Punjab of the Popular Imagination

There is a stereotype for the people of Punjab that is known across the country; perhaps no other stereotype is as stereotypical as this one. And so that stereotype has played a major role in depicting the entire state of Punjab in the popular imagination, as we know today. Most people know Punjab through the veil of that stereotype, thanks to how it influenced the popular imagination.

That Punjabis are loud-mouthed. That they have a tendency to utter and blabber what they actually feel, that they wear their heart on their sleeves. That they may say things that might not sound great, but they have their hearts in the right place.

The most famous symbol for Punjab is the Golden Temple, which stands for peace and serenity such as you might have never known before; the beautiful temple made of gold which stands shining as much in the night as in the day.

Punjab is also known for its food; oh, the food. The dollops and dollops of butter that they use, the scrumptious choley they cook, the beautiful way in which they cook their chicken, the makki ki roti and the sarson ka saag of course. More than the food, they are known for the generosity they extend with the food, the langars, with the belief that food is meant for everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.

Punjab, oh, if anyone were to ask me, Punjab is a riot, full of colours, and bhangra, and generous, kind souls, and delicious food, green fields, lots of sunshine, big houses, giggly girls, outspoken men, but a good place, overall a good place.

So I liked Udta Punjab- it swooped in and destroyed the Punjab of the popular imagination and replaced it with a much grueling reality, which hasn’t really been done properly before. We have Amrish Puri romanticizing Punjab as ‘home’ which is, although ever so humble, irreplaceable and Shah Rukh Khan coming in and sweeping away the bride in the mustard fields of dear Punjab in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. Skip that, we have two of the actors in Udta Punjab, Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan, who when last worked in a movie together glorified the very stereotype we just spoke about.

The overbearing, kind-hearted, all-knowing patriarch who gives the way for love, giggly, supportive relatives who like to stuff guests with food, colorful clothes and bhangra sequences, the beat of the dhol which sets everyone in action- Punjab for beginners.

But I loved it how Udta Punjab brought about a new Punjab in the popular imagination, the Punjab of drugs. Corrupt policemen, dirty politicians who’d do anything to win elections, youth wasting away in syringes lying in abandoned fields, girls being forced to go on drugs, families which coalesce and support the men in their family to keep a girl locked up rape her turn by turn.

The people of Punjab here were cunning and sly, not loudmouthed and outspoken.

The picture painted was the opposite of serene; in fact, the only way Alia Bhatt could figure having some peace in her life was through staring at the board of Goa through her window and imagine diving into the ocean.

And the food? Udta Punjab broke all notions about Punjab’s food when they showed Alia Bhatt hungrily gnawing at the leftover chicken bone her captor left lying around.

Although I did feel that Abhishek Chaubey could have depicted the drug problem as a more generalized phenomenon, affecting people of Balli’s age, as opposed to concentrating on individual stories, for the problem affects people at large. It is a sociological ill, not an individual one, and hence, would have been much more appealing.

And yet I am happy to see a new Punjab, away from the Punjab of the Popular imagination, for we must know, and all the four actors’ performances show it as well as it could.


The Jungle Book: So What Makes You As You Are?

I watched The Jungle Book, and as is my habit, went on to read its reviews. Personally, I found the movie to be very interesting, but for its original story that hails from Rudyard Kipling, not because this particular adaptation was so great. The 3D effects were spectacular, but I was a bit surprised to note the lack of humor in the movie- I certainly felt that there was a lot more scope for a few jokes. Compared to the other animated greats like Tangled, How To Train Your Dragon, and The Incredibles, the Jungle Book fails quite sadly.

Of course, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been read, understood and interpreted widely in terms of postcolonial theory and imperialism, for Kipling was the unfortunate author of the poem The White Man’s Burden. But the aspect of the story that I found much more captivating were the results of the nature and nurture effects, which goes back to the old argument concerning the development and growth of any being- what is more influential, the genes or the environment?

In the figure of Mowgli, the debate is personified quite literally. Left in the jungle at a very tiny age when his father is killed by the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli is almost adopted by the panther Bagheera and from then on, raised by a pack of wolves, and called a ‘man cub’. But Shere khan is determined to hunt Mowgli down and finish him off, for he is sure that the ‘man cub’ will grow up to be a man and be the natural enemy of animals as all humans are, for he believes that the true nature of a man cannot be taken away from him.

Shere Khan has a point-Mowgli might have been raised amongst wolves but he struggles to be one like them, lagging behind as his brother wolves sprint on and the wolf elders try again and again to teach him how to live and behave like a wolf. He is constantly reprimanded for using his ‘tricks’- using to his advantage his separated fingers and agile grip to move around and operate stuff that four- legged mammals possibly could not. He is regarded warily by everyone in the jungle, for quite obviously, he walks on twos instead of fours.

But on the other hand, Mowgli is more a creature of the jungle than he was ever of the human world- he speaks the language of the wolves, the panther, the bear, the tiger and the king of the Bander-log. He runs and climbs faster than any human is probably capable of, having been raised among animals. He’s uncannily adept at picking fruits, berries and honey off heights. But more importantly, he identifies himself with the world of the jungle, rather than the world of the humans, and so, is dismayed when he realizes that he will have to go to the human village in order to survive the menace of Shere Khan.

This, right here was, nature versus nurture, but with convincing arguments for both sides- this embodiment of the debate is precisely why I find Mowgli so fascinating.

Let’s go back to our general daily life to understand what can be regarded as a more influential factor. For Abhishek Bachhan, while having given a couple of stellar performances in Guru and Yuva, could not be said to have possessed the greatness and the larger-than-life aura of his father Amitabh Bachhan? Rahul Gandhi, with generations of political blood behind him, hasn’t really displayed the political cunning and ambition that was expected of him. Sunil Gavaskar, one of the greatest cricketers in the world, never could bring his son even close to the success in the cricketing world that he himself had achieved. These are the examples which not only had great, professional genes, but also bustling environs where their skills could flourish.

