Cult of Hatred: Pulwama, Terrorism and the unsteady politics of Nationalism

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A convoy carrying CRPF personnel in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, is infiltrated and attacked by a suicide bomber belonging to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, killing over 40 jawaans. This is one of the worst terror attacks faced by India in decades.

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Mobs and processions throughout the country proclaim Pakistan Murdabad: Death to Pakistan. Debates on television call for war.

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Veteran Cricketer-turned-Comedian and Politician Navjot Singh Sidhu condemns the attacks, and asks if it is justified to hold an entire nation responsible for the acts of some. He is immediately branded pro-Pakistan – and therefore, for many, anti-national – and faces massive backlash on social media and elsewhere. A day after the remark, Sidhu is speculated to be sacked from the television comedy show he has been associated with for years.

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Amid mob action by ABVP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal, two colleges in Dehradun – Baba Farid Institute of Technology, and Alpine College of Management and Technology – declare that they would not be admitting any Kashmiri students into their institutions starting the following academic year. Meanwhile, demands are made for the dismissal of all Kashmiris who are currently studying here.

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“How’s the josh?” echo the voices of the millions who are yet to recover from the hangover of the catchphrase from the propagandistic movie Uri and from our Prime Minister. There is talk in India that war is imminent, and even necessary – that Pakistan’s crime is so heinous that it demands blood, even if it has to include our own. “How’s the josh?” shout some mourners at a martyr’s funeral, weaving irony by calling for more war and battle – more bloodshed.
How can we possibly avenge martyrdom by creating more martyrs?

When on the 14th of February, terrorists killed over forty personnel of the Central Reserve Police Forces at Pulwama, the wave of anger and mourning rising in response coagulated into two extremely dangerous kinds of hatred – that against Pakistan, and that against the people of Kashmir. Unfortunately for nation, this cult of hatred appears to be unsuspectingly and consciously cultivated.

There are levels to the wrongness of the discussions we are having as a nation at this time of crisis. The fact that a blind chant for “showing Pakistan its place” is catching on makes one more and more aware of the acute impact of exaggerated nationalism under sway of the current government. In the environment of a constant us-versus-them that we are in today, very biased and miopic opinions are magnified and disseminated. The focus today is on building militaristically strong states – hence the inordinately high emphasis on defence and armament everywhere. When you bring this form of post-Cold War power-fetishism together with the polarizing forces of nationalism, a potent hunger for war is formed. It is this hunger that is being fed to the masses. At the core of it all, it is still a hunger borne of hatred.

It is a strange kind of hatred, too. It may be less evident in the case of Pakistan, whom Indian governments have strategically learnt to hate; apparently in order to survive; but whom the BJP has time and again wished to ‘bring back’ under the fold of an Akhand Bharat. The strangeness is even more pronounced in the context of Kashmir, whose people have been consciously othered even as every attempt is made to keep them within the confines of India. The infantilisation of Kashmir in the Indian political ethos is heartbreakingly paradoxical: the idea is that Kashmiris don’t know what’s best for them, they cannot fend for their own selves, and hence must bow to whatever forms of protection India, the looming patriarch, provides them – especially against Pakistan. However, no stone that leads some of them to gravitate towards rebellion and militancy is left unturned, with the AFSPA, the contentious ground of Section 370, and the constant associations of Kashmiris with Pakistan muddled together with the constant attempt to dissociate the two completely and antagonistically. The hatred that is cultivated when a Kashmiri youth like Adil Ahmed Dar – identified as the suicide bomber employed in the Pulwama attacks – reaches its most unreasonable peaks when all Kashmiris are associated with militancy and terrorism. Ironically, most Indians do see the flaw of that logic when faced with the anti-Indian Armed Forces sentiment that prevails in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir due to the actions of some of its men.

Unsurprisingly, then, when Navjot Singh Sidhu asks if it is correct to blame the people of Pakistan for the acts of terror outfits and its possible sponsorship by their government, Indians choose to ostracise him instead, forgetting his call for strong action against the perpetrators. We choose to mob up and say Pakistan Murdabad, and to denounce all Kashmiri within the state and elsewhere in the country, and to call for war.

