Category Archives: Media

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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Wash Away the Memories of the Post, Mr. Prime Minister

It is usually said that a confident person is never self conscious. I think the same can be applied to nations.

India is a developing nation. As it’s starting to play a bigger role on the world stage – demand for a seat in the UNSC; rejigging it’s foreign policies and playing a more active role in South East Asia and Africa; firming up strategic, political and economic relations with the Western economies and providing financial aid to many nations in the neighbourhood and beyond, there is a perceived shift in the image of India.

Its social indicators are improving but have some distance to cover to be comparable to the standards of advanced economies, its economic policies are being overhauled as new challenges come forth and its political class is been questioned. As the western world sees the rise of the country, it also sees its faults. While no nation is perfect, a constant media glare highlights the gaps as much as it lauds the country.

Traditionally, the English language media of USA and UK have played important roles in providing news and informing readers and audiences all over the world. They have also been opinion and image makers. Such is the deferential attitude allocated to such media that its reportage (albeit from a western prism) is seen as an all important truth. Its critical news stories are seen as a fall of a nation from the world stage, a dent to one’s carefully cultivated image. The reasons are simple – they set the agenda for the rest to follow, high social media penetration in the West means this information gets relayed many times, leading it to becoming an obvious truth.

Strikingly, no English language news organization from the East is as powerful that the flow of information may be reversed, that it would set an agenda for rest to follow, without accusations of misinformation. And therein lies India’s current problem and its government’s inability to digest criticism from an article in the Washington Post.

Yes the Prime Minister was criticized in unflattering terms. But as an Indian, I don’t disagree with the conclusions drawn by the article. Two of India’s leading magazines India Today and Outlook have come out with issues this week criticizing the government and the Prime Minister.

A good leader takes the criticism and learns from it and moves on, moves forward. The job of his media advisor should not be to, so ridiculously and childishly, to demand to post a reply in the comments section of the newspaper or complain via a letter. His job should be to not respond to the article at all.

There is no need for the Prime Minister’s office to leap up in defense. The American President was a lead story for a Time magazine article some time ago. There was an unflattering review of his policies, highlighting his failures. Did the American government’s PR machinery come out with a scathing reply? No. While I am not saying that America is the gold standard to everything, there are better ways in which PR disasters can be handled. I am sure Mr. Pachauri has better things to do than answer to any and every article written by Western media outlets.

The cardinal rule of strategic communication is to never give the opposition leverage, an upper hand. The second is to accept that in a time where there is online access to information and its multiplication through social media, information and opinions cannot be controlled.

Instead of responding and giving more fodder, a quiet introspection would have been better. It’s time India and its leaders accept that this not the time to be self-conscious about its image being tarnished (by just one article in a foreign newspaper), to imagine perceived slights, to be so sensitive to such criticism. It’s time for the Indian government to learn from this, have a better and stronger strategic communications system, a change in its economic policies, a leader who is assertive. I think 2014 will see the end of Manmohan Singh’s political career. He has about one and a half years left. He should make it count. That, instead, would be a fitting reply.

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Journalism Shamed.

It was spring of 2005 when a suave looking man entered my classroom and started discussing ethics and media law. A lawyer by profession, his task was to impress upon young students, soon to be journalists, the importance of ethics and legalities while dealing with sticky situations.

Years later at another journalism school, my professor asked a question in the class, “If a person was murdered and his family was grieving and your editor told you to go to his house and ask for their reaction, would you do it?” Most of the students said, “Yes.” “What if the family said they didn’t want to speak to the media, would you ring the doorbell again?” Hesitant, some murmured a yes. Most said, “No.” “What if your editor really pressurized you and asked you to try again?” Only one hand rose in the class and a lone voice said, “Yes, I’ll try again.” And thus started a debate on how far will you go to get your story.

A good journalist will go any lengths to get a good story, an editor would say. But it all depends on what is a good story. In my opinion, one needs to weigh if it will do public good, hold organizations or people accountable for wrong doing or if the reason is to sell a commercially viable story.

So when a teenage girl was murdered and her phone was not only hacked by so called journalists, when the voicemail box became full, they even had the audacity to delete some messages, so space could be made for new ones full of anguish. So a juicy story could be filed the next day? So the newspaper would have an exclusive? So that it would sell more?

And no, the newspaper did not just stop here. Authors, actors and politicians were subjected to the same. As The Guardian says:

Journalists hacked phones and people’s email accounts, undertook surveillance at close and long range, sowed suspicion among friends and within families, induced people to become informants, threatened, blackmailed and bullied, especially those who stood up to them, and published rumours and lies to blacken people’s reputations.

Journalism lost that day. An untamed, intangible, malicious beast won instead. A beast in the form of black words on white paper.

Where in the world is it acceptable for journalists to do this just for a juicy tabloid story? And what about the work culture of such an organization which allegedly encouraged journalists to follow such practices. And whose editor and owners sat in the parliament saying they were unaware of these happenings in their backyard.

But the entire chain of events throw up a question – much like the chicken and eggs situation. Do newspapers stoop to such levels because this is what people will read and this sells? Or because the newspapers sell this, so the people will buy it. Who sets the agenda – the demand from the people or the newspaper sales? Have we moved away from a time when news was supposed to be the primary agenda setting entity? The Huffington Post blames the masses as much as it blames those journalists.

However, as the cliché goes, every cloud has a silver lining. The story has unfolded because a journalist broke this story. A newspaper published this. The people read it. A public opinion was formed. A legal recourse is underway. The beast, at last it seems, is going to be tamed. But for how long? There have been whispers that other tabloids have indulged in similar practices with vociferous denials from them. Maybe we should brace for another round of investigations and revelations.

But journalistic enquiry is testament to the fact that the system still works. That journalism might just win at the end of the day. That there is still hope that wrong will be righted and rigorous policies formulated so that journalism will not be shamed again.

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