Freedom of Expression, Indian style

Even if you live under a rock, you’ve heard of AIB Knockout, a roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, hosted by Karan Johar and conceived by the comedy collective All India Bakchod. The live event was held in December last year and at the end of January, AIB released a set of three videos that gave everyone a glimpse of what went down that night. As you might be able to tell from this piece I wrote, the aesthetics of a roast aren’t exactly my cup of tea. 

However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and file a police complaint against them. Because only an idiotic ego maniac would do something like that and because AIB showed excellent form by taking all criticism cheerfully on the chin and not pouting or sulking in response. Some, like censor board member Ashoke Pandit, responded to the tasteless jokes in AIB Knockout with remarks that were equally (if not more) tasteless. But hey, it’s a free country. If Pandit wants to let us all know just how crass he is — and not in a closed-door performance as those in AIB Knockout were, but on a public platform where he’s just being honest and himself — that’s his call.  

Unfortunately, the matter snowballed rapidly. Two organisations — one Hindu and another Christian — filed complaints because they found AIB Knockout offensive. Given below is the piece I wrote in response to the idea that AIB needs to be gagged because they’re offensive. As of now, Maharashtra’s ministry of cultural affairs is believed to be investigating the matter while the police are supposed to figure out whether the complaints are valid and worth pursuing. Meanwhile, we learnt that the censor board wanted to beep out “Bombay” from a song. The former editor of Urdu newspaper Avadhnama was victimised viciously for printing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon and then, a newspaper vendor was arrested in Mumbai for selling Avadhnama. The only joke here is being made at the expense of freedom of expression in India. 

This piece was first published on Firstpost.com.

Spare a thought for Akhilesh Tiwari of Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha. The YouTube videos of mata ki chowkis organised by his organisation last year have had 21, six and eight views respectively. And then there’s AIB Knockout, with a million views in about 12 hours. It’s got to hurt. Yesterday, Tiwari emerged out of obscurity when he filed a written complaint against Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh for their performance in AIB Knockout. (It seems Tiwari missed the detail that the show was scripted and Johar, Kapoor and Singh were not the scriptwriters.) “The show, which can be seen on YouTube and other websites, was extremely abusive and it is not only ruining the clean image of the Indian culture & women but is also misleading today’s youth,” complained Tiwari.

Let’s face it. The nation’s image is no laughing matter and arguably, Tiwari is doing his bit for the nation much like the Bengali gent in PVR Mumbai’s social service ad, who collects discarded Indian flags and sounds like he was dropped on his head as a baby. Coming back to our national image, last month it was reported that the number of foreign tourists coming to India grew by only four percent. Why? Because women tourists don’t feel it’s safe to travel in India after the growing incidents of rape and molestation against locals as well as foreigners. It appears approximately 30 percent of total foreign tourists are women, and this significant percentage seems to be skipping India entirely.

Now what if the few foreign women who are planning to visit India end up watching AIB Knockout? Some may want to see if they can catch an AIB show during their holiday, but surely the truly good women will feel outraged by the sexist humour and cancel their tickets? And yes, of course it would be far more constructive to actually raise awareness about women’s issues and help improve the law and order situation so that everyone feels and actually is more secure, but that’s hard work and takes time. Outrage is so much easier and it’s good for the soul — with one written complaint, you feel like you’re doing something, for women, the nation, our millenia-old culture, the universe. And then you can go back to organising the next mata ki chowki.

Considering the fact that Tiwari is acting in national interest, I think the rest of us should take the torch from him and continue his campaign against those who say offensive rubbish. For instance, there’s Baba Ramdev, India’s bearded motormouth, best known for possessing a stomach that can roil like a waterbed and making millions out of people’s ignorance. According to Ramdev, homosexuality is a disease for which he has a yoga-flavoured fix and AIDS is curable. All it takes is some deep breathing and “herbal medicine” manufactured and sold by properties owned by Ramdev. This is not a joke. It’s a serious claim made by a man who was nominated for the third highest civilian award in India. One of the pills being sold at Ramdev’s outlets is a fertility pill named Putrajeevak Beej, which translates to “the seed that creates a son”. For reasons best known to Ramdev, the pill isn’t called Santanjeevak Beej (santan meaning child) or Putrijeevak Beej (putri meaning daughter).