To the contrary, we have countless examples which defy odds- Shah Rukh Khan did not have the acting lineage and business acumen that many of his contemporaries did but yet he went on to become India’s star. We are all aware of Modi’s chaiwallah story, how he became the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy from being a mere chaiwallah at one point of time. J.K. Rowling’s is another rags to riches story, where she went on to write the world’s most popular and highest selling book series, while living on the state’s allowance, being as poor as one can be without being homeless, with a child to take care of? It was certainly not the conducive environment that resulted in their dazzling success- then were their parents hidden geniuses that managed to pass on their abilities? Perhaps not- perhaps there are other factors that are in play. Yet it cannot be denied that talent can rise in the unlikeliest of places.

Many years back, Virginia Woolf wrote of Shakespeare’s sister- a sister that he never had. She wrote about his hypothetical sister, who might have had Shakespeare’s genius, but would have died anonymous and unknown because her talents would never be allowed to flourish and develop in a world so stifling to women. She wrote that if a woman is to write, she must have a room of her own and adequate money that would provide her with the comfort to write. A room of her own, she said- the private space free of anybody to introspect and write.

Psychology partly made the answer for me, if not fully. From what I understood, the biological genes set the extreme limits, but the human will and determination is free to exercise within those limits. With a healthy and happy environment, the children do have higher odds of leading more satisfied lives. We cannot possibly overreach our genes, but the limits do give our environments enough scope to lead lives as we would. For not everybody had the comforts of a private room, yet great writing is known to have come up from the messiest of places. For people are known to have survived on lonely islands, swum great lengths and eaten fellow human beings if the time called for it- yet they couldn’t escape the confines of their own biology.

This is precisely where Mowgli becomes so relevant- Mowgli, as a human being, cannot help but use his fingers and limbs because he simply can. But he can easily climb trees and run extremely fast because he had been taught so; he can speak the language because he grew up conversing the language. In the end, he is the most content in the ‘Mowgli way’, his own way of living comprising a mix of both human and animal behaviors. And that is what we must strive for- limited as we are by our own generational advantages and disadvantages while becoming more and more like our parents every passing year, we can always learn from the past and forge a new to the future,  to be set as an example by others.

Fleeting Thoughts on Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921)

I saw Kapoor and Sons over the weekend and was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a really heartwarming and insightful movie (I also watched Ki and Ka over the weekend but more on that in the next post). Much had been spoken about Rishi Kapoor’s makeup which was apparently done by the same people who did Brad Pitt’s in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it really was quite brilliant.

I didn’t find Alia Bhatt’s role to be very significant, so I won’t be mentioning her much; Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan were serious eye candy, and it’s worth going to the theatre just for them. In fact, I had a dream last night starring a very good looking guy bearing a striking resemblance to Fawad Khan. Ratna Pathak and Rajat Gupta were their usual genius selves, and everybody all together came out to form a very fun group.

It is the story of the Kapoor family when the dadu, Rishi Kapoor gets a heart attack, so Fawad Khan and Sidharth return from London and New Jersey respectively to the small town of Coonor in Kerala. Old family banter ensues as we observe a family that doesn’t seem very different than ours, and slowly secrets unfurl.

  1. The Portrayal of Family: All families fight. Even the ones containing two boys as good looking as Fawad and Sidharth. Nothing can change that. What you can change is your patience level- the movie helps us see ourselves in a critical light, and reminds us that it would all do us well to shut up once in a while and do things for the other person.
  1. The film sadly comes off as giving the message that you’ve got to love your family no matter what- that’s a bit problematic. By idolizing the unit of family to that extent, the movie sweeps over the murkier aspects of the individuals. Like seriously, the fact that Rajat Gupta had been cheating on Ratna Pathak for a long, long time is not okay, and definitely not something to be forgiven. It should have been shown that it is okay to walk out of a family as well, if the family cannot treat you right.
  1. But hey, they do show that all family members make well-meaning mistakes, that their intention was never to hurt, and intentions, however misguided, do count.
  1. The ending was remarkably good- there is no happy ending, and it isn’t shown as if anything is solved or sorted. There is, however, a step towards acceptance.
  1. In this film, as is done in many others, death is used. In art, the use of death to make people realize, to make them regret, to bring them together, to make them forgive- it is an easy way out. To do all this over a passage of time because you just come to accept a person, that is the more difficult path.

All in all, a very fun watch which raises enough larger questions on the nature of this life. I couldn’t stop crying in the second half; S. couldn’t stop laughing. At me, not at the movie.

You might also be interested in reading my thoughts on the movie Masaan.

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Why Anushka Sharma’s Revenge in NH10 is Totally Believable

NH10, Anushka Sharma’s production debut, has a lot up its sleeve, if only you’d care to look- perhaps I can go so far as to say that it is one of the best Hindi thrillers in recent years. An urban Gurgaon couple, headed for a romantic getaway further up in Haryana, witness an honor killing and are chased by the killers, across the barren fields on a fateful night. As has been noted by critics, Navdeep Singh borrows generously from British horror thriller Eden Lake yet makes it his own-the urban-rural divide, the misogyny and patriarchy prevalent in urban and rural India, the social commentary weaved through and through. Yet one aspect of the movie that wasn’t completely embraced by the audience was Anushka Sharma returning to finish off her husband’s killers after running from them all night- surely, any life-fearing person would run to family and friends and seek help from police in the comfort of daylight? Wrong. In any other situation, I wouldn’t have believed that the wronged wife comes back to kill five men- except for this one.

  1. Girl had sass

Anushka Sharma, playing the character of Meera, has been depicted as a very brave character right from the beginning. Returning late from a party one evening, she makes a lurch and escapes when faced with an extremely dangerous situation, when most of us would have been paralyzed by fear. At her office meeting when a male colleague remarks that she might be getting undue appreciation in lieu of being a woman, she calmly gives a fitting reply. While stuck in the fields and running for their lives, Meera never loses hope, not even when her husband is injured and she has to run not only to save herself but also to save her husband whose condition may have been getting worse by the minute. A brilliant scene shows her successfully outstripping Satbir and the gang for some time at least by climbing on top of a hill, and when they notice her there, she actually throws stones down at them, while hurling abuses!


