Review: Udta Punjab

I’ll be writing the occasional film review for Hindustan Times. If you’d like the concise, printed version, click here. The unedited version is below.

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On the face of it, Udta Punjab has everything going for it. Shahid Kapoor spends much of his screen time shirtless: win. He’s in a film with Kareena Kapoor Khan: another win (even if they don’t have a single scene together). Alia Bhatt delivers a virtuoso performance as a migrant worker. Diljit Dosanjh makes his Bollywood debut, shows off his comic timing as well as hero-wallah charm, sings a hauntingly lovely song and gets the girl (sort of). The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is stylish, clever and breathtakingly beautiful in moments, without ever seeming contrived. The subject — drug abuse in Punjab — is provocative and the controversies surrounding the film’s certification have generated at least double the publicity that a conventional promotional campaign would have managed.

There’s a lot in Udta Punjab that director and writer Abhishek Chaubey gets right and perhaps his biggest achievement is the wry tone of storytelling. Udta Punjab is made up of depressing stories, but even while being sensitive to this toxic problem that’s clogging Punjab’s veins, Chaubey’s direction and co-writer Sudip Sharma’s punchy dialogues manage to keep the despair at bay. Little asides and nuances will make you smile — like how the drug suppliers vicious Doberman is named Jackie Chan, or the conversation that two cops have about whether a truck driver is trying to turn Punjab into Mexico.

Chaubey also draws powerful performances from almost everyone in his cast except Shahid and Kareena. This is ironic because they’re probably the names that got the film greenlit ultimately. Yet Kareena sleepwalks her way through the film, as though her alabaster complexion will distract the viewer from the bland portrayal of a crusading doctor. At least Shahid tries hard. Unfortunately, Tommy Singh is a mess on the page and no amount of prancing around shirtless can solve that problem. To begin with, what exactly is Tommy? A DJ without a console? A pop star without a song and only an electronica track? A rock star who jumps around to synthetic beats? And what is that “coke-cock” song? At one point, while talking about himself, Tommy blithely refers to being “number 3 on the Asian underground charts” and then in the next sentence tells us he’s a “pop fucking star”. There’s just one teeny little problem: electronica isn’t the same as pop music.

Udta Punjab hopes that Shahid’s high energy, bad wig and bare chest will be enough to woo the audience, and to be fair, he is enjoyable to watch even if he does an unconvincing job of playing a functioning drug addict. When you look for logic or depth or realism, there’s none. If everyone who snorted cocaine behaved like Tommy does, Bollywood party photos would be very different from what we see on Page 3. The problem with Tommy is that fun as he is, Shahid fails to make him more than a collection of hollow stereotypes — the eccentric, the stoner, the rock star, the dude, and (of course) the saviour.

If Udta Punjab was an average Bollywood film, then these two star performances wouldn’t have stood out for their mediocrity. Unfortunately for them, Alia Bhatt and the supporting cast — particularly the dirty cop Jujhar Singh and the teenaged drug addict Balli — are brilliant. They’ve all immersed themselves in their roles, even if it is that of a two-bit junkie, and this lifts the writing immeasurably. Almost every character is clichéd in terms of the writing, but the acting and direction make them feel powerfully real. The young man playing Balli has barely three lines in the film, yet he stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre. Bhatt’s role should have been a minor one, but she is magnificent as the migrant worker trapped in a drug lord’s mansion. She fills out the barely-there character, which is as hackneyed as Tommy’s rock/pop/DJ star, with her sensitive performance. More power to Bhatt for not just picking a role that few in the industry would have the guts to, but also making us fall in love with a woman who’s fallen, beaten, brutalised, yet never broken.

What Udta Punjab deserves the loudest round of applause for, though, is its brave politics. Admittedly, there’s little by way of insight, but the film does lay bare how selfishly Punjab’s politicians have encouraged drug abuse, particularly while campaigning during elections. The fact that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) got twitchy about the representation of how politicians smuggle drugs to their constituencies says volumes about the CBFC — lest we forget, these are political appointments. Not just that, Bhatt as the dispossessed and exploited worker is incandescent when she delivers a furious rant about all the awful, self-destructive decisions that she’s taken because she fell for the promise of “achchha time”. Surely the word “achchha” is not a casual pick and perhaps it will make those in the audience wonder what bad decisions they’ve taken in the hope that it will usher in good times.

And yet, for the flash, dazzle and power of Udta Punjab, the film is ultimately deeply dissatisfying. As laudable as its ambitions may be, it fails to rise above clichés. Chaubey struggles to weave together and do justice to the many strands that make up its plot. For instance, the film begins with a beautiful little episode involving a Pakistani shot putter, but the across-the-border angle is left unexplored. The love stories in the film waste precious time and are half-baked while Tommy Singh is excessively baked. Post-interval, coincidences are as prevalent as drugs in Punjab, making it ludicrously simple for an earnest doctor and cop duo to unearth the nexus between politicians and drugs suppliers. Blood spurts, bullets are fired and all hell breaks loose for little ostensible reason other than the fact Chaubey needs to tie up the many loose ends. When the film ends up on a beach in Goa — because that, ladies and gentlemen, is where you go to get away from drug abuse — and the girl rescued from Punjabi drug lords rechristens herself “Mary Jane”, then all you can do is roll your eyes. It’s not just a juvenile joke. It makes a mockery of everything that the film has shown before.

