Tag Archives: cinema

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Tamil Cinema & The Romanticisation Of Abuse

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For the first time, I’m not looking forward to a Mani Ratnam film. Not in that non-committal “well, maybe if someone insists that we go watch it” way or the lazy “I’ll just see if it’s on Netflix eventually” way but in very clear-minded and cautious way. The question is: can I watch this film without being triggered? The theatrical trailer I saw for Kaatru Veliyidai clearly tells me: No.

Here’s what I saw: a man (played by Karthi) yelling at a woman in front of his colleagues, her confusion slowly registering on her face. I saw that woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) say helplessly, in the manner of anyone unable to break out of a toxic scenario, “I don’t know why I keep coming back to you’. I saw him being extremely possessive, gripping her tightly as he yells at other people, telling them that regardless of all conflict between them she is “[his] girl”. In the clincher, I saw the woman whisper from behind a door, telling him: “I cannot gauge when you will come to me and when you will hit me instead”. Although “hit” doesn’t suffice; how do I translate the sheer physicality of the Tamil words vongi adi? In every frame, she is fragile or frightened. In short, all I see of Kaatru Veliyidai is an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Trailers are often misleading, of course. Some will say heightened dramatic elements were purposely kept in focus so as to tug at the audience’s emotions. But mine were not so much tugged as they were triggered. Because abuse is never love. Whatever the contents of the film may ultimately reveal, I’m deeply disturbed by how a trailer edited in such a way is touted everywhere as a love story.

Tamil cinema has a long history of popular films with problematic takes on romance. Guna was about kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. Mannan was about disempowering women, taking them out of the workplace and into the kitchen. Nattamai, among others, featured the trope of forced marriage to rapists. The examples – both older and current – are endless, really, for what passes for love. It is not only explicit violence, including stalking, that we need to cast a critical eye on, but the romanticisation of abuse itself. Call it a drama, a psychological thriller, even an action movie with an emotional twist. Just don’t call it a love story.

So no, I won’t be catching Kaatru Veliyidai at the cinema. There’ll be too much standing up involved, you see. First, I’ll have to stand up because I may get beaten up if I don’t during the mandatory national anthem. Then, I’ll have to stand up again to walk out of the theatre because some scene in which a woman is brutalised, either emotionally or physically, is probably going to push me over the edge. I’m sure someone will write to me now to say I’ve misunderstood, that the film is about a fighter’s PTSD from being on battle frontlines. Let me pre-empt you by saying: my response to the trailer is also PTSD, another fighter’s, from the frontlines of a lifelong war.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Kabali As Political Text, In The Right Context

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Growing up – as a Sri Lankan Tamil with an Indian passport who lived in Malaysia for 17 years – there was only one representation of that last country in Tamil cinema. Kollywood’s stars would shoot song numbers there, dancing in front of arbitrary things – pink buses, for instance – and architectural landmarks. It would infuriate me to watch, back then. How could filmmakers promote, touristically and aspirationally, a nation that held people of Indian descent under institutional subordination and cultural indenture?  When the Kabali poster appeared, I thought it would be one more such glorification.

By the time I learned what it was really about, most tickets were sold out. By some movieland miracle, I found myself seated at a theatre with two friends, one of whom had ecstatically called after his first viewing the previous day to say, “You have to watch it. I never told you or asked you about this, but when we first met I heard from my contacts in Malaysia how you had narrowly escaped detention under the Internal Security Act for fighting for Indian rights there.”

In 2007, after two years of tracking illegal temple demolitions and personal struggle to remain in Malaysia, I wrote that any nation that operates on a system of racial superiority and inferiority, as Malaysia does through its Constitution, is under apartheid. The term has now come into parlance, but at that time no one had ever publicly declared it. This attracted the ire of the said government. I was 22, briefly (I thought) in India; I could not go back.

What came first: ethical compass or compassion? I remember exactly when my politicisation deepened. June 2006: a photograph of an Indian gardener whose daughter had died of meningitis at a National Service camp. There was no clear-cut systemic element, no reason for activism. But I looked at that forlorn image and saw in his futility the burden and spiritual fracture of generations of disenfranchisement. It changed me, and my life, forever. Kabali reminded me of the pathos of that photo.

Kabali makes no sense to an Indian audience unaware of diasporic challenges. Around me, the theatre clapped raucously at random bits, but not for the political touchpoints. Me? I wept copiously. Because to those who know, the code is obvious. We know why the antagonist is played by a non-Malaysian actor with an accent so wrong he doesn’t even pronounce the slur “keling” correctly. We know why Kabali agitates against British and Chinese men, but not the Malay-run government. We know why the temple demolitions are in flashback and not in true chronological context. We know the name “Tiger” is an unflattering (thus accurate) allusion to Eelam.

