From Bad Boys to Bad Men

My memories of adolescence often visit me as a colorful bouquet of half-remembered scenes—of discovering new books, of discovering new music (back in those days, you were considered a connoisseur who possessed the most esoteric of tastes if your iPod was filled with the albums of Linkin’ Park, Nirvana, and Poets of the Fall), and watching reruns of the Harry Potter films and F.R.I.E.N.D.S in the neighbor’s cable-connected television.

Between my undying obsession of reading about the adventures of a certain green-eyed son of Poseidon and the enigmatic genius of a certain teen-aged criminal mastermind, my afternoons in the weekends were often spend begging the lords of the dial-up connection to bless me with speedy internet so that I could listen to the music that was liked by the girls higher up in the social hierarchy of my convent school. You see, it always seemed that these beautiful ladies lived in a separate realm altogether. And I, self-pitying, insecure and corpulent, was always chasing their greatness. When they spent their afternoons pining over Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson, I was still trying to hide my not-so-secret crush over Alan Rickman. When they listened to Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira in their iPods, while mooning over boys who listened to Scorpions, Queen and Pink Floyd, I was still struggling with my addiction to cheesy Bollywood songs. And now, I cannot help but laugh at the shared cluelessness of it all. Adolescence, although painful, has hoarded my favorite stories.

But why this sudden soliloquy? You see, this afternoon, I cannot help but remember this old pang of obsessing about the wrong man while growing up. The good girls of the class mooned over Darcy, as I pledged my dreary soul to a certain wife-hiding Edward Rochester. The good girls dreamed about Disney’s Aladdin, and I was still stuck crying buckets over the Beast turning into the prince. The forbidden fruit, the dangerous idea, had always captured my heart. And it seems that literature and entertainment media is not far from such captivating portrayals either.

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Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones

In the April of 2011, along with the rest of the world, there began my half-a-decade worth obsession over Game of Thrones. And let’s face it, the show, with its thousand and one faults, did change the viewership and perception of medieval fantasy shows in television. Suddenly, you were not supposed to cackle over overly fluffed-up gowns, like the ones in Black Adder. Suddenly, the queen was worse than the Wicked Witch, and let’s face it, we would all give a limb to stab Joffrey, our prince, multiple times. Game of Thrones was a game-changer, but it also set to establish a recurring plot motif that, though already preexistent, was not set upon stone just yet.

Let’s go way back to the first episode of Game of Thrones. A certain sequence where the young Daenerys is raped on her wedding night by her husband Drogo as she watches the sun set over the Narrow Sea. And yet, she makes the most of her situation, learns how to pleasure her husband and herself, and even bonds romantically with the barbaric Dothraki lord. And to this day, her relationship with Drogo is considered the most memorable, if not a continuing fan favorite, in the fan base. So, of course, you can comprehend the magnitude of the shock I felt when I finally got about reading A Game of Thrones in 2013, where I discovered that Drogo, in spite of being a violent Dothraki, did not actually rape his bride. Instead, he asked for her permission, which, although hesitant, Daenerys gave. Does that mean consensual sex sells less than the portrayals of rape? Is the easiest trope of establishing the brutality of a male character often relegated to sexual abuse? Is abuse, emotional or sexual, becoming the recurring plot narrative of establishing character depths of antiheros in modern television, films and books?

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Damon Salvatore and Elena Gilbert in The Vampire Diaries

Leaving the trail of bloody innards and swords, let’s come to mainstream entertainment. From 2009 to 2017, The Vampire Diaries had quite the swansong of a television run. Although the ratings dwindled over the seasons, it still succeeded in being a mainstream phenomenon. And it did introduce Ed Sheeran to a much bigger fan base. However, observations apart, let’s talk about Damon Salvatore, the unpredictable and dangerous elder brother of the brooding Stefan, and his never-ending obsession/love toward the protagonist, Elena Gilbert. Damon was the quintessential bad boy. The showrunners used the age-old narrative to always keep the viewing audience on their toes as to whether the older Salvatore brother would ever be in the receiving end of redemption, in spite of centuries of ruthlessness. As inevitability would have it, he did become the staple “good guy” (or as far as Damon Salvatore can hope to be) and also got the girl. But here’s the thing. Let’s go back to the character Julie Plec started with. Here was this bloodthirsty vampire hell bent on ruining every nuance of peace his younger brother had and leaving a bloody trail behind while doing so. Damon seduces Elena’s closest friend/rival, Caroline Forbes, and using what the TVD mythos called “compulsion”, went on to use her as a blood bag for sustenance, while also emotionally and sexually abusing her in more than one occasion. So here’s the question. Is the new-age Byronic hero subverting into a sexual predator? It seemed that the showrunners completely forgot about this subplot as they went on to turn Caroline Forbes into the undead, while simultaneously humanizing Damon at the same time. On that note, humanizing the antagonists is a favorite trope of TVD. From Elijah to Klaus to Rebekah, almost every antagonist has been on the receiving end of such treatment. However, with Damon the cord snapped from logic a little too further away for the liking. Even while pursuing a relationship with Elena in the later seasons, Damon was prone to violent fits, unpredictable blood rages and a persistent underlying turmoil in the dynamics of the relationship, to the extent that the female protagonist was equally influenced and on the receiving end of the chaos. The result of this haywire plot was that the characters that they initially started out with lost the sketches that made their backbones and instead the audience was presented with a premature and mediocre hash of an unfeasible and illogical ending. Damon’s character deconstruction thus made a fundamental cornerstone in the holistic distortion of the show itself. On that note, the Twilight series (books/films) deserves a special mention. Dealing with the same mythos of vampires, it took a more vanilla take on the bloodthirsty mythical beings and unfortunately established some rather toxic tropes that were used repeatedly throughout the plot. From the stalker-like tendencies of Edward Cullen to the nigh invisible growth chart of the female protagonist’s character, Twilight was a rollercoaster ride into all things misplaced in both literary and film media. Dealing once again with the idea of being attracted toward the predator, or the “bad boy”, Twilight overused this motif to the point of making it a misunderstood representation of the modern girl’s idea of the perfect man. And with the millions of copies that the series sold, alongside the whopping 3.3 billion dollars worth of money it churned at the box-office, the Twilight phenomenon raged during its time. From posters of Edward Cullen to tee shirts that read Team Jacob and Team Edward, and yes, to even a spoof film, Twilight’s influence was beyond imagination. After all, mockery is the highest form of flattery at times, isn’t it?

