Composite image of stills from 'Mother India' and 'Wake Up Sid' with the Mother India image having a sepia feel

Irficionado | Movies | Parents: Missing in (Lights, Camera,) Action

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Had sent this piece to thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment. The article came out today! With some edits, text and visual. The link is below and the original piece below that.

This piece on thREAD

I had been waiting for the DVD of Tamasha to come out for two reasons. One, to enjoy my favourite movie of last year all over again. Two, to check whether Deepika Padukone’s character, Tara, had parents in the movie. For we just see a glimpse of her kin in one song, Heer toh badi sad hai, and then too, it’s not clear if they are her parents and family or rather guardians and their family.

I watched the song a few times to verify, and the most I could discern was that there is a senior male figure in her life, but going by the displayed behaviour between them, he seems to be a caring uncle at best. In contrast, Dev’s (Ranbir Kapoor’s character) parents are well established, as a key part of the movie involves them.

And then I started thinking of other romantic movies (aren’t all our movies around that warm, fuzzy feeling?) in the recent past with a young urban setting or story, to check a developing theory.

In Wake Up Sid, my favourite movie of a few years ago, Ayesha’s (Konkona Sen’s character) parents find mention only in a wall photo of her Mumbai rental and in a late-night call to her mom back in Kolkata. This movie too pivots partly on Ranbir Kapoor’s (Sid) parents, but the core (love) story takes off when Sid moves into Ayesha’s apartment.

Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen-Sharma in the latter's room in 'Luck By Chance'In Luck By Chance, my favourite movie of all time, the parents of both the principal characters (Vikram, played by Farhan Akhtar, and Sona, again Konkona) live in cities away from the city in which the characters have come to pursue their Bollywood dreams.

Nithya Menen and Dulquer Salmaan in a scene from 'O Kadhal Kanmani'The roster continues… Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani: screen time of three minutes max for Deepika’s mom and none for Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapur’s parents; I Hate Luv Storys: Sonam Kapoor’s parents appear for around six minutes overall and Imran Khan’s mom appears for five minutes in the second half; and looking at Kollywood – and from the limited Tamil movies I watch and understand – in last year’s O Kadhal Kanmani (OKK): no parents again for the girl, Tara (Nithya Menen), and an elder brother and his family at the most for Adi (Dulquer Salmaan).

My theory, or rather, query was ripe: Where are the parents in today’s movies? Or better put, why are they missing? Contrast this with the time when movies were all about Mother India and her mamta and which bhai ke paas maa hai.

Poster of 'Deewar' (1975) with the mother, Nirupa Roy, holding centre-stage

The reasons, it would seem, are both reel and real.

Reel first. The dynamics of both movie-making and watching in India have changed. Movies are no longer three-hour-plus backside-burners but of a more palatable two or two-and-a-half-hour duration, leaving little room for elaborate back or side family stories. Going to the movies now is also less of a family affair and more a hangout with friends or a significant other, and since these happen more in multiplexes, these folks don’t want to see movies with the “baggage” of, well, folks – the people they have left outside those multiplexes. Also, a majority of Bollywood and many Kollywood movies are now being shot abroad – to cater to aspiring Indians and gloss-habituated NRIs – and the economics and mechanics of doing this doesn’t leave any room in the script and in the plane for the mummies and daddies.

But the real reasons appear to be the real ones.

Graphic of a Do Not Disturb door sign with text talking about the need to have spaceThe growing urban clamour among Indians first since liberalization and then globalization has seen people steadily moving from smaller cities, towns and villages to the metros and super-metros for better opportunities and hopefully a better life. And sometimes, like in Wake Up Sid, individuals move within the same city (out of their parents’ nest into their own), for space and privacy. In both cases, parents can become estranged (as Sona’s parents in Luck By Chance, who don’t like her decision to go to big, bad Bollywood, and Sid’s parents when he moves out after a war of words with his dad). Where’s the space for your progenitors when you’re busy pursuing your dreams and aspirations and fierce about your individuality and privacy? But also, as millennials would ask, where’s their need? After all, aren’t they just a WhatsApp message or Skype call away?

