Monday, October 05, 2009

essay: undressed to kill

What we talk about when we talk about men undressing; a version of this appeared in Verve's October issue, in a men's special called 'Best Undressed.'

If you go to Hyde Park in London today, you will see a magnificent bronze statue of Achilles. This sculpture was commissioned and paid for by ‘the women of England,’ who collected a magnificent sum of ten thousand pounds among themselves, hired a well-known sculptor, and had the statue designed by 1822. Reason? The statue was a female tribute to the Duke of Wellington, the dashing, authoritative general who had just recently led Britain to victory in the Napoleonic Wars. Originally titled ‘The Ladies’ Trophy,’ the Achilles statue came to be commonly known as ‘The Ladies’ Fancy.’ ‘The artist had submitted to the female subscribers,’ said a letter of the time, ‘whether this colossal figure should preserve its antique nudity or should be garnished with a fig leaf. It was carried for the leaf by a majority ... [t]he names of the minority have not transpired.’ Later, it turned out that the fig leaf had not been mandated by the women at all – it was the gentlemen who headed the statue committee who ordered the sculptor to cover up Achilles’ man-bits.

It’s worthwhile to stop here and point out that the glories of nude sculpture in India, while providing plenty of juice for the eye in the sacred confines of temple architecture, are unlikely to ever be put to use in service of a human public figure. Can you imagine a statue of a demi-god constructed by all the ‘misty-eyed women’ (as American journalists described the swooning masses who greeted the late Prime Minister on his travels abroad) who idolised Pandit Nehru in the ‘40s and ‘50s? Even more implausible is the idea that women today might commission a crumpet in bronze for his dimpled Gandhi scion, however much we like him.

But then mentally undressing men has grown much easier – breathe easy, Rahul – since Wellington’s time. Obligingly, men these days often undertake to do it themselves. Not since the times of ‘antique nudity’ has the field afforded so much eye candy for the female gaze. They strip on stage at concerts, on the pitch during matches, in film and television. American president Barack Obama even does it on holiday – and three cheers for his firm stomach and well-defined arms. Like devaluating currency, male nudity may not always be for our benefit, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to profit from it.

Women have always been objects of affection, and otherwise. This is what led feminist film critic Laura Mulvey to the theory of the ‘male gaze,’ which argues that cinema always puts the audience in a masculine, subject position, and the woman on screen in a passive role of the object: looked at, wanted, and acquired purely for male visual pleasure. The theory has played a seminal role in the way we talk about male and female roles in culture today. While acknowledging the limitations of seeing all film or all art through this lens, it’s now obvious to us that women are used as passive receptacles of sexual desire to an overwhelming degree in almost every visual art. Studies of advertising have often found that both men and women respond more positively to the aesthetics of a female body that a male one. This may be true; but you can bet that over two and a half millennia of art objectifying women hasn’t come about because girls happen to like girl parts.

So why hasn’t there been an equal and opposite tradition of all-out boy-ogling from the women’s point of view? Fact: for as long as there have been fit men, there have been ladies unabashed about swooning over them. But it’s hardly astonishing that this phenomenon has been put in the shade by its male counterpart. Significant chunks of female public endeavour have already been beaten or burnt out of the history books, and female sexuality more than most. That’s why the Wellington story is entertaining for several reasons: it perfectly illustrates the women’s enterprise, the men’s prudery, and most of all, the effects of mass female enthusiasm for a man who was his time’s equivalent of a Hollywood superstar – just one who could beat tyrannical dictators for real. (You let us know when you’re ready for that, Gerard Butler.)

You may, of course, point out that naked men are very well represented in art history. On the subject of statues alone, we could point to the all the sculpture in Western and Eastern art that does away with the fig leaf and rather obviously worships warriors of a bygone era haunch over bicep. But most of these were created by men; and created in times when worshipping beauty in all its forms came with a certain freedom from sexual expectations. In fact, it’s impossible to separate the undressed man from his context: Michelangelo’s David is semi-religious High Art. For that matter, modern male nudity is just as interestingly complex. What is a punk rocker’s skinny bare chest: a sex symbol, or the embodiment of an entire way of life? What is Thierry Henry doing when he takes his jersey off at the end of a match to swap with an opponent? Is he trying to provoke mass hysteria among watching women or simply partaking in an old football tradition?

Nakedness is contextual. Men have controlled the juncture of creativity and desire for so long that it’s very difficult to see a man stripping as pure titillation. It’s why Madonna’s long-ago quip about crucifixes being sexy ‘because there’s a naked man on them,’ was both so ineffectual and so offensive to some people. It’s simply untrue. It doesn’t tally with the relationship between male nudity and female fantasy. In drawing our attention, the undressed man becomes the subject of a story first, and the object of desire later. We may not always look at a woman in the nude and ask ourselves to look beyond the obvious, but when it comes to undressing men, we want to unpack them on several levels at once.

