Flashback: Surviving MSG 2 – The Messenger

This piece was first published on Firstpost.

Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan released MSG – Messenger of God on Valentine’s Day this year. In a miracle that rivals the Immaculate Conception, the godman has birthed a sequel just seven months later. It’s called MSG 2 – The Messenger. If there is a god, then no doubt he’s heaving a sigh of relief that “of god” has been dropped from the title. Sadly, no one else can feel relieved – certainly not this writer, who paid Rs 250 for a ticket and thus unwillingly contributed to MSG 2‘s kitty.

I walked out of MSG – Messenger of God because to consider it worthy of being reviewed offended my sensibilities. Not because I’m Bengali (our sensibilities are notoriously delicate and sophisticated) but because I have a functioning brain and I know the difference between cinema and propaganda. Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan is not a filmmaker and what he makes aren’t films. When we watch his on-screen spectacles, we are choosing to be entertained by the most tasteless exhibition of rhinestones in the history of human endeavour and letting a man with thoroughly questionable credentials get away with seeming like he’s a harmless entertainer.

Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan is neither harmless nor entertaining. If he was either, then one presumes he wouldn’t have to round up crowds of people from other parts of the country to fill theatres.

In Mumbai, there was only one morning show of MSG 2 and it was a full house. When I reached the cinema about 45 minutes before the show time, there was a man near the ticket counter who was talking loudly on the phone. “Twenty four were booked and I’ve bought 96 more,” he said in Punjabi-accented Hindi.

(When I went to get my ticket, I was told at the counter that there were just two seats available. “They’ve made block bookings,” said the man at the counter, with a pained expression.)

Fifteen minutes before the start of the show, the hordes started gathering outside the cinema’s entrance. Dressed in their Friday best, they came in like a procession. “Break it up,” ordered a young man wearing reflective wayfarers like the ones “Guruji” sports in MSG 2. “Go in in groups of two or three, not more than that,” he said. “Remember, two or three.”

Another man said, “Those who are going to the counter, over here.” Ten-odd people, mostly men, gathered around him. “You go one by one, and ask for tickets to the man on the other side of the glass.”

Further away, a woman was talking about the afternoon show’s timings. Someone else was distributing tickets to the people around him. One person asked him, “When will we go in?” He told them to be patient, that they would be told when it was time. I didn’t get the point of this vague answer until much later.

When the film started, the theatre was about half full. It was evident that most of the audience were not from Maharashtra. Either that or they’re unused to watching films in theatres. As the slide announced that the national anthem was about to start, just seven people stood up (four of them were film reviewers, incidentally). It took a few bars of “Jana Gana Mana” and some hissing to get everyone else in the theatre up on their feet.

By the time 10 minutes of the film had unfolded, more audience members started trickling in. Two or three people – most of them brandishing the torchlight on their phones – walked up and down the aisles, occasionally talking to someone who was seated. From time to time, one person would leave and another would take their seat. Sometimes groups of two or three would leave. Their seats would be filled by different people. It’s as though the audience was on rotation.

On screen, Guruji was telling us about the paramilitary relief force that he has set up, which has saved lives in Nepal and West Bengal. From being the man with a bastion of hospitals in MSG, Guruji is now the Dear Leader of an actual army it seems. His deputies wear boxy suits and have medals pinned to their chest. Just to make sure you don’t read too much into that or the fact that there’s footage of mass marriages that Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan has held for adivasi couples in order to “civilize them”, Guruji sings a love song. To himself. As in, he gazes into the eyes of his own mirror image and croons romantic lyrics. Praise be.

In MSG 2, which we’re told right at the onset is based on true events and “a fiction” simultaneously, adivasis need civilising and Guruji is the man to do it. Thanks to his awesomeness, he’s able to see adivasis are in fact human despite their tiger-striped-leopard-spotted boxers, brown body paint, dreadlocks, blackened teeth and the whooping noises that some of them make. So what if in addition to all this, the adivasis also eat beef, get drunk and don’t believe in marriage? They’re also cannibals, primitive, cruel, stupid and have a surprising affinity for shell jewellery, which is curious given MSG 2 appears to be set in landlocked north India.

