhaps more than most women, how to yell out, attract attention, make an escape. I was even taught how to speak up and seek support both from family and friends, and from the law. Unfortunately, the first time I faced sexual harassment, none of these lessons helped at all. You see, it wasn't a stranger on the street, with a scary mask and police record. The attempted assault came from someone we knew socially, was part of my parent's social circle, and occurred in a house inhabited by family friends. Suddenly, hitting hard or yelling to attract attention didn't seem like applicable or effective strategies.  I remember removing myself from one part of the crowded room to another, running into another teenage friend who giggled nervously about 'groping hands' and feeling utterly powerless. And yet in some ways, the social groper is still an overt phenomenon, one you can fight against in a range of ways...personal and social.

But how do you cope with embedded prejudice that shows up not only in a host of ways that are not only socially acceptable but also socially sanctioned and enabled by everyone around you? For me, and for many others, there is a social ritual: we walk into a gallery, book launch, literary talk, and we smile while we are consistently and repeatedly othered, devalued, dehumanised by those who are holding forth.

Yes, rape jokes in comedy clubs are a part of this experience as are literary events where 'witty' writers are lauded and applauded for their use of language while their misogyny is enabled by that same appreciation. Subtle valuing of male opinions over female ones, especially on 'big' topics such as economics, politics, war, are part of this casual sexism.  Here race gets a slightly better hand: thankfully racism disguised as wit is not nearly as acceptable these days, at least in overt ways. However, racism cloaked in more subtle forms walks the same polite spaces: what many race activists call 'white saviour complex,' is rife in the more polite parts of Western capitals as is an embedded Eurocentrism that values certain narratives, experiences, histories over others. It often manifests itself with 'amusing' personal anecdotes about travels abroad or apparently unself-conscious tales about 'foreigners' (the key to this is the implicit 'othering' with its corollary of exoticising, devaluing and dehumanising the foreigner). It shows up in academic studies including scientific ones that extend and reiterate reductionist views and stereotypes, often in guise of 'study.'  It shows up in the choice of approved cultural informers, be they journalists, writers, artists, who can and do restate older dominant narratives rather than challenging or subverting them (and are rewarded for the subservience).  It also shows up in virile defensiveness when the othered dares offer an opinion that is contrary to the accepted, popular one.

For the 'othered', this subtle socially sanctioned form of bigotry is much harder to counter. As a woman, I can call out misogyny in my writing, in my classes, and in public fora. Yet when faced with persistent casual sexism in social situations, I have no recourse. At a recent literary event, I sat feeling utterly repulsed not only by the speaker's casual misogyny but also by the laughter around me that enabled the speaker's continued and cherished belief that he were merely exercising his 'wit.'  At the end, the only act of resistance available for me was my decision to not buy his book (even though that is usual form in this particular forum) and thus register a silent, personal and most likely unnoticed dissent. Had I called him out on his sexism, I know exactly how the conversation would have unfolded: it would start with a vehement denial of the prejudice, followed by rallying of support from surrounding similar minded people, and ended with accusations hurled at me for lacking humour or worst yet, that ultimate social poison, 'being difficult' (sometimes the order of these changes slightly or all three are simultaneously taken up).

As a woman, I know from experience that I am supposed to 'play nice' or be punished with professional, social and personal repercussions in face of such subtle, socially enabled misogyny. After all, terms like harridan, harpy, bitch have all been created for and deployed against women who are socially inconvenient. As a person of colour, I am even more aware that any attempt to point out socially embedded, accepted and enabled racism - either structural or individual - marks me as the 'angry' one, the one who cannot be 'trusted to behave appropriately in polite society' that I have been let in to as reward for 'good behaviour' (as in not challenging the prejudiced narratives and actions).  The punishment for not playing nice is grim and has social, professional and personal repercussions...after all any token 'other' is easy to replace by a more amenable one!

