How Gully Boy appropriated Azadi from the marginalised

On the eve of the launch of Gully Boy, the much-awaited Bollywood biggie of this quarter, “Khane ke bade bill se Azadi! #GullyBoy,” read a notification from a food delivery application on my phone as loud chants of “Azadi” raised by students protesting (against the detainment of AMU students on charges of sedition) resounded through the streets of my residential campus at JNU. Now this slogan is not the reserve of JNU students; it never has been. Chants of “Azadi” have been raised in women’s rights movements, anti-caste movements and other movements seeking social justice. We, the students of JNU, unlike Zoya Akhtar and the cast of her film, do not attempt to appropriate the cry of the marginalised to suit any of our whims.

Gully Boy is the rags-to-riches story of Naezy (Murad), a slum-dweller in Mumbai’s Dharavi. The musical drama follows him as he struggles his way out of class oppression, familial discord and relationship problems to achieve his dream of becoming a rapper. His rap captures his angst against a society which impairs his creativity with financial burden. All he has in his support are his doting girlfriend Safeena and his mentor MC Sher (whose uncanny resemblance to Drake is hard to be ignored). His lyrics are sympathetic to the pain of class immobility, but the film is not.

For a narrative which criticises economic disparity, Gully Boy fails to uphold the very ideals it encashes on. The motif of class inequality it seemingly revolves around, falls through in the numerous marketing gimmicks such as the not-so-subtle presence of a JBL headphone here and a Bira mentioned there. If you were to watch a YouTube video around Valentine’s Day, chances are that you did come across a Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk commercial starring Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. Ironically, they do this to promote a film which valorises the rise of an underdog and depicts the everyday negotiations made by a female medical student in a conservative patriarchal family. This sadly renders the story apparently themed around class oppression into yet another instance of romanticisation of poverty by Bollywood.

Ultimately, the film is no better than Slumdog Millionaire (which allegedly exoticises the poverty of Indians in Dharavi, Mumbai) which it explicitly cries down in its rhythmically charged rap number. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, the protagonist does not win a lottery here; instead, he rises up the class ladder through hard work and grit. This further enshrines the neoliberal doctrine that if one is industrious enough, one shall succeed. Material success is the ultimate goal in this framework and it seems as though once it has been achieved, all problems in life will automatically be alleviated. It completely ignores that the collateral damage which, according to the film, poverty brings along – polygyny, domestic violence, drug peddling, child labour and theft, are related to larger structural issues. Poverty is the villain of the story and it is expected that once one gets rid of it, peace content will ensue gradually in all spheres of life.

I am not certain which is more surprising – the fact that Zee News vehemently attacked (by branding as “anti-national”) such students of JNU as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid three years ago for raising slogans of “Azadi”, or that the same Zee Music has commercialised a carefully doctored version of a speech by Kanhaiya Kumar into a form acceptable by majoritarian forces. The song “Azadi” astonishingly does not comprise the phrases originally used by Kanhaiya – “bhukhmari se azadi” or “jativad se azadi” or “punjivad se azadi” or “brahmanvad se azadi” or “manuvad se azadi”. The filmmaker argues that she has excluded these words from the song because they do not pertain to the theme of the film. The actors conveniently state that they have nothing to do with politics. Their apolitical stance is a brazen reminder of privilege.

While the director, who has so far made movies about the ultra-rich (for example, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do), claims to come from a point of sympathy for the economically downtrodden, the actors are admittedly comfortable in being unaware of politics. They claim to be “happy bunnies” when asked how they reconcile their real life (where Ranveer Singh hugs Prime Minister Narendra Modi) with their portrayal in reel life. For them, “Azadi is yet another musical verse which they would like to hum once they wake up in the morning. They attribute their apathy for politics to their acting skills.

The privileged detachment of the actors from politics and their open refusal to engage with it is reminiscent of the bourgeois performance of the characters in the film who drive through Mumbai late at night spray-painting body positive slogans on billboards. Body positivity is not a theme the movie centres around, but somehow, unlike the omitted words from the “Azadi” chant raised by Kanhaiya Kumar, it finds its way in a well-orchestrated scene. This token act of political awareness stands for the stance adopted by its makers.

