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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could Action Jackson be certified U/A?

This was originally posted on Firstpost.com. 

The first time Khushi sees Vishy in Action Jackson, he’s in a changing room, trying on underwear. Khushi’s gaze is trained upon his genitalia. When Khushi gets a promotion right after this brief encounter with Vishy, she’s convinced that it was the sight of Vishy’s man bits that changed her luck. And so, when there’s talk of an arranged marriage with an NRI gent, Khushi decides the best way to ensure this alliance works out is not to get to know the prospective groom and his family, but to see Vishy without his pants again. So Khushi stalks Vishy, makes friends with him and goes so far as to try drugging him in order to get him out of his underwear.

Now let’s take a look at Marina, sister of an Indian don in Bangkok. When she’s kidnapped by her brother’s enemies, she’s molested by them. They tear her shirt open and are about to rape her when Jai walks in. He loses his shirt and starts walking towards her while brandishing a ninja blade and killing the molesters. Marina sits up, leans forward. She doesn’t button her shirt. She just stares at him and starts breathing hard, indicating to the audience that she’s turned on by Jai. Later, the camera runs along her naked back, right down to the top of her buttocks. It’s obviously meant to turn the audience on because there’s no one else in the room with Marina.

Completing the trinity of heroines in Action Jackson is Anusha, Jai’s wife. Within minutes of her first appearance, she’s been physically manhandled by bad guys. She gets one song sequence to catch her breath and then again becomes the victim of a violent attack. This time, her head is shoved through a car window and she’s punched, causing jets of blood to streak across the big screen. Then Anusha is stabbed. Somehow, she survives all this, only to be kidnapped yet again. Once more, she’s facing bad guys and it’s her fate to be bashed up.

Add to this the general, bloody violence that Jai and Vishy inflict upon everyone who gets in their way in ActionJackson, and you’ve got to wonder about the definition of ‘family entertainment’ in India. In one fight sequence, we’re shown a man’s neck being contorted at an angle that belongs in horror movies, accompanied by the sound of breaking bone. Blood spurts out of bodies in Action Jackson like paan juice does out of auto rickshaw and taxi drivers on Linking Road. There are more sounds of pain than there are dialogues in the film.

According to the Central Board of Film Certification in India, this is U/A entertainment, or “unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12.” This means the CBFC thinks it’s fine for children of any age to see all this, as long as those under 12 are accompanied by an adult. In contrast, a foreign film that has a hint of nudity or a prolonged kiss deserves to be rated ‘A’ (so that it’s restricted to adult audiences) and the television channel Comedy Central deserves to be banned because it airs content considered offensive by a viewer.

Of course the CBFC is not responsible for cable channels and their programming, but it is a regulatory body that toes the state’s line, which should have some consistency across media. This is especially necessary since the films that CBFC certifies for general entertainment end up being shown on television. The way the content of a film like ActionJackson is judged makes it uncomfortably clear that films and television in India don’t get rated or evaluated as much as censored.

There’s no clarity on what will be considered acceptable by those who judge and evaluate creative content in India and when Bollywood and its big bucks enter the arena, double standards become the norm. Had Action Jackson been a smaller Bollywood film, like Haider, it would probably have had to go through dozens of cuts. Keep in mind director Vishal Bharadwaj had to edit shots of corpses, torture as well as one of Shraddha Kapoor’s bare back from Haider in order to get the U/A rating. Action Jackson is littered with mutilated dead bodies and Marina flashes various body parts, but has the same rating as Haider.

The reason why Bollywood works hard to secure U and U/A ratings is money. Had Action Jackson been rated A — as it would have had this same film been in English for example — it wouldn’t be able to pass off as a family entertainer and far fewer people would be able to see it. On television, it would have been edited to about one third its length and fewer brands would want to be associated with it because it’s “adult”. As a result, getting ads for its telecast would be more difficult. This would mean the satellite rights would be priced lower and a major source of earnings would be compromised. Consequently, Action Jackson is certified U/A and will be aired on Star Gold as a film that can be watched by the entire family. Chances are, there will be no consumer complaints or temporary bans like what Comedy Central faced recently.

What Action Jackson exposes, literally and figuratively, countless impressionable minds to is infinitely worse than any of Comedy Central’s programming. The channel’s content is made up of re-runs of sitcoms like Psych, sketch shows, improv comedy like Whose Line is it Anyway?, prank shows like Punk’d and variety shows like Saturday Night Live. Not all its programming is good, but there’s no doubt that everything the channel airs is meant to be seen as a joke.

In contrast, you have Action Jackson, which is not only filled with graphic content but is packaged as something that is general entertainment when it’s not. There’s also the thorny topic of Bollywood being aspirational for many Indians. This doesn’t mean that those who see Action Jackson will want to be gangsters and kill people with swords in suburban Mumbai. However, to pretend that the regressive attitudes in the film will not have any impact upon the audience is to put on blinkers while considering the question of popular cinema’s effects upon an audience.

All films and blockbusters in particular walk a tightrope between reality and fantasy. There’s a lot that’s fake, but obscene amounts of money are spent to make the fake seem credible. Add to that a publicity campaign that suggests actors are similar to the roles they play — this is why we know about actors who do their own stunts and/or perform acts of kindness or generosity that make them seem more like the on-screen heroes — and you get a weirdly persuasive product that is popularly known as the blockbuster. Its impact is much more forceful here because of the limited presence of alternative forms of entertainment that offer people counters to the worldview presented in Bollywood films.

The point at which regulatory bodies like CBFC owe audiences some explanation is when these big-budget films are treated differently than other forms of entertainment. When a film like Action Jackson is rated U/A and Comedy Central’s programming is considered deserving of a ban, it sounds schizophrenic rather than logical. It seems the powers governing India don’t think audiences can wrap their heads around the idea that the television shows on Comedy Central are attempts at humour — even though the channel has the word “comedy” in its name — but people and children will be able to insulate themselves from the psychological impact of watching the gory, sexualised imagery in a film like Action Jackson.

Apparently, hearing abuses in English or encountering words like “butt”, “vagina” and “bitch” on television will pervert viewers as will seeing sketches with laughter tracks that make no secret that what’s showing on screen is a joke. However, watching a film that shows women as idiots, punching bags and sexually obsessive won’t have any psychological impact, according to the regulatory bodies in India. Kids and parents will be untroubled by the sight of actress Yami Gautam shivering with fear because she’s surrounded by violent men who want to kill her for no logical reason. No one watching the film in a theatre or at home when Action Jackson shows on Star Gold will be affected by the sight of Gautam’s head being shoved through a car window, or her face being punched so hard that blood shoots out of her nose and mouth.

But a comedy sketch? That’s too much for Indians to handle.