Yet the price for living with such casual bigotry is immense. Despite the decades that have passed, I find myself seeking solace in repeated readings of Franz Fanon, if only to remind myself that the constant sense of feeling conflicted is neither a new nor solely my experience. I find myself questioning myself on a daily basis whether I am enabling the rife and casual bigotry by not taking a more active stance in challenging it. And yet, I also know that I am unwilling to pay the social, professional, personal price for a more aggressively dissident stand. On good days, I tell myself that I am working from within the beast, that every time I survive a micro-aggression, that every time I make it back to the safety of my mind and home, I am fighting the good fight. On bad days, I find myself wondering if I am a modern version of the 'house slave' (or the ayah, the collaborating Maharajah, the Macauley's elite) who help sustain the edifices of prejudice by participating in them for the lure of the dregs from the master's table.  And on both sort of days, I find myself angry at the invisible privileges that ensure that I shall remain on the margins, regardless of all I work toward and/or achieve. And on all days, I am reminded consistently that there is no escape for the likes of me! 

Saturday, April 06, 2013

A Writer's Toolkit: Thoughts on Writing

Finishing a novel and starting research on a new non-fiction book within the past six months has made me acutely conscious of my own writing process and how it has evolved over the past years of publishing. Much of it has been a case of trial and error, and often just serendipity. Like many who accidentally stumble upon a winning (or at least working) formula, I have learned my process mostly on the fly but repeated and refined whatever seems to work. Many of these lessons now make up my writer's toolkit, and are essential to both my process and product.

Over the years, I have figured out my writing process and honed my craft. When I was writing my first novel, I was convinced that I needed the 'bohemian' life that went with - at least in my mind - with the art of fiction. So I cloistered myself, wrote through the night, sleeping only after the sun had risen high into the sky, and drank a lot of whisky. In my own mind, I was following in the footsteps of the greats, although mostly just punishing my liver with suitable determination. 

Once the manuscript was done, I had to gingerly return to the real world and mundane things like making a living. I remember the strangeness of those first few months of re-entering the world: I had lost the ability to have normal social conversations and needed to remember basic social skills. I could either not speak at all or would chatter incessantly, with words spilling out in generally an incoherent jumble. Although I did not recognise this at the time, I was also recovering myself as an individual from all those people who had long lived in my brain (but more on this later). 

Worse though was the depression that followed, which I initially blamed on the rejections from publishers I was rapidly accumulating.  It wasn't until nearly a year later that I realised that the depression had a more basic reason:  for the first time in my life, words had deserted me.  At the first sight of a blank sheet of paper, my mind wiped out into nothingness. I could not even write a basic message on a birthday card! As someone who has always relied on words as if it were oxygen, those were terrifying times, especially as I wondered if I had run out of words, whether I had only ever had one book in me and could and would never write another.

At the end, despite looking for professional help, it was words that saved me. An editor friend insisted that I produce something, anything, for her magazine, publishing even writing exercises that often took me days to shape and form. Her insistence that I meet deadlines forced me to write, pushed me to use the exhausted word-producing muscles that I had given up on. Then just as the novel found a publisher, I was asked to write a book on single women in India

Suddenly, just as I was recovering my facility with words, I had a big project. But there was no space to write it, living as I was with family, siblings, and a very large dog in a small Delhi flat. That fantasy writer's 'bohemian' life was going to be impossible if I were to deliver the book. But as my dad reminded me, "न नौ मन गेंहू होवे  न मीरा उठके नाचिहे " (As there will never be nine maund (Indian measure of weight) of grain, so Meera shall never rise to dance), a Hindi proverb emphasising that there are never ideal conditions for any action.  So I wrote my second book, still mostly at night, with a fifty kilo Rottweiler snoring at my feet and aided by copious cups of hot tea. Slowly but surely, I was learning the most important lesson of all: that writing was a discipline and a demanding one, not a lifestyle choice.

It was also the first time I noticed the cleansing powers of non-fiction. As I finalised the book, the idea for my next novel had already taken hold. I began the initial writing even as I was promoting the book on single women, writing in my parents' house in the hills, in my cramped Delhi flat, even on noisy train journeys to-and-fro as we prepared to move out of India. In my parents' house, my father and I spent hours weeding the lawns, working in companionable silence, while my mind filled itself again of characters and plots and vast colourful universes.  And then came the strange switch: even as I worked on the early stages of the novel, I moved to Barcelona. 

