Zindagi Gulzar Hai: Attractively Regressive

(Doing a ‘Queen‘ on the best thing from across the western border since absolutely everything from across the western border. Once again I’m railing and at length. In situations like these, I think it isn’t bad form to ask the fanboys to stay out.)

In the formulaic, regressive, cliche-spewing world of Indian TV soap operas, anything that appears less evil or meaningless brings hope and relief. “Zindagi Gulzar Hai” (ZGH) looked like one such welcome change, a promising romantic drama imported from Pakistan. With just 26 episodes, the series had a beginning and an end – its finiteness a pleasant departure from the endless drivels on Indian TV that simply won’t close out.

Zindagi Gulzar Hai is the story of Kashaf Murtaza, a gifted girl fated to live in reduced circumstances, and rich boy Zaroon Mir, and how their mutual disregard and hatred eventually blossoms in love. The basic plot doesn’t break new ground, but there’s something about the “girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl eventually loves boy’ storyline that never ceases to amuse unless very shabbily handled.

Scratch the Surface, Find the Rot

In the show, Zaroon is the complete package. He is beautiful, wealthy, classy, kind and yet respectfully measured in his response to the attention from the ladies around him. Oh, he is also sharp as a tack, because beauty without brains can’t cut the mustard among South Asian women.

With so much awesome-ness crammed in one mere mortal, you want to overlook the sexist undertone of his Pakistani upper class politeness and finesse of speech. The kind of sexism that doesn’t hit you smack in the face but definitely exists and has been invisible to or willfully ignored by otherwise astute observers of gender bias in popular culture.

There are several examples of this. Zaroon tells his sister Zara to cover herself up when she steps out in a sleeveless kameez. He also tells her it’s wrong for her to stay out till so late in the night. When Zara points out so does he, he says that he can because he’s a man. Zaroon goes on to mumble something like ‘mahaul kharaab hai’ – important words that most of us cling to in order to believe this is merely brotherly concern, a sensible way of thinking in Lahore – a city that is more primitive and less safe for women than Bombay or Bangalore where similar injunctions would have been met with something along the lines of ‘don’t tell your girls, tell your boys’ and rightly so.

I think Zaroon isn’t as bothered about her sister’s safety as it appears. In all likelihood, Zara is going to step inside a chauffeur-driven car while still at her home and step out somewhere that will have familiar faces for guests. It is the possibility of her being looked at by other men that troubles him more. In Zaroon’s mind, the honour of a woman’s family is directly proportional to the lack of visual access to her body parts, hitting peak honour at the impeccably puritanical, not-fully-veiled-but-almost-there Kashaf Murtaza.

(He also says the servants ‘observe things and gossip’. Telltale signs of a patriarchal mindset wedded to a feudal attitude, but I guess that’s alright when you have such disorientatingly dreamy eyes.)

Zaroon repeats his disapproval of clothes that reveals more skin than deemed acceptable in a posh, Pakistani university to his fiancé Asmara.

The similarity in the two situations is that neither Zara nor Asmara is willing to listen to Zaroon, routinely shushing his Zen-like voice of reason and thwarting his attempt to wise them up for their own good. The women are united in their mulish stubbornness, their pride, their tendency to alternately yell at men and turn clingy and grovel at their feet, and their fatal mistake of taking their independence, generously given by the men in their lives, for granted.

Another similarity between the two is that when they talk to Zaroon they jump from making sense to going full idiot in 15 seconds flat, give or take 5 seconds. Asmara and Zara start off with what promise to be unassailable arguments defending their rights and exposing Zaroon for the bigot he is before suddenly veering into the zone of snooty, anger-laden irrationality. We lampoon Indian shows for passing selfish viciousness off as feminism in naked attempts to discredit the demand for empowerment of women by making it look like the demand for subjugation of men. ZGH should’ve elicited similar reactions but didn’t.

Both women pay a price for their hubris. Asmara loses her fiancé to another woman; so does Zara. The loss of a good man who only asked for some womanly, restrained behavior to another girl hits Zara hard and pushes her into clinical depression. She eventually recovers, humbled, healed and utterly repentant. She admits her mistake to wise brother Zaroon and becomes a “better woman”.

In Zara’s and Asmara’s unreal, exaggerated follies lie an important lesson for subcontinental women – behave or watch your man replace you for calmer, homelier, more manageable alternatives.

Ambition makes a bad mother.

Coming back to Zaroon, the man politely articulates his hatred of ambitious women several times in the show. Who must be blamed for his ill-concealed disapproval of women who, in his own words and also in Kashaf’s, are kuch zyaada hi modern, kuch zyaada hi liberal? And who is to be blamed for Zara’s despicable love for parties and friends even after getting married? The answer is Ghazala, a woman who is a successful professional but fails as a mother. Or let’s say, a woman who fails as a mother because she is a successful professional.

Now, both Ghazala and her husband have shining careers. Both have work that requires them to take frequent trips away from home. But while Zaroon takes jibes at her mother for not being a hands-on parent, he has nothing but respect for his father.

That the father’s absence isn’t much of a problem is evident. In a scene when it is clearly late evening, Zaroon casually asks his father if he is stepping out. The father, as calm and saintly as his male progeny, says no. The men then proceed to discuss the silly, immature behaviour of the women in their lives.

Ghazala’s husband is a successful man too but while his ambition never runs counter to the interests of his family, Ghazala’s does. Her personal ambition all but destroys her motherly instincts.

The confidence that her professional success generates leads Ghazala into thinking women do not need the love and support of men to lead a fulfilling life. Men are so dispensable to her that she actively encourages her daughter to file for legal separation from her husband simply because he wants her to party in moderation! I’m yet to come across a woman in flesh and blood as prone to such impatient, knee-jerk reactions in matters of love and conjugal relationships – we are mostly encouraged to choose death over divorce – as Ghazala. But in the morality play called ZGH, she serves a crucial purpose. Ghazala and similarly overambitious, overconfident women, though rare in real life, act as warnings, as scary examples of female empowerment gone terribly wrong. Their lives offer a glimpse of the dystopia that the family and the society might disintegrate into if women and their behavior aren’t controlled or regulated well.