Fortunately, Guruji is here to hose adivasis down, and give them manicures, clothes and moral values. Next thing we know, the adivasis emerge fairer, without dreadlocks and with brightly-coloured ensembles and nail paint. That a man with Guruji’s fashion sense is going to give any one advice on what to wear is itself astounding, but before you can be ironic, you have to listen to Guruji’s offensive spiel on how adivasis just need a love to go from asabhya to sabhya.

On the plus side, at least Guruji is anti child marriage and recognises that girls should be given an education. There’s also a contest between Guruji and an elephant and without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say the bigger belly wins.

It’s worth pointing out that Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan may be pulling out his gold-trimmed armguards and his Made-In-China sudarshan chakra, but his audience was not riveted by either his antics or his lectures. From my last-row perch, I could see a constellation of glowing screens, which is never an indicator of engagement (at least not to what’s on the bigger screen). There were no applauses, no cheers. There may have been a snore or two.

About 15 minutes before the interval, when I was trying to decide if I should leave the cinema now or let my intelligence and aesthetics be assaulted till the end of the first half, the seat next to me emptied. A woman sat down a little while later. “You’re not allowed to record the film,” she told me. I told her I would rather die than have even a second of this on my phone. She blinked. I realised I’d spoken in English so I said in Hindi that I wasn’t recording it.

“You turned on your phone,” she said. “I saw the light.” Then she realised that I was using the phone to light up the page on which I was taking notes (yes, it’s true, I have notes for MSG 2).

“What are you writing?” she asked me. “You can’t write down the story.”
“There’s a story?”
“What?”
“I’m allowed to write anything I want actually,” I told her.
“You can’t write the whole story,” she insisted.
“According to whom?”
“I want to see what you’ve written.”

I handed her my note book, confident in my ghastly handwriting. I can barely make out my notes and I’m the one who wrote them. This hapless woman didn’t have a chance in hell.

By this time, one of the torchlight patrolmen had showed up. He peered down at us.

“She’s writing in her book,” the woman told him. He shone the light at my notebook for a moment and then on my face.
“You can’t write in here,” he told me.
“Who says?” I asked.
“It’s not allowed.”
“Who says?” I repeated.
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” I asked in return.
“Punjab.”
“You’re far away from home,” I told him.

On screen, an eagle had dropped what looked like a coconut on an adivasi village. The coconut cracked open and it appeared to be full of blood instead of, well, coconut.

“It’s not allowed, to record the story,” said the young man.
“I’m not recording it.”
“You’re writing it.”
“First of all, I’m not writing the story. Secondly, even if I did, it’s allowed.” I smiled with what I hope was saccharine sweetness.
“There are more of us here,” he told me.
“That doesn’t mean the rules change,” I replied. “It’s still not a crime to write in a cinema. I’m pretty sure it is a crime to bring in more than one person with one ticket though.” I smiled at him again, inwardly cursing my ghastly Hindi grammar.

The young man switched his torch off. “You want me to sit here?” he said in Punjabi to the woman beside me. The woman shook her head. He went and dislodged a boy from the row in front of me and sat down.

On screen, an adivasi boy grabbed hold of a CGI snake and shook its head. A little later, Guruji revealed among his many miraculous talents is the ability to communicate telepathically with buffaloes. A buffalo whisperer – if that isn’t an honest-to-goodness Punjabi superpower, I don’t know what is.

I left the cinema at interval. When I reached the office, in my inbox was an email informing me MSG 2 had had record-breaking first shows in Gurgaon. I’m expecting one about its box office run in Mumbai soon enough.

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Farewell 2015, part I

At the start of every year, I look back and realise, “Crap. Haven’t updated the links for x months.” This 2016 is no different. So here are the movie reviews from September and October.

Welcome Back: Biggest surprise of 2015, since I was well prepared to hate this film. 

“There’s a lot to love in Welcome Back if you don’t expect intelligence from the film. Like a sequence in which Uday and Majnu play antakshari with ‘ghosts’ in a graveyard (with neon tombstones, no less). You get to hear Kapoor singing “My name is Lakhan” after 26 years. There’s also a don named Wanted Bhai who gets a operatic chorus sing “Wanted Bhaaai” each time he makes an entrance. Just to bring this character home, his son’s name is Honey (played by Shiney Ahuja, which makes this role a double whammy of unfortunate names). And let’s not forget the desert chase that involves hovercrafts, skydivers, four-wheel drives, helicopters as well as a random train of camels.”

