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.

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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.

New Orleans: Memories of a Summer Lost

Summer has long since dwindled into the cold heart of winter, and I have found my home once again. The blues of the skies are now hidden, Calcutta busily robbing me off the luxury of gazing at infinite azures once again, dazed as she is about her overt familiarity. Sometimes it is the trees that I like to blame, the ones that pepper the sky with their mystifying green. Most of the time, however, it is the city’s blasted white noise that wraps me in this unwanted cocoon of ordinariness.

So as I sit in my favorite cafe, unable to differentiate between a Monday and a Saturday, the days now missing their individual gleam, moments chained into infinity loops of the same tasks over and over again, I drift off to New Orleans.

Between copious cups of piping hot tea, my only tether to reality, I travel 8, 801 miles effortlessly, I chase the sound of some nameless street musician’s saxophone as she plays ‘La Vie En Rose’, I chase the street magician who befuddles his crowd with lovable parlor tricks, and I chase the girl that I had been in those sleepless 48 hours in the Big Easy.

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New Orleans, an aging city, where the past lingers in every by-lane of the present, isn’t perfect, far from it. But then again, she never made promises of painting a pretty picture, did she? You see, you can find New Orleans in the French Quarter, in Bourbon Street, in the high roofs of St. Louis Cathedral or perhaps in the blowing winds by the Mississippi river. But then again, you can find her in the unnumbered potholes in her cobblestone streets, in the Southern lilt of her citizens, in the old beagle that sat with her older masters in Jackson Square and in the intoxicated homeless musician who played his saxophone for me sometime before dawn colored the skies.

I am no travel blogger. I cannot give you an inventory of the places you must visit in a city that is perhaps as confused as me. I cannot tell you that you must visit the French Quarters right before the sun sets and see all the voodoo witches reading the palms of tourists, or that the best time to addle your senses is at midnight in Bourbon Street. Because, you see, in my sleepless 48 hours, I have lived an eternity in the Big Easy. I have sat by the steps of some stranger’s house at St. Charles Avenue, only intending to do so for a few minutes, and I have let hours pass by instead, watching a couple in their seventies dance like unabashed adolescents to the blues of a traveling band. I have walked by the cobblestone street behind St. Louis Cathedral when the summer rains had decided to shower upon me, only to be saved by a stranger with green eyes and his red umbrella. I had spent hours standing underneath that crimson canopy and I remember falling in love with him. But when the sun shone saffron, us coincidental lovers had parted once again. And I have lived lifetimes sifting through the pages of moth-eaten yellowed books in the tiny haven of Faulkner Books, only allowing myself the luxury of a recess when the pangs for a Gelato set in. Because I went as a traveler, but New Orleans had made a home for me instead.

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And when I no longer wished to be lost in the crowds, I had walked by the hundred miniaturist shops that litter the city, tiny remodels of the American Civil War standing proudly in their ornate shelves, with my sister. I had feasted on prawns and craw fish in restaurants that charged a fortune, and I had devoured the delightful beignets, those sugar-coated warm pastries, at Cafe Du Monde, a cafe that had once seen the works of Tennessee Williams come to life in her little tables.

And now as I sit scribbling snippets of my memories, I wish I had more montages to travel back to, I wish I had stayed in the Big Easy a little longer, I wish I had lived a little longer. Because I have only a handful to offer you; because spending only an hour at the Saint Louis Cemetery, trying to remember the names of the dead is not enough. Because spending only half a twilight in the river-walk, begging to board that ship which sailed across the Mississippi is not enough. Because spending only a couple of hours standing on the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the tunes of Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ fleeting toward you, is not enough. Because a lifetime spent in the Big Easy is not enough.

You see, I am still in love with New Orleans. I am still in love with the stranger with those green eyes. I am still in love with the old couple dancing like the world would end the next day to a blues song. I am still in love with the artist who paints pictures of Mr Rabbit and His Three Red Balloons in the streets of the French Quarter. I am still in love with the three ladies who stood by a pink Cadillac on the Easter Parade. I am still in love with Cecille Robelet, a woman who slumbers in her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery. And I am still in love with the man with the sleeping dog, a man who would pen you a story for a dollar. And perhaps, just perhaps, I am still in love with the girl I used to be in the Big Easy.

The Love Stories of a Miniaturist

Father had always taught me to look at the bigger picture.

I would come from school, the itch of my dried-up tears begging to be scratched out of existence, my mangy hair disheveled from the hours spent in fighting my bullies.

Father would say, “One day, these memories will drown, and you will only remember its littlest fragments.”

Of course I refused to believe him then, stubborn little wild child that I used to be.

Now I only remember the strands of brown in her black hair, her raging beady black eyes, and the scratch of her nails in my arm, the scars long gone.

I was a miniaturist long before I discovered love.

