About Me

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

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The triumph of the older woman

It’s the season when the 30 and 40-pluses are crawling out of the woodwork – and not a moment too soon

As someone who grew up seeing Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit light up the large screen with their 1000-watt smiles, I must admit to taking a particular pride in their recent return to the limelight. While Madhuri made a slight misstep with the massively ill-judged Nach Le (which wasn’t as much comeback vehicle as a car crash waiting to happen) she has recovered lost ground with her mega-glamorous judging stint on Jhalak Dhikhhla Jaa. Certainly, more people tune in to see her work that old magic on the dance floor rather than watch the actual contestants.

And then, there’s Sridevi. What can you say about a woman who looks better today, at the cusp of 50, than she did during her 20s and 30s? (Except that she should patent her diet and exercise regime and flog it to make an absolute fortune.) An actress who can come back to the movies after a 15-year old hiatus and make us feel like she was never away? A star who doesn’t need a huge production house to bolster her chances, but has the confidence to take on a small, simple movie like English Vinglish, knowing that she can make it sparkle and shine with her own charisma?

There’s really not much to say, apart from ‘Welcome back’ and ‘What took you so long?’

But who knows, perhaps both Sridevi and Madhuri have judged the zeitgeist well. And that, in India at least, this is the exact right moment for the older woman to make her claim for a spot in the sun.

In the West, of course, women stars of a certain age have been flourishing for a while now. In Hollywood, Meryl Streep still rules, churning out hit after hit (Mamma Mia, It’s Complicated, Julie and Julia, The Iron Lady), and manages to exude a mature sex appeal even though she is now a venerable 63. This year, she won the Oscar for best lead actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher – and among the rivals who lost out to her were Glen Close, 64, nominated for playing a cross-dressing waiter in Albert Nobbs and Viola Davis, 46, nominated for her portrayal of an African-American maid The Help.

On American television, the most popular female comic star today is the 42-year-old Tina Fey, who created 30 Rock, based on her experiences as a part of Saturday Night Live, and plays the central character of Liz Lemon. The biggest global hit to come out of US network television in recent times is the series, Modern Family. And of its female stars, Julie Bowen (who won the Emmy this year for her role of harried mom-of-three Claire Dunphy) is 42, while the Colombian bombshell, Sofia Vergara, who plays her step-mother (and is gloriously pregnant in the latest season) turned 40 this year.

In fact, if you took a good look across the auditorium where the Emmy awards were being held, it was hard to spot an A-list actress who was under 30. The heavily-pregnant Claire Danes who went up to receive her award for lead actress in a drama series for Homeland is 33; Christina Hendricks who was nominated for Mad Men but lost out is 36; while the award for the best supporting actress in a drama series went to Downton Abbey’s Dame Maggie Smith, now a majestic 77. The biggest loser of the day was the 26-year-old Lena Dunham, whose comedy show, Girls, didn’t win a single gong – though she was memorably pictured naked on a toilet eating cake, in a comedy skit preceding the show.

On Indian television, too, the older woman seems to be coming into her own. Sakshi Tanwar, who is arguably the best-known female TV star after her lead roles in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and Bade Achhe Lagte Hain (now that Smriti Irani has abandoned acting for politics), is now just one year short of 40. The anchor of choice for reality shows, Mini Mathur, is 36. And on news TV as well, the biggest female stars are all well over 30: Sagarika Ghose of CNN-IBN is 47; Barkha Dutt of NDTV is 40; Nidhi Razdan, also of NDTV (clearly a very woman-friendly organisation), is 35.

Yes, the day of the teeny-bopper seems to be well and truly past. This is turning out to the era of the mature woman. A woman who has lived a little; a woman who has the wisdom of the years behind her; a woman who just gets better with age. A woman like Sridevi and Madhuri, who may be past the first flush of youth, but can still hold her own against the teenage sensations of today.