There’s no such thing as a bad father.

Zaroon’s misogyny can be traced to Ghazala’s ghastly, unfeminine attitude toward child rearing, but why is Kashaf, the show’s female lead, so antagonistic toward men?

The answer lies in Kashaf’s father Mohammad Murtaza.

Kashaf has nothing but disdain for her father. The man remarries because his first wife Rafia could bear him no son, only three daughters. He then refuses to support the first wife but indulges his second wife Nigar’s every demand, the unreasonable ones far outnumbering the reasonable ones.

For all his lack of integrity and commitment, – and this is where the contrast between him and Zaroon’s failed mother is at its starkest – Mohammad Murtaza is no repugnant villain.

For most of the series, Murtaza is your regular guy who just wants to get on with his life with his new wife and son while also desirous of a cordial, working relationship with the older wife, who has somewhat outlived her utility, and with her daughters.

Stopping him from making amends with her first wife after his initial act of abandoning her is his second wife, Nigar. Nigar is your average beautiful, young woman who is driven by jealousy and mistrust toward the sister-wife (the Urdu eqivalent is “sautan“). Her life’s ambition is to ensure a comfortable present and a secure future for herself and her son. She is supremely selfish and morally bankrupt; she is also nosy and takes pleasure in pushing Rafia and her daughters deeper into penury.

What’s more, Nigar’s wickedness doesn’t affect her husband alone. She is also a bad mother who makes her son Hammad, otherwise a charming, happy-go-lucky boy, an unwilling accomplice in spying on Rafia. She also hates it when he gravitates towards Rafia and her family because Rafia is substantially more motherly and can prepare wonderful meals – both defining qualities of good women.

As the show progresses, the viewers’ unease over Mohammad’s decision to enter into a polygamous relationship fades entirely because they see just how hapless he is in the face of the ruthlessly manipulative second wife. Unlike Zaroon’s mother Ghazala whose failure as a mother happens despite the positive influence of the men in her life, Kashaf’s father Mohammad fails to be the perfect father because of a scheming woman.

The more you pity Mohammad, the more you want to question Kashaf’s unceasing criticism of men. After all, it stems from her inability to perceive her father without her own jaundiced view. And since Mohammad isn’t such a monster in the first place, Kashaf’s disapproval of men sounds increasingly myopic, senseless and like a harangue. While Zaroon’s misogyny is grounded in reason, Kashaf’s hatred of men is based on very flimsy ground and hence, like a minor malady, treatable.

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This brings us to Kashaf Murtaza, a character who is just about the dullest, most prudish, judgmental, ill-mannered sociopath you will ever come across. She also suffers from a persecution complex, which is annoying to say the least.

What is Kashaf’s attitude towards women other than her mother and her sisters? In college, she divides her time between studying and severely judging women who hang out with Zaroon and other men. She often asserts she isn’t “like the other girls”, obviously meaning she is better than them. She is also consistently rude to Maria, the only girl in the college who is nice and stoic enough to befriend Kashaf despite the latter’s lack of basic good manners or even humanity. In Kashaf’s scheme of things, Maria looks like a useless hanger-on and easily dispensable. (I am sure Kashaf wouldn’t have even bothered to send a wedding invite to Maria. Or maybe she mailed a scanned copy as an afterthought, but that’s it.)

And yet it is hard to not notice how smoothly Kashaf tones down her aggression and turns appropriately demure and obedient as the daughter-in-law of a wealthy family.

On one occasion, when Zaroon offers to drop her home after a college event ends late in the everning, she refuses to sit in the front next to him. Zaroon rightly feels offended. Funnily enough, such priggishness eventually turns Kashaf attractive to Zaroon and the viewers. Several episodes later when Zaroon reminds Kashaf how rude she had been him, Kashaf tells herself that had she sat next to him that day, she wouldn’t have ultimately found a permanent place next to him – in his car and in his life. Even Kashaf, your prototype irrational hater of men, subconsciously understands the rules of the game and plays by them. Her rumination, even if in retrospect, strengthens the insulting assumption that Zaroon had made about middle class women playing hard to get – one that Kashaf had fought against so fiercely when it was first made.

By the time the series draws to a close, Kashaf has emerged as the perfect wife material. Her puritanical hatred for any interaction with the opposite sex, which in turn lends her a sort of unattainable charm that pulled our cassanova hero toward her, gives way to her letting down her guard for him and him alone. Such guaranteed availability is the sub-continental television hero’s dream come true, but Kashaf’s qualities do not end here.

Kashaf is desirable because she isn’t a hell-raiser like Zara and Asmara were in their pre-reformation days. She internalizes and acts upon the lessons her mother imparts her – never sit next to unrelated men in their cars, get married at the “right age”, learn to cook to keep the shauhar happy and always, always be respectful toward him except in playful banters – women ought to sparkle occasionally; life will be boring otherwise.

In the end she is also deeply grateful for the presence of a fairly benevolent man in her life, even if he displays double standards by going ballistic when he learns of another guy’s one-sided interest in her at some time in the past but is proud of his own flirtatious ways and also doesn’t mind re-igniting a conversation with a girl he had dumped before setting his eyes on Kashaf.

Kashaf’s beauty lies in the fact that she frees the men in her life from the tedious responsibility of actively controlling a woman’s behavior. Kashaf doesn’t need to be kept on a tight leash because Kashaf does that for you – she holds one end of the leash and loops the other round her own neck.

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So why did so many of us love the show and praised it like the feminist miracle it never was?

For starters, ZGH scores a winner by simply not looking criminally stupid. Unlike Indian shows, its dialogue is well-crafted and well-delivered; the emphasis on accurate pronunciations and the respect accorded to language shine through. The scenes are tightly-controlled, the characters are somewhat believable, and nobody hams. There are references to the quotidian realities of a tough, lower middle-class life such as the difficulties of making the cut in a prestigious (read: private and pricey) university, unaffordable vegetables, and shoes that get replaced not when they go out of fashion but when they fall apart and also when there’s money to buy new ones. Such references are mostly made in a matter-of-fact way without making a big deal out of it. Well Kashaf does, but Kashaf is weird like that.

