Sunday, August 30, 2015

Indrani Mukerjea case: Why are we addicted to sleaze?

(Published on August 28, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy:

Just as the debate around the Aarushi murder case has been stoked – again – we now have a new murder case, where a parent has been accused.

The arrest of Indrani Mukerjea on a murder charge in the Sheena Bora case has left us with a trail of newspaper and web articles examining the sordid relationships and intrigues in the media mogul’s family. There are even YouTube videos for those who need graphics to understand the facts of a case.

First came the allegation that Sheena Bora was killed because she was in a relationship – of course, the media called it ‘having an affair’ – with Indrani Mukerjea’s stepson Rahul, her husband Peter Mukerjea’s son from an earlier marriage.

Then, came the revelation that Sheena Bora was not Mukerjea’s sister, as initially reported, but her daughter who had been passed off as a sibling, along with Mikhail Bora, her son from a first marriage that had been kept secret.

Her second husband, Sanjeev Khanna, with whom she has a daughter, has now been arrested. 

The police have set out several theories, including that Khanna and Indrani Mukerjea killed Sheena Bora to ensure that their daughter inherited a fair share of the Mukerjea fortune.

The media has set out several more theories. Tehelka, in an article which has since been removed, suggested that the motive for murder may have been money that was siphoned off by the Mukerjeas from one of their channels and deposited in Sheena’s account. The Indian Expresssaid Indrani Mukerjea was impersonating her daughter for a year after her death, and making calls to friends as well as Rahul. India TV, as is typical of most of our news channels, decided to put up a slideshow proving that Indrani Mukerjea was a “party lover and globe trotter”. Because, clearly, that means something. What does it mean? We’re not sure. Maybe that Indrani was not super maternal, because what mother loves parties and globe trots, eh?

What disgusts me is the relentless discussion of Mukerjea’s and Sheena Bora’s personal lives. There have been those who have done the math, and suggested that 43-year-old Indrani was an ‘unwed mother’ when she had Sheena, who was 24 at the time of her death in 2012. And there are those who delight in the fact that Mukerjea has been married to three different men, and has children with two of them.

The country’s obsessive interest in the case, and the willingness of the media to dig deeper and deeper for murky details of who was having sex with whom, points to India’s preoccupation with sexual escapades that are most likely irrelevant to the case itself.

Forget the courts, we will conduct our own trial, we seem to think. And we will base all our theories on sexual jealousies.

This aspect of the Indian media consumer was best illustrated in the Aarushi Talwar case, where most of the country was eager to believe she was murdered by her parents for having an affair with their servant Hemraj. As if that was not enough, there was also a popular theory that both Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were having extramarital affairs. Of course, this evolved quite naturally into their being part of a wife-swapping party circle.

The media reports on the Jiah Khan death case dealt mainly with what appears to have been her turbulent romantic relationship with Sooraj Pancholi, the son of actor Aditya Pancholi. That also gave the media the opportunity to recap Aditya Pancholi’s alleged affairs with various actresses.

And, of course, there was the infamous Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor death, where everyone was anxious to believe Shashi Tharoor had killed his wife because of her discovery of an affair he was having with a Pakistani journalist.

To have an opinion about a person involved in a murder case, or to have a theory on the case itself is one thing. But to broadcast it as if it were fact is quite another.

In the case of the deaths of women, and especially women from celebrity families, we seem to gravitate towards the idea of a crime of passion, or an honour killing.

If this could have been caused by a forbidden relationship, all the better.

The nonexistence of proof is irrelevant to our conclusions.

Or, there is that one word explanation for why no proof exists – ‘connections’. A family that is ‘well-connected’ could have disposed of the proof, and so we feel like master investigators, dissecting their lives and possible motivations.

It is natural for a murder case to generate excitement and interest. But it is a symptom of the ugliness of media coverage, and of its consumers, when the focus is entirely on the sex-and-sleaze aspect. 

What freedoms do we really have, Mr Prime Minister?

