The Cleavage Chiaroscuro

What happens when a Bollywood actor decides to speak out against objectification? The reactions are simplistic and extreme.

The Times of India tweeted a link to its web gallery, with one picture that had the caption: "OMG: Deepika Padukone's cleavage show."

She responded with: "YES! I am a Woman. I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??"

TOI, rather flippantly, told her that it was meant as a compliment, adding: "You look so great that we want to make sure everyone knew! :)"

Deepika: "Don't talk about Woman's Empowerment when YOU don't know how to RESPECT Women!" and "Supposedly India's 'LEADING' newspaper and this is 'NEWS'!!??"

One thing needs to be clarified — this is not news and was not sold as such. It was by the entertainment department and the link was to a web gallery.

Was TOI being disrespectful? Yes. Specifically to her and generally to its readers. The assumption is that people are intent upon looking only at certain aspects of a person they might admire as a performer or even a looker or, worse, people cannot see what is there and need to be guided with verbal cues.

This is infantilising besides objectification. What exactly does a "show" conjure? That it is a performance, a display. Deepika is being accused of exhibitionism.

As happens often, the story is not so much about what was said but how it snowballed. The actor has featured in Times of India's other publications, often on the cover. It is a mutually-acceptable relationship, even beneficial. TOI has often passed off pulp as news.

The point is: are we and should we consider the cleavage of anybody as pulp? Would that not amount to a denial of gender dynamics, of the body, of identity? While Ms. Padukone herself was clear about what she has and how she expects respect, has the response followed this template?

Lyricist Swanand Kirkire came up with this: "Behind every cleavage there is a heart, a voice, thanks... for showing us your true beauty & this is a compliment." If he had to pay tribute to her heart by mentioning its location, then he should have mentioned the rib cage.

The general tenor of "she is more than a cleavage" is patronising, apart from missing the point: A woman can show cleavage, but it does not give anybody the right to point at it. Just as one might object to catcalls, which again are considered compliments by some.

And why does a woman need to have more that is in the realm of the abstract? She may possess many qualities that need not be for public consumption or its intensity may be reserved for personal interactions only.

In fact, one fallout is men who are standing with her want to express solidarity by posting pictures of their moobs (man boobs). This means little, for male actors have no issues about being known for their six-pack abs and muscles. If anything, their bodies convey a single-minded commitment to achieve a look required for a role, if not for the image of star power.

A woman actor who does work on her body is seen as an aberration that needs to get back to her original shape soon, even if the original shape follows a standard idea of perfection.

Returning to the online battle, not for a moment did the thought of Ms. Padukone's just-released film 'Finding Fanny' cross my head. She does not need publicity, although the mainstream media that is reporting on this are referring to her as the FF star.

One radio jockey, Malishka, resorted to hyperbole saying that Deepika "makes history today not just coz of #FindingFanny but coz of the stand she took".

It raises an uncomfortable question: If responding to a newspaper means creating history, are we to assume that there is silent acceptance otherwise? The reiteration of "about time" reveals a scenario where nobody speaks up.

I am particularly concerned that even now the sounds are merely echoes of one who is a top line actor. It is fairly routine for those not as well-known, especially those who are referred to as item girls, like Rakhi Sawant or Poonam Pandey, to be dismissed as drama queens if they do raise their voice. I doubt if they would get any support. So, this is also about class and the pecking order.

The Deepika episode gives an opportunity to some to become legitimised, even as they continue with their ogling. Director Anubhav Sinha said, "It is the high camera angle not a low neckline. What is low is the standard of journalism. Downright SICK!!!"

What exactly was actor Ayushmann Khurana trying to say with this, "Dear yellow journalism, a star showed you that some of you are green"? How puerile to suggest that this is about envy. The puerile seems to prevail, just as it becomes obvious that a little flash makes a bunch of people sweat and indulge in mass catharsis. Not many would wish the rub a big media house the wrong way, and they just do not have the time of inclination for more than a castaway statement.

If all these stars are truly concerned, they should speak out more often. It is only real war that will get them results and bring about a change in attitude.

© Farzana Versey


Sunday ka Funda

"Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth."
— Henry David Thoreau

Why pick on how humans have failed the environment during times of natural disaster when we in our pampered lives slowly destroy Nature every day?

And then we do not even look back to clean up the mess.


Kashmir Needs You

Almost a million people displaced within a week. The army is out, but it is volunteers who are doing most of the monitoring and arranging for essentials, medical services and boats too.

There is a shortage of rafts, medicines, water, disinfectants, ropes, besides food and a lot else.

Do visit HERE for more details. It is a comprehensive site and is coordinating with the forces as well.