  1. In a Volatile State

 The movie not only presents bad omens and builds up the storm for the context, it also does the same for Meera: she is already jolted into a volatile state when attacked while returning alone from her party. From then on, she has rising paranoia and is touchy, always ready for defense- the couple also get a gun license and purchase a gun after the first attack. No doubt that the presence of a gun always keeps you on the edge, ready to spring into action. It was her uneasiness that kicked her survival instincts into action, and therefore the first attack which created this uneasiness, is a genius addition to the story.


  1. Exceptional Survival Instincts

 No, Meera was not the one to cow down- in every instance of the movie, she has been shown to have killer survival instincts. In the first attack as she is cornered with two men on a bike in the front and a car on the back who then break her window, she makes a brilliant move, instantly reversing and speeding ahead. She stabs the senior police officer in the eye after realizing he too was harm in one swift move. At sarpanch Ammaji’s house when getting beaten by Ammaji, she again shows brilliant survival by grabbing the child by the neck and threatening to throw him in the well if they don’t leave her.


  1. No Exaggerated Killing

 She doesn’t kill any of the killers in a gory manner- except the last one, Satbir, who was already injured and not exactly a threat at the moment. She runs down most of the other killers, and her stabbing of the senior police officer too was quite natural.


  1. Nothing to Lose

 As the night progressed, she slowly became a woman with nothing to lose. Everything she had held dear in the world, her husband, was dead, killed in a horrible way by Satbir and his gang; she was prepared to stake whatever was left to her. She became a woman with nothing to lose and that fact empowered her.


  1. The Big Trigger

 What triggered her rage was not that they had killed her husband; no it was when she noticed the writing on the wall that she gave a scream of horror. The killers had written in blood, ‘raand saala’ on the wall- they had not only killed him but also defaced his body and the circumstances of his death. Meera couldn’t stand it, and that was what set her off.

One of the best female characters, Anushka Sharma has definitely paved the way for more female leads in this genre.

Masaan and the Many Faces of Love and Sex

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One of the best things I read in the reviews of Masaan after watching the movie is the underlying irony of the story: Varanasi, the city which is believed to be the gateway to ultimate liberation of the soul, can entrap the soul just as well. Masaan narrates two storylines depicting the lives of particular individuals who sought to break away from the lines of caste, class and gender that divided small-town Varanasi.

Except for a couple of aspects, I found the movie absolutely fascinating with subtle and insightful portrayals of new versus the old, illustrating the many ways in which technology is seeping into homes and families, lives and its loves, attempting to break age old barriers as traditional institutions battle it out against this unstoppable force whose victims are the people of this tragic generation, forever stuck in the middle.

But the facet of the movie that I wish to touch upon is Devi’s storyline, who checks into a hotel room along with her boyfriend and then proceeds to have sex out of curiosity. Trouble strikes as police barges into the room, intimidating the couple as a result of which Devi’s boyfriend locks himself into the bathroom and slits his wrists, as the police threatens to call his parents. The police also clicks a photograph of Devi while she is naked in bed, which they will later use to threaten and blackmail her- the Great Fear of the Scandal.

There are two striking features at this volcanic start: a woman in a small town watching porn on the internet, who then goes to have sex with her boyfriend, admitting that she didn’t want to do it under the so-called pressure to ‘put out’ but because she was also a human being who had sexual urges and a curious mind. What? A woman who wants to have sex?! Out of choice?! How blasphemous!

This is the reason why Masaan, despite its confused storyline and untapped potential, still managed to win my heart because it not just acknowledges female sexuality and natural carnal needs, but is also accepting and unapologetic of it. When her boyfriend commits suicide out of fear of his parents, she doesn’t die of despair- one could even say she was just plain disappointed. Despite the threats of ‘an MMS scandal’ that the cop blackmails her with, she goes back home to face her father, taking his anger, and telling him after a while that she did nothing wrong. Her eagerness to pay off the blackmail money is her desire to put this nasty episode behind herself and start anew not by marrying and settling, but by bravely visiting her deceased boyfriend’s family, in spite of knowing they would blame her for his death. She even moves out of her ageing, lonely father’s home in Varanasi to Allahabad, because, as she says, ‘jitni chhoti jagah, utni chhoti soch’, an action which is particularly laudable in the Indian setup.

Taking the issues that Masaan raised, we, as a society, need to ask ourselves why are we so uncomfortable with sexuality? Why are we so prepped up against any kind of sex that is not legitimized by a heterosexual marriage? What is so wrong with pre-marital sex, with marrying a person you love while disregarding his or her caste, that it drives parents to murder their own children, and children killing themselves out of terror of their parents’ wrath? Why is it a crime at all if a grown man or woman chooses to sexually engage with someone of their age in a private hotel room, a crime that a police can arrest you for, socially, if not legally? At a time when the Indian government decides to ban porn, this is certainly a very important question to ask. What is it that makes us so very, very afraid of the most biological eventuality in the world?

And when I say we, I do not just imply Indian society- most major societies in the world are intolerant of, or atleast once were, any sex outside of marriage. There are also many societies in the world which are even more intolerant than ours; but because I have grown up in this particular society and can form the most informed opinion on this one, I choose to question my Indian society.

Any discussion about ‘unnatural sex’ is always guised by two constructs: that it is a ‘western’ import and a development of these ‘modern’ times that does not understand culture or tradition. Both these arguments are doomed from the start, as neither of these have any concrete basis, and are actually themselves constructs created by certain groups. It would be foolhardy of me to cite history, for neither am I learned student of history, and nor are there enough resources even in the deepest recess of the web to capture the multitude of traditions and cultures that have existed in the world over the ages. So I decided to go over a couple of examples that general knowledge and the elusive ‘common sense’ provide us.

