One of my guilty pleasures is watching sitcoms on binge. The latest show that I watched on binge and even used Google to end my misery at times was The Mentalist (yes, yes, I am quite late to jump on the bandwagon but, better late than never right?)
While there are many tangents that I can go to in terms of what I loved as well as hated about the show, I will pick up on one broad trend that is a reality for media in most places. Sitcoms even in the Indian industry (can speak for Hindi shows alone since I haven’t watched any other Indian shows in other Indian languages), are the ordinary citizen’s access to a world far away from her daily reality. From TV sets in common rooms to Netflix and the likes on one’s bed, media as entertainment has access to the most private corners of one’s existence. Of course there is the business side to it as well that deems producing things that aren’t just liked but, also accepted by the viewers. It is crazy how the virtual production of the Game of Thrones made ‘winter is coming’ as a mark of cool and awe-inspiring minds.
What I have thought about time and again however, is the need to balance economic orientation behind soaps with creating things that add a new value to the viewers’ minds, makes them question and think. Media and storytelling has that immense power.
With such an orientation however, when one watches an acclaimed show and sees it fall flat on its face, it feels sad. Web series are definitely changing the way things go but, the downside of the trend yet again is the surge of multiple channels owned by a few big business houses that own the TV channels spreading mediocrity.
Why I am ranting about media here is to note one point that has come to mind time and again whether watching an Indian web series or reading a comic or watching The Mentalist. My basic issue is with all of it, especially the series in question, is the reaffirmation of stereotypes that deepen a sense of bias against people. This is a very subtle form of bias that exists in the modern world. One has opinions based on one’s race, class, sex and appearance…the least that storytelling can do, is to break through those typical narratives forcing the viewer to look beyond hearsay. Another classic fallacy in Western storytelling is building everything around one male protagonist (usually white) who is wronged by another man and with the help of a secondary female character who nurses his hurt ego and teaches him vulnerability after he disses her all through the plot, he gets justice and stands taller with his arm around the woman’s waist looking straight ahead. Remember Harvey Specter and Christian Grey? The typical protagonists?
While the entire plot line and appearance of the show is clean, minus heavy words displaying hyper-masculinity and full of humour and love. The characters are all shown to possess their own pasts and like all of us are products of their environments who have evolved a lot with time. All of this is what makes this show very likeable. However, as the series progresses, slowly all the mature writing falls through the cracks. Lisbon then becomes the female cop who was no nonsense and super professional not because she is good at her work and prefers to keep things that way. Rather, she was so because her dark past made her display a tough exterior to protect herself until love comes knocking. The same love that makes her throw away everything that she defined herself by and reduce her existence to anonymity. Jane is a funny, con man turned righteous hero who spends all his energies trying to salvage the murders of his family caused due to his irresponsibility. From the hurt and grief stricken man looking to avenge his loss, he slowly becomes the egoistic narcissist ought to display a sense of superiority especially against the woman he loves, without any care when the same woman loses everything in order to help him. Their story is the typical story, only with a little addition of Lisbon’s past. On the side are 3 more characters – Rigsby (tall, athletic, dumb white male aka jock in the dictionary of stereotypes), Cho (short, pokerface Asian guy with the focus of a horse with blinders because you know, he’s Korean with a gang past) and Van Pelt (red head with the perfect body that is objectified immensely, also a farm girl with the belief in horses, unicorns (not really) and rainbows, she is shown all business unless of course, love grabs her heart).
I would end with just one thought – while adding a background story to the lives of the characters does add a more humane touch giving life to these stereotypes, it still reaffirms every bit of it keeping narratives stale and predictable. Stories, while of course need to be a sort of business to sustain storytellers, are however, more powerful that dumbing down generations by affirmation of stereotypes. They can change the destiny of the world, if only, a little more courage is shown in telling them.
Its been a month since I have posted (and published) something on here. I have tried writing different things but, chose to keep them private for the sake of better understanding and soaking in of those ideas before putting them on here. Out of the many things that I have wanted to write, one was the hopelessness of the times and the horrifying sense of disbelief and disillusionment that my generation is burdened by as a result of incident occurring in the matter of a few hours.
Now, I am not the most cynical person I know and I am the last to crib about things, however bad the situation might be but, I too have vented out my anger in the past month on a certain national decision. So, when I thought of writing about disillusionment, youth (these two words sound very literally paradoxical when placed side by side) and the times that lie ahead; I could not write much beyond a rant that sums up the unfair business that is the global machine. But, I also believe that mere ranting does not change anything. What would be best, I believe, is a balanced view on everything – one can at least try even if it seems difficult.
