Monthly Archives: May 2013

Pushing Boundaries: Sexuality and Gender in Mainstream Cinema

Note: This blog post contains spoiler alerts for Bombay Talkies and reveals plotlines

As Indian cinema celebrates 100 years of existence, a tribute to its glorious past and the influence of cinema in our daily lives has been released in the form of four short stories called Bombay Talkies. Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap weave stories which are based in or lead to Bombay and the Hindi film industry, stories of urban couples, the working class, children and the small town people.  Of the four stories, it was interesting to see narratives of sexuality and gender becoming the backbone of Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar’s stories.

Johar, known for making sweet syrupy romantic films and family dramas tells a compelling story which requires courage. The characters are layered and deal with complex emotions in the midst of their mundane lives. The story about a young gay man falling in love with his female boss’s husband is a story which was waiting to be told in the mainstream media.

In the multiplex where I watched the film, people squirmed in their seats as the man on-screen revealed he was gay and that he was attracted to another man. There was laughter in moments which did not warrant any, reeking of homophobia. In popular culture the gay man is meant to be a caricature, not human enough to feel emotions. The man who made this film, also made Dostana, a film which trivialized the gay man, stereotyping him. Numerous other films in the mainsteam have stuck to this narrative, propagating intolerance towards gay people and reinforcing the idea that being gay equates with sexual deviance. So there was laughter when Randeep Hooda’s character hit the openly gay man. And gasps of horror when they kissed.

Finally, Karan Johar redeems himself, offering a different narrative of homosexuality. A narrative which needs to be repeated often in the mainstream to normalize the presence of different sexual orientations. A film which makes people question their long held views, which makes them deal with oppositional meaning of the text, is a mark of a good story and direction. I hope that Johar will continue to experiment with his brand of cinema, challenging the norms.

Zoya Akhtar brings to fore a story of a young boy who wants to be a dancer when he grows up and is forced to play football instead. Though the story’s main narrative deals with the aspirations of the little boy and gender stereotyping, there is an underlying interpretative narrative of his sexuality.

Tight editing, well-etched characters and a strong script are the strength of the story. The middle class family where the boy is expected to be the man of the house when he grows up, the wife who meekly retreats when her husband bellows at the boy dressed in a girl’s outfit, makeup and shoes, the sister who can’t go on a school trip because the family budget allows only her brother to attend football coaching, is a theme many in the middle India can relate to.

The film raises pertinent questions of gender roles and the acceptable male behaviour, challenging them when the boy performs on a make-shift stage, his joy palpable as he comes alive dancing to Sheila ki Jawani. His innocent proclamation that he wants to be Sheila when he grows up is a theme which could be interpreted as gender dysphoria or being gay is left undeveloped, given this is a twenty minute film.

However, it is refreshing to see these narratives being played out in the mainstream and while an average audience member might not be able to read the sexuality of the child, he understands the textual meanings of dreams and gender stereotypes. Akhtar shows brilliance in restraint and realistic development of characters.

After hundred years of challenging what is acceptable in our society, showing a mirror to it, at times being progressive, at others regressive, our cinema continues to grow leaps and bounds, entertaining India’s masses, becoming the country’s soft power abroad and through these short stories, once again pushing the boundaries. Of telling stories of love and dreams, of broken hearts and crushed ambitions, of soaring love and triumphant success.  Of disobeying the rules of what kind of love is acceptable and what kind of dreams cannot be followed.

May Indian cinema continue to celebrate life and its stories.

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A Lost Paradise

When I went to Hyderabad for the first time, I was told to go to Paradise for their scrumptious Biryani. A Hyderabad bucket list thing to do. And I wasn’t disappointed.

But today, I am not just disappointed, I am ashamed. I came across this blog post going viral on facebook and clicked on the link, only to read this about the behaviour of the resturant staff:

 

For all those living in Hyderabad, India, Paradise hotel is synonymous to biryani and is one of the most visited restaurants in the city. Located in Secunderabad, the hotel was so iconic that it lent its name to the place where it is. I say ‘was iconic’ because it no longer is, for me anyways.

Last night, I was there with my family celebrating my mother’s birthday. After dinner, we came down and were waiting for our car to be brought around by the valet. There was this one woman who was selling mogra flowers, a street hawker, right near the restaurant.

