30 June 2006


India has been known as one of the greatest civilisations in the world… well, at least, in the ancient world. For, over the years, India has become known as the land of the poor; the land of caste divisions, untouchability, dowry, sati, and various other gender discriminations and social ills. In the eyes of the world, these social ills and customs define India’s backwardness – a land unwilling, and unable, to change with the times, despite its growing importance in the global economic forum.

I’ve often wondered who sanctioned such social customs. What gave life to these social practices that made a great civilisation dysfunctional and turned it into a backward society? Perhaps, if we could find answers to this question, we could reverse the process of social backwardness in which India has been slotted… and make India a great civilisation once again. While reading up on the Net, I came across a very informative site on History of Social Relations in India (on Tripod) and have provided here several quotes from one of their articles on ‘Caste and gender equations in Indian history’.

Historically, caste and gender discriminations have been evident in many societies. They are not uniquely Indian as many people believe them to be. Wherever and whenever there have been hereditary and authoritarian ruling dynasties, or the domination by religion or a powerful state bureaucracy, social inequities have appeared. The roots of these inequities have been economic in nature and have, typically, focused on distribution of wealth, rights to property, and political power.

Socially, it seems, this has meant stratification of societies into classes, where the elite – made up of the royalty, the warriors, the priests and the land-owners – have garnered the greatest share of privileges. Not only that, according to the article I referred, this social system has “often meant hereditary privileges for the elite and legally (or socially) sanctioned discrimination against those considered lower down in the social hierarchy.” The article provided several interesting examples of this social stratification from various parts of the world, and I have reproduced below a few of these for you:

“…in Eastern Africa some agricultural societies were divided between land-owning and landless tribes (or clans) that eventually took on caste-like characteristics. Priests and warriors enjoyed special privileges in the 15th C. Aztec society of Mexico as did the Samurais (warrior nobles) and priests of medieval Japan. Notions of purity and defilement were also quite similar in Japanese society and members of society who carried out ‘unclean’ tasks were treated as social outcasts – just as in India.”

“Amongst the most stratified of the ancient civilizations was the Roman Civilization where in addition to state-sanctioned slavery, there were all manner of caste-like inequities coded into law. Even in the Christian era, European feudalism provided all manner of hereditary privileges for the knights and landed barons (somewhat akin to India’s Rajputs and Thakurs) and amongst the royalty, arranged marriages and dowry were just as common as in India. Discrimination against the artisans was also commonplace throughout Europe…”

“It should also be emphasized that caste-distinctions were not the only way, or even the most egregious way in which social inequities manifested themselves in older societies. In ancient Greece and Rome, the institution of slavery was at least as cruel a practice, if not worse…”

Are these examples of great societies or social backwardness? Do they celebrate civilisations or deride equal opportunities for human beings? Is there a learning for us all in these examples? Whatever they be, they do not seem to justify India’s position on social, political, religious or economic discrimination of its own people. Perhaps, it’s time India looked forward.

28 June 2006

Marginalised communities

My recent posts on this blog are not about any specific prejudice against Muslims in India or the African Americans (please read my previous posts for reference) by their government or the people around them. These examples are used to illustrate the point that, while the Muslims in India and the African Americans constitute a homogenous group – in fact, a substantially large community in numbers – social inequities exist against them despite their size.

In India, minority groups are far too many in number to be considered as a single homogeneous group. Matters are made worse as the ‘minority’ population is fragmented into many Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) groups and Other Backward Classes (OBC). These groups form a huge number of communities classified on religious, economic, social, linguistic, ethnic, regional and caste divisions. This classification may have been made formal now, but these divisions have existed for thousands of years.

Today, people from these communities, typically, make up the peasants, the landless labourers, the ‘untouchables’, the artisans and others belonging to many old-economy trades. With the advent of globalisation, new technologies, the changing economic scene and the corresponding liberal economic policies adopted by the government, these communities are further marginalised as their contribution is no longer perceived to be important to the economy.

Maybe they should be rehabilitated, setting aside reservations and quotas to create opportunities for them. Even then there is trouble. While seeking government relief, there are severe inequalities in the allocation and distribution of resources (most of which is consumed by the elite and the urban population), with the marginalised communities falling prey to, and succumbing at the feet of, our political leaders.

