Beneath the Burkha and the Turban

Posted: July 27, 2017 in Movies

Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that starts with, stays on and ends just like life; subtle, messy and abrupt. And that’s the amazing thing about this film. That, despite being so subtle and messy and abrupt, it left such a haunting impression in my heart that I had to take at least two days before I could write what I really feel about this film.


There has been many attempts in past in Hindi films to explore “women’s sexuality”. And I am not talking about what most folks know as “sexual orientation”, which by the way is problematic in it’s way. Many like, Arth and Astitva, have been great. Lipstic… takes the conversation forward. And no, I am also not talking about women’s sexuality, and hence the quote-unqoute above. This film for me is about intensely personal spaces between people where sexuality lives, thrives or is obscured, be it women, men or in anyway one experiences and expresses one’s gender and sexuality.

While what Shirin (Konkana) experiences is her part of sexuality it is as much as her husband’s and his girlfriend’s. The duality of what it means to dominate, and almost oppress and rape, someone in bed (wife) and what it could mean to secretly explore the tenderness of romance outside marriage with someone you can’t really control (girlfriend) has long been part of male sexuality. Leela’s (Aahana) story doesn’t talk about her own but also what it means for her boy friend and fiancee and also presents a side of what it has meant to her mother which is expressed through her profession. Rehana’s (Plabita) claim to her fullest expression – love the scene where after being stopped from dancing in a function and scolded, she goes back in the room and starts dancing to her own tunes on the bed – is also about how her parents, friends and boyfriend view womanhood. While Usha’s (Ratna) story is about her deepest desires, its also about how her own family and Swim coach looked at what’s possible and acceptable as a desires.

So if this film is about women’s pursuit of their liberation from repressed understanding about sexuality, it is as much as a call for us to recognise, name, unpack and possibly transform the limited notions of romantic, sexual and individual possibilities within human relationships. And in that, this film is as much about women seeking their libration as men being so blind that they can’t even see how they have shackled themselves to the unwritten but deeply coded rules of patriarchy and are at such a loss of the possibility of realising their full potential and that of their relationships.

While booking a ticket on BookMyShow, it offered a special screening for women. I think it should actually offer a special screening for men, because it’s them who must watch this film, if there must be special screening. Central Board of Film Certification called it a “lady-oriented” film. I only wonder how limited their understanding is around human relationships and in that human sexuality.  If you haven’t watched this movie yet, rush to a theatre as soon as you can.

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First of all, this is NOT a review of Geeta, Babita or Mahavir Phogat’s life-story. Because? We don’t “review” other people’s life based on a movie, especially one which has been fictionalised so much, dah! This is my personal reflection on Aamir Khan’s movie, Dangal. Let’s keep it in perspective as you read further.

dangal-4_5-1Dangal, like most Aamir’s movies, is a well-acted, tightly-scripted, and intensely crafted work of cinema. Each actor in the movie has delivered such powerful performances that it’s very easy to get engrossed in the narrative and just listen to what the movie tells you. That’s where we lose it. We start believing in what the movie asks to be believe about itself.

Whose story is Dangal anyway?

In real life and in the movie, Geeta and Babita became successful and known. I am sure they would have given hope to so many other girls in real life; girls who at least follow freestyle wrestling. But this movie is not about them. It is about Mahavir. It is prcisely about this man’s undying desire to be known for a gold medal by self or through his children.. And that’s what is. A movie about a parent’ dreams realised through his children where children have (been shown having) no voice.

The girls didn’t want to become wrestlers. They loathed the practice. Until a melodramatic scene happens where their friend is married off at at fourteen. She tells them how lucky they are to have a father who thinks about their future. He is a better father than many in the village. But did he do it for the girls or for himself, is to moot question.

Now one may say that in early 1990’s (or even now) most children had no voice when it comes to deciding what they wish to do with their lives, and more so girls, so what? This man still made them successful. Of course, he did. We don’t know what would have happened to the girls if he didn’t. May be, worse. May be, better. Indeed Mahavir fought many stereotypes for girls in his village. But he didn’t do it for the girls’ sake. He did it for his dream. He would have done whatever it takes for his child – male or female – to become that gold medalist he hoped to have produced in the family.

