Monday, January 16, 2012

Clarkson goes potty over India: let's be outraged but for reasons other than the HCI's

Here's why I can't agree with High Commission of India, London's, demand that BBC apologises for Top Gear's offensive portrayal of India on their 90-minutes Christmas Special.

If we don't give others the right to make fun of us, we must also give-up the right to make fun of others. And I dearly don't want to lose my right to make fun of the British: their terrible food; their inability to hold down a drink (evident in the all the puke you see on the streets on Saturday and Sunday mornings); the Katie Price-inspired fashion that dominates Picadilly Circus; the quixotic British train system that breaks down at the mere mention of snow, rain or autumn leaves; the famous British bureaucracy and the mad Prince Charles.

Remember, if we don't want the British to laugh at the Top Gear episode, we have no right to laugh at this scene from our own beloved Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham.

This, after the British Government so kindly allowed us to shoot half our film in their country!

Besides, here's something I don't get about stereotypes? Is a depiction still a stereotype if it is true?

Ok, so the Top Gear showed street dogs and Indian men pissing on the streets of Mumbai, long queues in front of Railway ticket counters, they talk about tourists in India getting the trots (or diahorrea), the dangerous highway between Delhi and Jaipur. But aren't they true depictions of our lives. I can't remember a single day in my fifteen years in Mumbai (or 22 years in India) when I didn't see street dogs and men pissing in the open. And yes, public toilets in India are a shame. I challenge the High Commissioner of India to England to use the public toilet at Kurla Terminus in Mumbai. These are not generalisations, these are the realities of living in India. It is just that the Top Gear depicts them in their standard cheeky style.

The Top Gear team also showed the lively street stalls and enterprise of Mumbai (in fact, Clarkson and team come sloppy seconds against the dabbawallas), Delhi's glitterati in their incredibly expensive cars and the beauty of the Himalayas.

The show hosts also constantly make fun of Britain. The whole exercise shows the British products as awful and poorly constructed, and themselves as buffoons in the garb of Britain's representatives. And they are happy to make fun of themselves. (In fact, over the years, they have made more fun of Britain than of any other culture, country or people).

If I do have a quibble, it is this. Their's jokes - whether on us or themselves - were so contrived. The Top Gear humour is at its best when it is spontaneous and full of surprise. But over the years, the character of the three hosts has become so fixed and the dynamics between them so predictable, that one can foretell the result of all their pranks before they have played themselves out. That is just bad television.

If we must protest, it is over this. That even with all the chaos, crowds, surprise, and fodder for humour that India provided them: Clarkson, Hammond and May couldn't really give us a genuine moment of spontaneous humour. We deserved better!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu: Or the new-found zaniness of Bollywood's heroines

Oh God! Not another "zany" Bollywood heroine!

It was sort of fun when Kareena played the exuberant, irrepressible, rebellious (read: zany) Geet in Jab We Met in 2007. But the success of that film led to an avalanche of bordering-on-mad heroines, almost all of them coupled with long-suffering but essentially sensible heroes.

  • Think Aditi from Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na (2008) who Wikipedia describes as "a highly aggressive, impulsive girl. She abuses. She scratches." In other words, zany. 
  • Think Aaliya (Deepika Padukone) from Break ke Baad (2010). She was loud, unpredictable, smokes, get drunk and is generally impulsive. In other words: zany. 
  • Think Dimple (played by Katrina Kaif) from Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011). Again bold, mischievous, impulsive and good at keeping her hero in a permanent state of alarm. What's that word again: yes, zany.
  • And then there was Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) from Tanu Weds Manu (2011) who was practically bordering on psychotic, as far as I am concerned. 

And now, there is Kareena Kapoor in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, due to release in February 2012, threatening us with her "zaniness" again if the trailer is anything to go by. 

Apart from extreme loquaciousness and boundless boldness, the heroines' "zaniness" also tends to include smoking and getting dead drunk at some point in the film (give or take a few films). Luckily, our long-suffering hero is always near by to rescue her when she passes out. Rebelliousness doesn't include rescuing yourself, it seems.

Our hero, in contrast, is sensible, responsible and generally good at toeing the line. This, we are supposed to see as repressed. Our heroine's zaninesss, then, is really about releasing the inner Marlboro Man in the hero. So while our hero rescues our heroine from drunken scraps, our heroine rescues him from life itself. (Also for some reason, it is a role Imran Khan is determined to colonise, playing it in four of the five films I mentioned above).

In most parts, I don't mind the zaniness, except in three respects. 

First, why is it that so many rebellious heroines seem to have no careers or jobs. Geet, Aditi, Dimple and finally the horrifying Tanu: none of them showed any interest in gainful employment. They were all just waiting to get married, hoping to bag a guy through their exuberant personality alone. Between Aaliya and Kapoor (in Ek Main...), one wanted to become an actress and the other a hair stylist. Obviously, careers like law, IT, journalism etc are not zany enough.

Second, zaniness and all is fine but I do mind watching smoking as somehow being emblematic of rebelliousness. It is a generally accepted as a harmful and somewhat disgusting habit and is becoming increasingly unfashionable in the West, from where we picked up the notion that it is fashionable in the first place. In fact, I can't remember the last Hollywood Rom-Com, in which the heroine smoked. Do we always have to remain a step behind the West all the time? Can't we just buck the trend for a change. 

