Sunday, August 29, 2010

Daayen ya Baayen

I recently watched Bela Negi’s film Daayen ya Baayen (Right or Left), which for all the tedious verbiage that fills our newspapers and magazines about the new space for independently minded (since it's almost all produced out of Bollywood, it's not independently produced often) cinema in India, remains unreleased, and un-promoted on the festival circuit for unclear reasons.

Without a doubt this comic drama is a labour of love and free from a lot of the generic quality that make films from India successful. It's a story in the mode of the droll, angular folksy narrative which is a tradition we haven't lately seen a rendition of, but the relief is in watching a film that does not feel puffed up and stiff with the desire to be seen as "world cinema" or "indie cinema" or whatever label is seen as cool. It's simply the film it wants to be.

What makes the film work - apart from the fact that its funny - is that through its rich local detailing and highly rooted story and characters, it creates a compelling portrait of the universal human desire to dream of utopias, to find in ourselves the best we can be: wise fools who want to love and be loved for the people we are and the poets we can be. In that it's got a clear sense of wanting to talk about some central human experience rather than be a clever description of some context.

The film fills us with a delight rarely found in recent Indian films: the delight of characters whimsical, eccentric, infuriating, flawed and funny in the way dreamers and hopers and no-hopers are.

Daayen ay Baayen is a densely textured tale of a man who returns a bit defeated from the city where he has gone to pursue his dreams, to his idyllic looking village– to his wife’s dismay at this reverse migration, a come down in this world if ever there was one. Indeed we understand her comic dismay compassionately once we pause from chuckling, because what can he do in this beautiful place where sheer rivers gleam, and trees sigh wetly and ghosts sometimes smile on full moon nights - but where a mixture of economy and culture robs men of ambition and possibility so that they sit around playing cards, drinking and farting around, making token plans of going to the city, while women slog.

But Majila, the main character is full of an ebullient optimism to start an arts centre. In pursuit of this slightly elusive dream he influences school kids into writing earnest verse, earns the adoration of his son, the mockery of the villagers– and wins a bright red car in a slogan contest. The car sets off scrutiny and jealousy and perhaps a few wrong turns as Majila loses the way to his dream as all of us do, cast asunder by criticism, ego and the uncertain business of being human with its certain desire to be successful or to prove oneself right maybe. How we finds the way back again is a ride that manages to be both sweetly and darkly comic; he arrives at his end a hero who is very triumphant and a little, just a little, as he says, compromised.

This is not a flawless film - and the screenplay would have benefitted from much stronger structuring, because in its current form there is a slight diffusion of intent, and the film is not always consistent in terms what approach to plot it is choosing - the incremental one or the overtly causal/eventful one. So we might begin to wonder a little half way through where we're headed, a feeling not always offset by the strong sense of where we are. In other words, while each scene is lovely and specific in itself, sometimes the weave is not tight enough.

However, with its very sure mise-en-scene, inspired performances from a mix of Bollywood and local actors as well as amateurs and dialogue full of local sarcasm and humour the film stays with us both with because of its feeling of enjoyment - I found myself chuckling to myself for a couple days after at the though of different shots, or dialogue or character- and its deeply humane view of people. There is a school principal who loves to say "and miles to go before we sleep" as a homily for ending speeches or while giving advice; an old lady, Harduli, who has used her husband's freedom fighter pension to buy a shiny new pair of sneakers for climbing the mountain to get to work and as she tells a villager -"what else do I need but this and a good pack of cigarettes. Indeed she has loaned the money to everyone in the village, because she doesn't really need much else. There's Majila's sister-in-law who is embarrassed by his city jeans, all colorfully patched, and throws them away in the field, toothless men who complain about the government while playing cards, Majila's gift to his wife - a backscratcher for scratching his back and all sorts of little things that we relish while and after watching the film.

The film's accomplishment is that it shows us that not all Indian film entertainment – and it’s entertaining indeed – has to come in a Bollywood costume or with a mediocre, meaningless pretend-social message. I do hope others can see this film soon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Meet the Parents

Here's a longer version of the column that appeared in Mid-day on Sunday Aug 29th


As a non-parent, it was news to me that the PTA laws had been changed by the government because I did not even know that PTAs were governed by actual state laws. Going through them I’m not sure if I was impressed or alarmed at how much a parent could or should be involved in school activities.

