Category Archives: India

Of facts, fictions and unreliable narrators of Chaniya Cholis

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Let me state from the outset that I have previously shared and appreciated Neha Dixit’s work because she has (generally) reported well on women, gender and class. Her stories tend to be well-researched, her empathy shines through and she reports with stories on people who are under-represented in India’s corporate English media. She has also previously responded well on Twitter, to constructive criticism of her piece.

So it is hugely disappointing to see a different reaction emerge last week when she was questioned about her own caste privilege in a piece that really problematizes how Dalits are spoken about in English language media, and to further see her refuse to engage with any of the people who have come forward to critique her piece. Clearly, gender and class are legitimate biases to own up to, but bringing up her own upper-caste identity is ‘discriminatory’. Read the rest of this entry

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Ambedkar and the savarna classroom

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Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

[Note: This post is a result of several discussions with friends and acquaintances on the recent publication of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘Annhiliation of Caste’, by the publisher Navayana, with an introduction titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ by Arundhati Roy. Since then, based on the criticism of Brahminical hegemony it has evoked from Dalit sources, several academics, journalists and commentators have criticized the objections as being ‘essentialist’ and ‘reductive’. Read Dalit Camera’s ‘Open Letter to Arundhati Roy’ and ‘Arundhati Roy replies to Dalit Camera’, for some context, and below those posts on Round Table India, do read every single post by critics contributing to the debate around the introduction and what it represents.

This post is my own attempt to sort through the issues with my experience in academia, and to explain why I agree with those in Roundtable India on the appropriation of Ambedkar’s work and legacy.]

… I cursed another good hot curse.
The university buildings shuddered and sank waist-deep.
All at once, scholars began doing research
into what makes people angry.

– Keshav Meshram, ‘One day I cursed that mother-fucker God’, (trans. by Jayant Karve, Eleanor Zelliot with Pam Espeland)

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On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 2) — the brilliance of Gangs of Wasseypur 1

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First, I highly recommend you read my initial post on subversion as a storytelling technique in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai.

Previous Disclaimer applies: This is not a review, but a detailed critique like I did with ‘Shanghai’. I will analyse several aspects of the films which will include spoilers so please do not read if you haven’t watched GoW1 yet.

Also, this was meant to be about both GoW films, but after I finished drafting the post for the first part, it was already over 3000 words long and I thought, screw it. There can never be too much of a good thing. So expect a Part 3 to follow up when GoW2 releases. 🙂

When I think of bald Bollywood actors, the first name that comes to mind is Shetty, whose gleaming head and meancing glare often made Dharmendra flex extra muscle in numerous 70s flicks. The second name that comes to mind is Shakal of Shaan, whose eccentricities extended to owning an island, having a shark for a pet, and wearing ridiculous costumes.

So it’s an obvious conclusion to look at Bajpai’s fully shaved head through most of the film and wonder whether he is protagonist or antagonist. You realise early enough that protagonist and antagonist are really just matters of perspective, and that Kashyap has already subverted our very idea of what a Bollywood hero is.

Of course, anti-heroes in Bollywood have been a factor since the 70s, but never has there been such an anti-hero who is very clearly a villain — someone who enjoys killing but for the sake of poetic justice, who shamelessly lusts but with such seduction and who loves but with such selfishness.

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On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 1) — the case for ‘Shanghai’

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I don’t get cinema. I don’t say this as some sort of grand  sweeping statement, but as a disclaimer. Though I should actually say, “I don’t always get cinema”, because I think the times are a-changing. My film education has been almost entirely Indian cinema, and mostly Hindi films (thanks to meri Ma, appropriately), but even so, I find it very hard to articulate a theory of Bollywood aesthetics. There was a time when I lived abroad that I used to explain Bollywood to my firangi friends as entertainment, not art, and ‘art cinema’ in India as being very different. But over the last few years, I have started seeing film, and even music as a text of sorts with its own narrative, character and textual aesthetic. To put it simply, I have realised that ‘literary’ can extend beyond just text. And films with their visual narrative open up wide levels of understanding about literariness and what makes for art (not exactly an original Eureka moment, is it? 🙂 ).

But I think what’s also come out of it, is that I’ve stopped seeing this divide between high-art and low-art, a Bollywood vs ‘art cinema’ polarity in films, and that has been a sensational epiphany. It feels like I can come out of my closet and express some Bollywood-love and defend it without sounding anti-intellectual.

