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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, October 30, 2011


What do you see when you look into the mirror?

Have you ever thought about what a baby sees when she looks at herself in the mirror? Does she wonder who this other little person is staring back at her? Does she puzzle over the fact that she can’t touch this person even when both of them are reaching for one another? Does she look down on her clothes and wonder why the baby in the mirror is wearing the same thing? Or does she, by some intuitive leap, understand that the face looking back at her so solemnly from the mirror is her own? And if she does, then at what stage does this understanding dawn?

I was trying to work this out as I idly watched my friend’s young daughter sitting transfixed in front of a full-length mirror. She smiled uncertainly at her reflection; she tapped experimentally on the glass to see if she could get to the other side; she pressed her nose against it and then snapped back looking startled at the distorted image reflected back at her; and finally she summoned me over with an imperious finger to help her solve this new mystery the world had presented to her.

I sat down next to her on the floor, pointed to my reflection in the mirror and then at myself. She looked back and forth, a glimmer of understanding in her eye. I pointed to her reflection and then back at her. Suddenly, her face lit up with the glow of recognition. That baby in the mirror. It was her. That was what she looked like. That was what the world saw when it looked at her.

We soon tired of this game and moved on to something else. But the little interlude got me thinking. As we grow older, what do we see in the mirror? Is that how the world sees us as well? And how accurate a reflection is it of how we feel inside?

As a child, the mirror was my best friend. I would spend hours preening in front of it, trying on my mother’s make-up, my elder sister’s grown-up clothes, my grandmother’s saris, my father’s clunky reading glasses. Every new item made me look a little bit different; it was almost like trying on personas for size before I decided on which one suited me best.

As I grew a little older, my relationship with the mirror evolved as well. The only child in a family of grown-ups, the mirror became almost a playmate. I would conjure up imaginary friends and set up a dialogue with them as I sat in front of the dressing table. I would try on expressions, a laugh here, a frown there, a giggle for punctuation and try and work out how I appeared to people I met in the real world.

Then, teenage struck and the mirror turned into my enemy. Suddenly, all I saw in the mirror were my flaws. My forehead was too short, my nose too stubby, my cheeks too fat, and was that a fresh pimple sprouting on my chin? It seemed to be growing larger every minute I stared at it.

No matter how hard I tried, I found it impossible to love the image reflected back at me. And even though now I marvel at the thin waist and pert bum of my teen years – and don’t even start me on my perfectly-toned arms – at the time I hated, just hated, what I saw in the mirror.

Did things change? Of course they did. The raging hormones of teenage calmed down and I began to see myself for what I was. Not great, but not absolutely vile either. And thinking back, I can faintly remember about a nanosecond in my late 20s when I was actually happy with what I saw in the mirror. It was as if I had finally grown into my face, all the bits and pieces had made peace with one another, and I could smile back at the mirror when I looked into it. And that self-confidence helped me through the next decade or so.

But now with incipient middle-age creeping through the lines on my face (and my neck, oh God, I’d hoped you’ve have the decency not to bring up my neck!) I think that equanimity is not long for my world. Of late, I find myself re-arranging my features before I risk a look in the mirror. Cheeks ever so slightly sucked in, neck held straight, jowls tightened, lips raised in a half-smile. And it seems safer to do my make-up one feature at a time – a quick fix of kohl pencil, a smudge of under-eye concealer, a dash of lipstick – and then risk a look at the sum of my parts. Aha, not so bad after all!

And no, I’m not really deluded. It’s just that Nature comes to the rescue of women like me. Your eyesight becomes a little less perfect to go with the general decline of your features. And all those flaws that are so apparent in the harsh light of day are softened just a bit as you gaze at the ever-so-slightly blurred image in the mirror. It’s a bit like looking at a picture shot through a soft-focus lens. It is real all right, but just a tiny bit better for being a tad diffused.

Take my advice. Accept it as the truth. In these matters, it’s best not to investigate too closely.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Diwali!

