Saturday, May 19, 2018

Turning 31

As is the customary tradition of this blog, every year, I put a post on my birthday. It is my thirty-first birthday today. Turning thirty-one does not feel as bad turning thirty felt. From last year to this year, I have tried to be more positive in life and learned to be happy for myself. Of course, there are days when the uncertain future makes one feel like the world is ending, but I try to get through those days by focusing on the things that make me feel happy. One thing I really want to develop now is the feeling of self-confidence in me, the lack of which is starting to hamper my personal growth. I hate it that I am this introverted person who is not comfortable speaking. The brilliant thinker, Naval Ravikant, says,  "The greatest superpower is the ability to change yourself." It is extremely hard, but I have to do it. I don't know if I will be able to do it. 

Today, I saw this little house below which it was written that it is the 'Tree of Hope'. On this tree, anyone can tie a card, on which he/she can write the things one hopes for in life. Some of the cards that were on the tree were beautiful. Humans can fight with each other but, essentially, all the cards had the theme of love, happiness, and prosperity. I did not have a pen to write but I spoke a little prayer in my heart and put a blank card, hoping that the things I hope for also come true. Someone has said, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." After all, umeed par duniya kayam hai.

Anyway, I will write more later.
Dialogue of the Day:
"Log burre thodi na hote hai, achche logon par bas burra waqt aa jaata hai."
—Rhea, Hum Tum

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Pari: Not A Fairytale—Of the Inner Demons

