Flashback: Aisi Taisi Democracy, Tape, Krishna Shroff and the Internet

This was first published on Firstpost.

What will it be this week, Indian internet? Should we succumb to delirium because porn star Mia Khalifa is tipped to be a contestant in Bigg Boss 9? Or shall we ogle at Krishna Shroff’s “topless” photos while wagging a finger at her for sexually objectifying herself? Or perhaps we can direct our attention to another pretty, not-so-young thing, Aatish Taseer, who has made tongues wag by declaring himself a better writer than Saadat Hasan Manto?

French philosopher Joseph de Maistre had said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” With the internet, the relationship is even more direct. We fashion the internet with every little and big thing we put online — every photo, every status update, every article, every video, every post. This is what makes the Internet so versatile, so delicious and so tasteless all at the same time. It’s being moulded and remoulded every day, according to the tastes and fancies of those who make use of it.

This is liberating only as an idea. In practice, the Indian internet is an alarming creation that just isn’t quite as protean as one would hope. The bulk of Indian online content reeks of insecurity, ignorance, aggression and hormones. When it comes to pornography, we’re on top of the pile. Our piracy stripes are pretty decent too. Social media, where an argument need not be either considered or fleshed out, is our preferred swamp. We have some of the finest trolls the Internet has known. If there’s a trend or a situation that requires a kneejerk reaction, we’re all over it in a jiffy.

But where are the smarts? Where are the intelligent conversations? Who has their eye on culture, instead of gossip, ‘trending’ topics and forgettable, broken news? No one. Listicle over analysis; hashtag over perspective (even though neither of these are mutually exclusive, if you think about it).

The point isn’t that we should all aspire to an elevated intellect (though would that really be a bad thing?), but that in India, we’re so intently focused upon junk that we’re in danger of being reduced to Pavlovian responses. Pop culture has its champions (as it should) but celebrating it to the exception of everything else isn’t an encouraging symptom for the Indian internet.

Last week, Mumbai saw two extraordinary live shows, both of which were sold out despite limited publicity. One is Aisi Taisi Democracy, a show of stand-up comedy and music by Varun Grover, Sanjay Rajoura and Rahul Ram. In it, Grover and Rajoura serve up a hilarious and biting critique of modern India. They spare no one. From human resource teams to politicians and parents, everyone gets a tongue lashing. And in Grover’s case, the tongue-lashing comes in a melodious, sophisticated Hindi that delivers abuse with cadence.

While the songs in Aisi Taisi Democracy were strictly forgettable, Grover and Rajoura were incandescent. With smiles that resembled flickering halos, the stand-up comics mused upon why a man would have his name stitched on his clothes, if it’s possible for a lion to leave just one paw print, “Bharatiya sanskriti”, the magazine Grihashobha and old-fashioned juicers. The realities that Grover and Rajoura were talking about are dark and depressing, but the two comics lit up the gloom with their sense of humour. And so for two hours, everyone laughed and laughed, and laughed some more.

Did Aisi Taisi Democracy break the internet? There was nary a crack.

Over the weekend, a show called Tape was held in a bar in Mumbai. Performed by Patchworks Ensemble and presented by Gaysi Family, Tape is about “drag kings”. Women dressed up as men and presented a masculinity that was as much a performance as it was authentically felt. Drag is the act of wearing the clothes and make-up of a different gender from one’s own. It has a long tradition in Indian culture and is traditionally done by men, who adopt feminine persona (particularly in classical dance and traditional theatre). In Tape, drag was seen in a modern context and through the experiences of women and their bodies.

Tape was funny, cleverly choreographed and fabulously performed. Everyone had their moment in the spotlight. Puja Swarup was extraordinary as a wannabe-Shammi Kapoor. From expression to gestures, she seemed like a human Xerox of the yesteryear star. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee belted out a song about her “ding-a-ling” that no one knew but everyone joined in. Mukti Mohan played Harpal, a tiny Sardar with explosive energy and extraordinary dance moves.Tape was scandalous and looked spectacular, despite being enacted in the modest corner of a bar.

But Tape birthed barely a murmur in the world of the Internet.

At both Tape and Aisi Taisi Democracy, the audience was discouraged from recording the event. Tape didn’t even want photographs to be taken during the performance, ostensibly because it would be distracting for the performers. (This is plausible since there really wasn’t much of a gap between the first row of audience members and the ‘stage’.) One can’t help but feel that under this excuse lurks a fear of what will happen if trolls and others of that ilk get to know about these events. Recently, at a screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, one member of the audience said, “It’s tough to know how much to publicise this stuff. You don’t want the wrong people to find out.”

