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.

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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.

***

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.

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.

 

Queen leaves me a bit underwhelmed

I love Kangana Ranaut, and I enjoyed watching Queen very much. Still, I cannot help pointing out the few things I didn’t quite like about the movie. I’m hoping I’ll get away with being the nit-picky critic who nobody likes by just saying what most of us say after a squabble with a dear friend: you fight with the ones you love the most.

Writing this didn’t take long but posting it did, because it badly offended the people I had showed it to before publishing it. Some of my closest friends told me to stop thinking too much and write more positive stuff.

I was slightly worried. I thought if my most sympathetic readers have reacted with such hostility, then I was clearly in for that angry, nasty, no-holds-barred sort of backlash readers on internet are known for and take pride in. But I decided to upload the review. That was the message of the movie anyway. Ignore the hungama. Listen to what your heart says. Also remember, not too many people read blogs, so stop being such a chicken.

Here’s my very short, very late and very negative take on Vikas Bahl’s ‘Queen’—

It is possible to warm up to, even fall in love with Rani in Vikas Bahl’s Queen even before buying a ticket to the movie. Rani is played by Kangana Ranaut, a rare genuinely feminist voice in Bollywood. In her interviews, she talks about failing to understand the fuss about movies, the people who act in or make them, marriage, and even romance. Her dismissal of patriarchy and its expectations from women is candid, nonchalant, yet polite. To the various kings of Bollywood—don’t ask; everyone knows who they are—, she refuses to pay lip service. It is a welcome change because no female actor does that. Katrina, Kareena, Priyanka, Sushmita, Deepika, Vidya, Anushka – all sound deferential to sycophantic. We all admire Kangana, and we have all been fangirling for some time now. 

To then say something even mildly critical of a role she portrays or a project she chooses to be associated with feels like a major violation of the sister code. Indeed, the movie itself is definitely worth a watch. The story is simple and told well. A 20-something Rajouri resident and a student of home science, the homeliest of disciplines, Rani wants nothing but to get married and go for a honeymoon. Her plans look derailed when her London-based fiancé calls off the wedding. Rani is heartbroken but decides to go to Paris, her honeymoon destination, alone.

A still from 'Queen'

A still from ‘Queen’

Morose, confused and klutz-like in an alien country, Rani meets and befriends a helpful, lovely and lively woman. They go clubbing together. Rani cries her heart out to her. She also has alcohol for the first time. She dances with abandon, and has a great time overall. She then travels to Amsterdam where she shares a room with three men, all strangers. She is wary of them at first, but soon finds out they are, again, warm, helpful, non-intrusive people.Finally she walks away from her fiancé, who has come to her with a renewed marriage proposal, simply because in her western attire, she now looks ‘modern’ enough.

In the end, Rani’s courage to say no to the man says a lot about her newfound desire to break free of expectations – others’ and self-imposed. Rani doesn’t need her shallow, egoist fiancé anymore, because she now knows life doesn’t have to be all about desperately finding a guy only to toe his line. She now knows it is fun and even important to travel, meet people and gain experiences. More importantly, she knows she can do it all alone.

And therein lies the problem. I feel the feminist quotient of the movie is more hype than substance, and Rani’s emancipation more apparent than real. As a woman who discovers she doesn’t need a man, she ends up being portrayed as one who doesn’t even want one much, at least in the present. I’m going to stick my neck out here and propose that what Bahl tries to pass off as Rani’s quest for independence from men is actually a way to legitimise and even glorify the complete absence of any kind of physical intimacy with the opposite sex that she might have experienced as a single woman traveling alone. That would’ve been a disturbing possibility, one that doesn’t bear thinking about and must be eliminated while a movie’s box office collections are at stake. It may sound harsh, but one of Rani’s key selling points, particularly among Indian male audiences, is that she remains nearly untouched from the beginning till the final credits roll. (I saw ‘the kiss’, and we’ll talk about it.)