There is, of course, a whole industry dedicated to naked men and their ability to evoke intense visual pleasure: gay porn. Unsurprisingly, this is not made for straight women; nor is it obliged to. But then, pornography, straight or gay, is almost never created for women – think of all those girl-on-girl skin flicks that have nothing to do with lesbianism and everything to do with guy titillation. The odd attempt almost always meets with the fig leaf treatment in the mainstream. Take the case of UK’s Filament Magazine, a recently-launched quarterly that advertises itself as ‘72 pages of intelligent thought and beautiful men.’ The models all kept their trousers on for the inaugural edition, but at the first hint of an experiment with anything more extreme in future issues, there was wholesale balking at the printer’s and in certain parts of the media. The magazine had to campaign for enough funds and support to change printers to bring out their second edition.

Why does male nudity depend so much on subtlety? What is it about the full monty that is so fraught? It’s hardly dangerous. It isn’t even all that interesting to many straight women, in the first place. We’re bored by the hearty emphasis on muscle and gland that seems to preoccupy so many male fantasies. Whether by element or design, most of us show no overt preference for full frontals. At this point in time in our history, we’re perfectly appreciative of the raised thigh and the suggestive shadow. A good girl would cover her eyes at the merest hint of immodesty – sure thing! – but even bad girls, for the most part, tend to prefer having something left to the imagination. Context, we repeat; not contumescence.

Men like to lament long and late that this is one of their biggest problems in trying to relate to women. If everything about women is supposed to suggest that they are creatures of impenetrable mystery, then everything about men indicates that they want to be taken at face value. As things stand, our culture chooses to accord the issue a flippant sort of status quo. Men’s wants, we are told, are simple and easily understood. ‘So let me get this straight, darling: your primary needs are beer, sex, and sports on the telly.’ It’s true: we don’t get it straight. We’re trained by long habit to enjoy emotional complexities. Many of us think of depth as a positive attribute of character. If we were less derided for it, we might devote significant amounts of pontification to proving that men have complex inner lives – perhaps as much as men like to pay lip service to furthering the Freudian quest for what women want.

Men and women both respond well to nudity; but men historically fear it more than women do. It hits close to the defensive instinct. The truth is that nakedness draws its anxieties and its tremendous appeal from the same place: vulnerability. It is a large part of the intuitive attraction of bare bodies. Annie Leibovitz – a woman who has probably undressed more men in the course of her career than the best of us – knew what she was doing when she took that famous photograph of Yoko Ono with a naked John Lennon curled in a foetal embrace around her. The honesty of the picture is heartbreaking; it certainly is a little frightening. In vulnerability is truth, and truth can make, but also break, power.

And the truth shall set you free. Without excusing art that degrades or belittles the human body, it’s fair to say that nakedness represents liberation: and in a long and complicated list of human desires, freedom comes first. With nothing left to lose, and everything to gain, the undressed man is all possibility, all potential, simultaneously able to create desire and fulfil it.

The Duke of Wellington went on to become Prime Minister, in an age when women did not yet have the vote. Today, we can go one better than the women of merrie Englande building a monument to their collective crush. We can buy men’s music albums and their films. We can sit through hours of bad advertising to watch their matches. We can blog and re-tweet their pictures, and write about them in magazines. We can even, yes, vote for them. If that makes men afraid – well, where’s the surprise? Everything about the female gaze tends to do that. To the paranoiacs, the oversimplifiers, and the politicians we can only insist: don’t worry – it’s never just about your body.

Friday, October 02, 2009

follow the river

Written after a morally questionable professional trip to the Royal Livingstone resort on the Victoria Falls, Zambia.

The tiny airport at Livingstone, Zambia, is packed to capacity each time a flight lands. One waits in a snaking queue in the large, airy, inevitably bureaucratic arrival hall, awaiting the examination of one’s jaune fèvre card and the questioning of one’s credentials in good humour. The heat beats down on the red earth with a fierce intensity, and when you climb into your minibus and are regretfully requested to shut the windows against an oncoming dust storm, a twinge is inescapable. You are tired, thirsty, travel-stained and you realise that a lifetime of tropical acclimatisation on the Indian subcontinent is of scant use in this larger, older, alien part of the world.

