August Links: Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, Algorithms, teledildonics and more

My reviews of Drishyam, Bangistan, Brothers, Gour Hari Dastaan, Algorithms, Manjhi: The Mountain ManPhantom and The Man from U.N.C.L.E..

The government of India blocked 800 websites in an effect to keep the population pure and innocent. These were supposed to all be pornographic sites (but included comedy and news websites). In an effort to defend this crackdown, Shaina NC described the internet as a place that exposes users to “constant pedophilia”. Okay then.

Earlier this year, The Economist drew up a list of the safest places in the world, evaluating them on digital security, health security, personal safety and infrastructure. Riyadh, Beijing, Pyongyang are not on the list. It does, however, have a number of cities well known for being open about sex and sexuality, like Tokyo, San Francisco and Montreal. Despite the easy access to sexual acts that many would consider downright weird and even creepy, these cities haven’t become dens of criminality. In contrast, where the restrictions are the most stringent, there is more crime and less security.

Statistics show that countries with greater freedom and equality make for more responsible and balanced societies, which in turn leads to less criminality. Statistics suggest that restrictions do the opposite. Instead of trawling through the internet looking for pornography and exposing itself to “constant pedophilia”, perhaps our government could tell us what is its vision of an ideal society and how violating liberties guaranteed by the Indian constitution makes us a better society.

And as it ponders, let’s keep in mind this gem from the same NDTV programme, by author Chetan Bhagat: “I don’t need the state to do me.”

Sir, you speak for all of us.

It was also the month when, serendipitously, I discovered this thing called teledildonics.

Teledildonics aren’t quite as futuristic as sex with robots or operating systems and they do have a distinctly human element to them because they can – wait for it – communicate touch. Foremost in the arena of teledildonics is Kiiroo. The company’s masturbators, using Bluetooth and other technological fanfare, claim to communicate the sensation of a person’s touch even if two people have continents between them. Once your device is paired with your partner’s via Kiiroo’s web platform, if you stroke your device, he’ll feel it at his end (somewhat literally). The webcam is optional, but recommended. Suddenly, sexting and Skype-sessions seem rather tame. Perhaps even inadequate.

…In contemporary India, social sex toys like the Onyx and Pearl could have an enormous market. One of the major obstacles couples face is the lack of actual space to canoodle. There are numerous cases of young adults being harassed by police and security guards while on a date. If you live with your family, then it’s difficult to get privacy at home. Those who live alone have to deal with landlords, most of whom keep an eagle eye on visitors – especially if the tenant is a single woman – and staying overnight is usually impossible. Imagine a situation where all you need to is coordinate time with your partner and make sure you’re in a room with a decent internet connection and a door that locks.

There were simultaneous screenings of Nakul Sawhney’s documentary Muzaffar Nagar Baaqi Hai all over the country and while some were disrupted, the one in Mumbai eventually took place without a hitch. At one point, it seemed as though at least one of the two screenings in Mumbai would have to be cancelled because there were rumours of one venue being visited by the police and eyed threateningly by investigative agencies. Ultimately, TISS opened its doors and thank heavens for that, because it was fantastic to see the film with the crowd that had gathered there.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by for the Muzaffarnagar riots, which have already faded from public memory despite being some of the most horrific we’ve seen in recent times. Homes were destroyed, families were separated, children watched elders being killed and tortured. Sawnhey takes his camera into the ‘relief camps’ – there is little relief there – and talks to many survivors. There are stories and shell-shocked faces inMuzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai  that will haunt you.

Independent reports estimate 100 people were killed and 80,000 were displaced in the riots. It isn’t as though there were no Hindu casualties, but 90% of those affected are Muslim. The only family that does say it has received compensation (Rs 15 lakhs, for a young man named Kallu who was killed during pre-riot violence) is Hindu.

July Links: Ahalya, Amy, Minions, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and more

My reviews of MinionsI Love NYBaahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Masaan.