Perhaps it’s the beard and squinty-eyed stare that lends gravitas to his utterances, but that Baba Ramdev, with his distasteful and unscientific claims, numerous criminal cases and hateful opinions, is considered worthy of the Padma Bhushan is infinitely more damaging to India’s image than any comedic routine.

As far as saying outrageous things in public, AIB have a long way to go before they can even hope to give competition to our politicians. Remember the former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar? His response to a drought-hit farmer going on hunger strike and demanding water was, “He has been fasting for the last 55 days. If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it? If there is no water to drink, even urination is not possible.” That, incidentally, was Pawar cracking a joke. Suddenly, AIB Knockout, abuse-flecked as it may be, seems almost comfortingly good-natured, doesn’t it? While on the subject of farmers in Maharashtra, the current state government has cleared field trials for genetically modified crops. If you want a joke about helping Indian farmers, this move is it. GM seeds are expensive, destroy the soil and effectively shackle the farmer to the big corporation, but that’s ok. The national image is intact, so presumably we’re not supposed to care.

If you’re really looking for statements made in public that damage the clean image of India, there’s much, much more. Here’s a sample. In a bid to make people feel protected, TMC’s Tapas Pal said at a rally that the party’s “boys” will go and rape women at his command. Speaking of which, who can forget Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadavdismissing rape as a “boys will be boys” mistake? Or Pravin Togadia of the VHP, who recommended forcibly evicting Muslims and taking over their property. “Go with stones, tyres and tomatoes to his office,” urged Togadia. “There is nothing wrong in it. Killers of Rajiv Gandhi have not been hanged … there is nothing to fear and the case will go on.”

As far as Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha vs Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and AIB is concerned, the good news is that the state government of Maharashtra appears be aware that there are more pressing matters on its agenda than English stand up comedy. In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, the cultural affairs minister Vinod Tawde made it quite clear that he doesn’t really care what was said in the roast as long as the event had all the necessary permissions. However, this probe into whether AIB Knockout had its paperwork in order is separate from the inquiry that the police is required to undertake since Tiwari has lodged a formal complaint with them.

Still, if the likes of Amit Shah can get away with an apology after being accused of hate speech and Niranjana Jyoti can become a minister after calling non-Hindus “haramzaadon” (bastards), the targets of Tiwari’s outrage should be fine. To quote Togadia, “there is nothing to fear and the case will go on.”

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Remembering RK Laxman

This was first published on Firstpost.com.

The year 1957 was both important and unremarkable for India. Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister of the country. The States Reorganisation Act had been passed the year before and India was now organised along linguistic lines. The now-dismantled Planning Commission’s second Five Year Plan for the young nation was in motion. In 1957, the second Lok Sabha was elected, five years after the first. An interesting bit of trivia about the general elections of 1957: although Nehru’s Congress won easily, a significant 19.3 percent of the votes went to independent candidates. Fittingly, in the same year that the little guys got the vote and the littler voters had their say, RK Laxman’s Common Man was born.

By the time he created the Common Man, who shares a startling though superficial resemblance to BJP’s LK Advani, Laxman was a well-known cartoonist. He’d been working with The Times of India for 10 years, his cartoons had been appearing on the front page of the newspaper and he had created the iconic mascot Gattu for Asian Paints in 1954. Common Man, however, would be Laxman’s lasting legacy — a character that was neither brave nor cowardly, but a witness who dealt with the absurdity and hypocrisy of Indian politics with silent wit rather than despair. When Laxman was asked if he found politics amusing, he replied that there was no option but to scavenge amusement from it.
“Frankly, our politics is so sad that if I had not been a cartoonist, I would have committed suicide,” he’d said.

