Links: Naming names, Apple Watch, Deepika Padukone vs TOI and more

If you thought bad movies are all that turn me into the wordy version of Angry Birds, think again. The police raid a hotel, discover an actress moonlights as a sex worker. They release her name to the press. Her “high profile” clients, however, remain anonymous and shielded from the public gaze.

More cheerfully, what Bollywood thought of yesterday, Apple creates today. Case in point: Mr India’s Device versus the Apple Watch.

Deepika Padukone picked a fight with The Times of India, and at least as far as the court of public opinion is concerned, Padukone won. She was helped by the fact that Bombay Times’s attempt at defending itself was way more tasteless than the original tweet against which Padukone (or her social media manager) had initially objected. 

While ISRO’s mission to Mars got off to a jubilant start, it was a good occasion to remember fondly how often the red planet has popped up in books and movies. 

The first UN report on gender and the film industry made for interesting reading. It turns out  that according to their analysis, India is the only country in which film jobs for female characters revealed only a small difference from real world statistics. Woohoo!

Is there a film in your book? Bollywood certainly hopes so. 

A new season of Satyamev Jayate began last week and it was a lovely, heartwarming episode in which Aamir Khan showed viewers the transformative powers of sport. If only he and his research team had thought of looking eastwards, beyond mainland India, while putting the episode together. 

JK Rowling put out an anagram-flavoured tweet, disclosing a little bit about the project she’s currently working on, on October 6th. It took a day or so for the Internet to react, but once it did, everyone, including Rowling, seem to have had a lot of fun. So, as marketing ploy, how does that compare to a full-page ad in The Times of India?

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On harassment, ‘eve teasing’ and suicide

Reading about Madhu and Nikita’s suicides, the first thing that came to mind was something from when I was 18. It was the year I started travelling by bus in Delhi (the unforgettable Patel Chests that took us day scholars to college). One day, on my way back home, I picked a fight. I made a man who was sitting on the seat reserved for the disabled and was patently not disabled in any way, get up when a boy on crutches got on the bus and had nowhere to sit. The man didn’t get up because I asked him to, but because the conductor joined in when I turned to him for support. The conductor, however, had nothing to say when the man got up and threatened me, violently. I don’t remember what I’d said, but it was something like “I’d like to see you try” in very bad Hindi that totally revealed my Bengali ethnicity.

He got off the bus at my stop, he followed me. I didn’t walk home because I didn’t want him to know where I lived. I thought of walking to the nearby thana and decided that was pointless. They probably wouldn’t do anything unless I started dropping names of my father’s friends or something like that. So I walked to Khan Market. He was still behind me. I walked into Bahrisons and when I emerged 45 minutes later, the man wasn’t there. (Which just goes to show bookstores really can save your life.) The man was there at my bus stop the next day. I got off at the next stop. It went on for a few days (can’t remember how long; college was a lifetime ago). I walked a lot.

I came home from Khan Market the day all this had begun and told my mother (my father was at work so he heard later). Honestly, at that point, when I was recounting the whole incident her, it felt a little scary. It hadn’t when I’d been avoiding the man, but the recap suddenly made me see how vulnerable I’d been. I’m guessing it couldn’t have been fun for my mother to hear either. But my mother and father made me feel like I’d scored a winning goal. I could see from the way my mum was beaming, from the drink that my father had with me that evening, that they were proud of me, because I’d fought and I hadn’t been afraid. Years later, my mother confessed that she’d had proper heebiejeebies while listening to me recount my “adventure” and for weeks, she’d had anxiety attacks if I was even a minute late coming home from college. I had no idea. All I knew was that I’d done the feisty genes that run in the family proud.

The reason I’m recounting all this is that reading about the suicide notes left by Madhu and Nikita, my heart broke. If only Madhu and Nikita had been able to find their way out of the ugliness so that 20-odd years later, they could recount this story the way I am today. But they didn’t, so I wrote this. An excerpt:

Tackling gender issues is not simple, but neither is suicide. Why was there nothing around them that made Nikita and Madhu think living would the better way to respond to the problem they were facing? It’s tempting to consider Nikita and Madhu exceptions, but for the statistics that show suicide being the chosen option for so many in the country who face “family problems”.

In his book Raising Girls, child psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote,

Your daughter needs to know she is part of a bigger story; a fight that has been fought on her behalf, long before she was born, and that she needs to keep fighting.

Perhaps we’re just not telling enough stories of strength and survival, or maybe the heroines who inspired earlier generations seem defanged today. Perhaps we need new stories in which heroes and heroines recognize despair but don’t become its prey. Whatever is causing this toxic sadness to well within our daughters, we would be wise to recognise it’s there and find ways to combat it.

The suicide statistics as well as Nikita and Madhu’s deaths show that our daughters don’t feel that they have what it takes to keep fighting. No matter how loudly we may outrage or how many candle marches we organize, that despair is the battle half lost.

Read the whole piece here.

Cellphone-ography: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The February issue of ELLE had an article of mine about photographs taken using cellphones. Since the March issue has hit the stands and there isn’t a link to the article, here’s the text.