But who’s worried? India continues to forge ahead in the new economy, leaving its marginalised communities more and more demoralised.

26 June 2006

Minority report

[This is not about Steven Spielberg’s film starring Tom Cruise]

The African Americans are not the only minorities in the world with problems. In fact, they may be the lucky ones. There are many others – really, many many others – about whom the world does not know much, nor have heard about. In my country, India, there are so many minority groups that I’ve lost count. Most of them are classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the census report. And, it takes no great brains to realise that this nomenclature automatically puts these minority groups in a less-privileged position.

The conditions of these minority groups are made more difficult by India’s own problems of a huge population, poverty, illiteracy, access to healthcare and education, lack of infrastructure and several other economic factors. But, most importantly, historically, there have been two aspects of the Indian social stratification which have created problems for these minority groups: religion and the caste system. It’s tough enough managing a population of almost 1.3 billion people; with religion and the caste system as points of social and cultural distinction, matters become worse.

Consider, for instance, the position of Muslims in India. They make up close to 12% of the population in India (similar to the African Americans in the US). That adds up to almost 150 million people (almost four times the population of African Americans), making up the second largest Muslim population in the world and the largest Muslim population outside an Islamic country. Yet, in India, they form a minority group. And, as is the fate of most minority groups in India, and in the world, they face the censure of social, political and economic discrimination. However, unlike the African Americans, the segregation of Muslims in India is based on religion, not race.

Compared to other religious minority groups in India – e.g. the Sikhs, the Christians, the Parsis – the Muslims, as a community, do lag behind economically. In terms of income distribution, employment, ownership of assets, access to education, healthcare or other public services, the Muslim minority seems to enjoy fewer achievements than other religious minority groups in India. This is damaging to the Muslim community – to the extent of developing severe economic backwardness, and perhaps social stagnation, in a country which is actually on an economic upswing. This is indeed a serious matter for the Muslim community in India.

Is the size of the Muslim population a deterring factor in their growth? Does Islam, or as it is interpreted and lived in India, contribute to this Muslim economic backwardness? Is the Indian government biased in their management of minority groups like the Muslims? Is the rising support for the Hindutva doctrine blocking economic progress for Muslims in India? These, and many more, questions need to be addressed.

23 June 2006

Catch-22 situation

“More than any other country, America defines itself by a collective dream: the dream of economic opportunity and upward mobility. Its proudest boast is that it offers a chance of the good life to everybody who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. This ideal has made the United States the world’s strongest magnet for immigrants; it has also reconciled ordinary Americans to the rough side of a dynamic economy, with all its inequalities and insecurities…”
[The Economist, June 2006, ‘The rights and wrongs of the American model’]

I wonder what percentage of ordinary African Americans would share this sentiment wholeheartedly, even though they may have to reconcile themselves to it. For, even in the land of plenty, choice and opportunities are not always on the side of the African American. A quick example of this is the Black film industry. If you’ve read my previous post, ‘Black indie film… still in the red’, you would’ve realised that, for the African-American film director, notions of inequality and lack of opportunity are still major concerns.

Of course, there’s more to life than cinema, although cinema does reflect and represent life and culture. And, the goals of Black film directors are no different from those of the entire African-American population: That is, to find meaningful opportunities to achieve success – not just in industry talent awards and recognition, but in the business and economic sense. Not only should their be funds available to make films, their should be an audience large enough and a distribution network robust enough to bring in returns on investment.

Looks like a perfect Catch-22 situation.

But, let’s leave African-American cinema for a while and look at the African-American people. It’s a minority group, making up close to 13% of the US population. Although they share the same American Dream of equal opportunity, of achieving a life of prosperity based on effort and ability (as opposed to chance or birth), the history of the African-American people has been fraught with trouble. Their journey has been a continuous one, from slavery to freedom. And, even after 350 years, equal opportunity and a life of prosperity still seem to be illusory dreams.

African Americans still find it difficult to get ahead in life despite their hard work and talent. Of course, over generations, life has improved for the African American. They are no longer slaves and there is a greater acceptance of the African American by society. But, equal opportunity in the economic sense of distribution of income, health-care, housing, education, employment… is still not in their favour. What’s most disturbing about this status-quo is the fact that the future of the African-American people is being determined today.