A still from 'Queen'

A still from ‘Queen’

In fact, the idea of Rani as a girl ‘unsullied’ in body and mind is reinforced for most of the movie. That sort of gets to you, but you try to make your peace with it hoping she will become a bit more adventurous eventually. ‘Pure’ as the ghee used in her sweet-shop, Rani is nervous about her ‘first night’. A female relative refers to her virginity ka vrat in jest. In reply, Rani giggles and admonishes her to speak softly, because someone might overhear them. It is at this point, I think, that Rani wins the approval of 95 percent of all Indian audiences. In case someone still has a doubt, the song ‘London Thumakda’ actually mentions the word ‘virgin’. The last I remember things being so clearly spelled out in a movie was in ‘Judaai’ when Sridevi’s maid tells her with absolute certainty that the family has gone out for a picnic and no memsaab, they did not mention you even once.

Rani is endearing because she’s seedha-saada. Don’t let that mop of unruly curls convince you otherwise. In a world full of jaded women who’ve been there and done all that, such children women are a breath of fresh air. We see more glimpses of Rani’s childlike, even childish curiosity and ignorance in the scenes ahead.

On her trip abroad she buys sex-toys as gifts for her family, because she doesn’t know what they are. Once again, like a child, she lends the toys her own interpretation and explains what they are to her firang friends. This, the doe-eyed simpleton tells them about one, is a neck-massager. The friends have doubled up with laughter by now, so have cinema halls across India. But nobody is mocking the girl from Rajouri, mind you. Foolishness like this might have made a man look like a bit of a retard. Coming from a woman it’s funny, but adorably so, and never off-putting. In any case, a home science student from Rajouri cannot possibly read instructions, let alone notice the unwritten signs that a sex-toy store should have stamped all over it.

A still from 'Queen'

A still from ‘Queen’

Rani meets men, all courteous and thoughtful. She is obviously not drawn to any of them. She also meets an Italian chef. He is rude and yells at her because she innocently suggests improvements to his cooking. While he shouts, she, because she’s a girl from Rajouri and not a woman from South Bombay, promptly cowers. The chef hires her a few scenes later. It is my guess that he must have been intrigued by a guest’s unusually attractive quality to take insult from a man who other fussy visitors expect to be all courteous and shit.

In the meanwhile, Rani has obviously developed a crush on him. The message is simple: you want to win an Indian girl, you scream at her. Everyone else—tall Russian men who draw anti-war graffiti on walls and cute Japanese men determined to be happy despite a horrifying past, and ripped, gentlemanly American men— get promptly friend-zoned (The message is also wrong, so let’s stick to being polite and not try anything crazy).

The kiss is remarkably wholesome, too. When it happens, one wonders what just happened. Was it her deciding to get close to her ‘crush’? Was it her innocent desire to prove ‘Indians are the best at everything, ji’? It was both, but much more the latter. It was nice because the moment was but a fleeting one. She kisses, and walks away with a triumphant smile. Phew. Close call.

The kiss is reminiscent of that terrifying near-kiss between Shashi, played by Sridevi, and Laurent, the French guy in ‘English Vinglish’. There the gora leans in, but all he finally gets to caress are a few wayward strands of the woman’s otherwise neatly braided Indian hair. In that movie, Shashi doesn’t let India down. She feels nothing for a man who is the first in a long time to not treat her like a complete waste of space.

A still from 'English Vinglish'

A still from ‘English Vinglish’

We fear that unlike Shashi, Rani might want something more. We are relieved to know that like Shashi, Rani doesn’t. And we are thankful, for that kind of desire would’ve ruined the pleasantness of it all.

****

The choice of a protagonist like Rani is always a conscious one. It is made because the idea that a woman deserves a bit of mobility and a shot at happiness can be sold to an Indian audience most convincingly if the woman appears to deserve it without a doubt. A woman in a Hindi movie deserves happiness, provided she’s above blame, flawless and, oh well, a bit of an idiot. Naiveté, credulity, compassion towards single unmarried mothers, and the ability to quiver in fear before overbearing men oozing raw sexuality are some of her qualities.

