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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Life, camera, boredom

If you photograph every moment as being ‘special’ then soon there will be no ‘special moments’ at all

Have smartphone; will take pictures. That seems to be the motto everyone lives by these days. So, no moment of our day goes undocumented, no meal is eaten before first being captured on camera, and everyone from pets, children, spouses, friends, lovers, passers-by, get photographed several times in the course of a day. If we are on holiday, things tend to get completely out of hand, as we chronicle every moment as it happens, just to be sure we are not missing out on documenting something really important. And that’s not counting the selfies, the self-portraits we take obsessively, day in and day out.

And it’s not as if these pictures just live on our smartphone memory cards. The process isn’t complete until every image (except the unflattering ones that are deleted instantly) is posted on some social media platform or the other for your friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’, or respond to with a gushy comment or two.

I really have no problem with this. If taking pictures incessantly and sharing them with the world is what rocks your boat, then go right ahead (though I hope you won’t mind if I avert my gaze discreetly). But I do wonder if in this mad race to let no moment go unrecorded, we are losing out on something that all of us deserve: those special moments that are captured on camera and trigger off happy memories every time we see them.

My generation has plenty of those. There are the grainy baby pictures taken by the proud dad in the first flush of parenthood, which still evoke a smile even though the composition often leaves a lot to be desired and the picture quality has deteriorated over time. There are those photos that freeze-frame our awkward phase, as we pose for the school photographer at a Teacher’s Day or Children’s Day function or even at the annual prize-giving ceremony, and which our children giggle at snidely. There are the honeymoon pix, immortalizing the fashion of a decade that style forgot, which make us wonder: ‘Did I really wear that? What was I thinking?’

But for all their cheerful amateurism, their potential for embarrassment, their sheer cheeziness on occasion, these photos are like a window into a more innocent, happy time, when there were no filters to make everything glow, when realism held its own against fakery and photo-shop. These pictures still have to power to move us, whether it is to laughter or tears, joy or sorrow. They are little vignettes of our past, which unlock memories that we had thought lost forever.

Will that pleasure ever be available to Generation Cameraphone? After all, how special can any one memory be if every single one of them is immortalized in a photograph? If every moment is seen as special, and worthy of being frozen on camera, then is any moment truly special? If you chronicle every living moment does any one moment remain memorable?

The truth is that pictures tend to lose their power and poignancy when there are so many of them that your primary emotion is of being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And going by the way everyone tends to go bonkers the moment they get access to a cameraphone, we will all soon be completely swamped by pictures of our every living-breathing moment, lovingly altered by a flattering filter. But none of them will have the ability to truly move us, because while familiarity may not breed contempt it will certainly engender boredom on a colossal scale.

So, we may well be the last generation to have our memories encased in photo-albums that are pulled out at family reunions, and laughed and cried over in equal measure. The ones who come after us will have seen it all on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Whathaveyou, and been bored out of their skulls in the process. The last thing they will want is to look at another picture. And if they do look at it, their first instinct will be to mouth ‘like’ and move on, instead of reliving the moment it freeze-frames.

What they will have is gimmicks. A series of selfies shot every day for a period of ten years, put together in a time lapse, to show how a cute little boy/girl grew up into a moody/handsome/sexy grown up. Travel pictures manipulated to show rainbows even when none appeared; landscapes digitally altered to show hues that don’t exist in nature; and of course the wonders of photo-shop applied indiscriminately.

But all this trickery will not be enough to create the immediacy of the photographs of another time, those that were special for being taken only on special occasions, those that had meaning because they captured meaningful events, and those that live on forever because they encapsulate the best moments of our lives.

As for us, I fear that we will soon become a society that misses the wood for the trees. Or, in words that Generation Cameraphone can understand, a society that will miss the images for the hashtags.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Leading lights

Has Bollywood finally accepted that a heroine can power a movie just as well as a hero?