There I was! Finally! I was living my dream of truly being the 'writer', living in Europe, drinking loads of wine, talking about art and literature and philosophy on the beach and in little cafes, fully living the 'bohemian' life that I was sure all great writing needed as nourishment.  Strangely, my second novel is more truly 'Indian,' set for most part in a village that is much like the ones that my ancestors built generations ago. It seemed as if I could summon up India better once I was removed from its quotidian pressures and realities.  And yet something had changed: I no longer wrote at night, or at least, not late at night. Instead, I worked in the afternoons, took a break for socialising over tapas and wine, then returned before midnight to write till about three in the morning.

This time when I finished the novel, I was prepared for the familiar depression. Or rather I recognised the inevitable moment of complete devastation for what it was: overwhelming grief for the end of a project that had occupied my mind for years. A friend explains that the process of finishing a book is much like getting a divorce, or ending a relationship, with the same complexity of emotions. After all, a writer lives with a book more completely while it is in progress than most humans do with each other. Sometimes, I think that perhaps the sadness many writers feel at birthing a novel is not dissimilar from post-partum depression: one is expected to celebrate and rejoice but the exhaustion, loss of control, and fear are often more overwhelming. 

I had also been careful to not isolate myself from people during my second novel so the return to society was not nearly as disorienting as before. However, it did made me realise that my judgement about people is completely shot while I am writing: my own decisions about likes and dislikes are so over-ridden by characters in my head that I found myself wondering how I had ended up befriending people with whom I had little in common. "You just test out your characters on people" my siblings insisted, rather unfeelingly and despite my protests. Sadly I have grown to realise that they are right. It doesn't just stop there: my tastes in music and reading, hobbies, even the style of dressing changes with my characters, making me appear either fragmented or just attention deficit. And this is before I begin to have entire conversations about my characters who are - in the moment of writing - more real to me than people I know and see. Sentimental, nostalgic pronouncements on the lines "X would so love this wine/dessert/exhibition," where X is completely fictional are something my closest friends have grown inured to. 

At least, I have learned that I either have great survival skills or am madly lucky as I also acquire a lot of friends during the writing process who can cope with my dysfunctional behaviour. Indeed, some of my best friends have been made while I was deep in throes of the creative process, a testimony perhaps to their generosity or foolhardiness (or more likely, both).

Fortunately, experience had taught me skills needed to face the post-novel depression. Within months of finishing of my second novel, I moved countries (again) and began a PhD, throwing myself into research about things I knew nothing about.  Once again, the nonfiction worked to clear my head, this time more consciously. But more importantly, juggling a full time job and PhD ensured that my writing discipline got more focussed, perhaps even ascetic.  Writing late into the night was no longer possible. Neither were erratic hours and other bits of bohemia.  So instead I began writing when I could: holidays, days off, weekends, even on the tube as I commuted back and forth from work.  The thesis took up so much time that I could not think of novel-universes, so instead small miniature worlds were born in my mind, taking shape as short stories, forcing me hone my craft. From the large canvases and Pollock-like frenzy, I was forced to take up a the tiny frame and single hair brush of Indian miniatures.  I struggled, splashing like an over-sized fish caught in a tiny bathtub, but slowly I adapted, began to control my abilities, learning new skills, polishing my fiction with the obsessive precision only miniatures can provide. 

And once again, even as I finished my phd, the idea for a new novel had taken hold, germinating, growing silently as I referenced, cross-referenced, and indexed. As I defended my thesis, my mind was already full of a new world, of characters drawn as finely as in a miniature but inhabiting a world as complex and full as a large canvas. Writing short stories has made my writing sparser, more restrained, and that changed my novel, making it equally restrained. For the first time in all my years of writing, I felt that I had some control over my craft.  Moreover, for the first time I wrote as a professional, with a clear knowledge of the end result and full awareness of the discipline.  My writing time now begins early in the morning, followed by a swim, and then work. For the duration of the writing the novel, I felt more like a marathon runner than the bohemian, pushing myself to draw on all my experience, skill, stamina, and strength. 

