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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Let there be light...

When it comes to a fight between good and evil, in the end, good will always win

I write this column in the period between Dussehra and Diwali, just as the last Ravanas go up in flames, and as we brace ourselves for the festivities associated with the festival of lights. Since I married into a Gujarati family, Diwali has taken on a greater poignancy for me, as the start of new beginnings, because it marks the Gujarati New Year.

But even as I wait for the assorted ‘Saal Mubaraks’ to roll in from all over the world (seriously, is there any country in the world which doesn’t host a member of our extended clan?) and start the deep-cleanse of the house that is an essential preparation for Diwali, I find that my thoughts keep returning to Dussehra, and its ritual immolation of evil, in the shape of that ten-headed monster, Ravana. And that leads me inexorably to the origins of these festivals: the story of the Ramayana.

These days, the Ram Leela is the most visible reminder of those origins. Dussehra marks the defeat of Ravana (evil incarnate) by Ram, Lakshman and the Vanar Sena (the forces of good). And Diwali is meant to remind us of their triumphant homecoming to Ayodhya, when the entire kingdom celebrated by lighting diyas. And yes, no crackers were destroyed in the celebration of this festival. It was the festival of lights, remember? Not the festival of noise.

Things have changed since the era when that epic story was first told. Now, even in the run-up to Diwali, the crackers get louder and louder. And the festival itself has become more and more commercialized, till it resembles nothing more than an ode to conspicuous consumption (‘Buy a new fridge!’ ‘Gift your wife a diamond!’ ‘Buy gold for your daughter!’ ‘Get yourself a new car!’ The exhortations go on and on and on).

In all this frenzy of buying, buying, buying, we seem to have lost sight of the festival’s origins and its significance in our calendar, even though Dussehra, with its symbolic destruction of evil, should remind us of how it all began. But no, we are too distracted by the shiny objects being dangled in front of us to pay much attention to the myths, the stories, and the lessons they have to teach us.

But can I draw your attention away from the mega-sale in that electronics showroom for a moment and focus on the festivals themselves, both of which remind us of the power of the Ramayana, India’s greatest epic in its depth and sweep. Like the best of Hinduism, this epic can be read on so many levels: as a religious text; as a morality tale; as an adventure story; or even as the kind of mythological saga that enthralls schoolchildren.

Yes, yes, I know, it is not exactly a feminist tale. The fate of Sita and the behavior of Ram towards her seems very problematic to us, from our 21st century perspectives. But epics like the Ramayana are rooted in the times when they were first created, so critiquing them from a modern perspective is, well, foolish and pointless, to say the least.

But feminist objections apart, I sometimes wonder if we realize how much the Ramayana still impacts our everyday lives. Hindus will, of course, recognize the festivals that emerge out of the Ramayana tradition: Ram Navami, Hanuman Jayanti, Dussehra, and of course, Diwali. But even today, we use the phrase ‘Ram Rajya’ to mean an ideal state, which looks after the interests of every citizen.

Sadly, the Ramayana myth hasn’t always had a positive impact on our politics. It was the conflict over the Ram tradition, and controversy about where Lord Ram was born, that led to one of the most divisive agitations of our time: the battle over the Babri Masjid and the Ramjanmabhoomi. The demolition of the Masjid led to riots all across the country, and the wounds suffered at that time have yet to heal.

But put aside the commercialization of the Diwali and the divisive politics over Ram and think back to the beauty of that legend and you realize how much the Ramayana is integral to our ancient cultural traditions. I was reminded of this recently when I saw scenes from the Ramayana drawn on the walls of temples in Cambodia, dating back to the 10th century. And, of course, versions of the Ramayana story can be found in Bali, Thailand, and much of East Asia.

In many of these countries, the Ramayana no longer has much religious significance. But it has become part of the cultural heritage they share with India. The main roads in Bangkok, for instance, have some variation of Ram in their names (Rama V or Rama VI) while the Thai kings themselves take on the Rama name. In that sense, the Ramayana is a reminder of how Indian culture has spread through the world.

And yet, as I hear the pre-Diwali crackers starting up, I wonder if we in India, amidst the glitz and the noise, have lost sight of the essential message of the Ramayana: that where there is evil, it is our job to fight it. And that eventually, no matter how great the trials and tribulations, good will always triumph.