And that’s where it’s not about gender empowerment. Because empowerment advocates for strengthening one’s voice. Now in a success-obsessed, patriarchal society like India it is difficult to talk about voice. Frankly, I am not sure what’s more important in life – to be “successful” even though if it may mean one remains a puppet or have one’s own voice.

[Reminder: As I stated in the beginning, I don’t know the full story of the three lead characters (forget the mom. She is not even a character, at least in the movie). And hence this is not a comment of what Mahavir could have done better for his girls.]

Now, imagine if your dad had forced you to do mechanical engineering and had coached you to become the best mechanical engineer in the country. But you had no voice of your own whatsoever in becoming what you become. Even though the whole country admires you and younger people now look up to you. Would you like that? Maybe. Or may be not.

The answer depends upon what you value more – success earned through whatever means or becoming a person with your own voice. Sometimes the lines between these may blur. But it didn’t in this movie. When Geeta used her mind she was villain-ified and had to go on a guilt trip. Only to subvert her thinking so much that she had to ask her dad-coach what should be her strategy in the commonwealth finals. As if she has no personal capacity of think despite having fought so many national/international matches herself! Now much of this part (and the villainous coach) is not true about the life-story of the wrestler, as my google search says. And that’s another problem of the movie. While benefitting from real-life-inspired tag, the movie has taken liberty to fictionalise the real story to the extent that we don’t really know if we are told the story of Mahavir at all.  

Feminism, as defined by most dictionaries, mean, “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” The movie with it’s tagline “mhari chhoriya chhoro se kam hain ki?” aspires to do that. In fact in the the movie, Mahavir is shown fighting against the village to advocate for the social and economic rights for Geeta and Babita to be able to wrestle. I wonder though if our understanding about feminism also encapsulates empowerment and humanization of women. Once again, let me remind, this is not a critique of Mahavir; he did what he had to in the 1990’s. It’s a question for the filmmakers who chose to use this story to promote women’s empowerment and liberation in 2016. The problem lies in ducking theme of “pursuit of one’s dreams” under the guise of “feminism”.

Now, does Mahavir had to be a feminist to fight for his girls from the very beginning? Or is there a possibility of him becoming one in the process? I am not saying everything starts with the right intent. Sometimes, intent builds up or becomes clearer in the process of pursuing the original intent.

Whether in its way of making or in the way it is being critiqued majorly, I see, the problem of binary. Dangal is either feminist or it isn’t. It’s either patriarchal or it isn’t. In both, we are missing the “being” part of life. The process. The possibilities of us “becoming” something, in this case a feminist. In fact the movie captures a hint of that in several scenes, but most prominently, in the scene before the final match. Where when asked for advise on strategy, Mahavir offers Geeta to fight it for the girls of India. Hopefully by then, he has realised that what he has pursued is bigger than ‘a gold for India in wrestling from someone in his household’. In that moment, it becomes about the aspirations and empowerment of so many young girls who may be looking at his daughters as role mdels. And this could possibly be his journey of becoming a feminist. However, erred it is. That’s an important journey.

Despite having captured in the movie, Nitish and his team has missed highlighting on this journey. The focus on proving him to be a self-righteous father and an amazing coach does make it a great sports movie, may be. But having missed on a powerful opportunity for understanding the journey of what it means to be an ally for women’s empowerment is what fails Dangal in its attempt to be a feminist movie (which it claims to be).

Like most works of literature or cinema, an audience will take away what they want after having engaged with it. Of course, one such work offers multiple narratives; positive and not so positive, explicit and hidden, simple and layered. However, I think, an artist’s work must remain true to the narrative it claims to offer. That’s where Dangal fails. And I am glad it does.

I am a huge Aamir fan. I love his work and passion with which he and his team approaches work. Now, the fact that even amir khan can go wrong in picking up a story and promoting it for what’s it’s not; is just reassuring that mistakes are part of our journey to mastery of our crafts. A Dangal doesn’t dismiss the craftsmanship (or craftwomanship?) of its cast and crew. Neither it takes away anything from Mahavir and his family’s story for what it is. It’s an important story.

