Power, Piffle and Padmaavat

The problem with a film that has been in the news and resulted in violent protests is that it gets a pedestal, and the resultant pigeon droppings, before you have even watched it. There is baggage as you enter the auditorium. You are already emotionally tuned into it – whether it be its message or its very existence as triumph over opposition. (The Karni Sena, a sort of watchdog organisation that burned the sets and demanded the head of the actors, claiming that the portrayal of Padmaavati, their hero who did not bow down to Allaudin Khilji, would be an insult to Rajputs.)

Despite all the intellectual titillation provided by an open letter where an actor claimed that she felt reduced to a vagina after watching Padmaavat (more on that later), the film did not reduce or elevate me to anything.  

I sat through it, not squirming as much as feeling detached. There was no emotional connect, as character after character piled on bravado and bluster in the automated manner of updated robots.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has taken to making epic-type films that beneath their grandeur manage to camouflage the caricatures his characters come across as. For a movie that spouted honour, it struck one as a weakling constantly seeking affirmation.

The primary criticism of Padmaavat has been from the feminist point of view, and because one actor Swara Bhasker has decided to reduce the whole female population of India to genitals while smartly trying to win brownies by flattering the director with terms like “brilliant auteur” as well as the online coteries by adding mandatory references to “today’s India”, I’ll address a few points:

Why exactly was she reduced to a vagina?
 “Yes, women have vaginas, but they have more to them as well. So their whole life need not be focused on the vagina, and controlling it, protecting it, maintaining it’s purity. (Maybe in the 13th century that was the case, but in the 21st century we do not need to subscribe to these limiting ideas. We certainly do not need to glorify them.)”

You’ve got to be an obstetrician if that is all you see. This is ridiculous, whether the reference is to the film or to reality. Khilji has heard about Padmaavati’s beauty and wants to acquire her because “har nayaab cheez par hamara haq hai” (he has claims over every beautiful thing). His actions, at least according to this film, do not show him to be an aesthete and I’m afraid he does not appear to be terribly interested in the vagina either. His lust is essentially about jerking off the excess pressure of immense power he imagines he has.

You can’t find the jauhar scene glorified and not have a problem with the glorification of a queen who conveniently married a married man and let the first wife get side-lined.

You cannot rant about being reduced to a vagina and not notice that this first wife was not only dehumanised, but desexualised as well. Padmaavati too spends more time trussing up her husband’s turban than any expression of amour.

You cannot have a problem with women choosing to end their lives instead of falling prey to the enemy and not flinch when men routinely speak of embracing death fighting the same enemy. What is so valorous about the latter? That they don’t have a vagina? So who is being reductive?

You can’t talk about Nirbhaya, the Delhi gangrape victim’s brave fight against her assaulters and not see Padmaavati fighting a similar threat. For all we know, had Khilji made it anywhere close to her she, a warrior herself, would have put up a good fight. All women do, unless they are muffled, shackled or rendered immobile. And people should just stop using rape and Dalit girls for their posh little consciences.
“I felt like all the ‘minor’ achievements that women and women’s movements have made over the years– like the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to education, equal pay for equal work…all of it was pointless; because we were back to basics.”

There is so much hyperbole here that it sounds like she is cloning Bhansali. Nobody, and certainly not rape victims, feels reduced to a vagina. They suffer from trauma not because their vagina was violated but because they were. I wish people would stop demoting the strides in law and social justice regarding women only to use it to make the self-righteous point that they, as opposed to the rest, care.

Even more appalling is the belief that cinema ought not to portray what may have happened without taking a moral position on it.  

“I understand that Jauhar and Sati are a part of our social history…but then so were the lynchings of blacks by murderous white mobs in the 19th century in the US – sensational, shocking dramatic social occurrences. Does that mean one should make a film about it with no perspective on racism? Or, without a comment on racial hatred?”

Political correctness and vacuous op-eds are killing reportage and delineation. The creator would certainly be free to explore the material as s/he wishes, but that does not necessarily amount to an opinion. It is choosing what part of the landscape to focus on. Many do-gooder films that overtly comment do not flinch from sensationalising the evils they depict. Patina is not perspective. Just as binaries are no plausible response to cardboard portrayals.


Swara Bhasker posted a video where she told Bhansali that she had taken up for his film during the protests. I watched more than that one clip. On the casting couch of which she was a potential victim, she refuses to name the man because he is not as important as her now. The message being that if your perpetrator is someone lower in the hierarchy, what’s the point? No eyeballs to grab.
She also puts the onus of the casting couch on women. She says, and this is pretty much her quote, that a man asking you to sleep with him is offering a bribe; you have the choice to refuse it. Women must say No. There will be consequences. But women shouldn’t be in a position where their ambitions become their greatest disadvantage.