In Aisi Taisi Democracy, there were repeated jokes about the comics courting arrest with this show. At one point, Grover mischievously advised the audience to laugh with discretion — a reference no doubt to the charges lodged against members of the audience in AIB Knockout.

Yet for all the good humour, there was a sense of leaden certainty that the threat of getting arrested isn’t a joke for anyone who questions convention and the establishment. If the ‘wrong’ people come to Aisi Taisi Democracy or Tape, then these shows could be shut down and those responsible for them could be (at the very least) harassed. These are cultural works that should encourage conversation; make us think about different topics ranging from body image and feminism to democracy.

Yet, if the data is to be believed, we’d much rather yammer on about Shroff’s bare skin and Taseer’s delusions.

There’s something painfully tragic about the fact that the Internet, which could be and often is used for so much good, is also responsible for cultural debate that has about as much nuance as haggling in a fish market. Today, the Internet helped to bring to light what Khabar Lahariya‘s journalists are suffering in the hands of a phone stalker and the Uttar Pradesh police. That’s a win in terms of awareness, but it isn’t a conversation starter. If anything, it shuts too many of us up because it confirms our darkest suspicions about what it means to be a woman in patriarchal India.

Reality has a way of doing that, of making everyone go quiet. Art and culture, on the other hand, keep us loud and on our toes. They’re both close and distant enough to evoke just the right intensity of emotion to rev you up, but not paralyse you. At its best, art makes us question and dream. It angers, inspires and offers us spectacles as opposed to blinkers, provided we can discuss what we see before us. Provided there is something to see. Provided there’s a place where you can hear and be heard.

So what is it that you’d like the internet to be today? A simple placard of protest? A jenga tower of political ambitions? A weapon? A haven? It can be any of these; it could be all of these. We, the ones with the Internet, decide. So click with caution, and create with abandon.

What will it take to get #OccupyUGC to Page 1?

If you’re annoyed by how much of mainstream media (MSM) is devoted to Salman Khan and his acquittal, allow me to point out a tiny matter of 150 students being detained that has barely been reported by the very same MSM.

This piece was written for Boom.

*

Yesterday, in Delhi, a student rally faced water cannons, tear gas, lathi charge and mass detention. This happened in broad daylight, at 5pm. The students were protesting the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) decision to scrap fellowships to MPhil and PhD students who have not taken the National Eligibility Test (NET). By 7pm, there were shocking photographs and snippets popping up on social media.

Eyewitness accounts say the police action was brutal and unprovoked. Women have said they were groped and manhandled. There are video clips that show policemen beating protesters viciously. Photographs of two separate students show blood streaming down their shell-shocked faces. The Delhi police detained reportedly 150 students at the Parliament Street police station.

Take a look at this morning’s newspapers. There is no mention of this incident on the front pages of any major Indian newspaper in English.

If this protest and the way it was handled had taken place in an obscure part of the country, one could perhaps forgive the newspapers their blinkered perspective. (Though arguably, the whole point of newspapers and news channels is to bring you news from further than your backyard.) But these young men and women were assaulted in the national capital, where every newspaper has a bureau. More than 100 students were held in a police station in the heart of New Delhi. There are claims that the police is refusing to file FIRs that will put their brutality on record.

This, according to the mainstream print media, isn’t really newsworthy apparently.

Had the crackdown on the Occupy UGC protest happened late at night yesterday, there would have been some excuse to not have managed a proper report on these violations in today’s newspaper. But all this happened at 5pm, well before the deadline hour for newspapers. There would have been more than enough time to gather a report of what happened at the protest and what was happening at the police station — particularly since all this was unfolding in Delhi — before the newspaper was readied for printing. There are articles taken from the Press Trust of India wire service, which are available online on a few respected news sites, like NDTVDeccan Herald had put up the PTI report on its website within a few hours.

The Indian Express website has a report that has particularly disquieting details.

The protesters said Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists who had kept away from the protest showed up at at about 12.45 am and stayed put outside the UGC office. They were not touched by the paramilitary or police forces, the protesters alleged.
 
…’There was absolutely no provocation from students. Several students were severely injured, but the police did not stop. We then decided to block roads at the ITO crossing, following which the UGC decided to meet a delegation of students,’ said Pratim Ghosal of DSF.
 