Politics pervades all spheres of life. To be apolitical in times of mass turmoil is synonymous with being on the side of the oppressor. A perusal of the political opinions of the actors and the director (who represent this movie) reveals that “Khane ke bade bill se Azadi!” is the most sense they could make of a powerful word like “Azadi”. However, as Akhtar herself proclaims – the chant “belongs to everyone” – I too hope the word does not lose its emancipatory potential by the time this film becomes a hit and the Gully Boy: Live in Concert hits Amazon Prime with the opening phrase “The revolution is here.”

Featured photo courtesy: The Free Press Journal

The discrimination we are blind to except during admission season

It is only during college admissions that the middle class in India is reminded about caste.

In the age of Facebook activism, your wall may be adorned with posts where you scream your lungs out about why we need feminism; you may be shouting from behind your computer screen about how transphobia and homophobia are thwarting the progress of India. Our social media profiles are often a way of consciously constructing our identities and proclaiming our support to certain convictions.

In posing as liberals, we, the middle class English-speaking urban millennials of India, are sensitized to many an expression of social discrimination but there is one particular form of discrimination that seems to resurface only when we need to get admitted to an institution or course, more often a coveted one. In case you forgot about the existence of this kind of discrimination, let me remind you that I am about to address the elephant in the room, viz. caste.

It’s that time of the year again. Students who have just got or are awaiting their board exam results, are spending sleepless nights wondering if they will get through their dream college. When they come to know the intake rates of some of the best colleges in the country, they usually notice to their disappointment the percentage of seats reserved for the so-called “lower” castes such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.

You must have understood by now that I am conflating the category, student with a particular breed of students here – urban middle class students who are usually not first generation learners.

In this regard, it is not surprising to note that 75% of more than six million children currently out of school in India are either Dalits (32.4%), Muslims (25.7%) or Adivasis (16.6%).

Given that these statistics are from the India Exclusion Report (2014) by Centre for Equity Studies, I can vouch for another corollary fact that is almost self-evident from this finding; most of the Indian middle class and upper class is also “upper” caste. In such a scenario, it is but obvious that caste and class coincide to a great extent in the country and it conveniently goes unnoticed or is intentionally overlooked.

Why otherwise will jokes such as the one in the following image do the rounds on your news feed in and around the time of CBSE, CISCE and state board results? (Just look up Google Images with the keywords of caste or reservation system and you will know what I am talking about.)

Image Source: Facebook

It is not just upper class but also upper caste privilege which makes board examinees lament the reservation system in modern Indian education system. The system has definitely got its own set of loopholes. Instead of pivoting reservations around only caste, if the focus was on a combination of caste and class determinants, then the angst of the current youth during admissions would have considerably decreased.

Caste-based politics in India is a murky terrain. With many a dominant caste in several states of India fighting for the status of reserved castes simply to avail the benefits of reservation rightly deserved by the underprivileged, the AIDMK totally losing its basis of identity politics related to caste issues and so in, caste seems to just be a ladder for economic gains to many. To the rest, however, it is a Rohith Vemula or the rape of a Dalit working class woman you will never quite know of.

It is undeniable that caste exists even in “educated” India. How else would you account for the ephemeral benign neglect of teachers towards students from marginalized castes? Which other kind of discrimination would you classify asking Dalit villagers to clean themselves before meeting Yogi Adityanath as?

It is my conviction that it is more the fact of being accustomed to caste privilege that leads to insensitivity towards marginalized castes than the reservation system. I am tempted to mention one of my favourite quotations here.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

This pretty much explains the anxiety of so many general category students who, not as a mere coincidence but by the historic oppression of marginalized castes, have enjoyed middle class privileges in India, stand staunchly against reservations. The hypocrisy starts here when “those people” in class sit in separate groups even in what are called some of the most elite educational institutions in the country and ends with a momentary crocodile tear or two on social media about Dalit suicides and that too only when the said Dalit is articulate and academically accomplished.