After all the brouhaha that surrounded the making of Mary Kom, the movie – most of it centering around why the filmmakers couldn’t have got an ethnic Manipuri rather than the very north Indian Priyanka Chopra to play the lead role – I must confess that I was rather curious to see how the film turned out in the end. So, for once, rather than wait for the DVD to come out, I actually ventured into a cinema hall to catch the movie, first day, first show.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, it was over-the-top in parts, the usual Bollywood clich├ęs were well in place, and some characters were played at the level of caricature. But what made the movie work was Priyanka Chopra. She didn’t just play Mary Kom; she was Mary Kom. And she achieved this not with prosthetics, make-up and mimicry, but by taking on the legendary boxer’s fighting spirit and making it her own.

Just a few scenes into the film, and you forget all about Chopra’s ethnicity. All you care about is her performance, remarkable in its range and nuance. She brings Mary Kom alive on the big screen: her rebellion against her father who didn’t want her to box; her slow-burning love for Onler, her devoted husband; her stormy relationship with the boxing federation; her fiery determination to make a comeback after the birth of her twins; and more.

Such was Priyanka’s dominance that you didn’t even notice the lack of a leading man in the movie (her on-screen husband is not just supportive but strictly supporting-actor material). And that’s what stayed with me after the film had ended (with an evocative playing of Jana Gana Mana, which had the entire hall standing in teary silence): the fact that this was a woman’s story, told from a woman’s point of view, without any pandering to masculine sensibilities.

Does this mean that Bollywood has finally grown up and realized that you don’t always need an over-muscled man in the lead for a movie to do well at the box-office? Is Hindi cinema finally willing to give its heroines what they have always longed for: a meaty role to sink their teeth into, and a film to carry on their own shoulders?

Well, it is early days yet, but the signs are rather encouraging. Last month saw the release of Rani Mukherji’s Mardaani, in which she plays an angry young cop, who runs down a trafficking ring with a combination of detective work, brute force and a liberal use of swear words. Yes, the kind of role that Amitabh Bachchan played in another lifetime; only this time it was a woman in the lead role. And though the movie was not a superhit, garnering only modest success at the box-office, Rani herself received good notices, proving that audiences are not entirely non-receptive to such women-centric films.

This is a change that has been a long time coming, but has become more and more evident over the last few years. Sridevi’s English Vinglish, released in 2012, was one of the first signs. A small-budget, quirky movie about a middle-aged housewife who discovers herself anew as she signs up to learn English in New York, when she arrives there to help organize her niece’s wedding, this became a surprise hit, on the basis of Sridevi’s sparkling performance (and a brilliant effort by writer-director Gauri Shinde).

The following year belonged to Kangana Ranaut’s Queen, in which she did a marvelous job of playing a West Delhi Punjabi kudi who is jilted at the mandap but decides to go off on the honeymoon of her dreams anyway, even if it is on her own. Yes, there was a hero of sorts, the man who jilts her, but this was Kangana’s show all the way. And she pulled it off with both nonchalance and elan, proving that a heroine can power a movie at the box-office just as well as a hero.

The pioneer of this trend, though, was undoubtedly Vidya Balan. She started off with Dirty Picture, playing a Silk Smitha-type character in one-size-too-tight clothes, and ooh-la-laaed her way to a superhit. She went on to make waves with Kahani, in which she played a woman who may or may not be pregnant but is indubitably in search of her missing husband. And though her latest outing as Bobby Jasoos, a wannabe detective who specializes in weird disguises, bombed at the box-office, Balan herself got rave reviews.

But while these breakout hits (peppered with the occasional flop) are all well and good, the proof of the pudding would be when big budget blockbusters like Happy New Year depend not on a hero like Shah Rukh Khan but on a heroine like Deepika Padukone to draw in the crowds. Or when a superhero is not called Krishh or Ra.One but Radha or even Sita.