The show camouflages its sexism well. There is no evil-looking woman flashing evil smiles, no witchcraft, no family feuds erupting over khichri that tastes too salty, no fasting for the long life of husbands, and no slapping of women by the same husbands when they have been tragically misled. Also women on Pakistani TV look less silly and more modern because they do not come burdened under layers of make-up, traditional jewelry and shiny kanjeevarams.

Additionally, Pakistani shows deal with very basic ideas of human and gender liberty – let the girls study, earn; think twice before taking in a second wife; don’t be jealous of a good-looking partner, etc., etc. The average Indian viewer, convinced that such ideas must be galvanizing men and women into positive action in dark, medieval corners of the subcontinent, is satisfied enough with the liberal quotient of the shows to overlook the demeaning codes of conduct the shows prescribes for women who have, in fact, reached a certain stage of educational and professional success or self-sufficiency.

Finally, I think in some intellectual circles in India it is considered uncool to criticize any artistic endeavor that has its origins in Pakistan. We like to make sweeping statements such as “Pak Coke Studio is much better than India’s Coke Studio” or “Pakistani singers are much better than Indian singers”. I think such blanket approval has partly to do with our tendency to romanticize our ties with Pakistan, partly to do with just how conventionally good-looking Pakistanis are and partly with our desire to overcompensate for the time they have been spending on NewsHour.

Of Beloved Heroes and their Off Moments

Everybody drinks and drives, except that not everybody drinks and drives. I certainly don’t and even if I do, I am not fool enough to mention that here, in a blog that everybody will read. Not everybody, but still a large number of people.

That brings me to my first point – not everybody but still a large number of people…drink and drive. Letting friends and family members drink and take the wheel is also the fate of many (Suniye, gaadi yahi chor dete hain, cab bula lete hain  – let’s leave our car here and call for a cab instead – is often followed by – arre pagli, kabhi kiye hai koi gadbad? – listen you silly goose, have I ever caused an accident?)

Allowing a similarly domineering man who also happened to be an insanely popular Bollywood megastar is what Ravindra Patil seems to have done the night that proved fatal for a bunch of people sleeping on the streets and later, for Patil himself. Like India’s many quietly cajoling-praying-hopeful spouses/less imposing friends, he must have gently protested once but then given in, taking good luck for granted and being certain they won’t end up spilling a ton of blood on the road after all.

Only the most hopelessly cynical (or deeply complicit) can be blind to the element of courage in the choices Patil made from the moment the accident took place till his death. He refused to let the horror of his colleagues and even his family turning putty in the hands of his overwhelmingly influential and manipulative enemy get to him or defeat his spirit. If digging his heels in like that to defend the truth in chillingly adverse circumstances is not inspirational, then I don’t know what is.

Failing in love gives eternal licence to drink and drive, hit, run, buy/intimidate witnesses, destroy evidence, look for legal loopholes, sign silly movies,…

Many say the shock of being jilted by a certain former beauty pageant winner shaped all of Khan’s choices in life since then. His heartbreak forced him to be the man he never was. To at least one reporter and a few hundred thousand anonymous regulars on the internet, his act of physically assaulting the woman (and later drowning his sorrows in alcohol and then driving, both proven stress-busters) was a way of telling her he was actually quite exasperatingly in love with her and dealing with her act of deserting him.

All of that maniacal behaviour fits well in our definition of the tragic, angry, hopelessly in love, self-destructive hero. And heroes, by definition, aren’t villains. A heartbroken hero is definitely not a villain. Also to declare him one attacks the root of the belief that women, particularly the tall, thin and light-skinned ones, are prone to using and throwing guileless men. Many Indians find their own unrequited infatuations reflected in the life of Khan; and punishment for his behaviour seems tantamount to punishing the beautiful sport of one-sided pyaar, ishq aur mohabbat. 

But he has been Human for years now

I won’t take that away from him. Even if “Being Human” is a ruse to buy leniency from the court and goodwill among people, it is still a useful venture. Anyone who fails to see that in his fanatic hatred for Khan has serious problems of his own and needs to address them. It’s alright to support the NGO and applaud it for the good work it has done.

Quick take on VK Singh’s #presstitute comment

(and social media­’s overwhelming support for it.) 

The obnoxiousness of a particular news anchor should not have been seen as the media’s blanket disapproval of the army. The media have played an important role in letting the world know the good work defence forces have done at a pittance compared to the pay, perks and comforts that the average patriotic engineer/MBA feels entitled to.

For example, while the army and allied forces were conducting search and relief operation in flood-ravaged Jammu & Kashmir, the media were present there and actively beaming images back to the drawing rooms where a belligerent debate over the prostitute-ness of the media now rages.

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The anchor whose tendency to rage incoherently and often without a shred of research to back his tirade triggered the comparison between the media and sex workers (?) is the person whose judge jury and executioner avatar had once propelled him to unprecedented popularity and his show to record-shattering viewership. India had opened its hearts to him precisely because of his penchant for harassing those guests who said what he had not wanted to hear. With a new dispensation and a new set of people at the helm his targets have changed, and with that his status as the blue-eyed heckler.

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VK Singh’s choice of abuse did not surprise me. Sexist language enjoys widespread social acceptability. Also we are increasingly and unforgivingly angry and hateful toward the face of the media that seems pro-Congress and anti-Hindu, and also activists who talk too much, and are convinced that we must all actively encourage gandi baat if those who are doing it are also agents of faster GDP growth and progress.

Therefore, “presstitute” is a very useful word because it expresses all kinds of angers all at once. It expresses anger against the media (nothing can be more demeaning than being compared to a woman who sells her body for a living), sex workers (nothing is quite as disgusting as a woman selling her body for a living), and people who find sexist language wrong (because mere criticism is not enough and must be laced with vicious invectives such as comparisons with a woman who sells her body for a living).

