Is Bollywood “whitening” Indian beauty standards?

Since Vidhi’s passing remarks seem to generate so much controversy on BP; I thought I would share a statement she made to me earlier (I usually send her the links when I’m quoting her but she’s too busy to read them).

But she was pointing me towards this latest starlet:

View this post on Instagram

Many moons ago 🦋 @sashajairam

A post shared by TARA💫 (@tarasutaria) on

V was saying that she could look Spanish or Italian and the first person who came to my mind was Natalie Portman. V was then comparing Tara to Madhubala or Meena Kumari who had much more “Indian looks.”

Image result for meena kumari Continue reading “Is Bollywood “whitening” Indian beauty standards?”

0

Shatranj Ke KhilaRi (The Chess Players)

I just happened to catch Shatranj Ke KhilaRi on youtube (you can see the whole movie on youtube, though I am not sure if there is a free subtitled version.. for that you may have to pay). I saw this movie in the 1980s and I remember watching it as:

  1. A Satyajit Ray movie. Hence serious, arty. Deep.
  2. A movie that (brilliantly, obviously since it was by Satyajit Ray, see above) captured the (unequal) chess match between the perfidious English and the decadent Indian nobility. . i.e. a “history movie” that tells us something profound about the British conquest of India.
  3. A movie with a message.

Now I saw it after 35 years and it seems to me that these are exactly the worst things about the movie. It is in fact a VERY funny, beautifully directed, brilliantly acted period piece that anyone can enjoy without thinking “art movie”.  But it is NOT a good depiction of how and why the British conquered India. The annexation of Oudh was just that, the annexation of Oudh. Wajid Ali Shah was a very unique personality, a gentleman and a patron of the arts, but hardly a real ruler. His deposition did not require any great chess move. The Oudh nobility had decayed long before this event and the conversion of Oudh from indirect rule (with British officers manning the Oudh army and supervising tax collection, etc) to direct EIC rule was typical of many similarly decayed nawab-doms, but NOT typical of the British conquest of India. It may be that the decaying hulk of the Mughal empire was just as depicted in that movie, but the Mughals did not rule most of India by that time. The stylized story of perfidious albion conquering the decaying Mughals was true enough of Bengal, Bihar and Oudh, but India is much more than that…The conquest of most of it was a much more serious affair, fought against harder men than Wajid Ali Shah (Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, the Sikh Empire, etc). It was an unequal contest in the sense that Europeans in general were far more advanced in science, state organization and military arts, but some of the rulers who held real power in their domains (Marathas, Sikhs, Mysore, Nizam of Haiderabad, even Nepal) did make efforts to modernize their military and many of them did put up a fight. They did not lose because they were composing music, organizing kathak dance or playing chess, they lost because they were disunited, and the British proved better than them at most things that matter in statecraft. To take this movie as a metaphor for that struggle or as a good depiction of it is a disservice to history. This may be a good enough description of the annexation of Oudh, but every reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes seems to take it as a great depiction of the British conquest of India, which seems wrong to me.

That said, it is still a good movie. Ignore the politics, enjoy the acting, the comedy, the dialog. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffery are both great as the aristocats playing chess while their wives have affairs or get sexually frustrated, Victor Bannerjee as the prime minister, Shabana Azmi as the wife, all do a great job, though the best performance is by Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah.  Tom Alter (the late American-Indian actor.. I assume that would be the term; if an Indian born in America is Indian-American, then an American born in India would be American-Indian?) is also good as the Urdu speaking English officer advising General Outram.

My favorite dialog: Wajid Ali Shah asking his prime minister why he is crying? Did Outram recite some poetry or sing a song to him? because only music and poetry can bring a real man to tears!

The hilarious cuckolding scene:

Complete Movie:

Postscript: A few links to reviews from the time

New York Times. 

BBC

Washington Post (enriched by the comprehension of an exceptional film artist, who perceives clearly what this historical parable signifies for his country and his compatriots.)