The question is, are we going to learn and grow in our own craftsmanship of being an audience, and more importantly, consumers and creators of stories around us? Are we going to look at news and stories critically and respond to them adequately or are we simply going to buy whatever is being told to us? Dangal. Demonetization. Surgical Strikes. Samajwadi Party fiasco in UP. Reaction to Irom Sharmila’s end to fast. Shivaji Staue in Mumbai. Kaveri River dispute. The list goes on.

Let’s open our mind and heart. Lest Black Mirror becomes our reality soon.

Wild and the Wildlings

Posted: May 23, 2016 in Movies, Uncategorized
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Sairat-Marathi-Movie-PosterWhile I was watching Sairat, I couldn’t resist thinking about Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT). If we look at the basic premise of story, not much is different. It’s a the same old story of rich girl falling for a poor lad. Families fight. Some runaways and some killings, here and there. I am sure there were many before QSQT and there will be many after Sairat. And that’s exactly what hit me. That from 1988 to 2016, not much has changed in our society. That we still have to watch these stories because they exist within and around us; and you see, that’s disturbing.

QSQT was a huge hit of its times. So is Sairat. I wonder what’s about these movies that clicks with us? What makes us appreciate a work of cinema based on the disturbing reality of our times? What happens once the story is told? We clap and we go back to the routine of life? Think about it. The youth of 1988 is the parent of 2016. The same youth who would have clapped when Raj and Rashmi ran away, today kills a Parshya and Archie – what would explain this?

While Sairat, doesn’t offer a new world – because the new world doesn’t really exist yet, what is offers is an exploration, far deeper than the world of cinema offered us in recent years. Check this:

She is angry. Runs to work. He asks if she can take a leave and she says no. But she does. She come back. Now he is angry. She asks if they can go for a movie. It’s with his favorite actor. He says no. She says she will go anyway and she does. He follows. The he sees her with her boss who was there by a chance. Confusion happens. They altercate. And fight. And push. And pull. And slap. All in the full public view. People see, but don’t do anything. He twists her hand and she retorts. But he still does. She walks fast forward. He follows. Finally, she take a rickshaw and goes away. Only to come back later.

This one scene captures an entire textbook of gender and power in India. The same Archie who had asked Parshya to move his ass off the pond and thad saved him from beatings on so many occasions, is now being brutally humiliated by him. But she can’t save herself. Why? The power dynamics has changed, you see. Now, she is just a woman, and more so a wife and no more a woman from upper caste politician’s family.

Sairat is an outcome of extremely nuanced understanding of social framework of caste, class, gender and power. And that’s what has changed from QSQT to Sairat. Our cinema has become more mature, more telling and more compelling. But you see, Sairats have existed before QSQT, let’s say, in the times of Gulzar, Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan. And it did made several comebacks from 1988 till now. However, the nineties and first decade of new century, post liberalisation, opened a new form of dreamland – The cool Rahuls and Simrans in Switzerland. Somehow in those flower farms we forgot that issues such as caste still exist back home. And we can’t get bored of looking at them. We will have to stare at them so strong until they burst off. And Sairat does just that. It reminds us all that closing our eyes or turning our head away will not solve our matters. It reminds us that we will have to watch people die around us for the faulty systems of marginalisation, prejudice and violence that we have created. And it does it with a lot of care and love.

(At the expense of appearing to go offtrack; bear with me. It will make sense, hopefully) In Game of Thrones, a television series I am (and I’m sure many of my readers are) super glued to these days, Ygritte, the wilding John Snow falls in love with, once tells him, “you come to our land, build a wall and call it yours. How’s that?” The walls separate. Separation, if forced, yields violence. If you look very closely, the wildlings and all the other kingdoms are not very different. They kill each other for power, which translates into more/better land which further translates into better chances of one’s own survival (over the other). If we look deeply within the frameworks of caste, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, race or any such divisive system, it boils down to “my power over yours”. Equality has been seen as an utopian idea that cannot be achieved. And because we don’t believe that it can be achieved, I think, we don’t persevere enough to achieve it. Otherwise, how would it matter if Archie marries with Parshya? Do they not have that right over their own body and life? Do the wildlings in us have to kill each other for the hunger of power? And power for what? And how how long? Before someone else kills us to start another cycle of killing?

We may not have a John Snow who will risk his life for something he believes in. In fact, not for any fancy idea of equality, but to unite against a bigger monster, the winter and the white walkers. Our bigger monster is within us. We will have to be our own John Snows to open up the walls we have created in our hearts. And let the opposing ideas walk in.