Salman Rushdie's Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights told the story of Dunia, a female genie living in Peristan, who falls in love with a human, the historical philosopher Ibn Rushd. Dunia gives birth to a tribe of semi-human, semi-djinns whom she calls Dunyazát. These half-human descendants, who have no ear-lobes, fight a battle with the four dark djinns—the Grand Ifrits Zummurud Shah, Zabardast, Shining Ruby, and Ra’im Blood-Drinker—who wreak havoc and unleash monsters upon the human world in a bid to instill fear into their heart. Prosit Roy's Pari: Not A Fairytale also takes elements from a similar folklore and depicts the story of Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma), a pari who is the daughter of the evil djinn Ifrit. According to legend, Ifrit is the evilest djinn whose purpose was to spread his own bloodline. Due to some turn of events, Rukhsana meets and falls in love with a human Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee). A professor Qasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor) had eliminated all the offsprings of Ifrit and is looking for the last remaining one, Rukhsana, so that he can kill her.
At an early point in the film, the car that Arnab's father drives has a toy fairy hanging inside it. It is as if it was giving us a hint of the things that are about to hit them. The film's title explicitly mentions that it is about fairies but it is not a fairy tale. Rukhsana is a pari—a fairy—but she is also someone who turns into an evil monster once a month. The film underscores that there is a demon in all of us. Rukhsana's own poison has to be taken out monthly else it will kill her. At the time of the month when Rukhsana becomes a monster, she sees a spirit who is her mirror image. At another early instance, Qasim Ali explains djinns to his grandson. He tells him that the naughty and the evil thoughts that we get are the work of the djinn inside us. The djinn is our inner shaitan—the devil. Towards the end of the film, Arnab leaves Rukhsana in the captivity of Qasim Ali who wants to kill her. While speaking to Piyali, he says that Rukhsana is pregnant with his child and he left her to die. Does that not make him a monster, too? Piyali consoles him by saying, "Rakshasa hum sab ke andar hai." There is a monster in all of us. She remembers the time when she aborted her child, and felt like a monster as well. 
Rukhsana might be a monster but she is not dissimilar to the humans. She is shown to be just like Arnab. As a kid, Arnab used to hide under the bed when guests came at his home. He had no friends. He used to speak so little that his mother got worried that he might lose his voice. He used to play with various cartoon characters. He used to like sketching. The same qualities are shown in Rukhsana. She hides under the bed when she feels scared. She has no friends. She was kept isolated from everyone while growing up. She is fascinated by cartoons as well. She also likes to sketch portraits. When Arnab sees Rukhsana's sketches, he remembers his own sketches. If Rukhsana sketches the Ifrit (a ghost), then Arnab also sketches the Phantom (also a ghost). The film focuses on these details and shows us their underlying similarity. At a later point, Arnab leaves Rukhsana at his apartment to die, and goes to his parents' house. He leans down on the floor and turns his body into the fetal position. Immediately in the next scene, Rukhsana is lying in the exact same state. Thus, they are not really different. Perhaps, that is why he was able to form a connection with her. Later, Piyali was about to kill Rukhsana but she stops as she empathizes with Rukhsana, not only because she is a nurse, but also because she remembered the time when she had aborted her own child. She could not make herself do it. One can understand others even better when the person has experienced the similar pain himself. Maybe that was what the film was trying to say. We might box ourselves into separate identities, but we share the same emotions. 
The film is set in rainy Kolkata and shows the usual Bengali touches. As we know, every Bengali household is likely to have the signature green-colored tube of Boroline. The same can be seen in Pari. The scenes with Boroline in the film also have a subtext of sexual consent. After Rukhsana runs from her village to Arnab's house in Kolkata, he sees her injured feet and offers to apply Boroline on them. Rukhsana is intimidated by any touch and puts her feet away from him. Seeing her hesitation, Arnab gives the tube to her and tells her to put it on her own. Later, this scene is repeated when Rukhsana cannot find a nail cutter, and she uses the knife to cut her nails, bruising her feet in the process. Arnab, again, observes her feet, and gives her Boroline to apply it on her feet. This time, she puts her feet away initially, then brings them forward, and signals to him that he can apply the ointment on her. This is a depiction of the dynamics of sexual consent in a way. He touches her only if she wants him to do so. Moments later, Rukhsana tells him, "I love you, too." She learned these words when she was watching Waqt: The Race Against Time where Pooja (Priyanka Chopra) proclaims her love to Aditya (Akshay Kumar). The words I love you are significant, but the fourth word too is equally important as it conveys the idea of consent. It is also important to have the consent of both the people engaging in any sexual activity. At a later instance, when Piyali kisses Arnab, he moves away from her. She immediately stops and apologizes to him. Even if they are engaged, she respects his consent.
At some stage in the film, Rukhsana felt immense pain in her body. On seeing her in this state, Arnab worries about her. She tells him that it happens to her once a month. Later, it is shown that Rukhsana turns into a monster every month. In the last scene of the film, when she is dying, she explains about this state and says that she has to take out her poison once a month. Rukhsana's mother used to tie her in chains at that time of the month and kept her away from everyone. Rukhsana tells Arnab that the dogs near her house know everything, yet they do not abandon her at that time when she has to take out the poison. It is a common belief in many cultures that menstruating women are 'unclean' and must be isolated from others. After all these scenes, it seemed that, perhaps, this zeher was only an allegory for menstruation and the menstrual taboo. 
Although Pari is marketed as a horror film, it is, essentially, a love story with some supernatural elements. Some of the scenes are uncomfortable to watch. I was aghast at the scene where the men in the morgue extract a tooth from the dead bodies and put in their mouths to chew the leftover food. My favorite scene in the film was the one when Rukshana and Arnab make love in the shadows. It is a lovely scene.
All the three films produced by Anushka Sharma till now have been set in different geographical regions. The common theme in the films has been the presence of interesting women characters. In NH-10, Meera single-handedly takes revenge for the death of her husband from a bunch of men in the badlands of Haryana. In Phillauri, Shashi feels no hesitation in having premarital sex in a conservative time and in an equally conservative place, while the contemporary youth in the film were hesitant to talk about sex. In Pari, Rukhsana is a fairy and a monster. She falls in love with a man, and it was that very love that makes her baby human. She is able to overcome Ifrit's hatred and her desire to bite the person she loves. Love can conquer it all. It will be exciting to see what Anushka Sharma does next. I know I will be waiting. 

The cartoon show that Rukhsana watches is the episode Wolf! Wolf! of the cartoon show Mighty Mouse. In the particular episode, a little lamb is captured by a pack of wolves, and Mighty Mouse rescues and brings her back to her mother. Was it a statement that Rukhsana is some kind of a lamb as well?
Books In Movies:

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Kalpabigyan Samagra by Premendra Mitra
Mysteries by Colin Wilson

The Evil Child by Qasim Ali (fictitious)

The Streets by Anthony Quinn
Dialogue of the Day:
"Rakshasa hum sab ke andar hai."
—Piyali, Pari: Not A Fairytale