Featured Image Courtesy:  The New York Times

How 24-hour stories came to capture ‘life stories’

The 24-hour stories on social media platforms reinstate the transience of life.

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”
-Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves

First Snap stories, then Instagram stories, followed by WhatsApp statuses; and now Messenger Day seems to be the newest kid on the block. With the most frequently used social media platforms doing the 24-hour story game right, it seems like it won’t be long before our social media experience will be engulfed by the anxiety of posting, checking who viewed the posts and viewing others’ posts.

For instance

You go to have pizza with friends, one of whom has to leave in 30 minutes. You are all killing time until the pizza arrives. In those 10 minutes, one of you takes her phone out and starts clicking pictures/shooting Boomerangs while you don’t notice them doing it. You start doing the same. The others do the same. This is how all your other friends get to know within seconds that you all are hanging out to have pizza.

Each of you upload stories on Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Considering an average of 2 minutes spent on each application, you spend a total of 8 minutes in posting stories if you do not want  to be the one whose stories deliver nothing new to followers. By the one who reluctantly started sharing stories 2 minutes after the others did, completes the business, the pizza is here.

Once the pizza is served, each one posts a story of it. These were pictures of the entire pizza, mind you. You also have to post a picture of after your slice is on your plate. Assuming this process took you 4 minutes in all, the friend who’s got to leave in 30 minutes has 16 minutes in hand. She starts eating her food. Before you realise, she has to leave but before she leaves, “let me click a selfie”.

In the entire time spent with friends, when did you stop to talk to each other?

You discussed about how the pizza tastes, which place offers better pizza and when you last ate at this particular eatery. Did you discuss how your heart ached at three this morning for a moment that will never return? Did you recall memories of the time you first met each other?

Aesthetic Consumerism

Photographs, which are meant to be souvenirs of experiences one has already had, have now become a means to actualize the experience. This is something Susan Sontag had foreseen long before the dystopia we are living in had been materialised.

You live in an economy that runs on envy.

If the picture of the delectable pizza posted by your friend did not water your mouth, you would not go to that eatery the next weekend itself. If you did not envy the quality of pictures your friend posts with an iPhone, you would not have bought an iPhone. If you did not envy the car your neighbour drives, you would not have bought your second car.

The culture of consumption that willingly or unwillingly we are a part of, demands that we struggle for a better pizza, phone, car. It demands that we make our lives look worth envy with post-processed photographs. It may increase the illusory aesthetic quotient of our daily experience, but it is certain to create an experience of reality as we desire it to be.

Image Source

Why post stories?

Why post stories when you can actually make posts that stay permanently on your Facebook or Instagram wall? The answer is nothing you have not known till date. Stories let you post many times without actually spamming anyone. They let you post stuff that you would not want to keep on your timeline either because they are not aesthetically very pleasing or because they capture in essence the transience of the moments you want to show to the world.

However, the most important reason for posting stories is to capture moments that you know won’t last long. You are living a moment which your followers are not.

This is a subversion of the very idea of photography and videography because instead of capturing moments so that they last for a long time, one now captures moments simply to share them with the rest of the world for a short period. This moment in history is one of self-reflection – it reveals that we lose the moment in the attempt to immortalise it. It reminds us of the transience of life itself and questions if one really document a life story in public moment through social media stories. It makes Emily Dickinson all the more relevant:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

Featured Image Courtesy: Visual Hunt

5 Reasons Why Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya is the Ultimate Love Anthem

“Why be afraid when you are in love?” is what Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya literally translates to. It appears in the iconic film Mughal-e-Azam which was released in 1960 after 14 years of production. Here’s why it might just as well be termed as India’s song of defiance.

1. It defies persistent gender roles

Gender, as Judith Butler (1960) contends, is constructed through a set of repeated performances. The dance by Madhubala’s Anarkali serves the male gaze appropriately- you will find the camera focusing on her many a time during the sequence. However, Anarkali does not shy away from this gaze. She confronts it and this is a major point of departure from what would otherwise be expected out of a woman of her times in India. She liberates herself from the framework of gender that she operates in.