And I think this perspective is strengthened when you read Rasa theory and realise that aesthetics in India used to specifically involve depicting the eight/nine rasas (emotional states) and evoking emotions from the audience. Performance arts like classical dance still utilise rasas heavily through practiced expressions and movement. But in film, and through some other traditions of Urdu theatre, the framing of sequences and shots, the narrative structure and dialogue also thoroughly imbibed elements of the rasas. Actors in Indian cinema are not expected to be ‘method’ actors who live and breathe their roles to become the character, but are instead mainly expected to portray emotions in a way that resonate with the audience. In that sense, in Indian films, the power lies with the audience — in whether the audience was able to empathise with the character’s emotions, and not in whether the character was believably portrayed. That is at the core of the realist aesthetics of Indian cinema, in my opinion, and where it differs wildly from the Western aesthetic.  For instance, if you were to  look at the rasa of ‘shoka’ (grief/sorrow), where Hollywood may choose to show sorrow through a character’s body language and behaviour in a natural set of circumstances (the classic show-don’t-tell), Indian cinema usually depends heavily on facial expressions and stylised body language – think Nargis in Mother India, the classic pose of carrying the plough, the head tilt and the expression on her face. Mother India (1957) in many ways represents a very classical Indian style of filmmaking, one that influenced Hindi cinema for generations, and that still exists in much of regional cinema.

However, modern cinema has changed that aesthetic significantly. Western elements have invariably seeped in, and there is now an interesting aesthetic shift that commingles disparate aspects of both. I think Shanghai and Gangs of Wasseypur are mature realisations of this aesthetic shift and offer a very interesting mix of both styles, using a very specific technique in storytelling – subversion. I’ll come to this a little later.

A second disclaimer: this is not going to be a review. In fact, it’s going to be a review of reviews that these films have received, in particular Shanghai, which seems to be facing the brunt of claims of misrepresentation, unrealistic characters and stereotyping.  So if you haven’t watched  these films, then be warned, most of what I’m going to discuss involves spoilers, big spoilers and endings and climaxes and whatnot, so this post is best read after having watched the films and read the reviews.

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Perineum: Nether Parts of an Empire by Ambarish Satwik

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On one of those nights when you usually look for something on TV to watch along with your dinner, I came across  a news channel’s panel discussion – a rare well-moderated session on pornography. Certain members of a state  government had been caught watching porn mid-assembly, and there were heated discussions across channels. There were only 2-3 people on this particular panel whose opinions were intelligent and nuanced, and one of them was Delhi-based vascular surgeon Dr. Ambarish Satwik. But I was more than intrigued when I heard he was also an author of pornographic fiction. Naturally, I had to check him out, and Google scrolled up the tantalisingly titled Perineum: Nether Parts of an Empire. I knew I had to get it.

Also, the guy is hot. Yeah, I’m shallow like that.

Apart from this Tehelka review, and an interview in The Hindu, nothing much of either Ambarish or the book is on the internet. Several online booksellers offer customer reviews at most, but nothing really detailed enough to give you an idea of where this book could  sit on your bookshelf.  Is it literary? Is it historical fiction? Is it light reading / popular fiction? None of those questions were answered for me when I decided to purchase it.

Also, book blurbs – overburdened and vague at best – label Satwik’s writing as “feverish fictions lit by Kafka, stage-managed by Manto” (by Mukul Kesavan). Another description inside says he concocts a “Borgesian fictional labyrinth” that just made me scoff in disbelief.

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On voyeurs and exhibitionists, love and the Gaze in India

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 “I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze”

– Jacques Lacan

Sometimes, songs seem to find me when I’m looking for them the hardest. Superstitious crap, perhaps? I’m not sure. There are times when I hear a random song playing in a mall and need to find out who it is, suddenly something will lead me to the artist. For instance at a restaurant called Marche in Singapore once, I heard a clip of what seemed like soulful jazz, sung in something that sounded like French. I immediately asked one of the servers who it was singing, and she had no clue. Five minutes later she popped up, with an iPhone, no less, and told me, “It must be this woman – her name is Cesaria Evora, and the song is apparently ‘Petit Pays. It’s in the Cape Verdean language that has French roots!”

She had an iPhone app to detect songs from recording just a clip.