0

Two Dosas

I was looking for a Western pop music video I saw in the gym. It was a white girl (darker hue but recognisably “Western features) in a very “local” restaurant in small-town Indian.

The son of the owners, a nerdy boy, immediately falls in love with her. He tries every tired trope to win her attention but it’s only when he “Bollywoodises” (he forms a dance troupe) that he manages to catch her attention, at which point stairs descends from heaven and she climbs up (either an angel or alien).

Unfortunately I can’t find the link to that video but instead I looked at the above video, which is an interesting short film.

Related: The Big Sick & Brown Romance In Pop Culture Narratives

0

The Colored Actors Hiding in the Favourite-

I went to watch “The Favourite” last night, which is getting rave reviews for Olivia Colman’s performance as Queen Anne. Considering that Olivia Colman will soon be playing HM the Queen in the upcoming series of the Crown it seems Ms. Colman is another Helen Mirren in the making.

I’m reading the auto-biography of one of my actors, Sir Nigel Hawthorne CBE. He played King George in the “Madness of King George” and of course Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Yes Minister.” When I read his experiences about being in perpetual penury and having to navigate landlords, it just reinforced how difficult it is to make it in the world of Acting even if you are a privilege white male.

Some of the excerpts on race in the biography are hilarious even though Sir Hawthorne’s views are exceptionally progressive for the time (and this was only written 20years) the milestones are moving so quickly in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation that most language gets dated.

My short thoughts are that even a movie as innocuous as the Favorite, which is ultimately a period piece on Royalty, gives such flavours on the immense upward struggle suffered by BAME (Black-Asian-Minority-Ethnic) actors.

While Emma Stone, as a White American, could plausibly play the lead Abigail Masham and half Jewish Rachel Weisz play Sarah Churchill (ancestress of course to Winston) the best Yorgos Lanthimos could do is “shadow” in 3 coloured actors. There was one Chinese girl in the violin who was in the screen for perhaps 2 seconds, an Indian boy as the help in the Bird Shoot and the final was a Black Server. All of these characters were on screen momentarily as though hinted at but never really featured.

Of course the question about whether colored actors have a place in Period Pieces is a particularly contentious one. However considering that the characters were wearing denim, which certainly wasn’t around in the early 18th century, it seems that either one go for complete authenticity or accept that Creative Licensing encompasses colour and race.

This topic won’t be solved now or in the future however I also wanted to add how Colonialism just makes this a vicious cycle. At the end of the day the only countries with viable and continuous Monarchies happen to in Northern Europe. The Gulf Kingdoms are merely Tribal leaders elevated to Monarchical dignity but nothing really more than that.

Without strength or coherence of a continuous Monarchy most third world countries simply do not have the heritage (or resources) to make compelling Period Pieces that spark the global imagination. The English Monarchy (even the French) resonates in the minds and most people can name at least a handful of monarchs.

In the case of “Independent” nations such as Siam, Afghanistan or Ethiopia; these were glorified buffer states that survived by juggling various European powers. Turkey is probably one of the few countries that somehow managed (through Ataturk) to survive as an independent power (and arguable it’s more European than Asian).

It is not inconceivable that if India had not been subject to foreign influence some sort of Composite Monarchy would have had to emerge (either Mughal or Maratha). The Hindu-Muslim labels certainly existed pre-colonisation and was significant at an elite level but in the early 1700’s (incidentally the time of Queen Anne) it would have been a much more syncretic and fused identity at the common level. It may have been that a Muslim-flavour Hinduism (Muslim Sufis internalised into the pantheon) would have been another sect like the Shaivites and Vaishnaivites.

Of course counter-factuals are always difficult since history is so unpredictable. But it would have been nice to have imagined that maybe in another reality the Favourite would have been about court intrigue in Aurangzeb’s court between his sisters Jahanara and Roshanara.