2. A symbol for LGBT rights movement

Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya has now become a slogan for the emergent LGBT (Lesbian, Gay,Bisexual, Transgender) rights movement in India. It is an anthem about the triumph of love across social boundaries. The song surpasses time and space. It has gained significance as a form of protest voiced by more than an Anarkali. Madhubala’s Kathak is today a symbol of love against conservative forces. It is not long before this song can be an effective answer to those who are so worried about love-jihad.

A line from the song on a poster for Rainbow Walk on Delhi Road. Image Source


3. A Drag Queen of sorts?

A drag queen is a man who ostentatiously dresses up in women’s clothes. Going by queer theory, a male drag queen in stylizing normative femininity simultaneously deconstructs it too. Madhubala’s drag queen not only challenges dominant discourses of power contained within a patriarchal nation-state, but she also threatens the discourses on sexualization of the body. She is aware of her class, religion, nationality and gender, yet she chooses to digress from the destiny paved for her.

Like all women who do this, her demise in the tale is also not very surprising. The song is that struggle for the identity of the subaltern which keeps returning to the Bollywood celluloid.

4. Anarkali is a brave subaltern

She is a courtesan. She is Muslim and what’s worse is that she is a woman. In short, she embodies all that you would not like to be in a royal setup comprising men during the Mughal period in India. Salim had, in fact, just before the performance, accused her of being a bujdil laundi (cowardly slave). A play of power recurs through the song-and-dance performance but even that fails to deter the spirit of love in the status of a subaltern that Anarkali finds herself in. She is a woman with little agency dancing across an empire’s patriarch.

5. The sequence reflects India’s tryst with destiny

Anarkali’s performance for the court can be compared to Bollywood’s performance for Jawaharlal Nehru. The movie Mughal-e-Azam opens with a baritone proclaiming, “I am Hindustan”. The then Hindustan was associated with sentiments different from those it now is. The film was made during India’s period of nation-building. Despite being set in the Mughal period, the sequence vividly portrays what was despised by the nationalist elites of post-colonial India- films (they were equated with gambling). What is now called the Golden Age of Indian cinema was then not a cakewalk for the film industry because it used to be regarded more as a perversion or disruption to advancement than as a form of cultural expression. This hurdle is encountered by Anarkali as well.

The song is a breakthrough from several dominant social norms. This does not make it any less appealing to the masses. It enthralls audiences all the same despite being as revolutionary as it is. This is what makes it the ultimate love anthem.

Do share if you find any other reason why this song-and-dance should be called so.

The Republic of Cowrashtra

Ours is a nation which imagines the mother in the cow and the nation in the mother. I wish to disintegrate through this article the dual concepts of Bharat Maata (Mother India) and Gau Maata in light of the recent events happening across the nation.

Why I don’t have a Bharat Maata

The symbol of a mother is often used to identify a nation. This is in view of the analogy that women can conceive and land can sustain the lives of its denizens. This kind of an analogy essentially leads to a very patriarchal kind of nationalism which necessitates women, the incarnation of the Bharat Maata to be protected. Who are going to protect them? The answer is one that history has time and again implied in various ways- men. Men who are the soldiers and martyrs of the nation are supposed to protect Mother India’s honour from being violated by outsiders.

Implications of the woman-nation analogy

The nationalist and patriarchal agenda converge at this point. Both either implicitly or explicitly suggest that women, the weaker sex, need to be protected by their stronger counterparts (?) men. This takes away considerable amount of autonomy from women who, under these agenda, are seen as potential mothers and caregivers. It seems to be almost natural that women are destined to be mothers. Hence, some feminists have called this a ‘protection racket’.

Moreover, the nationalist agendum of protecting the mother from outsiders who may squander with her assets (honour thought of as the most valuable asset) is loaded with its own exclusionist implications. It views as the other anyone who does not protect cows- a nationalist symbol of motherhood.