De said, ‘After two hours of violence, the police put forth a condition before our fellow protesters, telling them to disperse if they wanted us (picked up from UGC office) to be released. They were forced to agree.’

Look at the print editions of the major newspapers in English, and you’d never guess that any of this has taken place. If a researcher goes through these newspaper’s print archives for December 9, 2015, they will find no mention of this incident. Unless you look on the internet, it’s as though the protest and the brutal police response didn’t even happen. And then we call the online world “virtual”.

If students being assaulted in the national capital isn’t newsworthy enough to be on the front page or even be reported (in the case of some newspapers), what is? Does Occupy UGC need to trend on Twitter and Facebook before mainstream media considers it worthy of Page 1 and printer’s ink?

Yesterday’s violence is not the first time the Occupy UGC protesters have been targeted by Delhi police. The UGC announced its decision to slash non-NET fellowships on October 7. Since then, there have been at least two occasions when the protesters have taken to the streets and faced state-backed violence. They faced lathi charge and 100 of them were detained in October and in November, 40 students were detained.

Backed by students from different universities from all over the country, Occupy UGC has snowballed quickly. No one denies that the UGC has a point when it claims fellowship funds have been mismanaged. However, the solution to that problem isn’t scrapping the entire programme, argue students.

In addition to the original issue, there’s now an additional fear that the government will follow in the previous regime’s footsteps and welcome WTO’s 160 member nations to establish educational institutions as commercial ventures in the country. Nandita Narain, president, Delhi University Teachers’ Association, explained, “The UGC’s decision [to discontinue non-NET fellowships] is linked to the government’s decision to open higher education to market forces, which is why it doesn’t want to invest any money in its institutions.

Would foreign players in the educational arena really be a bad thing? Champions of this plan would argue that a little competition may well force state-backed institutions and colleges to improve their syllabi and teaching systems. Narain points out that there is a significant adverse effect to privatising education: “There will come a time when only the rich will get teacher taught education in India and the rest will have to opt for cheaper, low quality, online courses. It means most of our young people will be denied quality education. This is intellectual colonisation.”

The Delhi police, HRD Minister Smriti Irani, the AAP-led local government and the powers that the Delhi Police reports to may or may not agree with Narain and the student unions. They’re welcome to their opinion and in fact, some reasonable debate on the state of education in India would be very welcome. However, water cannons and cracked skulls are not hallmarks of a conversation. Neither are tear gas, assault and detention.

Worse yet is the complete silence on this topic in mainstream media, which is currently facing a serious crisis. The readership figures for print publications are inching downwards instead of going up. With the internet providing (accurate and inaccurate) news faster, conventional media outlets are struggling to prove their relevance. Ignoring incidents like the Occupy NGC doesn’t help the newspaper and news channels’ cause. If anything, it just confirms their irrelevance.

Among many readers and viewers, there’s a growing sense of contempt at journalism and journalists. Those on social media face it consistently. Catchphrases like “paid media” are flung venomously at journalists and readers regularly question a journalist’s biases, ethics and reporting ability.

If journalists and editors keep ignoring issues like student protests, “paid media” is going to end up being a compliment instead of invective. It implies someone is willing to spend money on us, which no one will bother to do — whether it’s a salary or a bribe being paid — if we don’t bring out the news.

To misquote a famous slogan, ask not what your readers do for you, but what you’re doing for your readers. And look at that front page. Because at the moment, there’s more to be gleaned on the state of the nation by what doesn’t make it to Page One than what does.

Protest, politics and Indian contemporary art

It’s always nice to have one’s byline in a publication they read, but in many ways, The Hindu is specially special. It’s stood for a serious, no-nonsense gravitas for generations. So to be in its op-ed pages is a good feeling. As a friend put it, “Ex-governors, professors, statesmen…and you. Vaav.” I feel thoroughly grown-up. For now, at any rate. 