(Published on August 15, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy:

As Narendra Modi wipes his forehead, under the many folds of his grand turban, and his audience flutters newspapers in a futile gesture against the Delhi heat, and we watch from home with ironic smiles, it occurs to me that our Prime Minister’s energy seems to be, for once, flagging. Since he took over the most powerful seat in the country last year, his speeches have begun to sound less confident and more hollow in their jingoism.

So, there he stands, making his promises – electricity to all the villages; healthcare at one rupee a month; subscription to various government schemes at 90 paise a month; employment to the entire country. He urges the people to give up their gas subsidies.

Then, seeming to run out of things to say, and seeking to evade the charge that promises are easy to make and hard to fulfil, he acknowledges that every government introduces schemes and inaugurates them with lamp-lighting ceremonies. But what makes his government different, he assures us, is that they are committed to their promises. As an example, he tells us that they have built toilets everywhere in the months since he stood at the Red Fort and spoke of toilets.

However, every promise he made today is rather noncommittal. We are to ‘expect good news’ about the One Rank One Pension (OROP) demand of Army veterans. Shortly after he said that he had not quite examined the complexities of OROP and would have to give it some thought, he ‘assured veterans under the tricolour’ that there would be good news. But we don’t know what this good news is.

Even as he stresses the importance of farmers to this country, and the urgency of tackling farmer suicides, the most significant action towards that end comes across as a token gesture – the renaming of the Ministry of Agriculture, which will now be called ‘Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare’.

The audience claps listlessly when he says, even as the protests over (Lalit) Modigate and Sushma Swaraj claim headlines in the national dailies, that there has been no corruption charge against his government.

As we celebrate the sixty eighth anniversary of our independence, I wonder what freedoms we actually have.

Recently, journalists have been deprived of the freedom to do their stories about inmates of jails. Equally, the inmates of jails have been deprived of the freedom to have their perspectives heard. No interview with a convict can be conducted unsupervised or uncensored. A journalist’s best material may be confiscated. There will be no proof of a conversation that goes against the story that the authorities want to put out.

We may soon be deprived of the right to browse the internet as we know it, if the telecom companies have their way.

That might well suit the government, which sought to ban us from watching porn, and then relented. Apparently, the only ones who made gains from this little back-and-forth were traders of pornographic DVDs and, of course, columnists who raged against the ban.

We don’t have the freedom to write, paint, or create anything we want, without the danger of our books, art exhibitions, and films being banned.

We don’t even have the freedom to love anyone we want. Our country subscribes to the ridiculous idea that sexual relationships can only exist between men and women – even worse, it subscribes to the idea that they can only exist between men and women who are married to each other.

In this country, it is technically legal to rape your spouse, whereas the police can hound you for having consensual sex with a partner.

Our fundamental right to equality is a joke, when the question of whether you are punished for a crime or whether you get bail is decided by who the victims were, and how famous you are.

The right to assembly is denied in all areas deemed ‘conflict zones’, on any ‘sensitive’ day.

The right to life and liberty does not exist in any area where the AFSPA is in force.

The fact that our towns and cities are segregated into ghettos, the fact that khap panchayats reign supreme in villages, the fact that ‘honour killings’ so often go unpunished, are testament to the fact that we are our labels.

For as long as we don’t have the freedoms that our Constitution guarantees us, our claim of being independent is as pointless as the tired efforts of those at venue of the Prime Minister’s speech to stir a breeze with their newspapers.

Book Review: Of Love and War

(Published in, on August 7, 2015, retrieved from

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War
By Raghu Karnad (Harper Collins, 300 pages, Rs. 550)

In a world where titles are classified by genres and sub-genres, and their makers fastidiously divided into writers of fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry, fantasy and pulp, there is some joy in reading a book that reminds us there are only two kinds of writing – that which lingers like petrichor, and that which fades from the mind once the covers are shut.

The most beautiful books make one mull over things that they don’t explicitly address. What is branded as a family memoir, and a story of India’s role in the Second World War, is really a contemplation on heroism and circumspection, ambition and content, purpose and futility, dogma and desire, and – as the author says in another context – “high life and piteous death”.