Towards a Cowrashtra

Cow protectionism is not new to us. Even when our ancestors were fighting the freedom movement, this issue created quite a communal rift. Little has changed over the centuries. The Rashtriya Swayamshatru (yes, that’s what I prefer calling it) Sangha (RSS) has made sure that everyone who is involved in the consumption or production of beef, is treated as the other. This other includes not just the Muslim who is otherwise the eternal other of India, but also the Dalits whose occupation is to skin dead cows. What can objectively be called brutality has been meted out to these people while an otherwise vocal leader of the nation has chosen silence as golden when it has come to this issue.

There is of course no problem if a particular religion attributes motherhood to an animal. It is, however, problematic when the Hindu identity is conflated as the Indian identity and Indians across other religions are homogenized as Hindus who should not consume beef.

Forced Nationalism

A similar kind of forced nationalism was witnessed when the Supreme Court ruled on November 30, 2016 that everyone needs to rise when the national anthem is played in theatres. This indeed is nationalism and I dare say that it may be jingoism as well. Patriotism cannot be forced. Nationalism does not necessarily culminate into patriotism. If it’s a matter of individual discretion as to whether or not one would watch a movie, it is also a matter of patriotism that one feels towards their country which determines whether they would stand during the national anthem whose lyricist himself dreamt of a time

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls

I have elucidated earlier that modern-day nationalism has started to take the role of a religion per se. This is one contribution that India seems to be successfully making to the rest of the world, especially the United States of America. If Indian nationalism is a religion, it is increasingly being coloured saffron to the exclusion of minorities. It is up to us whether at this crucial moment in history we choose to be just bhakts or Desh bhakts.

Featured Image: “The Saffron Queen”- Janine Shroff’s reinterpretation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ for Elle India Nov

Confessions of Size 32B

Hi! We are a pair of honour(s) from below the brassiere speaking. We are supposed to be a woman but lately (which means since puberty), she has been reduced to a size- 32B. For those of you who don’t know what 32B means: 32 is the girth of our bra band and B is the cup size, going by the lingerie brand we use. This must be a size good enough. We mean, we have no issues with it, but the cat says that it is larger in proportion to the body. The cat, in fact, loves us so much that it makes most of the decisions for us. These decisions are, in order of their  significance, the following dysfunctions of having enlarged (more than necessary) busts.

Image Source
  1. Honour

You want it or not, we, according to the cat, signify honour, not just of our owner, but of her entire family. The larger we are the deeper is the cleavage between the two of us, and mind you if there’s a little bit of this cleavage exposed! It makes the cat ire; all hell breaks loose. Our owner was once expelled from the college canteen by a staff member because “others are complaining”. We still do not know if we were visually affecting these others or if we make our owner a repulsive human being. Since we represent honour, if someone wants to insult our owner or her family, the way is set- they simply grab one or both of us.

Image by Aindri Chakraborty
  1. Weaning

Just as if we are assaulted, our owner loses her social honour, she becomes inauspicious if she is infertile. This aspect is precisely what marks our next function- breastfeeding. This very fortunate task we are endowed with can be rendered a dysfunction if somehow a child is weaned in public. We meet gaping mouths and ogling eyes if we feed a baby around strangers. We are not really a set of body parts, but a pair of paradoxes bothering the cat day in and day out, while dangling heavily from the chest to make our presence felt.

  1. Pleasure

This seems to be a function crucial to our existence. The cat seems pretty much interested in it. It appears in the form of nosey neighbours casually suggesting over a pint of wine that we undergo liposuction. It also comes in the form of close friends laughing at the prospect of how lucky the partner of our owner is, owing to our large size. This is how sexual pleasure happens to backfire in the form of inappropriate sexual humour.

Image Source

Having enlisted the dysfunctions, we would like to point out that brassieres are really uncomfortable. We hope one day the over-sexualisation we are subject to, subsides, that we can go out without wearing them. Until then, let us go to the lingerie store and look for the perfect cup to hide our rather unwanted selves.

Pro tip: if you have ever owned a bra and do not like to wear it, stop to think if you started wearing it by choice or if the cat compelled you to wear it.