I do not find parallels between media personnel and sex workers offensive since they often lead an impressively hopeful and dignified life despite being victims of one of the worst forms of human exploitation. If #presstitute provides modern India cathartic release from decades of pent-up anger and frustration, then I welcome the use of even more hateful expressions.

But I will be disappointed if, after all the online savagery, we still fail to get our anger out of our system and attain the same kind of rational, anger-free objectivity that so many of us preach via forwarded sermons on social media.

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People who are fuming against the media must realise that the media is a heterogeneous entity and comprises optimistic women and men who respect the mandate of the nation and are counting on Modi to pull India further out of poverty, elevating its status globally, energising its youth and re-igniting its moribund industries (It is also full of those who voted for him and his men in 100 percent of federal and state elections held in the past one year.)

But they need to remember, surely they must remember, that no amount of social media jeering is going to frighten mainstream media into silence. It is a risk to speak on behalf of an industry that suffers from a terrifying degree of lack of quality control and has ArGo for its most recognisable face, but I will go out on a limb to say that apart from those who belong to pockets of encrusted special interests, the media will continue to report and analyse the good, the bad and the ugly. They will not stay quiet when things must be spoken. It is a thankless job, kind of like being in the army, but they will not stop speaking on behalf of people just because people hate them so much.

They are very thick-skinned that way.

A final thought on AIB Roast

I arrived on the “Roast the AIB Roast” scene a little later than others, so obviously I am going to write about it for slightly longer than others. Here’s a list of questions that a lot of people put to me as well as to others who said there was something wrong with AIB’s show and, more importantly, the way AIB responded to criticism.

Nobody asked you to watch the show. Why did you watch it?

I look at Karan Johar’s disclaimer as AIB’s first and final line of defence. Ignoring it taught me a valuable lesson: never take any warning lightly, even if it comes from a seemingly harmless man, even one with a history of producing films so impossibly sweet you can still feel some of it lodged between your teeth.

(It was like clicking “I agree” on the internet – I may be about to promise them my soul, but damn that won’t stop me.)

So yes, I didn’t take the disclaimer seriously; I wouldn’t have gone beyond it otherwise. But apart from the disclaimer, AIB did all it could to draw in as many people to watch all the instalments of the show.

AIB Roast wasn’t a private party that the public gate-crashed and then trashed. When AIB shared the video with the public (and they share a video because it brings them money – always remember they are in it for the money) they really, really, really wanted the public, and not just those who bought tickets to the show, to watch it.

People watched AIB Roast not only because AIB advertised it heavily (I clicked it after at least three days of its ads and “shares” plastered all over my social media walls), but also because they had done some interesting work (which had their own problematic bits but more about that some other day) in the past, so the show held promise.

Also they roped in Arjun Kapoor and Ranvir Singh, two mainstream Bollywood men who are popular beyond AIB’ s niche audience, which made ignoring the show practically impossible.

“Nobody asked you to watch” is not and can never be a valid defence for any film/book/ show in public domain, particularly one which is virtually begging and screaming to be read or watched.

Almost everything in the show is part of normal, everyday speech these days. From ma-bhen ki gaali to making fun of a person’s dark skin to gay jokes – we are all increasingly comfortable with all of it. Also, it’s just comedy. Why must you take comedy so seriously?

Not everyone uses cuss words or indulges in sexist or racist jokes. Even if they do, it shouldn’t necessarily become an absolute standard to follow and approve of.

In fact while there is a sort of general agreement on regulating media content for children, an adult who expresses misgivings about foul language or abrasive humour has to face ridicule, hatred or unsolicited suggestions to return to the dreary world of Hindi television shows.

A general assumption about grown-ups is that they must abide by a single, immutable code of grown-up behavior. This code includes the ability to not once flinch at foul language when we come across it in normal conversations and also in popular media.

This licence goes completely unchallenged when it comes to the sacred art of comedy even if so much of it is rooted in and perpetuates historically bigoted views about what is essentially normal and what is abnormal, what deserves to be mocked and what doesn’t, and what’s attractive and what far less so.

Failing to adhere to that code of conduct draws derision. Overly sensitive, prude, boring, “butthurt” and Feminazis are some of the terms swiftly bandied about at the hint of a discordant voice.

It looks like a few laughs is too big a price to pay for even beginning to realize, for example, that laughing at “dark enough to be screened for Ebola” destroys whatever good we do by signing up for Nandita Das’s “dark is beautiful” campaign.

Humour has a deeper, more lasting impact than most other kinds of speech or writing. Ideas and ideologies spread faster through crisp, bite-sized jokes, pictures, tweets and FB updates than through detailed discussions. In fact, I have half a mind to dump this article and generate a “Batman slaps Robin” meme instead to drive across an insult if not a point. But I also think it isn’t such a bad idea to take a genre so powerful a little more seriously. Not ban the video/block the channel/burn the cinema hall down kind of seriously, but carefully enough to see through the average comedians’ “we are mere clowns, neutral observers, with malice toward one and all” kind of harmless looking persona.

AIB’s humour is informed by its members’ worldview, which isn’t perfect even if they have mastered the art of delivering their message effectively. Tanmay and company have many things to say and some of them are funny and evolved. Others, however, are regressive and shocking simply because they couldn’t think long and hard enough to draw upon, say, racial quirks in a funny yet inclusive way. A line exists between edgy and vile humor – it is often blurred but is still there – and recognising it is simply a matter of common sense and not really a body blow to free speech as feared by so many.

If you don’t like it, why do you have to talk about it? Why can’t you just shut up?

Because it is really difficult to shut up about things. Just look at my Facebook newsfeed, for example. People who found criticism of AIB Roast unnecessary are also responsible for an endless stream of complaints and opinion on everything. By everything I mean everything, including people who send others Candy Crush requests, people who complain about those sending them Candy Crush requests, traffic jams, bad music on FM while stuck in traffic jams, clingy friends and indifferent friends, hot summers and cold winters, ridiculously happy people and people who drag you down by their endless whining, meddlesome Delhi and rude Bombay, and so on.