That’s what Sairat, a word for the wild in Marathi, pleads for. Watch it, before it’s out of theatres. And when you come back, don’t appreciate the movie for it has been made so beautifully, be angry that it had to be made in our times.

Unpacking Single Stories

Posted: April 4, 2016 in Movies
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I taught a social leadership class at Akanksha. During one of the final workshops, I asked my students, “Whose pain is most severe?”

In previous months, we had explored several social and personal issues such discrimination (gender, sexuality, religion, caste, class, disability, age, profession, language, etc), child sexual abuse, poverty, child labour, animal cruelty and climate change. In these sessions, we had shared some poignant stories about our own experiences with these issues and how the pain (and the way we deal with it) had shaped our lives.

xxxxxxOn that day, I asked them to think and prioritise which was the most important issue of all. They had to argue their position with reasoning and concrete examples. It went on for hours. They argued and argued some more. Some even changed their positions. And finally when we could not arrive at any conclusion, I said, “to measure one thing against another, we need a unit of measurement. For example, to know which of the two distances is longer, we need meter as a unit so that we can measure them both and compare. Likewise, what’s our unit of comparison for our ‘pain’? Especially the emotional pain? How do we know the pain generated out of gender-based discrimination is more or less than the one generated when you are teased for being gay? How do we know if being a Hindu in a Muslim-dominated society is more difficult or being a Dalit in a old-school Hindu society?”

That’s when it struck us. One’s pain can only truly be understood by him or herself alone. Others can only try their best to empathise. But it’s only that person who has to live the pain and also its only him/her who can redeem himself/herself from it.c6fc24b74379235648bd2a2db9545347.png

Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921) questions exactly this. Whose pain is more severe? A lonely
and ill grandfather’s or the housewife whose husband was cheating on her? The husband who cannot meet his family’s needs or the elder son who is in love with another man and has lived his entire life in a closet? The younger son who has never received the care and attention that he should have or the young vibrant girl who cries on every birthday for having lost her family?

When a film goes beyond or explores the spectrum, or simply negates the regular binaries of the black & white, the good & the evil and the right & wrong; it hits the right chord with me. The narrative flows from one to another story, and more importantly, from one
into another story. It has crashed the binaries, labels and adjectives so much so that it doesn’t name the emotions or the identities. It lets the audience feel what they want to feel with the film. For example, not once in the movie, Fawad Khan’s character has been called “gay” or “homosexual”; but you know it. Not from what he does or how he appears, but from how he feels – for his lover and for himself. Same goes with all other leemotional-moment-of-alia-bhatt-and-sidharth-malhotra-from-kapoor-sons-201602-668948ad characters, they feel and do what they feel. What you want to call them, is upto you, the audience. This story belongs as much to the viewer as it does to the storyteller. In fact, there were many occasions, that the film spoke to me rather than narrating itself as just another story. And, I think, that’s where the real beauty of this film lies. You don’t consume it as a piece of entertainment. It rather consumes you and makes you yet another part of its narrative – so much so that, I mistakenly started calling it “Kumar and Sons”!

The film reminds me of Mine Veganti, an Italian film (may be that was the ‘inspiration’?). And with it, it also reminds that our lives are so intricately linked to one another that we cannot look at them piecemeal. It also reminds us that we are not the single stories that the labels given to us, and sometimes we ascribe ourselves to, define us into. We are a lot more than that. We are the continuously-faulting-and-still-struggling-to-change stories. It reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk, The Danger of a Single Story. At one level, this movie is a reminder that we must unpack the single stories behind our assumptions and stereotypes. At another level, it also asks for forgiveness and compassion. There were so, so, so many moments where I just sighed and said to myself… oh damn! Only if she/he had forgiven him/her…. Oh damn, if she could forgive him a little earlier than she did, he would have been alive.. If he had forgiven her for what was a drunk mistake, she would have not had to wait… if she could accept him for what he was, he didn’t have to go through the pain of his lifetime… But then, I also know, just going by my own experiences, it is easier said than done. That’s exactly when this movie becomes so real. That it makes me desperate to forgive, but it also reminds me that I still don’t have the framework that operate on genuine compassion, for myself and for others.