In the troubled times we live in, that is a message worth recalling. As long as we fight the good fight, good will always win.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Booty call

A well-rounded derrière is all the rage abroad; so when will India catch up with the trend?

"Does my bum look big in this?" We've all asked this question of our significant other at one time or another. And if we have trained them well, they always reply without missing a beat (or even looking butt-wards), "Oh no, it doesn't!"

Well, apparently, this is no longer the right answer. In a pop culture that venerates the lush behinds of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, which worships at the shrine of the Kim Kardardhian butt, and marvels at the well-aerobicized roundness of Michelle Obama's booty, the big bum is where it's at.

A skinny arse no longer cuts it, no matter how shapely or well contoured it is. You need more meat on your behind if you want to be seen as sexy and desirable.

If you want or get all philosophical (or do I mean sociological? Who the hell knows!) about it, the triumph of the big butt signals the mainstreaming of Black and Latino culture in the West. A generously-proportioned, well-rounded derriere, that curves out to make that much-admired S-shape is the golden standard in places as far apart as Brazil and the Bronx.

So much so that butt implants, where a silicon gel implant is inserted beneath the gluteus maximus (the bum muscle, in layman's terms), have become all the rage in South America, where you apparently lose your bikini-wearing rights unless the thong rests between two large, firm globes. Those who want to go natural, get their own fat (harvested from the thigh or belly) injected into their posterior to give it a nice, rounded shape.

The popularity of this procedure has hit now Europe and North America as well, though the ideal aspired to is more Gisele (Bundchen) than Jennifer (Lopez). But either way, the goal is the same: to fill out a pair of jeans nicely.

For some reason, though, bootylicious behinds are yet to catch on in India. Which is kind of strange given that we were the ones to fetishise voluptuous figures to begin with. Remember Vyjanthimala, all dancing eyes and swaying behind, as she grooved to such songs as Ab aage teri marzi in Devdas. Or even Asha Parekh, whose generous butt spawned a million jokes (sample: Asha Parekh goes to a temple and says, "Bhagwaan, main aap ke saamney ek bahut chhoti si aas ley key aayein hoon.")

Oh, how we laughed! Though it now turns out that the joke was on us. According to industry insiders of that era, Parekh actually had a standard-issue 'aas' which was padded out generously to create the desired silhouette of the day, so that she could stand up to the likes of the naturally-bountiful Padmini, another scorcher of that era.

This ideal of feminine beauty endured right into the Bollywood of the 70s, 80s and even 90s. Whether it was Zeenat Aman or Parveen Babi, Hema Malini or Neetu Singh, Madhuri Dixit or Sridevi, Hindi film heroines were drawn on generous lines. Their flowing maxi-dresses and chiffon saris drew maximum attention to their curves. And the obligatory ‘rain dance’ (remember Sridevi in Mr India?) added a certain frisson to the mix.

But those days of beauty and the booty are long over. Bollywood actresses today sport washboard abs not generous butts. Whether it is Kareena Kapoor or Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone, they are all slim and slender. The only one who kind of bucks the trend is Vidya Balan. And it is telling that her biggest hit in recent times was Dirty Picture in which she plays a 80s bombshell, loosely modeled on the late Silk Smitha. (Though, to be fair, Southern Indian heroines still tend to be built on more voluptuous lines even today, though their proportions have been dampened down somewhat.)

In our popular culture (and sadly, that basically translates as Bollywood) the Cult of the Big Butt has singularly failed in making an impact. I’ve thought long and hard to come up with the names of our own bootylicious celebrities, and the only one that comes to mind is Malaika Arora, whose butt is such a kick-ass performer in such song sequences as Chaiyya chaiyya and Munni badnaam hui that it deserves star billing on its own. 

If you look beyond Arora, however, all you see is an arid landscape of impossibly-small behinds, all tight and taut with the effort of doing a thousand squats a day. Our reigning stars – be they in the movies, on television, or in the music and modeling world – are all whittled down to bare bones through a combination of diet, exercise and a little light liposuction. There isn’t an average-size butt in sight, let alone a truly bootylicious behind.

And that’s a pity, if you ask me. The natural body shape of most Indian women has always been curvaceous (just look at the sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora or even Khajuraho to see what kind of idealized body shape we worshipped) and will always remain so. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could embrace it, in all its voluptuous excess, instead of starving ourselves to conform to some outdated standard of Western beauty?