And then, like in the Bruce Springsteen song, you see it lying there, a killer in the sun. The Zambezi. You have noticed it already from your flight windows, a snaking blue-green line on the oddly flat-looking landscape far below, the work of some cartographer’s lifetime on a map. In these lands, tribal nations have given way to colonies and colonies to republics: once, not too long ago, Zambia and Zimbabwe were Northern Rhodesia and Rhodesia respectively, named after the British businessman Cecil Rhodes, who literally razed his way through southern Africa in his frenzy of greed and misplaced patriotism. Underneath the surface, this earth glitters with copper, emeralds, other precious things. But defining it all, of its surroundings and above it, ancient and wide, silent and seemingly as endless as the ocean, is the river. Its effect is instant, like magic. A whiff of its air is capable of reviving the weariest and most blasé spirit to land a seat on a speedboat. There is a tranquil grandeur to the scene that can cause conversation to fade away, cameras to fall unheeded into laps, and eyes to mist over. And all of this is before you approach the broad, wispy cloud to your south and the distant roll of thunder and you try, somehow, to assimilate the information that you have finally made it to the navel of the world, the Victoria Falls. Weariness, what weariness?

At our luxurious, low-slung colonial-style resort, the legendary Royal Livingstone, we stop by – the Falls are calling, but one can't take one's suitcases as offering to the Devil's Pool – and are charmed instantly by the birds in the trees, the zebras and giraffes walking elegantly past our rooms, and the chimpanzees who are reliably cute, but have been known to fling themselves through unlocked windows with gay abandon in order to steal Mars Bars from the mini bar before this. We try to be discreet about how many gallons of the refreshing red rooibos tea we are slurping up as we triple-check those window locks and rush out to our boat again. The Zambezi changes colour before our eyes, shading from silver to a muted grey, to a rich, red orange under the afternoon sun. We hold our breath as we edge past an elephant fording a fork in the river, stopping from time to time to drink meditatively from the river. We are happy to note that he doesn't seem to notice us at all. The river and its environs have that effect on you: you want to camouflage yourself and become part of the surroundings, to shrink and fold away and be of as little nuisance as possible, not because the Great Outdoors makes you afraid, but because you are hyper-aware of a balance in nature that is so wholly independent of human existence.

The transcendental frame of mind comes in handy once we set foot on Livingstone Island, named, like the town, after the priest-explorer who was brought here by the Makololo people in 1855 to see what European eyes had never seen before in recorded history – the Victoria Falls, as he called ‘Mosi oa Tunya’ or the Smoke that Thunders; so lovely, he wrote later, that they ‘must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’. Today, the Falls are viewable from all kinds of angles: across bridges, in boats, via helicopter, and even, with some luck, from Zimbabwe, long acknowledged as the best side from which to view the Falls. The Falls themselves lie in Zambian territory, though, and to swim in the Devil’s Pool atop the mighty cascades, or to walk in the good doctor’s footsteps – or, and we admit to nothing, to enjoy a hedonistic champagne lunch on the edge of the Falls – it is to Livingstone you must go.

Time passes very quickly and very slowly here, like in Tolkien's Lothlórien. Communing with one of the loveliest landscapes the planet has to offer meshes surprisingly well with the old-fashioned decadence of the luxe holiday, as we discover when we give in to the pleasures of a massage on the banks of the river (as discreet and civil as the occasion demands), or watch the sunset leaning out of the refurbished carriages of the Livingstone Express, a delightful old steam train that takes us right out into the dusty river basin for an enchanted evening. We are still on tiptoe as we boat past hippos and elephants on our afternoon safaris, hoping not to disturb them, but our sense of self expands pleasingly as we suddenly discover ourselves as one with nature, completely cut off from the sybaritic pleasures of urban life and not, we come to realise, missing them very much. We have to leave, eventually, after too few sunrises and sunsets, too few friends among the elephants and boat captains, too few meals under the Royal Livingstone's ancient Monkey Tree. But the Zambezi, we discover, has a way of sticking in the mind. Africa’s fourth-largest river always rises to the spiritual occasion, as its residents of old have known. It rises as magnificently as it Falls.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

on kunal kapoor

I wrote this profile for Verve's October issue, as a cover story to the men's special supplement. As the October issue is Verve's annual Best Dressed number, the supplement's theme this time was 'Best Undressed.' I had to ask Kunal Kapoor several questions that outraged my modesty. A true hardship.

Kunal Uncovered

I discover a wide sample of his fans when word gets out that I am to interview Kunal Kapoor. Friends call to tell me they hate me. Male friends enquire anxiously about my cardiac health. Colleagues suggest remarkably unprofessional questions for my list.

"Ask him if you can bring your mummy along," my otherwise stolid mother suggests when I tell her I will be meeting the actor she liked so much in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag.

For some people, the threateningly good looks might work against their favour with the teenyboppers or the mom crowd. But this is not so in the curious case of Kunal Kapoor. But for all the smouldering allure, there's something reassuring about his screen presence. To borrow the cricket motif from one of his least-seen films, 2007's Hattrick, the Kapoor aura is more Flintoff than Botham: the animal appeal is there, but it's just as easy to fantasise about getting an afternoon coffee with him as about rum and ravishment at midnight. No wonder parents approve.