According to a recent report, ‘Understanding Mobility in America’, by Tom Hertz of American University, “Education, race, health and state of residence are four key channels by which economic status is transmitted from parent to child.” And, when it comes to “the question of intergenerational mobility, or the degree to which the economic success of children is independent of the economic status of their parents…” it doesn’t look all that good for the African American.

Here are a few key findings from that report:

Children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.

Children born to the middle quintile of parental family income ($42,000 to $54,300) had about the same chance of ending up in a lower quintile than their parents (39.5 percent) as they did of moving to a higher quintile (36.5 percent). Their chances of attaining the top five percentiles of the income distribution were just 1.8 percent.

African American children who are born in the bottom quartile are nearly twice as likely to remain there as adults than are white children whose parents had identical incomes, and are four times less likely to attain the top quartile.

The difference in mobility for blacks and whites persists even after controlling for a host of parental background factors, children’s education and health, as well as whether the household was female-headed or receiving public assistance.

The report goes on to say, “A higher level of intergenerational mobility is often interpreted as a sign of greater fairness, or equality of opportunity, in a society… By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults.”

Another Catch-22 situation? May not be. I’m sure something can be done about this.

22 June 2006

Black cinema, black identity

“One of the reasons I originally wanted to make films was that I got tired of what they [Hollywood filmmakers] were doing… I knew I could do better. At least, I knew it wouldn’t be hard to do better than that… It took me ten years to get a chance to do it their way, and what I discovered at Columbia Pictures is that their way gets in my way… I just did my best and got on with my own independent career.”
[Melvin Van Peebles, African-American filmmaker]

What does Black cinema stand for anyway?

A portrait of African-American life and history: The hardships of the black man; the inequality between the blacks and the whites; the black man defying the system that incarcerates him; the narrow, racist thinking that affects – even destroys – both the black and white communities; the larger racial and cultural stories of African Americans. Black cinema is the voice of the African American whose spirit cannot be destroyed or taken away by white people or white power.

In creating this portrait, Black cinema also creates black stereotypes. The black man escaping slavery and fighting for freedom; the black man being punished for the colour of his skin; the black man as the cause of fear and suspicion (with or without a gun); the black man as the criminal and fugitive; the black man displaying extraordinary physical fitness, particularly in sports; the black man endowed with exceptional sexual powers; the black man in the service of the white.

Of course, there are strong messages of black unity, pride, determinism, attitude and challenge in Black films which are lessons for us all. In fact, there is one aspect of Black cinema which has always fascinated me. It’s the repeated theme of black identity. No matter how sophisticated or action-packed or romantic or humorous or sexual Black films tend to be, this aspect of reducing everything down to one single theme of race – race as the identity of a huge population – is an enormous strength historically and politically… as well as a masterful technique in communication.

Fascinating this may be, loaded with great historical, cultural and political meaning in the US, but how much of this affects the international film audience is perhaps a long argument.

Some questions come to my mind: Are Black American films accepted well by the international audience? How important are Black American film directors to the international film community? Do Black American actors play a special role in films which is not otherwise found in films produced by America? Should the international audience perceive – or even expect – a significant difference in a Black American film from its white counterpart?

And most important of all, outside the US, is there a large enough audience for Black cinema?

20 June 2006

Indians not too keen on Black cinema

As an Indian residing in India, I have very little exposure to films made by African-American directors. In fact, I believe, most Indians (and I include myself in this lot) look at American films as ‘films from Hollywood’ – without differentiating and/or classifying American films as independent or Black or a combination of these categories. What I mean is, the Indian cinema-going audience does not view a film differently because of the colour of the director’s skin.

However, there is a point of distinction that Indians make. Indians find it difficult to relate to African-American culture: their lifestyle, mannerisms, language, and violent crime in particular. Black emotions, Black relationships… somehow don’t gel too well with the Indian audience. For instance, a film like ‘Waiting To Exhale’ by Forest Whitaker, which was a great hit in the United States, hardly made a dent in India.

