Our Lives, Their Permission: The Legacy of DDLJ

More than “Raj, नाम तो सुना ही होगा”, more than “señorita”, even more than “आओ, आओ”, the dialogue that defines Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is “जा, सिमरन जा, जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी”.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The eternal Bollywood blockbuster, second only to Sholay, if at all. A film way ahead of its times…. or was it?

It did start a decade long domination of romantic comedies, of Punjabi wedding songs, of family gatherings and of course of a Shahrukh Khan with his hands outstretched. It also kickstarted the NRI market as a major territory. It was a behemoth in business sense. A redefinition of Hindi commercial cinema. But what did it achieve cinematically, culturally?

Well, it reinforced a lot of stereotypes. Shahrukh and his friends are exactly the type of people mother warns you about. Party goers, beer drinking flirts who have had a bunch of girlfriends, and are serious about none. Any party girl is sure to fall prey to them.

The the heroine, thank God, is not one of “those” girls. She’s immune to his charms and traditional. Because she comes from a family that values tradition. Tradition, you see, is another name for oppression. An overbearing father longing for a long lost homeland that he left for greener pastures is trying to impose his longing on his London bred daughters.

Forced to live without any power over their own destinies, the girls seek pleasure in small rebellions of dancing to western music and dreaming of a Prince Charming. Even going on a trip with female friends requires a near meltdown. And then he pronounces “जा, जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी”. All magnanimous in granting an adult a vacation before she is forced to marry some stranger.

09ddlj2Her body, the property of parents, loaned for a month on the condition that it is returned unspoiled, returns. But the soul has tasted freedom. And yearns for more of the same. In the form of the boy who seems freedom personified. And the body is returned to beloved Punjab to be handed to the new owners: greedy, selfish, shallow and mean. The soul keeps hearing some half forgotten strings, till they become real, and with them comes the flirt, the playboy, the wayward. The free.

That he chooses “आदर्श नारी” over all the modern girls he’s met is no surprise. Indian heroes have always done that, laying down the rules for indian girls: be docile or be used and discarded. Well, he’s now decided he wants her, and comes to her, and they elope. No wait.

यहीं तो फ़िल्म offbeat हो जाती है। He decides to wait for paternal approval. Mother’s approval is not enough, because what do mothers know anyway. The father ultimately owns the body, and it’s his seal of approval that matters. Behind all the sweetness of family wedding is a strong patriarchal assumption that seemed wrong to me even in the 90’s, and seems almost cruel now.

The father who sells beer but moralizes on those who drink it, who doesn’t care what sort of home his daughter is going to, and who has taken all efforts to suppress his wife and daughters, and squeeze all personality out of them. That father is a sympathetic figure, quietly feeding his pigeons and clinging to the social mores of Victorian era. That’s the guy who needs to approve.

41Well, he doesn’t. Till he does, and with the last dialogue of the film, “जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी” he permits his adult daughter to live her life as if doing a favor. That shadow of the great Amrish Puri still looms large in our films.

In Cocktail, Saif chooses demure Diana over Deepika who has personality. In Rockstar, the couple agonize over her marital status as if set in stone. In 2 States, the lead couple don’t marry till the parents approve. Long forgotten is the brave and brazen rebellion of “Ek Duje Ke Liye”. In countless movies since, countless incidents of injustice have seemed normal. Because DDLJ was such a successful film. Not just commercially, it was a great entertainer. It was charming, fresh and it wrapped its stale message in many layers of fresh looking wrappers. Not that DDLJ was more regressive than usual, it just made regressive “cool”.

No matter how charming though, the movie was dragging us backwards into elder worship, even when they are wrong.. No one in the world has the right to take away your right to your own life, and then give it back as a favor