In his prologue, Raghu Karnad describes his book as “forensic non-fiction”. Something about the term reminded me of palaeontology. The phrase sounds clinical, and belies the dedication, personal investment of time and energy, and the against-all-odds belief in an elusive end-product that one needs to muster, in order to pursue the stories of those who are extinct. It requires one to dig carefully and patiently through archives in libraries and museums, anxious about missing the wrong detail as much as recovering an ill-fitting one; to piece the fragments just so, each in the right place, with only vague clues and patterns for guidance; to follow each lead to its natural end in the valiant yet vain hope of being able to determine the shapes, sizes, features, voices, manners, charisma, and proclivities of those who are no longer with us. Specifically, for this book, it must have involved hours of sifting through the hazy, and perhaps sentimental, memories of the contemporaries of its subjects, politely waiting for a spark.

Perhaps this is why the story lends itself to a genre that is not exclusively fiction or non-fiction, a genre that was mastered by Bruce Chatwin. The safer option is to fictionalise the events. But, as anyone who has read The Songlines will testify, there is something to be said for inhabiting a space between fact and fantasy, for imagining a day in the life of an Ancestor in Dreamtime even as we are looking at dot paintings. Because, isn’t that exactly what we do in real life, look at things and extrapolate them to our lives and the lives of others?

In its scope, and occasionally in its style, Farthest Field is somewhat reminiscent of another favourite of mine – ceramicist Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, a whimsical yet precise meditation on objects of beauty, ownership, inheritance, and secrets. That narrative was united by memorabilia, a netsuke collection that was passed down generations of a family that was constantly displaced. In Karnad’s book, though, it is the loss of concrete souvenirs that holds the narrative. Both memoirs are characterised by a longing to forget rather than remember, to escape across state borders and national boundaries, to forge new families in new homes because it is impossible to go back to the old ones, until one descendant decided to stop, turn, and trace a journey back. However, Edmund De Waal was a celebrated artist when he wrote the book, and he was prone to almost careless, eye-rolling interludes where he would lightly remind us that this was a solipsistic recasting; Karnad, sensibly, offers perhaps a more gracious – if reverent – account, where he is not the centre of his world, but an enabler, allowing his ancestors to grow into characters, keeping himself in the background even when he is reconstructing imaginary scenarios. It is our awareness of the author’s personal connection to the men whose memories he seeks to immortalise, without having to suffer reminders every so often, that adds a layer of poignancy to the book.

It takes immense skill and some natural flair, a love of language and stories, the ability to transcend the rigid rules of journalism while respecting those of veracity, to fill in the lives of people who are so removed from one that they need to be completed by imagination and research. Karnad is equal to the task of doing right by this genre.

Another seeming incompatibility arises with the heavy horror of what is unfolding juxtaposed with the lyricism of the language in which it is recounted. The humour is often macabre, but how else can one deal with the irony of a second act of cruelty relieving the effects of a first? Take, for instance, this sentence: “Gasson sent in a platoon of Malabar Special Police to shoot dead the lions, tigers and panthers, as well as a single polar bear, which may alone have been grateful for it.” Elsewhere, Karnad speaks of mules being dropped with parachutes into warzones, to their detriment – but also to their salvation, for these were mules whose vocal chords had been surgically removed to keep them from baying and revealing the army’s positions to the enemy.

One of the greatest successes of Farthest Field is the way in which it re-orients figurative language, which has so often been robbed of vividness by tired idioms, strained exotica, and deliberately incongruent imagery, in which hugely successful authors dabble. In Karnad’s clever prose, the images unfurl so deliciously and intuitively that one has several moments akin to that where, in reading T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, one realises that despite the imagery of the yellow fog, there was no actual cat. To quote examples would ruin the surprise of the metamorphoses, where the sound of billiard balls clicking against each other, or the sight of raindrops slithering down taut cables, transform into scenes one would not normally associate with them. It is these layered images, fresh metaphors, and sparkles of poetry that make the book so much more than narrative non-fiction.