Still, Udta Punjab may be the most ambitious film Chaubey has made so far. It’s also his weakest, but perhaps he’s had to edit and tone down the film he’d wanted to make in the process of getting a producer on board. However, the fact that Chaubey chose this topic and was able to make the film is cause for good cheer. We can only hope that the controversy with the CBFC won’t make Bollywood back away from projects like Udta Punjab and funding Chaubey’s next one. Because even at his weakest, Chaubey’s Udta Punjab is head and shoulders above the average Bollywood fare.

Udta Punjab: the dilemma of a film reviewer

It’s a film that a lot of us want to love, given how the CBFC has tried to yank its chains. But should you be kinder to a film because it was harder to get it released? Or should you just see a film for what is on screen? I ponder on this here

For those too lazy to click, read on. (But come on, you can click, right? If not for the article, then for a photo of Shahid Kapoor as Tommy Singh?)

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Yesterday evening, there was a press show organised by the publicity team of Udta Punjab. Usually, this is an unremarkable occurrence, but this pretence that Udta Punjab was like any other film about to be released was the final act of resistance by its director and producers. It isn’t. This is a film that has been victimised by the Central Board of Film Certification to the extent that Bombay High Court rapped the CBFC’s knuckles for demanding unreasonable cuts.

Days after that judgment, a print of the film mysteriously appeared on torrent sites. It had the words “For Censor” on the left hand corner and a ticking time stamp at the centre of the frame. Rumours started floating that “someone” in the CBFC had leaked it out of spite. (On yesterday’s super prime time on Times Now, filmmaker Ashoke Pandit made it amply clear that the film could not have been leaked from anyone other than the CBFC.) If that’s true, then the CBFC really doesn’t care much about the tender sensibilities of Indian audiences because the version that’s floating online is without the cuts that the CBFC had prescribed. Also, if the CBFC really is behind this move, then Pahlaj Nihalani evidently knows more about illegal downloading than he does about the films he censors and certifies without seeing.

It’s a shame he didn’t discuss this classy move with the Department of Telecom — perhaps then the DoT would have instructed internet service providers to unblock access to torrent sites.

However, even for the technologically challenged, the DoT barricades are barely an obstruction. And so, by Thursday night, a day before the official press show, a significant number of people had seen Udta Punjab for free online. Not just that, they’d seen the version that director Abhishek Chaubey had intended for the audience — with all abusive language in place and Tommy Singh peeing on a crowd. They know that Udta Punjab is a fun, gory and dissatisfying film that is far from being Chaubey’s best work. It doesn’t offer much beyond the obvious, in terms of insight into Punjab’s drug problem. Those who have seen it also know that the script lacks the cleverness that characterised Chaubey’s previous films. They know Kareena Kapoor is the film’s bimbo, successfully flattening a good role to seem like an extension of a cosmetics commercial. They’ve seen Alia Bhatt prove yet again what a magnificent talent she is with her portrayal of a nameless migrant worker. Shanatics have had their chance to ogle at Shahid Kapoor’s bare torso as he worked hard and struggled at delivering a credible performance as the unpredictable Tommy Singh. However, if there is a moment when their hormones don’t swamp their judgement, they’ll have to accept Bhatt and Diljit Dosanjh are the real stars of Udta Punjab.

With the leaked version freely available, the press show organised on Thursday was irrelevant. Only those feeling particularly loyal to Chaubey and Kashyap (while turning a blind eye to the films and television shows they have queued up in their downloads) or with terrible internet connections would have not seen the film. And yet Udta Punjab had a press show. More than a publicity effort, it was a plea. It was a reminder to the press of how difficult it is to release a film that isn’t formulaic, and how badly the film needs the support of the press.

This places the average film reviewer in a quandary. They’re not just watching and writing about any old film in case of Udta Punjab. They’re commenting upon censorship in Indian cinema.

Most of us forget that censorship isn’t limited to the CBFC. For Indian cinema, it’s a tortuous process that begins from the moment a script is brought out to find producers and stars who will act in it. At every stage, the film will have to be modified because if it has any element of provocation or reality in it, everyone gets cold feet. Anything that’s unformulaic scares the commercial film industry. As a result producers, script consultants and general know-it-all advisors who listen to a ‘narration’ — because god forbid these people actually read the script themselves — shake their heads at the parts that seem adventurous and say “audience won’t accept”. Sometimes, they’ll attempt logic by pointing to other films based on real incidents, most of which haven’t “worked” at the box office and need more “mass” or “commercial” elements.