Hero: Possibly the most forgettable film of the year. Not sure. I forget.

“By the time interval strikes, you’ve got to feel bad for young Pancholi and Shetty. Sooraj and Radha may be sporting bruises that look like the make-up team was using lipstick to make tally marks — perhaps to show how many days of shooting these two newcomers had survived? — but the real wounds are deep. Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt got the vapid but glossy Student of the Year. Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor got the nonsensical and lavish Saawariya. The son of Aditya Pancholi and daughter of Sunil Shetty get Hero, a film as B-grade as their fathers’ filmography. Herois ill-conceived, outdated and lazily made, with neither director nor crew giving a hoot for details like continuity or logic. Pancholi and Shetty deserved better; not because they’re star kids, but because as actors they commit as much as they can to the colossal ineptitude that is their debut film.”

Katti Batti: Evidence of Bollywood’s stupid convention of privileging gender over talent.

“Give the film a little more time and you’ll realise that the film is not a study of what love means to lunatics. It’s disguised marketing for a manufacturer of toilets. Or perhaps this is Advani subtly accepting just how bad Katti Batti is.

There are critical moments of the film in which toilet bowls appear for absolutely no reason. For instance, when Maddy meets Payel’s ex-boyfriend, it’s in a toilet. They could have chatted by the wash basins, but no. We see the ex-boyfriend pee in one cubicle while Maddy sits on the toilet, in the neighbouring cubicle, comforting his turtle. This is not a euphemism. Maddy and Payel have a pet turtle named Milkha, which might be the only joke in Katti Batti that works.”

Meeruthiya Gangsters: Meh. 

“If Quadri is to be believed, then Meeruthiya Gangsters is an honest portrait of the average youth of UP. This is not a particularly heartening thought because then, one would have to surmise young men in UP are not just cartoonish and prone to mindless violence, but also idiots. South India and women in general, please refrain from holding up “Told you so” placards.”

Black Mass: Yet another piece of evidence for the case that Johnny Depp is among the most overrated actors in Hollywood.

“The questions that we should be asking while watching BlackMass are whether Whitey will actually succeed in getting the better of the FBI and if Connolly will get sniffed out? Instead, we find ourselves wondering whether the wig on Edgerton’s head is made of plasticine and if the expressionless Depp is actually a vampire, because what else explains that Edward Cullen-esque pallor and lifelessness? The prosthetics, fake hair and ice-blue contact lenses make Depp resemble Whitey, but it’s all so patently a feat of make-up that Whitey might as well have been CGI.

Despite being based on a true story, Black Mass feels theatrical and fake. Everyone is obviously playing a part and the performances all feel hollow.”

 

Pawn Sacrifice: One of my favourite films of 2015.

“This is an intriguing story that’s made gripping by Zwick’s masterful direction and the extraordinary performances that he gets out of his immensely talented cast. Maguire is incandescent as Fischer and despite being the film’s producer, he doesn’t whitewash Fischer in order to get sympathy. His Fischer is a brat, ungrateful, disturbed and trying — but we still care for him.”

Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon: Just kill me already. 

“KKPK is on its own planet. Ergo, Bholu — the dude who drives a fancy car, works in a fancy building, wears three-piece suits and shiny sunglasses, and is a trigamist. In Mumbai, where single people and unmarried couples struggle to find flats to rent, Bholu lives in a building called Cocktail Tower, with three wives, housed in three separate floors, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s home science, KKPK style.”

Calendar Girls: A gigantic case of #ButWhy?

“Unfortunately, Bhandarkar’s nose for stories isn’t matched either by his writing or directorial talent. It doesn’t help that he chooses to collaborate with people like his writing partner on Calendar Girls, Rohit Banawlikar. There are a lot of people who work hard to make Calendar Girls worse than it could have been, like the sound department that not only layers the film with a terrible background score, but also makes it painfully obvious that the dialogues were dubbed. However, few can match Banawlikar’s contribution toCalendar Girls’ downfall. His dialogues are so awkward and stilted that you will feel physical pain while listening to the actors struggle with their lines.

