Tales Of Courage & Conviction

The Emergence of the Indian Woman
By Anirudha Dutta
Rupa Publications India
Pages: 247. Price: Rs 395.

Woman empowerment has been the subject of hot debate in academic soirees and conferences. The discussion gathers ‘sound and fury’ and breaches the academic circles when a nirbhaya or Moga bus incident happens. However, as soon as the media storm abates, the matter goes back to the closed environs of statistical data and analysis. Not surprisingly then, most books and articles on the subject are either overwrought emotional outpourings or dry tomes of data that reflect trends in women literacy, gender ratios, crime and what have you.

Anirudha Dutta’s book ‘Half a Billion Rising’ does not follow the beaten track. Dutta carves out a niche for himself where statistics and sentiment meld to form a readable ‘whole’. He makes out a case that ‘numbers never tell the full story’. So he peoples his book with real women from various echelons of society. Vignettes of strong women, who breached male bastions, are dexterously woven into the narrative.  These women breathe life into a subject that has hitherto been the domain of feminists, sociologists and crime reporters. We have the bright-eyed Daksha of the sing-song voice from Gujrat who vows not to get married because she has seen her mother enslaved in torturous matrimony. We have the brilliant Saira, born and brought up in the Mumbai slums, who prevails upon her father to let her continue her studies. We have the feisty Priyanka from Munger in Bihar who sponsors her own studies and manages admission to a Mass communication and Journalism course in Nalanda University. And there is Salva from Hyderabad who breaks the traditional shackles that bind a Muslim girl to become a commercial pilot. These voices grip and beguile with revolutionary candour spurring the reader to unravel the skeins of real life stories.  

That is not to say that the book is not well researched. The statistics are there for all to see. Dutta dwells upon skewed gender ratios, literacy and mortality rates, female foeticide, crimes against women et al. However, his analysis goes beyond number crunching and examines the economic and social mores that cause or result in such statistics. The anomalies in data are not brushed aside but analysed and interpreted. Tongue-in-cheek Dutta tells us that Bihar has a better gender ratio than Punjab simply because only men migrate from Bihar in search of jobs while people from Punjab migrate with families. Certain social practices are re-examined for fresh, though not always palatable perspectives. Our presumption that education and prosperity reduces malpractices like female foeticide comes a cropper when Dutta connects such a practice to prosperous families in Punjab.  Prosperous families can afford gender determination tests and have access to pre-natal home kits of foreign origin.  Apparently, it is also easy for them to fly to Bangkok for gender selective abortions which are illegal in India.

In keeping with the time-honoured tradition of research analysts, Dutta also discusses the drivers of change- Education, strong Role models, NGOs and Government support. The narrative in such parts becomes somewhat staid and repetitive. Thankfully, he pulls the reader out of this morass soon enough. Things become interesting when he attempts to measure and quantify women empowerment through not just literacy and crime graphs but representation in films and the electronic media. The growth of the protagonist in ‘Queen’ from a timid girl who would bend backwards for her fiancĂ© to a woman who wants to live life on her own terms, becomes a metaphor of progress for the writer. Dutta ends his book on a politically correct note when he devotes a chapter to how boys and men need to accept and respect these changes. But even as you rue this diplomatic mouth speak, he reverses gears and with brutal honesty discusses the dark side of such empowerment. Women like Geetika Sharma and Bhanwri are held up as symbols of women whose hunger for power and money debilitates.

Dutta has penned a book that chronicles the lives of beleaguered women with a tremendous sense of empathy. He prods and pries and shakes the reader out of the ‘all is well with the world’ stupor. A book that spurs the reader to take up cudgels against the ills that have beset women.          

Published in the Tribune on 17th May 2015Part of the Dream Weave Walk Network 1999-2012