I was ready for the downer that finishing my novel would inevitably bring although I had prepared for it mentally. But this time it didn't happen! Don't get me wrong, I am still struggling with words - this blog post is intended to force myself to write something, anything. I have again realised that I have been living in a creative haze - albeit far more controlled - and many new acquaintances are baffled by the changed persona.  It is invigorating to see art, read books, hear music for myself and not from within the skin of my characters. And once again, I have another project - a non-fiction book that will require vast amounts of research, and shall cleanse my mind for more fiction. More importantly, I don't feel the need to move countries just to find excitement to help overcome my post-writing depression.

It has been a long journey to this space, to where I feel like I have some (although not nearly enough) control of my craft and much awareness of my creative process. I no longer have to fear that I will run out of words or ideas, just because I have finished a major project. I have an endurance athlete's discipline in terms of writing and have increasingly realised that I need to be physically as healthy as my mind if I am to ensure that I keep writing for many years to come. This has sadly meant the demise of my 'bohemian' fantasies but perhaps that is not necessarily bad.  Finally, I am grateful that I have enough people in my life who not only acknowledge but support my forays into the creative universe even when they don't quite understand them.  All of these are, I have only now learned, essential for the writer's toolkit. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Hundred Years of Indian Cinema: First Favourites List

As many of you cinephiles already know, 2013 celebrates Indian film industry's centenary, marking a hundred years since Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra was first released. I hope to write other pieces during this year on the evolution of Indian cinema but as I began thinking about film-making in India, I realised that many of my favourite films don't make it to the 'big' lists compiled by film critics and mainstream media.  So in this post, I decided to list some of my own favourites.

It is worth noting that this first list is made up entirely of commercial Hindi cinema - with its rather awful short hand, Bollywood - and not all cinema from India, as the country has multiple industries in multiple languages, each with its own canon of film conventions, milestones and texts.  The list is also weighted heavily towards the last forty years of cinema, reflecting perhaps my own location in time and a generational shift. Unlike many film scholars who write about Indian cinema's 'golden ages' of the 1930s or 1950s, I firmly believe that 1970s threw up some amazing films, stars and film-makers, all of which have received less attention than they warrant. Moreover, we have not stopped making great films a hundred years later, despite the overwhelming narrative of nostalgia that many of our filmmakers, critics and scholars repeat incessantly. Finally, the best Hindi films of the past century have not been necessarily 'art-house' or parallel or independent cinema, but often the purest form of commercially driven, blockbuster enterprise.

I have to say that picking this list was particularly difficult as I could come up with ten favourite films within all of ten seconds. However, this first list makes up the films I can not only watch as a film fanatic but also those texts that leave me wondering about technical and stylistic choices of the films themselves, and make me want to place these cinematic texts in their social, political, cultural contexts to understand the processes that informed such cultural production. I also wanted to stay off the usual list of 'greats' although you will notice that could not NOT include Sholay (Am a 70s kid, so no chance). So here goes:

1. Amar Akbar Anthony (1977): this mad-cap Manmohan Desai adventure with dizzying plot twists is also perhaps one of the most tightly constructed scripts.  Adbhuta (wonder) as its primary rasa is a risky strategy in of itself as it relies on non-realist narrative tropes but Desai pulls it off.  Indian independence, the Partition, communal harmony, urbanisation, class issues, post-coloniality all get pulled into this mind-boggling family saga but with his signature light touch so that the film is enjoyable for a child but provides layer upon layer of textual complexity for the scholar.  Only quibble: the women don't get much screen time although they do demonstrate more agency than most heavy-handed 'arty' cinema of the time.

2. Sholay (1975): The big boss of them all! Gabbar, Veeru, Jai, Thakur, Basanti, even Dhanno....the most stylish homage to Sergio Leone and one of the most superbly constructed films of the past century. Each technical element - sound, camera, editing, so on - all deserve entire books discussing the choices and complexities of constructing those.  Then add the perfectly plotted script, great acting by some of India's iconic stars, and powerful dialogue and there really is no argument against this being the best.  However, the film makes far more sense and is more powerful in the original (or now director's cut) rather than the censored version released during the Emergency. The uncut version is longer but has more narrative and emotional cohesion right to the final conclusion.