We meet at the right time to discuss animal appeal: one of the three major projects on which he is working is Anurag Kashyap's next film, about the iconic Hindi comic-book superhero Doga. Doga is an anti-heroic figure who, in the comics, fights crime in the sewers of Mumbai, resolves his problems by killing them, wears a purple-and-yellow costume and, distressingly for admirers of Kapoor's face, a dog mask.

"We haven't discussed costumes yet," he says, grinning as I venture the question. Other things seem to have been worked out well in advance. On the comic's website, Doga is described as '95 kgs of steely bones and rippling muscles swathed in anger.' and since the greenlighting of the project, we've heard regular reports of the punishing diets and gym workouts (Aamir Khan lent him the use of his personal gym) Kapoor undergoes to achieve the Doga bulk.

The effects are evident when I meet him: this is not the frame of the Aslam of Rang De Basanti, a dreamboat whose kurtas billowed about him as the winds of change buffeted his beanpole frame. There is, however, no muscular explosion à la eight-pack happening here. "Physically, I'm trying to get to a place from where I can take about five or six weeks to really get the Doga look," he explains. "I'll be taking a couple of months off before Doga. But I don't need the bulked-up look for my next film." This is the untitled project by Navdeep Singh (who directed the cult Manorama Six Feet Under) about Punjabi music and the rebellious men who (presumably) play it.

You can play a six-degrees-of-separation game here with his last few roles: he played a Punjabi Sikh in Bachna Ae Haseeno, in a beautiful little cameo that was all marshmallow heart under gruff exterior; so was his Irfan in Aaja Nachle, a ruffian who melted under the influence of Konkona Sen Sharma; Sen Sharma, again, tamed the beast in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag when she berated his creative, wild-haired adman for his table manners. It's not too long before you get to Rang De Basanti, in which his character leaves you with the distinct impression that he could have been an artist, had the business of bloody revolution not called first. From there it's a short step to the Kameshwar of MF Husain's Meenaxi, in which the debutant Kapoor, playing a car mechanic who yearns to be a singer – among other things – is as much an objet d'art as the woman he worships.

Try and order all this into some kind of character arc, and what you get is not quite Mr Nice Guy. It’s something more subtle; less charming, perhaps, but also more fulfilling. He’s more like Mr Fringe Player; nonchalant about the niceties of polite society, bears the brunt of his idealism, can’t or won’t compete with the dandies and the smooth operators, but more than usually imbued with finer feelings. It’s a character that makes the question of whether he gets the girl in the end almost irrelevant.

The aspect of dreamer-idealist perhaps develops into something fuller, more real and troubling, in the third film currently on his plate, and the one that will release soonest, Rahul Dholakia's Lamhaa. Kapoor plays a character whose "story begins after he has turned his back on a violent past – someone with a history."

Why did he choose to do it? "It's a film on Kashmir that isn't jingoistic, and that interested me. I loved Parzania (Dholakia's last film). Rahul is extremely passionate about his work and his research, and it's a film he's worked on for years. It tells a Kashmir story without making judgments about who is right and wrong. It's also about how a lot of people profit from conflict." The same search for justice shades into something very different in Doga. "Doga is Batmanesque – a character who lives on the edge, whose world is dark and unruly. He's more human than most superheroes."

What do these roles reveal about him as an actor? "I love to be surprised," he says. "I always look for roles that allow me to experience playing roles that take me out of my comfort zone, out of my usual thought process. I like to work getting inside the head of someone like that. I wasn't Aslam from Chandni Chowk. I'm not the typical Punjabi I play in Navdeep's film. Doga is an alien character. Going to Kashmir, learning to play my role in Lamhaa – these are experiences that allow me to push my own boundaries as an actor."

They also reveal something of his sense of self. I ask him what he does when he's not shooting, and his answer tallies closely with the general ambition to delimit himself, as a person and an actor. "I spend a lot of time working on the acting thing – going to workshops and so on. I also do other things. But for an actor, everything serves the job, in a sense. What you do in front of the camera is all about who you are." So the flying lessons he's been taking recently, what are those about? A lifelong passion that he's recently had the time and space to fulfil. He is visibly excited to talk about it. "And math. I'm seeing a lot more numbers than I have since school. Oh, and bikes." Evenings after class are dedicated to racing BMWs and vintage Triumphs on the deserted runway. "All that's missing is the women." Women reading may testify to the tragedy of missing something like that, alright. Someone put in a request for a Top Gun remake, quick.

The conversation veers from serious to silly with disarming swiftness. He's good at that. I ask him about his voicing Rama, in a new animated feature Mahayoddha Rama (out soon), but what I really want to know is whether there's any chance of him appearing in a mytho-historical film. Confession: I don't just ask because I think he would bring depth and mystique to any hero-legend that he might play.