One could easily get impatient with prose that borders too much on poetry, but Karnad tempers his writing with mischievous wordplay – specifically, in a section about the use of mepacrine – that makes one smile at the departure from the high-flown literary metaphor that dominates the narrative.

Descriptions of battle formations are broken by time-outs of sorts, where the author speaks of how, in the middle of an urgent and brutal skirmish, there was a bureaucratic holdup, thanks to indecision over an army division’s sign – a boar’s head was overruled, as officers were concerned that Muslim soldiers would refuse to fight under the banner.

Sometimes, the author pulls us back from the theatres of war to the homes of the soldiers’ relatives, so fraught and distracted that the one journalist in the group “used the dinner table to rehearse his editorials without interruption.”

This technique gives us breathing space, where we ponder the vanity in man’s desire to conquer the world – a world made up of land whose topography is so unchangeable and unforgiving that the areas of conflict-then remain the areas of conflict-now, providing means for different locals and troublemakers to hide and escape from different aggressors and self-righteous invaders, three generations down. The actors have changed, and their masters have changed, but the stage remains the same.

Loneliness is a motif that runs through the book. In some ways, it reminded me of the exquisite Debatable Land by Candia McWilliam, which tells the story of people who volunteer to wait for disaster – some to escape their circumstances, and some driven by their circumstances. Isn’t volunteering for war stripped of heroism when it is a mercenary act, a paid service in which a soldier risks his life without the inspiriting rush of defending his homeland? What must it be like to never have a chance at atonement? What must it feel like to suffer the humiliation of receiving glory and gratitude when one has made no real sacrifice?

The book makes us think about two kinds of death – the preventable, ignominious exit wrought by disease and cruel conditions; and the hero’s martyrdom, at the hands of the enemy, which is almost vindication for the pecuniary concerns that spurred it.

It also makes us think about two kinds of war veterans – the ones who, in their nineties, glance back at their youth, exaggerating its exploits and daring, evoking the ostentatious charm of the early twentieth century with antiquated words; and the ones who will never grow old, frozen in photo frames and enlivened in the memories of those who outlive them, from which they can only emerge in passive sputters, for they will never be as real to the tellers of their stories as they were to themselves.

Ironically, the young man to whom most of these musings are attributed eventually has to choose both the kind of death he wants and the kind of veteran he wants to be.

There is something incredibly sad about people who will forever retain the jauntiness and abandon and optimism of their youth, deprived of the chance to become surly and crabby seniors, raging at the depravity of the generations that followed them. Just as it is amusing to look through the black-and-white photographs taken in the youth of today’s nonagenarians, it is haunting to imagine the old men that those who died in the war may have loved to have become.

Particularly heartbreaking is a letter written by a young soldier to his sister. It makes one wonder at the turns our lives take, at how generosity can be one’s undoing. One is struck by the immense understanding two lovers reserve for their families, whom many people would dismiss as callous, and guilty of the subsequent disruptions in their lives. Their story strikes one as the saddest of all, because a little more sympathy on their families’ part and a little less on their own could have given it a very different trajectory. 

Karnad captures the human propensity for self-involvement, so that the most irrelevant external events can be transformed into messages the universe is sending us – a slogan at a student protest outside the window, for instance, could seem prophetic when one is in a trough, wondering whether one has made a mistake in choosing a particular path.

But a book that tells part of the story of a war must necessarily extend beyond the personal and into the political. When imperialism is involved, and especially when one is on the wronged side of history, one has to make a judgment call in writing – is it all right to indulge in the immersive reporting made fashionable by John Pilger, to take a step back every now and then and comment on, even seethe at, the exhibits of colonial cruelty; or must one keep up a pretence of neutrality? Karnad shows insight into the mistakes made on both sides. Case in point: “This was what the Congress could never stomach, that their right to govern India must follow from their ability to do so.”