And so, scene by scene, detail by detail, song by song, the script changes. Then, in the process of being shot, the story changes again. A star refuses to say a line, a scene can’t be shot because of technical problems, local political party workers disrupt a shoot and it’s too expensive to redo the scene, the weather isn’t cooperating — the problems that a film crew face range from banal to bizarre.

The net result, though, is that the story of the film changes, yet again.

Consequently, by the time a film reaches the CBFC, it’s already been censored by the producer, whose priority is usually just to make sure the film releases and is box office-friendly, and circumstances. Despite the game face that directors put on while being asked about their films, very rarely is it the film they wanted to make, especially when it’s about a topic as complex as Udta Punjab.

So what is the responsibility of a reviewer? Do you applaud the decision to make a film that’s bold, that has its ear to the ground and challenges the hackneyed rubbish that Bollywood usually feeds us? Or do you just see the film as a film, ignoring the herculean effort that’s gone into bringing it to life?

 

On Marriage

There are certain things I hadn’t imagined. One of them was me being in India Today’s annual sex-survey issue. Read it here, illustrated by a sketch by FN Souza (whee!). For those who are lazier, et voila:

 

Let’s play a game. What comes to mind the moment you hear the word marriage? Matrimonial ads detailing caste and complexion? Weddings that leave families bankrupt? More bills to pay? Jokes about hen-pecked husbands? Counselling? Meddling in-laws? Messy children and/ or messier divorce? If you’re among the tiny percentage that thought “happily ever after”, go give your spouse a hug and/or return to your Mills and Boon.

Given what we hear and see of marriage around us, it’s a wonder this institution has any takers. In popular culture, being married is basically an excuse for family melodrama. Real life isn’t much better. The happiest of couples will tell you it’s “hard work” and invariably end up using words like “responsibility” and “compromise”. Worse than those who gaze longingly and say they miss their single years are the ones who talk about the fun they had as a newly-married couple like they’re discussing the Indus Valley civilisation – with nostalgia shimmering in their eyes, making it patently obvious that fun has left the building. And then there are the separations, divorces and alimony scandals.

With this sort of a publicity campaign, it’s not surprising that the next generation of adults isn’t tempted by matrimony. According to this year’s survey, one fourth of India’s youth (aged 18-26) have been in a relationship for more than four years, but are still not married. It’s the sort of statistic that strikes terror into the hearts of middle class parents. But if the best we can say about being married is that it starts off as fun and within a few years, is either boring or headed for a divorce, we’re really not selling the institution very well.

Marriage’s biggest problem is that it evolved into a romantic institution in the middle of the 20th century, when events like the decline of imperialism and the World Wars disrupted the existing status quo all over the world. Women stepped out of households in India and abroad to engage in politics and public affairs, only to discover just how little society thought of them. It must have been alarming for men as well – whether sensible or foolish, they had to rethink what they knew of society as they encountered women who challenged the long-standing patriarchal belief that the other sex is weaker and therefore less worthy.

Had it not been for at least some men seeing women in a new light, marriage would have remained an alliance between families and a smokescreen for assets changing hands. Fortunately, it shape-shifted. In those years, when our grandparents and great-grandparents were falling in love, marriage was redefined. Behaviour that had been condoned and even dismissed – like infidelity, abandonment and abuse – was first frowned upon, then criticised and finally criminalised. None of this would have happened had people not fallen in love with the ones they married.

This marriage, powered by romance, is a delicate, young thing. It’s also rare. Marriages in which people stay together even though they’ve never felt love for one another – that’s 14% of all married couples in India – or the 67.8% that wishes they were with someone else are an archaic and arguably more common version of the institution. Of course the young want no part of this institution. Especially if you are in a loving relationship, why would you want it to devolve into this unhappiness?

But imagine a marriage in which the two of you can be yourselves. Imagine a life with someone who takes pleasure in looking at you, no matter what you wear or weigh. Imagine living with the one who can brighten the darkest of moods in another person’s life simply by being there. Imagine having someone who won’t give up on either you or the argument the two of you are having; the one that ends in either giggles or make-up sex (or both). That’s the kind of marriage that we have conjured into being over the past few generations. That’s the kind of marriage that’s worth having.

Can you find all this in a relationship without getting married? Of course you can. Will it hurt less if your unmarried heart is broken? No. There’s something teetering between pragmatism and extreme caution that lurks around that statistic of young people not wanting to get married, even though they’re in committed relationships. It’s disconcerting. Because what kind of a youth won’t throw caution to the wind and take a chance, especially in matters of love? What sort of a society have we created where men and women in their early 20s aren’t prone to romantic flights of fancy? Why is this gen-next so afraid of being hurt? Or is it simply disinterested?

Of today’s young adults, a considerable number have sex freely, think porn is sex education and go to the hook-up site Tinder in search of jobs. If that’s the lot that isn’t getting married for love, thank god. If they did, it might really be the end of marriage as some of us imagine it. Here’s to the 75% that (one hopes) is less jaded.

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.

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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.

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.”