Blaze against the Machine: “A Burning” by Megha Majumdar

Megha Majumdar’s much-awaited debut novel, A Burning opens with the firebombing of a packed train in West Bengal which leaves social media in a flux of public outrage, calls for justice, and anger at the incompetence and alleged complicity of the local police. It is here, on Facebook, that 22-year-old Jivan uses a new smartphone purchased from her own modest salary to register her indignation: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean,” she writes, “that the government is also a terrorist?” It is not much later that she, a poor Muslim salesclerk, is hauled into a police van and promptly slapped with charges of sedition, anti-national sentiment, and terrorist conspiracy.

Both the title and opening of A Burning immediately evoke the current political climate in India; the book’s urgency flaring because of its release in the wake of the recent Delhi Pogrom, which earlier this year set India’s capital ablaze into fiery violence right under the authorities’ noses, and for which they continue to arrest and scapegoat student activists such as Safoora Zargar to this day.

Art imitates life in ‘the world’s largest democracy’

The fiery plot in this book is propelled by the lives of its three main narrators, intertwined by the terror catastrophe and by their respective desires for upward mobility: while Jivan years to leave behind the poverty that renders her life dispensable and inconsequential in the eyes of the world; Lovely, the lively transgender actress whom Jivan teaches English, aspires to attain stardom of the likes of her idols, Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan. The third character, a man known simply as PT Sir, is a physical education teacher at Jivan’s former school, whose is enticed by the power and prestige afforded to him under the thumb of an ascending right-wing luminary — even if it comes at the cost of his morality.

In fact, morality and the politics of social ascent is as dominant a strain here as the injustice meted out by a broken system. Lovely knows that Jivan is not guilty of terrorism, but her virtue and eagerness to testify in favour of her tutor is challenged when it becomes a barrier on the road to her own dreams. Similarly, PT Sir faces a choice between conscientious responsibility and expedite ‘justice’ built on lies when he becomes witness to the brutal massacre of a family on falsified, communally motivated grounds.

Majumdar’s pen is even more unforgiving when it comes to her portrayal of institutional power. The living conditions and treatment that befall Jivan’s family throughout the book shed light on the crassness of officials as well as that of civil society, while Lovely’s experiences further accentuate the perilous way in which gender, class, religion and superstition figure in such a society. The corruption and complicity of so-called pillars of democracy are laid bare as Jivan’s trial progresses. The manipulation of Jivan’s story by a journalist shows what drives the Indian media, while the Jana Kalyan Party’s burial of the family massacre reveals the malevolence of vote-hungry parties.

Underlying every moment in A Burning is a scathing critique of a rotten, corrupt system — a machine whose cogs are oiled only by show of affluence or influence and whose courtrooms are similarly compromised; a system built on the undeterred abuse of power at the expense of the poor and the marginalised, all while maintaining a façade of integrity and rectitude.

In a country where justice is perpetually delayed, it is also equally bought, sold and mispronounced, as seen in the case of some of Jivan’s prison mates who are jailed for having acted in self-defence against an abusive husband or a streetside molester; whereas a film producer found guilty in a hit-and-run case is allowed to roam free. Similarly, the government sacrifices Jivan to please an uproarious public and secure their votes in further elections, even as students protest her fate and the true perpetrators escape unscathed. Indeed, A Burning emerges as a fierce literary indictment of a sham democracy at a time when such sentiment is needed the most.

As literary as political

Majumdar’s book with its poignancy and pointed critique of turbulence without systemic change is reminiscent of the works of Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry, albeit with a far sparser prose style. Immersive and intensely readable, A Burning is written in short chapters whose brevity pack a knack for attention to small details and evoke locale, mood, and character with surprising, almost uncanny, expertness; the sights and sounds of Kolkata, in particular, are rendered with an acuity that can only come from experience.

However, peculiarities of translation make it evident that this is a book written chiefly for western eyes: certain phrases, figures of speech, names of movies are translated awkwardly, and the descriptions of Indian foods are doubly so (one tends to stop paying attention to these after seeing kochuri being described as “fried dough”). A similar issue affects the otherwise remarkable characterisation of Lovely, whose verbs always conjugating in the present continuous — “With my hips swinging like this and like that, I am walking past the guava seller” — is perhaps effective in hinting at her speaking in the Bengali, but also serves to somewhat infantilise her.

Yet, it is the writing — its nuance and vividness, its empathic understanding of variant lives, its honesty and ferocity, its gripping urgency — that makes this book such an unforgettably compelling read despite what some may call a predictable plotline. In fact, the very predictability of the story makes A Burning all the more heart-rending; a fictional world that comes alive with the aim to urge the reader to question what it is that makes such tragedy predictable in the first place.

A Burning Cover Penguin

A Burning (2020) is published by Alfred A. Knopf and Penguin-Randomhouse India.

Want a copy? Please consider supporting a local independent bookstore in these tough times instead of ordering off Amazon! Click here for a list of Independent bookstores that are delivering across India.

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!