Some of our Indian friends will of course be outraged that I would use the example of someone so controversial as Aurangzeb. However it is not implausible to also imagine that in a continuous period of Indian Monarchy (whether Mughal or Maratha); Aurangzeb’s perfidy towards Hinduism would not have been the last word but simply treated as a sort of Bloody Mary figure.

At best the Mughals would have been seen as the Plantagenets of India. Instead of coloured actors darting sheepishly in the background in Period Pieces, they would have taken a centre stages since their stories and intrigues would have riveted the world.

If people think I’m being a melancholic Persian then let me ask this:

How many non-Desis cared about Padmavat?

0

No Muslim actors please; we’re Hindu..

I’m shocked that not a single Muslim star features in the shot.

I wrote a long emotional rant, which I deleted; I’m shocked. The cultural genocide of Urdu continues apace when Islam should be the common enemy.

0

The Thought of You, Perfect 10 winner at the Mumbai Film Festival

Bollywood is experimenting with short independent films. This 15 minute feature is entirely in English and stars Kalki Koechlin.

I would give it at 6/10 because while the storyline is punchy I just didn’t recognise this India on show. Indian cinema and culture is undergoing/buckling under such a radical cultural transformation that maybe my Paki bias might be creeping in.

Incidentally to account for my “bias” I asked Vidhi for her rating and she gave 6/10 as well.

0

A must watch

For those who like world/ethnic music + Rock. This is the entire movie, just saw clips 10 years ago. Something for all. WWF (wrestling), Child Birth, Travelogue, ethnic and rock music. My favorite clip is at 00:42, the Bauls.  Whats with the Afro of the Baul singer.  The young Baul kid is Paban Das Baul.  He is quite well known in Europe. (YouTube search here).   Maki Kazumi in the Baul Clip I posted a few days back is still a Baul performing/evangelizing, monar manush. (Dont understand the words except manush which I assume means man).

I think, just intellectualizing by reading books about the world does not cut it.  Travel (wish I could do more) and into the hinterlands.  I have crossed the US three times with a tent, in an old Chevy Celebrity (had 160K miles when a Professor (Akira Akubo) gave it to me.   Montreal/Toronto to Florida and New Orleans at least 3 times. The Bronx before it became gentrified.  Camden/Baltimore.
Plus Myanmar backpacking in 2005 when the county just opened.

Vagabunden Karawane: A musical trip through Iran, Afghanistan and India in 1979 (1 hr 28 mins)

0

Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari: your race defines you and it doesn’t

Today I watched Homecoming King, a comedy show by Hasan Minhaj. Honestly I wasn’t going to watch it, because Minhaj’s political schtick at The Daily Show was not geared toward someone like me. That is, it’s funny to laugh along with him, but it is much easier if you agree with him politically. To me this is a major contrast with Aziz Ansari, who probably shares most of the politics of Minhaj, but who does not seem to foreground it as much.

Some of this is happenstance. Minhaj blew up on The Daily Show, which focused on politics with a liberal slant. Ansari became more well known through episodic television. That’s going to impact the sort of comedy they put out there.

But after watching Minhaj outside of The Daily Show context, and comparing his routine to Aziz Ansari’s (I’ve also watched much of Master of None), I think it is notable how differently they come off despite the likelihood that on the fundamentals they probably agree about much in American society. In short, Minhaj’s experience and recollection of racism seems much more raw to me than Ansari, who seems to have taken it more in stride.

I was encouraged to watch Homecoming King  in part because Minhaj grew up in Davis, California. I lived there for five years and one of my closest friends during my undergraduate years is a Davis native. In fact I went to her wedding in Davis during Minhaj’s senior year in high school. The centerpiece of Homecoming King happens to be about an event before prom which involved racism of a subtle but hurtful form that traumatized him in a very deep fashion. He’s talked about this incident extensively so you can Google it. But it colors all of Homecoming King.