A bigger factor than the urban dream, though, seems to be inner conflict. Today’s tussles are no longer Parents vs You, Family vs Lover, Society vs Status: “You’ve got to take up your dad’s business.” “What will relatives and society say?” “You can’t marry him, he’s outside our class/caste/fill-in-the-blank.” Today’s parents know these hoary dialogues won’t budge with today’s youth, and today’s youth have scant headspace for the same. Not having a big outside demon to fight, the individual’s struggles now have all gone internal. Now vs Sometime in the Future, Commitment vs Independence, My Ideology/Dreams/Fill-in-the-blank vs Yours: “Now’s not the time – not because we’ve been seeing each other for just six months, but because I’m due for director at the firm.” “We’re somehow not compatible – I think I’m looking for something else.” “What about my dreams?” Ambitions and aspirations have become the new antagonizing amma and appa. And even where this is love, there is still conflict, because now we look at turns and shades of love. “I love you, but I’m not in love with you (or vice versa).” “I like you… as a friend; you are great to hang out with, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.” “I love you, but… (and any variety of reasons here).”

Imtiaz Ali wearing a T-shirt of 'Jab We Met'

Imtiaz Ali, Tamasha’s director, is perhaps the flagbearer of the urban-setting, inner-turmoil romantic movie. His career graph reflects this evolving graph of Bollywood – and the case of the MIA parents. In his first film, Socha Na Tha (2005), the boy rejects the girl in an arranged-marriage rendezvous, leading to parents and family on both sides turning into epic warlords. Cut to the movies after that – Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and now Tamasha – and you see how protagonists are inflicting enough torture upon themselves (with all their goals and wants) to not need the earlier lava of parents. In Tamasha, Ved subjects himself and Tara to enough heartache and heartbreak by not being able to be true to himself and his passion. In Love Aaj Kal, both Saif Ali Khan and Deepika’s characters give each other enough anguish and agony by not being sure of each other and wanting to pursue their individual dreams – in different continents and with different partners; not surprisingly, the movie doesn’t even bother featuring each other’s parents. In 2012’s Cocktail (only produced by Imtiaz), featuring Saif and Deepika again, Imtiaz makes up somewhat by bestowing parents on Saif, but still nothing for Deepika. (Hmm, no folks for Deeps in most of her movies. Is that why… she had gone into depression?)

Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham pretending to be a gay couple in 'Dostana' (2008)And then, there’s the last type of movie, or movie setting. Where the story is deemed too radical for audiences so that the milieu is changed to far away from where the protagonists hail. Dostana in Bollywood and OKK in Kollywood. Indian audiences would not accept a gay couple in even big, bad Mumbai where apparently anything goes (so what if the guys were only pretending to be lovers for the sake of an apartment?), and so Karan Johar decided to set it in Miami, far far away from both guys’ parents. In OKK, Mani Ratnam felt Tamil audiences would incant “Aiyyo, Kadavulai” on seeing a couple living in sin in even rapidly-become-cosmopolitan Chennai and so decided to set it in, no surprise, Mumbai, again far away from each other’s parents. And maybe for good reason. For we remember all the invocations (to God and godmen) Abhishek Bachchan’s mom, Kirron Kher, makes when she comes visiting, and the frayed looks Dulquer’s sister-in-law gives him when she discovers women’s stuff in his room.

But before you begin relishing (or bemoaning) the absence of parents in present-day films, remember what they say about the movies? Cinema reflects reality. If you look around, you’ll notice a new trend, especially with bugle sounds of Make In India, the growing number of start-ups in the country, and thus, a reverse brain drain: people coming back to India (after going abroad for studies and a few years of work ex), getting back to their hometowns and setting up companies there (Rashmi Bansal’s recent book on entrepreneurs, Take Me Home, showcases several such stories), and consequently… coming back to stay with or near their parents. Will these then begin getting reflected in tomorrow’s movies? Will movie Ma’s and Pa’s then make a grand comeback? Will Imtiaz Ali then make a Love Kal Aaj aur Kal? And will Son-mani’s parents be OK with he living in with his Kanmani? We shall wait and watch.

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Rainbow flag with the text 'Voices Against 377'

Ire | 377

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

377 ways to hound the LGBT,

377 ways to harass them,

377 ways to scorn the queer community,

377 ways to suppress them;

Its definitions seem so old and antiquated,

Feels it was written 377 years ago, or earlier,

And so pervasively, perversely is it implemented,

Forget an article, it feels like the entire anti-gay grammar.

Article 377 in the Indian Constitution criminalizes sex “against the order of nature”. By definition, that also includes oral and anal sex, but is routinely used by the police, other institutions and many people to discriminate against the queer/LGBT community. However, there is now talk – again – of “reading it down”, to decriminalize “unnatural/queer/LGBT sex/relationships”.