The Greatest Show on Earth: Writings on Bollywood

The Greatest Show on Earth: Writings on Bollywood Ed. Jerry Pinto. Penguin Books. Pages 452. Rs 499. I have been reviewing books on Bollywood cinema for the last many years and after going through innumerable books on cinema, I find it easy to slot the books into specific categories. I have found that the books are either academic treatises on the sociology and politics of cinema or are elaborate film reviews spanning several decades or are dedicated to the life and times of Bollywood celebrities. But Jerry Pinto’s book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is a bit like a googly ball in cricket. It belies categorisation. It covers the entire ambit of Bollywood cinema, be it writings on stars, filmmakers, music and, yes, even on the gossip that runs rife in this milieu. The academic analysis of censorship and sexuality, fictional write-ups on the casting-couch syndrome and the no-holds-barred yellow film journalism also find place in the anthology. It is an eclectic collection, as Pinto himself admits, "Bollywood at its best was eclectic." Jerry Pinto has cobbled together some interesting articles on Hindi cinema by authors as varied as Saadat Hasan Manto, Khushwant Singh, Ismat Chughtai, Salman Rushdie and Shobha De. Some articles come with interesting taglines like "Cat House Natter" or "My Fifteen Minutes with the Filmwalas", while others like "Marrying Hema" or Jairaj`85.And his Three Kisses" scream their gossipy antecedents. Pinto’s section on "The Stars" is perhaps the most intriguing with its vignettes on film celebrities. Vinod Mehta’s portrait of Meena Kumari and Madhu Jain’s portrait of Raj Kapoor aptly entitled "The Showman in love" are especially interesting as they narrate hitherto unheard incidents in the lives of the artists. In the "Introduction" Pinto tells us how he discovered Vinod Mehta’s writing on Meena Kumari from the raddiwalas in Mumbai. An excerpt from Pinto’s own book Helen: The Life and Times of the H-Bomb also adds to the heady reel-life cocktail. Pinto asserts that "by using popular culture, we ease away from the strain of self-expression" and confidently proclaims that the book is a "celebration of all that Indian cinema has done for us". A somewhat tall claim, I feel, but be that as it may the book undoubtedly showcases Pinto’s passion for Bollywood cinema big time. The book has emerged phoenix-like from Pinto’s personal library of Bollywood books which he collected "in the way that people collect stamps". But one wonders at the sudden though recent upswing in the trend of publishing anthologies on cinema. Perhaps, the books on cinema have also been touched by the multi-starrer magic. If the recent super-hit Golmaal and its sequel could have three sets of stars, why not a book which reads like the "who’s who" of film writers and also boasts of varied silver-screen perceptions strung together like baubles? But we hope an original treatise on cinema would come to us soon from this author who won a National Award for the best book on cinema. Published in the Tribune dated 20th November 2011 Part of the Dream Weave Walk Network 1999-2012

Bombay Duck is a Fish

By Kanika Dhillon.
Pages 320. Rs 195.

Kanika Dhillon’s maiden foray into novel writing has come with much fanfare. Dhillon has earned herself a head start with Sharukh Khan himself unveiling her debut novel. And why not? She is after all the screenwriter for the much-touted Ra.One and also happens to head the Creative Content Division of King Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment. She appears to have journeyed through Bollywood with aplomb having worked with Farah Khan in Om Shanti Om and Priyadarshan in Billu Barber. One envies her Midas touch, but her book Bombay Duck is a Fish tears at this perception and reveals the hard work and sweat, the pain of broken dreams and the glamorous fallacy that is Bollywood.

Neiki Brar, a small-town girl, moves from Amritsar to Bombay in search of the glitz and glamour of a star-spangled Bollywood. She starts working as a lowly Assistant Director to a famous film-maker but soon finds that her job is not so much about film-making as running errands for everyone on the set. Battling with the egos of her colleagues and celebrities, Neiki survives the rat race and manages to carve a niche for herself. However, her romantic entanglement with a shallow, opportunistic, sex-starved actor Ranvir Khanna, becomes the raison d’etre of her premature death.

The character of Neiki Brar seems to have emerged from Dhillon’s own Mumbai experiences, but the character development is not without contradictions. In the initial phase, Neiki is shown as ambitious, aggressive, hard working and undeniably talented. She is also not without compassion and takes up cudgels for her maid or the "extras" on the set or even Sam, her colleague. But, suddenly, for no reason at all, she pulls on the mantle of a suicidal jilted lover. Neiki’s suicide does not emerge naturally from the chronology of events and is as precipitate and inexplicable as the story lines of most Bollywood films. The diary-entry manner of narration is interesting, if not unique. It could have been used as a tool for development of Neiki’s character but the short succinct fact dominated entries focus on the day-to-day unveiling of facts rather than the internal strife of a character.

This novel is written in a manner characteristic of a film script. Be that as it may, Dhillon has sketched the beauty and ugliness of Bollywood in bold arresting strokes. The out-of-work dwarf Goku, the shenanigans of actors, the obsession with making things look good, the cut-throat blame game as well as the debilitating hard work on a film set is there for all to see. The title of the book, Bombay Duck is a Fish, is a perfect analogy for the deception perpetrated by the make-believe Bollywood world which looks beautiful and ideal but has a hidden underbelly of pain, suffering and betrayal. Just as Bombay Duck is a Fish, Bollywood is not what it appears to be. An interesting read that gives the reader a peek into behind-the-scene Bollywood.

buy the book at Amazon.com Bombay Duck Is A Fish

Published in the Tribune dated 14 August 2011

Part of the Dream Weave Walk Network 1999-2012