But there are some differences between Ansari and Minhaj which I think require highlighting. Ansari is 5’6 feet tall, while Minhaj is 6’0 feet tall. Ansari is also darker-skinned, and I think I can say he is less conventionally attractive than Minhaj (readers who are attracted to men can correct me here). Finally, Minhaj grew up in very liberal Davis, California, situated between the Bay Area and Sacramento. Ansari grew up in a small town in South Carolina. I suspect that Ansari probably faced more racism than Mihnaj when he was growing up if I had to bet.

And yet of the two Aziz Ansari seems to be less deeply impacted by the banal ubiquity of white American racism. He acknowledges that it exists, sometimes in a pointed fashion. But he does not seem to let it define him.

In  Homecoming King Minhaj’s trauma from his abortive relationship with a white girlfriend scars him so much that he says he could not date white girls after that. I’m sure Ansari has experienced some level of racism against him on the dating scene. Especially in the South where when he was growing up interracial relationships were probably more taboo than in Davis. It comes up a few times in Master of None, but it’s not defining in any way. He keeps on trying to find someone he can connect with no matter their race, even if “on paper” they should be out of reach for a short dark-skinned guy.

Finally, this is a minor thing, but Ansari is more explicitly disconnected from his Muslim background. He has stated he is an atheist to the media. One episode of Master of None involves him eating pork in front of his parents. Minhaj in contrast seems to own his Muslim identity much more (albeit, of a very liberal cultural variety).

Rather than being exemplars of young brown men in the United States, the subtle differences between Ansari and Minhaj show that there isn’t one way to be brown, and that we aren’t impacted in the same way by how society views us. Like Minhaj I went to high school where I was the only brown kid. Also, like Minhaj I was called Saddam Hussein. Unlike Minhaj my town was overwhelmingly conservative, while his was overwhelmingly liberal. While my town was over 90 percent white (actually more than 95 percent when I went to high school since I’m about 10 years older than Minhaj), his was about 70 percent white. What was the difference between us? A lot of it comes down to personality.

Some liberals of a minority background feel besieged by the white majority. In contrast, many of us who are more conservative accept racism is part of life, but move on, and don’t believe it is as determinative as liberals assert. Much of this comes down to personality differences, rather than race differences. Minhaj and Ansari are both successful politically liberal Indian American comedians from a Muslim background. But how they experienced American society and present themselves still differs because they are still individuals with all the differences that entails.

1+

Aamir Khan’s Dangal Takes China by Storm

Pakistani academic and ex-diplomat Aamir Khan is an old friend, and he recently wrote a piece on why Dangal is such a hit in China.
What do you think?

Excerpt:

But why did the Chinese fall in love with this movie? Firstly, no country in the world is more sensitive, even obsessed about the achievement of its children than China. The gaokao or university entrance examinations are a case in point. Mothers actually take their offspring to nearby hotels so that the child does not have to travel. They even block adjoining roads so that horn-noise does not distract the examinees. No amount of funds is enough and no level of effort is satisfactory to prepare these children for the future. The movie catches this collective nerve perfectly.
For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body. That this is achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success

At the same time, many Chinese children are being spoilt by the 4-2-1 syndrome. This refers to four grandparents, two parents and one grandchild — the latter has neither siblings nor first cousins. All six parents and grandparents spend money to pamper the “little emperors”. Thus when Aamir Khan cuts his daughters’ hair so that they can fight better, or makes them run for miles, this fits perfectly into the Chinese parental mental grooves. Fed up with Korean soaps, featuring feminized males with long nails, plucked eye-brows and rose-petal lips, Chinese parents have taken their children in droves to Dangal not only to motivate them but also to shame them.

Then, the movie itself is a metaphor for China. Like the future champions but now-penurious village girls who cannot afford to eat even chicken, China has overcome incredible odds to rise from poverty in 1978 to become a politically-stable economic juggernaut that is proud to assume international leadership. Dangal is China itself. No sky is high enough for the Chinese spirit. For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body, achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success.

0