"What?" he says in mock-indignation. "One minute you ask me about playing a God, the other about being topless? What is this?" I can't quite explain why I think it would be good for national morale, but he gets the point. "We end up looking like clowns instead of heroes in the way we now do mythological films," he says, gently steering back to serious talk. "I'm not fond of that. Although I am looking at a project which wants to take a mythological story and adapt it like a graphic novel – like Sin City, but in colour." We jump to Frank Miller, just like that. In the topless warrior-god mould, would he rather be Pitt in Troy or Butler in 300? "Oh, 300," he says, all macho relish.

Now that we've crossed over completely into topless territory, the usual 'underneath your clothes' questions seem good to go. Are the ladies falling for the muscles more or less than they did the lean look? There's a moment of bemusement. "It depends on the woman, doesn't it?" he says. "Different women do different things. They like different things. There's no formula."

He warms up to the subject. "It'd be really boring to have everything figured out," he says. "It's nice to meet someone surprising." And what about his own personal style – what works for him? "Boxers," he laughs. (I cross off one of the inappropriate questions further down my list.) Isn't it a constant danger that a woman faced with the sight of a boxers-clad Kunal Kapoor might, say, faint?

"In front of me?" he says, just a dimple short of deadpan. "No. She'd jump me." Oh snap, Kunal. But then there's a core of seriousness to the acknowledgement that he has, in his own words, "always got attention." You can't help but think of quiet young Aslam, a presence that draws your eye repeatedly over a power-packed ensemble cast; of Joginder Singh, who breaks your heart when he silently offers his wife a handkerchief as she weeps over an ex-boyfriend. "Anything that's radically different from my life," he says of his major criterion for picking films.

The attention, as the long list of messages on my phone proves, remains the connecting factor.

Monday, July 06, 2009

alien nation

Revisiting Manmohan Desai's 1977 classic - and my favourite film of all time, Amar Akbar Anthony. I wrote this in December 2008, but a version of it appeared in Verve's July issue, under a section entitled 'Urbanism,' part of their 75th issue special.

As the city’s multiplexes have opened up to mainland influences and independent film-makers, some of the most trenchant clichés about urbanism have found expression in Bollywood’s 21st century portrayals of Mumbai. The dark underbelly pulsing beneath the glittering surface of the city, the artificiality behind the art, the terrible loneliness of the metropolis – all of these tell us what we fear; that our boom years have not protected us from the evils of urban overdevelopment. There are days in the life of this city, after all, during which we don’t have to open a newspaper to feel endangered; we simply have to step on a train.

It seems as though the industry now finds the once-mandatory celebration of ‘Bambai’ as India’s melting pot too trite for film. Tempting as it may be to trace the feeling to the rise of communalism in a city once famous for its origin-blindness, it probably has much more to do with the rapid gentrification of our living areas, compartmentalising classes and deepening differences. In a liberalised economy, as high-rises pile up around us, we tend to remember the perils, and forget the pleasures, of our shared civic life.

It is the public, open, festive Bombay that we celebrate in that mammoth classic of Hindi cinema, Amar Akbar Anthony. Manmohan Desai’s 1977 masterpiece still gets regular airtime on primetime television and weekend film festivals, for a number of reasons: it’s a ‘clean,’ ‘family’ film that kids love; it is a feat of star casting that still has the power to amaze and has never been achieved since; its performances and comic track are still vivid, slick and adorably hilarious. It is a proven fact that Indians of every stripe will sit through as many advertisements as it takes to see Amitabh Bachchan jump out of an Easter egg in the My name is Anthony Gonsalves song sequence, again and again. If the film hasn’t entered the pantheon of Bollywood’s absolute crowning glories, at the same level as a Sholay or a Mother India, it is perhaps because it is far too unselfconscious, far too ready to give in both to absurd soppiness and absurd jollity, and far too reliant on its preposterous magical-realist location – the Bombay of the 70s.

There is an almost Shakespearean felicity to city life in Amar Akbar Anthony. The woods of Borivali National Park become its Forest of Arden. (It helps that Mumbai is the only city in the world to have a forest plumb within city limits.) The park swallows up a family looking for shelter, and separates them from each other. The three children end up in motherless homes, with three foster fathers of three different faiths. They grow up to inhabit their own magical worlds in different parts of the city, but are always colliding with each other in improbable ways. Anthony’s wadi, an area that is part-fishing village, part-spaghetti Western set, is by turns incalculably distant from and right next door to Akbar’s Muslim neighbourhood. In Akbar’s world, rich conservatives are continually rubbing shoulders with young, impoverished mavericks. Qawwals and doctors envision romantic futures with each other. Eunuchs form a chorus for the hero as he lampoons his girlfriend’s dad as love’s enemy. Even prostitutes get some agency.

