Friday, November 18, 2011

Fantasy in Bollywood

I was watching the third movie in the Twilight saga - 'Eclipse' a few nights ago. The 'Twilight' series, although an epic romance, also belongs to the fantasy genre like Harry Potter.

I started to think, "Why can't Bollywood or regional Indian cinema come up with something in that genre?"
The trouble with Bollywood and commercial Indian cinema is that, in general, reality is shown in a fantasy form and fantasy as a genre has been relegated to the odd children's tale on television.
Thus, you have one hero effortlessly beating up fifty goons and defying all known laws of physics and on the other side, we have the same repetitive love stories in various forms.

There have been notable exceptions of late though. Science fiction has finally gone mainstream with 'Krrish', 'Koi Mil Gaya' and Rajnikanth's mega blockbuster 'Enthiran' (Robot). A combination of horror and romance with classical art was well presented in the Malayalam movie, 'Manachithrathazu' that was remade as 'Chandramukhi' in Tamil and then 'Bhool Bhulaiyya' in Hindi. The best thing about this movie was that unlike traditional films based on exorcism, it left the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions at the end. 'Paheli' was a good example of a ghost story blended with a romance.

However, real fantasy is an art that combines real human emotions and characters and situations that are purely a figment of the imagination and not encountered in the real world. One could have a story about aliens from outer space or vampires or elves and tell a compelling tale about love, truth, honor and justice as was beautifully illustrated in the Harry Potter series, 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and in the Twilight saga.

India is a land of fabled myths, ancient civilization, mystics and many ethnic groups and languages. We could come up with lovely tales that could enthrall not just our country but the entire world.
There is a very important point though. We should encourage and adapt great books or commission elaborate screenplays based on short stories or folk tales.  Some of the best Hollywood movies are based on great books or are true stories that have been adapted for the big screen.

Commercial Indian cinema is often found lacking in a solid storyline and character development. It is here that great authors dominate. One can never sell a book without a convincing story and literary classics always have characters that invoke love, hate, mixed feelings and inspire or educate. There were a few adapted movies such as 'Devdas' and 'Parineeta' (adapted from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels), 'Omkara' (from Shakespeare's Othello) but most are not. Some movies end up with good scripts but many others flounder even with a talented cast because the very crux of the film is weak.

Hope Indian cinema fulfills its immense potential. In the world of imagination at least, there are no limits.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Kinsey - the movie

I was watching the film, 'Kinsey' last night. I had seen it only in bits and parts the last time.

Liam Neeson as Kinsey and Laura Linney as his wife did an amazing job as did all the supporting actors.

It would have taken such a tremendous amount of guts to do what he did in the 1940s. To even come up with a scale of 0-6 where 0 - strictly heterosexual and 6 - strictly homosexual, with many human beings falling in between, would have been such a radical idea. This was the era before even that of 'Brokeback Mountain' or 'The Mathew Shepard Story'. Even today, in the 21st century, teens are bullied for being gay and there have been quite a few tragic suicides in the United States alone. Projects such as the 'It Gets Better Project' have been launched in response to such incidents.
Actually, homosexuality was common among ancient Greeks who had wives or who later on went on to marry women. Casual homosexuality was probably common in other cultures, too. Judeo-Christian and Islamic injunctions against homosexuality have contributed to stigmatize such acts.
I had read somewhere about the Manusmriti punishing same sex encounters but there is a fundamental difference.

I digress here, so please bear with me. 

Manusmriti, although a religious book of the Hindus, does not enjoy the stature of the Bhagavad Geeta or even puranas such as the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Manu has never been treated as an incarnation of God and although he may be held responsible for making the deeply divisive and unfair caste system rigid and propagating it, he was nevertheless considered human. Most Hindus have probably never read the Manusmriti, neither have I.  Although Hindu priests and sages have studied the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and other multiple scriptures, most common Hindus do not follow any religious text similar to the Bible and Quran letter by letter in their daily life. Whatever taboos and practices we currently see in India and other Hindu lands are those that have been handed down from generation to generation through centuries. People do not wish to offend their parents or go against society so they follow them docilely, whether it is the gentle urban yuppie who marries a girl of the same caste as he has nothing to lose or the more barbaric practices in the name of caste that are unfortunately practiced in remote villages by criminals or simply unfeeling people that go unchallenged by the decent folks out of fear or reasons that I probably do not know.
Some taboos such as laws against homosexuality and sodomy are a vestige of prudish British rule in India.
As someone who was raised in India, I have never seen a vehement condemnation of homosexuals by religious priests or pundits as I have seen in the West. Perhaps it is mentioned in some other scriptures but I have never heard of it being spoken of in the way people quote the Bible or the Quran to oppose it.
End of digression:).