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Mr. Big and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City

But then again, promoting abusive relationships as a form of plot narrative is a tale as old as time. In the 90s, the modern woman was hooked to a certain HBO TV series, Sex and the City. And the men would often see the show, in secret of course, to moon over the ladies and to comprehend the female mind. Sex and the City was a pioneer of its kind. Here was an unabashed sex comedy that supposedly offered a keen view into the female brain, about their ideas about relationships, life and yes, sex. Candace Bushnell became an instant bestseller and the show cemented Sarah Jessica Parker’s career graph as the newest starlet of Tinseltown. Here was this bold and beautiful sex columnist who spoke her mind, struggled to pay rent and partied in New York City like it was the last night of her life. Here was this 30-something lady who cared little about time drying up her eggs and lived carelessly, in the midst of books and shoes, and in the warm company of her three best friends. And yet, like every other show with their misinformed ideologies of the so-called real people they often present their characters to be, Sex and the City drooped into being the same predictable romantic comedy at heart, while using a toxic relationship as its front-runner. Mr. Big, Carrie’s lifelong love, was a man who was afraid of commitments, to the point that their relationship was more often down the hills than soaring along the mountains. His constant fear of commitment, his laconic attitude, his pestering indecision, and most importantly, his inability to either walk away or give Carrie the validation of a partner that she needed were constantly misconstrued as characteristics that showed him to be the ever-untouchable idea of the bad boy. And his presence gradually wrecked the character growth of Carrie to the point that she became just another lovesick clueless woman who confused her roles, be it as Mr. Big’s girlfriend or his mistress. The emotional abuse wrought upon her altered the very strengths that Carrie’s character sketch initially banked upon: her brashness, her live-in-the-moment attitude. It even influenced her actions and disastrous impulses that led to the ruination of her other relationships, be it romantic or platonic. And thus began the six-season worth of the same old will-they-won’t-they plot motif. The disparity of her growth led to the unhealthy obsession that has been associated with Carrie’s character as well, and it is because of this, and several such factors, that has now relegated Carrie Bradshaw to be heralded as the quintessential example of a 90s train-wreck.

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Characters of Gossip Girl; from left to right: Dan Humphrey, Chuck Bass, Blair Waldorf, Serena van der Woodsen and Nate Archibald

And talking about shoes and pretty dresses, how can we ever forget the 2007 to 2012 phenomenon, Gossip Girl? Gossip Girl was a step above Sex and the City, purely because of the reason that the show was self-aware of its thousand hypocrisies. Every character was more or less the caricatures of the ongoing lives of what we concoct the rich elite to have. In a way, while watching Gossip Girl, every one of us started off as the respective Dan Humphreys, writer or not, on the other end of luxury. We all had that one untouchable complicated and damaged dream girl, we all swooned over Blair’s luxuries in the showrooms of Gucci and Chanel, and we all envied Chuck and his endless series of debaucheries in his black limousine. Hell, we almost pitied Nate Archibald for being the clueless rich boy, lost in his haze of choosing morality or loyalty. In a way, we were all the watchers on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Gossip Girl never needed to take that glistened starlight away from its characters. And although it took precarious actions to humanize each of its characters, it never bothered to make them such so that its audience would find any form of relatability to them either; which was why the toxic undertones of the show were much more stilted than its contemporaries. You see, Gossip Girl was more insidious in its portrayals. In spite of its immense fan support, Chuck and Blair’s relationship was a rollercoaster of mistakes. Two extremely headstrong, proud, volatile and rigid characters, Chuck and Blair challenged each other in what can only be explained as something of a toxic competition. The whole chemistry of the two characters was based on the notion “can’t-live-with-each-other, can’t-live-without-each-other”. Over the course of the series, both characters become more and more embroiled in the sole purpose of sabotaging each others’ relationships with partners who weren’t themselves to the point that their character growths dwindled to their lowest. Blair from Season 1 still remained so in Season 6, at least on the surface, and her loyalties, though added to her magnanimity, it never truly humanized her to the extent where the audience could empathize with her character.  On the other hand, the stereotypical bad boy persona that Chuck exuded only led to the predictable deconstruction of portraying him as the damaged rich boy with daddy issues in the later seasons, further deteriorating any opportunity of growth. And the fragility of their respective egos only mirrors the amount of emotional abuse either of them inflicted upon each other, be it through Chuck’s endless philandering or Blair’s unending vindictiveness. Promoting these two characters as their primary couple was thus a horrible decision from the showrunners, especially when the show itself had started with devolving each of its characters. Another example of insidious emotional abuse was Serena and Dan’s relationship. Although it could easily be predicted by any Gossip Girl loyalist that Serena and Dan would end up with each other, the whole show ran on the possibility and impossibility as to how these lovers would finally be together. And although the simplicity of their connection, the fact that each character completed what the other lacked, was the crux of their relationship, the showrunners made the fool’s choice to reveal Dan, the one observer of the lives of the elites, the only character the audience remotely related to, as the gossip girl. And that put the purity of his feelings toward Serena in question, as for time and again, the gossip girl has gone on to sabotage her privacy. The fact that the showrunners made Dan as the manipulator, and the insider, of the group, was possibly a poor imitation of what could have been the construction of a grey character. Unfortunately, nuances of such plot motifs can only be acknowledged as well-written when there has been a prior development in that trajectory in the past. Moreover, the recurring, if not gradual, growth of Serena and Dan’s personalities over the seasons only went on to show how incompatible they were for each other. From youthful teenagers to cynical adults with their own set of demons, Serena and Dan thrived better as individuals who led separate, if not disparate, lives. Thus, putting them in the same box they started from in Season 1 after going the distance was probably the worst written subplot in Gossip Girl.

Portrayals of abusive relationships, falling in love with the bad boy, the dangerous one, have always been a much celebrated plot motif in both literature and entertainment media. We have all spent afternoons shamelessly pining with Catherine over a certain Heathcliff in the moors of Thrushcross Grange. We have all adored Darcy’s incapability of expression toward the opinionated Elizabeth as the nights dwindled toward dawn in between the pages of our wear-worn novels. But over the years, practicality has always won over. We could see the fallacies in such misplaced affections. In a way, this plot motif and our perceptions toward it has been a trajectory of our individual growth as well. However, many have taken the fall in such misplaced portrayals as well. I have witnessed men and women falling prey to the undying hope of attaining redemption in their failed love stories, questioning my lack of faith with such examples too. You see, falling in love with the wrong one is not necessarily an unforgivable affront toward humanity, not really. I myself have lived that same story over and over in my past. Yet, there was also courage to be found, the moment when each one of us understood that the story has finally ended and it was time to close the book, only to be opened to sift through its pages in those dreary nights of lonesomeness in years far, far away. So here’s to all the bad choices, the unfinished stories, and the broken beautiful ones; and here’s to hope, to courage, and to choosing oneself over every love story ever written.

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Mr. Bond and His Ladies: Tales of Seduction and Espionage

It is nigh impossible to save the world from megalomaniac villains and romance seductive sirens on the same beat, but let’s face it, Mr. Bond succeeds in accomplishing the impossible with panache. During my childhood, I remember my father being extremely confused as to whether I should or should not see a Bond film. You see, Star Movies used to be an “adult” channel back then. But he also wanted me to know about the heroes from his youth, likes of which included Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and later, Sir Sean Connery. Yet, at the same time, he was worried that the sexual scenes would demolish the last remaining shreds of innocence in my childhood. So, like every other child who does exactly what he/she is told not to do, I endeavored to watch every single Bond film by the age of thirteen. Pierce Brosnan was the reigning box-office money-churner back in those days, the beach shots of a near-naked Brosnan and Halle Berry in an orange bikini advertised in almost every single trailer for Die Another Day (2002)Suffice to say, I had developed quite the infatuation for the casanova spy, only my affection leaned more toward Connery than Brosnan.

 

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The British spy over the ages; from Left to Right: Sir Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Sir Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig. Absent: David Niven (Casino Royale, 1967).