A duckling looking at a duckie (squeegee) curiously

Ire | Authentic, Oh!

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A few days ago, one of my best friends had come down from Mumbai, just before the first great deluge came down upon Chennai. It was a last-minute trip. He had decided to take off for the longer Diwali holiday they get in non-South India (he has his own set-up, so he could take that call at the last minute), but didn’t want to spend it in Mumbai. We got onto fervent discussions on the phone, but after much volleying of ideas (“let’s go to Pondy”, “at least Mahabs”, “Crocodile Bank at the very least”), we decided to spend it in Chennai: it was his first time in the city, there’s much to take in here itself, and in providence, the rain didn’t let us go beyond either.

'Authentic' stampWhile finalizing the plan, he gave me his wish-list: places he wanted to go, things he wanted to do and foods he wanted to eat. I heard him out, told him what’s doable (we had only three full days, plus the rain), and included a few of my suggestions. He assented. And added, actually, kept on emphasizing one thing, “I want to do, experience, eat, take in everything AUTHENTIC.” He said this quite a few times, ensuring I got it. I did. Or thought I did.

For after landing here, the number of times I heard him mention that word, and the number of times he stopped wherever he spotted that word (authentic Chettinad cuisine, authentic Malabar restaurant, authentic Ayurvedic massage – apparently, no one is offering anything else), was more than all the drops of water the city received since then. Plus, before and after touring the city with me, he would research all the tourism sites and ask all his friends and acquaintances here, there and in-between for recommendations and then keep tossing them in my direction.

Aiming to be the good host, I would help him check off the ones we could (we went to a popular Tamil restaurant for ‘authentic Tamil sappadu’, and he was beaming), educate him on the ones he was informed incorrectly about (‘Life of Pi’ and Alia Bhatt’s house in ‘Two States’ were shot in Pondy, even though the latter mentioned Chennai), find a balance for the ones we didn’t agree on (we decided to go to a mass-appeal multiplex rather than a single-screen for Kamal’s latest movie, as I was fairly confident neither he nor me would be able to handle the fan frenzy – or hear the dialogues – in a ‘thara local’ single-screen theatre, where he actually wanted to go for “authentic Kollywood megastar mania”), and after discussion, struck off the ones we just wouldn’t be able to do (“that cultural centre is too far from here; we won’t be able to do anything else today if we go there”).

Poster of ABC TV series, Quantico, featuring Priyanka Chopra handcuffedBy the middle of the second day though, realizing the extent of his zealousness for the authentic experience, I was beginning to feel exasperated. (That’s why I’ve titled this piece after ‘Quantico’ – I was beginning to feel as constrained as Priyanka Chopra in the series’ poster.) Plus, I seem to have made a woeful discovery: ‘researchie’ is the new ‘selfie’. That is, researching on a place and what to do, eat, wear, buy there is the new vacationing scourge, after the annoying and now-thankfully-getting-banned-in-many-places selfie. People seem to be leaving nothing to discovery, chance and serendipity anymore. There are sites and apps springing up by the minute, offering all this info, and of course, all those discounts – and the attitude seems to be: “I don’t want to miss a thing.” He kept on telling me of a particular street-side tiffin centre he had read about, of which visitors had been “raving and ranting”. After clarifying that you can’t both rave and rant about a place, at least the same person can’t, I told him but no one here does (rave, that is). But he insisted. And we went. And mercifully, it was closed due to the rains, Diwali or both. Else, my friend would then have ranted and ranted.

My friend started sensing my brimming annoyance. Also, I had cast a very subtle (according to me) comment in his direction when we were getting a ‘quick authentic bite’. “You know, visiting Delhi (which I did last year) and going to a multiplex there is also an authentic Delhi experience, because that’s a Delhi multiplex, filled with Delhi people, and offering Delhi eats.” As we headed to T Nagar for saree- and dhoti-shopping (the ultimate authentic Chennai shopping experience) for his parents, by bus (the authentic Chennai commuting experience), after foregoing the autokarans (ah, we missed the authentic Chennai bargaining experience), he made a conciliatory effort, “I think I know what you mean. When people come to Bombay, they ask for SRK’s bungalow, where is Ambani’s building, where are the film shoots… and it’s not like every Bombayite knows (or cares), or that film shoots are happening in every gully.”

