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

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Yes, we Cannes…

Rock the sari and the lengha on the red carpet; as both Vidya Balan and Sonam Kapoor proved

As it happened, I was in Cannes when our media went into overdrive about how the Indian presence at the film festival had turned the red carpet even redder with sheer embarrassment. So, I missed all the stories that basically went along the lines of: “What on earth was she/he (insert name of concerned actress and the designer who dressed her) thinking?”

It was with some bemusement, therefore, that I caught up with all the shock-horror and of course, outrage, on my Twitter feed. Well, I’m sorry guys, but this time I disagree. In fact, I am going to stick my neck out here and say that – some minor reservations aside – I actually loved how Vidya Balan and Sonam Kapoor made their mark in Cannes (alas, I missed Aishwarya Rai; a late arrival this year).

See, here’s the thing about red-carpet dressing. You have about five minutes (ten, if you’re lucky) to make an impact on the international media gathered around. And given that the tapis rouge (just to go all annoyingly French on you) is awash with drop-dead gorgeous women in the most amazing costumes ever, you have to raise the bar to be more than just a blimp on the fashion radar.

So, first up, the key is to be visible. And there is no better way to stand out in a sea of couture gowns than by wearing Indian clothes. There was no missing Vidya Balan in her Sabyasachi wardrobe. She started off in a stark maroon lengha-choli, went on to dazzle in a white, beige and gold sari, and then at the opening, wore a cream lengha-choli, with her head covered with a gauzy dupatta (no, I didn’t get that either; sorry Sabya!).

Sonam Kapoor is so gorgeous that she can carry off both a Dolce and Gabbana couture gown (as she did on her second red-carpet appearance) and the Anamika Khanna white and gold sari she wore for The Great Gatsby premiere, paired with a long metallic coat which subtly referenced the jazz age re-created by the movie. The sari was accessorized with a large, diamante-studded nose-ring; again an attempt to push the fashion envelope. I am not entirely sure that it worked; in my view it would have been a far more subversive choice to pair the nose-ring – what we call a ‘nath’ in these parts – with the couture gown.

But the ‘nath’ was clearly a popular choice (the ‘maang-tikka’ is obviously far too ‘safe’ these days) with the Indian designer duo of Anamika and Sabyasachi. It was back the next day, this time in chunky gold and perched delicately on Vidya Balan’s chiselled nose, as she walked the red carpet in an uncharacteristically low-key number from Sabyasachi, so subtle that it came within a hand-weave of being downright matronly. It is entirely a tribute to Vidya’s expressive face that she managed to pull off the look without straying into headmistress-at-a-school-function territory.

So, did it all work? Well, if you ask me, on the whole it did. Our ladies managed to cut a dash and score with the paparazzi who were grateful to see something other than a floor-length gown with a train. You may quibble about the accessorizing – as many of us did – but there was no denying that our actresses looked absolutely radiant no matter what they wore. And it is a testimony to our self-confidence as a nation that they now have the chutzpah to wear Indian clothes in a Western setting, secure in the knowledge that they can hold their own in a sari.

It may, however, be useful to remember that when it comes to Indian clothes, there is a thin line that separates couture from costume, and costume from caricature. And sometimes that thin line is a nose-ring.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reading between the lines

What people say on television and what they actually mean can be two very different things

The thing about news television in India is that what you see is rarely what you get. You have two channels claiming to have the same guest on ‘live’ at the same time even though that is a physical impossibility – unless the guy has cloned himself; in which case he should be ‘Breaking News’ and not part of a discussion programme (not that ‘Breaking News’ is ever either ‘breaking’ or even ‘news’). Questions asked at press conferences are passed off as one-on-ones. An ‘exclusive’ interview is one which every channel has managed to score. And so on.

My favourite bits, however, are those ‘debate’ programmes in which people rarely say what they mean or mean what they say. And that goes for both the anchors asking the questions and the guests who are answering them. And half the fun of TV-watching lies in reading between the lines; in deciphering the difference between what people say and what they, in fact, mean.

Let’s start with the anchors, because, well, we all know they are the real stars of the show, no matter how rich/powerful/famous the person they are questioning. So, let’s see how we can best de-code their catchphrases.

When they say: “People are asking why you haven’t resigned as yet?”