This festive season, go forth and light up someone else’s life

Aren’t you just about fed up with the absolute avalanche of advertising asking us to go forth this Diwali and buy, buy, buy? I know I am. I am fed up of being told that I should bring home a new sofa/fridge/car/television this ‘festive season’. I am fed up of being lectured about how the best way to ‘celebrate’ this special time to buy some diamonds or invest in some gold jewellery. And I am fed up of the suggestion that the only way we can make the special people in our lives feel special is by breaking the bank and buying them some extravagant present.

Yes, I know that this is the time that the Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped in most Hindu homes – even those that are not particularly religious at other times of the year – and that the Goddess of Wealth is supposed to be welcomed with, well, a show of wealth. But seriously, what is it with all these exhortations to spend, spend, spend...and then spend just a little bit more?

Is that really what the spirit of Diwali has been reduced to in these materialistic times? Did the ‘festival of lights’ metamorphose into an ‘orgy of conspicuous consumption’ while we were busy shopping for gifts for the family? And is money really all it takes to celebrate the advent of the Lakshmi in our midst?

Well, it is certainly beginning to look like it. The markets are clogged with eager shoppers greedily picking their way through the shiny wares on display. The traffic moves at a snail pace because everybody and his uncle (and aunt and a gaggle of children) are out in their cars busy dropping off Diwali presents to all their near and dear ones. And everybody who is anybody has a veritable mountain of corporate hand-outs littering their dining table.

At one level, I guess the excitement is understandable. After all, Diwali comes around just once a year. And amidst all the diyas, the patakas, the phuljharis and the anaars, it is easy to get lost in the sheer headiness of it all. But as we scoff the chocolate barfis and kajus and badams and swear that we will go on a detox diet as soon as the last box of mithai has been polished off, do we ever stop to think about how those who don’t have our kind of disposable income are celebrating the festival? How do they cope with the ubiquitous message of conspicuous consumption when they can barely scrape together two meals a day? How do those who have no money to speak of welcome the Goddess of wealth to their homes?

If these kinds of thoughts ever do rankle, then this Diwali make a pledge to do something about it. Ignore all those media messages asking you to re-do your homes, buy a new wardrobe, upgrade your car, splurge on some jewellery or whatever new gizmo there is in the market. Don’t order a huge hamper full of exotic goodies to give away to friends and family. Cancel that expensive dinner you were planning to host for your card-playing buddies. And do the environment a favour by not bursting any noisy, polluting crackers.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t celebrate the festival with your loved ones. But do so with love and affection rather than just by mindless spending. Don’t bother with expensive, all-purpose gifts. Instead think of what each individual on your list would most enjoy. Is your cousin interested in cooking? Gift her some herbs – parsley, coriander, mint, sage, rosemary – growing in small pots that she can place on her kitchen ledge. Is your wife a proud hostess? Find her some hand-made aromatic candles that she can display proudly at her next dinner party. If putting that much thought into each gift seems daunting, then just stick to the tried-and-tested: earthernware diyas that can be used in the Diwali puja, and potted plants that can survive the seasons on the balcony.

Once you’ve bought all these ‘alternative’ gifts, make a quick estimate of how much money you have saved. Now, find some worthwhile cause to donate it to. It could be to an NGO you trust; the neighbourhood centre that educates underprivileged children; the blind school; a shelter for battered women; or even a temple that feeds the poor.

As for all those hampers of bakery products and confectionary littering your drawing room, pile them all into your car and head for the nearest orphanage or blind school. Set up a little counter and give away all the stuff to the children. Watch as they scoff it down with delight. That experience is worth more than any bit of jewellery you could possibly own. And the fact that you are able to enjoy it is true wealth.

So, this year instead of going forth and buying, buying, buying, make a pledge to go forth and spread some good cheer among those less fortunate. And on that note, Happy Diwali to all of you!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Without my daughter

Movies are just dandy for Sanjay Dutt; but his daughter should steer clear, or else...

If you are of a certain age, you probably remember a time when conventional wisdom had it that the world of movies was steeped in sin. And that while it was okay for strapping young men from good families to join the film business, it was no place for a woman from a ‘decent’ household. Raj Kapoor, the great patriarch of Hindi cinema, famously declared that no woman in his extended family would ever work in the movies. Thus, both his daughters-in-law, Babita and Neetu Singh, dutifully retired from the film world once they had acquired the Kapoor family name. And most film stars of his generation took their cue from him, forbidding their wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law from joining the film industry.

