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.

A Year of Words, Love and Melancholia

Dear Reader,

There are so many things I wish to tell you and for some reason, I feel I have run out of words today, at least the words that carry the weight of my thoughts at this moment.

My father would always tell me, “When you do not know how to tell a story, start at the beginning.” So the story of the The Indian Bibliophile started when on this day last year, my colleague and my full-time-nonsense-tolerating friend cajoled me into opening this blog. And now, here I am, wiser and stupider over the passage of 365 days, scribbling something she knows nothing about in this letter.

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Writer: A creature that scribbles things witlessly while its brain travels light years into inconceivable universes.

Stilted winter sunlight, the scent of old books, the touch of a warm cup of tea on your lips, the feel of newly-worn socks, and the sound of words—The Indian Bibliophile began as a home to all these images wrapped into one concoction of imperfection a year ago. Perhaps it began with my desire for a shelter, or perhaps it started because I wanted to scribble witless sweet-nothings for this boy I had once loved. Winter does make you believe in love and her thousand possibilities, does it not? Whatever it was, it grew into something more than shelter, something akin to home instead.

There would be words of appreciation for the poems I scribbled in the beginning, even so I could not help but believe that something lacked in them, as if the very soul of the words had long since bid adieu and now only the bittersweet lull of their sounds remained. And in search of their souls, I had traveled miles upon the meandering roads of the city that I had once loved, and now grown to un-love. But as time passed, and as is wont to Time himself, the words came by and the words went by, until the soul became a part of me, and inked only to bleed in bits through whatever I tried writing.

It was personal, this blog has always been so. Some held the memories of a love story that could only happen in another reality, while the others sheltered the fragile embers of a has-been. Whatever it was, it carries the scent of me, meager and unwound as it is, in this constructed and deconstructed world that we bear upon our shoulders as the weights of our respective realities.

They say it is nigh impossible, to open your doors and let the world view your elusive secrets when your blog is a reflection of the words you would often scribble only in the dark envelops of the nights. Yet melancholia teaches you, does it not? That whatever you hold as your own never truly belongs to you in the end. There is no I, nothing is about you, and your words are here to be given, until only they stay even after you have long since turned to dust.

So why does this sentimental, and somewhat childish, need to possess them still remain? Why is there still an itch to be answered, to be appreciated, to be needed, to be wanted, to be adored enough, so that my desire of acceptance is satiated in one form or the other? Because this is not just “my” blog, this is also an impression of the woman I have tried to become.

The Indian Bibliophile is not just me, or you, or the words between us. It does not comprise of the time it took to come to the crossroad where I can pen something that unravels so much of me that I now only have my meager hands to cover whatever I still wish to remain unseen. Whatever it is, it is a story nonetheless. And I promise, this one is just beginning.

So I thank you for reading my words, I thank you for loving my words, and I thank you for piecing me together until the woman I was on December 2016 now only stands as an unrecognizable poltergeist somewhere in the precipice of the past and present.

So I go on, somewhere in the recess between two consecutive waves, in a land where strangers become lovers, and lovers become strangers, until I reach the shores of another year once again.

Love,

The Indian Bibliophile

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.

Alice in Winterland

The morning comes with the hues of gray,

A silence pervades.

Alice wakes up, somewhere between the dying night and a birthing dawn,

And pulls at the shades.

 

Piping hot tea, or was it a cup of hot chocolate?

The foggy mornings eat away at the memories,

Voices come and go, some happy, some sad,

Each smothered in a sheath of bittersweet dreams.

 

There is no rabbit hole anymore.

The snows have made sure to hide the gaping hole.

No Mr. Rabbit scurries away,

No Mad Hatter comes by to offer a cup of tea,

Even the Queen of Hearts has been blown off somewhere,

Perhaps by the winter winds, perhaps she was never here.

 

The evenings resemble the nights now,

And the nights become the final verses of lost evenings.

Crackling fire impregnates endless silences,

Somewhere, a bonfire rages.

 

The scent of Wonderland is lost now,

Magic dies a sad, sad death.

The Caterpillar no longer blows wisps of smoke,

The moon no longer reminds her of her favorite feline,

And the Cheshire Cat smiles between his riddles in another land.

 

So Alice traipses in reality,

Tweedledee and Tweedledum no longer in toe.

Colors no longer burst like blossoms in springtime,

The fireflies glitter no more.