To think that people like this are seen as the sensible and brave voices on social media. Oh, but they would be. Social media props up blather because it can’t handle complexities.


25 Years of Hindutva - the Babri Masjid Demolition

It is already a quarter of a century and India has learned nothing. 

Today, I am thinking about Suleiman. He should be 25 now. Is he hungry? Will he get his food? Is his house still ridden with bullets? Have the stains from the blood been cleaned? Has their memory been erased? 

Suleiman was an infant lying on the lap of an elderly woman in Behrampada. I take some poetic licence here. I have named him Suleiman while writing this. When we met all those years ago, and his milkless baby cries broke the silence, he was nameless. There were far too many adults who were afraid of turning into numbers. I got their names, their stories. This little baby's story was plebeian. He was hungry. There was no milk. The water from rice acted as substitute. In all the violence and loss around, it was this tale that was witness to a more palpable loss — he was the life amidst death and destruction. 

I have not been able to bring myself to revisit those places. In my mind, Suleiman could grow up to be a doctor, a businessman, a lawyer.

It is with sadness that I also know that whatever Suleiman does he will still be thought of as a jihadi. Or a haramzada even though it was those with legitimate power who had transformed his life into a tragedy when he could not even walk or talk.

December 6, 1992. The day something died in many of us.

The news had come in. The Babri Masjid had been demolished. And Bombay was on fire, a communal conflagration. I sensed fear around me like a shroud. I had felt a physical jab, its ache continues to resonate to this day.

The political

  • When I see Kapil Sibal appeal to the Supreme Court to defer the hearing on the Ramjanmabhoomi dispute to after the 2019 general elections, I wonder at the narrow vision. Did we not have any elections since 1992? Hasn’t it been a political tradition to keep the issue on the backburner and make use of it to keep the public on tenterhooks? Such pleas only help make the rabid Hindutva groups claim victimhood. 

  • When prominent celebrity activists join their voices in this let’s defer drama (the SC has rejected it), what one notices is that there aren’t any Muslim voices. If they are concerned about repercussions, why don’t they specify who the rioters will be? Recall how it was Khushwant Singh who suggested the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in India because of imagined repercussions? Singh did not suffer for it, but the whole Muslim population was deemed intolerant and of a jihadi mindset. This is how it always works. They ride on a Muslim issue and Muslims have to bear the flak for it. 

  • When I see Rahul Gandhi do a mandir yatra and walk around with a tilak (anointed by no less than the former president of India), and read and watch the sniggers about his soft Hindutva, I wonder about how convenient it is to target him with a catch phrase when the rot is deeper and more dangerous: That he, a supposedly staunch secularist, has to appease 80 percent of the population. Appeasement is never a good idea, but the tokenism that passes for it is sometimes a necessary gesture for those sidelined socially and politically, not the majority. 

  • When I read a liberal historian declare that L.K. Advani is the most divisive politician in India, I again see this as classic liberal cop out. We know about his role, about how his rath yatra inspired people. But the question to ask Is: why did it inspire them? This is important because Advani is now a has-been who had declared Jinnah a secularist. So why are even more people rooting for Hindutva? Why are they voting for a party that gets its orders from a rightwing fundamentalist organisation? Why are liberals afraid to call out majoritarian terrorism and why do they pussyfoot by saying we should not become another Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, as though we have no examples of indigenous terror?

  • When I see Indian Muslims try hard to toe the majority line and do what they do in order to be accepted, I wonder how this would qualify as secularism. They have started interfaith Eid celebrations. Not only does this reek of iftar politics opportunism, it negates what is fairly common. Most of us who live in cross religious areas have never had our doors bolted against other faiths on days of celebration or even otherwise. To create a pedestal for a normal social event does not raise its stature, but alienates in its ‘specialness”.

The personal

It is already a quarter of a century and India has learned nothing. I learned my lesson in one day.

That day, when the phones went dead, there was silence in minds too. The government had clamped down on phone lines to prevent people from spreading rumours. People who spread hatred, who spread the word that would take thousands of kar sevaks to Ayodhya were afraid of rumours that would expose their truth. 

I was walking down the lane, when outside a convent school an elderly woman held the hand of her grandson. She looked at me and asked, “Are you going in this direction? Can I walk with you?” I nodded. 