Everybody has heard about the Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu treatise on sex, which describes the many ways of pleasuring your partner. We have even heard about the Khajuraho temples, and similar temples in the south, which show carvings of men and women engaging in all kinds of sex, be it homo or heterosexual, be it with a single partner or multiple. We know how Draupadi was forced to accept five husbands, and it is a known fact how the princely, dynastic families used to practice polyandry and polygamy to ensure succession. The ruling classes, just like the present times, were known to lead hedonistic lives which were quite different from the simple morality of the lower and middle classes, and again just like the present times, the lower and the middle classes allowed themselves certain freedoms and liberations of which the upper classes remained scathing.

The point is, ancient attitudes towards marriage-less sex were as ambivalent they are today; while there were communities who condoned it, there were groups who condemned it. While sex was considered the lawful dharma of any husband and wife, sex without a higher, righteous purpose was akin to sin. Such codes were respected by some and dismissed by the others- while the brahmanical classes maintained tight rules by the word of the Vedas and the Upnishads, there were many,many other whose lifestyles were quite different.

One good example for this is the Muria tribe, an adivasi tribe in the Bastar distric of Chhatisgarh. Muria are known for their open and embracing attitudes towards sexuality- from the onset of puberty as young teenagers, Muria girls and boys are sent to ghotuls, which are mixed-sex dormitories and are encouraged to make love to their partners. While some are told to go ahead with monogamous relationships, many of these teenagers are told to adopt multiple sexual partners in the course of their lifetime.

This is not an ideal, nor a debasement: it is simply an example of the variance in sexual practices not just all over the world which are many, but within India itself. The key here remains in sex education and acceptance, rather than imposition of one particular morality over others. We have a huge world with so many traditions and cultures that a lifetime is not enough to even study them- then how can we, insignificant, pathetic human beings that we are, living for a measly, little time period, even attempt to tell someone else that this is how it should because it is written in this book or because it’s done that way in one society, when we are nothing but dots in the cosmic infinity of space and time?

A Patch of Green

On a hot morning in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, I met a Chinese acquaintance who could surprisingly speak very good English, facilitating our conversation, as we headed towards a cultural park which I wanted to visit. A long metro ride ahead of us, we went on talking about one thing then the other, this habit and that tradition, India and China, life and the Universe.

Very soon, as had to happen, with a person like me, very soon, we landed on the subject of movies. Who didn’t like movies? At the mention, he felt compelled to give me his very honest opinion- his face went glum, his voice lowered , a shadow of disappointment fell over his person. “I will not tell you to watch any Chinese movies. Here, we do not like a lot of Chinese movies; they are very stupid. They have no story at all, just a bunch of stupid fighting scenes, some stupid love story, everybody always beating each other up. All of them are the same”

I looked at him, amazed, making no effort to hide my expression. How many times in ourselves, in our friends, in our families had we said the same thing about Indian movies? How many times have we scoffed and dismissed Bollywood commercial films, dismissed them for their exaggerated nuisance, spurned their stupidity, their absurdity, their distance from real life, their nonsensical nature? “That’s what we also think of our movies, sometimes”, I told him, giggling.

“What?” he asked me, flabbergasted. “Why?! Here, we LOVE your movies. I haven’t seen a lot of them but the ones that I have, I loved. Especially I have seen 3 Idiots and PK, and they are amazing! In my college, all my friends love these two movies. They are so full of life and so funny. How can you not like them?”  “What, and I love your movies! Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee- come on!” We both burst out laughing.

With a shake of the head, a hint of a smile and a dawn of realization, I understood the secret to the universe. What is yours will always suffer your criticizm, your rebukes, and your disappointments. It will take your praise and present its flaws, it will lay bare in front of you, in its stark honesty and nakedness. What is not yours, however, will escape the glaring eye; we will never know their problems and their dreams, we will never know what it is like to be them. We can always guess, but we might never know. So what we belittle here could be celebrated there; what they deride there could be extolled here.

But more importantly, I learned that you could be sitting in the most beautiful and lush sprout-wielding, cherry-popping flowerage, but the grass? The grass will always, always be greener on the other side.

TITANIC: It’s Best That Jack Died

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Titanic truly is the greatest movie of our times: the beauty of the ship breaking the water apart and cruising the sea, the grandiose of the interior, the thrill in the direction, the embodiment of Jack Dawson in Leonardo DiCaprio, the people falling off the ship, the ship itself standing vertically about to sink in the water and the great love story of Rose and Jack are things that are hard to replicate even now, more than fifteen years later. Yet one can’t help but think why Jack had to die, for Rose had known him less than four days, and there was great scope to portray the Happily Ever After that goes down so well. I battled with this ending for years before I realized that it was indeed a better decision to let Jack die primarily for two reasons:

Rose’s core struggle as a character was her desire for freedom, which she would never have gotten had Jack been allowed to live, and secondly, Rose, as an aristocrat who had grown up in the lap of wealth would not have been able to adjust to Jack’s ways of living.

Rose DeWitt Bukater, seventeen years old from Philadelphia, has been engaged to Cal Hockley, son of Pittsburgh steel tycoon Nathan Hockley, to maintain their high society status after Rose’s father died and left them debt-ridden. The first time we see the seventeen year old Rose, she walks in, opulently dressed, as the fiancée of aristocrat Cal Hockley- and as an aristocrat herself. “I don’t see what the fuss is all about,” she comments about the Titanic, walking past the third class passengers queued up for health inspection , leading the trunks and trunks of her luggage, straight to the parlor suites, aboard the Ship of Dreams.

To me it was a slave ship,” she declares, “taking me back to America in chains. Inside I was screaming,” referring to her engagement to Hockley, articulating the first tenets of her desire for freedom.