The Malaysian release has a different ending, with Kabali submitting to authoritarian pressure. Like every compromise (and there are many) made in this film, it was worth it. Because if Pa. Ranjith hadn’t made them, it simply couldn’t have been released there.

And there is where it is most needed, among people who deserve to see themselves in truthful, powerful pop cultural lights. The political coding may be deep, but so is the healing that art makes possible.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Guest Column, iDiva: Food In Film

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The sweet, underrated magic realist film Woman On Top is probably best known for the image of Penelope Cruz associated with it: a sultry gaze at the camera, a bright chilly poised tantalizingly close to her lips. Yes, we get it: food is sexy, sexy, sexy – this philosophy is thrown at us in everything from advertising that uses the suggestive forms of fruits to imply other ripeness to the lust and aggression that propel cooking-based reality shows. And it is, of course. Sexy, that is. Hunger, in both its desiring and satiating stages, is just as physical as sex. But food is also equally as psychological and – let’s just say it – equally as emotional.

In life as in cinema, there are piners and there are bingers. Food is emotional not just because, paired as it is with the supreme mnemonic of smell, it is full of memories and rituals (the ritual of a family meal, a first date, the food associated with occasions), but also because our relationship with it is affected by our relationships with other people. Some people, arguably, sublimate the sex drive into the appetite, giving rise to the erotically charged sequences of the also magical Like Water For Chocolate, in which a family’s youngest daughter, by decree of tradition, must remain unmarried and take care of her parents – which results in a recipe of forbidden lust, envy and voodoo victuals. Some use it to enhance their erotic lives, as in Tampopo’s use of an unbroken egg yolk in a tricky kiss or the ubiquitous Chocolat, in which a beautifully androgynous Johnny Depp is seduced by a maker of that most famous aphrodisiac of all. In Chungking Express, a brokenhearted Takeshi Kaneshiro compulsively devours canned pineapples, having decided that on the date on which his stockpile expires, he will either have been reunited with his love, or lost her forever.

The converse is also true – the master chef patriarch of Eat Drink Man Woman loses his sense of taste, until he is able to make peace with his widowering and his daughters’ lives. The same goes for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American remake of the Taiwanese original. Food is identifiably cultural, but responses to it are identifiably universal.

Of course, sometimes craving is uncomplicated. Who can forget modern cinema’s most iconic food-sex parallel: when a virginal high school senior is caught making sweet, sweet love to a pastry in American Pie? Or even Jamón Jamón, which first paired Cruz with Javier Bardem, in which a pork-loving delivery boy turns gigolo against a backdrop of cured meats, double entendres and even a soda-can wedding ring.

Drinking, strangely, seems to have has less cinema devoted to its pleasures, but the likes of Sideways, Bottle Shock, Autumn Tale and A Walk in the Clouds certainly do justice to the wonderful world of wineries. For those on diets of two highly-compatible vices, Coffee and Cigarettes brings the triumvirate to a neat convergence with the third C: conversation (the fourth, cancer, I’ll leave to preachier types).

Which brings us back to why Woman On Top is underrated. Quirkily spiritual and hopelessly romantic, Cruz’s domestic goddess cannot help but long for her philandering husband. Her otherworldly culinary skills are muffled in her loneliness. What’s more important – the meal or who it’s shared with?

It’s not always the saccharine answer that’s the best one. The way to a man’s heart, the saying goes, is through his stomach. But all goddesses are gluttons, and for many of us, our hearts are our stomachs. And in heartache and in heartburn, we’ll take good care of them.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. A previous guest column in this supplement can be read here.

The Venus Flytrap: Sharanya Manivannan And The Amazing Technicolor Magic Realist Life

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My friend the filmmaker says that cinema is about one thing only: pace. It comes down to choreography: internal rhythm, internal logic. You can tell any story, you can even tell a non-story, as long as you find its stride.

Like all people who use their life in their work, I tend toward the grandiose. I’m a hypochondriac, an obsessive, a constant connector of dots. Me and my Amazing Technicolour Magic Realist Life (complete with cinematic soundtrack). This is the only lens through which I can bear to look at all – it’s too much otherwise, too intense and too painful.