What they mean is: “I can’t risk offending you by asking you to resign on camera; it’s safer to quote some unnamed ‘people’ as having asked you to do so.”

When they say: “There is widespread outrage about (fill in details of the controversy du jour)”

What they mean is: “I read a few tweets about it on my Twitter timeline this afternoon and thought it had the makings of a story.”

When they say: “I’m sorry but you are not really answering my question.”

What they mean is: “I’m really annoyed because you are not giving me the answer I am looking for.”

When they say: “Okay, so let me summarise what you are saying…”

What they mean is: “Let me roughly paraphrase what you said so that I can subtly alter its meaning to fit in with my narrative this evening.”

When they say: “Now, please give me an honest answer.”

What they mean is: “You lying bastard, I know that you are lying to me. And that you will continue to lie, and lie, and lie, because that is all you are capable of.”

When they say: “Mr X has refused to appear on our channel because we don’t do soft interviews.”

What they mean is: “Our rival channel has managed to snap him up – but no harm in a little heckling to try and shame him into granting us an interview as well.”

When they say: “With the greatest respect, sir…”

What they mean is: “With the greatest disrespect, you scoundrel…”

When they say: “The nation wants to know…”

What they mean is: “I don’t have a clue what the nation wants; but I’m guessing it would want the same things I do.”

So much for the news anchors. But what about the politicians who come on every evening to be interrogated – or harangued, hectored, pilloried, bullied, abused; pick whichever word works for you – in line with what the anchor perceives as the public mood that day.

Are they any better? Not on your life. Let’s see if we can de-code some of their pet phrases.

When they say: “There cannot be trial by media. You cannot run a kangaroo court in TV studios in which you are accuser, judge, jury and executioner.”

What they mean is: “I have no answers to your questions. So I am going to act all outraged and pretend that you have no business asking them. Maybe somebody out there will buy it.”

When they say: “I’m sorry but your bias is showing. It is very clear which side you are on.”

What they mean is: “I am on very dodgy ground here. But on the grounds that offence is the best defense, I am going to attack you personally. Maybe that will scare you into backing off.”

When they say: “Please allow me two minutes to make my point – without interrupting.”

What they mean is: “Let me waffle on and eat up air time without ever answering your question. By the time my two minutes are up, you will move on to your next guest and I will be off the hook.”

When they say: “I’m sorry but I have to leave to appear on another channel.”

What they mean is: “This interview isn’t really going well for me. I may have better luck on another news show.”

When they say: “We all know that you will do anything for TRPs…”

What they mean is: “The only reason I am on this show, even though I make a fool of myself on it every evening, is because of your TRPs. But what’s the harm in a little point-scoring.”

And so it goes, on and on and on…

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Picture perfect

When it comes to projecting a public 'image', women tend to be more successful than men

When you hear the words ‘iconic image’ what is the first picture that flashes before your mind’s eye. Is it the streak of white in a shock of curly black hair that Indira Gandhi made famous? Is the pussycat bow and structured handbag that was such an integral part of Margaret Thatcher’s persona? Is it the little black dress accessorized with layers of pearls that Coco Chanel turned into a style statement that survives to this day?

It is not a coincidence that all of the examples cited are of women. You could say that this is because we pay more attention to how women dress and present themselves whereas the style choices of men are not subject to the same scrutiny. And you could well be right.

But, if you ask me, I think this goes much further. Women who are in public life are much more aware of the image they present to the world (perhaps because they know they are being judged by it) than their male counterparts. They are more inclined and better equipped to make a statement with the way they look. And they are fully conscious of the power that such iconography carries.

Indira Gandhi’s imperious wave of white hair; those impeccably-draped saris; the rudraksh mala: it was the perfect image for a strong leader of a country that was universally perceived as being weak in that era. But such was the force of her personality when she looked down her aristocratic nose that even such world leaders as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were left feeling like errant schoolboys.

On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher – perceived as a bit of a martinet by most people – had to soften her look to appear more sympathetic. So in came the pussycat bow while the helmet-like hair was changed to a subtle, layered style. Her string of pearls served both as a nod to her femininity and a subtle counterpoint to the power suits she wore like a uniform. And then there was the famous handbag, which seemed surgically attached to her hand, and even spawned a new term: ‘handbagging’ for the way Thatcher swept aside all opposition.

