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.


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.

Links: Garam Hava, Boyhood, Kill/Dil, Film Bazaar and banning ‘feminism’

MS Sathyu’s classic film Garam Hava was re-released and it’s a film that doesn’t seem dated or irrelevant decades after its original release in 1974. A look at how differently India’s political establishment has changed its attitude towards the indie film:

Whether it’s the shame and heartbreak of being jilted, the frustration at being qualified but unemployed or struggling with stereotypes, much of Garam Hava is still real and relatable. The difference is in the world surrounding the film — can you imagine Prime Minister Narendra Modi using his considerable powers to ensure a tiny little indie film gets released?

Read the whole piece here.

My review of Richard Linklater’s remarkable Boyhood.

My review of Kill/Dil, which is far from remarkable.  

NFDC’s Film Bazaar has a section titled Knowledge Series and here’s a glimpse of what happened there:

Tony Leung came to Goa! I didn’t meet him. But one woman did, and she ruined the rest of us brown women’s chances with him.

TIME magazine had its annual word banishment poll and this year, one of the candidates was “feminism”. Sigh.

If there’s one thing that has become increasingly evident, then it is how difficult equality is as a concept. Possibly as a result of generations of patriarchy, we can only envision one group overpowering the other, which is why there’s that curious vision of feminists toppling men from their position of power and reducing them to leashed pets. Since that’s what men did to women in so many parts of the world, it makes sense to many that women will return the favour when the power balance shifts to them. That isn’t what the feminists are saying, by the way. It’s the vision put forward by those who oppose feminists.

This is why you need feminism and feminists to appear like that ticker that TIME so dislikes – because otherwise misconceptions persist and people remain illiterate.

Read the whole piece here.


On the Tehelka case: Stand by the victim

Photo: Mine.
Photo: Mine.

For the past week, the story of Tarun Tejpal being accused of sexual assault has been a raging topic of discussion. Tejpal is the editor in chief of Tehelka, a news magazine with a solid reputation for hard-hitting journalism. The accusation against him is that he sexually assaulted a journalist who works with Tehelka during an event called THINK, which is organised by a company owned by Tejpal, his sister Neena and Shoma Chaudhury, who is also the managing editor at Tehelka. As things stand now, a criminal case has been lodged suo moto against Tejpal. (Suo moto means that the legal process has been started without any case being filed by either the victim or anyone else involved in the case. The victim has, however, said that she will cooperate with the investigation.)

I wrote this piece on the limitations of the Vishaka guidelines before the criminal case started or before Chaudhury started tying herself up in knots of “different versions”.

It’s worth noting that although there is now a law that deems sexual harassment a criminal offense, it isn’t yet enforce-able (the rules under it haven’t yet been framed).

Usually, the cases of sexual assault and harassment that appear in the media and get discussed freely are those in which the perpetrator is a stranger. It strengthens the illusion that women need to be protected when they’re out in the big, bad world when the reality is that the overwhelming majority of sexual crimes against women are committed by people who know them and are familiars. They’re committed by relatives, family friends and other people that women and girls are conditioned to trust. People like Tejpal, as it turns out.

The Tehelka staffer’s decision to not suffer Tejpal’s unwanted attentions in silence has brought to light some very uncomfortable facts. One is the assumption that women will show solidarity with other women who have been victimised. However, empathy on the basis of one’s gender isn’t a given. In this particular case, it seems some of the journalist’s male peers have been more helpful than her female superiors. More problematically, the Vishakha judgement sounds good on paper, but in reality, it can be reduced to a toothless directive. As a result, regardless of how privileged a position you may be in, if you’re a victim of sexual harassment, your actual chances of getting a fair hearing and justice may be limited.

Read the entire piece here.

There’s a lot that’s very disturbing about this case, and one of them has been the response of those who have with a staggering sense of irresponsibility disclosed personal details of the victim and her experience on social and news media. Madhu Kishwar went so far as to actually tweet the victim’s name (though she did delete the tweet soon after). There’s been a strange sense of self-importance with which many have tried to defend their decision to put the emails from the victim to Chaudhury out in the public domain. I don’t think that I could put my point of view any better than Supriya Sharma has in this post.

If you’re interested in the topic of reporting responsibly, take a look at this Tumblr and this conversation on Genderlog.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the mood for some black humour, I’m compiling a Dictionary of Misunderstood Words via Twitter and Storify. Tweet or leave a suggested entry in the comments to this post, and I’ll add it if it makes sense.

Links: Raanjhanaa, sex tapes and what it takes to make a hit in Bollywood

I’ve been terrible about updating this place, which isn’t quite the end of the world or affecting anyone even remotely. But the least discipline one should show when they’ve taken the decision to open a blog for links to their writing is to, well, link to the writing. So the next few posts will be me trying to play catch-up with, er, myself.

First up, here’s a piece on suicide as a wooing tactic, as seen in the film Raanjhanaa.