I knew her faith; she carried the identity marks with confidence. I’d seen these all my life. But on that day, for that moment only, when she said, "Look what they’ve done to us?” I was angry. Very angry. Who had done what and to whom? 

She said she was afraid, there was safety in numbers. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. Who was concerned about ensuring the safety of numbers — the majority? It was majoritarianism that was sought to be asserted, it was majoritarianism that was being catered to, it was all about majoritarian asmita and pride. 

I said nothing. I listened to her, even though I was seething inside. Not against her, but what had become of her. And now me? 

I dreaded the very thought. At a fork on the road, we parted ways. She to the safety of home, I to the confusion that had become my home.

As the day wore off, I began to feel ashamed for those few moments when I was angry with a stranger who trusted me. Weren’t we just two people trapped within our respective truths? Her fear was individual. That it has been emboldened by the collective was probably invisible to her. 

It’s different today. Now they work in tandem, vikas and the virat, development at the point of a gun against an imagined enemy. In such opacity, it is easy to distort history and call it crystal clear truth. 



On why 800 million Hindus find Muslims a threat and questions about minorityism:

On what happened in Ayodhya and the lies:


Reductionism and the Sexual Abuse Debate:
Beyond #MeToo, #HimToo

Every woman has faced some kind of sexual exploitation. It starts when we are young. We have barely had an opportunity to watch our bodies grow and find that somebody else is noticing and making a claim over it. Often, for just a moment, for that brush against us. He does not see anything else except that bit. We begin to hide the part that now seems like an appendage to only cause us trouble.

Sadly, what we see in the course of various articles on male predatory behaviour is a similar lingering-over-bodies objectification. The Harvey Weinstein story should have been about him flashing and spraying a potted plant upon being rebuffed; instead it has become anecdotal about parts of women, their person stamped with the victim tag.

Another problem with the exploitation discussion is that it gets reduced to a parade of names with a pecking order. So, while Bafta and the Oscar honchos throw Harvey Weinstein out, Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby continue to hold their place. Are their abusive actions any less damaging? Their victims too did not inspire the kind of solidarity we see with the Hollywood A-listers. The crime seems to matter only when the criminal and victim are mainstream.

Forty years after he was charged with and served a sentence for raping a minor, women took out a topless protest against Polanski in Paris as a result of the ‘Weinstein effect’. He has his supporters, from French philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy to George Clooney, who finds the behaviour of Weinstein “indefensible” but had expressed sympathy for Polanski: “When you think about all that this 83 year old man has been through, it's awful to imagine that they're still after him.”

More prominent men are being outed, Kevin Spacey being the latest. Worryingly, the reportage has transformed the victims into numbers. 30 women, 50 women, 80 women. More women and counting. Men, too. Recall that New York magazine had done a lead story, its cover picture a montage of all the women who had accused Cosby. It was like a “wanted” list. The women were on parade. And given that he got away due to a “mistrial” and that he had plans to teach young people how to escape sexual assault charges, we need to examine whether, aside from celebrity gawking, these ‘outings’ have any real effect on the social mindset.

Me Too

While it is understandable that women would speak out as a group to feel safe and bolster their chances of being heard, this is not how it happened. They did not speak in one voice; it was a snowballing effect. Why does it have to be a sorority of victims? Isn't one victim enough for us to pay heed? Had the victim names not been famous would we have been interested?

Another aspect of the Weinstein episode is that women recognised for having broken the glass ceiling and fighting for equal pay have been relegated in public perception as people who struggle with silence when faced with physical humiliation. Most of them have a backdated encounter with Weinstein and they held their own despite him, yet there aren’t any paeans to them being survivors.

In trying to reclaim space, such attempts ghettoise women. Mass and social media are building up a cult of victims they can feed on. We may say “me too”, but how will hashtag comradeship make men answerable for specific crimes? The tendency to generalise and transform every issue into a jumpable bandwagon is detrimental to dealing with misogyny and the different kinds of extreme behaviour it manifests as.

Him Too

A UK actress says she lost out on roles because she refused Weinstein’s crass offer to “touch your tits. Kiss you a little”. This is a desperate man begging, it is not about power.

Weinstein had taken a woman out for lunch because he said she had looked at him. Cosby said, “I think that I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things.”

If it is not about imagining signals, it is about how a woman looks. And now even some feminists have begun mansplaining. From ‘me too’ to ‘why not me too’. Actor, and neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik writing on ‘Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World’ chalked it up as an achievement that she was not “a perfect 10” and therefore safe. There were angry reactions for this regressive, ignorant and horribly standoffish statement: “As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms…I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

Such a moral prism is what dictates much of the debate. The question should not be, why is she assuming the abused women were flirting, but why should any man assault a woman even if she is flirting or dressed in a certain way?