Yet, there are things I cannot absolve. I cannot fall into their stride, or find a way to absorb them into mine. It takes me months, even years, to name them – and to name something is to attach a value to it, incorporate it into a lexicon of reason. As a writer this is a fundamental of my world. Without this, I can only agitate, like a breathless creature throwing itself against the glass of the bottle that entraps it.

So here I am, replaying over and over in my mind the things I find irreconcilable, the things I cannot find language for. I cannot control them, I cannot rewrite them – and I cannot simply look away. Stripped of language, the power of baptism, I attempt to make this about the visual and the kinetic. Life as train wreck, life as narrative, chronology as dance.

And the body emotes, of course. I took ill, I coughed blood, and spent a night and a day crying, waiting to find out why. I thought – this is my lost voice, trying desperately to find a way out. I thought – this is it, I am going to die in this miserable place, all potential and no plot, a trailer with no film to follow. “The X-ray will show you I no longer have a heart,” I declared imperiously to someone who bothered to indulge me. All my usual dramatic tropes and deus ex machinae. I had a vision of myself as Neelakanta, the bitterness in his throat, eternally caught between belly and breath. To spit or to swallow? Do I deny the fact of these irreconcilable experiences, or do I wallow in them?

But here’s the rub: this amazing cinematic life of mine? I’m not the director. I didn’t even write the script. The control I seek is illusory. The truth, and the trick, is that one can never find a stride – at best, one finds herself having fallen into it. What I am doing then is hardly dancing. This is shadow-boxing.

Realising this, I stop in my tracks. The blood on my gloves is only paint. The gloves themselves, costumery. What if the pace of this time in my life is no pace at all – only stillness, silence?

We measure time in exacting ways. But we experience it with no real sense of its structure – the fulcrums of moments, the futility of years. Maybe it’s time for me to zoom in and take the pointillist view – to invest fully in that single dot, single shot, and trust that it means something. And let go, knowing this: even off-scene, a star is a star. And I’ll never be an extra in my own show.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Honouring Our Destinies

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A few weeks ago, I watched the Italian film Il Postino, inspired by the legendary Pablo Neruda, and found myself weeping in its closing moments. I shut my laptop and held myself as sobs racked my body. I was weeping not for the quaint charms of the film, but for Mario Ruoppolo, the guileless postman who worships Neruda to tragic consequences. I was weeping because I knew by then that I was not him, and could not fathom why I was this lucky.

Two days before this, I’d sat across from my publisher and watched a cheque for what I still find an enormous figure being cut. It was a surreal moment. The year before, I had a jar of coins from which I would count out enough change in order to eat. I was unemployed, on a precarious visa, everything in absolute ruins. Things happened. I moved back to India believing it was the end of my life.

It was. It was the end of a life in a horrible place in many senses of the word. But just a year later, my publisher was saying as the cheque was signed, “I don’t pity you. You are too talented to be pitied.” I wasn’t allowed to say thank you or cry.

And so I cried for Mario.

There is still a part of me that is a friendless 12-year old, the bus always dropping me at school forty minutes early. My classroom that year was a converted chapel, a detail I find appropriate in retrospect. Every single morning, I would write a song. Those forty minutes were my sanctuary. I wrote then because I had nothing else to do. Without writing, in the eyes of many including myself, I didn’t exist.

It’s astonishing to realise that only five years later, I was appearing in magazines and getting fan mail. It’s even more astonishing to write this to you today, having just seen the final proofs for my first book, knowing that in a matter of days, it will be complete.

The journey has been long, and is not over. It’s a journey that has shaken the agnosticism out of me. It’s been startling to see how people seem to have fallen out of the sky with their admiration and generosity, their dedication sometimes outshining mine.

An investor who refuses a cut from the profits; a photographer who wants only a good deed as payment; designers, pre-production and publicity people who work for free – at what point in the last decade did I go from being the girl in the chapel to this? I am humbled by the knowledge that these gifts are not for me; they are for the work that is bigger than anything I am or will be.

Instead of being reassured, I encountered my own resistance. Not believing myself deserving, I became self-sabotaging. I was so frazzled I literally had to sit on my hands during editorial meetings. But the book was a juggernaut out of my control, and I had to give in. I had to let go of my dream in order to allow it to happen.

A friend told me, addressing my anxieties, “Well, if it’s like good pasta, it better be a little al dente“. The little bit of rawness is what makes it perfect.

I am no Mario Ruoppolo, and neither am I Neruda. But I am the girl in the chapel who grew up to be the woman who wrote Witchcraft and whatever – little or much – it accounts to. I don’t believe fortunes are arbitrary. I see now that I am obligated to honour mine with every instrument I am gifted.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.