 

The story has ended now,

Endings, after all, are just endings,

Happiness and sadness entwine like cumbersome strings,

And the Jabberwock no longer bats his dreary black wings.

 

 

The Melody of Words: A Review of South of the Border, West of the Sun

The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.

 

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‘“For a while” is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.’ South of the Border, West of the Sun

In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.

Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.

 

Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.

 

The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.

 

That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.

 

Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.

 

But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.

 

And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.

 

Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.

 

South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.

 

The Grand Arrival: Mahalaya

Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.

 

In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.

 

And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.

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Mahalaya mornings shall never be complete without catching an early show of the most potboiler presentation of Mahisasurmardini, filled with its horrible special effects and laughable depictions of the gods. (© Image from Google Images)

The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.

 

So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”

 

Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).

 

So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.

 

In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.

 

Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).

 

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Chakyudaan: The ritual of painting the goddess’s eyes on Mahalaya (© Image from Google Images)

But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.

In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.

 

But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.

And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.

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Kash Phool (wild sugarcane grass flowers), the symbol of Mahalaya and the Indian autumn or Sarat Kaal (© Image from Google Images)

Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.

“Still there. Still there. Gone.”

Somewhere between childhood and the pangs of first love, I discovered that I craved nothing more than conversations.

Conversations, heart-wrenching, soul-crushing, alive-in-this-moment, words-existing-beyond-lifetimes conversations.

And in every turn, in every new love, in every new touch, I think some part of me has been searching for words, and forever shall.

Richard Linklater’s trilogy came into my life in such a way, when I had traveled across the lanes and by-lanes of the city, sitting for hours at cafes or by the banks of the city’s mud-worn river banks, it had come to me in silence, in fleeting nudges and somehow I had found myself engrossed, enthralled and enlivened in a matter of some ninety minutes.

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Some movies you grow with, some movies come find you in their own time, and only a few grow with you. The Before trilogy consisted of those few movies that grew with me. Somewhere between watching and re-watching them in the wee hours of the morning, being entangled with Celine’s beautiful accented English and Jesse’s lovelorn eyes, I discovered the secrets of the universe.

The idea that even a day, even a moment, is enough to live a lifetime, when encumbered solely of words, mesmerized me. And perhaps I grew up romanticizing the very idea of it, that two days (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) are enough to decide you want to live with someone till your very last breath, because all you need to do is take the leap.

My words, I realize, are unmeasured in this moment. It lacks the competence of a generally well-researched blog post, but the truth is that no matter how many times I try watching these three films as research, I fail miserably.

From the evening lights of Vienna to the sun-kissed Seine of Paris, I traveled every time with Jesse and Celine’s words, with their reticence, with their longing, with their cynicism, with their dreams.

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And the best part of this trilogy is that it is not fictional, not really. It has the coarseness of mundane reality, it lacks the magic of falling momentarily in love with a person instead of their memories, and it profoundly glistens over the hesitation of two adults fearing to believe in happy endings again.

Before Sunrise was a prelude to the swansong of their love story, it still existed in the mystic land between dreams and reality, of two people connecting intimately without having to touch one another just yet, all for a snap of serendipity. But Before Sunset was rawer, grounded further into the heart of reality, almost lost like their souls, but still withstanding the barrages of cynicism. Yet it is Before Midnight that most lingers in my heart. A film where Linklater masterfully exposes the bare intricacies of the so-called happy endings, of failed loyalties and burgeoning insecurities.

I remember the moment when Celine talks about her fears, how she feels that now, in her fifties, if she sat by the same train to Vienna, Jesse would never come and speak to her, never realize the story that awaited them. And I knew that Linklater’s voice was clear, resounding, and hollowed by the truth that happy endings don’t really exist, that endings are just the oversimplifications of moments still left un-lived and unexplained.

Because Before Midnight thwarts you, it thwarts you to rethink the rose-tinted glasses you cannot stop wearing while watching the two preceding films. And those moments, when Celine confesses that she no longer loves Jesse, or the one where she acutely realizes how very different they are, and their togetherness is just a freakish absurdity, it makes me believe that crumbled realities are still art.

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And love doesn’t really win in this love story, not by a far shot. Reality takes that victory cake, sometimes even at the cost of leaving a bittersweet aftertaste in your mouth. And it is not perfect, it is not the ending you wanted, it is not even something you wish to see, but believe me, you need to. I needed to, because even imperfections can be excruciatingly beautiful.

