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.

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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.

Why We and the Seven Kingdoms Deserve Better than Daenerys Targaryen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Lipsticks and Whores

I wear my red stain on the lips, and you fear me. I am a trollop, a harlot and a whore.

I wipe that red stain off my lips, and you crave to control me. I am an innocent, untouched, still fresh.

How easy, is it not? To change from woman to woman from the colour of her lips.

As easy as it is hide under my sari, my burkha, my salwar.

You see, I am covered.

I am covered so that your eyes don’t ravage my skin, bury beneath my bones as they tear through my flesh.

I am covered, I am decent. I did not entice you to rape me. I am saved.

After all, you are the victim, I, your criminal.

And god forbid if I lusted!

If I craved sex, if I wanted to be touched.

Isssssh! Chee, chee! Are you a harlot? Some penny-greedy whore?

Oh no, my lord, I am no whore. I simply am lustful.

Don’t you know that is the devil speaking through you?

Oh, yes. Always the devil. The moment that cursed thing in between my legs gets moist, I am touched by the devil.

Oh, must I be cursed to such fate? That when I close my eyes, when my fingers seek pleasure, I find myself in the proximity to the devil, craving fantasies, craving something more.

I am just the devil’s whore.

I stand on court today, screaming at you.

Screaming until my throat is raw and my eyes bleed blood,

I stand across you, judge, jury and executioner, and I am two women at once.

The one with the lipstick who victimized you.

And the one without whom you thought the devil.

I am the precipice of two choices, dwelling between the edge of the worlds,

Asking you to see, that these desires are not more than me.

I, a woman. I, a mother. I, a sister. I, a lover. I, a wife. I, a whore.

You dress me up in so many roles!

I lose my sanity, and I yell! Who am I?

The minute you touch me without my consent, I am your criminal. I must be the whore who craved your touch, and you, kind sir, you acceded to my silent request.

You turned me into your bitch, because you see, I wore that lipstick! I must have wanted it.

And then, on the night before, when my chapped lips were no longer colored.

When I had whispered sweet nothings, closed my eyes and seen sinful images of another in my arms,

When I was a desert and a rainy afternoon in the same moment,

I must have been seduced by the devil.

I, a woman. I, a mother. I, a sister. I, a lover. I, a wife. I, whore.

I am lost in my roles!

And so I scream, I am more than my desires!

But then again, my words shall always fall upon the deafest ears.

So, take my hands. Hang me upside down and beat the devil out of me.

Leash me like the hounds, good sir! I am a danger even to myself. I have the devil in me.

Exorcise me, clean me, wash me, and if the stench still remained, then burn me.

For I have seen a thousand lives,

A whore with a red mouth, and the devil with her chapped lips, as a loveless wife and a coy mistress.

And I beg you, oh, I beg you,

Now let me be free.

 

The Story Called Childhood

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I become the storm. And I embrace all that I am.

Brave and Bold Beauty

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I stopped conforming to your definitions of beauty when I realized that your vision was too puny and insignificant to see the beauty I beheld. This little poem is dedicated to every woman who has felt small, insignificant, unwanted, undesirable or anything less than the goddess she is at any point of her life because she tried to fit into another’s perception of beauty. Darling, listen to me: You are a breathtaking goddess and you do not have to fit into any small enclosure to shape yourself into definitions. So, love yourself. Celebrate yourself.