Maybe it is time that the Kareena Kapoors and Sonakshi Sinhas of our world took a cue from the likes of Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez, and reveled in their natural body types. I know that we’ve all been told that size doesn’t matter, but there are times when big is beautiful. And bigger is even better.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

It's that time of year again...

When the sweet smell of Pujo is in the air

When the mornings turn a tad cooler, the shiuli starts flowering, and evenings begin to set in earlier every day, my thoughts inevitably turn to the city of my birth. Even though I haven’t lived in Calcutta (sorry, it’s always going to be Calcutta, or even Cal, to me; unless I am speaking Bangla, in which case it is always Kolkata) for two decades, there’s something about early October that always transports me back there, as the memories of Pujos past (that’s Durga Puja to all you non-Bongs/non-Calcuttans out there) bubble up to the surface.

Even as a child, I knew instinctively that there was something special about Pujo. It wasn’t just that our household, holding on tight to our Punjabi roots, celebrated the Navratras by planting ‘Khetri’ (wheat) in a terracotta pot in the puja room, feeding ‘kanjakas’ (young girls who are believed the symbolize the Goddess Durga) on Ashtami, the eighth day of the nine-day period of Navratra, and fasting during this period. It was also that something shifted in the air of the city itself, making it seem more festive, more celebratory, and more excited (and excitable).

The first hint that something was up was evident from the roads, jammed with people heading out for their Pujo shopping, making the traffic even more insane than usual. Next, activity started in the communal maidan near our house, where a pandal seemed to spring up almost overnight. And then, one day, all of us kids would be roused at 4 am to listen to the Mahalaya broadcast on All India Radio, which signaled the beginning of the festivities.

Our household, for its part, turned schizophrenic during this period. Till Ashtami, we were Punjabis, tending our ‘Khetri’ faithfully, staying away from onions and garlic, and eating ‘fast’ food once a day. And then, having broken our fast on Ashtami with our puri-halwa and kala chana, we mutated effortlessly into Bengalis, doing the rounds of the pandals on Mahanabami and Vijayadashami, marveling at the decorations, the lights, gorging on the street food stalls doing business near the pandals, having ‘bhog’, and watching goggle-eyed as the ladies of the neighbourhood performed the ‘Dhunachi nritya’ to the beats of the Dhak, in front of the Goddess on Dashami.

But while we were a religious family, performing all the rituals and reciting all the mantras taught to us by our grandparents, it wasn’t hard to figure out, even as a child, that Pujo in Calcutta transcended religion. It was as much about faith as it was about fun. It was as much about community as it was about culture. It was as much about prayer as it was about partying.

For me, though, one of the best bits about Pujo was that we got new clothes: a set each for the five days of the festival (beginning with Shashthi and ending with Dashami), so that we never had to repeat an outfit when we went pandal-hopping. That meant endless trips to New Market, many excursions to the local tailor, and a mandatory visit to the Bata store on Chowringhee before my Pujo wardrobe was complete.

It was during Pujo that I tried out my first pair of high heels as a teenager (suffice it to say that it did not go well!). It was during Pujo that I first discovered the joys of flirting, safe within the embrace of my giggly girl gang. It was during Pujo that I attended my first Rabindrasangeet recital (and was blown away by the how much better Tagore sounded in the Bengali original than in all the banal English translations I had read until now). And it was during Pujo that I attended my first music concert (Bappi Lahiri was the star performer, accompanied by his gold jewellery, but thankfully even that was not enough to turn me off live performances for life).

Even after I grew up and began working as a journalist, my inner child would emerge triumphantly every time the Goddess paid a visit to her mother’s place. It helped that the newspaper house I worked for, in true-blue Bengali style, would give everyone four days off for Pujo, so that we could go pandal-hopping at leisure, stay up at late-night addas with our friends, gorge on luchi-dal for breakfast and dine on the most scrumptious of biryanis.

And then, one day, I moved out of Cal and was left with only memories of Pujos past to sustain me over the Navratri period. Which is why for me October always comes with sepia-tinted images of Pujo festivities in Calcutta playing in a constant loop in my head.

There is something special about Pujo in Calcutta. No matter how hard the Bengali community in Chittaranjan Park tries to recreate the ambience of Durga Puja in Delhi, it never quite feels like the real thing. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but I can tell the difference whenever I stop by to get my fill of the Pujo spirit. The pandals are just as beautiful, the Goddess looks as amazing, the beat of the Dhak sounds as powerful, the bhog is just as delicious. And yet, there’s something missing.