Asif Kapadia used paparazzi footage and home video to great effect in Amy. It was strangely unsettling to realise that ‘candid’ home videos ended up being far less honest and revealing than what the paparazzi showed of the singer. Ultimately, as they sniffed compulsively for scandal and weakness, those photographers ended up documenting just how troubled Winehouse was, while in her friends’ and family’s videos, she seems to constantly be performing an act of normalcy.

Sujoy Ghosh made a short film for the web titled Ahalya, which reminded me of the previous tellings of this myth. The unedited version of this essay is up at The Growlery.

What we can do, however, is wonder and interpret. Because wound into an epic that reeks of testosterone, aggression and masculine strength is the story of a woman whom society and its code of ethics fail. She follows all the rules and yet is wronged by the man who marries her and used by another man who claims to be in love with her. Perhaps it’s a word of warning that in the games of masculine posturing, the victim and the pawn is the woman. This was true in the golden age with Ahalya, when Indra’s wounded ego demanded he have the last hurrah in his competition against Gautam and Gautam couldn’t tolerate the idea of having been bested by Indra. It happens again, 60,000 years later, when Sita is ostensibly the reason that Rama goes to war against Ravana. Yet when the war is over, Rama first rejects her as impure even though she’s been faithful to him and then abandons her. It’s almost as though the narrator is suggesting – albeit with great subtlety – that some things don’t change with time.

June Links: Gajendra Chauhan, Jurassic World, Charles Correa and more

Remembering the fantastic architect, Charles Correa. RIP.

June is when Gajendra Chauhan was appointed head honcho of FTII. No end in sight for this controversy, despite continuing hunger strikes and fiery student-teacher protests.

My reviews of Kakka MuttaiDil Dhadakne DoJurassic World and Spy.

On Indominus Rex from Jurassic World:

It takes a while for Indominus to reveal herself. Instead she watches us and we get to see only signs of her rage and her strength: she’s made a shatterpattern in dino-proof glass. The walls of her cage are being raised higher to make sure she doesn’t scale them.

Indominus grows up in a futuristic Eden — an enormous caged area, filled with lush greenery, on an island. Born in a lab, without any sense of parents or family, Indominus and her brother are dropped into this world. They see only each other and a crane that lowers food into their compound. We’re told that she’s eaten her sibling and that she’s turned out to be pale-skinned (perhaps a reference to her being a blank page that is yet to be coloured by experience?).

As villains go, Indominus is superb because she’s so much cleverer and more capable than all the heroes that try to take her on. Owen points out that she’s trying to find her place in the pyramid of power in Jurassic World and that growing up alone must have been traumatic for her. When she steps out and decides to test her powers, Indominus’ capacity for violence is immense. She’s horribly cruel and yet, you find yourself feeling a little twinge of sympathy for the raging, crazed dinosaur. It’s almost as though she’s channelling all the anger of all the dinosaurs that have been tamed, caged and manipulated to become playthings for humans.

I wrote about depression in India and the iCALL helpline, which is for those going through any kind of “emotional crisis”.

And joining the club of thoughtless tweeters was Hema Malini when she squarely placed the blame of an accident, in which a child was killed, upon the child’s father. 

May Links: Bombay Velvet, Mad Max, Salman Khan and more.

My reviews of Gabbar is Back, The Spongebob Movie, Piku, Mad Max: Fury Road, Bombay Velvet,Tomorrowland, Tanu Weds Manu Returns and San Andreas.

The music of Bombay Velvet gave me a chance to draw up a playlist of one of my favourite music composers, OP Nayyar.

When Mumbai Mirror revised its rating of Tanu Weds Manu Returns because of “reader feedback and research”, I wrote this.

“However, kowtowing to public opinion and blurring the lines between advertisement and editorial content threatens to be the way forward in contemporary journalism. As it is now, journalism is a broken business model and no one is quite sure how to fix it. Our only source of strength and encouragement: we’ve never had this many interested and eager-to-engage readers.