Let’s try to remember what we are forgetting. Of course, taking firm action against the perpetrators is necessary. Firm action has already been initiated against Pakistan, first in terms of India’s withdrawal of the former’s status as Most Favoured Nation in trade and of hiking up the customs duty on imports from the country by 200%, and later in terms of a diplomatic push to Indian allies – already affirmatively responded to by the US, France, Russia and Iran – in restricting engagement with Pakistan. This economic pressure on the Imran Khan government’s already precarious financial position is supplemented by the high probability of Pakistan being blacklisted for terror financing under the Financial Action Task Force, which could have very serious implications. Thus, conditions are being created for Pakistan to take fast action against its terror-breeding enclaves, or to face international isolation on a scale that could wreck fatal havoc for the nation if substantiated. Pakistan has already called back their ambassador in India for consultation, a visible result of this pressure.

In such a situation, the idea of ‘limited war’ – which is unfortunately and alarmingly being advocated through the media – needs careful reconsideration. While all sorts of military action, if taken, could lead to a restoration or rise in the Modi government’s receding popularity right before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are to be held, war will also be detrimental to the Indian economy – even if conducted on a limited scale – in ways that could set us back by decades. Moreover, with the Donald Trump presidency in the US, chances for US intervention in an Indo-Pak militaristic conflict resolution are bleak, especially in context of the US wishing to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. In fact, in case of an escalation of conflict, China – who has strong ties with and major investments in Pakistan – will be the intervening party. This can lead to a complete overturn of the dynamics at play, and not in a good way for us.

It is also important to remember the human costs of war. Bloodshed and martyrdom cannot be avenged by its larger-scale repetition. While the military is ready to lay down its lives for the nation, it shouldn’t have to, in face of other alternatives. Thus, the cry for war seems like a bad idea on almost all fronts – a good idea only for nationalistic political players, and not the nation itself.

Let us refer again to Sidhu, who is on the receiving end of massive flak for making some well-reasoned arguments. Speaking to the media outside the Punjab Assembly where he is minister, Sidhu reminded the media that it was the BJP government in 1999 that released Masood Azhar, chief of the outfit which has taken responsibility for Pulwama, in exchange for Indians held hostage at Kandahar. Of course, Kandahar was a high pressure situation with the immediacy of nearly 200 civilian lives at stake, but the NDA government’s Crisis Management Group did let the situation elevate when it could have been resolved at Amritsar, where the hijacked plane carrying the hostages first landed. Sidhu’s remark thus indirectly leads us to another important aspect of assessing the Pulwama attacks that is amiss in the angry Indian political consciousness right now: that of questioning those responsible from within our system.

One facet of the current wave of nationalism is the equation of the government with the nation in absolution, which has given rise to a trend where citizens are discouraged from questioning the government. However, it seems highly unlikely that a security attack on such a scale could have been carried out without some kind of help from insiders. How was the Indian intelligence unable to respond to such activity, which requires intensive and long-term planning and was detected and warned against? It is impossible for the suicide bomber in a private vehicle make it to such a high security area with staggering the amounts of explosives employed in the attack without either gross negligence or corrupt associating from within. A truly benevolent brand of nationalism would push for questioning in regard to these intricacies so that justice can be sought for the martyrs and the nation, and further crises avoided.

Meanwhile, it is also important to be cognizant of the many divisive politics being played out behind the angry mask of anti-terrorism: the harassment and antagonism against Kashmiris in specific and Muslims in general in light of the attack is a result of a mentality that seeks to divide and rule. It only helps the cause of radical militants on one hand and religious nationalism on the other. It is imperative that we do not let these truly anti-Indian elements win.


A situation such as the one in India right now calls for rationality, not only on part of the government but on part of the citizens it responds to. It is important not to give into the instigatory narratives disseminated through the televised media and through angry mobs, but to push the government into striving for better, more effective solutions.

You may follow updates on the events around the Pulwama attacks here.

Staying Informed in an Undeclared Emergency

On Tuesday, concurrent raids were made on the houses of activists in various parts of India, and five of them were arrested, allegedly for their Maoist connections to the Bhima-Koregaon riots if the police is to be believed. It isn’t — none of the arrested people seem to have any relation with Bhima-Koregaon (contrary to the allegations of involvement in the violence, all of them have decades-long engagement in working for the upliftment of the poor and the downtrodden; for the dalits, adivasis, farmers and other marginalised voices). Yet, the mainstream media reported them as such. The word ‘alleged’ was barely used, or used without conviction — what is this but a media trial?