All of us talk about stuff we don’t like. It’s human nature. I actually enjoy all of it. It takes all sorts to make a world, and my Facebook newsfeed as well as all other discussions happening online and offline are just a reflection of that. There’s got to be some kind of give and take here. And if it’s too much to ask for, then there is always the “unfollow” button to be considered.

I am still going to insist. Why could not you ignore it?

As a matter of fact I did. Twice.

The first time was when I watched the show and decided, not unlike most others, that it was funny in parts but not extraordinarily so.

The second time was when I casually scrolled down to the comments section. This was when I (half) sat up and (barely) noticed about 200 AIB fanboys attacking a woman and saying pretty nasty stuff about her, mostly along the lines of how she is “an ugly s****h I****n darkie” who “deserved to get raped in her ugly dark c***”. Her fault? She said she enjoyed the show but didn’t like “dark people” jokes.

There is a line of argument which says that it is normal for cult followers to use violent language against those who do not whole-heartedly endorse the specific area of culture they worship so ardently. Most of us avoid corners where we aren’t welcome, but your heart does go out to those who learn the hard way the importance of lying prostrate before a cult leader and pledging eternal allegiance to him.

Anyway, I finally decided to write something only after AIB released their letter which proved that quite like the actors/studios they criticized they were a smug, hypocritical and understandably scared little bunch of young men.

Smug because they went on and on about the support they got from a mob-like fans who got far more hurt than those who criticized the show.

Hypocritical because AIB had no word of advice for their angry, mob-like supporters. As a group of people who make a living off telling others to take the proverbial chill pill, AIB’s silence reeked of double standards.

And cowardly because for all their bravado they were also quick to pull off the video without even being asked to.

They could not do all of that and hope to get away with it with not even a polite blog or two about it all.

Why should I listen to Amir Khan? He was associated with DK Bose.

Once upon a time, Amir Khan backed a song called “DK Bose.” And that makes some of us think he has double standards because now he has a problem with AIB.

If Amir found AIB Roast offensive then he should have ideally apologised for DK Bose as well. But here’s a little something to jog your memory. Even before “DK Bose” Amir did movies such as “Dil” which set feminism back by a thousand years. He has said sorry for all of that and now he does Satyamev Jayate.

While we are at it, Shahrukh Khan played a stalker of women, an eve-teaser, a stalker and killer of women and, once again, a stalker and killer of women in Darr, DDLJ, Baazigar and Anjaam, respectively. He is now talking about setting a good example for his kids.

Amitabh Bachchan’s “Jumma Chumma” became the anthem for a generation of road Romeos. The man now wants the nation to save their girl children.

If we dig up dirt on every Bollywood star every time he says a remotely good thing but still annoys us because we choose to be weird like that, then we are perhaps letting our myopic, small-minded whataboutery overwhelm our better judgement.

Like it or not, Hindi film actors have great influence over your kids and your neighbours’. So we could consider stop being such all-knowing dirt-diggers and shaming them on the rare occasion when they are not being completely insensitive and are saying the right thing after all.

There are more important matters in the world that people should worry about.

Predictably enough, there were those who suddenly decided to discuss GDPs, violence against women and low allocation toward education in a strange, unrelated sort of defence of AIB.

Well, the mind is capable of entertaining more than one thought at a time. It can reflect on real-life crime and online crime, violent actions and violent words and bankruptcy of states and bankruptcy of ideas.

I gladly gave those who were outraging over what they felt was needless criticism of AIB (as opposed to valid criticism of child labour) the benefit of doubt that they must be quietly doing their bit for the society in the form of donations, volunteering and backing social awareness campaigns.

But I also wish that the same faith could have been shown by them towards those who expect better from popular media. It’s unfortunate that matters of poverty or underprivileged children erupt most forcefully in public discourse as a way to drown out uncomfortable noises against a trend or cult or industry that one is personally fond of or has a stake in.

तुम किसी के जरखरीद गुलाम नहीं हो, ए.आई.बी के भी नहीं

शार्ली एब्दो के एक कार्टून में एक अजीब, असंतुलित सी दिखने वाली, भागती हुई नग्न मुस्लिम महिला की ass में बुर्क़े का एक छोर धँसा हुआ था और दूसरा हवा में लहरा रहा था। उस चित्र पर मुझे बिलकुल हँसी नहीं आई। पूरी कोशिश की कि हँसी आ जाए पर नहीं आई (पर्दे से इतनी सख़्त नफ़रत है कि अपने विवाह में भी सर ढाँपने का इरादा नहीं है, लेकिन उस दिन न उस कार्टून को समझ सकी न ही उसे बनाने वाले की इज़्ज़त कर सकी)।

ठीक उसी तरह ऑल इंडिया बकचोद (ए.आई.बी) का “रोस्ट”कार्यक्रम भी मुझे कुछ खास मज़ेदार नहीं लगा। एकाध चुटकुले अच्छे थे। तन्मय भट्ट की भाई-भतीजावाद पर चुटकी से कुछ तसल्ली मिली (हमारा एक तरफ़ डेमोक्रेसी की बीन बजाते-बजाते दूसरी तरफ़ अर्जुन कपूर और आलिया भट्ट जैसे बुरे कलाकारों को तबतक मुँह बंद कर झेलना जबतक वो रो-धोकर थोड़ा-बहुत अभिनय नहीं सीख लेते, दुर्भाग्यपूर्ण है)।

लेकिन अगर आपको ये लगता है कि ए.आई.बी की आलोचना का सवाल ही नहीं उठता तो मैं आपसे सहमत नहीं हो सकती। सबसे पहली बात तो यह कि “आप इतने काले/मोटे/भद्दे हैं” वाले जोक इंटरनेट पर सैकड़ों-हज़ारों की तादाद में फ्लोट करते रहते हैं। इस तरह के घिसे-पिटे व्यंग को नई शैली का ह्यूमर मानकर ए.आई.बी की ओर हमेशा-हमेशा के लिए कृतज्ञ या नतमस्तक हो जाने की ज़रुरत नहीं है।