You would think that many decades down the line, things would have changed. After all, a new generation of Kapoor daughters, Karisma and Kareena, has taken the lead to become the leading actresses of their time. Even as traditional a Jat as Dharmendra had no objection to his daughter with Hema Malini, Esha Deol, making her debut as an actress. More recently, Anil Kapoor’s daughter, Sonam, has made her entry into the film world as has Sonakshi Sinha, the daughter of the yester-year star, Shatrughan.

In all of these cases, the fathers took a certain pride in their daughter’s achievements. And even if they didn’t quite splash out on a huge debut for them under the home banner, they supported and cheered them on from the sidelines. They certainly didn’t take the old-fashioned view that the film industry was a Very Bad Place, which their girls had to be sheltered and protected from.

But just when it looked as if the bad old days – when Hindi cinema was seen as a predatory place where women were at risk – were over, along came Sanjay Dutt to remind us that chauvinism is alive and well and kicking ass in the film industry. Dutt’s daughter from his first marriage, Trishala, announced that she wanted to become an actress but Daddy declared that that was out of the question. There was no way any daughter of his was joining the film industry, said Dutt.

Yes, the same Dutt whose mother, Nargis, was a legendary star of Hindi cinema; whose first wife, Richa, had been an actress; who had dated and nearly married Madhuri Dixit; and whose second wife, Manyata, had been an item girl in her time. But despite the fact that nearly every significant relationship in his life so far had been with an actress, Sanjay declared that that was not a career option open to his daughter.

Why, you ask? Well, he’s never really explained it. So, I guess all we can do is speculate.

The charitable explanation, of course, would be that Dutt is wildly protective of his daughter and would not like her to be subjected to suspect behaviour if she joined the movie business. There’s only one problem with this theory. No one in their right minds would dare to mess with the daughter of Sanjay Dutt, a man not exactly known for his calm and even temper. So, it’s not even remotely possible that Trishala would be sexually harassed or fall victim to the infamous casting couch of the film industry. On the contrary, film producers would probably be queuing up for the privilege of launching her in the movies.

Or perhaps Dutt feels that actresses are not respected by society, even looked down upon because of the nature of their profession. But surely, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. His mother, Nargis, who became an actress during a much more conservative era, was universally loved and respected right until her untimely death. Sharmila Tagore, who broke several class barriers when she joined Hindi cinema, is seen as an icon of style and grace even today. Shabana Azmi and Hema Malini have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha (as, indeed, was Nargis). Madhuri Dixit still rules over the hearts of millions of Indians. Aishwarya Rai continues to make movies even after becoming a Bachchan bahu. And even the current crop of actresses, from Bipasha Basu to Deepika Padukone, are treated with respect by the film industry (yes, even those who do not have star dads).

So, what exactly is Sanjay’s problem? Why is he so implacably opposed to his daughter acting in Hindi movies?

Well, I’ve puzzled over this for days but only one explanation make sense. And that explanation has more to do with Dutt himself than the film industry he seems so down on; it’s more about his own attitude to women than the treatment accorded to them by Bollywood.

Because if you think about it, it is Dutt who shows scant respect for his female co-stars when he announces that his daughter would never be allowed to become an actress. It is Dutt who reinforces the idea that the movie business is a dangerous place for women by trying to bully his daughter out of it. And it is Dutt who falls short of honouring the right of a woman to make her own life choices when he lays down the law to his adult daughter: don’t join the movies or else...

Yes, at the end of the day, this whole sorry episode is an indictment of Dutt’s values and beliefs; not a judgement on the film industry. Perhaps Trishala should keep that in mind before she comes to a decision – a decision that is her own, not her Daddy’s.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Small vs silver

TV stars abroad may quality as A-listers; but in India they remain on the C-list

Over the last couple of years I’ve become a fan of Glee, the US television series set in all-American high school. And my favourite character is the cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. So, imagine my joy when Jane Lynch – who plays crazy, driven Sue with a delightfully demented gleam in her eye – was chosen to host this year’s Emmy awards. And whatever the fashion fascistas may have thought of Jane’s frocks – cue shock and horror – I thought she did a bang-up job. (And that’s the way Seema sees it!)