Now, parenting – and especially motherhood – are becoming so hallowed all over again, although in new yummy-mummy bottles - that a non-parent probably has no locus standii to be saying anything at all about this stuff. But I’m going to claim my rights as a former child and current sufferer of the results of all this hot-house parenting to wonder a bit about some things.

The current noise, to recap, is over the fact that the state’s government has scrapped elections to PTAs and these will now be constituted by appointment. Naturally this leads to all sorts of concerns over whether this won’t favour the school managements and leave parents powerless – very valid concerns indeed.

But what are the mutual concerns? Are PTAs essentially a union body – to make sure the school gives parent-child consumers the things they promised? Or do they come together in order to ensure that the school becomes a positive and progressive preparation for public life, which is why we suffer through all that homework and torture from classmates in the first place (oh you didn’t? well, lucky well-adjusted you).

As with many democratic processes, this depends totally on each PTA. Some apparently have gathered to ensure a pension for retired teachers. Others have the usual complaint: most parents are unwilling to volunteer time or take responsibility.

I have a friend whose enthusiasm for attending PTA meetings (given that she routinely tells her kid that he should not take the school too seriously) is a matter of amusement between us. She attends each meeting with an agenda. Some of these things include: more Hindi (since its Delhi) books for the reading period. Good ones, not boring ones which make kids hate the language in comparison to the bright and funny books for kids in English. Of course she also leaves knowing that most of this won’t change because for all that parents want “alternative” education, many also want mainstream success for their kids, eventually.

I may be wrong but it seems there’s a great deal more obsession with parenting – especially mothering – in people of the upper middle classes – amongst people with h the surplus income that allows one partner, usually the woman, to be a full time parent. They send their children to schools and after-school programs that promise to turn out Spanish speaking, ballet dancing, brain gymming, precious wonders in touch with nature and their inner artiste via new teaching methods and air-conditioned classrooms. These experimental schools are often expensive – but good air-conditioning and CCTVs aren’t cheap. And you need good security to keep the kids in and maybe other kids out. Frankly, as a child, this sort of scrutiny would have sent me into permanent depression – I longed at all times to escape everything in the real world of adult anxiety and injustice and retreat to one of my own making - but I accept I’m not the ideal these parents and teachers are aspiring to. Everyone thinks their child has a special someone hidden inside that can be discovered. No child is allowed just to be ordinary then, I guess, at least in a certain class. What is this vision all about?

Is it a vision that the Right to Education Act might be interfering with for some? I quote from a circular that Bangalore’s Bethany High School issued to parents: Under this Act, all private unaided schools will have to accommodate 25% of their strength of children around the neighbourhood without any screening. This means that any child will have to be allowed into school and share the classroom with your child. Eminent psychologists have said that this will be detrimental to the psyche of all children, yours and the others, and the school has to sit back and admit indiscriminately and cannot refuse admission."

Parents have quickly defended the circular because “it’s not saying underprivileged children will be ill-behaved but that if they happened to be, the school was not empowered to act against them. The school has piously declared it educates 20 children free.

You don’t need school (or parents) to teach you that meanings lurk between lines. The school seems to have a problem affording poor children education as a right but no issue giving it as charity, because charity keeps the power equation clear. The parents are uncomfortable with the idea of poor kids and their kids being in the same class. They are not bad people. But, their goodness prevents them from articulating exactly why they have this problem.

In the meantime, the BMC has asked that all new secondary school spaces should give 50% of their built up area for a municipal school in return for exemption on the FSI of the remaining 50%. This will help implement the Right to Education act apparently, with BMC schools being a sort of visible annexe, sort of like a servants quarters in those nice bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Today I watched a video of a popular guru giving gyan on parenting – to be a good parent you just need to stop living a distorted life and be the best according to your ideas. Isn’t it cool how he never defined those ideas – spiritual freedom, baby! I’m not a parent, godperson or even an eminent psychologist, but I guess it’ll have to do that I’m a former child: as bad as parents who can’t be bothered, are parents who care so preciously about their own little princes and princesses. They really have to think about all kids a little – and teach their kids to do so too. How else are those kids going to be good parent – or teachers?