One of the first things that we hear from twenty year old Jack Dawson is, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And indeed, Jack had nothing to lose: once his parents died when he was fifteen, Jack ‘worked from place to place, on tramp steamers and such’ managing to scrape together enough money to secure himself a meal and few blank sheets of paper to maintain his cheery disposition, and his will to take life as it comes. In the spur of the moment, at a lucky hand in poker, Jack along with his friend Fabrizio, wins two tickets on the RMS Titanic which will take him back home to America, as they run to get aboard, contending that they are the ‘luckiest sons of bitches alive’.

Conversely, as Jack jumps the lice inspections that other passengers of his class are subjected to, and gets straight to his third class bunker beds, Rose is busy arranging art of Pablo Picasso who was just ‘Picasso something’ at the time, and quoting Dr. Freud, hearing which Molly Brown addresses Hockley, “She’s a pistol Cal, I hope you can handle her.” We are shown, right from the beginning, that even at seventeen years of age, Rose has a strong voice of her own which will not be silenced.

Rose, forcibly engaged to Hockley, who makes sure that Rose that there is nothing he could not giver her, sought to escape this first class world in which she was unfortunately born. “I saw my whole life as if I already lived it. An endless parade of parties and cotillions, yachts and polo matches..”, the ‘inertia of her life’, thoughts which make her run to the deck and contemplate on whether she should throw herself into the icy waters of the Atlantic.

When Jack goes after a running Rose who is now hanging at the edge of the ship, we know that Rose would never have jumped. Maybe in a few years when she would have been driven crazy enough by Hockley, but not now- here she was just testing her guts. “Don’t presume to tell me what I will or will not do, you don’t know me”, one of the first things Rose says to Jack, reminding him of his class, as he attempts to dissuade her from jumping. She only warms up to him once Jack begins to narrate his story about the time he had gone ice fishing.

That is the point when her fascination with Jack begins- “You are rude and uncouth and presumptuous,” she tells him, a little before she sees his drawings, just a little before she’s intrigued by him because he can do anything and go anywhere he wants- within his limited economic means, of course. He tells her about the one-legged prostitute he meets in Paris, the naked women he draws, the portraits he does at a pier in Santa Monica and the squid boat he worked on in Monterey, as she falls in love with his freedom. “Why can’t I be like you, Jack?” Rose asks him, “just head out for the horizon whenever I feel like it.”

Once again, Rose pauses, thinking, daring, “Say we’ll go to that pier, even if we only talk about it..” she says, waiting out on his response. Jack shrugs like its no big deal, which in all honesty for him, was not-“No we’ll do it,” he says. “We’ll drink cheap beer, we’ll ride on the roller coaster till we throw up. Then we’ll ride horses on the beach, right in the surf”, he proposes, as Rose looks on at him in glee, for Jack promised her what Hockley never could, despite his claim. Restricted and constrained by being cultured into the high society since her birth, Jack lays bare a world in front of her which cannot be bought, a world where one does not need a first class status to live life- the cheap thrills which are more often than not, free. This contrast further acts itself out in the third class party that Rose goes to, ‘below the decks’, the first ‘real party’ that Rose has ever attended.

The next morning, Hockley confronts Rose about her night with Jack, instructing her to never act the same way ever again. “I’m not a foreman in one of your mills that you can command. I’m your fiancée.” Rose demands respect and authority, and in Hockley’s show of anger, she gets the opposite- subdued only for the moment, Rose’s desire to break free is ever so strong.

I’ve nothing to offer you, I know that” Jack says, but he’s never been more wrong- Jack offers her adventure, and Rose, young, naïve, impulsive jumps at that. In the famous ‘Titanic scene’, Jack gives her a glimpse of the life that she could have with him. It might have been a glimpse, but it was all she needed.

She takes Jack back to her suite, and shows him the Heart of the Ocean- the diamond of Louis the XVIth, bought by Hockleys, inherited by Rose’s fiancée Hockley, and given to Rose as their engagement gift, and is in fact, also the heart of the story. She tells Jack she would like him to draw her wearing only that necklace.  The scene particularly becomes the core of the entire story, as not only does it become a turning point in the movie, it is also the very thing that causes Rose to recollect this tale 84 years later.

As Jack draws Rose wearing the Heart of the Ocean, multiple things happen: not only does Rose become one of the subjects of Jack’s drawings, all of whom fascinate Rose, she gets herself immortalized wearing her own slave chain- the Heart of the Ocean, her engagement gift from Hockley. If she was so eager to break away from what confined her, why did she get herself drawn wearing the very emblem of that confinement? “We are royalty, Rose” Hockley had told her, while giving her the necklace- in a way, she immortalized herself as royalty.

Rose’s thirst for adventure and her wonder to escape to far away places is further articulated when in the next scene, Lovejoy, Hockley’s manservant, begins following Rose and Jack. As he walks behind them, Rose grabs Jack’s hand and yells ‘Run!’, in a wannabe police-thief chase. Why does she run? Lovejoy was just a sidekick, he wouldn’t possibly dare to drag her away forcibly, and he had already seen them together and would be reporting that to Hockley- Rose ran for the adventure of it, letting him chase them as they ran up and down the ship.

Additionally, once Rose and jack find the car in the famous scene, Rose sits at the back while Jack sits at the driver’s seat asking her, “Where to, miss?” to which Rose replies, “To the stars.”

The point where all these instances come together to furnish the final argument on why Jack had to die for Rose to be truly free comes once the shipwreck has happened, and Rose is standing on the deck with her mother and Hockley, waiting to get on a lifeboat, while Jack is locked at the bottom of a sinking ship for a crime he didn’t commit. “Will the lifeboats be seated according to class?” her mother asks out loud, turning to Rose and saying, “I hope they’re not too crowded.”

This proves to be the final straw as Rose refuses to get on the lifeboat and moves to rescue Jack. “Where are you going?” Hockley asks in anguish, “To him? To be a whore to a gutter rat?” Without a flinch, Rose answers, “I’d rather be his whore than your wife.”