The best thing that happened to me this past year was a sort of awakening to feminism as a belief system. This year has taught me what feminism means to me and how essential it is for each human being to understand what the word means. I have, like most people I know, always known the literal meaning of the word, understood what the theoretical aspects of the beliefs were but, it is another ball game to look at the world through the eyes of a seeker of gender equality, where even the smallest of ignorance or bias is not brushed off as something that always happens. Until this year, I had been conditioned beautifully to conveniently (and maybe organically?) sweep small traces of sexism under the proverbial carpet. But, suddenly I found the dust bunny under the same carpet to have swollen in size well enough to trip me. It was therefore, time to clean out the dirt. I do believe that I am privileged when it comes to my access to good education, lots of internet and literature etc. but, this year, I truly understood and actively applied the difference between theory and practice. However, the process that happened over this years was quite organic. I, honestly never realised how I had become the person that I am today.
This realisation happened when I decided to work out in my head the reasons I disliked certain people around me or even the American TV show FRIENDS and now, Bollywood and film personalities.
This thought process started off when I turned to look at the latest posters stuck on a BEST bus when it passed by me and found a very gaudy looking poster of Indian Idol. Now, I did enjoy it when watching it with my mother when younger. I remember laughing at those auditions, cringing at Anu Malik and finding Farah Khan a strong-ish figure. Right now, I am unsure who all feature on this recent season but, I remember cringing at the tonnes of smoothened Photoshop and make up on the faces. While I did judge the industry for being superficial etc. but, then I stopped that realising that it is, at the end of the day, a business and no audience accepts grey haired singers and women who don’t make them laugh if they are not slim. I was saddened by the hypocrisy of our society and momentarily felt a little bit of sympathy for them.
Not too long after that, I decided to watch a show called ‘Koffee with Karan’. Yes, I did. Why? Because I wanted to go back to that space of ignorant appreciation momentarily, that time as a child when nothing mattered beyond the screen but, the more time ticked on that episode, the more I found myself upset and agitated. Something had changed, I had changed but, was I being snooty like many of those here, in choosing to cringe upon Bollywood while looking at Hollywood like a lovestruck pet.
Watching two episodes of KWK told me that it was the process of evolution as a feminist that had made me “intolerant” of crass entertainment. Why feminism? That’s because someone like Karan Johar who advocates himself as a very liberal, tolerant persona (by writing an open letter to the haters who comment on his Instagram account that he is gay and that he should not pout), still chooses to ask female actors questions of a very private nature digging more so on the personal lives, their personalities, their appearances while the male actors are spoken to off money, homes, girls, ambition etc. No, they do not say things blatantly like “women need to be pretty etc.” and “men need to be blah blah”. No, that doesn’t happen but, there’s something eerie about the way the host’s persona changes when talking to 3 men who came together and then 2 women who came on a later episode. (If you’re on it, I think you should watch the two episodes back to back to understand what I am saying.) Why that is a problem because, like a female actor put it, the Indian audiences look at the show as the place where celebrities speak “the gospel truth”. When that happens, then in the minds of the audiences as well, the personalities of the female actors shrinks to their bodies, their make up, their hatred for other women and their relationships. The men are bracketed into larger beings who are all accommodating, decision makers and practical thinkers who don’t get emotional! What? For a man who pouts on Instagram, this is how he reinforces his liberal belief systems about gender and sex? In this season in particular, the two female actors seemed to gel a lot and are actually new generation people who think a lot and rationalise everything as human beings and not as bodies with breasts and oestrogen. However, the more they spoke their minds, the more they were mocked (lightly, of course!) as being boring and tiring to talk to. So, basically, reinstate the fact that women ought to not have thought and opinions while men can rant and joke about their ex-wives? Hmm.
Why I thank 2016 is because the year has given me bagfuls of opportunities to deal with sexism in all possible forms – blatant misogyny, subtle remarks of the inabilities of women to do this and that and then the slyest one where the perpetrator of sexism comes in the shape of smart, well informed and well spoken people who always speak of working to bring about gender equality in their own ways.
To sum it up, my distaste for Bollywood comes from the simple inaction on the behalf of the most influential people in the country to change their own attitudes and speak of them then. While the industry is making films like Parched (that receives little mention, little theatre running time and little business), it is also making films like Sultan that crossed 100 crores revenue marker in the first weekend. Even someone like Amir Khan who was earning huge respect from the slightly more informed section of the Indian audience, ends up praising Salman Khan’s Sultan that basically has a man wanting to become a wrestler to woo his crush and then the said girl giving up on her ambition for him. While yes, some women can choose that but, to glorify that sacrifice of a woman’s ambition in a country like ours that already expects it to be the case is outright irresponsible and stupid. And then, Amir Khan too fell in the bin with the likes of the others for me. True, Satyamev Jayate did feel like another publicity gimmick.
I would end this with just one thought – the struggle that humanity faces is because we all choose to and are conditioned to believe that certain things and situations in the world are fixed and that in front of those things and situations, we are powerless. Probably thats the case with Bollywood as well where they believe that they will run into losses if they only produced films like Parched. However, the US elections and demonetisation and the Middle Eastern situation are enough proofs that no thing or situation is permanent and as individuals we have the power to change things. I could do it at my sexist workplace and so can anyone on the face of this planet.