Headline in the leading national daily Hindustan Times [29 August 2018]


The Malayalam language daily Maathrubhoomi reads, ‘Maoist connection: Raid in 6 cities. 5 human right activists arrested’ [29 August 2018]

Hindi language newspaper Hindustan reads, ‘Raids Across the Country on Naxal Supporters’ [29 August 2018]

What else was amiss in the manner of reportage about the topic is the fact the raids were conducted unlawfully, often in the absence of the residents and always without a producible charge against them — an exploitation of the Unlawful Activity (Prevention) Act, i.e, the anti-terror legislation — or how some of the arrested were made to sign documents written in languages that neither they nor the magistrate understood.

In these times of ‘Undeclared Emergency’, as it is increasingly being called, the mainstream media seems to be unbothered about the visible dissipation of civil liberties. This is because with their corporate and political overlords impacting their neutrality, they do not possess these freedoms themselves. In times like these, and in the hands of political parties, the media can itself become a vicious tool of spreading selective bias and propaganda: televised news is susceptible to unprecedented sensationalism, and print to the distorting forces of language.

This, of course, is what is happening today. With a major section of the mainstream media being owned by corporates and people with political leanings, selective or biased reportage and the propagandization of facts begin way before the news goes out into the world. This is a new form of censorship that we are slowly getting used to, and just as gradually raising the temperature in a boiling pot can kill one inside before they can begin to suspect it, our rights to freedom of expression and dissent are dying without us knowing.

When even the media — the very tool of shaping millions of people’s opinion — is tampered with, what does one do? To blindly trust the mainstream media at this juncture would be a blunder against the just democratic function of constitutional rights. I say this because groups have faced public persecution before solely on the basis of the media’s heavily opinionated distortion of events, and despite having done nothing wrong. We have already seen what an uninformed or biased media coverage can do to issues: think, for instance, of student protests at JNU, and the more recent ones at Ramjas College, that were appropriated by media coverage into ideological battlegrounds, into debates on Nationalism.

For those of us reading this — those with the privilege of having access to an extra slice of technology — it is a possibility to look at independent alternatives or do our own research, and to combat fake news, misreporting and propaganda using the wide powers of the internet. But how long before that power is also snatched away? Moreover, for millions of people on the margins such as the poor and the inhabitants of remote areas — and even the uninitiated, for they are on the margins of knowledge — regional print and televised news is the only source of information. For them, independent media and tools for research are inaccessible; neither are they expected to conduct research when our belief system inculcates in them them that the media is a fact-reporting machinery. And hence begins a process of brainwashing the public that ultimately ends with the crowning of fascism on all seats of power.

However, conformity cannot be manufactured for those who dare speak against it. If the media cannot express our dissent, we ourselves will have to rise for it — and rise before the foundations of our Democracy are made to shrivel and die.


On the 28th of August 2018, a wave of multi-city raids conducted by the Pune (urban) Police led to the arrests of five rights activists namely Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, P Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. All the aforementioned have been vocal in their criticism of the government in power before. Their arrests come after a string of attacks on the country’s rationalists and other significantly alarming events, and have raised wide outcry from intellectuals and civil society.

Why Women Wear Short Clothes, And Why Men Need To Stop Answering This Question For Us

Popular internet platforms; and indeed the entirety of the offline world; are flooded with male wisdom seeking to explain women’s behaviours to a baffled audience of men who are unable to wrap their head around the idea of them doing certain things for their own selves – dressing up, for instance. It is unsurprising that these ‘explanations’ take up a characteristically male-centric approach, and end up projecting men’s own anxieties with regards to losing control over women onto the actions of the latter. Therefore, while women wear short clothing for a variety of reasons, it is boiled down in general understanding to a ‘provocative’ aim. This is done to the point where most men believe that short or ‘revealing’ clothing is worn for the sole reason of inviting sexual advances from them.

Short clothing is ascribed by men as a uniform donned by women of loose morals; a sign of sexual invitation and promiscuity.

However, since it is unfair to pay heed to a fish’s opinion on flying, I asked some women on my social media to elucidate their reasons for wearing short or ‘revealing’ clothing, and to thereby bring some clarity to this table of very opinionated fish. All women cited a combination of the heat, their personal comfort, the occasion-appropriateness of clothing with regards to making them fit in or stand out in a situation, and keeping up with fashion trends as their reasons. A surprisingly large number of men also commented; despite not being invited to; and cited women’s need for ‘sexually-motivated attention’ as the primary motivation for wearing such clothes. In corroboration with my findings; a study conducted on a far greater sample size by Avigail Moor (2010)1 reveals a gender-based attribution gap wherein men report such dressing styles as indicating an interest in sex and an intent to seduce, whereas women cite their wish to feel and look more confident and attractive (and reject the seduction claim entirely).