3. Bandini (1963): A Bimal Roy classic, though unrelenting for its karuna rasa, with possibly one of the bleakest endings in cinema. India's independence movement, changing social mores, and prisoner rehabilitation all collide in this neo-realist gem that ranks alongside the best in Indian cinema, which also features an extraordinary expressionist sequence where Kalyani poisons her lover's wife.  It also features this most gorgeous song which also marks Gulzar's debut as a lyricist.

4. Jaal (1952): Yes, a Guru Dutt movie! What I love about this early film by the director (and writer) is the deft Indian-ised use of noir elements. The camera, lighting, mise en scene, costumes, all echo well known elements of Hollywood noir, helped in part by the Goan setting which allows the film to deploy 'western' imagery with ease. At the same time, elements of crime, retribution, morality, as well as Indian cinema's long standing preoccupation with modernity, urbanisation and westernisation are tackled with a stylish, light directorial touch. In context of the full film, this beautiful song takes on far more complex - and sinister - tones of forbidden desires than often noticed.

5. Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960): Often ignored as one of Raj Kapoor's minor films, this is also one of his overtly political films and not only for the nation-building narrative that many RK films took up during the 1950s and 1960s.  The 'naive' Raju also references the attempts to persuade the pre-independence Chambal 'baghees' (Bollywood has often elided baghees with dacoits) into mainstream, post-independence India. Unlike later films, Kapoor chose an overt political narrative with Raju as the idealistic outsider to bring change rather than a redemption based entirely on love.

6. Rang de Basanti (2006):  After 9/11, a quintessentially human exploration of terrorism, its motivations, and the human face of violence. History and modern politics collide and blend, with layers of film-within-a-film, past and present time scales and digital media all come together in an engrossingly post-modern text.  This is one of my favourites for its editing choices and the ways in which sepia and colour, digital images and mass media elements are deployed to collapse the boundaries of filmic narrative, history and memory and extra-filmic reality. Strangely enough the images from this film seem to have bled into reality after its release, not only in the candle-light marches for Jessica Lal murder but also in the televised footage of police brutality in December 2012. Yet another Bollywood film that gives lie to the myth that the industry does nothing more than candy-floss romances and sentimental melodramas.

7. Maachis (1995): Yes, a Gulzar movie. This time as a director.  This director's oeuvre over the past four plus decades merits an entire list of his own (Watch this space!) as each of his films is gorgeously crafted to blend narrative, literature, aesthetics and politics. But this film stands out for me as the first major critique of the excesses by the Indian state in Punjab. It  is also prescient in its exploration of the ways in which the state and individuals interact and how narratives of 'terrorism' help sustain (and extend) the state's hegemony of violence at the cost of human rights and lives. Events after 9/11 around the world have sadly proven Gulzar's view of the state right.

8. Chak de India (2007):  One of the past decade's 'small films' with very large ambitions. It plays out as a straight forward sports movies with all the well-known cliches, but with a difference.  The film puts women's hockey at its heart, features a restrained performance by Shahrukh Khan who breaks out of his star persona for a change, and begins to articulate an Indian Muslim identity that can move beyond the Partition and is de-linked from Pakistan.  And yes, some how all this is handled in a way that is fun and moving.

9. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958): Wacky, slapstick and outright hilarious comedy classic that turns into a gothic mystery mid-way, complete with a sinister mansion and a madwoman in the attic.  For an early film, the sexual agency and independence exercised by the women in this film (not counting the one locked up, of course, although she too escapes and organises help rather than wilting) is quite extraordinary. And of course it helps that it features the fabulously over-the-top eccentric Kishore Kumar and the most gorgeous woman to ever appear on Indian celluloid, Madhubala.

10. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012): Yup, I am right from the Hindi heartland so this one has to be included. This film is not only extraordinary in narrative scale, aesthetic choices and technical expertise but also is one of the most unabashed celebrations of the rural and popular cultures of UP and Bihar. Everything from the language to costumes to the music is global and local at the same time, capturing the global nature of the Hindi heartland today, freely mixing Chutney influences with folk songs, Ray Bans with behenjis, and high drama and violence with black comedy. In many ways, this film is an interesting beacon for the ways this industry may evolve into the future.

I hope to post again during the year about more films from India so this is really a starter list. I would love to know yours! But till I get to post again, happy 100th birthday, Indian cinema!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Each time I behave as an angry, loud woman, I feel less shame and less fear

This post has been a long time coming: first, because I have not updated this blog in a long time as I spent most of the past year focused on my novel; and second, because internet trolling is something I have been thinking about, discussing and tweeting for a couple of years now.

I have been blogging, first for a separate, now defunct, site and then here, for over a decade and although I am an infrequent blogger, I learned the first rule of placing myself online early on. Initially, and for the first couple of years, my blog was read mostly by friends and family, and a few strangers who stumbled upon something I wrote by accident and who left interesting and thoughtful comments. However, even back then, my brother, who also built my first website and helped me initially design this blog was adamant that all comments be moderated. I wondered about his protectiveness and laughed it off. After all, wasn't the net the brave new world where all humans were equal?

Then one bright morning, I checked my email and found the notification for a comment awaiting moderation. Strangely enough, it was left on a post about Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother.  It read simply, "You dumb bitch. Shut up."

The unexpected venom of the comment, left anonymously of course, stunned me.  With a great deal of naivete, I spent quite a bit of the morning wondering if I should publish the comment, and respond to it.  I walked around my flat, another cup of tea in hand, veering between anger, shock and an unreasonable flush of shame, trying to un-bundle all my emotions and thoughts, trying to make sense of a stranger's abuse. Then I remembered the very first time I had been physically harassed. I had been a teenager walking down Third Avenue in New York, when a man had suddenly reached out and grabbed my breasts.  It had only been an instant, but I remember the shock I had felt, and the instant sense of violation. And I can still call up the ineffectual fury I felt at the grin on the man's face as he stepped back, leered and then kept walking.  The teenage me had cried secretly for days, even wondered if some how my sweat pants and bulky coat were 'wrong,' or 'provocative.' Finally, a friend had talked me through it, pointing with acute insight that I had simply been on the street: "I bet you have never walked on a street alone in India. You were alone. As a female, you are prey." Those words have lingered in my mind since, with even harsher significance as that friend's country soon disintegrated into civil war and massive sexual crimes against innumerable women.

Eventually, I went back to my blog and deleted that first abusive comment, realising that online, just as in real life, I had done the same thing: by simply existing as a woman, I was prey.

As social media has grown, and more women have begun claiming a space online, this sort of abuse has also grown. The classics scholar Mary Beard's trolling has opened the debate on misogynist online abuse in the UK, yet many more women are harassed daily and receive far less attention.  On social media, especially twitter, the worst abuse appears to be directed at women who express opinions on politics, economics, security or other seemingly 'male' matters. When male commentaters express similar opinions, they do often get abused, but rarely does the abuse descend with skidding, rapid, efficiency into graphic, sexualised violence.

For example, few men active online will have received these responses to expressing their opinions: "fucking bitch, all you need is rape" (for commenting on EU economic policy); "ugly whore, I'll fuck you till you are dead (for my remark on global financial crisis); "Arab whore, how many Muslims fuck you every day" (for reading Gilad Atzmon's book); "you're so ugly, I will have to cover your face with a pillow while I fuck you" (for tweeting about Delhi gang rape); the last comment was cheered on by various others who suggested anal rape because that way they would not have to see my face. And more recently, "I will cut your cunt and ass, and fuck your mouth till you die, whore. Just like the bitch in the bus" (for tweeting on how religions, including Hinduism, aid misogyny).