PS: I will write later on my dislike for FRIENDS and why no one must watch it. In the end, would again thank all those exemplars of sexism and patriarchy for making me grow. I hope you do to.
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I recently watched Rustom, a film loosely based on the KM Nanavati case which changed the Indian legal system with the abolishment of the jury system. For those who might have not heard or read about the case, Nanavati was a naval officer, married to London born Sylvia and based out of Mumbai. Whilst on one of his missions, Sylvia fell in love with their friend, Ahuja and exchanged letters with him which highlighted the socially alleged fact that Ahuja was an unattached man when it came to his relationships and that Sylvia was unsure of his intentions towards her or the seriousness towards relationships. It was after this that Nanavati comes back home and gets to know this from his wife. After hearing this, he decides to take things in his hands and straighten things out with Ahuja. By straightening things out, it meant a conversation between him and Ahuja about the latter marrying Sylvia and also taking in their (Nanavati and Sylvia’s) children post marriage. Ahuja denied having any plans of marriage which enraged the naval officer who ended up shooting Ahuja to death in his own bedroom. When tried at the Sessions Court in Bombay, he was acquitted by the jury by a vote of 8:1 with a major part of the decision and media gimmicks using communitarian politics to get a judgment. The judge of the sessions court was taken aback and the case moved to the HC where Nanavati was convicted, charged guilty of murder and as part of the legal reform, the jury was removed from the Indian legal system. I read somewhere that later on, someone from the officer’s community had appealed to the then PM Nehru to acquit Nanavati since he was a defence officer and had served the nation. As part of a deal between Ahuja’s sister who was fighting the legal battles on his behalf, Nanavati was then let out some years later while the MH government let out another prisoner from Ahuja’s community as part of a sentence and acquittal community barter.
Now, this case has held the country’s imagination for years. Rustom is not the first film to be made based on the case. There are quite a few others which were blockbuster hits. Rustom only has the Sessions court judgment covered in its story with community politics displayed fantastically. Even the city from that time is projected beautifully, making one almost long to have been born then instead of now. However, despite of all these good things in the movie, watching it left me squirming with discomfort at a few things in the film, more so the overtly lengthy court proceedings captured with sheer ridicule. That brought me to question the ordinary citizen’s take on the Indian legal system – for something as simple as wearing a seat belt and paying tolls. Reminds me of the time when entering MPT territory where one cop offered to let me go past after paying 10 out of the 30 bucks charge, with no receipt of course. Hope was risen again when the driver offered the same option to the next cop who refused stating others might do this, he did not.
Before I digress further, my point here is that a majority of the population in our country continues to swear by trends and brands advocated by film stars, across all socio-economic sections. Even crimes committed by some are inspired from Bollywood. With such great impact, I feel it is quite scary the way the semi fictional story is presented here ridiculing the proceedings of law and order, just like another old Akshay Kumar starrer did. Yes, I agree that even dictatorships are systems and laws and a coup overthrowing a dictator is actually doing good in the larger schema of things but, saying that would just be an adarsh public’s excuse to yet again not see the mirror.
Firstly, in showing the film only upto the Sessions court’s verdict where Nanavati walks scot free and more like a hero makes me wonder if we, as a nation, have issues accepting that our ‘hero’ (righteous male, avatar of righteous principled lord from Hindu mythology) can ever be wrong? Can we not accept that each one of us, even those who are otherwise impeccable in being, can commit acts which can be wrong and harmful to one or many? Also, why do we, as a nation of a 102 billion people, need a hero? Why can’t we choose to find that hero(ine) within our own selves?
The second thought or question that I had swimming in my head after watching the film is the idea of absolute right and wrong, moral black and white and the grey areas of human existence; and the intersection of the same with the legal system in place. While the case highlights the absolutes of right and wrong in terms of fidelity and patriotism versus selling your land for personal gain and favour making the act of murder by the protagonist as an absolute right! But, does this not make the entire case / story / incident grey afterall? You excuse a murderer because he is a loyal country server and husband (how can we forget multiple scenes of him staring at her picture?). And like all Bollywood films that resonate with commercially viable thinking at the writer’s part, this one too falls flat in its face when the hero is yet again made to let go of the love of his life, in order to work towards the greater good, making personal sacrifice the necessity for greater good.
Yes, there are a lot of good things in ther film but, my problem is that it is films like these that resonate the larger Indian mentality and also that films (and TV) have the power of changing things as they have unbridled access to the common (wo)man’s household. I think this film could have been far better at dealing with a lot of more subtle concepts of patriotism, masculinity, honour, integrity. While I like the portrayal of the human strength of being able to do the right thing when life is difficult but, the film just completely misses the point and loses the opportunity of using the most powerful tool in media to leave a better impact. Nanavati’s act of murder signifying honour over respect for human life and dignity was portrayed too casually, especially in politically charged times like these. Quite unfortunate.