And if you ask me, it’s not a moment too soon.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Marking the day

We may well acknowledge the first International Day of the Girl Child in India – but let’s not dare assume that we have the right to celebrate it

On the 11th of October the first International Day of the Girl Child was celebrated across the world. In India, too, we had the usual suspects releasing statements, attending functions, organising events to mark the day. But surely the irony of celebrating a day dedicated to the girl child could not have been lost on any of us. Not when more than 500 women have been raped since the beginning of the year in Haryana alone (and that’s just the cases that have been reported); when the figure for women being married off before they turned 18 stood at an astounding 60 per cent in Bihar; and when female foeticide is believed to have killed at least 10 million girls in the womb all across the country.

Yes, the girl child doesn’t really get much of a break in India. If she escapes being aborted, she arrives into a world that regards her as a burden. She is much less likely to finish her primary education than her brothers. She will probably be married off even before she attains majority. And when she gets pregnant, the likelihood of her dying in childbirth is astonishingly high (more than 65,000 women die giving birth in India every year – or, in other words, every 8-10 minutes a woman dies in childbirth), assuming of course that the pregnancy is not terminated because she is carrying a girl child who needs must die before she can born.

And thus the vicious circle continues, sucking each successive generation of women into its vortex of despair.

I know what you’re thinking. Why paint such a bleak portrait of Indian womanhood? After all, there are plenty of women among us who are valued and cherished by their families, who are brought up as valuable members of society, who are educated, who go on to have worthwhile careers, and are both financially independent and socially secure.

Yes, of course, there are. And I number myself among them. But we are the lucky ones, the minuscule minority who were fortunate enough to be born into the right families and the right social class. If it wasn’t for an accident of birth, we could just as easily be among the 35 per cent of women who are not literate, the 47 per cent of women who are married off as minors, the 212 women in every lakh who die in childbirth because they don’t have access to medical facilities, the 7,00,000 girls aborted every year because they are simply the wrong sex.

When you think of the sheer numbers involved – considering that our population stands at 1 billion and counting – it’s clear just how bad things are for women in India.

It doesn’t really matter that we’ve had a woman President in Pratibha Patil or that the UPA is headed by Sonia Gandhi or that the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha is Sushma Swaraj. It is of no consequence that five states of the Indian Union – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh – have (or have had) women chief ministers (in Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Vasundhara Raje and Uma Bharati). Or that the world of finance has seen such power women as Chanda Kochhar and Naina Lal Kidwai running large institutions with aplomb. Or even that we have produced such world-class sportswomen as Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza.

All of these are achievements that must be celebrated – as indeed they are – but there is no ignoring the fact that these are exceptions that provide a stark contrast to the trials and tribulations that ordinary Indian women have to suffer every day of their lives. And that they mean nothing to the mother living in a remote village who has to trek for miles every day to get drinking water for her family; to the women who have no access to sanitary napkins let alone comprehensive health care; to the new bride who is harassed to death by the dowry demands of her husband and in-laws; to the young girl who is first raped and then told that she ‘asked’ for it; to the widow who is forced out of her family home and sent off to Vrindavan to await death.

And it is particularly ironic that the UN is marking the first International Day of the Girl Child by drawing attention to the problem of child marriages at a time when the khap panchayats in Haryana have announced that girls should be married off at a young age so that they do not get raped (apparently, a mangalsutra also serves as a rapist-repellent in their strange, convoluted minds), a position that was rapidly adopted by such obscurantist political leaders as Om Prakash Chautala.

So, let’s not celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child just yet. Not until we have ensured that every girl in the womb gets a chance at life. Not until we have made the education of every young girl possible. Not until we have made provision for her health care through menstruation, pregnancy, child-rearing and menopause. Not until we have ensured that she gets paid the same wage for the same job as her male co-worker. And not until we have made sure that she has the liberty to make her own life decisions.

Until then, we can mark the International Day of the Girl Child in our calendars – but let’s not dare to assume that we have any right to celebrate it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Women, lies, and weight-loss

As Nigella Lawson shows off her new, slim-line look, it’s time to ask: are full-figured women ever really happy with their bodies?

We all love Nigella Lawson, don’t we? The food show hostess with the mostess. The home cook with the killer curves. The culinary queen with the majestic embonpoint. The domestic goddess with the décolletage to die for.