Where is Bollywood, that has used the scenic locales for many a celluloid romantic interlude? Where are the activists who took pictures with azaadi proponents? Where is Farooq Abdullah?

We know where we are. Emotions need to be translated into concrete action. For, Agha Shahid Ali's "The country without a post office" may be submerged but it still waits for the letters, the rations so that it can see the day when it will be dry again. 


The 9/11 that keeps America in business

Thirteen years ago, about 3000 people died in New York City in what was to become the pivot for the 'war against terror'. This day is remembered for a man called Osama bin Laden, for an organisation called Al Qaeda. More importantly, and what the mainstream will not acknowledge, it should be known for how hatred got legiimised by the establishment.

The west, specifically the United States of America, could use the war against terror to encroach upon other lands (in whatever polite manner you wish to designate its violent intrusions). This resulted in even more disaffected groups that formed almost solely on the ballast of what the paranoid society referred to as "anti-Americanism". It is an example of how convincing pugnacity can be when employing emotive appeal.

One does not need to rely on conspiracy theories to see that the American government used those 3000 people for political gain at home and abroad. Its enemies are now more dispersed groups and their modus operandi in-your-face. They do not even care about PR victories, and lack the devilish charisma of an Osama, whose westernised past imbued him with an aura of the prodigal returning.

It isn't anymore about what is right, but what is seen to be right. If the war against terror was not a mere moral bait, then there would perhaps be no ISIS, at least not as a caliphate running a parallel system. There would have not been disgruntled groups in almost all of the Middle East, with civil strife that enables the US to drop in to "bring back democracy".

At the just-inaugurated-after-a-lot-of-bickering National September 11 Memorial Museum there is The Freedom Tower to offer hope to Americans. They need it and deserve it. But, what about the families of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq by misguided drones? On an average, it amounts to 48 people per day. (According to this study: 225,000 casualties.) Democracy was supposed to be their hope — they are being tossed about by dictators in sheep's clothing.

The Museum should have a contemporary section for such updates and fallouts of 9/11.

When a report in Forbes on the museum states, "After a security check which immediately reminds us of the new-normal, post- 9/11 America", you realise that America has made Americans forget that it is a contributor to many not normal societies now.

There is always a reason to mourn, and no one would deny those who lost and those who fear losing that space for catharsis. A wall scrawled with names and a concrete piece of the Twin Towers might do just that. I am not so sure about exhibits that regurgitate the last moments, though.

Benches within alcoves provide dozens of multi-media presentations and emotional narratives designed to make you feel the mournful experience, with tissue provided nearby. Behind partly-hidden alcoves are the graphic photos of falling bodies.

This is voyeurism. Tissues are provided? Is this a farce? Other items are shown with some historical reference of who wore what and how others responded.

Naturally, the enemy had to be featured. While they are here, people are not to pay attention to the 'ISIS is worse than Al Qaeda' political statements.

And a controversial exhibition shows the years-long hunt, the discovery, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. On display are the shirt from the Navy SEAL who killed bin Laden and an item from the terrorist’s compound.

This portion from the story is revealing in its jejune stance:

For respite from all this emotional overload, a cafe is on the second floor, and the much-debated gift shop offers mainly tasteful, patriotic goods, most honoring police and firefighters, New York and the flag.

After it's over, sit with a coffee and take home those patriotic goods? Unlike the souvenir industry by quick-bucks makers that came up immediately after the attacks, the American establishment is blatantly riding on the back of its biggest tragedy to market nationalism.

© Farzana Versey


Humanising the Inhuman: Of ISIS and a Rapist

After the news, what we look for is the people who make the news or are affected by it. Human interest stories have always been attractive to the readers as well as to those who have a stake in the news. The latter because they know that although facts cannot be fudged opinions certainly can be. There is also a strong need to dispute the prevailing discourse on the 'newsy'.

Satire is a handy and potent tool to make a point. However, is all satire successful in doing what it is supposed to — expose clay feet and demonise the devils?

Comics and cartoons in response to the ISIS in the Middle East media are now seen as a weapon against the terror group. One can understand the need for such a release of frustration and anger. But do they really manage to reach home?

Let us take a few examples.

The Looney Tunes-style cartoon depicts a hapless young ISIS militant struggling to carry out simple tasks; first dropping a rocket launcher on to the foot of his commander before accidentally shooting him when he holds his weapon the wrong way round while firing towards an Iraq military checkpoint.

This works as nervous laughter for the audience, but the reality is not about fumbling. The mistaken killing of the commander, in fact, consolidates the martyrdom that is so desired.

They mock the jihadists' radical ideas and portrays the group as obsessed with a literal interpretation of 7th Century Islam that makes their lives needlessly difficult. One producer said, "These people are not a true representation of Islam and so by mocking them. It is a way to show we are against them."