दूसरी बात ये कि शो में गे जोक्स और माँ और बहन की गालियो की भरमार थी। लेकिन अगर गे जोक्स, माँ और बहन की गालियां (और शार्ली एब्दो के कार्टूनों में मुस्लिम औरतों की ass में बुर्का) मेरे तथाकथित प्रगतिशील मित्रों को अच्छी या क्षम्य लगती हैं तो इसके दो ही मतलब हो सकते हैं|

एक यह कि वो बोलने की आज़ादी छिन जाने की सम्भावना से बुरी तरह चिंतित हो गए हैं| बोलने की आज़ादी छिन जाने की घबराहट वाजिब है लेकिन उस घबराहट में सोचना बंद कर देने का क्या तुक है? चाहे सेंसर बोर्ड की मनमानी कैंची हो, चाहे किसी मुस्लिम धर्म गुरु द्वारा जारी किया गया फतवा या फिर किसी हिन्दू साधू की बेकार धमकियाँ, कोई आपकी वैचारिक स्वाधीनता पर विराम नहीं लगा सकता। डरिये मत; बन्दूक की गोलियों से शरीर छलनी हो सकता है, जज़्बा नहीं|

दूसरा मतलब ये हो सकता है कि शायद आज़ादी छिनने से ज़्यादा डर इस बात का है कि कहीं कोई आपको उन फतवा-प्रेमी या चड्डीवालों की तरह दकियानूसी न समझ बैठें या आपकी प्रोग्रेसिव छवि न खराब हो जाए या कोई आपके “सेंस ऑफ़ ह्यूमर” पर सवाल न कर दे| इसलिए आप अपने उन्हीं उसूलों को अनदेखा करने के लिए फटाफट तैयार हो जाते हैं जो आपको एक दो-पोस्ट पहले तक इतने प्रिय थे। अगर आप इतनी जल्दी डरकर अपने उसूलों पर यू-टर्न मारते हैं तो वो उसूल कभी आपके थे ही नही। आपकी तो बस एक इमेज थी जिसे आप किसी भी कीमत पर बचाना चाहते थे, चाहे वो कीमत आपकी अपनी विचारधारा ही क्यों न हो।

अगर माँ और बहन की गाली जायज़ है, तो कल लोग रेप जोक्स को भी जायज़ ठहरा सकते हैं। अगर एक बड़े गे निर्देशक की फिल्मों में काम करने के लिए मर्दों को अपनी पैंट उतारते देख आपको हँसी आ सकती है, तो आप तथाकथित “लूज़”, “चालाक” और “अपनी शकल और देह के सहारे आगे बढ़ने” वाली औरतों पर कटाक्ष करते लोगों को आड़े हाथ लेने का अधिकार भी खो देते हैं। अगर आप मुस्लिम औरतों का अभद्र प्रदर्शन देख कुछ ख़ास परेशान नहीं होते तो आपका नारीवाद बेहद खतरनाक रूप से खोखला है।

शार्ली एब्दो के हत्यारों से मुझे घिन थी और उनसे भी जो उन हत्याओं को न्यायसंगत सिद्ध करने में लगे हुए थे। धर्म, धार्मिक कर्म-काण्ड या फिर धार्मिक पुस्तकों के प्रति गंभीरता मेरी समझ से परे हैं। लेकिन मेरा मन दुखी भी हो रहा था क्योंकि उसे पता था कि इस बर्बरता के बाद “शार्ली एब्दो” की निंदा नामुमकिन हो गयी थी| चलो धर्म भूल जाओ पर उस पत्रिका के पन्नों पर हो रहे नारी के अपमान की, रंगभेद की और होमोफोबिया की चर्चा तक की सम्भावना ख़त्म हो चुकी थी|

शार्ली एब्दो की आलोचना करना भारतीय बुद्धिजीवियों के लिए कितना इनकनवीनिएंट है, ये मैं समझ सकती हूँ। पर ए.आई.बी से डरना तो हद ही हो गयी। मैं मानती हूँ कि तन्मय भट्ट ने आपको हँसाया होगा। मैंने भी उसके शो देखे हैं। मैं दिल से आज भी ये दुआ करती हूँ कि तन्मय और गैंग फले-फूले और ऐसे लोगों को मनोरंजन के विकल्प दे जिन्हें न सिमर की ससुराल से सरोकार है और न डॉली की डोली से। लेकिन तन्मय की हिम्मत से इतना अभिभूत न हों कि तन्मय के औसत दर्जे के ह्यूमर की आलोचना के हक़ के नाम तक पर आप बौखला जाएँ और खुद गाली-गलौज, पैसिव-एग्रेसिव अपडेट और “आमिर ने खुद क्या किया” जैसी whataboutery पर उतर आयें।

याद रखिये राह चलते हर लफंगे के मुँह से निकलने वाली गन्दी बात भी कई लोगों को हिम्मत वाली और मज़ेदार लगती हैं। बुरा मत मानियेगा (और कुछ लोग तो वैसे भी फ्री स्पीच की इतनी कदर करते हैं कि मोटी-मोटी गालियों कहे या सुने बिना उन्हें नींद ही नहीं आती होगी) लेकिन आपका ह्यूमर “ह्यूमर” और राह चलतों का ह्यूमर “ट्यूमर” समझना अव्वल दर्जे की मूर्खता और दोहरे मापदंड का उदाहरण है।

On a scale of 0 to ‘Gunda’, ‘Mardaani’ almost breaks the chart

In hindsight, the makers of ‘Mardaani’ could’ve regurgitated a far worse film and got away with it.

Despite its proudly inept and evil treatment of a subject as deserving of sensitive handling as human trafficking, Mardaani will never attract anything worse than mild, token criticism for some insignificant slip-ups here and there.

It is above criticism because it is a Yash Raj Films movie. Now, the banner doesn’t necessarily protect it from being called stupid or pointless (Dhoom, Neil and Nikki, Dhoom). But, it does give a movie the sort of legitimacy that protects it from being labelled sick or depraved like, say, a Kanti Shah production or similar vulgar cinema of the 90s.