Come to think of it, both Priyanka and Deepika would fill out a superhero (or should that be superheroine?) outfit admirably. Super Shakti: Rakshasa Slayer anyone?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sex, lies, and the threat of 'rape'

It can’t be ‘sex’ when you think he will marry you; and turn into ‘rape’ when he doesn’t

All of last week, we have been entranced by the TV appearances of a model/actress (face dutifully blacked out to preserve her anonymity) who claims that she was raped by BJP minister Sadanand Gowda’s son, Karthik. Her story is as follows. She met Karthik in May 2014 and the two of them became close. He began courting her, and soon tied a mangalsutra around her neck with his driver acting as witness. When she discovered she was pregnant and told Karthik, he told her not to blame him and stopped taking her calls. Then one day, she woke up to the news that Karthik had become engaged to another woman.

At this point in the narration, the model/actress breaks down and insists that all that she wants is to be accepted by Karthik as his wife, and by his parents as their daughter-in-law because she ‘cannot live without him’. But this touching display is rather ruined by the TV ticker running underneath it, which informs us that she has filed a case of rape against Karthik, and that the police have registered a case against him. As of this writing, Karthik has not been arrested, but by the time you read this, I would not be at all surprised if he was, indeed, behind bars, facing a charge of rape.

Rape? Seriously? By what definition is this rape? By her own account, the lady concedes that she was in a consensual sexual relationship and that she hoped to marry Karthik (or had married him in some sort of symbolic ceremony) and that even now she would like to be accepted into the Gowda family as a daughter-in-law. So how does a consensual sexual relationship miraculously turn into rape just because the man in question has dumped her for another woman?

It can’t be sex when you think the guy will marry you; and rape when it becomes clear that he won’t. If, like many women, you equate sex with marriage, then for God’s sake, keep it off the table until you are married (and in a legally-binding ceremony, not some faux exchange of garlands or rings, or by the tying of a mangalsutra). And if you can’t do that, then take some responsibility for your decision instead of playing the victim and crying rape.

Not just because this is something we expect of grown-up women with minds, hearts and brains of their own but also because this propensity to cry rape when no rape has occurred is a slap in the face of every woman who has ever had to face real sexual violence in her life. Every time a woman levels such a frivolous charge of rape, it makes it that much more difficult for actual rape victims to be taken seriously.

And what of the men who have been falsely accused and besmirched in the court of public opinion in the process? Remember the case of Hindi film director, Madhur Bhandarkar? A little-known actress lodged a complaint with the Versova Police in 2004, alleging that the director had ‘raped’ her 16 times between 1999 and 2004 on the pretext of giving her a role in one of his forthcoming movies. There is a word (or words) that could describe the behavior of an actress who sleeps with a film director in the hope of getting a role (hint: it does not begin with ‘r’). But if you are sleeping with someone in the hope of profiting from the act, then the fact that you don’t actually profit doesn’t turn you into a victim, let alone a rape victim.

If you choose sex as a transactional tool to get ahead in the world then you have to be prepared for both good and bad outcomes. And if you end up with a bad case of ‘seller’s remorse’ that doesn’t mean that all your previous consensual sexual encounters must be re-categorized as ‘rape’. It simply does not work like that.

But even though this may seem self-evident which looked at through the prism of common sense, it took Bhandarkar nine years to have the case closed. The trial continued in the High Court even after the Mumbai Police filed a report that the case against Bhandarkar was ‘maliciously false’. It took a bench of the Supreme Court to quash the proceedings, noting that the actress no longer wanted to pursue the case and that the Mumbai Police report had exonerated him.

No doubt, the case against Karthik Gowda will also drag on in a similar manner, unless some sort of out-of-court compromise is affected. But these are just two high profile cases. There must be thousands of others in which men have been falsely accused of rape and have no option but to struggle through our complex and slow legal system to prove their innocence.

Which is why I feel that this is as good a time as any to codify all those instances when a rape is not a rape. Breaking up with a long-time boyfriend? No, your sex life cannot be re-categorized as rape. Sleeping with someone with a view to profit in some way? If you don’t succeed, the sex doesn’t turn into rape. The man you slept with refuses to marry you? Still not rape.

Each time we cry ‘rape’ when a relationship goes wrong, we insult the real victims of sexual violence. And in recasting our sexual experiences as something they are not, we let down our own sex.