Many women dread facing the jury, to answer the question about what they were wearing when they were abused. But the legal system only follows the socially-sanctioned approach. A journalist who was a teenager in the 60s was quoted in a Hugh Hefner obit piece as saying, “When the sexual revolution happened, none of those women looked like playboy bunnies. They looked like hippy chicks.”

Using a woman’s looks to measure her liberation is backward and to posit Woodstock and the hippie culture to the bunnies reflects slavery to archetypes. Besides, the “summer of love” wasn’t all about liberation. It often meant waking up with strangers in bed and not out of choice. As author and agony aunt of that time Virginia Ironside wrote: “But now, armed with the pill, and with every man knowing you were armed with the pill, pregnancy was no longer a reason to say ‘no’ to sex. And men exploited this mercilessly. Now, for them, ‘no’ always meant ‘yes’.”

It still does. And we are talking about situations where assumptions are made. There are many more situations where nobody asks. There is no time for a No.

Last year in the United States of America there were around 96,000 rape cases, an average of 263 every day. Everywhere in the world toddlers and grandmothers get raped. What power is being asserted and what pulchritude and seduction are at play here?

What women have to face in the street, in offices, sometimes even in the privacy of their homes is not always about those in powerful positions. 

Let us also not build up sexual power politics as a gilded space. Men from the lower strata can be exploiters too. Their victims ought to matter as much even though they might not be able to tweet or join a movement for solidarity. Their lives have hardly ever counted, and news of them being forced upon by men never results in any spontaneous empathy. 

The words of Rose McGowan, among the first to accuse Weinstein, are a simple testimony: “I told the head of your studio that HW raped me. Over & over I said it. He said it hadn't been proven. I said I was the proof.”

A woman alone is proof of what she has gone through. She isn’t a mere link in a callout chain.

Published in CounterPunch


Revisiting Akbar-Salim-Anarkali

Last weekend I watched the stage version of Mughal-e-Azam. I like new perspectives, even if they do not hold the old charm.

Feroz Abbas Khan’s take on the Anarkali-Prince Salim love story under the not benevolent eye of Emperor Akbar is an ambitious project. How could K.Asif’s landmark movie translate in the confined space of a stage, especially since there weren’t any claims at ‘reinventing’ the classic and the intent was to almost repeat the scenes and the dialogues verbatim?

As a tribute it succeeds; it has the  head-bowed quality about it, aware all the time of looking up to an icon. And it has improvised marvellously. That battle scene is breath-taking because it relies on lights, sound and choreography. The same applies to the kathak interludes – these are professional dancers and, to be honest, it was they who elevated the Pyar kiya to darna kya song sequence by adding heft to Anarkali’s challenge, and pathos; in the film the song was about Madhubala. There was also an innovative use of ‘mirrors’ and light to create the sheesh mahal, although the light hitting the audience made me squint and miss out on some ‘chakkars’ by the dancers.

There was also live singing. Neha Sargam as Anarkali did a marvellous job, but was it necessary, considering it was the same music? It was also rather disappointing when at curtains down, the announcer mentioned how people weren’t convinced that it was live singing and asked her to sing a few lines right there. To my mind, this was insulting to the artiste. The makers do not have to justify anything and ask their own actors to give proof.

If the original was about performances, this was not. For a supposedly more intimate medium, the acting was alienating. Probably it is the stage where expressions rely on voice and body language. Nissar Khan as Akbar was powerful at moments and desultory at others. Sunil Palwal as Salim has presence, but where was the angst? And where was the passion with Anarkali, the understated caresses, that choke in the voice? As for Jodha, there is no real pining for a son nor the conflict between suhaag and motherhood. Bahar’s - the daasi hoping to become a princess - character too does not have enough oomph and guile that the original possessed.

For me that was sad because on the film I felt Nigar Sultana had overtaken Madhubala in the qawaali not due to the lines but gumption (aidedhugely by Shamshad Begum’s voice).

Naushad’s music was the stuff of legend and it was good to revisit it ‘pictorially’, even if not entirely satisfactorily. Theatre, unlike cinema, is not really a director’s medium. But here the director rules, followed by stage design, lighting, choreography. It was treated like an occasion. People were taking selfies before the posters in the lobby…after all they had paid good money for the tickets.

I’d say it was worth the few thousand bucks. For the million bucks’ worth, buy a DVD for a couple of hundred rupees.