Because Spacebar is Strict

Here is last week's column :) in Mid-day about the price of your soul.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Modesty of Outrage

My column which appeared in Mid-day today. I'm not linking to the website because they made a mistake and added a line from Devdutt Pattanaik's column to the end of mine, which sort of creates a misreading of the whole piece!


On August 3 Vibhuti Narain Rai resigned from the Jnanpith Selection Committee. Rai, a novelist, former IPS officer and VC of Wardha Hindi University created a brouhaha with his sexist remarks to Naya Gyanodaya magazine, roughly reported in the press as: “women writers in Hindi are in a race to prove who is the greater prostitute” and the entire “feminist discourse has been reduced to one about the body by over-rated, over-promoted women writers.”

The permanently hyperventilating press sought and received counter-remarks, petitions were drafted and Rai resigned. The truth triumphed? I wonder.

The tone of many reactions was strikingly similar to Rai’s own remarks. How dare he insult women writers by calling them prostitutes! If we think this is an insult, then, aren’t we subscribing to the same dessicated notions of purity or respectability we claim to condemn? A famous writer said: “being an IPS officer he is talking like a constable!” So constables are automatically crude, uninformed and jungli, while IPS officers are of a better, er, class? What sort of arguments are these?

VN Rai is not your average bigot. He’s a well-regarded writer, especially for his novel Sheher Mein Curfew, which looks at pro-Hindutva communalization of the police. So, given this, I assume the first thing you’d do is read his original interview, rather than rely on the fragments quoted by our media, world famous though it is for accuracy, sincerity and non-sensationalism. Or wouldn’t you?

If you did, you’d see that his interview is a complex performance of paternalism. On the one hand he acknowledges that a male dominated society, unable to stomach women’s sexual freedom or personal choices, brands them ‘bewafa’ or loose (in fact he uses “chhinal” meaning slut, not prostitute). He defends people’s right to choose their own type of relationships – although he feels gender equality is needed for this to be meaningful. He then uses this argument – of others’ regressiveness – as a reason for women to observe limits and to ‘lift’ feminist writing above trivial matters like sexuality, advocating a trickle down effect of sorts – after 500 years when men are enlightened, women can be completely free. Till then we must be economically and intellectually independent but “dignified”.

This patronising legislation of sexual freedom, couched in claims of feminist concern is the oldest line in the conservative game. Huge energy – from honour killings to beauty codes to ostracism of “slutty” behaviour (anything not Main Tulsi Tera Aangan Ki trademark) – goes into preventing women’s sexual freedom. I wouldn’t say any discussion of pleasure, desire and the female body is trivial in this context. Without rebellions, we’ve seen, there has been no change. Revolution is not a modest business. As for this hierarchy, where matters of “the world” are politically superior to personal life – get over it. Those who would have us behave modestly in return for other rights are certainly not as bad as those who want to slap us for going to a pub, but they are at least second cousins.

But censorship, banning, and shutting people up are ineffectual primitive acts - they stem from outrage and end only in outrage. The real battle is changing the terms of the debate through public discussion.

Sadly where are the spaces for this kind of public debate? Perhaps we will have to create them ourselves. The media, where ideas ought to be worked out with intelligence has reduced itself to a theatre of exclamations in which we have but modest roles of outrage. In the absence of dialogue, we can only display stock postures and loud poses – like we are acting in a silent film about the freedom of expression.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I'm lame like that

Yeah it's kind of sad, that I have to pretend to update my blog by changing the template - to whom am I pretending? What do you call this sort of lameness? Thanks but that was a rhetorical question...

Anyway, all the un-posted Mid day columns. Along with the resolve that one day soon a post will be only for the blog (to whom am I making these promises. sigh...)

An ode to mmmm-mithun, which has proved to be a v. popular column which shows how much people love him... and that everything is not about being a rich girl with a 2 crore clothes budget or chiknu boys with waxed chests (SRK not included)

And a complaint about said folks who have gone missing

And maybe in New York-London-Tokyo they discuss the weather, but in Bombay we kinda talk about the traffic

Ok that's a month's worth but my excuse must be that I have been working hard and traveling - last to Japan - about which something some day.

This will not happen again (she promises herself).

After all tomorrow's another Sunday.