What is admirable about the book is not just what has gone into it, but what has been left out. When one has done a colossal amount of research, and it is evident from the notes and Bibliography that Karnad has, it can be tempting to crowd the book with information, or to prove to the world that one has indeed done one’s homework. It is a mark of the author’s confidence and literary sensibility that, even in his first book, he has been judicious with using his research, to inform his writing rather than display his diligence. What he believes may be interesting to the reader is tucked away in notes and appendices.

My only quibble, and it is a minor one, is that I would have loved annotations for some of the more outlandish bits of information. How, for instance, did the author know that soldiers volunteered to lean against barricades to keep their mules from getting unruly on an airlift? I’m inclined to think, though, that an author is entitled to use his discretion in determining how fastidious the annotations should be.

And one can forgive much in that rare book which is so delightful one is loath to finish it, because it is near impossible for one’s next read to match the last. Farthest Field definitely qualifies for that description. A brilliant first book can often set the bar too high for the author’s own good. However, in Karnad’s case, one only looks forward to the rest of what promises to be a luminous career.

If you're livid about Cecil, ask yourself these questions

(Published on August 3, 2015, retrieved from

(Picture Courtesy:

A lion in Zimbabwe was shot dead by an American dentist. And now, suddenly, everyone on Facebook cares about hunting.

They want the dentist put away forever.

They want hunting to be banned.

They want Glenn McGrath fired by BBC Sport, not for his insipid commentary and drab presentation skills, but for a safari on which he killed animals seven years ago.

Hell, Cecil is not even a lion anymore. He is Everyman and Everywoman, and has become an allegory for everything from homelessness to sexual abuse to colonialism.

It’s almost as if we didn’t live in a world where crocodiles are bred for making handbags, and as if we’re not more enraged about Oprah Winfrey being dismissed while trying to buy a handbag by a racist shopping assistant than about her buying a handbag made from an animal that was killed for the cause; as if we didn’t live in a world where everyone wears leather and snakeskin belts and shoes, while making noises about fur; as if we didn’t live in a world where billions of animals are reared for the sole purpose of populating dining plates; as if we didn’t live in a world where the summer solstice is celebrated with the mass slaughter of dogs; as if we didn’t live in a world where whales are hunted, flouting all laws; as if we didn’t live in a world where endangered animals are poached so that parts of their body can be worn as good luck charms or thrown into quack medicines or plastered on walls; as if we didn’t live in a world where a sadistic pervert is making ‘art’ by pouring molten aluminium into anthills and selling it, with much success, to idiots who subscribe to the idea of making pretty objects by killing ants in the cruellest manner possible.

Yes, what happened to Cecil is horrible, and it makes sense for someone like Jane Goodall – a conservationist who has done much for the safety and welfare of animals, and a vegetarian – to point out how awful it is.

But, if you’re not against all the practices stated above, why does the killing of Cecil matter so much to you?

Is it because the dentist flouted hunting laws?

Is it because the lion is so magnificent, as an animal?

Is it because this particular lion had a name, and was much-beloved?

Because, really, how are people who hunt animals for sport so much worse than people who eat animals despite having other options?

The outcry over Cecil reminds me of the hysteria over the Yulin dog-torturing festival, or whatever its official name is. Of course, when called out on their hypocrisy, those who eat animals but were shocked by the festival came up with this moronic defence: “It is not about the fact that they are being eaten, but about how they are tortured before being eaten.”

So, it would be totally fine, I suppose, if the dogs were treated like chicken? You know, kept in crowded cages with their beaks cut off so they won’t peck at each other’s eyes? Or genetically modified, to grow big and fast, so they could meet the demand of the industry? Or ground to death on conveyor belts? Or boiled alive, as most animals in slaughterhouses are, since the production rate precludes time being invested in ensuring that the animals are properly stunned?

If you use silk, how is that different from fur?

If you go to zoos, are you not endorsing the idea of keeping animals in captivity, in enclosures that are a fraction of the size that they need? Are you not contributing to the callousness with which animals are brought from their natural habitats into alien environments, for the amusement and entertainment of people like you? Take a look at the number of zoos that house polar bears, around the world.