So why does this gap exist?

The findings of Moor’s study tell us that a majority of the men involved in the experiment found themselves to be highly aroused by women in revealing clothing. Other studies2 reveal that men attribute more sexuality to both the sexes than women do. One can stand to reason here that men’s own stimulation and/or their misperception of women’s sexuality leads them to erroneously project their own arousal onto women as the latter’s goal for seduction. Therefore, short clothing is ascribed by them as a uniform donned by women of loose morals; a sign of sexual invitation and promiscuity. Curiously enough, despite all their other claims the male subjects of Moor’s study did not think that revealing clothing leads to men losing self- control. The passionate rage against women’s fashion choices which denounces clothing as the top cause of rape and sexual violence, is, then, rooted in the power-struggle between the sexes rather than having any causality in women leading men astray. Rape-culture is bred not by the manner women dress in, but by ages of female objectification and sexualisation under patriarchy. This objectification and sexualisation is ingrained further into modern societal consciousness by the popular media and culture’s portrayal of women.

While most women do not wish to sexualise themselves or invite ‘sexually motivated attention’ for their choice of clothing, it is true that the popular media’s sexualisation of their bodies does play a role in this choice. However, this role is rather indirect, and not significant in a majority of women’s actual reasoning for choosing revealing clothing. Because the popular media is insistent on the sexualisation of women to the extent that it uses their image to sell absolutely unrelated consumer items such as bikes or paan masala, the prevalent codes of fashion have made these short, body-revealing clothes into elements of the standard female appearance. The pressure on women to adhere to such standards of feminine normalcy – not to mention beauty – is what makes them follow these trends. Moreover, keeping abreast of contemporary fashion trends is not a characteristic specific to women – just as women, men also choose to highlight their ‘best features’ according to current fashion (such as broad shoulders or muscular biceps) through various styles of clothing, some of which may ask them to bare more than the others would. Thus, being up-to-date with fashion trends and thereby projecting affluence and a cultivated sense of aesthetic is what makes women – and men – choose ‘revealing’ clothing. Clothing has much more to do with social and class conditioning than with sexuality.

Even when a woman dresses with a man on her mind, the aim is to attract, not to seduce

As John Berger said, “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself (…) She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life” (1972)3. Thus, the historical perception of women has led to the image-conscious womanhood of today. Women do pay attention to how presentable and attractive they look – often subconsciously so.

However, even when a woman dresses with a man on her mind, the aim is to attract, not to seduce (this is also dealt with at length in Moor’s study). Many women said in response to my survey on social media that their choice in clothing has a lot to do with their personality – this is merely a practical extension of the adage about one’s appearance giving away our attitude. For most women, to choose body-revealing attire is a sign of their rebelliousness against socially-ascribed female modesty. While for many it is also a symbol of empowerment against male-dictated norms on female sexuality (and seeks to say that all women, regardless of their sexual choices, can wear such clothing), it never means licentiousness. Often, women are not even attempting to display a confident personality to the benefit of others, but for their own selves. For women who have experience of being shamed or feeling conscious about a certain section of their bodies, revealing these sections with help of fashionable clothing (or highlighting assets that they are proud of) can lead to a positive boost in their self-image.

The situational aspect influencing a choice in revealing clothing is even harder to ignore – in hot or humid weather, or in situations that demand greater physical exertion or movement such as at discotheques or gyms, ‘less’ clothing usually means more efficiency and comfort; while women are busy dancing or exercising they hardly have any time to plan the seduction of their male counterparts and thus any such motive is out of question.

Any advice which seeks to protect a woman from unsolicited sexual advances through means of modest clothing also ends up saying that such advances should rather be made unto a woman dressed less-modestly.

The popular male argument against body-revealing clothing disregards all these factors in favour of sexuality when explaining the motive for women choosing them. Moreover this sexuality, rather than being that of the women, is more often than not a projection of their own. Some well-meaning men may even argue that for women to dress modestly is for their own protection from other men (who are uncontrollable and unreasonable). Honestly, I get this argument: there are predators out there on the streets, so it’s probably more practical to wear clothes that are not revealing. But there are also people who believe that women shouldn’t be out of doors after sundown; maybe women should only step out when there’s light outside. But some believe that women shouldn’t go out alone at all. And some believe that they should only stay indoors, get married as soon as they gain any semblance of womanhood, and set to the manufacture of babies. And that is how we tumble back into the Dark Ages if we keep listening to the men on the streets.