It is above criticism because it calls itself Mardaani and it claims to be about empowerment of women. It has Rani Mukerji in a police uniform speaking Mardaana language, doing Mardaana stuff like raiding red light areas, breaking bones and speaking Mardaana language loaded with innuendo. As a nation starved of strong female leads, we are ready to lap up whatever comes our way in the name of feminist cinema, isn’t it?

It is above criticism also because it is about a <quote> social issue <unquote>. That makes the movie untouchable. Its faults must be forgiven even if it treats the issue in the most inhuman, insane and unappetizing way possible. Pradeep Sarkar is the Kanti Shah of 2014, (who also raised grim social issues, no?) but it is all good, because it is all done for a good cause – that of letting the dumb masses know something as horrifying as this is happening out there somewhere.

Here’s a conversation I had with me while watching the movie. It was a conversation I forced myself to forget because even I was almost convinced that to question Mardaani is simply not the done thing.

 Almost.

TWENTY MINUTES INTO THE FILM:

Holy inappropriate, Batman. This is in bad taste.

This is making me uncomfortable.

Why is the camera lingering on those girls’ uncovered bodies for so long?

That’s several seconds too long.

TOO long.

What’s with the camera angle? Right where her skirt ends, several inches above her knees?

How MANY times will these girls be made to drop their towels before their kidnappers?

Inch by painful, humiliating inch?

Again?

Again??

Why is that rape scene so detailed?

I know they they have all been abducted and brought to a brothel. You have made that amply clear. I don’t need a depraved, sex-starved, pedophile client’s point of view, Mr Director.

No, I don’t.

Stop it already. This is sick. This is twisted. This is the work of a pervert.

This is Gunda all over again.

This is worse than Gunda.

MIDWAY THROUGH THE MOVIE – 

Why am I so uncomfortable?

Why did these questions even arise in my mind?

Am I prudish, backward and incapable of understanding art?

Am I a weak, delicate Janaani and not Mardaani at all, because I’m bothered by the ugly reality?

Does this prove I prefer escapist, candy-floss cinema?

Or am I just a cinema snob who scoffs at the attempt of the humble commercial filmmaker who can’t make a half-decent movie but shouldn’t be reprimanded too much because he can only be that good? *shudders in horror*

(I mean I have enjoyed masala movies. I have watched movies so masala they stopped being movies at some point and turned into Vindaloo curry on big screen. Curry so spicy it gave me dysentery. Dysentry so intense I couldn’t return to Masala movies for a full week and had to stick to boring vegetarian fare that arthouse cinema is. But all that means nothing because of this one mainstream movie that leaves me bothered.)

Curry banned for forever. Dammit.

Anyway, is this sick or am I just stupid?

This is a posh multiplex after all (Okay, almost as posh as a hall on the outskirts of Noida on the outskirts of Delhi can be.) This isn’t a single hall theatre in Ranchi or Patna, the kind where Udaan-type boys go to watch ‘Kanti Shah ke Angoor’.

It’s a YRF production.

YRF gave me clean fun, right? They gave me beer-guzzling-hero-who-turns-sanskaari-at-the-right moment kind, right?

So sanskaari that parents brought their children to an A-rated movie

They are vintage, trustworthy and cannot possibly be vulgar or perverted.

So clearly I’m wrong.

There’s still the climax anyway.

DURING CLIMAX:

Ooh the climax.

Some smart thinking by Rani. Must remember this and forget everything else.

Wow, that’s a ridiculous fight scene with no continuity at all.

Why are they playing that funny song in the background when Rani is trying to look like she’s beating the crap out of that pedophile?

Anyway, Mardaani Rani has left the sicko among the wronged girls!

Super. Now come revenge and catharsis!

Take your pointy heels off, girls! You don’t need to wear them anymore!

He’s half dead. Kneel down and strangle him! Gouge his eyes out!

Wow. You are doing nothing like that.

So hang on. The director leisurely trains his lens on the girls when they’re weak, barely-clothed and vulnerable, but chickens out and makes them stand and wobble, balancing themselves on those impractical shoes and merely nudging and gently kicking that horrible man?

Why, because too much blood will make audience squeamish? THAT will make them squeamish? Did the director forget his portrayal of underage girls just a little while ago?!

Is it because once all the cheap erotic-sherotic was done, Mr Sarkar was bored and in a rush to wrap a movie he secretly hates?

I feel cheated.

Even Damini was better than this.

Damini was so much better than this.

The little girl who raised hell and plants, too

This is a story of a 7-year-old girl who inspired me to get closer to nature. It is also my entry to the “Nature’s friends” blogging contest on Indiblogger. Oh, do visit or take your kids to Kissanpur at http://www.kissan.in/; they seem to be doing some interesting, fun stuff there.

She was a brat, a headache, a pain in my neck. She actively spent her entire day raising hell. At nights she was quieter, perhaps to hear better the sound of her inner devil plot new ways to unleash chaos as soon as it was light. There was never a moment of peace with her around.

Pinku was a cousin. She was rude, I was tired of her rudeness. She was on a vacation, I was on a sabbatical and totally clueless about what to do with my career.

She was seven; I was three times her age.

We were both at my grandparents’ home in a remote village of Bihar. The house had space, none of the frightening pace of the city I had left behind; and the soothing presence of the gentlest ever set of grandparents. The setting was perfect for relaxation but for the presence of the pint-sized hell-raiser.

We couldn’t get along perhaps because of the age gap, but also because she was a complete stranger to the notion that it was alright to not to have every wish of her fulfilled.

I particularly didn’t like her lack of tidiness. She always looked grimy, and it appeared she was fond of chocolates— some of it often seemed to land on her face. The muddy marks all over the floor of the house could only be the imprint of her impossibly tiny shoes. I often scolded her for her carelessness. I complained to others, too. But she remained defiant.

My patience with her ran out at last the day she decided to drown my Walkman in water. It was a mistake and she apologised, but it made me upset. I decided to step away from the scene of her act of transgression. I went upstairs and slept earlier than usual that night.