I was searching for memories long before I lost myself in remembrance.

The little lane behind the assembly hall of my school, the one that witnessed me devouring the words of a hundred stories,

The golden intaglio of a hardcover’s title, its touch still sheltering the first moments of a childish smile that would often bloom in between my lips,

The taste of the first fruit in summer, its yellow-orange pulp finding little corners to hide in between my still-milk teeth,

I realize I have been collecting pictures long before I knew how to capture them.

So when he strode in between sixteen and seventeen, his towering frame overshadowing my little self effortlessly, I remembered the warmth of his embrace, his ever-encompassing arms still etched into my skin.

The love has long departed from my home, only its dwindling memory sometimes knocks at my doorstep, unwelcome yet unrelenting.

Yet Love never failed to thrash upon me after,

Sometimes, it was the lingering smile of a beloved,

In another, it was the lilt of his voice when he called me Red.

Time, my enemy in each story, has robbed me off the fervor,

Choosing only to leave a heart-shaped box of memories in his wake.

But the faraway caress of a past lover,

The kisses shared in the lovelorn lonesome evenings of an age-old staircase,

The softness of a lover’s wrist, wrapped in a hairband, the one never used to tie her crimson curls,

They have remained.

So when you arrived today,

My new guest, my newest curse, my new reason to crumble once again,

You asked me, “Why do you say you shall be gone?”

And I wished to offer you a thousand words,

I wished to tell you that I will remember the rebellious brown that glimmered underneath a golden street lamp in your black beard,

I wished to tell you I will remember the hapless smiles you would often offer me in between my chaotic words,

I wished to tell you I will remember you in the million similarities you found in me and the phantom memories of women you once knew,

I wished to tell you I remember the sound of Red, the color of her raging mane, the warmth in his arms, the image of her bare feet upon grass still covered in morning dew,

I wished to tell you that I have long since loved pieces of you,

Yet, I could only say, “A miniaturist’s curse, my friend. You shall be another memory I once knew.”

Padmavati: Death of a Childhood

I was seven years old when my father had brought us the DVD of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Films, a privilege in my childhood, were something left to be seen in an unforeseen future, thanks to the strict instructions of my mother. So when the family would find a temporary haven in the various towns my father would be posted in due to his profession, the textbooks were imprisoned in the cupboards, and the fascinating “color” television, with its cable connection, would be the showstopper every evening.

In such an evening, I watched my second Bollywood film (the first being Taal) with my sister. Truth is, I didn’t much care about the story then, perhaps because at seven I was ill-equipped to understand it, or perhaps I was too intrigued to swallow in the visual art of every frame in a Bhansali movie. But even at seven, I knew that Aishwarya singing with a sitar on a palatial marble terrace in ‘Albela Sajan’, or a lovesick Salman chasing a lehenga-clad Aishwarya across the amber courtyard in ‘Aankhon ki Gustakhiyan’ were frames to remember.

Days later, I would find myself in silent afternoons, dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ and ‘Dholi Taro Dhol Baje’, my mangy bob-cut hair never stopping me from reveling the essence of my then-untouchable womanhood. That was the power of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, it could even bring a wild child to desire of waist-length hair, doe eyes and blooming crimson lips, all wrapped in the silk of monochrome sarees.

Of course, I grew up after. I realized that a woman can be just as much a feminine goddess in a bob cut as she was in her flourishing raven mane, her unending braid twirling with every bounce of her hips. Of course, I grew up to know that every single one of these images in my head are just constraints that social standards set women to fit into, to box into, in order to comply individuals into set identities.

But then again, how can you ever outrun childhood?

How can you outrun the stories you read as a child?

In our little ways, we always find our way back into the altar of our childhood. A certain song, the lines of a poem we had read oh so long ago, perhaps even a quote from our favorite childhood novel, and suddenly the world around us deconstructs itself to reveal the pictures of our days of yore. After all, we are just children hiding under the masks of adulthood.

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So when I saw the trailer of Padmavati, Bhansali took me down memory lane. Perhaps it was the hauntingly beautiful background score, perhaps it was Deepika Padukone gracefully walking in those decadent Rajasthani sarees as the jewelry weighed her down, perhaps it was Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji, roaring and laughing menacingly, and sending the subtlest shivers down my spine; whatever it was, the stories that my mother would read me by my bedside enlivened before my eyes once again.

I remembered the nights when Mother would read about Rani Padmavati, a fearless Rajasthani queen who burned herself alive with her hundred handmaidens, in order to escape a brutal fate in the hands of the Sultanate emperor Alauddin Khilji. Mother had described to me jauhar, the custom of immolating oneself alive in the name of honor, she had told me about sepaku, the custom of the Japanese samurai, and I remember how petrified I had been that night. I remembered my dreams of faceless women jumping into pyres, of men stabbing themselves with their swords before surrendering to their enemies. And I had held onto my mother’s arms in my dreams, and she has protected me ever since.