I’d rather be his whore than your wife- that in itself is symbolic of the freedom Jack offered to Rose, which was only relative, and not absolute, and hence for Rose to be truly free, which I believe to be the core of the story, Jack needed to die. Passed from one man to the next, Rose’s independence would not come about, if Jack hadn’t died.

For if we suppose that Jack had survived, and the two of them reached New York City, harrowed and cold, but alive and intact, it is interesting to imagine what would have been. The appeal of cheap beer and roller coaster rides can only hold out till the day the vomit doesn’t drain every bit of energy out of you, and the hangovers don’t cripple you. Adventure remains adventure only till the time you have a stable centre to return to. Rose, growing up in luxuries and dressed by personal maids, obviously longed for ‘spitting like men’ and going to Paris with Jack, surviving on only ten cents a day, because it was romantic idea, and solely that.

Could Rose possibly know what paucity can truly entail? What would have happened when the seventh night in a row, Rose, along with Jack, would have to sleep under a bridge, on a stomach filled not with the sumptuous first class meals that she was used to, but with only promises of grand adventures. The adventure endures thrill when you are not running for your life, when every other day, you are not on the lookout for a temporary job for a loaf of bread.

This argument has a counter- for even when Jack died and Rose had a chance to return to Hockley, she did not. She still chose to struggle as an actress and start from scratch, refusing to back to her. However, the difference must be noted- if Jack had lived and they had to sleep under bridges and makeshift tents, Rose could have easily grumbled and fumbled and blamed Jack for leading her into a life of poverty. But when Rose refused to be a rich slave and instead chose to be a poor but free worker, she took her fate upon herself and geared herself for the consequences. We can’t speculate how her acting career went, but we do know that she married a certain Calvert and did not too badly for herself.

I’m a survivor, Rose” Jack tell her, and indeed he is- he would have survived had Rose not been with him at the time that the ship sank. “The ship is going to suck us down,“ he tells her, “Take a deep breath when I say. Kick for the surface and keep kicking. Do not let go off my hand.” But he forgets the primary difference between them- Rose is wearing a life jacket and Jack is not, and when you see the suction created by the sinking of the ship, you realize that it makes a hell of a difference.

While in the water, a jacket-less Jack holds on to Rose, hoping to get back to the surface on the force of her jacket. That doesn’t happen, as he sinks and she rises. Rose cannot sink, for she is wearing the jacket- flailing after drawing air, she looks for him. Jack finds a wooden plank and tells Rose to get on it, realizing that if the both of them try to get on the plank, it sinks. Rose gets the plank, and we see it in the briefest of looks, in the briefest nod of resignation, of ‘if this is how it must be’, Jack proves to be more of a gentleman than the entire first class put together.

Jack, white and hypothermic and drenched in freezing water, reassures Rose that the boats would come back and that she needs to hold on just a little bit longer, “You must do me this honor,” he asks of her, “You must promise me you’ll survive. You’ll never let go”, asserting  that never letting go implied precisely the opposite- for Rose to survive, she had to let go off Jack. Similarly, to be truly free, to truly be able to gain her independence, it was essential for Jack to not weigh her down.

Titanic was best left at this, as an unfulfilled love story, as is said in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, only unfulfilled love is romantic. “He saved me in all the ways that a person can be saved,” an old Rose recounted 84 years later. If Jack survived, who is to say the epic nature of the story would have survived- maybe it turned out that perhaps Rose did not find Jack’s rootless existence that charming. Throughout the movie, we see Jack leading Rose out of tricky situations which a courageous Rose managed quite effectively but at the end of the day, courage is one thing and slick is another.

How would Rose have ever found her own way if she always lived in Jack’s shadow?


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*Spoilers ahead

The film has already broken all sorts of records at the box office, only behind Dhoom 3 perhaps, and has garnered more attention than it probably ever expected to- religious controversies and orders of banning the movie will get audience to the theatres faster than you can say PK. Rajkumar Hirani, after tackling the need for love and kindness in Munnabhai MBBS, and the Importance of Going After What Really Interests You in 3 Idiots has taken on a big issue this time: religion.

PK is an alien, abandoned on Earth by his mothership, where a smart-ass Rajasthani steals his only point of contact with his planet- PK’s blue coloured locket, which looks a lot like the Heart of the Ocean locket in Titanic. A complete stranger to the peculiar human culture, unsocialised by human behaviour, and not even born into any of the human languages, PK is a tabula rasa at its best. He quickly learns a Hindi version of Bhojpuri and seeks to understand this strangely complex world full of ‘dancing cars’, soon bumping into Jaggu, an annoyingly perky television reporter, recently returned after finishing a television production course in Belgium. He encounters the diversity of religions and mannerisms and is obviously confused, being told that only God can help him, but then there are so many Gods, and all of them quite ineffective.

Jaggu had fallen in love with the Pakistani Sarfaraz in Belgium, and sought to excitedly tell her parents about him over videochat. Didn’t she know all Indian parents were against a Pakistani groom? Appalled, her father quickly makes her videochat with his favourite godman Tapasviji, who immediately told her that since he is Muslim, he will use her body, refuse to marry her, and leave her in the worst possible condition: an Indian girl, not a virgin, and whose boyfriend refuses to marry her. Jaggu reacts in a manner which was deemed extremely logical by her: no, she says, I will disprove what Tapasviji said- I will disprove it by making Sarfaraz marry me tomorrow ITSELF! Will you marry me tomorrow, Jaggu asks him in a fiery tone, and Sarfaraz, taken aback as one would obviously be, utters a scared affirmation, and as always, the solution to everything becomes marriage. At the church however, Jaggu receives a note which says that marriage is a marriage of families, and hence he is not okay to marry in this manner, and asks Jaggu to not contact him ever again, and so Tapasviji’s prediction proves true, and heartbroken, Jaggu returns to India where even her parents won’t accept her, despoiled as she is.