But what struck me much more forcibly at the Emmys was the wealth of A-grade stars lined up on the red carpet. In fact, such was the glut of celebrity in the presentation hall that you searched in vain to see an unfamiliar face. There was Gwyneth Paltrow, who won a special award for her guest star turn on Glee. There was Kate Winslet, looking absolutely ecstatic at winning for Mildred Pierce. There was Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame, her legendary curves poured into a shimmering dress that could barely contain them. It was easy to see that this was an A-list gathering – because almost every lady in the room could pass the litmus test of celebrity, with her cellulite and cleavage under the daily scrutiny of the tabloid press.

That’s what set me thinking. If I tuned in to see an equivalent awards show for Indian entertainment television – and yes, you’re right, I wouldn’t really – I would be hard-pressed to recognise a single star. Yes, there would be some faces which would look vaguely familiar. Was that Anandi what’s-her-name from Balika Badhu? Is that the actress who plays the eternal Savitri Bhabhi (not to be confused with the other, much-maligned Savita Bhabhi?
The only faces I could place with some degree of certainty would be the stars of reality television – Rakhi Sawant, Dolly Bindra – but only because the news channels play them up every day in their entertainment shows. And even then I would be hard pressed to tell Veena Malik from Payal Rohatgi or Ashmit Patel from Sameer Soni.

Not because I am some sort of sad snob, but because our entertainment channels don’t really produce A-list stars. Our TV actors may have their 15 minutes of fame while their shows are doing well. But they soon fade away never to be heard of again. Who remembers Gracy Singh, for instance? Or Jassi of Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin? Or even Dakshaben from Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? In fact, the only cast member of that iconic show who survives in our consciousness is Smriti ‘Tulsi’ Irani – and then only because she has since recast herself as a BJP politician and turns up on news channels regularly to give us the benefit of her wisdom.

The truth is that no matter how much transient fame our TV stars achieve during their all-too-brief careers, they never really graduate to the A-list. They never rate a glossy magazine cover, for instance. Nor are they ever signed up to endorse top-end products like sports stars and film actors are.

Contrast this to the kind of stardom that TV actors achieve in the America and Britain. The stars of Friends are still considered to be A-listers. Celebrity magazines are still obsessed with the love lives of Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox. Matt LeBlac may have flopped spectacularly with Joey, but he still has enough star value for a new show – Episodes – to be created around his real-life persona. More recently, the actors of Desperate Housewives and Mad Men have become bona fide stars. In fact, Eva Longoria’s wedding and subsequent divorce was accorded the same treatment as Tom Cruise’s nuptials to Katie Holmes.

In the UK, the stars of Downton Abbey are forever being written up in the press. The British show, The Only Way is Essex – better known as TOWIE – has attained near cult-status. And it’s not for nothing that the legendary British actor, Alec Guinness, followed up his role in Star Wars with the TV mini-series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Across the Atlantic, such is the power of television that even big Hollywood stars think nothing of working in TV shows. At the height of her fame, Meryl Streep starred in a TV series, Angels in America; Glen Close did a magnificent job in Damages and The Shield; Robert Downey Jr dazzled in Ally McBeal; and Alec Baldwin continues to sparkle in 30 Rock alongside Tina Fey.

One measure of the power of these TV shows is how many A listers they can pull in as guest stars. Gwyneth Paltrow in Glee is perhaps the most famous one. But the last season of 30 Rock had Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Bono, Condoleeza Rice, Michael Keaton and Alan Alda come on as guest stars.

Contrast this with India when Bollywood actors only condescend to work in TV serials if their careers have completely collapsed. Otherwise, the only way you can tempt them on to television is to give them several crores to host a quiz show or a reality TV programme. So while Amitabh Bachchan is happy to front Kaun Banega Crorepati and Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt will do the honours for Bigg Boss, and Akshay Kumar will do his usual dare-devilry for Khatron Ke Khiladi, no A-list film actor will ever deign to act in a TV series.

In India, at least, it seems that television is doomed to remain the ‘small’ screen forever, while the biggies strut their stuff on the ‘silver’ one. And more’s the pity.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dumb and ditzy?