But in India, this enormous audience may end up to be a double-edged sword. Our viewers and readers are vocal, frustrated and yearning to outrage because it makes them feel less helpless. Unnerved by the intensity that’s been glimpsed in public surges like the anti-corruption begun by Anna Hazare and the pro-women’s rights movement that was galvanised by the Delhi gangrape of 2012, public institutions often choose to follow prevalent moods because that feels like the safer option. If you don’t, you risk drawing the ire of online trolls and offline muscle-flexers. The media has choices to make at this juncture. How will we serve our readers, our integrity as well as our paymasters?”

A look at the PR campaign that has kept Salman Khan’s image as the Bhai of the people intact.

“Either we’re so starved of role models that we can’t bear to dislodge Khan from his pedestal or we’ve lost both our ethics and our capacity to reason. Educated, upwardly mobile and urbane people, who are meant to be more discerning because of greater life experience and better opportunities, are defending Khan with the naivete that would conventionally be associated with the illiterate. There are messages pouring in, expressing dismay at Khan being sentenced to five years’ imprisonment because he’s a good man. None of them appear to be concerned with where Khan’s goodness had vanished when he pinned the blame on his driver who had nothing to do with the hit and run. It doesn’t appall any of them that Khan’s behavior led to the loss of life, presumably because a homeless man is worth much less than Bollywood’s Rs 100-crore man.

Khan’s popularity and the support that has been extended to him is perhaps the most damning indictment of the society that we’ve created in modern India. You’ve got to wonder about exactly what ‘goodness’ means to people who don’t think murder is a character flaw.”

May also saw the curious case of Kumar Vishwas and a postmodern Ramayana.

“…the point isn’t whether rumours should be taken seriously. Even in something as ostensibly silly as this case, our society’s gender imbalance is evident. A woman wants a man to deny a rumour so that her husband will not divorce her — it’s a nightmare of sexism and patriarchy-induced anxieties.

Why can’t this woman point out to her husband that her word should matter more to him than Vishwas’ public statement? A woman is not her husband’s possession that he can throw her out of the house because he doesn’t ‘want’ her. She has as much right to be in that home as he does. Also, Vishwas cannot be held responsible for what is clearly a lack trust between a married couple. Vishwas may be sexist, but that’s no justification for the husband behaving like a misogynist creep.

However, to actually consider what position the woman finds herself in would be looking at real gender issues. Not just from the perspective of how she’s treated by her husband, but especially if the complaint against Vishwas is politically-motivated, then this case could offer a very uncomfortable look at how women are seen by the Indian political establishment and what they need to do to catch the powerful people’s eye.”

Oh, and the Haridwar FDA decided Madhuri Dixit is to be blamed for Maggi not being as wholesome as its ads promise it is.

April Links: Marathi and Korean cinema, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, FilmBay and more.

One of the silver linings of being lazy and not updating links for … umm, forever, is that it gives you a sense of just how fleeting some of our excitement is. For instance, back in April, so many were eagerly anticipating FilmBay. It’s barely a blip in popular memory today. I wrote this back when FilmBay was announced.

My reviews of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Dharam Sankat Mein, Margarita With a Straw, O Kadhal Kanmani and The Age of Ultron.

There was a little bit chest-beating when the Maharashtra government said that multiplexes must show Marathi films at prime time slots. It wasn’t a new move and it may actually have helped Marathi cinema. This was a look at the attempts to promote Marathi cinema in comparison to the South Korean campaign to popularise Korean cinema.

“The Maharashtra government seems to think that by opening up one prime time slot, it has done its bit to help the Marathi film industry. However, it takes a lot more, both in terms of money as well as creative support. Ask the producer of any big-budget film that has flopped and they will tell that not all the prime-time shows in multiplexes can assure anyone of a hit.