I woke up earlier than usual, too. Rubbing sleep off my eyes, I got out of my bed, wore my jacket, stepped out of my room into the balcony, ready to launch my regular train of thoughts that began with optimism around trying to resume work and ended invariably at the more depressing staying-at-home-forever idea.

It was then that I saw her in the garden on the ground floor. I couldn’t see her face from such a height, but I could see a bit of her pink t-shirt and yellow shorts she had been wearing the previous day. The girl was in the garden, squatting right next to a potted plant, watering it.

Standing next to her was my grandfather, telling her something I couldn’t quite hear. I was surprised to see her up so early, but even more at the level of noise coming from her—none. She was quiet, listening to whatever her octogenarian dadaji had to say.

The sight was surreal. I wanted to see it more closely. It was really cold, so I wrapped a shawl and went downstairs. I reached the verandah and stood at the entrance to the garden to observe.

The visual contrast between my grandfather and my cousin was stark. She was small, even smaller than the watering can she was somehow holding. At 85, my grandfather had stooped with age but still towered above her. My cousin was watering the plant. After feeding the dahlias, she got up and moved toward the roses. Then the frangrant tuberoses. Then the colourful gazanias. Then the tiny white alyssums. Then the healing tulsi.

She was meticulous in her act of watering the plants. The girl who rarely left a thing in its right place hadn’t let a single drop land outside of the flowering pots. She was not watering the plants till even the brim. Was it because it was winters and the plants needed less of it under a benign sun? I didn’t know; how could I? Forever caught in my personal preoccupations, I had rarely taken interest in taking care of another person, let alone a pet or a plant.

I thought Pinku was done after she had watered the plants, but I was wrong. She picked a broom standing in the corner of the garden and began to sweep the leaves that had fallen from the trees in the garden on to the ground. That was quite a task, to brush off every brown leaf, and not just for a little girl. Many trees lined our garden. There were a couple of neems, a guava, a leechi and a mango tree. In another corner, there were a few banana trees too, a regular feature in the houses of east India. All of them had been planted by my grandfather. An avid lover of nature, he used to sweep the garden himself till the previous winter. Between then and now, his back has aged too much for him to continue doing that anymore.

Pinku was tidying up the garden when I heard my grandfather ask her, “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?” My heart skipped a beat. I looked at her feet. He was right; on a mid-January Bihar morning, she had no shoes on. Barring the brown of the mud, they had turned white from the cold. She stayed quiet. He asked again. She replied in a pitch higher than normal, “My shoes get dirty. I don’t like that.”

I knew right away what she was doing. The girl, a third my age, was trying to protect me from looking like the mean elder sister that I was. I hadn’t liked mud inside the house, and she was trying to avoid bringing any inside.

My grandfather told Pinku to go inside and put on shoes, but by then I had stepped out from where I was standing and was walking toward them. I took the broom from her hand and told her the same. She looked at me and grinned. I think she was relieved I seemed to have forgiven her for the Walkman fiasco. With her mud-stained face—it wasn’t chocolate after all—she looked adorable.

I swept the rest of the garden. I wondered whether trees were supposed to shed so many leaves. Pinku was back soon enough. She looked happy, but still a little circumspect.  I looked at her, raised my eyebrows and asked, “What?” She carefully leaned into my ears and said, “Come I will show you something.”

I smiled and followed her to the other side of our house. She took me to the narrow space between the wall of the house and the boundary and pointed above me.

I turned around to see what she was talking about. “Let’s grab a few,” she said, looking at the guavas that hung from the branches of a tree from across our boundary slightly above my head.

“No way, these aren’t ours!” I exclaimed. “So what? They pluck our mangoes all the time,” the girl replied.

“Yes, but we have our own guava tree, right?” I asked, feeling mostly worried but just slightly excited at the prospect of stealing.

“And they have their mango tree as well! Still they do it. And they fight too,” reasoned Pinku, now holding my hand and jumping on the spot, as if doing that will somehow convince me better than just words.

She was right. The neighbours were what one could call a bit shameless. They complained about our mango branches entering what they referred to as their ‘airspace’, but the feeling of being invaded didn’t prevent them from enjoying the juicy dasheris that hung on their side of the boundary.

I gave in and decided to have my share of adventure. The branch was low but not enough for me to reach it. I told Pinku to grab the wooden stool from the garden. She brought it. I stood  on it and gave the low-hanging ones a tug. It seemed easy enough.

But just as I thought we would easily get away with our little adventure, I was proved wrong. The neighbour’s son, who had woken up early and was cleaning his teeth with a neem stick on the terrace, had seen us. “What are you doing,” he yelled. I didn’t feel scared till he screamed, “Papa-ji” so loud his voice rang across the length and breadth of the village.

What followed was a day of embarrassment. But I was not reprimanded much. I think my family felt the act was one of just retribution and were disappointed because it couldn’t be done successfully. That they never quite said that to Pinku or me is a different matter.

I spent many hours in my grandfather’s garden for the rest of my stay. I joined Pinku and my grandfather in their morning ritual of watering the plants. We went beyond the confines of the garden in our house to explore the mango orchards a little distance away. While only one of them was ours, we were free to roam around and explore others’ as well. It was winters, and we knew we had to wait till summers to actually bite into a mango. Nonetheless, the trips were fun. Between our several picnics under the warm, afternoon sun, the gardeners, who initially kept their distance, eventually warmed up to us. They even told us ‘city-dwellers’ some nature-friendly ways of taking care of plants, without relying on fertilizers.

A few weeks later, I returned to the city and Pinku went to hers. Reinvigorated, I started looking for a job and found one. My few weeks with Pinku had helped me bond with her and through her, with nature! Living in an apartment meant I couldn’t quite find the space to plant a tree, but I decided to buy potted plants for my balcony. I began with one to see how well I could do. With a little care, my roses bloomed well. I now have six plants. My balcony is now my own little garden—colourful, fragrant and a lovely reminder of the days I spent with my little sweetheart, Pinku.