All through the film, the brothers run into each other, by turn strangers, antagonists, and friends, and fight, sing, dance and chatter at each other in a profusion of colour and chaos. The Christian breaks out spontaneously into a qawwali at the Muslim’s concert. The Muslim sings a bhajan to Sai Baba in a temple where his long-lost mother miraculously regains her sight. Even the strait-laced, law-enforcing Hindu cop shucks his inhibitions as the film hurtles towards its climax; he dons a fez cap, knickerbockers and concertina, and loses his measured, middle-class diction to break into the Bambaiya argot of the street.

Together, they fight crime.
All of this is generally understood to be too good to be true. There is no more pretence to realism in Amar Akbar Anthony than in the average Bollywood potboiler. But it isn’t just the pulpy by-product of an abstract idealism. The city of the film teems with dangerous coincidences. It is a mess. Dirt and unruliness abound in its frames. Its women are constantly at the mercy of cold-hearted families and villainous vendettas. Betrayal and petty thievery are running themes. But its biggest triumph is in its unabashed good humour. The narrative’s emotional crux is not the eventual reunion of a family long grown apart. What it brings home is the triumph of bonds formed randomly, not by way of blood and oaths, but friendship and faith. In the great loneliness of the throng, the film tells us, separated from our kith and kin and struggling to eke out a living, we can still sing each other’s songs and fight each other’s fights. We may lead segregated, separate lives, but on the street and in the square, we’re still part of a larger pattern.

It is a belief that is now backed up by the work of an increasing number of social scientists, as New York magazine reported in December 2008, in a cover story examining urban loneliness. In spite of their differences from the ideal of the intimate village community, large population centres actually synchronise large groups of people and instill better community virtues in them than small ones do. While strong connections – close family, best friends – proliferate less in cities, the plethora of ‘weak connections’ we form in our daily lives, with the number of people we meet and join forces with over the course of work, travel, meals and more, increases our potential to form those strong connections. In the film’s last sequence, as the boys’ imprisoned father greets his wife, he says to her, “Look at your good fortune – you’ve found not only your three sons, but three daughters-in-law as well.” (It’s a matter of further delight that the mother assents with a joy that few devout Hindus faced with the prospect of daughters-in-laws named Jenny and Salma – the sole Lakshmi happens to be a reformed confidence trickster – would otherwise exhibit).

In the bustle and relentless splintering and re-shaping of Mumbai's civic spaces, those on its streets – its ‘public’ – are always colliding in weak connections. Bombay is a city of commerce and inclusion, where alienation, quite literally, exists only in the imagination. Amar Akbar Anthony’s utter disregard of the divisive aspects of communal life in this space is, in many ways, also the solution to its problems. It builds a fluid, vibrant urban space held together by human links. The proliferation of action on its roads, beaches, places of worship and commercial spaces recalls Aristotle’s comment in the Nichomachean Ethics – friendships form the glue that binds a city together. The film holds up a mirror to the very best face of Mumbai, as a city that makes up in bonhomie and sentiment what it lacks in prestige, discipline and comfort. Chamak aana mangta, as the villain would say. Shakal dikhna mangta.

Make it shine; I want to see my face in it.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

spoils of war

On the disturbing poetics of international journalism's recent attempts to report on Africa. A version of this appeared in Verve's July issue, under a section entitled 'Morality,' part of their 75th issue special.

The United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator called the decade-long series of wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo the most ‘neglected’ emergency in the world – in 2005. In the four years since then, the devastation of Africa’s third largest region has received closer attention; perhaps a little more for the fate of the endangered gorillas who used to populate the country’s once-forested areas than for the epic destruction of its human population, but attention, nevertheless. Ghastly aspects of the war, such as the mining mafia run by renegade Congolese troops to exploit Congo’s incredible mineral resources, or the issue of mass rape and sexual humiliation systematically perpetrated on civilian women to wear the region’s social fabric out and spread terror and disease, will not come as news to serious readers.

In fact, there is something about the news itself that makes it bleakly familiar, tormenting only in its certainties: a subscriber to The New York Times, for instance, finds these facts so recognisable that their presentation almost constructs itself: a kind of genre journalism kicks in and the characters play to type. Corrupt politicians and unhinged rebel army chiefs jostle for power, each leading their own supporting casts of bureaucrats and mercenaries, symbols of greed and arrogance. The landscapes are visions of fallen Eden; pristine landscapes, built vein and bone out of precious minerals, devastated by violence. Every story deemed worth recounting in the press is framed around Africans’ intensely personal, human grief. Every story inevitably appeals to the emotion and compassion, and sometimes the confused outrage, of its readers.