For a Black film to become a big hit in India, the story has to step outside the deeper aspects/idiosyncrasies of pure Black culture. Like John Singleton’s 2003 film ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ which dealt with underground car racing. It was an instant hit with the Indian audience, particularly the teen crowd. Yet, his earlier film ‘Boyz N the Hood’ – a masterpiece and one of my favourites – was appreciated by a tiny portion of the English-film-viewing audience in India.

Would a Black film like ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’ (by Kevin Rodney Sullivan) appeal to Indian women? Not likely. It just won’t work. Indians are not keen on Black cinema with an all-Black cast. But strangely, a film with white characters by a Black director is quite acceptable by Indians. Take Carl Franklin’s wonderful film ‘One True Thing’. I’m not sure if the film would have had as much appeal to Indians if the story was about a Black family instead of a white one.

Mind you, this viewing behaviour is true not just for films, but for TV programmes as well. All-Black TV shows on the Indian cable have a much lower level of acceptance (if any at all) by Indians compared to shows with white actors depicting white lifestyles. I’m sure ‘Friends’ or ‘Home Improvement’ would not have been as successful in India if they had only Black actors as characters.

Why is this so? Why do Indians not relate to, nor accept, Black films and culture as eagerly as they accept the white? Who knows? Maybe we are plain old racists.

18 June 2006

Black indie cinema... still in the red

How many African-American, i.e. Black American, film directors do you know of? Can you quickly list out their names and their films? How many of these films would you have seen, enjoyed, and added to your collection?

This is no easy task. For, in India, there is hardly a market for Black cinema. Indians cannot easily identify themselves with Black culture… and/or Black sentiments. No, don’t get me wrong. It’s not racism. Indians – at least those urban Indians who watch English-language films – are neither exposed to, nor appreciative of, Black cinema. But, we aren’t alone here. There’s hardly a market for Black cinema internationally. And, that includes the United States.

According to the US census bureau, as of July 2004, the estimated population of black residents in the United States (including those of more than one race) makes up 13.4% of the total US population. Black residents of a single race, i.e. the African American, are likely to make up 12.4% of the US population. That would make it a little under 40 million Black people. Yet, filmmakers of African-American origin are unhappy about the state of Black cinema… and what the future might bring for them.

The biggest hurdle in the system seems to be a lack of finance. African-American directors find it difficult to get financing for independent Black films. Investors and studios are just not willing to accept that Black films can gross big earnings. Who wants to see Black films? Are Black films made with an African-American audience in mind? Or, can they attract white and coloured audiences too? What about the international market? In a January 2004 Christian Science Monitor article by Reed Martin, ‘The new voices of Black film’, director (of Eve’s Bayou) Kasi Lemmons says, “That’s the constant struggle, explaining who is the audience.”

Obtaining theatrical distribution is an even greater challenge. In the same Christian Science Monitor article, producer (of Boomerang and House Party – along with his brother Reginald) Warrington Hudlin acknowledges, “The process is complicated by race in America… Often, the people evaluating the merits of your project are from outside your community – outside your culture – and can’t recognize its merit. The lack of an even playing field makes it more difficult, since the people I have to appeal to over and over never look like me.” Perhaps this might explain why Spike Lee is often accused of showing whites and Jews in his films as evil, money-grabbing guys.

Of course, film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca have begun to give Black filmmakers a leg-up in the business by creating special forums for them. “But,” reports Reed Martin in the Christian Science Monitor article, “that doesn’t always mean money will be forthcoming or that studios will see completed movies.” Someone needs to genuinely assess talent and broker introductions to sources of financing. Thankfully, there are some agencies on this job. Among them, ‘The Black Film Foundation’ founded by the Hudlin brothers, and ‘Film Life, Inc.’ set up by Jeff Friday.

16 June 2006

Not the usual Spike we see

I first heard of Spike Lee when I saw ‘Malcolm X’. That was many years ago. Although I must confess that I chose to see the film because of Denzel Washington’s acting and not for Spike Lee’s direction. Of course, I had heard of the African American leader Malcolm X from reading bits and pieces of Black American history – particularly James Baldwin’s book, ‘The Fire Next Time’ – but, as an Indian, I had never been influenced by any of it.