It cannot be overlooked that any advice which seeks to protect a woman from unsolicited sexual advances through means of modest clothing also ends up saying that such advances should rather be made unto a woman dressed less-modestly. The idea of modesty itself is something that springs from cultural notions of decency, and differs between various cultural units – women’s jeans are considered indecent by many Indians, while it is a staple wardrobe item for women in the west; a saree reveals more of the midriff than a crop-top may but is nevertheless considered more decent than the latter. To value women’s ‘modesty’ over their other traits in an assessment of their worth – as is done in our schools with the absurdity of dress-coding and the shaming of those students who wear short skirts – will never be a progressive; or even a ‘safe’ idea.

In the end, the best way to know if a woman – or anyone at that – is aiming at sexual behaviour is to exercise the social skills gifted to us by millions of years of evolutionary progress, and just ask them.


1 Moor, Avigail (2010). She Dresses to Attract, He Perceives Seduction: A Gender Gap in Attribution of Intent to Women’s Revealing Style of Dress and its Relation to Blaming the Victims of Sexual Violence. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 11(4), pp. 115-127.
2 Abbey,A., Cozzarelli, C., McLaughlin, K., Harnish, Richard J. (1987). The Effects of Clothing and Dyad Sex Composition on Perceptions of Sexual Intent: Do Women and Men Evaluate These Cues Differently. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 17(4), pp. 108-126; & Johnson, C., Stockdale, M., & Saal, F. (1991). Persistence Of Men’s Misperceptions Of Friendly Cues Across A Variety Of Interpersonal Encounters. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15(3), pp. 463-475.
3 Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing.Penguin Books, London, pp. 45-64.

Not Sanju, But the Media: How the Sanjay Dutt biopic shifts its dishonesty onto other shoulders

Celebrated director Rajkumar Hirani’s biopic of controversial Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, Sanju, has hit the cinemas and been declared a massive box office success. However, not quite delivering the honesty promised by it, Sanju is Ranbir Kapoor’s shot to critical acclaim at best and a highly defensive hagiography of Dutt at its worst. But far more disappointing is the film’s lack of genuine efforts into creating a case for Dutt’s innocence. Instead, it relies heavily on techniques for inducing the audiences’ tendency to sympathise, and pushes all the blame over to the media.

 

In reality, this act of the filmmakers feeding our disgust for media sensationalism is also snidely influencing us into seeing the actor’s vices and misdeeds through the rosy lens of sympathy – and even endearment.

 

This strategic move against the media is underscored in the credit song of the movie, ‘Baba Bolta Hai Bas Ho Gaya’. The song has Ranbir Kapoor appearing alongside the very actor he plays in the movie: together the two Sanjus poke fun at the media for allegedly spreading fake news about celebrities; taunting their ‘sources’ and their exaggerations which create masala out of thin air to serve to the public; and finally, thrusting their newspapers straight at the camera. This slamming of the media could not be better timed, for the issue of fake news is indeed a pertinent question being recognised today. But for a movie like Sanju doing so, the reasons are not so noble.

The smartest part of this full-frontal attack at the media is that nothing it now says about the nature of the film itself will be paid any heed to. Of course, the primary goal of the move is to absolve Dutt of any blame whatsoever – and paint a misunderstood-at-best image of the star – by shifting it to the easiest possible target. Because a sizeable section of the Indian media is indeed deplorably sensationalist, anyone feels drawn to the idea of cursing at it. In reality, however, this act of the filmmakers feeding our disgust for media sensationalism is also snidely influencing us into seeing the actor’s vices and misdeeds through the rosy lens of sympathy – and even endearment.

[Video: the credit song to ‘Sanju’ pokes fun at a sensationalist media]

 

In fact, cinematic liberties; quite like the question marks used in news headlines which have been so attacked in the film; are a great way to simply do away with some crucial facts and details from the biopic in order to paint a rather likeable, honest-but-flawed image of the superstar. The very creation of emotional appeal in the film that makes it entertaining also renders it merely an appeal that bases itself solely on the audiences’ emotional understanding of the star. No stone is left unturned to portray him as an ordinary man – indeed, from ‘Sanjay Dutt’ he is changed completely into ‘Sanju’, with nothing in the movie showing the effects of wealth and stardom on his personality where there must have been at least some.

Even those things that the Indian society at large considers to be definitive signs of vice are presented to viewers as misguided virtue on the part of Sanju: from drugs and womanizing, to his connections to the underworld; things that are normally considered signs of a detestable character are shown as acceptable ‘mistakes’ through elements of comedy and fetishisation, even as these are not accepted as mistakes for literally anyone else who commits them — not such an ordinary man, then, is he?