It was after almost a decade, in the beginning of 2016, that I once again went back to watching all the Bond films, all thanks to a certain Austrian by the name of Christoph Waltz, who portrayed Blofeld in the latest Bond venture, Spectre (2015). And it goes without saying that disappointment was the word of the day. Gone were the days of idolizing seductive femme fatales who set the screen on fire with their backless dresses and beach frolicking in bikinis; or for that matter, staring at the screen, dazed by the superhuman ability of the spy surviving almost anything, be it a bullet to the heart or radioactive rays. The woman I turned out to be in my adulthood could not help but be appalled at the disuse of every single one of Bond’s love interests in the 60s, 70s and mid-80s as nothing but an object. Their plotlines were sadly more predictable than the daily soaps, and after their initial dilemma about helping the spy, they effortlessly slipped into the roles of the damsels in distress, until of course everything ended with one big fat happily-ever-after of snogging and making love in exotic locations, until the next installment, of course.

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From Left to Right: Holly Goodhead (Mookraker), Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), Mary Goodnight (The Man With the Golden Gun), Pussy Galore (Goldfinger), Dominique “Domino” Derval (Thunderball).

Be it the breathtaking Ursula Andress as Honey Driver (Dr. No, 1962), Barbara Bach as the dangerous KGB agent Anya Amasova (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore (Goldfinger, 1964) to Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (Moonraker, 1979), all these women have become half-remembered faces lost in the cold heart of time. With blithe honesty, I confess, I had to spend hours myself, gathering information to find the names of these ladies. Because, let’s face the bitter truth here, we all know Mr. Bond will save his ladylove at the end of the day and kill the vicious villain, not to mention deliver that punchline that makes the whole film a visual display of a double entendre. And they, may I remind you, were the leading ladies of the films. Even, Maud Adams as Octopussy (Octopussy, 1983), who became a sensation in a single night, was in the end turned into nothing more than a damsel who needed a gentleman to rescue her, when in the beginning she started off as a mysterious, but deadly, businesswoman-cum-leader of a tribe of battle-hardy women. And whatever happened to the supporting cast, namely, the ever-present Miss Moneypenny, who seemed to spend all her time daydreaming about Mr. Bond, helping him skip the routine health checkup exams for the organizations, and being a generally unprofessional employee of MI6?

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Jill Masterson’s (Shirley Eaton) iconic gold-paint suffocation death scene from Goldfinger (1964)The scene was given homage to in Quantum of Solace (2008), where MI6 agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arteton) was murdered in a similar fashion, only this time by the use of crude oil instead. 

An image here: If one has been a follower of the Bond films, the image of a certain gorgeous woman smothered in gold paint and suffocated to death is still etched in the back of one’s mind. And yet, her name has long since escaped our minds, even if she used to be the partner of Mr. Bond himself in Goldfinger. But, let me not rant about the discrepancies; instead, the observations made from this phenomenon has baffled me much more. Back in those days, when femme fatales who either wanted to kiss or kill Mr. Bond, the British spy had been nothing short of a superman without a cape. He had defeated giants such as Christopher Lee (the eponymous man with the golden gun), and escaped radioactive explosions with a still-unbesmirched tuxedo.

But then, times changed, as time always does. When the screens bid adieu to the golden era of Bonds, including Connery and Moore, and the forgettable stint of Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, Brosnan became the face of the lethal spy. And with that, a new era of femme fatales came in. This time, however, the story was a little different.

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From Left to Right: Xenia Onatopp (GoldenEye), Miranda Frost (Die Another Day), Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough), Paris Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies). 

You see, Brosnan’s Bond was not impervious, even if he had his fair share of super-heroic victories and nick-of-time escapes. Sure, he did succeed in peppering his ladies with kisses after saving the world, but he never did end up as unscathed as his predecessors. Brosnan’s Bond showed his humanity; he was vulnerable with his trust, going so much as to trust the wrong people in more than one situation. And for that, he had paid the bitter price of loss. The thing is, Brosnan’s Bond was not left unbroken, and perhaps that set the stage for Sam Mendes to explore his indecision, his personality’s depth, and his relationship with the first female M in the series (the irreplaceable Dame Judi Dench) in the later installments. In GoldenEye (1995), Brosnan’s first endeavor to be the British spy, he is shocked to see the betrayal of his presumably dead former partner, Alec Trevelyan or 006 (played by a stoic Sean Bean), and even after he wins the day and waltzes away with Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova, he does mourn the loss of his former friend in his silences. Another interesting development in this movie was the introduction of a dangerous and ruthless lust murderer as the female antagonist Xenia Onatopp, played stupendously by Famke Janssen. In what might be considered a curve ball in the history of Bond film directions, Brosnan’s expressions are not held back like his predecessors. In spite of all his punchlines, he openly shows expressions of pain (and later a subtle brand of existential crisis in Die Another Day) when he is tortured by Janssen’s Xenia. And you are suddenly thwarted by the realization that this British spy is only human. Taking a page out of this motif, the following films with Brosnan delved deeper into the depths of his character sketch. An iconic example of that is Sophie Marceau’s brilliantly portrayed Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough (1999). In this film, Bond goes on to almost admit to M that he had developed feelings for King, in spite of her revealing herself to be the manipulative mastermind in the end, having played both the hero and the villain. Perhaps this same motif was a tad bit stretched in Brosnan’s last, Die Another Day, through Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost, but the split second loss-stricken expression of Bond as he looks at Frost’s corpse is enough to establish the gradual yet much needed evolution of the spy’s almost two-dimensional character sketch.

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From Left to Right: Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale), Camille Montes (Quantum of Solace), Eve Moneypenny (Skyfall), Sévérine (Skyfall), Dr. Madeleine Swann (Spectre).

And this prelude itself set the ball rolling for our most recent Bond. In what can only be considered as a distinct aberration to the previous Bond films, one that created quite the controversy, Martin Campbell went on to cast and work with Daniel Craig as the British spy. Not stereo-typically handsome, yet uncannily fascinating, Craig’s Bond was a far cry from his predecessors. In spite of the burgeoning legacy on his shoulders, Craig broke form to portray a never-befoe-seen Bond. He was vulnerable, passionate, and even broken by his actions. In spite of his superficial cockiness, he didn’t shy away from dreaming a life with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, going so far as to severe his connections with M and the MI6 in Casino Royale (2007). And going hand in hand with this sudden sprout of character growth, there were even added multitudinous layers to his counterpart antagonists. From Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) to Christensen’s Mr. White (Quantum of Solace, 2008), and later, Bardem’s iconic Raoul Silva in Skyfall (2012), the interlinked plots were added with newer and more profound dimensions, each leading to the steady development of Bond’s character. With the rising complications in each of the Bond ladies to the constant juxtaposition of Bond’s human vulnerabilities over his familiar brash overconfidence, newer textures were given to the franchise. The two most memorable proofs of such observations are Bond’s plotline in Quantum of Solace as he leaves no stones unturned in his brutal quest for vengeance over Lynd’s death, and his choice of a reclusive life when he survives, albeit narrowly, from a fatal gunshot in Skyfall. This reinvention of Bond, a departure from the usual overuse of unrealistic plot tropes in preceding Bond films, was a refreshing take from the overtly familiar entertainment quotient of the franchise—something which inevitably led to the fervent establishment of Bond’s relationship with M.

 

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A dying M (Dame Judi Dench) in Bond’s (Daniel Craig) arms in Skyfall (2012).

What can only be described as the most emotional, if not the most heartbreaking, sequence of the Bond franchise, as M lies dying in Bond’s arms in Skyfall, makes the very essence of Bond’ restructuring of character. Although M can never be considered as a “Bond Girl” so to speak, she has been the driving force behind Bond’s professional and personal ethics since GoldenEye. She was a mentor, a friend, a superior, and most importantly, as much as it makes me cringe to write this sentence, was one of the few women who earned the unequivocal respect of Bond. Time and again, Craig’s Bond has fallen off the wagon, but Dench’s M had been the force on the other end of the string to bring him back into symmetry. And although such a heartfelt relationship dynamism was not researched at all in the previous films, since Dench’s introduction as M in 1995, this subplot has been subtly and steadily developed over the series of films. Perhaps that itself is the greatest proof of Bond’s reinvention, ergo evolution, of character through the presence of all the Bond girls.