I seized the opportunity. “Exactly! When you go to Punjab, you don’t expect to see people doing bhangra outside the station. Just like you can’t expect women to be doing bharatnatyam at the airport here. In Gujarat, no one plays dandiya all the time, and in Kolkata, they don’t have rossogolla every minute.”

I continued, “You saw Kamal’s house in the movie, right? It was a regular modern house rather than those traditional houses with an open courtyard you see in movies made by outsiders, or set in rural areas. And Kamal and his son were having bread, omelette and soy milk for breakfast rather than dosa, idly and vada…”

Alia Bhatt in her Tamil-style house in a shot from 'Two States'

And my final… rant, “Tell me, how is having popcorn bathed in butter and accompanied by caramelized cold coffee in the city’s home-grown and numero-uno multiplex (which also makes that mannaesque cold coffee) not an authentic city experience? How is spending two hours chatting in a cozy city-only coffee shop chain any less a Chennai experience than having it at the roadside kadai? How is going for a dark (read: blind) exhibition tour that ends up opening your mind (after it’s rid the sleep out of you) not authentic since it is presently only in two other cities in India? And most importantly, which site or visitor will tell you about these?”

As the last-mentioned experience – the tour – proved to be his best experience here, he finally started seeing things differently. I was a bit worried I had been a bit too forceful with him, but he didn’t seem to mind. We’ve been friends for a long time, have had our share of arguments (and break-offs and patch-ups), and must confess, is more chilled-out than me.

Composite image of my friend and I at a couple of Chennai places during his recent holiday here

In the end, we did a bit of the site suggestions (V House, where we even did some meditation), a bit of my suggestions (that dark tour, and a rejuvenating reflexology session), a bit of spontaneous stuff (St Thomas Basilica and then a late-evening walk on the beach), and let go of several (saying you need to leave some stuff for next time). Just the way a great holiday always goes. Besides, holidays are always better with friends who are… authentic.

 

Poster of movie, Two States, featuring the in-love couple and their parents

Ire: Southie / Northie

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Everyone from the four southern states is Madrasi,

Making no distinction between Tamilian, Telugu, Kannadiga or Malayali,

Everyone dresses in a dhoti, no, only a dhoti,

Baring the chest for everyone to see,

They all have idly-dosa with sambar-chutney,

And wash it down with mor, “what’s that, oh, salted lassi,”

They also can’t live without filter kaapi,

Along with that other staple, naariyal paani,

You wish for once they’d see things differently,

Beginning with how now Telangana is also an entity.

/

But the South behaves no differently,

Viewing everyone outside the five states as Northie,

There’s no West – the Marathi or the Gujarati,

“All Bombay, filmy, money-money,”

No East – Bengali, Odia, Jharkandi,

“We know Bengal, but what are the others, some festivity?”

No North-East: “Chinky!”

No North-West: “Same as Delhi?”

So, forget the real North, and Bihar, UP, MP,

“We already said – Northie!”

/

But all agree about Goa, which lies around Karnataka’s belly,

“Videshi… Pardesi… Now, let’s get there and party!”

 /

And what about Lakshadweep and Andamans in the sea?

“Wait, didn’t they get submerged by the tsunami?”

Sign-board for/on Halls Road in Chennai

Ire: What’s in a Rename?

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentaryA few months back, the city corporation again brought up the suggestion of renaming city roads presently named after Englishmen from the Raj’s time to names celebrating the heritage, culture and past luminaries of the state.Painted sign for Haddows Road in ChennaiNow, I am one to leave alone things that are not deal-breakers. Also, somewhere, I like the charm of the existing names: they ring of the same quaintness as the roads and also take you back to that time. Finally, if you change the name and can’t alter a thing about the structures on these roads (many of these have heritage buildings, which the authorities in fact need to keep the same way as originally), there ends up being a dissonance. (Case in point being Anna Salai, which was Mount Road earlier, but which has the same appearance as from the earlier name’s time, apart from of course the havoc caused by the metro’s work.)

But I started living with the renaming idea, and am beginning to see some merits to it. The first positive is, it will no longer have Messrs Wren and Marten and all those English gentlemen turning in their graves.