Friday, May 4, 2018

Secret Superstar—The Right to Dream

Advait Chandan's Secret Superstar is a sweet and predictable story of Insia (Zaira Wasim) who wants to be a singer. Her authoritarian father Farookh (Raj Arun) does not approve of her singing. Insia's loving mother Najma (Meher Vij) wants to fulfill every dream of her daughter. At her mother's suggestion, Insia dons a burkha and makes a video of her singing which instantly goes viral on the internet. She becomes famous as the secret superstar and gets a call from film music director Shakti Kumaarr (Aamir Khan) to record a song for him. She agrees to do it and, in return, asks for his help to free her mother from her violent and abusive father.
The film's premise is based on dreams. It points out that everyone has a right to dream and one should work towards making those dreams come true. Insia tells her mother, "Sone jaungi toh automatically sapne nahi ayenge. Sapnon ke bina kisi cheez ka point nahi hota hai. Na sona ka, na jagne ka, na jeena ka, na marne ka. Sapne dekhna toh basic hota hai. Itna toh sabko allowed hona chahiye." There is no point in living if we are not working to fulfill our dreams. Everyone should be allowed to dream. This took me to the conversation between Simran (Kajol) and Lajjo (Farida Jalal) in Aditya Chopra's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. In her diary, Simran wrote about her dream man. Her Bau Ji (Amrish Puri), however, had already fixed her wedding with Kuljeet (Parmeet Sethi). When Simran learns about it, she tears the pages of her diary where she had written about the andekha, anjaana lover. Simran tells her mother, "Main toh bhool hi gayi thi, Maa, ke mujhe sapne dekhne ka bhi koi haq nahi." I had forgotten that I don't even have the right to dream. Her mother replies, "Sapne dekho, zaroor dekho, bas unke pure hone ki shart mat rakho." Dream anything but without the condition that they have to be fulfilled. The relationship between Simran and Lajjo finds some resemblance in the one between Insia and Najma. While Simran's father might not be physically abusive towards Lajjo, there is a sense of freedom that the women in his household feel when he is not at home. They dance to English songs when he is not there. Likewise, Insia and Najma feel suffocated in the presence of Farookh and experience a sense of relief when he is not at home. They, too, dance together happily when he is away.
Insia becomes the secret superstar after taking her mother's advice to wear a burkha while recording her songs. She hoped that the burkha would protect her from her father's ire as he did not like her love for music. She hides herself to make her dream come true. Last year, Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha also used the burkha as a symbol to keep the desires of women hidden. Unsurprisingly, it also had a theme related to dreams. The four women in the film lived with their lipstick vale sapne in a building called Hawai Manzil, appropriately named, as fulfilling even their simple dreams seemed like a far-fetched escapist fantasy. There is a scene in the film when Leela (Ahana Kumra) tells Shireen (Konkona Sensharma), "Pata hai, Di, hamari galti kya hai. Hum sapne bahut dekhte hain." Their fault is that they dream too much. The men in the film were portrayed as insensitive pricks that some of the questionable actions of the women could be condoned. However, it did not feel that Secret Superstar was making a similar comment on men. Not all men are as vile as Insia's father. Chintan tells Insia that his father is not a bad man even though his mother left him refuting her point that the men whose wives leave them are of a questionable character. In fact, he says that his mother believes that, in such situations, no one is at fault. Kisi ka fault nahi hota hai. The character of Shakti Kumaarr is also portrayed as someone who is different from his sexist image as seen through the eyes of the media. He is shown to be someone who is kind and sensitive from the inside. Even the husband of Insia's tuition teacher seemed to be a decent man.
The film handles scenes of domestic abuse with sensitivity. The behavior of Insia's father is extremely obnoxious that one can feel the terror that Najma and Insia would have felt in his presence. When he comes from work, he gives his dirty socks to Najma. After coming back from a long trip, he inquires only about his son Guddu's well-being and does not bother asking about Insia. When Guddu spills the tea on him, he does not get wildly angry at him or slap him, but when Najma does not put salt in food, he flies into a violent rage. He addresses his son with the respectable 'Aap', and takes him for outings, ignoring Insia on the pretext that she has to study. It was bewildering to see that Insia's grandmother does not say anything to Farookh. She silently watches him beating his wife. When she narrated the story of Insia's birth, I initially felt that she made up the entire story. But it was not the case. It was her story that brought clarity to the meaning of Insia's name—a woman. Like Insaan means a man, Insia means a woman. The film is about the dreams of an Insia (woman).