Interestingly, what was the strength of the movie also fed into what didn’t work for me. The way in which some traditionally non-powerful and marginalised groups – such as Nepali servant – was constructed in one-dimensional and stereotypical ways, I thnik, could have been avoided. Did the Nepali caretaker really had to go for a Nepali film? Or may be he did, but I wonder if the purpose of it being said explicitly was for only to name the language of the film or to generate the laughter at the stereotype, which it actually did (at least in the theatre that I went to). While, the film, on one hand tries to challenge some strong stereotypes, it falls back on reinforcing few others, which were actually not called for.

Having said that, I think Kapoor and Sons scores on most accounts of filmmaking. Finally, a work that Karan Johar should be proud having produced.


Posted: March 4, 2016 in Movies
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Sitting in a quiet hotel room in Chennai, miles away from  ‘home’ and several days after I watched Aligarh, that undefinable feeling wells up inside me. I sigh a huge lump of air out.

That night, as the credits rolled up, I sat there, with my friends in an empty auditorium, a little liberated, a little scared, a little at peace and still a whole lot lost. I don’t remember the last time when I was so deeply moved by cinema that I almost forgot to leave the auditorium.

However, my guess is, many of us will not watch this movie. And one should not. Not because one is gay or straight or somewhere in between. Those labels, and the politics behind them, are immaterial.

But because it will make most of us uncomfortable – very very uncomfortable – with our silence which killed Prof. Siras. Because it will make us realise how little we understand about love and still brag to have lived this passage of time called, life. We shouldn’t watch this movie because the silence of this movie can shatter the cacophony around us. We won’t be able to tolerate our own solitude, you see. Because to confront the truth – yours and mine – is not easy. It can kill us and puncture the bubble we have blown around us.

And by the way, this movie is not so much about homosexuality as it’s about a breach. The same that killed a young girl in Delhi Public School (remember, Dev D?). The same for which many are sold and bought and blackmailed and humiliated. It’s about making someone’s private life public without his/her consent. It’s about using the power of a majority voice to oppress someone with the tools of public shame and guilt generated  not from a mistake or crime but just by being a minority voice.

Aligarh is poignant and compelling. This is one courageously humble attempt at cinema. The movie invites us in the journey of self exploration, when it appeals, “Come out and question. Come out and talk. Come out and live. Come out and love.”

Let’s come out of our collective fear of the ‘other’. Let’s come out to educate ourselves about the diverse possibilities of life. Come out to understand what we stand for and what we reject – and not like the protagonist’s end which is shoved beneath the pile of police files just because “they couldn’t find enough evidence to prove”. Come out so that another brother or sister or daughter or friend or neighbour or someone who lives around the corner of the street comes out too. Not just out of their closet of orientation but of love and longing. Come out to watch and celebrate a brave work of Indian cinema called, Aligarh.

The Master of Tragedies

Posted: January 16, 2016 in Movies, Uncategorized

bajirao-mastaniBajirao Mastani has won several awards. Rightfully so. Enough has already been said about how beautiful the movie is, how Priyanka has done a great job and so on. It winning multiple awards establish that. Hence, I will skip that piece.

Before you read what I intend to say, you need to know that I have mostly loved Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s work, each one of them from Khamoshi to Bajirao Mastani. And yes, that includes Sawariyaa and Guzaarish as well (even though they flopped at box office). Also, as you would agree, cinema is always for personal consumption and hence will be liked or not liked by different people’s taste (and most of the times, need) of a certain kind of cinema and stories being told through that cinema.

I think, Sanjay is great filmmaker. He has almost always shattered the binary of a Hindi film protagonist, who is always ‘good’  and the antagonist, who is always ‘bad’, many a times even in looks. His heroes and heroines do the right and the wrong and everything in between. Which, I think, is great for a society to see and consume as a possibility. Though his characters are so real in essence, they are exceptionally dramatised in presentation, added with extravagant cinematography. And in this, he presents to us an experience worth our time and money and, almost always, moments that make for great memoirs.