Born in 1921 in Mysore, Laxman belonged to an era that saw a number of brilliant names emerge from this princely state. Its rulers may have been autocratic, but they patronised the arts, culture and education.
“In its pomp, which ran roughly from 1910 to 1945, the state of Mysore was a very interesting place indeed,” wrote historian Ramachandra Guha in an article. “In those years, if you were young, talented, and ambitious, and if you had the luck to be born in the State, you might go a very long way in this world.”

Laxman grew up as the youngest of four brothers and two sisters. One of his elder brothers was the beloved novelist RK Narayan. Photographer TS Satyan, poet and folklorist AK Ramanujan, veena player Doreswami Iyengar — these were some of the people growing up with Laxman in Mysore. At home, his mother was a brilliant chess player and the teller of fantastic stories that Laxman loved hearing. His father bought foreign magazines in which little Laxman first noticed clever cartoons.

Though he had no formal training in either draughtsmanship or cartooning, Laxman’s only interest was in drawing and his natural gift was evident from his early days. There’s a famous story of how as a boy he drew a peepul leaf that astonished his class teacher with its sophistication. As a student in Mysore’s Maharaja College, Laxman illustrated his brother’s novels and did little drawings for local papers. After college, he spent a few months in Chennai working on an animated film, and went to Delhi, hoping for a job with The Hindustan Times but they found him too young and inexperienced.

The not-yet-21 Laxman had dreams of becoming an artist and so after his encounter with The Hindustan Times, he came to Mumbai and applied to JJ School of Arts, but was rejected. As Laxman himself observed later, it had felt like a blow then but in hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise.
“If I had been accepted and had graduated clutching a diploma in art perhaps I would not have become the cartoonist that I had become,” Laxman would say later, mixing barb and humour perfectly in his words as he did in his cartoons. “I would most likely have been languishing in some corner of an advertising agency, drawing visuals for mosquito repellants or pretty faces for ladies cosmetics, or chubby babies to promote vitamin foods, perhaps bearing the name ‘Crunchy, munchy, Vita biscuits’.”

Instead, Laxman joined first Free Press Journal as a cartoonist in 1946 (and famously, sat next to Bal Thackeray). A fallout with the bosses saw him leaving the paper after a few months and entering The Times of India building in 1947, where he would become something of a fixture for more than five decades. Methodical and disciplined, Laxman stuck to a strict routine for most of his working life. Rajdeep Sardesai remembers walking in to the office as a young journalist in his twenties and seeing Laxman, then in his seventies, at his desk. By this time, Laxman was a legend and well-established as India’s most beloved cartoonist, but that didn’t keep him from doing sticking to his schedule and doing his homework.

Although he is best known for having created the Common Man, the ironic truth is that much of Laxman’s sharp insight and unwavering confidence to lay bare the truth came from the cartoonist being anything but ordinary. Financially, Laxman may have seen his share of difficulties — his father passed away when Laxman was a boy and this pushed the family into dire straits. His elder brothers made sure Laxman’s schooling wasn’t interrupted — but he came from a background of privilege, culturally speaking. His mother may not have known English, but she played badminton.

Laxman had studied at the Maharaja College, and could comfortably hold his own with people like philosopher Bertrand Russell and poet TS Eliot. There aren’t too many people who can say they told a world leader as formidable as Margaret Thatcher, “You should have been a cartoonist rather than a prime minister.” (She was trying to give him cartooning tips.)
When Indira Gandhi was offended by his cartoons, in the Emergency era, Laxman could actually make an appointment to meet Gandhi and tell her, point blank, that as a cartoonist, he needed the freedom to insult and ridicule. Unsurprisingly, Gandhi didn’t agree but Laxman’s solution was to move temporarily to the Mauritius — not an option for most common men. He returned to India when elections were declared.