And the most fascinating truth is James Bond is a timeliness character whose very existence in the 26-film franchise is a singular graph of evolution through the woes of time. The process itself is a gradual rise-and-ebb tidal undertaking, spanning over decades at hand, mirroring the consumer-driven aesthetics of entertainment in each era. And being a peddler of art, and a follower of the British spy’s many adventures, it has also been my unique journey of viewing his astute metamorphosis from the hay days of my childhood to my adulthood.

Odyssey of Ten Thousand Lifetimes: A Review of Reincarnation Blues

I have always envied the people in bookstores, the ones who can pick a book at an impulse and not think twice about their purchase. They are the risk-takers, the ones with the courage to free fall into stories without a second thought as to whether they are any good. Ever since my childhood, I have suffered from the dread of dying someday, my one regret being that I shall run out of time to ever read the wonderful books that are being written, or the ones published already, because I had spent too much time in a bad book, stubborn as I am prone to be to finish something that I have started.

Perhaps that is why Reincarnation Blues was a change of scenario for me. I had been listlessly strolling across the humongous Round Rock Library in Texas on one cold wintry morning, when I had been spellbound by just the cover of a book, with all its patterns of blues, and reds, and yellows. And for what had felt like the passage of a dreary lifetime, I had stood there, just gazing at that beautiful hardcover and trying to muster up the courage to take a chance. And so I picked up the book, and came home, settling under the covers while winter raged outside my window, snow and winds twirling in tandem.

Reincarnation Blues spins the tale of the oldest soul in existence, a man named Milo, who has lived almost ten thousand lifetimes, and still not achieved what is referred to as Perfection—emancipation, if you must. And he only has a handful of chances left, a handful of lifetimes so to speak, before he is obliterated from existence permanently, if he cannot achieve Perfection. To further add to his list of problems, he is in love with a personification of Death, a woman who goes by the name of Suzie. And so the story begins with a motley of his lives lived, and the ones he lives from then onward. Michael Poore, the author, takes you on a journey thrown across lifetimes, across the construct of Time itself, across universes, and planets, and pasts, and the present, and the plethora of futures to show you a single man’s journey to find himself.

Reincarnation Blues is an ambitious novel. It may have been borne from the vast infinities of imaginations in a single man, but it reads like the admixture of a thousand voices speaking to the reader at once, thwarting them with information, and still being gentle in the process. Michael Poore, with what can only be described as something akin to a miraculous ingenuity, has successfully achieved the quality to make and break a character sketch of a protagonist. With every sifting lifetime of Milo, he has strove to create a new character, even if the backlog of the initial character existed in the core. And in doing so, he has minutely weaved the memories, and the touch of the previous incarnations in the newest life of Milo. Each chapter thus reads like a new short story, only with the added bounty of being an extension of something lived prior.

And so the author spins tales and anecdotes, sewing in information and realization on the same beat, and still maintains a symmetry in the act itself. He weaves in thousands of years worth of philosophies, and sometimes breaks said ideals to portray a level of evolution in Milo himself. From lucidly describing nihilism in more ways than one, through each of Milo’s lifetimes, to actually thwarting the idea itself through a sense of nirvana, Poore has actually taken you into the flesh-and-bone journey of showing the development and thus, the evolution of Milo. For this form of writing, some of the chapters that still rivet in my mind include “The Hasty Pudding Affair”, “Lifting Elephants, Juggling Water”, and “Buddha in Winter”.

Another little detail that I admired in Poore’s storytelling was the development of Milo’s ladylove, Death herself, in Suzie. Unlike what is often observed in singular-narrative storytelling, Poore takes it upon himself to not refrain from showing the character sketch and thus development of Suzie herself. That a personification of a phenomenon or an idea itself can be made to go through the nerve-wracking process of character development has already been done by the likes of Neil Gaiman in the Sandman graphic novels and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief. Taking a page out of their literary oeuvre, Poore crumbles the iron curtains of surrealism and magic realism to actually approach Death as a character and not as an idea. He puts flesh and bones on her, makes her almost human, without the use of sentimentality and inessential vulnerability, and still makes her appear as stranger, just outside the edges of reality. Hence, Suzie’s observations of mortality, although not holding the same magnanimity of Zusak’s Death, is characterized more through a bystander phenomenon, rather than the all-powerful omnipotence of an universal overlord. And although the proclivity of inconsistency in the narrative, thanks to the motley of realizations that go hand-in-hand with the actual actions of the novel, may be a letdown for certain readers, it does not actively harm the passage of the story in general. Moreover, it paces the way of the stream of consciousness throughout the narrative frame.

In the end, as I sit writing this review, bombarded as I am with the voices of the other customers speaking at Starbucks, I realize the essence of Reincarnation Blues, of how a chaotic mind is the beginning of a singularity. And I remember one of the many memorable quotes of the novel, “It’s dangerous, applying hindsight to something as complex as why someone wrote a poem, because the temptation is to try and make it make sense. We can apply reason, but what we can’t do is apply the storms and variations that govern a human mind moment to moment.”

And I cannot help but think that maybe the storm is the passage of a lifetime, that silence means the end of something, until beginnings take you somewhere again, in some new story, in some new universe where you shall be born free.

Oh, Aronofsky! The Art of Perfection

As an adolescent, I had nurtured myself with the idea of being an over-achiever. And whenever my dissatisfaction wedged gaps between my desires and my dreams, my father had always calmed with honey-sweetened words, such as, “Perfection is an unreachable concept. It is a state of imprisonment that you are constantly searching.”

At the age of fourteen, such words didn’t hold much worth to me, laden with insecurities as I used to be, and I do not proclaim that I understand the magnanimity of them a decade later. All I do understand is the innate need of the human species to achieve something more than their present state, call it perfection, call it a mere rise from the summation of mundane moments. Whatever be the case, we are constantly in an act of motion, in an act akin to thriving. Perhaps that was what attracted me the most about Aronofsky when I had watched Black Swan for the first time.

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The one sequence and quote that propounds the psyche of Black Swan

Aronofsky’s capability to create a monument of over an existing art form has always attracted the audience. In Black Swan, he enlivened Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, only to modulate it with realism and a touch of obsessive surrealism. Lacing what might superficially appear as nuances of the psychological thriller genre, he constructed Nina (Natalie Portman) as a character suffering from schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. In my very first watch of Black Swan, I was too lost in the artistic visuals, frames and the lithe grace of Portman to actually comprehend the audacity of Aronofsky’s ambitions. Afterward, I was flabbergasted by the conceptualization of Nina’s character sketch, of course. Aronofsky creates a schizophrenic protagonist to deconstruct Nina into two separate mirror halves, just as Tchaikovsky’s Odette (White Swan) and Odile (Black Swan) were. But instead of two separate entities, he merges the two into a climactic conjugation of ballet and sequestered cinematography, thus giving a resolution to the eternal trope of postmodernism, that of the unreliable narrator.