Aurangzeb v/s the idea of India

What do Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir, Rahim Das & Tansen have in common? They all lived and created immortal art during Akbar’s reign. Each in his own way created not just pieces of art but a way of living and thinking about art and spirituality that persists today. From architecture to music to cuisine to language to poetry to religion itself, Indian and Persian streams mixed and mingled, and Islam became an integral part of India. This was the first attempt by ay ruler, Hindu or Muslim, to create a state neutral to and tolerant of all religious ideas.
maxresdefaultThis openness of thinking, this blooming of art and philosophy, this idea of a ruler meant to rule, not impose his views, these are all traditions of a great king. In the era before capitalism, it was also the duty of the ruler to ensure patronage of arts and artists. To provide them with platform, sustenance, opportunity and freedom. This tradition continued for the next two generations, till Aurangzeb happened. Much is made of his anti-liberalism. Mostly correct. Much is also made of how he lived a simple life. Also correct. But lost in this is how he damaged culture and economy.
Akbar left a prosperous, mostly peaceful empire. Akbar appointed Raja Todarmal who introduced keeping strict records of wealth and land, and ended the arbitrary rule by having an appointed hierarchy of officials. Akbar, Jehangir and Shahjahan also held open courts where work and justice was done. This was the real hard work of ruling. Managing day to day affairs. Where was Aurangzeb during his five decade long rule? On the horseback or in camps, fighting wars.
Not only did he saw a large number of rebellions, and inspired heroes like Shivaji, Guri Teg Bahadur, Kushal Khan, he also led the largest expansion of Mughal empire. Some point to this with pride, and compare  him to Ashok the great. They are fools. This expansion was costly. It left the rich Mughal regime weak and poor. He was so often in war that he never really managed the state. And so blind was he to talent that he kept appointing bad Nawabs, either incapable or corrupt or both. When your rule is the start of decline of your empire, it is nothing to be proud of, really.
Aurangzeb_in_old_age_2He not only banned making new temples, and had a number of them destroyed, he also stopped all patronage to arts. We have a long discontinuity in poetry. Much later we had talents like Ghalib and Mir again supported by the Mughal state. Alas, it was too late by then. The poisoned legacy of misrule and mistrust was too deep. Marathas were the largest powers by the time British took over India, and Mughals just symbolic heads in and around Delhi.
Oh and by the way, those who profess that the Brits were scared of Aurangzeb and stayed away: patently false. British made a stronghold in Bombay during his reign and conducted one of the most profitable acts of piracy in history when they captured a Mughal convoy returning from Mecca.
Aurangzeb did the magic trick of converting a prosperous, tolerant, dynasty – rich in both means and culture – into a hated, shrinking rule by increasingly small men. The small men started with him. For one who doesn’t understand what makes his nation great does not deserve to rule it. This nation was made great by people like Kabir, Tulsi, Tansen, Todarmal and Akbar. Not by narrow minded bigots.

Porn Ban, Morality, And The Idea Of India


In today’s papers in Raipur there’s a harrowing tale. A gang run by a couple kidnaps young girls, has them raped, and convinces them that they have nowhere to go now. The girls, shamed, scared, and lonely, are put into prostitution.
It is horrifying that the couple has two daughters of their own, that they were able to use a hotel to keep them captive and that girls in early teens are not safe anymore, but to me the most infuriating part is how easy it is to convince the girls that they will not be accepted by their families. Such is the stigma of anything sexual in our society. In Masaan, its not the act of making love, or the psychological issues related to it that cause pain. All the pain is due to a threat of exposure. The shamefulness of sexuality.
What the central government has done in last couple of days is another step in the wrong direction. The state run ISPs have started blocking porn websites. In a society with no sexual education, serious taboos on mixing of genders and massive repression, this will further the middle-easternization of India.
Ancient India wasn’t like this. It celebrated raas, celebrated Shakuntala by Kalidas, celebrated Arjun eloping with Subhadra, celebrated love and its expression in all myriad ways. The women were not asked to cover themselves up, and it was men who covered their heads, not women. Then came the invaders. From Middle East and later from Victorian England. The two most repressed societies ever. And we started equating sexual abstinence with morality. Abstinence was only for the Sanyasis, who renounce all pleasure. Why did we all become Sanyasis?
 The irony is that England has shed its jaded Victorian ideas, but we still cling to the laws they made for us. We still ban homosexuality, and even sexual experimentation amongst the heterosexual. In the race to be the most Hindu ever, the state is becoming Abrahamic.
This is not about protecting children. That’s the responsibility of their parents, not of the state in general. This isn’t even about protecting the porn stars. That’s a legitimate task of the state but the state doesn’t do it. Banning it all achieves nothing except pushing  the industry to black market. And it makes the government claim a moral high stand.

Now we all know that porn is not simple. In India, the problem of revenge/boast porn is rampant. Guys shoot an encounter with or without permission and upload it for the world. This is a crime, and needs to be stopped. Sites with porn without consent or child pornography should be banned, of course. Unless they have a robust mechanism to identify and remove such content. But thats not the case here. No attempt is made to identify and target the right sites. Just a blanket ban.

To sound appealing to those who want to police the morality of others, we are making choice immoral. Porn ban does not solve any problem. In country after country, banning sexual entertainment doesn’t lead to lower sexual violence. The opposite in fact. And ban doesn’t even curb consumption. Pakistan is the largest consumer of porn in the world, despite the ban. And not safe for women, or for children.
There was a post recently about ISIS demanding sheep genitals to be covered up in a village in Syria because they were “exciting” some men. That’s where we end up if we keep covering up. That’s not the solution. Ancient India was no paragon of equality, but we’d do better to aim for that than the repressive, moralizing ideas we’ve imported from our invaders.