Dutt’s character in the movie is essentially a man-child, who is just under so much pressure of living up to his parents’ expectations and legacies. This is made clear in an abundance of excessively emotional, and even slightly artificial scenes in the movie.

The angle of Dutt’s trouble with pressure and ‘bad choices’ is played out from the very beginning of the film, which starts with the launch of the star’s acting career and his drug addiction amidst the failing health and eventual death of his mother, the legendary actress Nargis. The first half of the movie follows only the trajectory of his spiraling into addiction, peppered with enough scenes of friendship and comedy that not only entertain adequately, but also ensure that the audience attaches itself to the character. This is because the second half relies purely on this attachment and subsequently, on the sympathy it is able to generate for Sanju – who, through a quick succession of events and scenes is convicted for possessing an AK-56 assault rifle and a hand in the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings, and then is able to acquit himself of any mal-intentions (and terrorist activity) by proving that at its worst, everything was the fault of the media’s thirst for creating masala. The AK-56s were acquired to protect his family from the threat of harm from those against father Sunil Dutt’s humanitarian work post-Babri Masjid: in the end, ‘Sanju’ is just a man deeply sensitive and emotional, who cares for his family and wishes to protect it.

 

Cinematic liberties; quite like the ‘question marks’ used in news headlines which have been so attacked in the film; are a great way to simply do away with some crucial facts and details from the biopic in order to paint a rather likeable, honest-but-flawed image of the superstar.

 

This image of the family man is, too carefully constructed through certain cinematic liberties of omission. While Dutt’s third wife, Maanyata (played by actress Dia Mirza), is portrayed as his rock throughout the scenes from the movie’s present; all mention of his first two wives and his eldest daughter is conveniently missing. The strong ‘differences’ – both personal and political – between Dutt and his siblings; especially Priya Dutt; are also omitted through the marginal presence of his sisters in the movie. After all, the very ploy of showing how Dutt only acquired the guns for his father and sisters’ protection requires all of them to not only have a great relationship with the star, but also be dependent on him. Priya in the film is bereft of any dialogues or real presence, but increasingly seen accompanying her father and brother in scenes from the second half – a deliberate move to counter the reality of their relationship. The movie also fails to mention the (later withdrawn) statement made by Dutt to the police about possessing some licensed guns apparently due to his love for hunting sports, in addition to the AK-56s. This omission can possibly be explained by the fact that the statement makes blurry the need for acquiring the weapon which he was convicted for possessing in the first place. Yet, in spite of all these discrepancies, the blame for dishonesty is put squarely on the media since the burden of proof of honesty is too much for the movie to attempt to address. It is notable that even Anushka Sharma’s character as the well-known biographer sought after by Dutt is unconvincing and relies solely on the ‘truth’ of the story that Sanju narrates to her himself. The logical end is that since it takes this biographer no more proof to believe in Dutt’s honesty, it shouldn’t take the audience anymore, either. It is ironic that the media, which reports news mostly on the basis of similarly verifiable sources, is attacked for doing the very thing by the film which the film itself does.

But perhaps the greatest device in the movie for Dutt’s redemption in the eyes of the public is his face in the movie: Ranbir Kapoor’s performance in his subsuming completely into the personality of Sanju overshadows most other things – good and bad – about the movie. Indeed, he makes Sanju’s vices and his mannerisms appear almost charming. Of course, the role of the charming man-child is Kapoor’s strong suit, but despite the limited script he does bring the character fully to life – any less than this performance would have likely led to the sympathetic angle falling through. In that case, the only thing that keeps Sanju‘s attack on the media standing and even immune to question is the convincing power of Ranbir’s acting.

All of this is not to say that there seems to be no truth in Sanju‘s attacks on the media’s sensationalist tendencies itself, but to put all the blame entirely on the news is too escapist of a movie that earnestly claims honesty. Percase if Sanju was presented more as the realistic ‘ordinary’ man that he was intended to be and less as the victim/saint, there would be more credibility awarded to this lambasting of the media. After all, there can’t be news without the newsmaker.


 

What did you think about Sanju and its take on the media? Feel free to share your views in the comments below!