Third, after so many films, zaniness is turning into a bore. 

Let's hope, Kareena Kapoor, who started the trend with Jab We Met, will bring it to an end with Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.

Here's a previous blog, I wrote, about the Bollywood heroines: Dil Chahta Hain: Or Where Have All the Bollywood Feminists Disappeared.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Granta 112: Pakistan - or does Pakistan have a literary scene?

Voices from Pakistan
Reading the Granta Publication on Pakistan - a collection of fiction and non-fiction works by Pakistani writers - I was reminded of an event on Pakistani literature I attended a couple of years ago. It was a talk at the Asia Society in London with three new rising literary stars from Pakistan: Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin.

At one point, the moderator commented on the recent rise of the Pakistani literary scene. The garrulous Ms Shamsie pounced excitedly on the subject stating how and why it was Pakistani-English writers' time in the sun. After she had gabbed on for a while, Mueenuddin, who had been remarkably taciturn throughout the evening, suddenly quipped that to say Pakistan had a literary "scene" was an exaggeration. If it existed, he certainly hadn't come across it. The room erupted into embarrassed titters and Ms Shamsie looked decidedly put-out.

After reading the Granta collection, I am inclined to agree with Mueenuddin.

The first sign of a lack of a vibrant literary scene is that all the three above-mentioned rising stars appear again in the collection. Obviously, the editor of the collection wasn't exactly spoilt for choice.

But more curious is the strange uniformity of voice that emerges from the collection. Barring two pieces - Leila in the Wilderness by the British-Pakistani Nadeem Aslam and Butt and Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif - the rest seem so stridently liberal. Don't get me wrong. I have no sympathy for fundamentalists. But how can all the writing arising out of a country so steeply diving towards fundamentalism sound so confidently, one-sidedly liberal?

Of course, the writers acknowledge that Pakistan is the gripped by a violent Islamization movement. But they can clearly see whose fault it is: Zia, America, Jinnah, military and ISI. And they can clearly see who all are affected by it: everyone. But how have the writers remained untouched by the phenomenon? Are they untouched by it? It is the absence of the voices from the middle that strikes me as strange.

Could the uniformity of voices be a result of the rather similar background of all the writers? Either, they moved to Britain or the US early on in life (Nadeem Aslam, Sarfraz Mansoor) or they all seem to belong to the incredibly privileged Pakistani elite. Ms Shamsie writes of visiting her cousins in London every summer and Aamer Hussein of spending childhood summers at Hyde Park. Daniyal Mueenuddin's family still owns huge farmlands in Pakistan. And Fatima Bhutto, well we all know where she stands in the Pakistani social hierarchy. Almost all of them have had long exposure to Western universities and cultures.

How representative are they of the culture they write about? Moreover, do the writers in such a collection need to come from diverse backgrounds?

Either way, writers with very similar backgrounds and attitudes becoming representative of the country's literature reek more of a clique than a literary scene. Of course, if you are inside the clique, it often appears like a scene to you, which may explain Ms Shamsie's enthusiasm.

Here's an interview with Daniyal Mueenuddin in which is comments on how most of his peers do not have access to rural Pakistan, where his own stories are set. Perhaps, that is why he holds different views on the existence/non-existence of a Pakistani literary scene.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Don 2 or MI4: Which is a more Indian experience?

Last night, in a bid to introduce Sid and my very-soon-to-pop-out baby to some Indian culture, we went to watch the super slick Don 2: The King is Back.  Unfortunately, culturally and aesthetically the film was so derivative of Hollywood that we would have been better-off watching MI4: Ghost Protocol, the twenty minutes-climax of which is set in squalid Mumbai and even features one of its famous traffic jams.

The film reminded me of a corny dialogue from a late-80s Bollywood-starrer Jamai Raja. It had Shakti Kapoor eulogising a prospective son-in-law with: "woh breakfast London me khate hain, lunch Paris mein, aur dinner New York mein. Bus su-su karne India aate hain". (He eats his breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and dinner in New York. He only comes to India to pee). Don doesn't even dignify India with his precious pee.

Everything about this super-villain is foreign: his empire, his clothes, his cars, his toilets, his targets and his ambitions. Only, the language in which he operates is clean, unaccented Hindi, which in turn forces the film to place Hindi-speaking Indian characters in unlikely settings: as Interpol officers in Malaysia, heading German banks, or as computer hackers or contract killers in Berlin.

There is a lot of talk of how the film can match any Hollywood thriller in its production values. Yes, it can. But all of it is great imitation at best: Don 2 never uses the foreign locales, settings or aesthetics to say anything original or authentic. But then again, Bollywood film-makers rarely use Indian locales, settings or aesthetics with any imagination so why should they accord the respect to foreign locales.

The good news for us is that it doesn't matter. Western film-makers are slowly discovering India as a possible setting for its films. (MI4 is the latest example). Once, they discover us and find an aesthetic language to cinematically represent our strangely ugly-beautiful cities, I'm confident we'll quickly rediscover our streets. After all, it only took Farhan Akhtar two years to recreate Bourne Supremacy's (2004) fabulous car chase in Goa for his 2006-film Don: The Chase Begins Again. Others will take even less.

Here's a great spoof of MI4 featuring Anil Kapoor. I couldn't resist...