Aronofsky repeatedly plays with the motifs of doppelgangers in Black Swan, and even though the presence of an unreliable protagonist is constantly upheld through Nina’s interactions with her mother and her ballet academy director, he still toys with the audience as to whether the mirror halves are created in lieu of the original Swan Lake or for the psychological thriller genre of the film. But where does the presence of a mentally disturbed protagonist collage into the bedrock of perfection? Perfection, after all, is supposedly an unreachable linear concept, right? Sadly, wrong. And that is what Aronofsky sews in through the leitmotifs of not one, but two of his films. Perfection, to him, is an act of completing a full circle. Nina starts as a partially formed canvas, but when she performs her dramatic fall in the end, the myriad spectrum of colors and feathers now completed, she still etches herself on that canvas, only this time, the canvas holds itself grounded into realism. Does this break the fragmented narrative, so very salient in postmodernism? Yes, it does. And hence, conflict arises. From flaying herself to actually stabbing a version of the Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Nina breaks ground that is structured enough to uphold her perfection, the open ending only propounding the act further. The sheer genius of Aronofsky, however, does not lie on the fact that he could present a psychological thriller inspired from Swan Lake, but the fact that he could present the original in a postmodernist narrative and still break each of its tropes in the end. Perhaps the same concept applies to his newest and most ambitious project till date: Mother!

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The convergence of a thousand emotions through the eyes of “her” (Jennifer Lawrence) along the film’s narrative, accompanied with the haunting silences, create a sequence of ongoing circular patterns throughout the plot.

Aronofsky sped eons into the past with Mother! He unraveled biblical allegories, studied them intently and then presented the same through the simplistic narrative of his newest film. The question, however, was the passage of time. Unlike Black Swan, which can easily be characterized through its modern-day setting, Mother! dwindles between the the past and future, taking bits and pieces throughout the ages. The fact that “Him” (Javier Bardem), the only character with a capitalized pronoun for reference, is a writer, suffering from writer’s block, that he is being celebrated by his mob of followers and publisher (Kristen Wigg), entail that the setting is contemporary. Yet, the structure of the house Him and her live in, its surroundings, the absolute silences succumbing around them, also alienates the setting from the passage of time, as if the place of narration is a sentient being in itself, freed from the constraints of time. Now, what does that remind you of? Well, with all his biblical allegories, simply put, the house is a representation of Eden.

The plot of Mother! is an act of decay. The story begins in silence and ends with rage and fire. In other words, Mother! is a deconstruction of chaos. But, where does, once again, Aronofsky’s perception of perfection fit into the narrative? Mother! is a story of Mother Earth’s (referred to as her. Notice, without any capitals) death. But if it is a case of death, why is it an act of perfection? In old-school pagan philosophy, perhaps death is considered the beginning, and that itself denounces the concept of perfection. But Aronofsky fiddles with the idea further, through Bardem’s Him (in capitals, because he is represented as a version of God, the creator), and makes endless cycles out of a single narrative. Does this, on a higher dimension, construct a singularity? Perhaps, because what is super-intelligence, if not sentient human thought? In the house of Eden, Him and her exist in marital bliss, until uninvited guests come and crowd their home. Adam, referred to as man, (Ed Harris) ushers in Eve, referred to as woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and they usher in Cain, referred to as the oldest son (Domhnall Gleeson), and Abel, referred to as the younger brother (Brian Gleeson). The rise of human thoughts, ranging from lust to greed to wrath, each encompassing the concepts of sin, thus find themselves existent in Eden sequentially. Satan, if exists, dwells, therefore, in the lingering essences of each emotion felt. The stage is thus viscerally set. So, when the guests start increasing, and the house descends into chaos, mother cannot take it anymore. She is suffocated, broken and an alien in her own skin. And when their child, the fruit of the mother, is murdered, his flesh eaten by the intruders, the climatic collapse is thus reached. She brings down the house in flames, something akin to the natural disasters that the planet’s species has often faced. And perhaps that should have been the message, that we, as a species, are murdering the mother, something that any other director would have blindly followed, in order to ingrate into the audience’s minds about a social message. However, Aronofsky, being the mad genius that he is, would have none of that plaintive one-dimensional storytelling.

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The last smile: A laughing Him recreates the world again.

So, he once again inoculates his concept of perfection, wherein after the mass burning, only an unscathed Him and a now broken, burned and near-death her survive. And once Him obtains the crystal inside her’s ripped-out heart, he creates Eden once again, with a new mother. But the question is, what does Aronofsky propound through this act of repetition? Is God inherently merciless? Is God a sociopath who refuses to mourn the death of the mother? Or is God only an idea, who himself is chained to the act of an infinity loop? Whatever it is, he imbibes the deconstruction of Him’s character sketch into the very perception of perfection, once again piecing together the concept of visualizing perfection as a closed circle, an ouroboros, if you will.

Perhaps perfection, thus, is a singularity of a milieu of philosophies in itself. It rises from cogito ergo sum and thwarts upon the boulder of Sisyphus’s curse. Whatever it is, Aronofsky paints upon Black Swan and Mother! his endless shades of fragmented thoughts, and creates something akin to infinity, a place where I believe perfection happily dwells.

Glitz, Glamour and Homophobia

100 minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Shahana Goswami proclaims with blithe arrogance, “I mean, for god’s sake, I am not a lesbian.” And in the wee hours of dawn, I am thwarted by the force of a realization. The entertainment industry that has encumbered me since my earliest memories of a sun-kissed childhood has been patronizing homophobia for decades, sometimes with casual mockery wrapped in rib-ticklers, and sometimes rather insidiously.

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Bhandarkar’s Heroine, where homosexuality was openly insulted.

Oh Bollywood! So pretty with your sparkling clothes, your larger-than-life stories and those fantastical songs that have led to every other citizen in this country to dream about romancing with their Prince Charming or Dream Girl in the exquisite beaches of Santorini or in the snow-laden mountains of Switzerland. And like every other parched romantic soul, I too have grown around the colors of Bollywood, having spent a childhood merrily dancing to Sri Devi’s “Hawa Hawai” and Karisma Kapoor’s “Le Gayi”. But the minute when all the pretty facades crumble into dust, its flaws are left for all to be seen, or mostly in our case, sadly unseen.

Take for instance the tear-jerking blockbuster that Karan Johar produced in 2003. Kal Ho Naa Ho was heralded as the film of its generation, with its dreamy montages of New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Preity Zinta in her pretty red dress, and a charismatic Shah Rukh Khan, as always, stealing the thunder from everyone else as he essayed the role of Aman. However, rip all the fanfare, and you remember a forgettable character that went by the name of Kaanta Behen, the maid at Saif Ali Khan’s apartment, who was openly homophobic. Presented as nothing but a comedic subplot, this woman kept misunderstanding the two men as lovers, and when the homosexual DJ came by in the song “Maahi Ve”, I remember quite clearly the horrible shove she gave to the poor fellow when he was merrymaking with the others. And to think that Johar, an openly gay man at present, would endorse such an instance of blatant homophobia in a film he produced. You can always say that times were different in 2003, but when is the right time to endorse homophobia?

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Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, where homophobia was insidiously promoted as a comedic subplot.