And that certain something is Calcutta. The city metamorphoses into a magical place when the Goddess comes calling.

So, all of you celebrating in Cal, remember to have an extra rossogolla for those of us exiled from the City of Joy, and forced to observe the festivities from afar. And a very Happy Pujo to all!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

American Pie

Priyanka Chopra sets out to conquer new shores with her lead role in Quantico

I caught the first episode of Quantico in the strangest of places: Siem Reap in Cambodia (home to the fabulous Angkor Wat and other equally amazing temples). And such are the quirks of television scheduling that I saw it several days before it was aired in India. (And no, unlike some critics in India, I didn't obsess needlessly about Priyanka Chopra's accent: she sounds exactly how an Indian who has spent time in America does. So people, stop with the hyperventilating already!)

So, what did I think of it? Well, it's a good show, sharp, pacy, and full of surprises, which borrows heavily from such series as How To Get Away With Murder, Homeland, and even Grey's Anatomy, but still manages to write its own grammar. I won't say any more about the plot in case you kill me for the spoilers, but by now surely everyone knows that the story revolves around a half-Indian half-American FBI agent called Alex Parrish, who is framed for the most dreaded terrorist attack on US soil after 9/11 (and she can only clear her name by finding the real culprit who is one of her classmates from the FBI training academy at Quantico.)

Alex Parrish is, of course, played by Priyanka Chopra. Many have wondered why Chopra decided to risk her superstardom in India by choosing to play the lead in an American TV series. (And shock all of India in the bargain by, spoiler alert, having sex in the front seat of a car with a virtual stranger within the first few minutes of the show.) After all, she is one of the biggest film stars India has ever produced. Why on earth would she want to go and start afresh in American network television, as a relative unknown? Why jeopardize a sure thing by betting on the unknown?

Well, according to Chopra herself, she hasn't given up on Bollywood. She still flies back to Mumbai over the weekends to shoot for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's next magnum opus, Bajirao Mastani (and looks suitably sensational in the trailer, by the way) that releases later this year. And she will continue to work in Hindi movies, alongside her American venture, living 'on a plane' because she is, as she told Jimmy Kimmel, a complete 'nomad'.

That might well be the case. But equally, there is no denying that given how Bollywood works, at 33, Chopra has only a few leading-lady years left in her. After that, it will be mostly quirky, small-budget movies (what the Bollywood wallahs call multiplex cinema) that will come her way.

So Chopra, who has always had her head sown on right, must have done a quick cost-benefit analysis. What is better: making smaller and fewer movies in India; or trying to break into American network television, which is in a red-hot creative phase? And who knows, maybe getting a free pass to Hollywood, once she achieves the same kind of stardom in America.

So when a big network like ABC came knocking with a slew of scripts, 'no' wasn't really an option. And of all the ones she read, Quantico was the one that appealed to her. So much so that she even did the unthinkable for a movie star: she agreed to audition for the role (no doubt she had them at 'hello').

But even if we leave rational decision-making aside, there must have been something about making a new beginning in an entirely new industry that appealed to Chopra at a more visceral, emotional level. She's never been afraid of taking chances (remember the single she cut with Pitbull?), and this one must have seemed irresistible at this stage of her life.

But the more important question surely is: why is an American network like ABC making a show that revolves around an Indian (okay half-Indian) character?

Well, clearly the Indian-American demographic is now important enough to merit leading ladies and men who look like them. And happily, the casting has now gone beyond stereotypes like science nerds (Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory) or maths geniuses (Amita Ramanujan in Numbers) or even over-achieving doctors (Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project). With Priyanka Chopra playing a Carrie Mathison-type character (minus the bipolar stuff, thankfully) in Quantico, the FBI agent who pulls no punches, the Indian-American TV star has finally moved beyond the tires old tropes of typecasting.

But don't pop the champagne just yet. We still have miles to go, as indeed does Priyanka. She discovered this the hard way when her own network ran a promotional video for Quantico, which featured shots of Priyanka Chopra winning the Miss World contest. There was only one problem: the Miss World featured in the clips was Yukta Mookhey! Clearly, to some American eyes, one Indian beauty queen looks much like the other.

Maybe Quantico and Priyanka Chopra can change all that. And judging by the first episode, she's well on her way to do just that.