Bollywood would also have you believe that the maniac who threatens to kill himself will disappear the moment his lady love says, “I love you too”. In films, he magically becomes the ideal partner. Except if it’s not an affectation, then such behaviour in real life is a dangerous part of one’s personality and it won’t vanish because she said the three little words. If it is an affectation, then the relationship is definitely doomed.

The real problem, of course, is that because suicide as a wooing tactic is just a device in a plot for Bollywood, it simplifies the matter. It’s very easy to draw blood in a film. It takes incredible determination and conviction to slice skin deep enough to bleed, to break your body so that the wound kills you. Watch it happen in Bollywood, and you get no sense of how desperately unhappy one has to be to even try to kill themselves. You don’t understand how so much of a person’s self-esteem is wrapped into the figure of the woman they think they love. Bollywood doesn’t show you any of this and neither does it show the self-centredness of the act or how horrifying and infuriating it is to be a witness and forced to take responsibility for something that is not your fault.

From the poster of Raanjhanaa. I think my reaction to the film and its success is pretty much Sonam's expression.
From the poster of Raanjhanaa. I think my reaction to the film and its success is pretty much Sonam’s expression.

Incidentally, Raanjhanaa was a huge hit. It’s one of the few occasions where I’m entirely perplexed by how a film can become a hit. Most of the time, whether or not I like it personally, I can see why an audience would want to spend time and money on the film. In this case, I’m completely clueless. Also, I’ve rarely come across a more ghastly set of women characters. Both thtaye heroine and the hero’s woman friend are appallingly-written characters. The heroine is an idiot who can’t look beyond herself and thanks to whose stupidity, two heroes die. The woman friend gets hit for no reason and used by two men (who are supposed to be her buddies) to pose suggestively with a stranger. It’s sickening. And, like I said, a huge hit.

From cinema to politics: MLA Jose Thetttayil’s sex tape was on YouTube and actually shown on some tv channels. Why this sort of thing should be on news channels is beyond me. It’s just another example of journalism being equated with sensationalism, which is a bloody shame.

The worst part about scandals like these is that when good journalism is needed — during crises and complex cases, like those involving allegations of sexual abuse — the Indian media seems to be hell bent on proving its ineptitude and greedy sensationalism. The justification is always that the viewers or reading public want it, that this is simply a journalist doing their job. Except of course it isn’t. The role of a journalist is not to exploit circumstances, but to report them and provide perspective. So here’s a news flash: journalism is facing enough challenges in the modern era without journalists themselves making the tribe a laughing stock.

Back to movies, but now from a number-crunching angle. The chief financial officer of Eros, one of the biggest Indian distributors, said they were focussing on medium-budget films. Except his notion of medium budget was rs 35 crore. In case you were wondering, that’s more big than medium. So the moral of the story is what we’ve all suspected: big budgets have more of a chance of becoming blockbusters, and so, more producers are inclined to put money into star-struck productions than medium budget films without stars.

Rarely do producers pick a film whose central strength is story over a star-backed title. Why? Because the numbers inevitably favour the titles touted as blockbusters. They have the stars, it’s easier to publicise such films, there are more brands that want to be affiliated with them and (unless it’s an exception like Himmatwala) drawing audiences is less of a challenge for big budget films. So far this year, Aashiqui 2 and three other films have made Rs 100 crore or more: Race 2,Vishwaroopam and YJHD — all big budget, multi-starrer films. In 2012, not one of the nine films that made the Rs 100-crore club threw up any new names or faces. Luck and producers favour the stars, it seems.

Cover drive: Filmfare and Cine Blitz

You know how they say you shouldn’t say anything at the moment you get angry and give yourself some time before you react? Well, in my case, waiting doesn’t seem to help much. It just makes me write columns like the one below. This is the unedited version. The edited version — complete with a super headline provided by Firstpost’s Sandip Roy, bless him — is here.

Centennial flop

It’s possibly because I’m abysmally bad at maths, but when I saw the “collector’s edition” of Filmfare on the newsstand — with Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar on the cover — my first reaction to seeing “100 years” printed in one corner was to assume there is someone in the world with worse addition skills than mine. Because Bachchan’s 70 years plus Khan’s 47 and Kumar’s 90 definitely don’t add up to 100. If it hadn’t been for Vidya Balan, I’d never have figured out what the magazine was trying to commemorate. Because right next to the Filmfare was a Cine Blitz and on its cover, Balan had struck Nargis’s famous pose from Mother India. She too had the words “100 years” printed near her armpit, but thanks to placement, I could read the entire phrase: “100 years of Hindi Cinema”.

The reason these special editions are out is that in 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian film and the one we can blame for being starting a tradition of weepy, melodramatic stories in the industry now known as Bollywood. Contrary to what the Filmfare cover suggests, it isn’t 100 years of Bollywood. In fact, the term Bollywood is just about 40-odd years old. It was coined in the Seventies, mimicking Bengali films’ Tollywood (most of the studios producing Bengali films were in the neighbourhood of Tollygunge in Kolkata), which in turn was a play upon Hollywood. Some could argue that the fact that “Bollywood” as a word is a copy of a copy is rather telling as far as the industry’s output is concerned.