Now fast-forward half a decade into 2008, when Johar’s next venture, Dostana, released. Unlike its sentimental predecessor, Dostana was a slice-of-life comedy where two young bachelors (played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham) are looking for an apartment to settle into in the thriving city of Miami. In a “hilarious” twist of events, they finally rent an apartment with the film’s oblivious female lead, played by Priyanka Chopra, where they pretend to be homosexual lovers, while incessantly trying to win the affections of Chopra in reality. This, perhaps, seems a normal plot for a romantic comedy, until of course Kirron Kher, who plays the mother of Bachchan, appears on the screen. An openly homophobic character, her caricature is presented with item numbers where she sings of the torment that she is cursed with as her son is supposedly homosexual in “Maa Da Ladla Bigar Gaya” (trans: Mommy’s Boy Got Spoiled). And suddenly, the entire theater joins in to this so-called laugh riot of normalizing homophobia.

Perhaps such examples appear almost minuscule, however, the latent truth underneath is petrifying. Bollywood is one of the most thriving industries in India, and its socio-cultural reach and influence is unrivaled by any other. As a peddler of art, I understand that mainstream cinema is the strongest weapon of expression of thought in contemporary society. From its widespread reach of audience to its presentation, cinema heralds a double-edged sword of influence upon the human mind. Identities are often constructed on the cornerstone of its aesthetics. Generations after generations are thus influenced by mainstream cinema in more ways than one. And desensitizing the mass toward blatant homophobia is nothing short of a harrowing blunder in the part of the entertainment industry. Remember that time when Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai released and suddenly all the barbers where busily snipping away to make sure all the boys looked like Hrithik Roshan? Or the time when Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela hit the theaters one winter morning, and suddenly, all the shops were bustling with the hoards of cacophonous women, young and old, in their bids to buy the “Leela” earrings that Deepika Padukone wore in the film? That’s the extent of influence Bollywood holds in our daily lives. From the bell-bottom pants that can still be found in the concealed corners of almost every middle-aged man’s wardrobe, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s, to that hideous turquoise bracelet that adorns the wrist of every other neighborhood bad boy, thanks to Salman Khan, Bollywood stays inoculated in every contour of our daily lives. So when such a colossal industry endorses, and in some cases repeatedly validates, something as toxic as homophobia, the consequences are grievous indeed.

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Man-hating lesbians and objectification, as promoted by B-grade films like Girlfriend

In 2004, a B-grade film called Girlfriend, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, released in India. Perhaps the inconsequential plot was written solely to promote generic hatred for the opposite sex and objectification of a lesbian relationship. The film, although a box-office dud thankfully, has stayed in the minds of the thousands of folks who tune in to channels such as Zee Cinema or Set Max for a lazy afternoon of watching films on television, thanks to its repeated telecasts. In the film, Koppikar’s character is a man-hating possessive homosexual who is hell-bent on destroying her lover’s heterosexual relationship. Hitherto less known about the concepts of homosexuality in mainstream cinema, this film set certain devastating and downright delusional standards about the on-goings of lesbian relationships. Furthermore, the trivialized objectification of women, and thus lesbians, led to a generation of men and women conceptualizing lesbian relationships as nothing but a toxic and lust-driven experimentation between two women. And thanks to its constant telecasts, this insidious delusion still finds its audience in television almost every other week.

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Bhandarkar’s Fashion promoted a delusion that most of all male fashion designers are closeted homosexuals who publicly promote a heterosexual relationship in order to cover up their sexual orientation.

Bhandarkar’s blockbuster venture Fashion (2008) cemented Priyanka Chopra’s position as the most sought-after actress in Bollywood. However, the film also planted the seeds for the pathetically concealed homophobia that Bhandarkar kept promoting in his following directorial ventures. Aside from the fact that the film’s female protagonists instigated their partners to begin homosexual relationships with the designers they wished to work with, the film’s third lead Mugdha Godse had a disastrous plot where she married a fashion designer, who was a closeted homosexual, in order to publicly maintain his appearance as a heterosexual man. In a country like India, with its easily impressionable audience, this acted as the last nail to cement a delusion in the minds of the common man that most of all male designers who worked in the fashion industry were actually homosexuals. This stereotype also led to the shallow portrayals of multiple homosexuals who acted as supporting characters in the film to be presented as effeminate men for the sake of comic relief. In that context, every third Bollywood film in the 90s finds a mention as the go-to comic relief in that era was an effeminate man or a masculine woman (think Raja Hindustani).

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The New-Wave Bollywood Cinema: Aligarh, Margarita With a Straw, Kapoor & Sons

But somewhere, I still believe that all hope is not lost. Our present generation, although influenced by a thousand Bollywood stereotypes, are not as desensitized as their predecessors. Perhaps Dylan was correct, perhaps “The Times They are-a Changin'”, even if the cynical side of my psyche refuses to stake her hopes upon such romanticism. Because for the past half a decade, Bollywood has been flooded by films that speak otherwise. And ever so gradually, they are seeping into the undercurrents of mainstream cinema. Although considered art-house films by word of mouth, these films are finding their youthful audience silently, no longer considered as ostracized celluloid such as Fire (1996). Films such as Margarita With a Straw (2014) or Aligarh (2016) are gradually coming into the limelight, if not immediately, but gradually just the same. There is surprisingly a new-generation audience that is ready to accept films such as these, and they are not shelved into the moth-eaten corners of forgotten films immediately after their screening at some film festival. Even a mainstream jewel such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) starring Alia Bhatt, Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, where Khan portrayed a homosexual author, received accolades in mainstream award ceremonies such as the 62nd Filmfare Awards.

Of course there is always a backlash, as is always wont to be. Films such as Unfreedom (2014) that was based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Ye Dagh Dagh Ujala” bit the dust when the Indian Censor Board staunchly refused the release of this film . Similarly, Aligarh, based on true events, faced its fair share of censorship and counterblast because of its content about a closeted homosexual professor (Ramchandra Siras) of Aligarh University whose privacy was compromised when two men forcefully entered his premises to catch him having consensual sex with a man. After all, the journey was never meant to be easy. And change always comes at a price.

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Kolkata Pride Walk 2017, captured by Zoya Khan. Saintbrush

Cinema is the mirror that reflects the lives we lead, the choices we make, the desires we possess. And as we choose to change, perhaps it does too. We have come a long way from apologizing for villains, abusive relationships and stalkers from the 90s (looking at you, Shah Rukh Khan), and yes, the journey keeps getting harder by the day. Women with dusky skin are still considered outcasts in the Indian entertainment industry more often than not (Tannishtha Chatterjee, here’s hoping I see you in another wonderful film after Parched), the search for the fairest and the skinniest heroine still continues, and sexual objectification still churns the easiest money at the box-office (Mastizaade, Jism 2, Hate Story 3, the list goes on). You see, there are a lot of problems, and we are only beginning to think of possibilities of a solution.

But the times perhaps change, the faces change, the cities change, and life goes on. And suddenly, you wake up to a reality where hundreds can march proudly in the city streets, the colors of the rainbow raised high for all to see, unashamed, undaunted, and free. And yes, it is not easy, there are still those eyes that look at you with disdain, but revolutions weren’t won in a day and all you have is your choice to still believe. Perhaps that very faith keeps me going on as well. And so I write a thousand words, hoping to connect to every person who reads them, and give this world whatever little I can.

The Toxic Idolizing of BoJack Horseman: An Observation

I remember Netflix seducing me to start watching BoJack Horseman as my writer’s block thwarted me into a literary oblivion in one of my nights at Texas. One episode, two episodes, three episodes later, I was hooked to the show. The character sketches, the hilarious caricatures, the sarcastic quibbling and the bouts of existential dread seeping into the general narrative of every frame of reference was my home turf. So, of course, like every other privileged millennial (I say privileged because my father still pays for the bombastic internet bills that I generate every month, thanks Netflix), I jumped the train and binge-watched all three seasons, my sluggish side dominating over every nuance of the headstrong, ambitious feminist I consider myself to be.