Actually, make that to ‘diet’ for. Because that’s exactly what Nigella has been doing over the last year. And now, you can feast your eyes on a new, slim-line Nigella hosting her new food show, Nigellissima (that’s ‘Very Nigella’ to all us non-Italian speaking oiks) and showing off her size 12 frame on magazine covers and in newspaper supplements. Gone is the voluptuary who lived on bacon, red meat, bread, double cream, chocolate, and lashings of butter (not in the same recipe, of course). In her place, we have the ‘sensible’ eater who drinks wine only on Fridays and has discovered the joys of exercise in her 50s.

And that sound you hear? It is the collective moan of disbelief from millions of women all across the world who can’t quite believe that the Patron Saint of Plump Pulchritude has let them down so devastatingly. And when they finally get their voices back you can be sure that they will be asking Nigella a few sharp questions. (So, Nigella, all these years when you were assuring us that you were happy in your buxomness, were you just lying to yourself? Or was that nothing-tastes-as-good-as-gluttony spiel just one giant con perpetrated on the rest of us?)

As someone who also loved the old, voluptuous, sometimes downright greedy Nigella, I can understand the sense of betrayal. This was a woman who made us feel good about having curves and wobbly bits; who told us to take pride in our bulges rather than wage war on them. And now that she has gone all low-fat and small-waisted, we can’t help feeling that she has let the side down.  

Not that Nigella ever set herself up as Poster Girl for big women but the sub-text of all the 3,000-calorie recipes was quite clear. As were those images of Nigella raiding the fridge late at night for some comfort food. Indulgence was good for you. You needed to feed your appetite. Life was too short to have low-fat ice-cream. Nothing tasted better than saturated fat.

Well, some things haven’t changed. Nigella’s recipes still pack in a few thousand calories. But the woman herself doesn’t seem to be eating any of her food. Instead, she’s all gussied up in her new size 12 wardrobe, making the rest of us feel hopelessly fat.

But why blame Nigella alone? I have lost count of the number of full-figured celebrities who go red in the face telling us how happy they are to be big – right until the moment they pose for a photo-spread to show off their recent weight loss.

Sophie Dahl was famously discovered as a fat teenager by the fashion stylist Isabella Blow, and created a sensation when she walked the ramp in all her bodacious glory. But just when you felt that the world of high fashion would at last begin to embrace what it likes to call the ‘plus-size’ woman, Dahl resurfaced on the Opium billboard having lost two-thirds of her body weight and looking as waif-like as the next model.

And then, there’s Dawn French. The humorist who spent her entire life telling us that she was happy to be humungous, has now lost 40-something kilos and is looking like a shadow of her former, frankly-fat self. She puts it down to having discovered exercise (there we go again) and cutting out on chips and chocolate. And, she adds, a tad defensively, that she still loves her ‘old body’. (Oh yes, she loves it so much that she’s got rid of half of it!) 

All of this begs the question. Were any of these women actually ‘happy’ being the size they were? Or were they just lying about it to make themselves feel better even as they tried every trick in the book to slim down? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

That said, women, lies and weight-loss are inextricably linked. For every woman who claims that she is happy at her current size even as she diets and exercises in secret to slim down, there is another who puts her slimness down to good genes and swears that she eats everything and never works out, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

But now that Nigella and her famous curves have left the show kitchen, who will be flying the flag for buxom beauties everywhere? Well, there’s always Christina Hendricks, who plays the curvaceous Joan Harris in Mad Men. But given how offended she was when an Australian interviewer asked her about being an inspiration as a ‘full-figured’ woman (she refused to answer the question and said it was ‘rude’ to describe her in such terms), I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before she goes all slim-line on us as well.

Ah well, never mind! At least back here in India, we will still have Vidya Balan to reassure us that a little muffin top never hurt anyone (and nor did a muffin or three). But if she ever signs up to a diet regime or threatens to bring out a fitness video, we’ll know that the fat is truly in the fire.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

How? Why? What?