How do you feel about the capture and domestication of elephants? If you’re not sure, Google videos of elephant capture. Try and sit through videos of baby elephants being broken. Think about the fact that this happens either because humans have encroached into their territory, and now want them cleared away, or because they are being groomed for service in circuses and temples.

The case of Cecil is barely different from the cases of billions of animals worldwide, who are subjected to various forms of human cruelty by people who don’t care. And if you are one of these people, you are barely different from Walter Palmer, the man who murdered Cecil.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sandra Bland case: Is the US so very different from India?

(Published in, on July 27, 2015, retrieved from

Since the dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s run-in with a policeman in Texas emerged online, it has sparked furious reactions, bemoaning the structures that haunt America – racism, abuse of power, sweeping powers for the security forces, and prejudice.

As the video shows, what began as an altercation over a minor traffic violation escalated into physical abuse, ending with the arrest and eventual custodial death of Bland. The dash cam video has several glitches, and, according to the Bland family’s lawyer, the jailhouse video from the day of her death has time jumps.

It is the first time in a long while that I have heard of a custodial death in America, and it made me think about how similar the story is to those we encounter so often back home, in India.

Racism, abuse of power, and authoritarian overreach are not unique to America, but it shocks the world even more when evidence of these structures surfaces in that country. It is, after all, ironic that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is trending when the most powerful man in America, and, by extension, the most powerful man in the world, is Black. Yet, there have been three distinct cases this summer alone, of people being targeted over their race, and two of these have been by the police – the Texas pool party, the Charleston shooting, and now the death of Sandra Bland.

For every one of these, one can find parallels in India. Every few months, communal riots break out in some part of the country, often aided or exacerbated by political interests. Even on an individual level, a lot of how one is treated depends on how one looks, what one wears, and what labels one carries.

False charges are slapped on suspects, and cases of custodial death don’t make it beyond the inside pages of newspapers. On a slow news day, journalists will seek out the despondent families of such victims, and a story will be made on police atrocities, only to be buried along with the victims.

The TADA, POTA, and AFSPA have given security forces the power to not just pick up anyone on suspicion, but get away with their ‘mistakes’, however grave they are.

You could get arrested over a Facebook post, if you’re not burned to death first.

For every religious nut in America who decries evolution as “lies straight from the pit of hell” or who announces a grand plan for getting rid of gays and lesbians by hustling them into electric-fenced pens and waiting for them to die out – because, clearly, homosexuality is inherited from one’s parents – there is a religious nut in India, who believes that Ravana’s Pushpak Vimaan was the blueprint for the aeroplane.

And, now, India is planning to follow the US template for spying on its citizens. In order to introduce a Bill in Parliament that proposes the creation of a national DNA bank, the Central government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 21, that India’s citizens have no fundamental right to privacy.

For a while now, we have been holding up America as a classic example of a country that has thwarted all attacks on itself by ramping up its security. In the process, we forget how different its geography is from that of most others, and specifically India. It is not surrounded by hostile countries. It does not have many porous borders.

Second, it is being attacked, not by monsters it has created in other parts of the world, but by monsters it has created within itself – racial and religious hatred, gun violence, illusions of entitlement and gaping ignorance.

And, even as we single out gun violence and shake our heads at America, we tend to forget that very similar outbursts of violence are orchestrated back home.

It may not be easy to get hold of guns in India, but it is easy to get hold of mobs. It is easy to set people on fire, to attack them with acid, to chase them down in the streets, to have them locked up, to have them die under mysterious circumstances. It is easy to ban books that allegedly offend a particular community. It is easy to ban art of all kinds. It is easy to accuse activists of corruption and send them to jail.

‘It happens in America’ cannot be justification for this.

If our economic progress and global presence is to be accompanied by the sort of controls America exerts on its citizens, but without the recourse to law and justice it provides, India’s future is a dismal prospect.