And yes, like every other fan of the show, I subconsciously picked my favorites too. Being a writer, and suffering from a lovable bout of existential crisis every morning before I brush my teeth, I connected to Diane immediately, although I could admire the ambition in Princess Carolyn. There was always the randomness of Todd in between, and especially since he is voiced by Aaron Paul, I immediately adopted him. But the character that I despised with every cell of my being was our self-loathing equine protagonist, BoJack.

And that brings me to the subject of today’s blog post. As is the proclivity of most friendships in this era of internet boom, the general discussion of things among a pack of garrulous friends usually turns towards the slug heap of the TV shows or movies we have been watching for the past few months. And that is when I noticed a rather dangerous, downright toxic, idolizing of our familiar equine. Suddenly, it is the “cool” thing to do, to idolize or relate to a self-loathing, validation-seeking, destructive man in his forties, and excuse your wholesome stupidity with a couple of quotes by the man of the hour, in every aspect of your life.

You romanticize your mental health issues? Quote BoJack.

You romanticize your inability to work on your relationships? Quote BoJack.

You romanticize your fanatical bouts of alcoholism? Please quote BoJack.

And suddenly, BoJack Horseman has become the iconic excuse for your misdeeds, for your inadequacy, for your general lack of trying to be a better human being.

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BoJack Horseman is a parody. The character sketch of the protagonist mirrors the flaws of our generation and it makes a well-made show out of it. Yet, a huge section of the audience decides to validate every one of his toxic actions through their dealings of their personal lives. Remember Fight Club? Yes, the déjà vu is immense.

The question then arises, obviously, as to why this character deserves to be a lesson, instead of an idol. BoJack cannot handle his singularity, socially or personally, simply because he is confused about his identity. That is not something inherently toxic. Honestly, most of us hail from a generation of confused romantics. But his way of handling his identity crisis by impulsively harming his personal relationships, pathologically setting about a chain of events that will indelibly hurt or ruin the people around him, perhaps even force them to their graves, is noxious.

His regular insults towards Todd, his fanatical ways of trying to sabotage Diane’s already failing marriage, his general disregard towards Princess Carolyn’s constant loyalty, his lack of empathy towards his mother, and most importantly, his actions that led to Sarah Lynn’s death are only the few instances where he has proved himself to be a harmful friend, partner, son and human being, whose absolution in the end of every other episode appears to be an over-stretched epilogue, unreal and unneeded.

And if these examples are not enough, let us not forget his actions in Tesuque, where he had gone to visit his old love Charlotte Carson. For the oblivious, she was the deer-headed woman whom BoJack had once loved during his youth and still fantasized about having the tranquil humdrum life of a married man and father in some nondescript city in the American heartland.

However, when he lands at her doorstep, he is shocked to see her settled, wholesome, and happy with her family of four. So, BoJack, being well, BoJack, proceeds to have a rather controversial, and mutually destructive, encounter with Charlotte’s daughter, Penny (Somewhere in the afterlife, Yash Chopra is taking notes for his sequel to Lamhe). Of course, you can defend our clueless protagonist and say he did not know the grave consequences of his actions, that he did stop himself and Penny from committing the irreversible act, but I ask you, how oblivious can a man in his forties be? Does he not know the consequences of sitting underneath the stars with a precocious and impressionable teenager? BoJack was a fingernail away from committing statutory rape. Let that sink in.

The entertainment industry, especially the self-aware TV shows that have been releasing for the past half a decade, is a mirror to our flawed selves. They raise a finger to our debaucheries, and repeatedly act as triggers for our self-introspection sessions. Instead, as is the superficial proclivity amongst the most of us, we validate our failed actions through them. We use the impotence of our inaction by claiming ourselves to be the seekers of anarchy, either by idolizing Tyler Durden or Nolan’s Joker. We validate our lack of empathy by idolizing Rick from Rick and Morty. We excuse our lethargy of trying to become a better version of ourselves by claiming to be a damaged and misinterpreted character, and BoJack Horseman feeds our ego. And so, narcissism wins the day. The act of idolizing becomes a ode to our constant search for seeking a sanction for our inabilities.

In the end of my rather passionate rant, I remember BoJack scribbling a note to his former colleague, Kelsey Jannings, and his words went along the following lines:

“Kelsey, in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.”

And yet, he failed to respect every single connection that he made. He failed to respect Diane. He failed to respect Todd. He failed to respect Princess Carolyn. He failed to respect Sarah Lynn. But most of all, he failed to respect himself.

And so his words faded amidst the motley of blotted ink and soaked paper in the ocean’s azure depths.

Beyond Borders: A Review of Exit West

“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

 

Somewhere amidst the clouds that spread like cotton in blue skies, un-bothered by the borders of different countries, and some 30, 000 ft above land, I started reading Exit West inside the uncomfortable metal box called an airplane.

 

I believe that books have a peculiar way of coming into our lives, call it their lovable quiddity, if you please. Some books we choose to read, and some books that choose us to be read by. Perhaps Exit West fell into the second category, because as I drudged through the most mind-numbing eight-hour layover at Newark airport three months ago, I stepped into the rather expensive outlet of Hudson Books to get myself a book to read.

 

Remember those days before college when you felt like the greatest champion for humanity after scoring a rather admirable score in your SATs or high school finals, and then the world thwarts you into the university, and you feel like you are just another brick in the wall? Well, that was me. Here in my country India, I am considered quiet the avid reader, or so I am often told. But there, standing among the rows of bookshelves at Hudson Books, and realizing that I knew exactly ten percent of the books there, a meager two percent of which I had personally read, I realized I am a miserable Alice lost in a Wonderland that she definitely did not anticipate.

 

So I found this book, this beautiful blue hardcover with the most seamless spine and I ran a finger across it. I turned to the cover, and sifting through the pages, I realized it was written by Mohsin Hamid, a writer I had serendipitously come across two years back, after reading Moth Smoke. Resigned, I took my exhausted self to the billing counter and paid a whopping $25 (believe me, that is a fortune in the Indian currency, especially for the forever penniless bibliophile that I am, as I shamelessly satiate my reading pangs with free PDFs and weathered old books found in quaint bookshops) and settled with it on one of the many seats at the bustling airport after my security check.

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My copy of Exit West, somewhere in Newark Airport

The whole imagery that I gave before I begin this review, it is relevant because after some 20 or 30 pages, the surrounding world squeezed itself into an atom, the white noise cut itself out, and all I could do was trace the footsteps of the star-crossed lovers in the book, the fiery Nadia and the restrained Saeed, as they trudged through their lives across an unnamed city.

 

In some 240 pages or so, Hamid spins a tale that encompasses journeys across the globe, only with the bittersweet craving for belonging. Artfully weaving in the most subtle imagery of magical realism, with mysterious dark portals and the act of reaching foreign lands in only a moment’s notice, Hamid persuades you to feel, rather than “think”, the latter of which is often associated to most Man Booker nominees.

 

He tears apart convoluted subjects such as illegal migration, refugee crisis, the sense of loss and disconnect that hits the victims in full force post-migration, and explains them in the voice of two opposing yet simple voices, one of the fiercely independent Nadia and the other with the controlled and more and more religious Saeed. He quantifies the bigger images on a screen through a lens, distilling the excess out of his narrative and singularly concentrates on a plot motif that is driven by emotions alone.