And this is me. This is you. This our reality. This is flawed. But for now, it is enough. Because in this moment, it is, “Still there. Still there,” until tomorrow, when it is “Gone.”

Masters of the Universe: A Review of I’ll Give You the Sun

Somewhere in Jandy Nelson’s book, Jude gives the trees, the stars, the ocean and even the sun to Noah, her twin brother, all in exchange of a face, of a portrait. And in that moment, as I read across the lines, once, twice, thrice, and over and over, I realized in some 400 pages, that for a moment, even for only the briefest speck of time, the sun was all that could be given and yet, so much more, so much warmth, so much brightness and infinite love could be gained in exchange.

Nelson spins a tale stuck in the melancholia of opposites, of dichotomies that crave to touch one another, only reticent for the underlying regret and self-loathing that lies in between. With overarching narratives of identity crisis, fragile familial bonds, the discovery of one’s sexuality and the undying passion towards one’s art, Nelson stems out a simple plot that covers the perspectives of two congruent narratives in alternating timelines, only to fluidly intermix the two in one wholesome concoction of masterful completion, something which I admit is extremely hard to achieve when the para-text of a novel is the size of a gigantic universe that spitefully looms over the characters and their unique voices.

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Beginning the story with Noah’s narrative, a voice that is woefully subtle and loud about its desires at the same time, Nelson tells the story about a young adolescent boy who is passionately in love with his art (drawing portraits) and discovering his homosexuality through his bubbling puppy love towards the neighborhood boy. Mixing magnanimous quotes with the touch of innocent erotica, Nelson brings the mind of a homosexual softly, slowly and most importantly, with empathy.

The narrative then shifts to show Noah’s perspective towards his wilder twin, Jude, who is freer, feistier and the apple of their father’s eye. Jude is reticent to expose her art, yet hedonistic enough to freely surf in the California bay, drawing the lustful eyes of all the male residents in the area.

But the point of contention gradually emerges as the twins’ mother, Diana, comes into the plot. Battling to gain her attention, the twins fight in every sphere, from art to their secrets; everything is an act of winning the love of their art-loving mother.

Intermingling with this sibling rivalry, Nelson blooms an innocent, almost intangible, love affair between Noah and the new neighbor, Brian. Perhaps the most iconic sequence in this narrative is how Nelson beautifully pens a scene where the two adolescents watch the constellation Castor and Pollux through a telescope one night. The voice of Noah’s longing, intermixed lonesomely with his hesitation, brings out a splendid nostalgia, an ode to the memories of first love.

The novel then sweeps over and falls into the narrative of Jude, the wilder twin, and the timeline too speeds over to a couple of years later, leaving unanswered questions that intrigue the reader to the fullest. Unraveling mysteries from the previous narrative, while simultaneously weaving the inner dilemmas of Jude, Nelson walks a fragile line that might bias the elements of the narrative and unbalance the scales at any moment. Yet, the writer succeeds in maintaining the brittle balance between the past and the present, and even brings to life the words of the supporting characters.

Continuing the theme of conflict, Nelson then shows a more mature version of adolescent love through Jude’s narrative, as she spins a more reluctant love story between the quintessential bad boy Oscar and Jude. Shoving into it, she plays the underlying dwindling passion of Jude towards her art (making sculptures) through the interactions with her mentor, before she begins the face-off conflicts between the twins, inadvertently beginning the vulnerable climax of the plot.

I’ll Give You the Sun packs in a strong narrative, overarching themes, scaled characters and the sine curves of rising and falling character development. It makes a poignant effort at a social message with the subtlest undertones, but never lets that overtake the voices of its narrators. Jandy Nelson stays to the core of most tropes used in a coming-of-age novel, but her greatest credit is how she uses her well placed twists to build a new visage in a seemingly easy plotline.

However, the one thing she fails at is to bring out the deliverance of certain characters, especially the twins’ father, with relevance to the actual plot, therefore creating questionable loopholes at times. Although this creates holes in the layer of the voices, she does make up with her own narrative in the end, at times through dragged descriptions and sometimes through incomplete information.

Nonetheless, the novel rises above all else as a poignant read, with its textured characters and unique narrative skills, with a far more fleshier sketch than her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere. It is interesting, therefore, to see the author’s development too through the consecutive readings of both her books.

Finally, reading I’ll Give You the Sun is very much like its soulful quote, “Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.” You would know the flow of its story, and yet seek out its journey just the same, as if finding your way around the dark in a home that resides in your bittersweet memories.

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.