Let’s remove the stigma fro sexuality. The stigma is the cause of more pain than sex alone could cause. Repression of sexuality imprisons and shames our women, and makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

What The Left Is Leaving Out: Death Penalty As An Antidote To Terror

Remember Gadkari-Kejriwal affair? When Kejriwal went to jail because he has no substantive reason for calling Gadkari “India’s most corrupt”. At that time, a leftie person who supported AK (of course) kept asking everyone, including me, the question: do you think Gadkari is corrupt or innocent? As if that mattered. As if a trial in the court of public opinion is all that matters.

Well, this time the trial in public court is long concluded. Everyone believes Yakub to be guilty. Except the Left, who, after so many years of trials, multiple judgements against him, and not a single judge considering him innocent by any definition, still holds candle light vigils for him. Now, as then, the law is against the left.
10955329_10153438598548116_8338435472935981467_nBut now, the left is all about showing mercy. The same left who wanted India to instantly lose one of the best foreign ministers in decades, Mrs Swaraj. Only because she asked the British govt to proceed according to their laws in case of Lalit Modi. She didn’t endorse, plead for, or make any special arrangements for him. And Lalit Modi is not convicted of any crime at all. Can anyone explain their logic?
For some reason, the left has decided that terror has no religion (I mostly agree), victims have no religion (whatever that means) but the accused suddenly get a religion. Especially near punishment. You see, there’s a weird tendency of the left. All religions are good, except the majority in their country. So the lefties in U.S. are against evangelists, whom Indian lefties will lay down their lives for. The left in Pakistan glorifies Hinduism for its inclusiveness (from exile) and for Indian left, “Saffron Terror” is the biggest threat. This leads them down weird paths, where they end up fighting for the extremists who hate them. They opposed hanging Kasab because he was just a pawn and they oppose hanging Yakub because he’s just a planner and helper. I give up on their logic.
Some frame this as a fight against capital punishment and I have some sympathy for that. But what’s the alternative? The worst murderers, child rapists, and enemies of state come out in a few years and start again? Europe abolished capital punishment a few years ago and the worst criminals have now started to come out. The families of victims live in fear of reprisals, the witnesses go in hiding. While we cry buckets for the criminals whose lives we want to save, what do we propose to do to prevent more victims?
11751765_10153438598538116_5407614154216196528_nLastly, death penalty is an antidote to terrorism. This is my personal view, and controversial, but think about it. The loss of lives in attacks is a tragedy, but that’s not the aim of those attacks. The aim is terror. Demoralization. Is it so wrong, as a piece of jingoist celebration, to be happy about one of the guilty being punished? Punishing Kasab, Yakub gives a regular Indian some satisfaction, a sense of faith in the system. The antidote to terror and demoralization. We must ensure we don’t punish the innocent, of course, but those we convict, we should punish. Letting them go will only demoralize the nation further, and that’s what a win for terrorists looks like.
Does the left doesn’t understand this, or do they really understand it too well? After all a basic tenet of communist agenda is to break down nations and create “world socialism”. Thank god the system worked this time.

The Threat To Innocence (A Review Of Badlapur)

17-Varun-Dhawan-1How does innocence work? What is the right reaction to getting hurt? What does constitute an exact revenge? Who has a right to exact it?

These are the issues that Badlapur talks about. It starts with a terrible crime. Raghu (Varun Dhawan) loses all in a robbery gone wrong. A robber (Nawaz) is arrested and jailed. How is out hero going to fulfill his vengeance now? The rest of the film dwells on that.
There was a horrid film called Ek Villain. It was inspired by a Korean film called I Saw The Devil. A superbly crafted creepy tale of revenge. Badlapur is close to that film. Not copied. Not at all. Just evoking the same eternal things about vengeance. You stop to notice what you are becoming.
Varun Dhavan is brave in choosing this film. Not just because he plays a problematic character but because this is a challenging role. He excels. It is easy to go from silent and brooding to wooden. Varun doesn’t.
321673-badlapur-nawazBut his is not a solitary performance. This film has excellent cast. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Huma Qureishi, Vinay Pathak, Divya Dutta, Pratima Kazmi, Yami Gautam, Radhika Apte… The acting talent there is immense. Even an unknown actor, playing a distraught mother looking at her dead daughter’s photos, was immensely effective.
Which brings us to the Sutradhar, the man behind the curtain Sriram Raghavan. He created two of the best Hindi thrillers of recent times: Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar. This time he goes for the soul of characters. Dissecting at the good, the bad and their boundaries. This has the look of an atmospheric film, and what atmosphere. The setup is superbly etched, finely crafted, and very real. Living spaces of people look lived in, the jail is not at all like any jail you’ve seen in Indian films. But the focus, rightly, is on the people who inhabit these spaces.
The people are not divided between the good and the bad, but every heart is. The people in the film behave as humans would, and sometimes as humans shouldn’t. And thats what the film is about. What is owed to you when you are a victim? And what is do you owe when you are a perpetrator? What is an adequate revenge?
I started with questions, and I end with it. But the film maker is really clear. The film gives answers, which are not always comfortable. And I can give one answer unequivocally. This is 2015’s first great film.
PS: This was as much as I could write without spoiling the film. But if you have watched it, or if you don’t mind being spoiled, read below for an analysis of the conclusions this film draws.