Now Paradise for whatever reasons has bouncers as security personnel outside its premises. My husband, my cousins and I were just talking about what was an outright lecherous look of a bouncer towards this woman, when another bouncer walked in (at this point, the woman was surrounded by four bouncers) and asked her to move away from there. Now, I understand that the parking area is managed by these guys, but what right they have to order people off the roads? Anyways, even as she began to walk away, the bouncer pushed her to the ground–yes on a road where traffic flow is quite heavy; snatched her basket of flowers, tore them and began to hit the woman. When we along with the other customers started to scream and run towards the bouncer hitting the woman, he pushed her again to the ground, and ran inside the Paradise garage.

We were quite enraged at this point and ran inside the garage only to be stopped by other bouncers who told us to ‘get lost’ and one went to the extent of saying that the woman was beaten because she was ‘drunk’ and ‘misbehaving’. By this time, a considerably big crowd had gathered all of them demanding for the bouncer to be handed over. Not only were the other bouncers and security guard protecting the culprit but they went a step ahead and threatened customers to leave or forfeit their cars which were in the garage.

In a matter of seconds, the bouncers also began closing the garage doors and had barricaded one of the entrances to the hotel. A so-called Manager appeared on the scene, behind the barricades and told us to leave, saying “You are making a scene out of nothing”.

At this point, I called 108 and had also informed a couple of media houses about the incident. Soon, i saw a Rakshak vehicle (police patrol jeep) and stopped the vehicle and informed them of the incident. When the SI, one Shiva Prasad, asked the security guard what happened he said “nothing happened these guys are just making a big deal out of nothing”. When the police went inside to get the guy, they could not find the guy either. But what was heartening, at this point to see were the many people who had witnessed the incident, coming forward and informing the police. Many had waited for the police to come to complaint.

When i spoke to the other women hawkers there they told me that they are bullied on a daily basis by the Paradise security men. “They push us around, spoil our flowers and sometimes even grope us. We put up with it because we have no choice and have to do this for a living,” said one of the hawkers Lakshmi.

This is the appalling state of affairs in our city and country. What did the guy who pushed that woman and beat her think? That no one would react or that he would get away with it? I guess he thought both. And for all that i know, he might actually get away with it. While i did file a complaint with the SI, am yet to hear about the actual details and realistically speaking, i know that Paradise can ‘afford’ to bribe their way out of this incident. Their reputation will be hardly hit if the media does not take up the issue. Despite, working with the media i feel thoroughly helpless and frustrated that this matter has not been brought to light (as yet atleast) And so decided to go ahead and blog about it.

The manager who  was apprehended by the police last night was almost nonchalant and seemed assured that nothing would come out of this.

But what caught my attention was this- even as i was ashamed that something like this happened in my city, the number of my fellow Hyderabadis who rose to the occassion and fought for this woman who believe me was quite shaken and scared.

There are a lot of underlying issues here. One of class and gender. The inequality of it all. This security guard aka bouncer was assured of his management’s support and hence took the step of assaulting a hapless woman. A woman he knew, would not be able to fight back on her own. By calling her a drunk, the other bouncers somehow felt they had the moral authority to hit a woman. What was disgusting was the complete lack of responsibility on the part of the management.This attitude that she is no body so we can do whatever needs to be cracked down on not to mention  these so called security guards need to be sensitised.

At a time when there is so much public anger on the lack of safety for women, this incident just goes to show how much work’s to be done when it comes to this issue. But, I have hope now. Hope, that people will no longer stay quiet when incidents like this happen. Often, it takes one person to react-(in this case it was my family which reacted in unison)- to encourage other bystanders to stop being spectators. If the police takes action against these guys, they will be setting a wonderful precedent in the city. The incident also brought to the fore the concept of safety for thousands of women employed like this. Who are they to approach when such things take place and to what extent is justice actually delivered? Apart from strengthening laws, its time we even think of how to make women aware of their rights so that they can fight back.

And yes i know for a fact that I will NEVER step foot into that restaurant or any of its branches again  or even order from there. The only way these big establishments will understand the gravity of what happened last night is when people begin to boycott them.

I generally don’t ask for my blog posts to be shared, but this one i will. Please read and share this as widely as possible. We need to come together to teach a lesson to these guys and cut their arrogance. This might be a long shot, but i believe in the power of social media.

 This is cross-posted from the original blog here.

I hope one day, we can create an environment where it is NOT acceptable to mistreat women, hit them or harass them. The change has to come from us and our voices in unity. 

Amen.

 

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