But whatever anyone thinks of the quality of Bollywood films, it’s become as distinctively Indian as butter chicken and like butter chicken, it’s also one of our most popular exports. The impact of Bollywood’s chorus dances and its habit of punctuating a plot with unnecessary songs has found takers all over the world. Audiences love it and it’s steadily infiltrating Western culture. Recently, I saw This House at London’s National Theatre. It’s about how the Labour government clung to power in Westminster between 1974 and 1979. From time to time, in the middle of parliamentary politics and without warning, there were explosions of singing and dancing that would have made Saroj Khan proud. Bollywood’s irrefutable popularity makes magazines like Filmfare think they’re justified when they only mention commercial Hindi cinema while celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. Forget the thriving film industries in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Never mind the films of Bengal, Karnataka and Kerala. Who cares about anything that isn’t mainstream and Hindi-speaking?


Though even if you think only about Bollywood, the arrangement of the Filmfare and Cine Blitz covers at my neighbourhood newsstand was, unwittingly, a rather poetic portrait of Indian journalistic misogyny and narrow-mindedness. On one hand, you have the Filmfare cover that has three men and no babe. It claims 2013 marks “100 years of cinema”, implying commercial Hindi cinema is all there is to Indian cinema and that glossy heroes define the industry. Look to your right, and there’s the Cine Blitz cover with toil and misery etched on Balan who, despite the strategically placed splodges of dirt and humble sari, manages to look beautiful. To my mind, Balan inadvertently becomes a symbol of everyone whom the Filmfare cover has chosen to ignore: the women, the people who do the heavy lifting in the film industry, the technicians, the unglossy ones.

It’s an irrefutable fact that actors can (and do) sell us everything from potato chips to an entire state. Consequently, it’s inevitable that film magazines would choose to focus on stars rather than the subalterns of the film industry. My inner Leftist may roar in protest, but there’s no denying that star actors have become the most important aspect of Bollywood. Get a star on board for your film and producers will back your project, whether or not you have other minor details like a script or an editor or cinematographer. So a starry cover is not just predictable; one could argue it’s perhaps an accurate reflection of priorities in Bollywood.

What’s unfathomable to me is that Filmfare didn’t find anything odd about the absence of women in the edition of the magazine that’s supposed to celebrate Bollywood. Hindi commercial cinema boasts of some outstandingly beautiful and talented women, both on screen and behind the scenes. Let us assume that the women behind the scenes are ‘unmarketable’. It doesn’t explain the absence of actresses in the magazine. If Bollywood has an international profile today, the ladies have played a significant part in this exposure. After all, the only Indian film stars who have managed to break into Hollywood are actresses. Irrfan Khan wasn’t a star until The Namesake. Anupam Kher and Anil Kapoor play mostly bit parts in American film and TV while Aishwarya Rai has played the lead heroine in five foreign films. Yes, they’re godawful, but she is the lead. In contrast, the biggest Bollywood heroes only do stage shows for South Asian diaspora audiences.

We often complain about how terribly male-dominated Bollywood is and how it treats women and women characters shoddily — all true — but the machismo of the Filmfare cover is particularly laughable because you can’t have a Bollywood film without at least one woman in it. Hers may be an irrelevant role with little dialogue and even less clothing, but the oh-so-awesome hero must have a woman on their arm. How do you know a man is a good character? He cares for his mother and his sister. It doesn’t matter what the genre may be, if it’s Bollywood, a romantic sub-plot is a must. No one dares to make a film that doesn’t have a love scene or two. So how did Filmfare imagine they’d devote an entire issue on this industry without mentioning any of the women who make sure the Bollywood show goes on?

In comparison to Filmfare, Cine Blitz does a decent job of celebrating Bollywood’s leading ladies. From Fearless Nadia to Rekha, the magazine is full of admiration and gossip-fuelled awe at the commercial Hindi cinema’s unforgettable actresses. I ended up fondly YouTube-ing old songs by actresses like Suraiya, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Dimple and Rekha after flipping through the magazine. These women, however, get no nods of recognition from Filmfare.

In Filmfare, less than a handful of the industry’s women get a half-hearted wave at the back of the magazine, where the popular choice winners are listed. Among the woman mentioned is Lata Mangeshkar, hailed as “Most Popular Playback Singer (Female)”, which is a bit of a joke because Mangeshkar must be the most popular of all Bollywood’s playback singers, male or female. I’m quite certain that if there was a fan face-off between her and, say, Sonu Nigam (no. 2 on Filmfare’s popularity charts for male playback singers), Mangeshkar would win. She’s sung thousands of songs in 20-odd Indian languages in the course of a career spanning approximately seven decades. With her trademark white sari and neatly-plaited hair, she’s instantly recognizable at sight and no one who has listened to Hindi film music can confuse her melodious falsetto with anyone else’s voice. If there’s one living personality who would be the perfect cover model for an edition celebrating Indian cinema, Mangeshkar is it.

As far as Filmfare is concerned, however, she is only good enough for a mention at the back of the magazine.