Things like this have happened time and time again. Just this week, I was humming a folksy tune that I remembered from a few years ago. But I couldn’t remember the words or the artist. I remembered that the music video was shot in an Indian village with lots of TV-like illusions popping up in frames, and that the singer was an Indian female. I googled and tried to YouTube this video for days with every combination of keywords I could imagine, but to no avail, and I just gave up. Then this week, I was being made to watch Satyamev Jayate – an Indian talk show with a bit of a do-gooder host (who I quite dislike) by my mother – and in suffering through it, I sat up when a singer began performing as the end credits began to roll. Her name was Sona Mohapatra and I knew instantly the song I’d been searching for was hers and sure enough, this popped up on YouTube:

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The futility of formally studying literature today (Rant Rant Rant)

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Some disclaimers:

– My focus is only on cultural theory in literary studies and mainly, postcolonialism. I don’t know enough to have a problem with cultural studies  itself, though indications are that I may just rant about that too someday.

– I am not trying to debunk the work of any theorists. Instead, I will be focusing on the consequences of embedding cultural studies in literature courses and the damage I think has been done, as a result.

– My point of interest is Indian literature, and in some cases more specifically, Indian Writing in English. This is obviously because I’m Indian, but also because I’m familiar with the context of cultural studies in India. I have some knowledge of how it works in Australia/New Zealand, but I’m limiting my rant to just India. For now. 

– I use a capitalised ‘West’  to refer to the Western hemisphere and Australia/NZ (though no specific reference is made to Aus/NZ, the school of theory they use is the same as their western hemisphere counterparts).  

– Of course, it shouldn’t need to be said that everything on this blog is my opinion and is expressed as such, so people are welcome to respectfully disagree. 

WARNING: Loooooong post. I hope you have the time.

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On Charu Nivedita’s ‘Zero Degree’ (Trans. by Pritham K. Chakravarthy & Rakesh Khanna)

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NOTE: This review quotes some adult content and contains text that may be offensive to you. Please do not read further if you’re easily offended by dirty language, bodily functions or graphic  descriptions of sex. Also, this is a LONG review, so you may want to make some time for it.

If you are now compelled to read on even more, I like you already. 🙂

This novel gave me nightmares, literally. And I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing.

First, remember everything you are told and have believed a novel is, particularly the Indian novel. Some things on the lines of:

  • A novel is a work of fiction.
  • It contains several common elements such as character, plot, narrative.
  • It explores what is loosely called the human condition.
  • It  may sometimes be an instrument for social change.
  • It is a socio-political reflection of its times.
  • It entertains, informs, educates, etc. Read the rest of this entry

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 5

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There is a moment in Vahid Mousaian’s 2011 film Golchehreh when the central character Ashraf Khan, who owns a cinema theatre in early 90s Afghanistan, is informed that the Najibullah Communist-led government has fallen and the Taliban have control of the city. Ashraf Khan has struggled to keep his cinema alive in the early part of the film, and the news that the increasing opposition by Taliban mullahs will now ban anything cultural etches a profound sadness on his face, along with worry and angst.

Much of that sentiment was echoed at 4 pm in JLF’s central lawn yesterday when festival organisers had to announce that a video link by Rushdie would not go through as planned, because the increasing protests by orthodox Muslims across India had escalated to the point that there were Muslims in the audience who were threatening violence if the video conference was aired. There were rumours also that a large crowd of Muslim protestors was heading towards the venue to create problems. The organisers called it an ‘idiotic situation’, and that they were ‘pushed against the wall’, but made a call to put the safety of attendees first. The responses have been covered over numerous TV channels, including the blistering impromptu panel discussion by Tehelka editors and public figures that included Salim Engineer, secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami explain his side of the protest. For the first time in my life, I started to look around me and actually spot the Muslim faces in the audience, and wonder if a riot would break out any moment. This was bad, we realised, not only, because of free speech, but because we were looking at Muslims as potential rabble-rousers, not as spectators. Couldn’t it have been possible that several Muslims were here to view the conference, to hear what Rushdie had to say? Read the rest of this entry

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 4

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Many sessions have been cancelled or rehashed due to the early exit of the 4 controversial authors. Annie Proulx couldn’t make it due to bad weather in Canada. This only makes my ‘avoid the big names’ theory more valid.

Anyway, Day 4 has been an up and down sorta day.

To start off, we had the Bollywood-focus session with Javed Akhtar, Prasoon Joshi, Gulzar and Vishal Bharadwaj titled Kahaani Kise Kehte Hain: Script, Story, Screenplay. It seems like crowds from Delhi had arrived only for this one session. A catfight erupted in the row in front of us regarding seats, and had to be settled by security staff. And then the MC Catriona introduced the session totally butchering the Hindi title to much laughter from the audience. I have a theory about the use of British Council people introducing sessions that I will elaborate on a bit later. Read the rest of this entry