Why have I listed the above? Because I have come to believe that this kind of online abuse is exactly like facing sexual harassment on the street. Women are told to keep their head down, walk fast, walk away, not make eye contact, and a thousand other little 'safety tips.' All of these apparent remedies subtly but clearly shift the blame from the abusers to the abused. They make the abuse a 'women's problem' rather than focusing on the men who make safety, even basic dignity, impossible for women.  Same happens with online abuse: too many men have told me that I am giving abusers air by naming and shaming them, that I should ignore the men who spout sick violence about women, that if I ignored them the abuse will disappear. And in that wonderful social-media condoning, I have been told by many men that "I am unfollowing you because you keep talking about abuse and not more interesting things."

Such arguments, attitudes and reactions ignore the evidence: women have stayed silent in real life for generations and there has been no palpable reduction in misogyny.  Most women in print, online, on social media, who speak their minds are harassed on a daily basis, in terms of sexualised violence and the only way the abuse stops is when they stop speaking their minds, by stopping to publish, or by leaving social media. On twitter, some of the most extraordinarily brilliant women have locked accounts to avoid abuse, and to retain the ability to express themselves in a protected space. Sadly, such online veiling also ensures they speak only to those who are allowed past their protective boundaries, limiting their audiences and reach.

For everyone who thinks women should ignore online harassment, I would ask, would you do so? How would you react if you woke up every morning to a dozen emails detailing explicit sexual violence for you and your family? Would you 'ignore' it if people you loved were abused and threatened?

Over time, I have come to believe that the only way for women to stop sexual harassment online and in real life is for more of us to speak up, as loudly, and as often as we can. But the only way to not treat sexual harassment as a 'women's problem' but a social one is for more men to actively get involved. If more men spoke up against sexual harassment of women, the abuse would be seen as less acceptable.  If more men insisted on claiming a masculinity that does not rely on non-consensual, power-based sex, we could start thinking of sexual harassment as a social, political and economic problem and not one that only impacts women (and is thus treated less seriously).  If more men acted when they saw a woman being abused (and this is more so online, as I do realise there are real safety concerns for many on the streets), fewer men would think it 'funny' or indeed 'safe' to abuse women.

After that first experience of street harassment, I promised myself that I would learn to react, physically and mentally. In subsequent instances, I have shouted and shouted loudly; I have reacted physically, hit out, and in one case, confronted abusive men (this time in London's Brick Lane) till they backed down. For years, my sister walked in Delhi with a hockey stick and full backing from my father for using it as a weapon. Even now, we automatically keep the heavy handle lock my dad acquired for the family car in close reach while driving in India.

But more importantly, each time I take a stance, each time I behave as an angry, loud, woman (yes, a bitch, a cunt, a harpy as some of the abusers would surely consider it), I feel less shame and less fear. In taking a stand against harassment, I run the risk of escalating the abuse, but I feel more empowered and more pride for not letting myself be cowed, frightened, and pushed back to the margins.

I am fortunate. I have many men who stand up alongside me in support. And they speak for me not only because I am their daughter, sister, aunt, lover, friend, or colleague, but because they recognise me as an individual and a human being who deserves safety and dignity. More importantly, they stand as allies to women elsewhere and everywhere. I have always wished that there would be more such men because then more women, including me, would be able to participate more fully in social, economic, political struggles of our times. But then, I guess that is exactly what the abusers want to stop!

PS: Discussions with women activists across the world has thrown up an interesting little nugget: online abusers seem more able and secure in directing their vilest, most violent, abuse at women they see as their 'own' or ethnically, nationally, religiously, of their own grouping.  So the worst abuse I have received is not from the random Islamists or Middle East regime supporters, or Christian evangelists. It has come from self-professed 'Indian patriots, proud Hindus.'  This neatly mirrors the abuse my Arab women friends get, generally from men of their own countries, religions, and ethnicity, as well as the abuse focused at white, middle-class women commentaters in US and UK whose abusers are similar to them in class, race, etc. It seems, as has been noted by many feminists, there is an unspoken pact for men of each grouping to keep 'their' women in line!

PPS: This post has been long time brewing but today's post by Soraya Chemaly with its extraordinary list of abuse against women online as well as evidence that confronting abuse works gave me the impetus to actually write down my thoughts. Thanks to Soraya and to Darshana, the tweeter with @lilforeigngirl handle who sent me the piece so it was my first reading of the morning.