The ‘Other’ Film Industry: Tamil Cinema is Rising Like a Phoenix

(Published in The Quint, on July 24, 2015, retrieved from

Time was when most of India understood Tamil cinema as the domain of dark-skinned, moustached heroes with ridiculous accents. It formed the prototype of the South Indian male.
However, now, it appears Shah Rukh Khan may be the only one who clings to the notion of Tamil cowboy heroes who use nonexistent words such as “rascalla”. But then, his portrayal of a Tamilian could rival that of comedian Mehmood in its outlandishness, so his opinion is best discounted.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Chennai Express)
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Chennai Express)
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Chennai Express)
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Chennai Express)
Bollywood, for some reason, has recently turned to Kollywood for inspiration. For a good while, both Tamil and Hindi cinema relied on the Malayalam film industry when directors needed solid storylines for remakes.
But, over the last few years, some of the biggest hits Bollywood has produced are remakes of Tamil originals. Ghajini broke several box-office records, only to be outdone by Singham, which even spawned a sequel. Thuppakki came to Bollywood as Holiday.

The Sudden Rise of the Tamilian Non-Mainstream

Even as commercial hits in Tamil are being lapped up by the likes of Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar, a new movement seems to have started in Kollywood itself.
Suddenly, low-budget, non-mainstream films with young, often unknown, actors, are being released to both critical acclaim and commercial success.
A scene from the 2014 movie Jigarthanda. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Jigarthanda)
A scene from the 2014 movie Jigarthanda. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Jigarthanda)
Aaranya Kaandam (2010), Jigarthanda (2014), and Kaakka Muttai (2015) have all won National Awards, and subsequently found backing for release in theatres. Aadukalam, the second film of director Vetrimaran, swept the National Awards a few years ago.

Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan: Two Sides of a Successful Story

This is not the first time that there has been a paradigm shift in Tamil cinema. In the Eighties, a young man with the Midas touch managed, for the first time, to combine brilliant story lines with the elements of commercial cinema, turning stars into actors, and appealing simultaneously to the masses and the critics.
Tamil director Mani Ratnam. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Mani Ratnam)
Tamil director Mani Ratnam. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Mani Ratnam)
Mani Ratnam directed films that were not just hits, but enduring pieces of art, often encapsulating the mood of a time, the reality of a place, the inner lives of families. Dubbed Hindi versions were successful, despite the inherent logical fallacies that were introduced by translation – for instance, the poignancy inRoja centres on a girl who is lost and alone in a land whose language she doesn’t know, and on the bonds she forms with the only two people who speak her language.
Tamil actor and director Kamal Haasan. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Kamal Haasan)
Tamil actor and director Kamal Haasan. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Kamal Haasan)
Sadly, Mani Ratnam was the lone spark in an industry that was producing tired films with hackneyed storylines. Kamal Haasan was making interesting films too, films that would one day be appreciated, but which were too far ahead of their time when they released to be successful at the box office.

Riding the Local Trend – Unafraid, Unabashed

The new trend in Tamil cinema, though, does not have to do with one or two men, but a crop of young directors who are willing to take risks with their stories, and producers who are willing to hedge their bets on unproven talent. It also has to do with a seemingly drastic change in the audience’s tastes. Yes, a Rajinikanth or Vijay or Ajith film will do well irrespective, at the box office, just as a Salman Khan film will. But good cinema and commercially successful cinema, and the audience for each, are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps some of this is due to the increasing local flavour in Tamil films. Several films about violence in interior Tamil Nadu, such as Veyyil (2006),Paruthiveeran (2007), and Subramaniyapuram (2008), have been received well. In fact, they may have set off a trend which takes directors and writers closer to their own roots, looking for stories that are honest to their geography – not unauthorised adaptations of Chinese, Japanese, and Iranian films that the directors have spotted at film festivals.
A scene from the movie Paruthiveeran. (Photo Courtesy: Youtube)
A scene from the movie Paruthiveeran. (Photo Courtesy: Youtube)
Nor formulaic feature films that need to be bolstered by a star.

More Substance than Spectacle – the Dawn of a New Era?