When it comes to premarital and extramarital relationships, it is not just the Jews, Christians and Muslims but many other faiths and cultures, including Hinduism, that add to the choir of condemnation.

Kinsey articulated what many of us already know but are afraid to speak out. Social pressure, religious and cultural taboos mold us subtly in ways that we do not even sometimes understand or acknowledge. The fact that humans, like their chimp relatives in the wild, are capable of a wide range of sexual behaviors has not been tolerated by many civilized societies. Tribal cultures that have different norms in these matters are disparaged as 'savage' and 'pagan'.
In the movie, he also tackles the issue of sexual dissatisfaction within strictly monogamous marriages and presents the possibility of a different culture where extramarital sex is not abnormal.

When performing experiments with real people as volunteers for his second book on female sexuality, he runs into a situation where the wife of one of his closest assistants sleeps with another assistant as part of the research but they end up falling for each other and the woman wants to leave her husband. Kinsey asks Assistant 2 to break off the relationship and asks Assistant 1 to go home to his wife as she would need him. Assistant 1 then says something memorable along the lines of sex being the whole thing and that it can cut you wide apart. He meant that sex is not just some biological act, it has much deeper emotional and psychological repercussions. I do agree. Few people can be like Samantha Jones in 'Sex and the City' all the time and some probably get more deeply involved with their partners than they would have imagined. As far as I have seen in the popular media, counselors and advice columnists usually dish out this cautionary advice more to women than men. However, going by both popular culture and anecdotes on blogs, not all casual encounters lead to actual romance either.

Kinsey also mentions something controversial about sex offenders to reporters, saying that one man's sin is in fact, everybody's sin. He never meant to defend rapists but is misquoted and painfully watches his reputation being dragged through the mud in the media. I do see some aspects of his point though.
The age of legal consent for sex is different in different countries and even in different states within the US. The law generally sets the bar for legal and constitutional rights at the age of eighteen and confers the title of adulthood with all its pitfalls and privileges but biologically, it makes no sense that a 16 year old should be treated on par with a child and an 18 year old should be treated on par with a 40 year old.
Physical, emotional and psychological maturity happen in gradual stages. If an 18 year old slept with a 16 year old in a mutually consensual act which was just fun or a deeply romantic one, would the 18 year old be penalized? It would be unfair to put this 18 year old in the same bucket as, say, a 40 year old guy who manipulates a 15 year old and gets her into bed with him or, even worse, a 30 year old who molests a 10 year old child.

Some of the most moving scenes in the movie, apart from some of the interviewees for his research who have been victimized by society and circumstances, are those between Kinsey and his wife. From the faithful wife who is outraged at her husband's homosexual one-night stand with his assistant which Kinsey promptly confesses to his wife to the woman who asks her husband for permission to sleep with the same man to the mature, loving wife who stands by her husband through all the turmoil that his work brings, this woman and the couple stole my heart.
The fundamental lesson learned here is that a casual encounter outside of marriage does not need to undermine it if it is done in complete honesty, in fact, in the case of the Kinseys, it only made their union stronger. However, both partners have to be mature and open-minded and the relationship itself has to be strong for such an arrangement to succeed.

All in all, the movie touched me deeply. 

For all the sexual innuendos and pornography that is common now, there is still a lot of denial and conflict in the areas of sex, love and marriage. Modern Western society operates on incompatible viewpoints. On one hand, there is the notion of dating and experiencing multiple partners before finding 'the right one' and on the other hand, the notion of being and sleeping with only your spouse for the rest of your life and any fading of the relationship being attributed to not working enough on the marriage.

Added to this is the religious conservative view of abstinence before marriage and then absolute monogamy with lots of married sex when the culture is replete with sexual talk and imagery all around.

As for Eastern societies such as India, the land that gave the world the Kama Sutra now frowns upon any public display of affection, even kissing or for that matter falling in love without your parents' approval. Urban India is more liberal with youngsters dating and falling in love and marrying their sweethearts but overall, a lot of inner work needs to be done by Indians if they are to truly become liberated. Bollywood for all its 'boldness', with its sexy dances and costumes only rarely makes a film such as 'Astitva' or 'Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna' that explore controversial issues such as extramarital relationships. Indians celebrate their Miss Universe and Miss World winners but would never let their own daughters be caught dead in a miniskirt, let alone a bikini.

As for some of the Middle Eastern countries, I have nothing to say. Most of us feel thankful for whatever freedoms we have just reading about or watching them in the news.

Even today, there are millions out there who are too afraid to speak up, who lead either lives of duplicity or quiet desperation, their desires repressed and vilified while there are others who are victims of horrendous sex crimes.
The human race needs to face this problem squarely with complete honesty. We not only owe it to ourselves but to future generations as well.