An examination of some of the abiding mysteries of life

You know all those abiding mysteries of life that people lie awake and think about? As in: how did the world come into being? Why are we here? What is it all about? Is there such a being as God? Well, I don’t really waste much sleep over them. Instead, I am constantly mystified by people and the baffling things some of them get up to.

I mean, how do you explain the fact that there are some women who apply toner after cleansing their faces and before moisturising? Who are these women and how do they have the time – not to mention the energy and the patience – to undertake this three-step cleansing routine twice a day? I feel incredibly pleased with myself for smearing on a spot of sunscreen in the morning and managing to clean my teeth before collapsing into bed. And there are apparently women out there who actually manage to not just cleanse and moisturise, but also ‘tone’ their skin? I know these mythical creatures must exist (or else how would you explain the sales of toner?) even though I have never met any of them. But I can’t help being mystified by their devotion to cleansing rituals nonetheless.

Of late, I have been puzzling over another abiding mystery of our time. Who are all these women who find Fifty Shades of Grey (not to mention Fifty Shades Darker and whatever the other Fifty-something book is called) so ‘erotic’ that they are have turned it into the best-selling title of all time, outselling even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? No matter where you go these days – the bookstore, the supermarket, the grocery shop, the airport – you find a wall of blue-grey covers staring balefully at you, daring you to pick up your daily dose of porn in full view of the public. But even if you ignore the troublesome issue of the mainstreaming of pornography as it were, how do you explain that enough people find this kind of puerile writing sexy and exciting? As someone who has tried reading the book and given up after a 100 pages (yes, even before the ‘sexy’ bits begin), I certainly can’t. How could anyone find this risible prose remotely arousing? And yet, astonishingly enough, they do.

And while we are on the subject of kinky sex, are there really any women out there who are applying ‘whitening’ and ‘tightening’ creams to their lady bits in the hope of improving their sex life? Actually, on second thought, even if these creatures do exist, I really don’t want to know.

As the cliché goes, it takes all sorts to make up the world but even so, there are some people – and some kinds of behaviour – that remain unfathomable (to me, at least). Those folks, for instance, who actually enjoy getting up at the crack of dawn, pulling on their sneakers, and pounding the pavements until the sun comes up, and then spend the day banging on about their ‘endorphin high’. If you ask me, never mind their hamstrings, it’s their heads that need examining.

Then, there are those strange creatures that our fashion glossies write for. You know the ones I mean. Those who are happy to junk their wardrobes every few months or so and run off to stock up on the ‘new season’ look. Those who spend hours stuffing tissue paper into the sleeves of their jackets and dresses before packing them so that they don’t crease (have these people not heard of a steam-iron? Or laundry services?). Or those who treat a summer vacation as an excuse to exfoliate, wax and embark on a new diet.

And don’t get me started on those intrepid souls who dare to negotiate the perils of airport check-ins and air travel in vertigo-inducing high heels. Do these women have no pain threshold? Have the soles of their feet no sensation left after years of systematic abuse? Or have they been brainwashed by Fifty Shades of Junk to believe that pain equals pleasure?

There are many things that mystify me when I check into a hotel but top of the list is the horror known as the mini-bar. No matter where in the world I am, the prices listed on the mini-bar list leave me dumbstruck. Who can possibly afford to pay these rates? And yet, apparently, there are people who do just that. Drop the equivalent of a cool Rs 500 for a miniature bottle of whiskey. Spend around Rs 150 for a bottle of water. Or Rs 200 bucks for a packet of crisps. Or Rs 300 for a packet of peanuts (I’m sorry, but that’s just plain nuts!)

While we are on the subject of crisps, though, who are these people who can open a packet and then just stop at one, two or even ten? Do they really exist? Or are they just the stuff of urban legend?

And don’t even get me started on those who can stop at the last chapter of a spy thriller or a good murder mystery, slip in a book-mark, turn off the lights and then go off to sleep. Don’t they want to know how the damn thing ends? How can anyone drift off to sleep without reading the denouement, especially when it is just a few pages away? Quite honestly, it beggars belief.