Here’s the unedited version of the article on Indian contemporary art and political protest:

Let’s be honest: aesthetically, Siddhartha Karawal’s “Divine Cow” is not the most noteworthy bovine in the annals of Indian art. It is, however, perhaps the most manhandled one.
Last month, at the Jaipur Art Summit, Karawal’s “Divine Bovine”, consisting of a cow made of Styrofoam and a balloon, made the news. It was floating above the Pink City, minding its own business. Unfortunately, this offended some people. So the cow was hauled away by the local police. Who the offended were and whether they were feeling offended on behalf of cows in general or Karawal’s Styrofoam cow in particular remains unclear. We can only presume they’re the same people who garlanded and worshipped the once-floating, now-grounded cow when it was in police custody, and that its bovine honour was restored when the worshippers yelled “Gau mata ki jai!”
As it turned out, all those outraged by “Divine Bovine” were mistaken in their assumption that Karawal was poking fun at sacred cows. “Divine Bovine” was supposed to be a critical comment upon the way we mistreat cows in cities. Karawal wasn’t challenging anyone with “Divine Bovine”. If anything, he and the cow-brigade were essentially saying the same thing: show the cow some love.
What this ridiculous episode served to underscore is that an artist may create a work of art, but it is the viewer who completes it. If the one who sees it will not or cannot recognise the artist’s intention, then it’s hopeless.
Around the world, contemporary art is used to seeming incomprehensible. To perplex is almost a basic requirement — it’s the first step to ending up as thought-provoking. In addition to this, most modern and contemporary Indian art is politically bland, which makes it seem almost indulgent to some. Still, art’s ability to perplex may have saved some of our more talented artists.
For instance, in his video titled “Three Bullets for Gandhi”, artist Tushar Joag multiplied himself into three and arranged his avatars to look like the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Each Joag spat out bullets and fire. Some may only notice how handsome Joag looks in “Three Bullets for Gandhi”. Others will wonder about the violence and twisted ideals that the State embodies when Joag presents his carefully-inexact replica of the official emblem of India. Ahimsa, anyone?
Back in 2002, artist Shilpa Gupta peddled little bottles filled with red liquid on the streets and local trains of Mumbai. The bottles were labelled Blame and carried this inscription: “Blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control – your religion, your nationality.” The curious performance was her way of responding to the US-led ‘war on terror’. By the time she was ready with her little bottles of Blame, the Godhra riots had happened and “Blame” felt more pertinent than ever. Imagine her performing “Blame” today, and I, for one, get the chills.
In 1994, Bhupen Khakhar painted a watercolour in which a seated man was cradled by another. Both are nude. The one who comforts the seated man is mostly blue-skinned. He has many arms and in one hand, there dangles a garland. In another, the blue-skinned man holds a lotus that is rising out of a discarded, green shirt. The painting is titled “How many hands do I need to declare my love for you?” It’s an exquisitely gentle and tender painting, glowing with sensual intimacy. However, a homophobe may be disgusted by it and if the person viewing “How many hands…” is itching to manufacture outrage, they can go blue in the face claiming Hinduism has been insulted.
Fortunately, few know of these works of art and fewer have actually seen them, which means both the art and the living artists are safe. Since Indian contemporary art has cultivated a reputation for being elite and its audience is at best described as niche, few see or talk about it. Add to this the deplorably outdated collections of modern art in most Indian museums. Net result: the chances of being seen are low and being misunderstood, lower.
Usually, an Indian artist becomes a topic of conversation when their works break records at international auctions or if their name is Maqbool Fida Husain. When Husain was first accused of obscenity and disrespecting Hinduism because he had painted Hindu goddesses as nude figures, it must have sounded like a joke. If traditional temple art is to be believed, these divine ladies aren’t particularly fond of covering up, after all. But the ridiculous turned first into embarrassment, and then miserable shame.
Court cases were filed against the artist. Violent protests, led by right-wing political activists, would mushroom every time his paintings were shown. There were numerous cases of serious vandalism, led by thugs believed to have political connections. The fear inspired by the anti-Husain brigade was so piercing that one gallery hid the fact that an upcoming exhibition included a portrait of his. It wasn’t even a painting by Husain. It was just a photograph of him.
Husain had his share of supporters, particularly in the art world, but outside, the detractors swarmed public opinion. People said Husain was courting controversy in the hope of staying relevant. None of them paid heed to the fact that he didn’t need religious sectarianism to stay in the news. If anything, the political ‘activists’ who led the charge against Husain were the ones riding on the coattails of his fame and reputation.
The Supreme Court would eventually dismiss the cases against Husain in 2011, but by that time, the damage had already been done. The eagerness with which Husain was maligned would make many in the Indian art arena less inclined to wave their aesthetic fists in the right-wing’s face. If Husain, with his charm, fame and media-savvy, couldn’t make himself be heard, then what chance did others have? Galleries couldn’t afford to have their premises vandalised. Artists couldn’t afford long-standing court cases. The Husain experience suggested that the well-behaved world of Indian art needed to add caution to its bag of tricks.
And yet, despite being studiously apolitical, Indian contemporary art has also been unwaveringly idealistic. It was born out the Progressives’ burning need to develop a distinctively modern and indigenous artistic identity. Since then, the art may be exhibited in cocoon-like galleries. It may be bought and sold by an elite that is frequently disconnected from average Indians. Still, within the private monologues and debates that characterize Indian contemporary art, our artists have also questioned social attitudes and criticized the establishment. Only they’ve done this subtly, with neither them nor their gallerists making any noise about the politics.
Sometimes the protests and idealism would be meshed in artistic imagery, like in the works of Navjot and Vivan Sundaram. Repeatedly, we’ve seen artists rally together to create collectives like Sahmat, Open Circle and KHOJ, which have offered insightful socio-political commentary. Sometimes the questions would be tangled in the dense but beautiful works made by the likes of CAMP and Desire Machine Collective. Performance artists like Inder Salim and Tejal Shah have long perplexed many with their strange and fantastic ways of exploring political issues. Recently, 400 artists signed a petition supporting the writers who returned their National Awards. Before you ask why they didn’t return anything, check how many Indian artists have been chosen for state honours. It’s a disappointingly tiny number.
Perhaps it is time for Indian artists and art to become less polite and more political. Perhaps it is time to abandon subtlety. But that’s only half the work done. If they voice their protests, will we hear them or the cacophony? If they create a work of political art, will we see their idealism or will we see only sacred cows?