It’s worth keeping in mind that quotas still exist for films in South Korean, but they’re widely regarded as unnecessary now. Filmmakers embraced the freedom given to them and made films that were sometimes gory and sometimes as melodramatic and saccharine as the average Bollywood blockbuster. Exposed to both Hollywood, arty Korean cinema and pop Korean movies, the audiences have lapped it all up and cheered for local content. Kim Dong-ho says in The Birth of Korean Cool, “Frankly speaking, this quota system has no meaning because now the market share of Korean films has reached 50 to 60 percent. So even if they eliminated the quotas, it would not harm the Korean film industry.”

Can the Maharashtra government genuinely promote entertainment and culture in the state to reach a point where regional cinema doesn’t need crutches like a government order to multiplexes in order to stand on its own feet? As long as there isn’t freedom to create and there is the scare of government censorship, it seems unlikely.”

And the month ended with the Minister of State for Home making this prononouncement: “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors… .” A sputterance followed, naturally.

“No one can force India’s politicians, judges or anyone else to open their eyes to the reality of marital rape. However, people like Chaudhary should keep in mind that marriage as an institution is changing rapidly in India. Ironically enough, those changes are being effected by some of the very factors Chaudhary listed. Only, they’re contributing to dismantling and de-institutionalising marriage.

…Studies suggest that this imbalance is more likely to lead to rising violent crime — often against women — as well as theft. For instance in China, which has as skewed a sex ratio as India, abduction of women is becoming more and more common. The big change predicted for India and China is that marriage will no longer be “universal”, which means the vast majority of the population will not be married.”

March links: Remembering Suzette Jordan, the India’s Daughter fracas, Jerry Seinfeld and more

Why Suzette Jordan’s voice mattered:

Suzette Jordan leaves an enormous absence, but hopefully, it’s one that we will fill with the necessary conversations about how to survive as a woman in a society that’s being struck by a backlash against women who are wriggling out from under patriarchy’s thumb. Our statistics for violence against women may not seem as bad as those of countries like America, but the levels of misinformation and victim-blaming in India are depressingly high. We need to talk about rape and harassment responsibly and sensitively, so that understanding is furthered instead of stigma.

In the cacophony surrounding violence against Indian women, we need more voices like Suzette’s. Voices that are clear, loud and unashamed. Voices that will start conversations, not fights. As long as we don’t let ourselves be gagged by fear, in our ordinariness lies our strength. Suzette Jordan taught us that.

Rest in peace.

March also saw a massive controversy erupt over India’s Daughter, a painfully mediocre documentary on the December 16 gang rape. Why the government wanted to ban it, is a mystery since the decision to do so made India look far more idiotic than the documentary itself.

Continuing the trend of politicians making Onion-worthy comments, Sadhvi Prachi urged India to boycott the Khans. I wrote this:

I’m disappointed that while lashing out at Bollywood, Sadhvi Prachi didn’t point out that there is a film out in theatres now that stars a Khurrana instead of a Khan, and is just the film that should warm all our hearts, regardless of our political leanings. Dum Laga ke Haisha could become the Hindutva brigade’s favourite film, the one to screen at annual general gatherings and at indoctrination camps.

Starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pendekar (note: good Hindu names), the film is set in the Hindu, holy city Haridwar. It has no violence, if you ignore minor details like a husband and wife slapping each other and a young man threatening to set himself on fire. Because hey, if it doesn’t have stunts and fake blood, it’s not real violence, ok? Liberals, make a kachori of emotional violence and stuff your faces with it.

The film’s hero is a young man who is deeply committed to his shakha, a gathering of men in shorts (and khaki sweaters) who meet in the morning and do PE together. If that doesn’t bring a single tear to the eyes of everyone with an RSS background, I don’t know what will. And the cherry on the cake: there’s a sub-plot in Dum Laga ke Haishaabout the hero’s aunt that is bound to make Sadhvi Prachi and gang choke up with emotion. The aunt was married as a child to a gentleman who sent her back to her family without any explanation. While she lives with her brother, hoping against hope that her husband will want her back, her husband goes on tirth-yatra (tours of pilgrimage spots). Surely this angle in Dum Laga ke Haisha will give Jashodaben Modi the warm fuzzies?