This is particularly disappointing because – brace yourselves – a lot of the conversations in Calendar Girls pass the Bechdel Test. Much like in real life, the women chatter a lot about work. They’re ambitious, hardworking, and a credible mix of good and bad qualities. They’re all friends who accept each other’s quirks with an eye roll and a grin. Barring their terrible make-up and wardrobe, these women are all surprisingly normal, which is a huge improvement from the last time Bhandarkar wandered into the world of glamour, in the godawful Fashion.”

The Martian: So. Much. Fun.

“The cast of The Martian is brilliant and particularly gifted at comedy. Damon is perfect as the cocky and brilliant Watney, who holds on to his good cheer with a desperate determination as time wears on. He gets most of the screen time and makes every second count. Watching him sitting around in Mars, listening to disco and talking to himself, you might just find yourself wishing the rescue mission gets delayed because it would mean some more time alone with Mark.”

Talvar: One of the best films of 2015. 

Talvar should be mandatory viewing for every police force and investigative agency around the country, who must confront and take responsibility for what their colleagues have done. Aarushi and Hemraj’s blood lies on their hands as much as on those of the actual killer. Loyalists of our law enforcement agencies may argue that this case is an exception. One desperately hopes that is indeed the the truth because if this case is the norm, then it’s a wonder anyone bothers to report a crime in this country.”

Singh is Bliing: Hello Akshay Kumar!

“Akshay Kumar is proof that ageing is a wondrous thing. He didn’t have even a fraction of this onscreen charm when he was in the prime of his youth. It’s not just that Kumar looks infinitely better — the death of the Nineties’ mullet has been a boon in many heroes’ lives — but as a grizzled older man, he’s also commanding the screen with far more confidence and grace than he did before.”

The Walk: One of the most disappointing Hollywood films of 2015.

“There would be no need to bring up Marsh’s documentary if The Walk made for compelling viewing and was an insightful portrait of Petit. Zemeckis had Petit’s autobiography as his source as well as Petit himself (Petit was a consultant on the film). Zemeckis also had at his disposal a big budget and contemporary digital imagery. Yet, the shadow of Marsh’s documentary looms large over The Walk. The photographs with blurred outlines of Petit sitting on almost-thin air, of him grinning as he walks on the wire and away from the hapless policemen on the roof of one of the twin towers — they’re actually far more captivating than anything Zemeckis and his crew are able to recreate.”

Jazbaa: Shed a tear for Aishwarya Rai having to settle for this as her comeback vehicle.

“One of the meta questions that Jazbaa raises is, just how shameless is Gupta? The director has the audacity to end his film with a slide that tells gives you statistics about rape, as though it’s an issue close to Jazbaa‘s heart. Does Gupta really think that we won’t notice how one woman’s rape is re-enacted for the audience’s viewing ‘pleasure’ no less than three times? It didn’t need to be shown even once. Do the depressing statistics make up for how the film suggests women should feel guilty about working hard and choosing to leave an unhappy marriage? Jazbaa also suggests daughters raised by single mothers are more vulnerable and therefore likely to suffer violence in the hands of strangers. What gives?”

Pyaar ka Punchnama 2: Gentlemen, seriously?

“According to Ranjan, women come in three flavours of manipulation: bimbo, spineless and gold-digger. They enter men’s lives and ravage them with either their stupidity or their mind games. Men, fuelled by lust and luuurve, are defenceless against women. That in a nutshell is the plot of Pyaar ka Punchnama 2. The three heroes do everything the heroines demand, but it isn’t ever enough. The women reduce the alpha males to unpaid labour, credit card debt and nail polish, so that by the end, the men are just beta. The Hindi beta, that is. Since spoilers are frowned upon, let’s just say that for Pyaar ka Punchnama 2‘s three heroes, mum’s the word.”

Shaandaar: A colossal mess. 

“Nothing adds up in Shaandaar and few of the characters have any sort of evolution. Alia is the wild child, Bipin is the kindly but weak-spirited daddy dearest. Jagjinder is the hardworking good guy. The only thing worse thanShaandaar‘s script is the editing, which makes the film a meandering, boring medley of forgettable songs, interspersed with some laboured comedy. The pace is slack and there’s no tension in the film. Frequently, it feels like large chunks of the story were snipped to make space for fluffy, silly repartee that contributes to neither character nor plot. Then at one point, as though no one could bear it anymore, the story gets bundled into a rushed ending. The only thing worse than the editing is the unnecessary and amateurish CGI that plagues the entire film.”

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.

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.