 

The book takes you from families, from friends, from conditioned identities, and throws you into the foray of unknown countries and strangers, only to incite the longing that sensitizes you to the acute melancholy of unfamiliarity. Smoothing the edges with beautiful descriptions of Mykonos and London, Hamid enraptures you with the visuals of countries that you often visit in your dreams, countries which are far off in reality with their invisible borders.

 

But the uniqueness in Hamid’s voice lies in the fact that he successfully draws a caricature of the characters as they grow, metamorphose, and embrace their new identities wholly, instead of only concentrating on the lingering love in between. Nadia and Saeed are two complete beings, real and tangible, in spite of their torrid love affair and their bittersweet connection, and as you sift through the pages of the book, they familiarize with you, as if breaking a fourth wall in between the reader and the character, and somehow become your friends, instead of the strangers they begun as.

 

Exit West, in spite of its rather enormous grand narrative, is a singular ballad of melancholia, something that seduces you with its undulating rhythm, leaving only the softest hums of nostalgia behind. And flying some thousand feet above man-made borders, the world appearing only as a speck of brown and green in a heart of ocean blue below, I realized that perhaps belonging is not the end of a story, but only the beginning of embracing something far greater instead. Maybe that is what the author wants you to know, even if you are too scared to believe just yet. And perhaps time will show you that secret, someday, underneath the stars in Chile.

Why We and the Seven Kingdoms Deserve Better than Daenerys Targaryen

As I sit typing this post at my favorite café in the city, I flinch. I flinch, because someone might peep onto my laptop monitor and see what I am typing, thus engaging me into another raging battle regarding this, and this is a gross understatement, controversial subject.

I started watching Game of Thrones when it first released, and greasing my vanity, I confess I am quite the “Thronie” myself. However, as the seasons passed, and the characters metamorphosed to personify certain ideologies, I found myself dissecting, re-educating myself and understanding them on a new spectrum, particularly Daenerys Targaryen.

Believe me, the Dragon Queen was my favorite character in the beginning of the series. Here was a brave lady who battled and won against all odds to inundate into several million minds her identity on a mainstream multimedia. Here was a character, a female, to look up to. Or I was almost misled into believing.

I won’t go into the summary of her character arc. With the millions of dedicated followers around the world, every one of us is quite well-versed over her journey from a simple girl who is confused about the world around her to becoming the Mother of Dragons.

But as the years have passed, I have observed a strange obsession of glorifying, even attaching a divine aura, to dear old Dany. It all started with her conquering Meereen and becoming Myssa. But that is also the defining factor: Dany is a marvelous conqueror. She has dragons; she can intimidate any lord into subjugation. But at the same time, Dany is a horrible ruler/administrator.

Granted she is young and has much to learn, however, even learning stems out of the simple threads of humility and a desire to actually learn from another. Sadly, she has none of the two. Our Khaleesi has zero military prowess, no administrative knowledge and broad-shoulders her council into getting her way. Why? Because that is her claim; because she is meant to rule the Seven Kingdoms, or so she believes.

George R. R. Martin created a world, a reality that you cannot escape into, but rather have to force the gates open and let it invite you in. Westeros is a land of survival, where a sword cannot be your only weapon. And our Dany knows nothing about Westeros (you would almost believe our favorite bastard is a scholar in comparison), neither its culture, nor its norms, nor its militia, and definitely not its people.

You can of course refute at this point that she has been a foreigner to her homeland all her life. But when she has a council comprising of the greats such as Barristan Selmy, and later, Tyrion Lannister himself, and a virtually endless amount of possibilities in the form of wealth (she is a queen, after all), she could have tried to read, understand, inculcate the workings of her homeland, her grand goal; thus making me question the cause of such ignorance.

Her ignorance, however, leads us to our next problem. Dany lacks empathy. She is a strong woman, a survivalist to the core, but she is unable to place herself into the shoes of another and understand any situation from another perspective. Be it the hierarchy established for centuries in Meereen through slavery to the handling of administrative duties, Dany has been a thorough-bred absolutist in every situation. This doesn’t mean I personally condone slavery, however, as a ruler, it had been her responsibility to understand the social and economical pyramid on which her newly conquered city stood. Removing a single block out of that would inevitably result to the falling of the entire civilization. What is the solution then? Knowledge, as Petyr Baelish once said, is power. When you remove a block, you must substitute it with another, that is, if you want your world to not fall into oblivion. That is what Dany forgot, therefore, causing the irreversible chaos that still rages amuck in Meereen.

And when wrecking havoc in one city was not enough, she let her eyes on an entire civilization on the other side of the Narrow Sea. Westeros is a corrupted world, and if you dig deeper, far worse hells will be visible than slavery itself. And as she sails across the sea to reach the shores of Dragonstone, Dany comes armed with three dragons, who, mind you, are uncontrollable, wild, voracious and are capable of leaving a trail of fire on their wake. And alongside that, let us not forget the Dothrakis.

The Dothrakis are a plundering tribe, they take what they deem theirs and move around the lands as a nomadic hoard, leaving death, rape and pillaging at their wake. Bringing thousands of such individuals on the shores of the Seven Kingdoms, a land already drenched in chaos (mind you), would lead to an irreversible path of destruction for the commonfolk and livestock, none of which can be blamed on our beloved Khaleesi, of course.

And yet, as Season 7 begins, we sit here, dazzled by her silver main and golden stride, hoping she would be the great savior that Westeros deserves, but probably doesn’t need at this point, or the next decade in the least.

However, let us leave the Seven Kingdoms to their devices for now. For all we know, Benioff and Weiss might just decide to let everyone be killed or eaten (probably not in that order either) by the White Walkers when the plots lead to a course of nowhere. Now that would be quite the nod to dear old Kafka.

Dany is perhaps the most celebrated character in Game of Thrones, maybe even in the past decade of English television. Her actions, her words, everything has had consequences around the world. From thousands of tee shirts proclaiming “I am not a princess, I am a Khaleesi”, to “I have Dragons”, Dany has seeped into pop culture like paint on water.

Thousands of females idolize her, thousands of male fantasize her. She reigns supreme on most minds, either hated, or loved, but never ignored. Her very presence is a milieu of grand entrances, majestic music compositions and so on and so forth.

Dany has thus become a phenomenon, and inevitably, the newest face of feminism. And this realization petrifies me. Young girls, inspired by the Targaryen Queen, are growing up in an age where they are learning that intimidating others, bullying others, watching them cower into subjugation are the new methods of victory, of getting one’s way/point across. They see stars as they see petite Dany conquer cities with a flair of her skirts, or more frequently, undoing them instead. They learn that knowledge is not the weapon of choice in the quest to resolve the issues in the world, but dragons/weapons instead. Wisdom sadly has taken quite the backseat while bullying grapples the crown instead. Peace, words, are nothing, intimidation is the newest ideology.

And with the world almost slipping into the very pits of chaos that Varys has long since been afraid of, that is a really scary realization.

Yet, all hope is not lost, even if old man George would try and convince us otherwise in every other chapter/episode. And here’s to blatantly, and rather childishly, hoping that some benevolent hero shall soon rise in the Game of Thrones universe and show that kindness is the most powerful weapon there ever was.

For lands were meant to be ruled with a strict but gentle hand, and people are to be loved, not conquered and considered as livestock that can be coerced into changing colors with every alteration of a house flag in some castle.