The ‘Africa stories’ are universally anchored to the darkness of the past, recalling the atmosphere of wars that have been waged since the beginning of time and whose essential conflicts have remained the same; the war of tribe against tribe and nomad against farmer, the strong versus the weak. Instead of the fantasy narrative that informed much of the Anglophone Right’s early rhetoric of the Iraq War – construed as a face-off between good and evil – the stories that come out of the Congolese wars, like those from Sudan and, some years earlier, from Rwanda, seem to follow an even older pattern; the repetitive, meticulous, hypnotic praxis of the pre-Christian Iliad, the fatalistic reportage of the victory of nature over civilisation.

This intense focus on the personal and emotional details has some credibility. Reportage of the Iraq war, for instance, has only grown more nuanced in its understanding of the minutiae of ground realities, and that understanding has cracked some of the falsified ethical framework that the war once occupied in popular imagination. But when we talk about warfare in Africa – at large – it seems as though the international narrative hasn’t yet moved in the opposite direction. We have details, should we want them, but the facts never expand to include or direct the larger questions about morality or humanity that war narratives otherwise drive us to reflect on.

All contemporary war journalism embroils us in an incomplete and imperfect narrative. Already heavily handicapped by the secrecy of the war machine and the ethical conflict of what is ‘good’ for civilians to know at a given time, there is something deeper and darker about the nature of modern warfare (or, perhaps, all warfare) that makes journalistic truth possible only in hindsight, if at all: the involvement of corporate interests. Some of the real story of Congo’s long, bloody relay race of wars has been surfacing in recent years, in general and sometimes self-flagellating terms, in English news media around the world. In October 2008, journalist Johann Hari wrote an article for popular liberal website The Huffington Post, in which he remarked, ‘Congo is the richest country in the world for gold, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite, and more. Everybody wanted a slice – so six other countries invaded. These resources were not being stolen to be used in Africa. They were being seized so they could be sold on to us.’ As far back as 2001, a United Nations investigation on the conflict in Congo identified that the war was being run by ‘armies of business’ who were angling for ‘access, control and trade’ of key mineral resources. In November 2008, The New York Times devoted a Sunday magazine cover to the plight of miners working in an operation run by a renegade general in Bisie, Congo, but went no further than highlighting the appalling ground conditions workers had to face.

There are still no names or faces – not even nationalities – to the controlling interests in these wars. There is even less mention of responsibility. Helped along by popular culture, an awareness of the human rights casualties of the international diamond trade has led to a growing demand for certified ‘conflict-free’ diamonds. The brutalities in Congo do not begin and end with jewels. They are also about coltan – a mineral that goes into practically every piece of modern technology, from video game consoles to cell phones. They are about cassiterite – a primary source of tin. The electronics industry appears sensitive to the issue, but even insiders admit that it is almost impossible to know if and how their supply chains might be contaminated by ‘conflict’ minerals.

5.4 million people have already died in the Congolese holocaust. An estimated 45,000 people die every month in causes unrelated to the general living conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. The dead are not just the foot-soldiers of fate in a savage conflict in what persists in cultural imagination as the ‘heart of darkness’. It’s true that considerable feelings of guilt and a growing awareness of the world’s complicity in the corruption of Africa exist, but the only part of the mainstream where expressing this is at all possible, seems to be in fiction. American and British literature and film have produced some punishing contemporary critiques of the plagues of modern Africa, in everything from Bruce Willis action films, (Tears Of The Sun, 2003) to political thrillers (John Le Carré’s moving The Constant Gardener, 2001, adapted to film by Fernando Meirelles in 2005).

There is always the sense that in their very form, the books and movies are actually all about, and speak almost exclusively, to the non-African audiences they are made for. The best fiction is consistently aware of its limitations. ‘...I came to realise,’ says Le Carré in his afterword to The Constant Gardener, ‘that by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.’

Monday, January 19, 2009

smutty savitri

A version of this piece appeared in the December 2008 issue of Verve Magazine. I'd also like to draw your attention to the current issue, the January issue, which is produced in response to the terror attacks and is counted by several other than myself as a production of some quality [I will say only that it was a labour of love and deserves to be consumed as such. The Internet layouts miss a lot of the flavour of the thing, so do grab a copy if you can]. I have a feature on Internet journalism/blogging during the attacks in the issue, which I will blog at a point in the future when I am not quite as plagued by the ordinary business of living as I am now. Anar caluva tielyanna, as the Eldar of First Age Beleriand would say. I hope you're all doing marvellously.

Bhabhi Girl

Pornography does not, as a rule, appear in my email inbox. What broke through my and everyone else's spam filters earlier this year, however, was unique even for that jaded genre of entertainment. It was a series of comic book images, produced in clean lines and solid colour in the style of that staple of Indian childhood, Amar Chitra Katha, and it told a story almost as old as the ACK folk tales: that of the lonely housewife entertaining her male houseguests.