Armed with these qualities, Rani is never really the underdog that the movie wants us to believe she is. She has all that it takes to be a winner in a world where purity of a woman’s body and mind is valued above all. Sure the fiancé rejects her, but the rejection is merely a way of making her appear weak in the beginning. How else do you create the conditions for her eventual triumphant return! The idea is to build sympathy toward her. The guy is a westernised jerk who now prefers short clothes to sweet tempers. And he makes the sweet woman weep. Rani ends up being hurt. I don’t know about others, but her tear-filled eyes melted my heart, and her ‘aap mere papaji se baat kar lijiye’ request almost made me cry.

****

I must stop here and let everyone know it’s quite alright to celebrate the virtue of innocence in a woman. It becomes a problem when it is projected as the only virtue worth being celebrated in a woman. Hindi cinema has been doing this forever now. It routinely selects chaste women as its protagonists. Sometimes it creates horror stories such as ‘The Dirty Picture’ to act as a warning against women who can’t keep their urge for men and money in check.

But lately, it has started packaging and selling chastity in a way that appears less out of step with our modern sensibilities. That is what Vikas Bahl does, and quite convincingly so. A drink here, a brief moment of camaraderie with a sex worker there, and in Rani, he successfully re-creates ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’s Suman, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s Nandini, and even Cocktail’s Mira without letting anyone a whiff of what’s happening.

Starbuck-lols

So the world has lined up outside Starbucks CP. And it’s annoying the hell out of you. Why again? 

They are wasting their time, my friend. And that gives you an advantage. That gives you the time you are not spending lined up outside Starbucks. That’s additional time. You can do a lot in that time. Read. Write. Travel. Hit the gym. Watch Argo. Learn Spanish. Take a bath. 
 
Unless you are also wasting time. By worrying about it for instance. Then you are just as stupid. And annoying. 
 
(PS: Worrying about Starbucks mania and also doing a whole lot of other things? Obviously this post wasn’t for you then. Relax already.)
 
 

The Odds Don’t Matter

By Kinshuk Kumar

There seem to be these two people within me who have never seen eye to eye on any issue. They have always been at each other’s throats. I’ve known them all my life and I know exactly how either would respond to a question posed to it. Which isn’t all that difficult since one of them is a perpetual cynic while the other is hopelessly hopeful.

Now as would be expected if a guy was blessed with such a pair of friends, I’ve had considerable fun at their expense. All I had to do was ask them what they thought will happen when India plays its next one-dayer. Or if the test I was about to take would be a cakewalk or a disaster. And then I let them have a go at each other.

I never kept count but when I was younger, both seemed to be even and neither looked like a runaway winner. As the years have gone by, however, the cynic within me seems to have started defeating the optimist quite regularly. And now it has stopped being fun.

But it’s not merely because the cynic is like the all-conquering Aussie side under Steve Waugh while the optimist in me seems like the current Indian test side that can’t remember the last time it won anything worthwhile. It’s also because of the kind of questions I started asking the two of them- uncomfortable questions that I probably should not have asked at all.

A lost test match really isn’t all that bad. But it’s quite frustrating when you find the latest round of public rage against the state’s criminal neglect of the public good mellow down.  And then I can almost hear the cynic within me go, “I told you so.”

When an Anna Hazare or an Arvind Kejriwal rises in protest against the shamelessly blatant abuse of power by those who hold it or when thousands gather at India Gate to voice their anger against the pain inflicted on the women in this country the optimist, all battered and bruised, hopes that things will change for the better. The cynic, though, gains in confidence as he sees these movements fall flat on their faces, with the State using all its might to squash all protests.

The optimist within me sees hope in every single candle march, every single voice of dissent out there (on platforms both virtual and real) while the pessimist can’t help wondering if any of it would lead to any real change.

At the moment, the cynic does seem to be winning every time and the odds do seem stacked in his favour. But no matter how outrageously hopeful the optimist within me might seem I’ll still do the crazy thing and back him till the end.

(The writer is my brother. He’s also an engineer-turned-banker, a feminist, a cricket fan, a movie buff and among the most intelligent, fearless and down-to-earth people I have ever known.)