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It’s a relief. (But still not Oh My God) – A review of PK

Oh the relief. Masala is an endangered art. Masala, the heart of Bollywood is replaced by garbage. It is getting harder and harder to find positives. The best we can come up is the to be thankful that one was family friendly, the other had no projectile vomiting, that one at least was not too degrading towards women…. ohh the plight of a Bollywood lover forced to endure the mediocrity and crassness. And ohh the relief when a mass entertainer is actually a pretty decent watch.

p-k-04So, yes. This is massy, it has fluff, but like all Hirani films this also has a heart, and a message. The central; conceit, without giving much away, is what an intelligent but naive total outsider will make of Indian religious institutions. What will one make of the demands our “God” makes on us. What happens when the institutions running “Godliness” are challenged?

When media is honest, politicians don’t interfere, and the followers of a Godman are willing to listen to reason….. All these things are fictional, and therefore this is not a realistic film. Nor was any of the previous Raju Hirani films for that matter. The idea seems to be to float an idea, to challenge, and see what we can do with the system, society etc.

Just 2 years after the hit (and brilliant) Oh My God, one may question the need for this. One would be wrong. The need for promoting a rational view of religion is stronger than ever. Compare quality, though, and this one falls short. Starting with the hero. Im getting really sick of Aamir Khan’s raised eyebrows. Over wrought, overacted. (Comparing to Paresh Rawal in Oh My God seems almost unfair). Even the usually subtle Saurabh Shukla seems more a caricature than an actual “Godman”. But this movie aims to masses. Thus the heroine, a romance, useless songs, and a lot of fluff.

287851-aamir-weird-pkAnd a lot of sermonising. (Ironic for a film about denouncing religious leaders). The message is grabbed with both hands, and squeezed till the last drop of juice is extracted. (Any sugarcane Juice vendor would be proud). This, alas, is also Hirani formula.

So Hirani does what he does best: a comedy about something serious, with a hero we can all cheer for. Alas, this one misses the strong characters played by Boman, who is wasted in small role.

And so here we are, with Masala and formula, done right. This is not as good as Oh My God, this is not an enthusiastic thumbs up like Queen, but this is a thumbs up, undoubtably. Oh the relief to be able to recommend a mainstream film.

Justice. Delay and denial.

shahidWhen is someone labelled a terrorist? Way before the court sentences them. Way before the trial even begins. The moment policemen knock at a door and take someone in, they are labelled. How do we ensure we harass no one who doesn’t deserve it? Is our system willing and able to accept mistakes and reverse it?

Shahid explores a tricky subject: No one can deny terrorism in the name of Islam is a threat. But how do we ensure that we only punish the guilty? How much power should a policeman wield? Who watches the watchmen? The courts, of course. That’s the source of justice in our system, and that’s where the justice is either delivered, delayed, or denied. Shahid is both a victim and a crusader, a pawn and a player, guilty and innocent, as well as the protector of the innocents.

Shahid3Shahid. A character drawn from real life portrayed with reality dripping in every shot. The environment, and the character that live there help lend credibility to the story, as do the actors that portray them. Even within loving families, there may be resentments and differences and fights, and that’s okay, really. In the middle of drama and anger, there are moments of unexpected laughter, as so often happens in real life. And even though the girl Shahid falls in love with is from the same community, she lives in a different world, and the Muslim community is not homogenous.

Ultimately, however, this is a film about Justice. With a capital “J”. The bigger, larger idea of what justice is, and how far are we willing to compromise individuals for the perceived safety of the country. The film raises the legitimate question of how the putting an innocent person in jail helps the victims. TADA is the villain in this film. The act that was designed to curtail the power of courts and transfer powers to investigative agencies, i.e., Police. Thankfully TADA is now in the past, but the mentality continues. We can’t let even one innocent suffer for perceived national interest.

I’ll end with a quote from George R R Martin’s “Storm of Swords’ about something similar:
‘The king moved… “If Joffrey should die… what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”
“Everything,” said Davos, softly.’
There is the essence of this film. Innocents are sacred. Nothing justifies punishing them. Nothing.

shahid2PS: this was less a film review than an ideological essay. But I urge everyone to watch this. Not a great film, but a very good one. Please watch and encourage. Also, there are probably inaccuracies in the film compared to the real Shahid Azmi, but thats not important.