Early in the film, Insia wanted to take her father's permission to participate in a singing competition (again, like Simran, who wanted to take permission from her father to go on a trip to Europe). Before she is able to broach the subject with him, her father gets angry at her mother and throws away all the food. Insia cleans the floor using the pamphlet for the competition as if telling us that her dreams have become a pochha (mop). The film uses similar symbolism to depict Insia's desire for freedom. The airline that she travels on when she is going to Mumbai is called Azad Air. Azad meaning free. The scene where Insia fights for her seat is reminiscent of Kaira (Alia Bhatt) fighting with an uncle for her seat in Gauri Shinde's Dear Zindagi. Insia always had to fight for the window seat as if making the point that one has to fight for their rights. Later, we see a few shots of birds flying in the air, representing Insia's desire to fly away. In the classroom, the poem that the students learn is called Mane Joine Udi Jata Pankhione meaning the birds that fly away at my sight. At another stage, Insia goes to a zoo and sees a trapped leopard in a cage. A song plays with the lyrics that say, "O re manwa, chhod zidd karna, andar se band karle tu, sapno ko pinjare main." O heart, stop insisting. Lock the dreams within the cage. It is as if she is also like the leopard whose dreams are trapped in a cage. In the final moments of the films, Insia is called on to the stage at the awards ceremony. She finally takes off her burkha revealing her face to the world for the first time. This act of hers again signified a sense of freedom. She does not need to hide her true self from the world anymore. However, the throwing away of her burkha did not seem to be a comment on her religion. It only felt like a symbolic act rather than something representing a deep politico-religious meaning. 
There are quite a few other such tiny symbols in the film. Insia travels to Mumbai and sings Nachdi Phira for Shakti Kumaarr. After she finishes recording the song, everyone in the studio applauds her. As Insia is in the recording room, she cannot hear them. She can only see them clapping for her. In the film's final moments, Najma leaves her husband at the airport. The door shuts on him and he keeps on calling her but his voice cannot be heard. These two scenes are similar in the way that they are presented. Both the scenes are applauding the woman. In the first case, it is Insia's voice being praised, while in the latter, it is Najma's inner voice that is being praised. When Najma leaves the airport, the police inspector tells her that if she leaves, she won't be able to come inside again. She tells him that it will be the best thing. In the recording studio scene earlier, it was Insia's voice that came out and never went back inside. Her voice reached every corner of the world. In a way, both of them have come out of the (glass) cages. 
The society where Insia and her family stay in Vadodara is called "Modern Colony." Moments later, Insia's teacher asks her to give an example of irony. This board could well serve to be that example. The values espoused by Farookh Malik, Insia's father, showed that there is nothing remotely modern about him. At another stage, he asks Najma to not wear the burkha when they were going to an acquaintance's wedding. The reason he gives her is that the people at the wedding have a modern outlook and they might not like to see women in burkha, as if he is himself acknowledging the regressiveness of his beliefs.
On being asked about her mother, Insia compares her to a naïve child. She says her mother, like small kids, is cute, and stupid. She is scared all the time. She has to be always told what is right for her, and what is not good for her. During a scene, Insia pushes her mother on the stage to take part in a magic show. It is, usually, the parents who stand away and see their kids perform on the stage. However, in this case, the situation is reversed. Najma is the kid here. Insia displays more maturity and becomes the didactic one. She is the mother to her child-like mother. She devises the plan to free her mother from her abusive father. She teaches her mother the importance of dreams. At an early stage, Insia had told her mother, "Sapne dekhna to basic hota hai. Itna toh sabko allowed hona chahiye." Najma says these exact same lines to her husband at the airport when they are about to leave for Saudi Arabia. We often see in the films that it is the children who remember their parents' teachings, but here, it is the mother who learns from her daughter. It is Insia's courage that inspires Najma to fight for herself. 