Yes, women know the power of appearances when they are striving to make a political point. Think of Benazir Bhutto, the trouser-wearing, trendy daughter of Z.A. Bhutto, in her younger, more Westernised avatar. When it came to reclaiming her political legacy, though, she took care to drape herself in the colours of the Pakistani flag. Her green salwar-kameez paired with a white dupatta draped over her head conveyed a message about her dedication to the twin values of patriotism and peace; a message that was all
the more powerful for being non-verbal.

It’s not an accident that some women evoke a certain image in our minds. Think Queen Elizabeth II and an image of a slightly matronly figure in twin-sets in block colours, accessorized with matching hats and gloves, will pop into your mind. Think Coco Chanel, and you will immediately picture a little black dress topped off with endless layers of pearls. Think Michelle Obama, and a pair of uber-toned biceps will pop up in your mind’s eye (no wonder her husband joked about her right to ‘bare arms’).

Closer home, too, it is the ladies who have a stronger public image than the men. Sonia Gandhi in her perfectly-draped handlooms; Sushma Swaraj with her trademark mangalsutra and sindoor; Mayawati in her pink salwar-kameezes; Mamata Banerjee in her ‘woman of the peepuls’ crumpled cotton saris; and Meira Kumar whose sartorial style is as unruffled as her demeanour.

Among the men, though, it is only Narendra Modi with his trademark half-sleeve kurtas, who comes close to having an ‘iconic’ image. And thereby hangs a tale…

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Skin deep

You may be judged by its colour; but it is also your window into the world of emotions

Skin. Was there ever a word with more resonance? I don’t think so. Think of the many ways we use it in our everyday vocabulary. I made it by the skin of my teeth. It’s getting under my skin. Beauty is only skin-deep (or not, if you are in a particularly profound mood). She’s only interested in saving her own skin. It’s no skin off my nose. He really does have a thick skin. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It is all about being comfortable in your own skin.

I could go on but then I would run out of space and where would we all be…

There is a good reason why ‘skin’ resonates so deeply with us. It is the most visible thing about us. And every day of our lives we are judged by it. The brown man with the backpack who is pulled out of a security queue at an airport and questioned. The black man who is perceived as being so scary that people actually cross the road to avoid him as they walk home at night. The white woman who is leered at on the streets of an Indian city. Actually, scratch that. Any woman, no matter what her colour, is guaranteed to be leered at – or worse – on our streets.

But prejudice doesn’t stop at that. The colour of your skin is also seen as an indicator of your social and economic status. In India (and elsewhere in the east) a fair complexion is seen as a badge of pride, a sign that you are rich enough not to have to brave the sun; dark skin, on the other, marks you out as lowly worker who has to scorch his skin to earn a living. It is not a coincidence that the Hindu caste system is classified on the basis of ‘varna’, which loosely translates as colour.

In the West, on the other hand, a pale, sun-starved complexion marks you out as poor and underprivileged. It means that you don’t have the money to lie around at the pool-side or spend time on the ski slopes to work on your tan. The rich, on the other hand, take pride in their year-round nutty-brown complexions, which prove that they can holiday in the sun no matter what the season.

No wonder then that skin-lightening or ‘fairness’ creams are a multimillion business in the East while the tanning industry (which takes in everything from tanning sprays to tanning salons) makes a killing in the West.

Given all this, is it any surprise that skin is something we obsess about the most? We slather on SPF 50 creams to remain fair and lovely. We spray on tanning lotions to appear brown and healthy (and wealthy). We wax our skin to look smooth and hairless. We plump it up with creams, lotions and potions to make it soft and desirable. We attack it with anti-ageing gels, serums and treatments so that it retains that youthful gleam just a little bit longer.  

But skin is a lot more than the cover we are judged by. It is also our window to the world of emotion. We crave the touch of a loving hand, the warm hug of a parent, the passionate kiss of a lover, the comforting embrace of a spouse as we lie in bed.

We use our skin to feel, to touch, to taste, to smell. The softness of a baby’s freshly-washed, powdered body. The feel of an elegant silk shirt as it caresses your body. The sweetness of the first lychees of the season that leave your tastebuds craving for more. The smell of petrichor as the first rains hit the parched earth.

Skin. It really is the key to life.