A couple of years later, a comedy, Thamizh Padam (2010) spoofed the mores and clich├ęs of Tamil cinema over the last century, to the delight of audiences and the ire of the industry.
Since then, both directors and producers seem to have got bolder, as have the theatres, offering to the audience films like Jigarthanda and Soodhu Kavvum, which combine noir, action, and comedy.
Perhaps this is the beginning of an era which will see a series of offbeat films, more substance than spectacle.

Child Sexual Abuse awareness: Are the campaigns regulated?

(Published in, on July 19, 2015, retrieved from

Recently, a child sexual abuse awareness advertisement has gone viral. The company which produced it, Purani Dili Talkies, called it a ‘social experiment’. They invited a father and child to their studios, and carried out an ‘experiment’ to see whether a stranger could get the child, a kindergarten student, to take off his clothes. They announced that it had taken the stranger less than five minutes to convince the child to acquiesce.

What parades as an awareness campaign seems, to me at least, to be a callous experiment on an unsuspecting child.

We speak of the innocence of childhood, and how it can be dangerous. However, in proving this point, organisations may, in fact, have endangered and even scarred children.

A couple of years ago, another CSA awareness advertisement, titled ‘Dumb Charades’, became a social media hit. In it, a seemingly loving and involved couple play dumb charades with their child, who reveals through the course of the game that he is being abused by an uncle. Towards the end, he even partially removes his clothes.

Yes, the idea is a good one – it conveys that most abuse is carried out by people who are known to the family, or part of the family; it conveys that children find it difficult to speak about their trauma, because they are not sure that what is happening to them is wrong, and they are not sure that it is not their fault, and they are not sure that they will find a sympathetic audience in their parents.

However, the use of an actual child in such advertisements – and a child whose face is seen, and who becomes recognisable from the campaign – needs to be regulated.

One wonders whether the parents of these child actors, or – in the case of the ‘social experiment’, of the boy who submitted to it – are even aware of the entire script of these ads.

In a country where the laws regarding the use of children in films, advertisement, and other kinds of social media, are loose, at best, one also wonders whether such media do pass through a regulatory body before being unleashed online.

A search for ‘CSA awareness’ or ‘Child Sexual Abuse Awareness’ on YouTube lists several purported ad campaigns, which are almost pornographic.

One shows a girl drawing a picture, as a man slumped on the bed eyes her greedily. A woman, probably her mother, finishes cooking, and leaves home. The man walks up to the child, and starts talking about how beautiful her drawing is, and how beautiful she is. He caresses her in a predatory manner, and eventually carries her up the stairs. The camera stays on them throughout. He is actually touching a child.

Another one has a teenage maid being abused by her employer. He puts his arms around her waist as she is cooking, and then, in pretending to wipe away a stain on her kurta, rubs his hands against her breasts. Later, he sits on the bed, watching porn, while she is cleaning the room. There is a close-up shot of her cleavage. The actor playing the maid does not look like an adult, and seems to be rather embarrassed throughout.

Over the years, several mainstream movies in Tamil and Hindi have featured children in various states of undress.

What resources do these child actors have, for when they grow up and perhaps feel the trauma of having been used in an unsavoury manner, even if it is to convey a purported social message?

Some years ago, the Academy Award-nominated Danish film Jagten by director Thomas Vinterberg, provoked questions about the use of children in films with sensitive subjects. However, Vinterberg seems to have been careful not to expose the child to any speech or scenes that may be unsuitable for her age, and given the strict monitoring of child welfare in all the Scandinavian countries, one is fairly sure it was regulated.

While education about child sexual abuse is crucial, one wonders if there isn’t a way to do it without actually using children.

The Netherlands-based wing of the NGO Terre Des Hommes came up with the concept of creating a computer-generated child figure, whom they named Sweetie, in order to find online predators. In a campaign to stop webcam child sex tourism, the organisation developed a virtual child. Using this nonexistent child as bait, they tracked more than 1000 criminals who have cybersex with children, in less than two months.

Perhaps we should be looking at similar options – animation, or the use of computer graphics, rather than exposing children to the very dangers against which we are trying to send out a message.
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