In fact, this ignorance of Black American history has always come in the way of my appreciation of much of Spike Lee’s films – not to mention the African American struggle and Black American literature. Hence, I probably have missed out a great deal of the essence of Spike Lee’s work, which deal with race, racism, class and power struggles, and media manipulation. One of these days, I hope to catch up on all this.

My re-introduction to Spike Lee happened a couple of years ago when I saw – and added to my collection – Spike Lee’s ‘25th Hour’. Once again, it was Edward Norton who drew me to the film, rather than Spike Lee. But I wasn’t disappointed. On the contrary, ‘25th Hour’ was an engaging film and, by the end of it, it had me in awe of Spike Lee’s masterful direction.

‘25th Hour’ was sombre and full of emotion – rightfully so, as it dealt with the last 24 hours of a man, Monty Brogan (played by Edward Norton), about to serve a seven-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Regret had overwhelmed him as he said his goodbyes – and I must confess that its impact had got to me too. Monty’s ‘fuck you’ diatribe in the bathroom, where he expressed how he hated and blamed the city he lived in (New York with its multi-ethnic way of life) and everybody in it, and the fact that it was he who was leaving New York while the others stayed, was outstanding.

However, Spike Lee’s recent film, ‘Inside Man’, is another story. It deals with a bank robbery turned inside out as Mr Lee succeeds in giving it a unique twist and flavour. Of course, some of the usual Spike Lee touches are there: multi-ethnic New York City with its hustle and bustle, racism, corruption and political power-plays. But it’s all dealt with subtlety, without the usual Spike Lee outrage. In fact, the media has been kept out of it altogether.

‘Inside Man’ is a good story and an enjoyable film. It should attract the mainstream audience by the millions (well, maybe not in India). I think Spike Lee has finally got himself a commercial hit.

09 June 2006

An intellectual treat

I’m critical of Hindi films and the Indian cinema-going audience. Formula plots bore me. Artificial love scenes through song-and-dance routines embarrass me. Bad copies of scenes taken from foreign films frustrate me. I feel insulted… because life, as I know it, is not like that. And, films are supposed to be reflections of life.

I can’t understand how a film as outstanding as ‘Crash’ can be wiped out of the Box Office in India within weeks of launch, when idiocies like ‘Pyare Mohan’ or bland entertainers like ‘Being Cyrus’ can run for months. Most Hindi films fail to deliver intellectual value – which is what I look for in a film, apart from the entertainment.

So, at the risk of adding fuel to the fire, I’ll tell you how disappointed I was last night when I went to see Spike Lee’s ‘Inside Man’. There were only nine of us in the cinema hall and there was a brief talk of cancelling the show. However, somewhere, wisdom prevailed and the nine of us were treated to one of the best films of this year.

‘Inside Man’ seems to be a typical bank robbery which turns into a hostage situation. The police and the hostage negotiators are called in. The bank’s owner volunteers, eager to speed up the negotiation process. When that fails, he solicits the services of a beautiful power-broker in order to protect something mysterious, and important to him, which lies in the bank’s vaults. The city Mayor gets involved too, by default. The detective in charge of the hostage negotiation takes advantage of all this to get a jump-up in his career. That’s on the outside.

But inside? Inside, something else is happening. The bank robbers don’t seem to be too interested in robbing the bank or making demands or killing the hostages or, for that matter, in any specific hurry to leave the bank. On the contrary, the chief bank robber not only seems to be an educated man, but a man with a heart. What’s going on? Have the bank robbers outsmarted everyone in the game?

If you want to know what’s going on or what happens finally in the film, go see ‘Inside Man’ and you’ll never regret your decision. It’s a real treat, intellectually. You’ll also enjoy a very famous Bollywood (Hindi) film song which is used in the film.

‘Inside Man’ stars British actor Clive Owen as the chief bank robber, Denzel Washington as the hostage-negotiating detective, Jodie Foster as the beautiful power-broker, Christopher Plummer as the bank’s owner with a past, and Willem Dafoe as the police chief in charge of staking out the bank.

08 June 2006

Not just 1, but 100

While celebrating the first 100 years of cinema, the American Film Institute (AFI) has nominated its best 100 film heroes and villains (i.e. 50 heroes & 50 villains). The best from this lot will be announced this month on the CBS Television Network.