Featured Image sourced from Kadak Collective

#ColdplayInIndia: A Head Full of Controversies 

Look at your fingers. You know exactly what I meant by the word “fingers” even though I did not personally go to you and gesticulate at the area near your palm. This is because you and I have mutually agreed upon a certain code which we shall follow to communicate with each other. This code is called language, but you see- it is nothing but a consensus on using symbols.

Now let me tell you about another symbol. Think about a white rectangular piece of cloth. You can use it to wipe sweat off your face, dry utensils or to save your hands from the heat of the container while taking a dish out of your oven. What if I took this piece of cloth, painted green and saffron borders through two respective lengths and drew a blue wheel with twenty-four spokes in the white area? This will never let you do anything but revere that same piece of cloth. That’s how immense the load of the symbols I have imparted to the piece of cloth is.

It’s the same with religion, isn’t it? You regard an object as sacred- so much so that it eventually becomes a totem. You treat it with respect; admonish yourself even at the thought of bringing it down to the profane sphere of existence. Think of a rosary to a Christian, or the Holy Quran to a Muslim. If nationalism was a religion, the national flag would likewise be its most revered totem. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that this flag is sacred. Similarly, I do not remember why it is so.

This brings us to some relevant questions: Is the nation then a religious group? If so, who are its prophets- our political leaders? These questions demand logical answers, but let us keep them for another day because right now we are at a political juncture that claims the solution to a more pertinent dilemma. Who gets to decide which gesture to our flag is disrespectful? We have assigned meanings to symbols and none but we can change them. I do not know how tucking the flag to one’s rear pocket, as Chris Martin did last night at the first ever Coldplay concert in India, is disrespectful, but I’d like to know if by the same rule, draping six yards painted with the tricolor around one’s entire body is not equally disrespectful.

#Coldplay singer #ChrisMartin insults Indian Flag in presence of #BJP &#ShivSena leaders. Hurts sentiments of 120 Cr Indians. @PTI_News

Nawab Malik, Spokesperson, National Congress Party over Twitter

A still from Hymn for the Weekend

This is not the first time that Coldplay has been accused of slighting the heritage of India. When Hymn for the Weekend was released in January this year, the band was charged with cultural appropriation, implying that it has narrowed India down to yogis, poor children and the colours of Holi among others. A careful look at previous works of Coldplay will suggest how they have always cast their songs in a different setting which goes well with the theme. Their settings have always transcended reality, be it in the elephant reuniting with its band in Paradise or Chris returning to the idyllic past in The Scientist or the chimpanzees partying in the middle of a forest in Adventure of a Lifetime. So is it with Hymn for the Weekend which is a fusion of alternative rock, pop and R&B about having an angelic person in one’s life. It is not a Britpop centred around Holi. It merely seeks to recreate an ambience of psychedelia reminiscent of the hippie culture of the 60’s. This necessitates yogis and a colourful screen. There could be no place better than India to find this setting. That’s all. As a student of sociology, I do not find anything objectionable in the video, barring the cameo by Sonam Kapoor, but that’s my personal bias. Like come on, stop overthinking about issues that do not need attention and spare some of it over the ones that need it.

Ten months ago, Coldplay was blamed of cultural appropriation by the very Indians who went gaga when Chris Martin hummed a popular Bollywood number Channa Mereya at the Global Citizen Festival India last night (because hey, Europeans trying Hindi is so cute OMG but Pranab Mukherjee speaking English in a Bengali accent is hilarious). The Indians who are now blaming Martin of “disrespecting” the flag are not supposed to be amused at homogeneizing a culture, if one is to go by the recent political happenings here. It is almost the rule of the day here to marginalize every identity other than that of the majoritarian Hindu. Why else would a Muslim Najeeb meet such apathy from the bureaucracy? Hence, it sounds hilarious when Indians accuse foreigners of insulting their culture.

The double standards of the Indian audience has been exposed too much through how Coldplay has met with controversies in almost every recent association with the country. It took us many years to give back something to the West after globalization- we are successfully leading the world on the path of anti-globalization and I know not where the journey that has begun with shaking hands with a right-wing bigot will end. The ripples India is sending across the globe reek of jingoism; what scares me is that these ripples are not far from becoming formidable waves.