Like his novelist brother, Laxman didn’t use his privilege to cut himself off from uncomfortable truths. His sense of identity was firmly rooted in being Indian and standing shoulder to shoulder with the common Indian even if he didn’t really belong to that demographic. Laxman spent hours every day poring through news reports. People wrote him letters, telling him of their troubles as though he could, with his cartoonist’s pen, fix everything.

“I received letters complaining about postal delays, telephones, the sloppiness of municipal authorities, inflated electric bills, bribes in school admissions,” Laxman recounted once. “One such letter pleaded, ‘Please halt the 47 Down train at XXX for a few minutes to save me the bother of waiting four hours for the next one to go home from the office’.”

Of course, Laxman couldn’t fix anything and he was piercingly aware of this, but still he drew and he watched, peering at what was happening from behind the Common Man’s glasses and unthreatening demeanour. Laxman cleverly took aspects of politicians’ physical appearances and exaggerated them in a way that reflected the reality of their decisions and attitudes. So Indira Gandhi had a violently hooked nose that made her look distinctly predatory. With her son, Rajiv, Laxman said that it was more difficult because he was so handsome. “Of course, I got plenty of inspiration for my cartoons from his actions,” Laxman said.

In the frames of his cartoon, liars could be exposed and the powerful had nowhere to run. Laxman sliced politicians’ doublespeak to shreds repeatedly, but at the same time, his cartoons maintained that fine, polite tone that made it impossible for anyone to point fingers at him for rudeness. He also knew that his work, popular as it may be, wasn’t going to lead to a social revolution.

“I have been working away at these cartoons for over a quarter of a century now, and I do not think that I can show a single instance of changing the mind of a politician from taking a mad course,” he had written once. “If I had lashed at granite with a feather with the single-minded zeal as I have bestowed on my work, by now I would, perhaps, have been able to show some faint feather marks on the rock . . . but not a trace of a dent have my cartoons caused in any sphere of human activity, whether social, economic or political.”

This didn’t stop Laxman from drawing his cartoons, but it is no coincidence that his Common Man has never spoken a word.

Seeing the crises that India, politics and freedom of expression have faced in the past decades, Laxman’s observation is painfully true. However, at the same time, if there was ever a time when we needed the sharpness of Laxman’s vision and the unwavering and unbiased honesty of his Common Man, it is perhaps today. Fortunately or unfortunately, far too many of RK Laxman’s old cartoons feel hilariously and painfully pertinent even today. In an age of paid news, hate speech and propaganda, we need that scruffy-haired, neatly dressed gent to be a national conscience more than ever.

Ah, the bringers of mirth that are Firstpost commenters…

I wrote this on the business of “ghar wapsi“, which is the term for the Hindu right in UP has coined for mass conversions of Muslims and Christians.

And here’s why I love the people who leave comments on Firstpost: they are immensely entertaining. Obviously the Hindutva brigade is not amused at my attempt at keeping tongue in cheek, but this is a rather glorious comment to leave on a piece about the cause, validity and effect of Hindu conversion ceremonies.

Bengalis are also by nature anarchic and not amenable to discipline because of their laziness and aversion to work. Notice how few Bengalis are in the Military. Anarchism and lack of respect for all authority is another cause of Leftism.

And finally, Bengali women generally dominate Bengali men and are full of ideas of liberlo – feminism. Another route to leftism and criticism of everything under the sun.

I rather like this word, liberlo-feminism. Maybe I’ll put it on a T-shirt.

Links: The Grand Budapest Hotel in India

There was a time when we were grateful when a foreign film got an India release. Now that Hollywood blockbusters come to India almost at the same time as they are released everywhere else, some of us are becoming a bit more demanding. So while it’s lovely that The Grand Budapest Hotel has been released in India, it’s deeply disappointing that the Censor Board decreed that four minutes of it be snipped off. Which four minutes and why were they objectionable? Glad you asked.

the Censor Board doesn’t want The Grand Budapest Hotel to teach Indian audiences how to break out of jail using tiny tools that were hidden in chocolate-based confectionery.