If one were to think of PK as a clever satire on religion, the movie tends to lose a little bit of its ridiculousness- the alien form of PK becomes a vehicle, and a reflector, to expose the oddities and absurdities that religion has come to take in India. The setup may not be very realistic, but it does the job- we are forced to think why we believe in a lot of shams that operate in the name of religion. We are made to acknowledge that God is personal, and faith is more than a money making business. PK utters simple truths that we have always known, yet chose to suppress at the back of our minds, and in that lies the movie’s redemption, which otherwise functions on a completely erroneous premise.

In the big show-off between Tapasviji and PK on Jaggu’s talk show, the discussion starts with Tapasviji asking what is so bad in religion if it gives people a little bit of hope- and ends with a full-fledged discussion of Jaggu’s affair with Sarfaraz on national television. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, Tapasviji uses his prediction of Sarfaraz’s betrayal as a defence of his powers, and consequently, a defence of the type of religion he propagates. As the whole country waits in bated breath, the entire production team attempts to contact Sarfaraz right there and then, as PK reveals that Sarfaraz, in fact, might not have betrayed Jaggu. Turned out that there was a huge misunderstanding and that the note in the church was meant for someone else, and that Sarfaraz was completely willing to marry Jaggu.

As I sat watching this ludicrous unfolding of events, I couldn’t help but wonder if nobody in the movie team found this stupid.

Tapasviji said that Sarfaraz is a Muslim and hence will betray Jaggu after using her body, and Jaggu decides to prove him wrong by asking him to marry her the very next day. Let me emphasize this- she asked Sarfaraz to prove his love by committing the rest of his life to her, because she wanted to prove a godman in India wrong, and also reassure herself that their love is true and pure. This point could have been reluctantly digested had it not been raised later in Jaggu’s talk show- if its true that Sarfaraz was willing to marry Jaggu, then PK’s questioning of religion receives a validation. On the other hand, if Sarfaraz was not that obedient a person, PK’s debates on the frauds relating to religion would be rendered lull and inadequate.

PK might have a good message at its core, but its way of sending the message across is fallacious on so many levels. It reinforces many stereotypes that people across the globe have been trying to battle for years, that a relationship necessitates marriage, that if someone refuses to marry you after having sex with you, you have been betrayed and abandoned. It posits a girl as someone who has been ‘exploited’ and ‘duped into’ a relationship by false promises of lifelong support.

Do you love me, Jaggu asks Sarfaraz to which he obviously says yes. Then marry me, she asks of him, and with a one day notice at that. What if Sarfaraz thought himself too young for marriage? What if Sarfaraz thought it too early in the relationship for marriage? What if Sarfaraz had mixed views about marriage, and just wasn’t sure yet? What if Sarfaraz thought that the best way to prove your love for someone is not immediate marriage? What if Sarfaraz wanted to consult his family before getting married like that? He didn’t have a quarrel with his family, unlike Jaggu- why was he needed to hurry into it!

As I mentioned, this ‘test of love’ preposterousness could have been overlooked had it not been used to validate PK’s concerns regarding religion- because Sarfaraz was not a bad, betraying boy who did not refuse to meet Jaggu’s marriage demands, Tapasviji was a liar and therefore, PK’s thoughts about religion were accepted and praised, by the audience of the talk show, and the audience of the real life. Bringing Sarfaraz in the debate between Tapasviji and PK messes up the politics of the movie- if it had turned out that Sarfaraz had refused to marry Jaggu as a result of a personal choice, would that make PK’s ideas about religious broad-mindedness and your faith being unique and personal, and not a site for exploitation, any less authentic?

The problem is not that Jaggu asks Sarfaraz to marry her, hell at even a day’s notice, whatever floats their boat.

The problem is that his misconstrued refusal is shown to us as ‘betrayal’, as guys being guys, and even more unpleasantly so, as ‘Muslims being Muslims’.

The problem is that it reinstates the idea that sex, unless it leads to marriage, is essentially meaningless.

The problem is that a matter as important as tolerance required in religion is reduced to the personal squabble of a couple.

The real problem is that instead of PK being condemned for its botched up gender politics and narrow mindedness on the issue of marriage, it is being banned for questioning religion and its tolerance.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Y Tu Mama Tambien and the the Fluidity of Sexuality

“Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.”- Y Tu Mama, Tambien


“The trick is to enjoy life, accepting that it has no meaning whatsoever.”-Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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Y Tu Mama, Tambien (And Your Mother, Too) is a Mexican film in Spanish, made in 2001, of the road-trip genre, a teenage coming of age story, and explicitly political at the same time. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an American film in English, based in Spain, made in 2008, about the materialistic versus the artistic, the normal versus the bohemian-rather, a satiric approach on all of this.

There are striking similarities in both the movies which strongly suggest Woody Allen’s inspirational take from Y Tu Mama, Tambien while making Vicky Cristina Barcelona. For starters, both the movies have a strong Spanish setup. Y Tu Mama, Tambien is set in Mexico, the most populous Spanish speaking country in the world, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is set in Spain, with Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena jabbering away in Spanish. Allen, who focuses on particular cities in his movies (Midnight in Paris, Manhattan, Annie Hall) chose Barcelona for this movie- his choice is significant.

Both the movies centre around a trip that changed that changed their lives- in Y Tu Mama, Tambien it is Tenoch and Julio’s road trip with Lousia to the beach strip Heaven’s Mouth, and in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it is Vicky and Cristina’s trip to Barcelona overly, and the mini trip they take with Juan Antonia to Oviedo, focally.

Both the movies make use of an omniscient narrator, speaking in a straightforward, unamused tone to drive the action forward- he relates not only the logistical and circumstantial bits of the story, he also explicates what the characters are feeling at times. In Y Tu Mama, Tambien  the narrator goes beyond and even ventures into social commentary on rural and urban Mexico.

Tenoch and Julio are best friends, and so are Vicky and Cristina- both Tenoch and Julio sexually engage with Louisa, and end up in a three-way sexual encounter. Both Vicky and Cristina sexually engage with Juan Antonio- difference being that Cristina’s dalliance with Juan Antonio begins later, once the trip has ended, and lasts longer. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona too, there will be a threesome- only Vicky will be replaced by Maria Elena. Both Louisa and Juan Antonio are older than their two respective partners, and have a sort of mentorship imbued in their roles.