Among known pure-American film heroes, you’ll find Indiana Jones (‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’), Rocky Balboa (‘Rocky’), General George Patton (‘Patton’), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’), Superman (‘Superman’), Batman (‘Batman’), and Atticus Finch (‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’).

You’ll also find a host of foreigners like James Bond (‘Dr No’), Mahatma Gandhi (‘Gandhi’), T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), Robin Hood (‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’), and General Maximus Decimus Meridus (‘Gladiator’).

These, and many more, male heroes will compete with their female counterparts: Clarice Starling (‘Silence of the Lambs’), Erin Brockovich (‘Erin Brockovich’), Thelma Dickerson and Louise Sawyer (‘Thelma & Louise’), Norma Rae Webster (‘Norma Rae’), Ellen Ripley (‘Aliens’), Karen Silkwood (‘Silkwood’), and Marge Gunderson (‘Fargo’).

There’s, of course, Lassie the dog (‘Lassie Come Home’).

You’ll also find The Tramp (‘City Lights’), Moses (‘The Ten Commandments’), Tarzan (‘Tarzan the Ape Man’), Zorro (‘The Mark of Zorro’), Terminator (‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (‘Star Wars’).

These are some of the 400 film “characters who have a made a mark on American society in matters of style and substance.”

For voting purposes, a ‘hero’ has been “defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.”

The list of villains includes another 50 names: Dr Hannibal Lecter (‘Silence of the Lambs’), Norman Bates (‘Psycho’), Darth Vader (‘The Empire Strikes Back’), Nurse Ratched (‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’), Michael Corleone (‘Godfather: Part II’), Count Dracula (‘Dracula’), The Alien (‘Alien’), and The Shark (‘Jaws’) among others.

For voting purposes, a ‘villain’ has been “defined as a character(s) whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic.”

And, there you have it. Go here for the full list.

07 June 2006

Aamir Khan: hero or villain?

Did you love Aamir Khan as the hero in Fanaa? Which part of the hero’s story did you identify with most? Did you love him in the first half of the film? Or, the second? Or, did you think he was extraordinary through the entire film?

These questions may sound simple, even stupid, but the answers can be revealing. Because, in Fanaa, Aamir Khan plays a dual role: that of a hero (first half) and a villain (second half). Yes I know, stories and films have to have heroes as well as villains, and that this hero-villain concept is non-exclusive (you can’t have one without the other), but for a plot to have the same character as a hero and a villain is rather unique. Especially so, since our good-looking song-and-dance Hindi film hero in Fanaa turns out to be a villain of the highest order: a ruthless treacherous murderous chameleon-like Pakistani agent – a terrorist – out to destroy our beloved country.

What if Fanaa’s story was true? Where would that leave us?

In a film, as in a story, a hero is supposed to embody the collective hopes and ideals of the entire audience – and not leave them feeling terrified. For, a hero, with all his bravery and charm and good nature, is supposed to be a symbol of civilised society – a symbol of life. Anything outside this perimeter can be unsafe. Yet, in Fanaa, Aamir Khan is as romantic as risky.

It’s not easy for an actor to present a hero-villain dual role to his audience with any semblance of believability. But, Aamir Khan does so, admirably.

05 June 2006

Fanaa: formula fit super-hit

Young blind drop-dead-gorgeous Kashmiri woman, Zooni (played by Kajol), travels to Delhi (from Kashmir) with her dance troupe to perform at a Republic Day function. There, she meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with an unknown machiavellian city tour guide, Rehan (played by Aamir Khan) belonging to a much lower social class. They spend time together. They make love. Zooni is heartbroken when it’s time to return to Kashmir, but Rehan rescues her from the train, cavalier-style, and they settle in Delhi.

All this happens in a matter of a few days.

Zooni informs her parents, who are overjoyed with her actions and her decision as they had always feared that their blind daughter might never find a suitable husband and settle down to a happy married life. The parents leave for Delhi to meet their daughter and future son-in-law. Meanwhile, Rehan and Zooni discover that medical science has progressed substantially in recent years and, after an appropriate operation, Zooni will be able to see. The operation is conducted immediately and Zooni is able to see.