I do not know if Rani Padmavati truly existed in reality. In my adolescence, my cynical self had gone on to read a translated version of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat and almost laughed at the descriptions of magical talking parrots and women so courageous that their ideals seemed borderline delusional. And in my adulthood, I had realized that Padmavat, if not anything, was a brilliant piece of Sufi literature, and a pioneer in the genre of magic realism (and here you were thinking that only Marquez in the West and Murakami in the East were scribbling about talking cats and worlds with two paper moons).

But the past month, I had waited eagerly for December 1, when Padmavati would grace the theaters in my city. I was already assured about the the thousand criticisms it would receive, how every one of the magazine critics would fall upon the film’s cadaver like ravenous hyenas and cut it open with a milieu of complicated phrases. Yet, the child in me could not wait to see her most memorable folktale come live on screen.

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And then the media hit with the news of the film’s ban, all at the behest of a religious extremist right-wing group called Karni Sena, who seem to be under the belief that by banning this film, they would be protecting the respect and honor of women. Suddenly, the newspapers, the news channels, even my Facebook news feed, are littered by the updates about an extremist group wanting the heads of Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Films, at the end of the day, are the expressions of art, and my country, as much as I love her, has imprisoned art. Suddenly, the censor board is no longer the only patriarch in judging the quality of films. Suddenly, sentiments of every extremist group need to be satiated for the release of a film. Suddenly, art is an adulterous woman being stoned to death in a field of sand and blood.

An anecdote here, India has no dearth of raunchy, borderline sexist, slapstick sex comedies that are home to a hundred double entendres. Most of them do not even include a single ‘A’ certificate. Yet, the minute when a film is aligned by any form of political agenda, it bites the dust, a recent example of that being 2016’s Udta Punjab.

And this petrifies me. For I am a peddler of art, I live in words, I find stories in between the lingering silences of conversations and I dwell between the precipice of dying utopias and merging realities. So today, something has died inside of me. Maybe it is the memory of the lilt in my mother’s voice as she described Rani Padmavati’s beauty, maybe it is the image of a seven-year-old me dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ in one maudlin summer afternoon; whatever it is, I know a fragment of my childhood was still here until this moment. And now, it is gone.

 

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.

#MeToo

When I was eight, Mama taught me that in our world, there was power in words no more.

When I was nine, and he had dug his nails in my backside, I screamed and told Mama, and Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.

When I was twelve, and confused between angels and demons, praying for sinners and falling in love with sins, I stayed silent and prayed for mercy, because Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.

When I was sixteen, and in love with wraiths, a hand clasped my mouth and showed me darkness, the abyss that awaited only for me, and when Mama’s words rung like church bells in an empty altar, I leaped into an endless chasm, because in our world, there was power in words no more.

And life traveled at her own pace, passing days in hours and moments in lifetimes, and the world grew darker and brighter, the demons danced with the angels, and the angels made love to the devils.

Time danced in her little cage, welcoming me into her gilded prison, as she sung sweetened songs of mercy to my ears. My pretty young heart beat to her swan-songs, to secret dreams and unfulfilled hopes. And for a minute, Mama’s words sounded truth no more.

And the world moved on, the seasons changed, yellow turned into saffron and saffron welcomed the grey mornings of winter, and somewhere in between, I was a child no more, I had a voice no more.

Until one morning, the fires burned again, and the world discovered that we could speak, and the angels began searching for their broken wings, and the demons no longer danced in secret in their souls at night.

Slit throats sewed in severed heads, only this time, a feeble swan throat no longer bore the burden of pretty broken faces, now the lionesses roared and the she-wolves howled, their broken bones, their scarred faces, their crippled paws in display for the world to behold.

They wanted to look away, oh they wanted to look away, color themselves blind and the devils gave them their masks, their masquerade almost as grand as the art we made of our shattered bones, our severed wings, our lone feathers still drifting somewhere across the sea.

And so I walked to Mama, and Mama is old now, she walks with a cane and she breathes with effort, the fumes of the past choke her still, silence her still, and when she thinks I have come for my lessons, she opens her dried mouth to say, Oh child, in our world, there was power in words no more.

And I use my softened palms, so very different from world-worn roughened ones, to cup those cheeks that carry the battle-weary lines of time, like half-scribbled sketches etched upon her skin, and I say, No, Mama, no more, no more.

She closes her eyes, the softest glimmer of a tear seeps out from the corner of those half-shut eyes, and her smile seems juxtaposed, as if stolen from the lips of a child and gifted to the mouth of an old remnant of the past.

And then she mumbles, oh, she mumbles, a cornucopia of secrets between two women across the shadows of time, and I hope she believes in words, once more, once more.