With Bajirao however, I’m left with questions more than memories. I will start with the key theme of the story, polyamory. Bajirao is in love with his wife, Kashibai. He also falls in love with Mastani. Possible. There has been enough examples from history and contemporary scientific research that talk about polyamory – many loves – as one of the many ways human relationships can exist. In that accord, it’s possible for Bajirao to fall for Mastani even though he was already in love with Kashi. For me the issue was the absence of conversation from Bajirao with Kashi about this extending relationship, which she rightfully deserved whether looked from a heteronormative relationship or polyamorous. If one person in a closed relationship (Bajirao-Kashi) decides to open up the relationship for many loves (towards Mastani), both partners must have a conversation, which I think Bajirao somewhere knew and wanted to have, but just a little too late. Along with that, the movie also almost presented this with glorified indifference and, at times, arrogance towards the absence of conversation. It never for once highlights the guilt or atonement from Bajirao for breaking a commitment he had made with Kashi.

Hence, I wonder if Sanjay places love above all values, even integrity? And what kind of love? What makes a love story great? If I see it from the perspective of Sanjay’s films, it’s the tragedy of love that makes it great, not the love itself. His protagonists are suffering endlessly in love. And that’s, I think, is problematic. I can’t equate love to suffering. Through his stories, I realise, how incredibly important it is for a person to be healed in the process of unrequited love. No, love is not a goal to be realised and martyred for. I think it’s an emotion that’s powerful for us to have lived incredibly fulfilling lives, with or without physically uniting with those we love.

The movie has hit a chord with Indian audience. Overall, I have liked it too. It’s not a shocking movie, you see. A man can rightfully fall in love with two women. I wonder if the movie was equally well received if Kashibai would have fallen in love with another man and would have gone to defend that love so boisterously.

The other question I am wondering about is the boundaries of creative liberty. Sanjay has clearly and loudly announced that Bajirao Mastani does not necessarily confirms to all available historical truths and hence is not a historical movie. Fair. However, with or without disclaimer, how far can a historical event can be fictionalised? As understood, Sanjay has twisted too many incidents of available history to make what he has made. Now, we need to keep in mind, the disclaimer comes once in the movie, in its most unattractive form. Sanjay’s fiction however is presented in most colorful form. Also, the cinema lives for a long time, through internet, television and many such media. Will this not be the new history of Bajirao Mastani that will be etched in the viewer’s minds, with or without disclaimer, in years to come?

We will have to ask these questions before we move on from this euphoria, called Bajirao Mastani.

The Loss of the Labelled

Posted: December 5, 2015 in Movies
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“When they write poems or sing songs in the west, they speak for all humanity. They are human beings – but we are just Muslims. when we write something, it’s just called ethnic poetry,” said a Kurdish youth. Snow. Orhan Pamuk

A couple of days back, my partner and I decided to spend our evenings watching movies. The three movies that we watched were Mine Vaganti/Loose Cannons (Italian),
Do Começo ao Fim/From Beginning to End (Portuguese) and C.R.A.Z.Y. (French/Canada)

So, what’s common between these three movies? If you will read the online reviews, the first thing they will tell you is, these are gay-themed movies. So of course, all the three movies have at least one lead character as a gay person. Of course, these stories have these characters explore – struggle through, accept and/or reject – their sexual and romantic orientation.

When I watched these movies, and luckily in that order, one after the other, each day, I felt, as very rightly briefed by my partner, they are all movies of human lives. They are not biographies of these gay men but of their families. These stories not talk about the struggles of coming of out the closets of sexuality for these men but of various closets by each of them individually and the family as a whole.

These movies are about the realities that we know that exist but we so forcefully close our eyes in a desperate hope that they will seize to.

While Mine Vaganti was a movie that highlighted the struggle of the grandmother for me, Do Começo ao Fim highlighted the character of the mother who had the courage to tell her son, “you can come talk to me about  something that you don’t understand. Without any shame.” CRAZY tells us the huge burden that parental expectations can become on a child’s developmental years.

While watching these movies, I realized how often these labels, reduce the opportunity of such brilliance to be consumed by all. How many heterosexuals would miss the opportunity from learning these movies. In our constant desire to categorize, segregate, label and discriminate; I realize a whole lot of humanity is lost. And more specifically, a whole lot of human stories are lost.


P.S. – In case you are already wondering if we watch only gay-themed movies, let me tell you, my partner and I watch all kinds of cinema.