A group such as the ISIS is not dependent on what people think, but how it can market its own ideology. Nobody knows what really happened in the 7th century. If people want to oppose the ISIS, then they must do so for reasons of their social and political terrorism. They are using modern technology, so mocking them about the past sounds disingenuous. Besides, there is a problem when a people feel desperate about distancing themselves for what they get associated with by default from societies that are prejudiced against them. It only serves to highlight a moral dilemma that isn't even there.

Even the sickening videos of mass shootings conducted by ISIS have become comedic fodder. Palestinian television channel al-Falastiniya aired a skit showing militants shooting Muslim civilians for their lack of piety, while simultaneously reminiscing about partying and meeting beautiful women while training.

I find this particularly disgusting. In trying to draw attention to the hypocrisy, it only conforms to a stereotype that the ISIS and other fanatic elements might find enchanting. It conveys that the rewards are a result of the killings. What sense does it make when such vile characters exist only for such fruits of labour? Also, rather unfortunately, the subliminal message is that lack of extreme piety deserves an extreme punishment. The victims are as much grist for the satire mill here as the predators.

When a Jordanian Christian approaches, the two militants begin fighting each other over who gets to shoot him - each wanting the 'blessing' for himself. Terrified, the man suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving the militants devastated.

What do you learn from this? That a person marked has to die. Anyway.

Of course, all is not bleak. This skit by the 'Ktir Salbe Show' hits the right spot. Even though it falls in the disingenuous trap about the past, it manages to make a potential victim proactive and in charge:

A taxi driver picks up a jihadi who rejects listening to radio because it didn't exist in the earliest days of Islam.

The driver offers to turn on the air conditioning, but that too is rejected. The jihadist then criticizes the put-upon driver for answering his mobile phone.

Fed up, the driver finally asks: 'Were there taxi cabs in the earliest days?'.

'No, 1,000 times no!' the passenger answers. The driver responds by kicking the jihadist out of his car and telling him to wait for a passing camel instead.

* * *

The other sort of behind the news stories are all about humanising, including the villains. This is appealing because it is about penance and reformation. We like to judge and to forgive.

When I read this article on the young man who was one of the rapists in the Delhi gangrape I was confused. Several criminals serve sentences or are sent to correctional facilities (as this one is), but nobody wants to trace their progress. This man's story is bound to be humanised because he is a crucial part of the bigger story that was on primetime for months. That one was milked and through him will continue to be milked.

As a juvenile — and whether we like it or not, he was tried as one — he is serving time in a reform centre. The job of such a place is to rehabilitate him. One can understand the anger against him, but every day people are let off by the courts, if at all they are reported, for similar crimes. We remain silent, if not unaware. Besides, even those who get sentenced for a few years will ultimately be out and one does not know whether a jail term has given them a lesson that would have changed them.

The media is always looking for angles and twists not to make people aware, but to tug at them. By telling us that a criminal is having it better after arrest we are fed what we already know. I also found the piece disorienting for reasons other than humanising. It makes our correctional facilities sound like Doon School prototypes or something out of a Karan Johar film. And the guy who knew no English has titled his painting "The Princess".

Something else bothered me:

There is “no trace of anger” in him, says psychologist Shuchi Goel, who works with him and has conducted an art-based therapy session. “He is certainly putting an extra effort to become acceptable to others,” she said. “He takes a lot of pride in his paintings.”

Without an explanation to back the statement, what exactly does lack of anger in him mean? Who should he be angry with — his victim, his accomplices who are sentenced to death, or himself?

For those of us who believe that justice should not be a hammer but a chisel, this sort of pop analysis defeats the purpose by pandering to the gallery version of the humane.

© Farzana Versey


Images: Daily Mail, Washington Post


Failed Heroes of the Red Zone: Pakistan's Nemesis

You cannot write about Pakistan today because tomorrow — or a few minutes later — things will change. There are no heroes, only villains. Even the protestors who were beaten up have ended up as less than heroic because, the argument goes, they should have known better.

At face value, this reasoning fails me. If you can admire dissent elsewhere in the world, and applaud the many springs and summers in the Middle East as an assertion of people's power, then why does it hurt when it is home?

The two men who led the movement to dethrone Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are not trustworthy. For any change from the ground, the leaders need to be either rebels who do not care about power or those the public can repose faith in.

What Pakistan is witnessing instead is a Canadian of Pakistani origin, probably carrying back jars of maple syrup with sugary ideas. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) is a cleric, a strange distant figure who seems to be granting benediction. He has no notion of what happens at the grassroots, but has managed to garner support.

Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are better equipped, and it is a bit surprising that despite his huge ego he decided to hold joint protests with Qadri (or TuQ, as he is referred to). Khan has always fancied himself as a Robinhood figure, except that he has the posh demands of a James Bond. Style overrides substance. For his rally he chose to make a bulletproof and air-conditioned container his home and office. It acquired a mythic quality, with pictures and stories about him enjoying a siesta and long lunch break adding to the persona of a man of leisure who is sacrificing precious time and slumming it for the people, for inquilab.

The revolution turned out to be about resignation. One cannot be certain yet, although television channels and some news sites are mentioning how the army chief wants Nawaz Sharif to resign and others are saying that the PM wants the chief of army staff, Raheel Sharif, to quit. The latter for not being able to control the hordes, who also took over the government PTV offices. PTV, like all government channels, is a direct link to the public.

Imran Khan probably had no control over how the protests would end up. Perhaps, he did not even care. He had said earlier:

"Educated people who were discussing politics in their living rooms are awake now, they have sent their views and message for the nation. They are no fools, this is the educated class who can clearly see what Nawaz Sharif is up to, they are not any hypnotized or paid people. This is the voice of nation."

The last time he took out a big rally against drone strikes he had turned back. Have they become so much more educated that they would sally forth? People have died, many are injured. The police used teargas and rubber bullets.

In this situation Pakistanis, who crave democracy and believe they are a democracy, and Nawaz as an elected leader (rigged ballots need to be questioned soon after polls) is some proof, are looking to the army. Naturally, it is not to rule them, but they should know better than anybody else that the army has taken over the reins whenever there is internal strife.

It does not make matters any better when they learn that the PTI president Javed Hashmi has spoken out against Imran Khan, alleging on TV channels that the move to break the fence and into the parliament building came after Khan got a call. That call was supposedly from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the army, or both. I am glad as an Indian I don't have to add that I am no IK fan to be a bit iffy about Hashmi, who is being hailed by Pakistanis as some sort of last hope. This is desperate, for he is telling people exactly what they want to hear. His target need not have been Imran Khan; it could be a voodoo doll or a dartboard. He certainly does not look like the straw that broke the camel's back, for he was riding on that back.

It was the ruling government that called in the army. So, I am trying to understand this. The army decides to use the protests to plan a coup or some influence, but agrees to work with Imran if he does the dirty work of getting rid of the Nawaz regime? And Nawaz calls them in, so while they are doing their job, there is a tacit understanding with the protest leaders that they should create more trouble for them to quell?

Things continue to be in flux. (Updates here) Imran Khan and Qadri have been booked on terror charges. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) also issued a statement:

"ISPR has categorically rejected the assertions that Army and ISI were backing PTI/PAT in anyway in the current political standoff. Army is an apolitical institution and has expressed its unequivocal support for democracy at numerous occasions. It is unfortunate that Army is dragged into such controversies."

The army is certainly not apolitical, and it often invites itself to controversies.

Nawaz Sharif says he will not resign, and it is just as well. The option for the people of Pakistan would be elections again or the army. Democracies are not easy to negotiate. Bitter as the current strife is, it appears to be a better lesson in functional democracy than an army intrusion can ever be.

Imran Khan may well have brought in an inquilab after all, even if is at the cost of his own credibility and by becoming a national liability.

© Farzana Versey

My earlier piece: Imran Khan's Revolution - The Inheritance of Loss


Sunday ka Funda

Symbols are not ritualistic. They often have deeper connotations. Ganesh Chaturthi is being celebrated now, but not many would ponder over what the elephant god means. One need not even be a believer to comprehend these symbols that seem more like a manual for ethical living. Rituals and deification, and marketing, alter the very nature of spiritualism and faith.

Spiritualism does not need the crutch of blind belief.

Somebody has filed a FIR against film director Ram Gopal Verma for these tweets:

• “The guy who couldn't save his own head from being cut , how he will save others heads is my question? But Happy Ganpathi day to morons!” • “Can someone explain how someone can cut off a child's head who was just trying to protect his mother's modesty? Am sure devotees know better”.
• “Can someone tell me if today is the day Ganesha was originally born or is it the day his dad cut his head off?”
• “Does Lord Ganesha eat with his hands or his trunk?”
• “I would really love to know from Lord Ganesha's devotees a list of what obstacles he removed in all the years they prayed to him.”
• “Happy Ganesh chaturdhi. .may this day 29th aug bring prosperity and happiness to everybody so that there will be no problems from 30th aug.”
• “I think my films are flopping only becos of my attitude towards Gods. ..I wish I can become a devotee.”

Although some might seem insulting, the general tone is childlike. Children often pose valid, if uncomfortable, queries. All religious fables have one given meaning, and the rest are open to interpretation.

For that, one needs to have an open mind that can read between the lines.