The housewife is Savita Bhabhi, the fictional protagonist at the centre of a storm of public attention this year. Newspapers in the UK and the United States have picked up on her immense popularity, wondering if it heralds a dawning sense of sexual candour in Indian society; men's magazines are less than discreetly jubilant about the advent of a bold new heroine; the first rumbles of government alarm are sounding in the occasional press report; on the Internet, and bloggers and writers no longer need to provide explanations to their audiences about who they are referring to when they talk of "the hot bhabhi."

So here is an interesting crossover production: this character shorthand, this quick and easy signposting of a stereotype, has somehow entered the mainstream, and is going where little porn has gone before. The popularity of the comic strips is not in itself surprising. What goes unseen in popular culture, distributed through pavement booksellers, late-night cable and illegal downloads in cybercafés, has always formed the unseen base of the iceberg. But something makes Savita Bhabhi far more visible, and far more talked about out in the open, than other works of its ilk.

One reason is mundane but vitally important: it's just much simpler to access. To know if a commodity in demand online, you only have to ask yourself if someone in India will use their creaky wireline connection and poor hardware to download it. In the X-rated business, to this day, when more and more people in other countries are dropping out of the porn consumption cycle and spending their time on Facebook, the answer is a resounding yes. Downloading a comic burns up about an order of magnitude less bandwidth than a movie clip, and what could never be forwarded in email or nestled on a pen drive can now be passed around with the insouciant ease of chapattis before a mutiny.

Another factor is the uniqueness of the medium. The advent of cinema rendered the raunchy woodcuts of Victoriana extinct; there is a great deal of time and effort expended on drawing dirty books that produces much lower returns than an investment in a shuttered room with a camera, an appropriate mise-en-scène and an hour. Comic-book pornography is nothing new in countries with different approaches to sexuality and obscenity law (and, I dare say, to comics), but isn't a part of the porn mainstream in India.

Then also, to consider a Savita Bhabhi comic, as a woman, is to bridge the divide between pictures and the written word that academics have long talked of as a gender issue: that women respond rather less to visual stimuli and rather more to textual ones – like the souped-up 'mature' Mills & Boon novels - than men. It also eliminates one very serious feminist concern about the means of production; questions of consent and compensation aren't relevant to a cartoon.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these comics is their language. Rooted in the conventions of very Indian iconography and genre codes, the characters speak in English. It is a garbled, misspelt English, reliant on Hindi translations and phonetics, full of the flavour of the third or fourth language of the small-town, high-school educated Indian, the kind of men and women who are increasingly finding voices and recognisable faces in our advertisements and television programming. The gaucherie of Savita Bhabhi's speech bubbles has kept certain kinds of readers entertained on more than one level, and are so over the top – an especially memorable panel involves characters chanting the word "fak" in the throes of pleasure – that the premise of the comics sometimes tips over into a surreal irony, seeming like the work of a talented and very classist humourist.

Savita Bhabhi does not spring from the nether parts of the Internet fully formed. The comics are produced in serial format – another heark back to the nineteenth century – by a dedicated team of designers and writers who work at putting out one page a day of a thirty-page 'episode' in the sultry afternoons of their protagonist, leaving the most explicit art to appear towards the end of the month on their simple but sophisticated website. There is a quasi-journalistic zeal to their method. On their website, the team, known only by their Internet nicknames, declare deadpan that their "positions" on the Savita Bhabhi team are all "honorary and voluntary," and story announcements are interspersed with earnest calls for scriptwriters, designers and web programmers.

Their protagonist is a figure in the mould of the "aunty" of a certain sort of fantasy, much-married, dark-haired and ample of breast. In a convenient compromise, she is also young and lissome, with a belly as flat as a superheroine's. The episodes rarely veer off the beaten path of the genre's narrative: an assortment of men in nominally submissive roles (adolescent cricketers who have broken a window, travelling salesmen) ring Savita Bhabhi's doorbell and end up being treated real friendly-like by the courteous and amiable matron with a penchant for leaving the bathroom door unlocked as she changes clothes.

The act of consuming these narratives is a thrill on several levels. There is the forbidden act of adultery embedded in the larger context of getting a forbidden kick out of a forbidden product. All of these combine to make the Savita Bhabhi stories an accomplishment in their genre. Not for me, though. I am more impressed by the dissemination of the Savita Bhabhi stories, and their normalisation in parts of the media, than I am by the comics themselves. There is something almost touching about the painstaking detail that goes into drawing and producing these works. But there is nothing bold or beautiful or, once you scratch the surface, any more appealing to an audience looking for something other than titillation. The comics advance no particular notions of sexual liberation or female freedom. And like most porn produced by men for men, they're not much use to girls. Bring her to life, and Savita Bhabhi would be an unremarked series of clips knocking about in the underbelly of the Internet's P2P programs and virus-ridden web pages. It's in her two-dimensionality that she she manages truly to escape censure, and become part of the popular.