Does it make sense to pledge allegiance to India before watching Hate Story 3?

The short answer is “No”. The long answer is below.

(First published on Boom.)

Hate Story 3 and The Good Dinosaur are releasing this Friday. If you choose to watch any of these films at a movie theatre, then there’s a good chance you’ll be expected to stand up when the national anthem plays before the film. Because if there’s a decision that demands you confirm your respect for the nation, it most definitely is choosing to watch Hate Story 3. And what could be more opportune a moment to salute India than before watching a dinosaur and his pet human beat the evolutionary odds in a Pixar film?

In case you think a cinema is not a place to make a patriotic statement and you don’t stand up, then you would be committing an action that at least one court in the country deemed more serious than murder.

Last year, six people in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, didn’t stand up when the anthem was played before a film screening. They were charged with sedition and disrespecting the national anthem. Four went into hiding and two, Harihara Sharma and M. Salman, were arrested. Sharma got anticipatory bail. Salman didn’t. The local police said, “We are also looking into whether Salman has any links with anti-national forces.” It would be a month before Salman would finally get bail, even though there was no evidence connecting him to any seditious activity.

Suddenly, in comparison, the Muslim family that was harassed for not standing up when the national anthem played in a Mumbai cinema seems to have gotten off lightly. All the people in the theatre did was abuse and threaten them. No one has formally charged them of sedition. None of them are in jail. After a few cuss words and threats, “a peaceful environment” (to quote PVR Cinemas’ official statement) was restored. Maximum City really must be liberal and progressive. Depending on your sarcasm radar, you may either roll your eyes or nod earnestly now.

Oh, all this happened before a show of Tamasha. Whether or not you like black comedy, the universe certainly does.

Ever since the video showing the family being surrounded and harassed by belligerent men in a movie theatre was uploaded on November 29, there has been what passes for debate in India these days. On social media, quotes were circulated from the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971 and people howled about how ridiculous it is that one could go to jail for three years for not standing up during the anthem. Only that’s incorrect: The law says that you must intentionally prevent the national anthem from being sung or cause disturbance while it’s being sung in order to qualify for its prescribed punishments. It shouldn’t take a lawyer to prove sitting down doesn’t amount to disturbance or prevent anyone else from either hearing or singing the anthem. Neither should sitting amount to sedition.

For a vast number of Indians, however, the family’s action is unpardonable because it’s being seen as unpatriotic, rather than simply criminal. As director Raj Konar said to Mumbai Mirror, “People got angry because they [the family] could not even stand for two minutes for the people who sacrificed their lives for us.” Konar is the man responsible for the video of “Jana Gana Mana” that shows survivors and heroes of 26/11. “It took me three years to make this film,” said Konar, no doubt in an effort to underline his patriotic spirit.