Read the whole piece hereDum Laga ke Haisha was absolutely adorable, though I had a few niggling issues with it. That, though, is just me being nitpicky. It was a charming little film and it did well at the box office. Yay!

Jerry Seinfeld was supposed to have a show in India, but it got cancelled at the last minute. Before it got cancelled, however, I got a chance to interview him. So that was pretty interesting.

Most of the films from March were pretty meh: FocusCinderella, Hunterrr

The ones that I did find myself liking (unexpectedly) were NH10 and The Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelThey don’t get much more dissimilar than that.

There weren’t too many releases in March since the cricket World Cup had everyone’s attention. I haven’t actually watched a single cricket match in years, but such was the cricket fever that even I ended up writing a piece on an India-Australia match. Only this one was held in Mumbai, in a film called Awwal Number.

February links: Bad films, good films, Oscar grump, literary feuds and more.

I’d like to hold this wretched heat responsible for the fact that I completely forgot to put up links of published articles for the past couple of months. The way the temperature’s been rising, the only logical explanation for Mumbai’s weather is here in this Instagram post. But let us rewind to when the temperatures were less harsh and when less of my brain had molten into slush. Here are the links from February.

Reviews of Shamitabh, Badlapur, Qissa and a running commentary of watching Roy‘s first-day-first-show. February was Oscar season, so here’s what we saw in the theatres from the list of nominees: Mr. Turner, Wild Tales, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American SniperThe Imitation Game, Wild, Whiplash, Boyhood. The big winner, ultimately, was Birdman and I wrote about the predictability of Oscar wins. In case it wasn’t obvious, I preferred Boyhood.

There was an odd programme on the History of Sex on television, which I wrote about here.

I know it’s fashionable to feel outraged these days — and considering all that’s happening around us, it seems we’re all en vogue, regardless of our political and cultural orientation — but MSG was the next level of shamelessness. Here’s a sample of my rant about MSG.

I’d like to imagine that in a culture that values aesthetics and creativity, the critical establishment would ignore MSGentirely. Singh has every right to make it, just as his fans and admirers have every right to see it. However, when we as critics consider MSG worthy of a review, we’re giving cinema a bad name. And it’s unfair because MSG is not a film. It’s propaganda.

But caged as we are today by the need to follow trends and the conviction that growth is judged quantitatively and not qualitatively, MSG is a film. With each review that we write, we’re validating Singh, with his non-existent cinematic skills and dubious intents, as a film director. When we say that his film is laugh-out-loud funny, we’re unwittingly putting him in a category that includes real comedic talent and ranges from the silly slapstick of Padosan, the black comedy of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the mischief of Chupke Chupke, the goofy stupidity of Andaz Apna Apna and the crackle of Hera Pheri. No wonder Singh grins at us leerily through his unkempt beard. Now there are more people who know him as a director and actor than as one accused of rape, murder and possession of illegal arms. Everyone who laughed at MSG, the joke’s on you.

You can read the whole thing here.

Speaking of outrage, Bhalchandra Nemade and Salman Rushdie had an online spat of sorts. I couldn’t help but say a prayer of thanks that writers are, in fact, lunatics and wrote this piece looking back at literary feuds.

My personal favourite literary feud, however, is from 2008, between Derek Walcott and Naipaul. Naipaul had observed that only Walcott’s early work showed talent so Walcott responded by writing a poem for and about Naipaul, titled “The Mongoose”. You can hear Walcott recite it here.  It includes lines like, “The old mongoose, still making money as a burnt out comic”

What’s worth noting in all these examples is that the authors fought (sometimes viciously), but these incidents didn’t take on proportions that intimidated either party. If anything, the provocative statements encouraged debate and discussion. There were no silences because of these feuds; only conversations that were louder and more passionate.

Read about other, more scandalous author squabbles here.

Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t get a release in India, so I took a walk down memory lane and realised Bollywood romances are kinkier than you’d think.