Snap Shot

When you have a camera phone at your disposal, there’s more to behold than meets the eye. From art to lechery, it’s all happening through the lens of a phone near you.

If legends and myths of Europe are any indication, spying on women has traditionally been dangerous business. In Greek mythology, the poet Tiresias was blinded when he stumbled upon the goddess Athena as she bathed. When the Anglo-Saxon Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry, the one who ogled at her was a tailor named Tom — thus giving birth to the term “peeping Tom” — and he was struck blind. In India, on the other hand, voyeurism has long been an accept- able pastime. When young Krishna watches gopinis bathe in the Yamuna and steals their clothes, it’s a harmless prank. A woman unaware of the male gaze upon her is almost always the beginning of a love story, whether the hero and heroine are mythical charac- ters like Arjun and Subhadra from the Mahabharat or Rajinikanth and Shriya Saran in Sivaji – The Boss (2007). What has changed in the 21st century is that voyeurism now has tech support: The camera phone.

Cameras began appearing in phones in the late 1990s, and by the 2000s, they were all the rage. Now, every model has a camera and some, like the iPhone, take photographs that are as high resolution as the images taken with a regular digital camera. The craze for phone photography isn’t unique to India. Even news companies, like the American media organisations National Public Radio and CNN, make use of such photographs and the increasingly sophisticated lenses on camera phones have inspired some people, like Kainaz Amaria, to create works of art.

Washington DC-based photographer Kainaz began taking photos on her iPhone in 2010, soon after she came to Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship. The images became something of a “visual diary” of Kainaz’s time in India. “When I look at a particular image I can remember the day, time, they way I felt when I made the frame,” she says. “I can remember the smells and what feelings triggered me to make the frame.” The phone’s camera had its limitations but it also offered a certain degree of freedom. Sitting opposite the woman in a local train or driving past a girl in Varanasi who looked all set to time travel to the disco era, Kainaz was able to use the unobtrusive iPhone to capture the confidence, quirk and the natural grace in the people and places she saw around her. “When you approach most people, more often than not they don’t mind and in India in particular, they happily welcome the attention,” says Kainaz.

There was also the advantage of being able to take photos of people without them being aware of it. For example, the candour and unaffected quality of the images she took while on Mumbai’s local trains make them particularly eye-catching. One shows a woman listening to her iPod while travelling. Kainaz was drawn to this unknown woman’s confident body language. This commuter was an everyday Mumbai girl but completely contrary to the stereotype of the submissive Indian woman. The camera phone was discreet. Unlike the camera, it didn’t alert Kainaz’s subject or make her self-conscious.

The images in photographer Fabien Charuau’s series, Send Some Candids, on the other hand, reveal a very different angle of the camera phone’s potential. Send Some Candids is made up of photographs Fabien procured from the internet, from dubious websites and message boards. All of them are of women and all of them have been taken on camera phones. Fabien has 10,000 photographs in his collection and it is barely the tip of India’s candid photography iceberg.

“It started when I saw a guy take a photograph of my wife on the street with his phone, and there was nothing I could do about it because he was quite far away,” says Fabien, who is a well-known fashion photographer and making his first forays into art. He noticed men were clicking everywhere. “On my shoots, on the road, in buses, there is always a mobile phone, like the light boy’s phone, taking pictures. I started wondering what they did with these photographs.”

Fabien’s hunt led him to pornography sites, many of which are devoted to this brand of candid photography. The women in the photographs were almost always unaware of how they were being shot. “Most often, men take photos of family members or women they don’t dare approach,” says Fabien. Many of the photographs are blurred. Sometimes, faces are removed so that the woman is turned into an anonymous and eroticised body. “There’s so much frustration. It really shows you the imbalance between the sexes at the street level. More than the results, it’s the fact that they can click and invade the privacy that is important to these men. That’s their sense of power. Taking the photo, it’s like a visual rape.” It’s interesting to note that in the course of his research, Fabien didn’t find similar websites dedicated to women taking photos of men.

On the message boards, along with lewd comments, Fabien found detailed tutorials, teaching members how to take such photographs. “Some of them are very technically sound and in many, you see a lot of the techniques from street photography,” says Fabien. For example, much like photographer interested in capturing a public space without artful poses, the candid photographer finds a vantage point and waits for the right moment. “The intention is completely different but the way it’s shot, the tactics are disturbingly similar,” Fabien admitted.

With Send Some Candids, which was part of an exhibition in Mumbai last year and can be seen on Fabien’s website, Fabien turned the tables on candid photographers. Just as they insidiously invade the woman’s privacy, Fabien infiltrated into their space and exposed them to scrutiny by effectively stealing their photographs, appropriating them to create his work of art and putting them up for public display. With camera phones clicking in abandon and people developing apps like X-ray – point it at a photo of a model in a catalogue and the app reveals her in her underwear – Fabien’s artistic response is the only possible retaliation. There is nothing one can do to prevent photographs being taken or being shared online. “The only comfort, if you can call it that, is that if someone has taken a photo of you, you’re among hundreds and thousands of photos,” says Fabien. “You can’t control photography. The only thing you can do is try to stare them down.”