And yet, despite all his passion, Konar didn’t notice that in the English version of his film, the slide that exhorts the audience to stand up, the word “martyr” is wrongly spelt. That’s how important the memory of those who died in 26/11 is to Konar. When writing about them, he couldn’t be bothered to run a spell check.

Who decides that this carelessness is less offensive to those who died and the idea of India? Who decides people don’t have a right to register their dissent? Who decides standing up during the national anthem is the only way to be patriotic? Would there be as much furore about the decision to sit through the anthem if the family didn’t have members wearing hijab? Had they not been identifiable as Muslims, would the audience have satisfied itself by only abusing them rather than escalating tension to the point where the family had to be escorted out?

It makes no sense that you have to declare your allegiance to the nation before watching a film. It’s hilariously absurd when you have to do it before watching, for instance, Captain America or a film about a ship’s crew that turns to cannibalism to survive (In the Heart of the Sea also releases on Friday, by the way).

The directive to re-introduce the national anthem in Mumbai cinemas came in 2003, following a demand from the National Youth Congress. At the time, many described it as a political stunt. Few believed the obviously computer-generated Indian flag that waved mechanically on screen in the early “Jana Gana Mana” videos could inspire patriotism.

Soon enough, people figured they may as well make the national anthem work for them. Special videos started being made. Of late, producers have made “Jana Gana Mana” videos featuring stars from their upcoming films. These usually show up a few months before the film release (I’ll leave you to figure out why Farhan Akhtar may have been chosen to do the voiceover for the video that’s currently playing in many Mumbai theatres).

Will standing up to a publicity campaign really prove your love for the nation? One of the recent multiplex anthems is a karaoke version of the song, complete with a bouncing dot. Is that really what will keep national honour intact?

The bitter irony in the way “Jana Gana Mana” is being used to force Muslims and dissenters to cow down, is that it was selected as the national anthem because it celebrated our diversity. If you only know the song as what is played in cinemas, you’re allowed to roll your eyes at this cloud castle of an idea. After all, when the lyrics list the states, “Jana Gana Mana” casually includes a bit of Pakistan and completely misses vast tracts of India, including Uttar Pradesh, the North East and new members of the republic like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

But if you’d like to feel a little spurt of patriotic warmth, read or hear the second verse of “Jana Gana Mana“:

 

Ohoroho tobo aahbaano prachaarito,
Shuni tobo udaaro baani
Hindu Bouddho Shikho Jaino
Parashiko Musholmaano Christaani.
Purabo pashchimo aashey,
Tabo singhaasano paashey
Premohaaro hoye gaanthaa

 

Jana gana oikyo bidhayaka jaya hey,
Bharata bhagya bidhata
Jaya he, jaya he, jaya he
Jaya jaya jaya jaya he.

 

Roughly, this stanza translates to:

 

Your call is heard throughout,
We hear its gracious melody.
Hindu, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains,
Parsis, Muslims, Christians,
The East and the West,
All gather around your throne and
Weave a garland of love.

 

The chorus replaces the ruler (“adhinayak“) with the one who unifies everyone (“oikyo bidhayaka“).

This was the vision of India as a brilliant miscellany that Rabindranath Tagore crafted while writing “Jana Gana Mana“. (Incidentally, it was not dedicated to George V.) When in 1950, Tagore’s poem was chosen as the national anthem over “Vande Mataram“, the reasoning was simple. “Vande Mataram” was a beautiful and rousing cry, but Bankimchandra’s poem had been tainted by Hindu communalism. It was a slogan that divided India along religious lines. Too often violence had flared with one group shouting “Vande mataram” and the other responding with “Allahu Akbar” (or vice versa).

Tagore, with the romanticism that gleams out of so much of his poetry, imagined an India of distinctions, rather than divides. He imagined differences that stood shoulder to shoulder and created a more vibrant, stronger nation. Today, with “Jana Gana Mana” going the “Vande Mataram” way and being claimed by Hindu nationalists to foster animosity, Tagore’s idealism seems almost naive.

Maybe if some of us sit this one down a few times, the rest will remember just what they’re standing up for. Or have we reached that point where we need a new anthem? Is the India that Tagore imagined in “Jana Gana Mana” so out of sync with the India we live in today? This much is for certain: considering how we’re baying for the blood of anyone who dares to dissent or protest, this country isn’t the one Tagore was celebrating in his poem.

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.

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.