Read the whole piece, complete with a detailed description of the most offending scene as per the Indian Censor Board.

My review of Wes Anderson’s latest film is here. It’s a gem and definitely my favourite of his filmography so far. This longer rambling post explains why.

gbh4

Links: Madhu Kishwar, Mary Kom and more

Don’t go by her Twitter feed alone. Madhu Kishwar can make excellent, sensible arguments.  Her critique of the existing Women’s Reservation Bill is bang on target.

In stark contrast to some of the opinions Kishwar puts forward on Twitter, these are all well thought-out and sensible ideas that respond much more sensitively to the lopsided gender balance in Indian politics than the existing bill. The alternative bill is discussed in greater detail here.

As the document observes, “the participation of women in [Indian] politics has actually declined since the days of freedom movement.” It’s a statistical fact that tends to go unnoticed because there are a number of prominent Indian women politicians in play. However, this doesn’t mean that Indian women are adequately represented. India ranks 105th in the world when it comes to women’s participation in politics. That’s 53 places behind Pakistan, in case you were wondering.

However, while a bill to encourage more women candidates would be welcome, it’s worth keeping in mind that regulations are not enough to ensure the gender imbalance is fixed in actuality. According to the constitution of the Indian National Congress, 33% of seats in different committees as well as 33% of the seats for the AICC are reserved for women. In reality, only five of the 42 in the CWC are women and six of the 57 members of the AICC are women candidates. Thirty of the 35 state screening committees for elections don’t have a single women in them. The CPI(M) that has been so vocal about criticizing past governments for not pushing the women’s reservation bill has an abysmal record of its own: only one of the 12 members in its politbureau is a woman. …

In her article, Kishwar writes, “whatever the form and shape of the women’s reservation law, we cannot overlook the tragedy inherent in the fact that 67 years after Independence, women need to seek the quota route to entry in politics. This acquires more poignancy because, when the Constitution was coming into force, most prominent women leaders refused to accept the principle of reservation as a route to political power. They did so in the belief that as in the Mahatma Gandhi-led freedom movement, they would be able to carve out a respectable space for themselves without being offered crutches.”

Two quick pieces on the upcoming film biopic on Indian boxer Mary Kom’s life. Kom is being played by Priyanka Chopra, which should be a baffling choice but tragically, in India, it isn’t.

Mary_Kom_New_Poster_Priyanka_Chopra_with_her_twin_babies

In this one, I’ve tried to explain why Chopra isn’t a good choice to play Kom. This was written right after the film’s poster was unveiled. A few days later, the trailer came out, which was when I wrote this.

At one point in the trailer, Mary throws a chair at a podium and, with tears in her eyes, yells, “I am an Indian! India mera dil mein hai!” (India is in my heart.) You may wonder why she’s saying this because being Indian is not just in her heart but also quite obviously on her face too; and in her Hindi accent. Kom’s Manipuri identity was something that proved to be an obstacle for her on occasion, and given how she’s widely celebrated now as a national hero, she clearly overcame that hurdle in style. That’s a story that we won’t be hearing in Kumar’s Mary Kom.

The piece on why choosing a North Indian to play someone from the North East of India is offensive is here. The critique of the trailer is here.

Links: When Hari Got Married, The Strife of Love in A Dream

When Hari Got Married is a sweet little documentary about a taxi driver named Hari, who lives and works in Himachal Pradesh, and is about to get married:

It’s the stuff of a romantic comedy, made all the more poignant because it’s real. In Hari, a Pahadi taxi driver from Dharamsala, documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have a shuddh desi hero. He’s the little guy that you can’t help but warm up to because he’s just so utterly adorable. Pocket-sized and a motor-mouth, Hari chatters his way through When Hari Got Married. As he candidly talks about everything from the financial prospects of being a taxi driver to the caste system, it’s easy to imagine someone could fall in love with this man just because of his words. In their honesty, simplicity and wit lies a modern Indian man who may not be perfect, but whom you want to cheer for all the same.