Some of the other characters in the film are so innately good that, at times, they end up overshadowing Insia. Chintan is one such character. He is a true ally of Insia. He keeps all her secrets and literally helps her cross all the barriers (such as the locked gate) in her path to success. He is always there for her, even if Insia behaved rudely with him. The film's sweetest moment is the one when Insia writes her email password on his hands. He starts blushing because the very person he likes a lot chose his own name as her password. Only special people get to share that kind of honor. On their last date, Insia comes to his home and he offers her all the mangoes to eat. He is simply wonderful. Insia's brother, the little Guddu, also wins hearts by some of his actions. At a young age, he is smart enough to understand what is happening around him. In his own ways, he protects his mother and his sister from his father. For instance, he spilled tea on his father to divert his attention from the television show. Without any guidance, he makes up the lie that newspaper did not come that day when he found that Insia had taken it away. He tries to repair Insia's broken laptop using tape and gives it as a gift to her. Insia tells her mother that they should leave Guddu with her father and run away. Najma disagrees as she hopes that by staying she can prevent Guddu from turning out an evil monster like his father. Nurturing a child can bring a change in the nature of the child.  
I also felt that the film was making a comment on the kind of music present in contemporary films. The film opens with a group of children in a train playing a game of Antakshari and singing songs, such as Beedi, Kala Chashma, and Munni Badnaam Hui. A woman passenger sitting in the next berth makes a strange face when she hears these songs. Moments later, Insia plays a 'slow' song on her guitar, and the woman smiles as she likes that kind of song. This disapproval is repeated at many other places in the film. Najma says Shakti Kumaarr's songs sound like the remix of a nice song that was never made. When Insia records a song for him, Shakti tells her to sing from the body and not from her heart. This critique is often heard now. He, then, comments that these days everyone wants a fast song. Insia tells him that Aashiqui 2 had slow songs but everyone liked them. Shakti tells it was a stroke of luck. The music of Secret Superstar is good enough, but somehow, it did not reach the high levels of popularity, in a way, proving Shakti's point to be true. Also, I must add that the background music in the film is definitely inspired by the music in Abhishek Kapoor's Fitoor, which also had music by Amit Trivedi. Some notes feel exactly the same. 
The performances of the cast, such as Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Raj Arun, and Tirth Sharma are terrific. I am surprised Raj Arun did not win many accolades for his role. He was excellent. However, Aamir Khan's performance was not that great. He is not terrible but it felt that he was struggling in the role. It did not come across as a natural performance. His character Shakti Kumaarr was clearly inspired by some industry actor. There is a point where he says that every year, the industry nominates him but never gives him an award. Maybe it was a hint to Salman Khan. Also, I liked that Secret Superstar did not infantilize its children. The portrayal of the children was largely authentic (except that it is hard to believe that class tenth children still play with trump cards). As a trivia collector and a chemistry lover, I tried to solve the questions in Insia's tuition test. #RedoxReactions. The tuition teacher also taught them the process of iron extraction in a blast furnace. This is, actually, the most popular question in class tenth board examinations.
There are two scenes in Secret Superstar that have the exact same lines. These scenes repeatedly mention that Baroda is only a small city in the universe and the world is too big. One can leave everything behind and fly away to success. Like the bubbles of a soft drink, those who have the talent in them will find a way to rise up. It is a simplistic message that ignores the reality of the industry. As the wise acting teacher, Nand Kishore from Luck By Chance said, "Yahan talent ke saath saath luck bhi bahut bada factor hota hai." Talent, luck, and nepotism. But that is a larger discussion for some other day. Till then, one can enjoy the pleasures of a sweet little film.

1. Elvis Presley in the car
2. The newspaper shows Kangana Ranaut and Amitabh Bachchan receiving the national award
 3. Aamir Khan likes (or hates) Shah Rukh Khan's films. In Nitesh Tiwari's Dangal, Geeta gets distracted from wrestling when she starts watching Shah Rukh Khan's films.
4. Insia's two Gmail addresses
 5. Insia watches a movie featuring Dracula.
 6. Monali Thakur wins the award for Moh Moh Ke Dhaage from Sharat Katariya's Dum Laga Ke Haisha.
 7. Insia watches Dhanush's Why This Kolaveri Di.
8. Science test. Kirchhoff's law. Redox reactions. #ILoveChemistry
9. Secret Superstar's director Advait Chandan has been a manager of Aamir Khan for many years. He got the idea for the film while working with Aamir on the show Satyamev Jayate

Other Reading:
1. A critique on the intersectionality in Secret SuperstarLink
2. The post on Lipstick Under My BurkhaLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Insu, maine kahan that mujh se maang le na, zindagi se nahi."
—Najma, Secret Superstar