Front cover of old copy of the Wren and Martin grammar bookWren and Martin first. Halls, Peters and Whites, among others, were not like the Joneses – they didn’t have their names ending with ‘s’. There needed to be an apostrophe between their name and the ‘s’, indicating that it was a road built/named in their honour and so their road – not as a possessive pronoun (the road didn’t belong to them; they had passed away by then, after all), but more as a commemorative pronoun, if you will. Now, the authorities at that time either didn’t know about the apostrophe (since it doesn’t exist in any of the Indian languages) or were the forerunners to today’s smartphone-wielding, micro-messaging millennials, who abhor the apostrophe (as well as giving a response longer than 10 characters and looking up from their devices). So, Hall’s became Halls, Peter’s became Peters, and White became red with disdain.

But the Raj gentlemen had it worse twice over. (Guess this was our way of getting back at them for two centuries of rule.) Since it seems only the tight-lipped Englishmen could pronounce their names and not the open-lipped “natives”, Graeme’s Road became Greams Road, Yeldham’s Road became Eldams Road, and I’m praying Cooks Road came from Cook’s Road itself and not some mispronunciation.

Annie Besant in her later yearsAnother reason for welcoming the name change is if it could address any possible misogyny of the past and any possible misunderstanding in the future. Misogyny: I can’t think of any places named after women except Besant Nagar (after Annie Besant; but because she was British, will that now change?). There is JJ Nagar, but that’s a recent renaming anyway. I thought the new name for Lloyds Road was a step in this direction, but history is obviously not my strong point, for I confused Avvai TK Shanmugam (the renowned theatre artist) with Madurai Shanmughavadivu Subbulakshmi (the legendary singer). And misunderstanding? Butt Road. Need I say more?

And then, I had a thought. A city’s roads and other infrastructure as well as residential and commercial areas often get their names from the people and their practices therein: Saidapet from Sayyid Shah, the Arcot general who received this land as a gift from the Nawab, Sowcarpet from the sowcars or sahukars (merchants) who came there from other parts of India, and Chromepet from the Chrome Leathers factory there. These names were also representative of their times. So, what if we do the same? Rename these places and structures based on people and their practices at present. If so, things will look something like this…

Since we no longer have potholes amidst roads but roads amidst potholes, and Ridley Scott could have actually filmed The Martian here: Ravaged Road/Ruinous Road

Because we are now so many people who generate so much bio-waste that it doesn’t just flow underground but above ground too: Sewage Street

As Indian men believe that a man’s got to go when a man’s got to go and don’t believe in waiting to cross the street to get home or to work: Chiruneer (Urination) Cross Street

Since Indian men (and ok, some women too, not to be biased) have other liquids they like showering on the roads: Spitting Salai

Continuing the, um, trashing, since garbage now overflows from and into every nook and corner: Kuppai Corner

Because water bodies now have almost every other entity apart from lotuses, fish and ducks: Dumpsters’ Tank/Eri/River

Since we have groups of smokers standing and chatting for hours on the footpath, or loner guys lying dead-drunk there for days, and when neither, then two-wheeler riders ascending to get one second ahead: Anti-Pedestrians’ Pavement

Some Chennai youth crossing a road in the middle by jumping over a barricaded dividerWe should even rename the zebra crossing, or remove it altogether, since no one seems to cross there, or rather only there. Suggestions: Zebra Crossing Anywhere/Idiot Crossing

Because this is essentially what parks and beaches become after some time: Kadhalar (Lovers’) Park, Romeo and Juliet’s Beach

As secluded stretches seem to be a hotspot for miscreant activities: Thiruda Theru (Thief’s Street), Aval/Eve-teasing Avenue

Close-up of two loudspeakers on an electric pole in a Chennai streetEarlier, it was just the festivals and the release of a big star’s movie, but now, thanks to IPL, ISL and any other ’ell I can’t recall right now, there are many reasons to celebrate – read, make noise – throughout the year. So, many of these areas can be called: Sathampet

And just in case you thought this list is benevolent to the rich and classy… For arranging for the home dog’s/dogs’ (note the uses of the apostrophe) walks but not the clean-ups after: Pet-Poop Boulevard

Info-pic, of man bargaining with Chennai autorickshaw driver with complaint information given aboveAnd finally, the people who rule the city and reign over its residents more than any politico or hero – the fleecing, overcharging, harassing, abusing, threatening autokaarans… They should have the entire city renamed after them: Cheatnai

You know, it’s a good thing we’re going with the historical and heritage names, after all.

Find out what ‘Ire’ is here – Ire: Here’s Presenting