However, it is the treatment of sexuality that is the most interesting to me in both the movies.

Y Tu Mama, Tambien begins with Tenoch and Julio having sex with their girlfriends, who plan to leave for Italy in the summer. Both the boys excitedly discuss girls, and there are even overt scenes of masturbation. On the road trip Tenoch, Julio, and Lousia have lengthy discussions about their sex life- “You have to make the clitoris your best friend,” Lousia tell the two boys, to which Tenoch asks, “What kind of friend is always hiding?” The night they spend in the motel, Lousia seduces Tenoch as he comes out of the  bathroom, and he jumps at the opportunity. Later, when Lousia seduces Julio in the car, in an attempt to make the score equal and end the conflict with the two boys, Tenoch casts the outside judgmental eye and calls them ‘animals’. Both boys reveal that they have slept with the other’s girlfriend, to which Louisa says, “Who cares who you two fucked when you come that fast!” At Heaven’s Mouth, all three of them get drunk and end up having a threesome, with Tenoch and Julio waking up naked in the bed together, after which things get very awkward.

Y Tu Mama, Tambien treats sex with comfort and ease- the discussions of Tenoch, Julio and Louisa are neither glorified nor shamed; they are as realistic as can be. Their thoughts about virginity, sexual techniques, self-pleasure and their own sex life flow into the conversation smoothly, without making a big deal of it in any way- sex is treated as it should, a normal and exciting part of life, as available for discussion as any other topic.

It is when Lousia and Tenoch have sex that things get rusty, a situation which Lousia attempts to smoothen by sleeping with Julio as well- the plan works out. Once these sexual encounters take place, the movie automatically deviates from socialized, normalized morality- now the story and its lessons do not have to necessarily apply, or appeal, to the viewer. But this deviation occurs in a largely realistic setup- in the class differences and political realities of Mexico that is depicted along the road they travel and Tenoch’s family background, in Julio who becomes the embodiment of the middle class-ness emerging in developing Latin American countries and in Lousia, a beautiful young girl who regrets marrying too soon and finds herself out of tune with the intellectuals, by whom she is surrounded- which resists the very concept of deviation, unlike in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where all the free flowing sex happens in a bohemian artist’s paradise, outside the purview of the puritanical and capitalist values of America.

Sex, in this road trip, doesn’t have to have a larger meaning, or a future- Louisa is attracted to Tenoch in the moment, seduces him, and they have sex. She doesn’t have to regret it or even delve on it, when she later dismisses both Tenoch and Julio –“Play with babies, and you’ll end up washing diapers.”

Things actually get complicated once the threesome happens- Tenoch and Julio, realizing that they slept together, react in the typical, male, homophobic manner and converse little on the way back home, and break contact with each other until a chance encounter one year later. The end of friendship between Tenoch and Julio reflects and critiques the realities of the psychology, throwing to light the fears relating to the dynamic nature of sexuality.

Set in Barcelona and a cast comprising of Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona already presents itself as a movie which must be considered outside the ambit of what is deemed to be normal. Juan Antonio, in a chance meeting with Vicky and Cristina, asks them to fly with him to Oviedo for the weekend to see a sculpture which inspires him, and also to make love. “Who, exactly, is going to make love?” Vicky asks Juan Antonio in sarcasm, to which he replies, “Hopefully, the three of us.”

Vicky Cristina Barcelona explores sexuality differently- when Vicky expresses incredulity at Juan Antonio’s suggestion, he asks her simply, “What offended you about the offer? Surely not that I find you both beautiful and desirable.” He asks us to cast a look at relationships with an eye that is not socialized by moral lessons. For if we were not conditioned to believe that monogamous, heterosexual love is not the ‘natural’ way relationships should be, things could have been a lot different. When Vicky tells Juan Antonio that she doesn’t engage in meaningless sex, he asks her, “The city is romantic. The night is warm and balmy. We are alive. Isn’t that meaning enough?”

Simply put, sex and pleasure for its own sake, divesting it of all the connotations of power and purity with which it is associated in the world. Vicky Cristina Barcelona raises these issues, and builds a reality where alternative relationship structures are held up and mocked at the same time, may those be Vicky and her aunt looking for fulfilment outside marriage, or the three way love affair between Crisitina, Juan Antonio and Marie Elena. When Cristina confesses that she has made love to Maria Elena, she explains that it was in the moment, and it doesn’t necessarily have to classify her as bisexual- sex and pleasure for its own sake. Vicky Cristina Barcelona again traverses how sex doesn’t necessarily have to have a larger meaning, and that there can be multiple layers to a person’s sexuality.

There is no “true” nature of sexuality, and we were not meant to be one thing or the other, heterosexual or homosexual. When it comes to sexuality, there is no standard to deviate from- there is no centralized, consistent being that draws boundaries, outside of which lies the bohemian, the hippie, the lesbian, the orgiastic or the debauched. One could have sex with one person their entire life and still be said to living life to its fullest- one could have sex with a hundred men and women and not be of ‘depraved’ character. One could not have sex at all. The point being, in the case of sex, there is no too much or too little- it is just nothing and everything. It is beyond measurement and comparison, beyond the milestones of life and definitely beyond the rigid Victorian morality of our times.

This ideological bend is reflected in the inconclusive endings of both movies- in Y Tu Mama, Tambien Tenoch and Julio after encountering each other one last time never meet again, facing the changing political age of Mexico with confusions and apprehensions, the memories of a homosexual encounter long suppressed. Vicky and Cristina return to America, uncertain once more- Vicky, dissatisfied with her clichéd married life also realizes that the artist paradise is not for her by getting shot on her hand by Maria Elena, and that it is only a question of what is more tolerable, while on the other hand, Cristina is able to strike off one more thing off her list of what she ‘doesn’t want’.