This preposterous plot, with the formula song-and-dance routine thrown in, takes one and a half hours to unfold. But the audience is glued to the screen. For Fanaa is a fabulous Hindi film. The plot, of course, changes after that; but not the audience. The audience remains mesmerised for another hour and a half to the very end… which is amazingly similar to the 1981 Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan starring film, ‘Eye of the Needle’, of Ken Follett’s famous WWII book.

But this hardly matters. The formula Hindi-film seduction is now complete. Fanaa has become a super-hit.

02 June 2006

The way young lovers do

We strolled through fields all wet with rain
And back along the lane again
There in the sunshine
In the sweet summertime
The way that young lovers do.

I kissed you on the lips once more
And we said goodbye just adoring the nighttime
Yeah, that's the right time
To feel the way that young lovers do.

Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way
that we were and the way that we were meant to be
Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way
that I was for you and you were for me
And then we danced the night away
And turned to each other, and say, 'I love you, I love you'
The way that young lovers do.

Do, do, do, do...

These words are one-half of a song, ‘The way young lovers do’, by Van Morrison from his 1968 ‘Astral Weeks’ album. Although the song is one of my favourites, somehow it doesn’t quite express the desires of love that the rains bring with them in India. Not, at least, from the Hindi film point of view. Or, so say over 10 million Indian cinema-goers everyday.

What I find fascinating about Hindi films is their formulaic treatment of sexuality – i.e. the love scenes – through song and dance. You will hardly ever find overt or clear depiction of sex or sexuality in Hindi films. The film censor board in India doesn’t approve of such nonsense and adopts a hard line against the inclusion of love scenes in Indian cinema. Even kissing is not allowed to be shown on screen. So, you can forget about any display of sex.

What does this say about us Indians? That we don’t indulge in kissing and/or sex. That, we don’t want to see kissing and/or sex in films. That, it’s okay for us not to express ourselves so openly on film, no matter what we do in real life. For, in real life, we do kiss and have sex. And, as human beings, we do have sexual desires, however unconscious or absent we pretend these desires to be.

That’s where the rain-song comes in: the dramatisation of sex in Hindi, and most Indian, films. It’s a simple formula for satisfying the sexual desires of Indians... at least on the screen. Whether you consider Zeenat Aman’s scantily-clad soaking-wet voluptuous scene in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, or Amitabh Bachchan’s masculine overtures in the ‘Rang Bar Se’ Holi scene in Silsila, or the Aamir Khan-Kajol 12-precious-hours-promise love scene in Fanaa, there is something tremendously sexual and dramatic about the rain-song in Hindi films. The rain-song is the ultimate fulfillment of on-screen sexual desire.

The lyrics, the music, the playback singing, the dance movements, the backdrops, the colours are all part of the seduction process. And, it’s not just the hero and/or the heroine who is being seduced here, but the entire viewing audience. But, nobody’s complaining. The films are box-office hits. The music CDs and cassettes carrying the film soundtracks (released just before the films are launched) are selling by the millions. And, the good news is, the film censor board approves of it.

What about Van Morrison and his beautiful song about young lovers? How does it matter to us Indians anyway? What does Van Morrison know about the ways of young Indian lovers!

01 June 2006


The rains are life-givers in many ways. For those suffering from summer heat or drought or simply a shortage of water, the rains bring relief and hope. For others too, the rains bring relief and hope – and, sometimes, something even more. For, the rains are mood-enhancers as well, and have their own sensory appeal.

Gene Kelly has sung and danced about it. Madonna has added her erotic touch to it. And the Beatles have done their unique version (recording the song backwards, some tell me), although not quite successfully. For someone like me, growing up in India, the rains as song (and dance) have a great deal more meaning and appeal.

For instance, we have our classical ragas, which are known to magically bring downpours under the spell of gifted musicians. And if not that, then at least create the mood for such a feeling. However, should we find classical ragas too esoteric, we can switch to our very own Hindi film ‘rain-song’ – that perfect mix of song and dance and eroticism that Bollywood films are made of.

For, for millions of people in India, the ‘rain-song’ brings relief and hope and meaning. It brings its own magic; its own appeal.