Don’t be taken in by the packaging; these glamour babes are savvy businesswomen as well

The Indian media was all agog last week with the visit of Paris Hilton to this country. The cameras were in attendance when she arrived at Mumbai international airport at some unearthly hour. Packs of hacks followed her wherever she went in the city. And breathless reportage was according to every minute of the stay. Paris wore a sari-drape dress. Paris did a Namaste. Paris was offered a role in a Bollywood film. Paris went shopping. Paris ate a kebab. Oh well, you get the drift.

But no matter what event the media were covering, the sub-text was quite clear. Paris Hilton was this frivolous It Girl, who had pink sequins where her brains should be. She was someone who was famous for being famous, a C-class celebrity who had made a career out of posing in small, tight clothes for the gawking paparazzi. To put it plainly, she was depicted as some ditzy party girl who didn’t have anything going for her but her family name, a generous trust fund, and an impressive d├ęcolletage.

So far, so completely wrong. If we have learnt anything over the last decade, it is that it is dangerous to under-estimate Paris Hilton. She may sport a giant blonde beehive when she’s channelling her inner Marilyn Monroe, but she has a sharp business mind ticking underneath it. And though you may have missed it among all the party pictures of her frolicking with various Mumbai celebrities, Paris was here on serious business: to promote her own name brand of handbags and accessories.

In case you think this is just a case of rich girl plays at business, consider this. There are now 30 ‘Paris Hilton’ boutiques in more than a dozen countries in the world, which retail as many as 17 different product lines. She has launched as many as 11 fragrances, all of which sell on the basis of her brand name. And if you include all her business earnings along with her trust fund, she is worth a staggering 45 million dollars.

So, how has Paris done this? Why, by parlaying her image as an empty-headed celebrity into a international brand that now has better name recognition in some circles than the original Hilton group of hotels which were founded by her grandfather Conrad Hilton. And on that basis, she has launched a career in reality television, her own fashion labels, a perfume line, and God alone knows what else.

Whatever you may think of her predilection for pink, you have to admire Paris’s chutzpah. She has mastered the art of taking the most unpromising situations and turning them into drivers of positive publicity for herself. Cast your mind back to the last US Presidential campaign when John McCain poked fun at Obama by comparing him to a Z-list celebrity like Paris Hilton. Unfazed by the snub, Paris retaliated by sending out her own video message, wearing a skimpy bikini and promising to paint the White House pink if she was ever elected President. By sending herself up so brilliantly she didn’t just show that she had a sense of humour; she also showed up John McCain as being silly and outdated.

So, why do we persist in seeing Paris as a pretty airhead? Part of it is down to what I call the Legally Blonde trap. We are so conditioned to seeing pretty young blondes as dumb and dumber that we often miss the fact that they have bright minds under those gleaming tresses.

And as it is in the West, so it is in India. Only here, it’s best described as the Rakhi Sawant syndrome. Just as Paris is dismissed as a silly little thing, Rakhi is routinely derided in our media as a crass vulgarian, a talentless bimbo who is good only for carefully-orchestrated publicity stunts. But while she is undoubtedly good at that, Rakhi is also savvy enough to spin off a show-business career on the basis of that.

Just consider, for a moment, just how far she has got on the basis of very little talent and very average looks. She features regularly on prime-time television, she breaks up with her boyfriend in full view of the cameras, she hosts a programme to find herself a husband, she hits the newspaper headlines every other week with some stunt like wanting to marry Baba Ramdev. And as her celebrity quotient goes up, so does the fee she charges for every new gig.

Or take that other media darling, Mallika Sherawat, who has, quite literally, made a career out of saying outrageous things on camera. Mallika may not be the best-looking actress around or even the most talented, but she knows how to make a splash. And sometimes all you need is name recognition when Jackie Chan comes looking for a new heroine. (And sometimes one half-naked appearance on the red carpet is worth more than a dozen good roles.)

But instead of knocking these women down as dim-witted vulgarians, I think we should admire them for their ability to make the most of whatever assets nature bestowed on them. They have enough self-knowledge to know what works for them, and enough drive to work that to their best advantage.

It’s time we recognised that no matter how many dumb blonde-type jokes we crack about them, the laugh is really on us.