Van Gogh, #MeToo, and the Anti-Comedy of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”

In today’s age of web-streaming and easy access, Comedy – seen as a progressive genre and a uniting force for people and interests – is in more demand than ever before. The amount of support generated in defense of comic relief at any point today is almost insurmountable. Yet, comedian Hannah Gadsby has been able to brutally deconstruct the very notion of the genre’s progressiveness in an hour of unnerving anti-comedy that is being seen as a radical work with the potential to redefine what we consider as ‘funny’. Deeply moving and extremely relevant to our times; Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, Nanette, is original, reflective and path-breaking.

What begins with the comedic selling point of ‘lesbian’ humour – or humour at the expense of the lesbian and her experience at the Sydney Mardi Gras – straightens out (so to speak) into an anti-comedy which deconstructs the way the genre of comedy approaches life and itself, all the while not losing its grip on the audience. Gadsby brings out a stock of jokes inspired by her own experience as a non-normal member of the society – her experience with the ‘sir/madam’ address, coming out to her mother, and being a lesbian in a small town. She serves these jokes with aplomb – and then she stops. With laughter still ebbing among viewers from the delivery of her previous punch line; Gadsby verily declares that she is done making self-deprecating jokes. Then follows what probably makes Nanette a transformative work in Comedy: Gadsby challenges her audience to think of the comedian also as a person capable of experiencing pain, discomfort and prejudice – or simple, as a person.

Gadsby; who was introduced to international audiences for the first time this year with streaming giant Netflix releasing Nanette on its platform; hails from the Bible belt in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania. She grew up in an environment rapt in the belief that Homosexuality is sinful and a criminal offense – so much so that she found herself to have internalised this prevailing homophobia, even as she struggled in the closet with her own lesbian identity. In Nanette, Gadsby seeks to radically transform the way in which we use humour when she refuses to carry on with the same self-deprecating humour she and others like herself have built their careers on. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation,” she says to a packed audience at Sydney’s famed Opera House. Henceforth, nothing about Nanette is what one generally expects of comedy – it is better.

Nanette is also one-of-a-kind because, as Gadsby points out within the show herself, “you won’t hear too many extended sets about art history in a comedy show”. Putting her Bachelor’s degree in Art History to use, she explores the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of high art through her comedy and common sense. To bring together what is considered the highbrow with the lowbrow is in itself a bold act, and Gadsby does it well. To make it better, all of this is said as part of her jocular response to a person who advised her against anti-depressants, citing her need to ‘feel’ as an artist.

She begins with Vincent Van Gogh and the ever proliferating idea of his misunderstood genius. Dismissing point by point the romanticization of his mental illness and the idea of this suffering making him special, she asserts plain and simple that all it did was handicap him, as it does to anyone similarly afflicted. As she points out, he sold only one solitary painting in his lifetime not because he was misunderstood, but because he was crazy and debilitated by his illness into being incapable of networking. She also brings to light that Van Gogh chose to self-medicate and not to suffer in silence for his art. So, The Sunflowers did not get painted because of his suffering, but in spite of it. Gadsby is able to defend medication and de-mythify mental illnesses in a single sweep. To lay it bare like that requires a certain amount of clarity as a performer and a person, and Gadsby reinforces this clarity of mind and purpose as she tears apart the idea of an artist’s suffering making their art valuable, and the idea of their greatness excusing the acts that should render them small in our eyes.

“I hate Picasso,” she says, “but you’re not allowed to.” As founder of Cubism who unleashed the possibility multiple perspectives into art, Picasso is virtually denuded of his misogynistic override in the public eye. He is instead hailed as the greatest artist of the twentieth century, the reason why art has been able to liberate people from the mere two dimensions of its medium. Gadsby, however, makes it clear that art; be it painting or comedy; does not liberate everyone the same way. In fact, what she reveals is that (as someone commenting on the special for The New Yorker put it) “[Art] can replicate the same privileges and exclusions as the culture in which it was made”. None of the ‘perspectives’ Picasso made possible in his paintings included those of a woman, and certainly not that of the 17 year old Marie-Thérèse Walter whom Picasso had an affair with because she was ‘at her prime‘. “No 17 year old is at their prime”, says Gadsby, proceeding to shed light on how harrowingly wrong it is that the young girl’s perspective was never valued, or even considered, because it was assumed that her potential would somehow never equal that of the already successful 45 years-old straight white man, Picasso (even today, an internet search on Walter would reveal no more than Picasso’s paintings of and affair with her). “But Cubism,” Gadsby resumes, driving in the punch-line.