The full review is here.

From Camille Henrot's The Strife of Love In A Dream
From Camille Henrot’s The Strife of Love In A Dream

Camille Henrot’s short film, The Strife of Love In A Dream, is a strange and fantastic work of art:

Despite the lack of verbal commentary, Henrot’s film beautifully articulates how the various systems capitalise upon people’s anxieties and offer solutions to fear, like the neatly-packaged pills of Atarax or the make-believe stories of vanquishing evil in art and films, as well as the ritual at Annamalai Hill (it culminates with a massive bonfire, which looks spectacularly awe-inspiring in Henrot’s film). Faith — whether in medication or divinity — gives the believer the strength to counter their fears even while making them hypersensitive to symbols of its pervasiveness. Like snake venom, it is both the poison as well as the antidote.

Read the whole piece here.

Links: Now You See Me review and surrogacy

There is absolutely no link between these two posts beyond the fact that I wrote both of them. The reason I’m putting them in one post is because it gives you some idea of how insane a day can be for a writer like me. You begin the day writing about a perfectly enjoyable, escapist film and the next thing you know, you’re researching laws surrounding surrogacy.

Now_You_See_MeHere’s my review of Now You See Me, which incidentally is as flawed and as fun on second viewing as the first. And  according to a 10-year-old, the huge flaw in my review is that I didn’t say anything about Dave Franco (who plays Jack Wilder, one of the magicians) because “he’s the coolest one.” Fair point.

In comparison to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which is still the finest film made on the world of magicians, Now You See Me is flimsy. But Leterrier’s aim seems to have been the precise opposite of what Nolan achieved with The Prestige. In contrast to Nolan’s trademark darkness, Now You See Me is light-hearted and spectacle-driven. Ironically for a script in which characters repeatedly urge you to look past the flamboyance, the film is far more fascinated by the distractions than the trick itself.

Ultimately, the loose ends of the story don’t add up convincingly and the characters are lamentably uni-dimensional, but Leterrier and his team of five writers do manage to keep the suspense going for most of Now You See Me. The final climax, however, is terribly dissatisfying. After all the technical wizardry in the build-up, the magicians and the audience land up at a merry-go-round. Seeing the magicians stare at the revolving wooden horses as though these are the eighth wonder of the world, you can’t help but wonder if this is the creative equivalent of writers sticking their tongues out at us.

On to the entirely un-fun topic of sex offenders and their surrogate children. The details of this case are few but here’s what we do know: an Israeli man found guilty of sexually abusing minors hired a surrogate mother in India to have a child. The child is now a four-year-old girl who is now legally his daughter. This is why she’s being referred to as his adopted daughter by some even though this isn’t technically an adoption because it’s not like he just adopted her. He’s probably had her for the past four years, since she was an infant. Indian regulations demand foreign parties claim the babies they’ve hired surrogate mothers for within a month of the baby’s birth. What has come to light now — four years after the surrogacy — is that he is a father of a young girl despite being a paedophile. It’s an absolutely horrifying case. My article is here. An excerpt:

According to The Jewish Chronicle, the Israeli paedophile “legally gained custody of the child through an agreement with a surrogate mother in India”. The most obvious question is how he got custody because the legal status of such children in India is extremely vague. The Registration of the Births and Deaths Act, 1969, has no provision for children born out of surrogacy. The ART (Regulation) Bill of 2008 only says, “the party seeking the surrogacy must ensure and establish to the ART clinic through proper documentation that the  party would be able to take the child / children born through surrogacy, including where the embryo was a consequence of donation of an oocyte or sperm, outside of India to the country of the party’s origin or residence as the case may be.”

Say a prayer for this little girl that she’s safe and happy. It seems that’s all we can do at present.