That one can separate the art from the artist is something the comedian conclusively calls bullshit on in Nanette. She goes on to connect the dots even further – between our obsession with saving reputations; ranging narrowly between those of male artistic geniuses and celebrities to male politicians; at the expense of women (such as Walter, Monica Lewinsky, and the plethora of women whom POTUS Donald Trump has claimed to have violated because he could), and between the lack of responsibility with which comedians and celebrities do their job and thereby perpetuate the idea that women are fit to become a mere easy punch-line. What needs more protection than all these men’s reputation, according to Gadsby, is the world in face of their inhumanity. Her attack on the entertainment industry’s covert misogyny is not new, but her means are certainly novel. By drawing attention to the topical through her stand-up, she exposes the industry’s complicity in burying these issues of importance for profit and comic relief.

As she progresses with her set, Gadsby reveals that she wishes to quit comedy. She believes that as a comedian, her job is to create tension in the audience through a set-up, and then to release it with a punch-line. But, she adds; calling back a joke wherein a drunk man outside a bar once threatened to beat her up when he saw her hitting on his girlfriend, only to apologise on the realisation that she is a woman; this build up-release format assumed by any joke leaves out the most important part of the stories that they truncate – the end, which contains hindsight and the realistic conclusion of any event. Upholding the importance of stories, and realising the loss of the same when she reduces these stories into jokes for people to laugh at; Gadsby talks about how she needs to stop doing stand-up. She explains how for a joke to be humourous requires the loss of all its context, and she is not here for it. To illustrate her point she then goes in to complete telling the audience about the incident from which her ‘joke’ sprang up, wherein the man went on to call her a ‘lady-faggot’ and did, in fact, end up beating her. Nobody stopped this man, she adds. And although she was injured, Gadsby did not take herself to the hospital.

Her emphasis on stories in Nanette gains special importance when one considered that it takes place merely days before the #MeToo movement gained pace. As Nanette advances into its concluding quarter, Gadsby goes on to share her own experience of being sexually abused, raped and discriminated against. Quite like her, seemingly countless women have seen their experiences being manipulated and stuffed into jokes and other concerns of entertainment. And quite like her, the women who spoke up during the #MeToo movement weren’t telling their stories for the first time, but it was only now that they were being heard – when they were not being truncated by the punch-line of a joke or the ‘reputation’ of men. Thus, through Nanette Gadsby extends support to the #MeToo movement like no comedy has done to a cause before: she swears off the manipulation of stories by comedy, and questions the need for masking all reality with laughter.

As the set nears its end, Gadsby’s eyes redden, and fill with tears and anger. She gets more serious, louder, and unapologetic. She stops being ‘funny’, and starts getting to the point. She questions the larger audiences’ preference for angry white male comedy and their dismissal of the same coming from a woman like herself. She also asks what these straight white men; the seats of power in this centuries-old patriarchal status quo; have to be angry about – “If they’re having a tough time, the rest of us are goners,” she says. But Gadsby does not wish to take over as an angry comedian either, for she believes that such anger is only a precedent to the spread of hatred. Her anger, and indeed Nanette, stems out of her need to tell her audiences what life is like for people on the margins. Throughout her show, and again as she concludes it along with announcing that her decision to quit is not a gag, Gadsby reminds her audience of the basis of her decision by stating the basic fallacy in the age-old adage of laughter being the best medicine for their pain. “Laughter is not the medicine”, she says. “Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine”.

Having finished watching Nanette on Netflix, it takes a while to start assessing what one truly thought of it. It is certainly bold, and brave, and innovative. But Nanette is also revolutionary in the way it has dealt with exclusionism – in art, in comedy, in the perception of mental health, in the politics of identity and power, and in the world as we know it. In forcing comedy to confront the very issues that it uses as raw material and thereby often ignores, Hannah Gadsby has initiated a dialogue that has so far been sitting uncomfortably behind the filling-up of audiences and the pursuit of success. It is no less than historical, the way in which she refuses a vocation that refuses her a right to own her story: “I put myself down in order to speak … and if that means my comedy career is over, so be it”.

Gadsby tells the audience that she named Nanette after a woman she knew at the time of writing the set, one whom she thought would be the source of enough material for an hour of jokes. The audience laughs because she clearly wasn’t. But moments after the screen goes blank, it dawns on the viewer that this ‘Nanette’ is but every woman whose life will perhaps be easier, or inspired, or nudged slightly in a healthier direction because of how Gadsby has put a step forward in reshaping the future of the entertainment industry’s approach to real experiences, even as she steps away from it.


Stream Nanette now on Netflix, or click here to watch the trailer. You can learn more about Hannah Gadsby by visiting her awesome website!