Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why Jayalalithaa is Tamil Nadu's original comeback queen

(Published in DailyO, on June 26, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy:

Less than a week after the Karnataka government moved the Supreme Court against her acquittal in the disproportionate assets case, an unruffled Jayalalithaa, who has already resumed her duties as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, will contest the Assembly by-poll from the constituency of R K Nagar on June 27. A resounding win is so certain that no party is fielding a candidate – they have unanimously claimed that the election is rigged, but the truth is more likely to be that the parties want to spare themselves the ignominy of a drubbing. Several independent candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, but there is no serious contender against Jayalalithaa.

Stringent precautionary measures are in place ahead of the polling. The Chief Electoral Officer has announced that 987 police personnel from Tamil Nadu, 720 from the paramilitary, 1150 election officials and 230 additional employees will be on duty on polling day. TASMAC shops are to remain closed for 48 hours starting from 5:00 PM on June 25, in both Chennai and Tiruvallur districts.

For many decades now, the seat of power in Tamil Nadu has been won by a game of musical chairs. The DMK and AIADMK governments have successively dethroned each other, mostly due to anti-incumbency rather than faith in either party. However, Jayalalithaa’s current term – her third as Chief Minister, a possibility that seemed far-fetched during her first five-year reign – is particularly popular.

Even sceptics reluctantly concede that she may be Tamil Nadu’s best option for Chief Minister, despite the plethora of cases against her. When she was convicted in the disproportionate assets case last September, and subsequently arrested, the state was dismayed. When she was acquitted by the Karnataka High Court on May 11, most people were relieved. And when, on June 23, the Karnataka government carried through with its long-delayed decision and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court, the reaction has been mixed.

Our judiciary has a poor track record against people in power – businessmen, politicians, and actors – but the public is unanimously resentful, barring the acolytes of the subject. This does not seem to be the case where Jayalalithaa is concerned. Her return to power in May, following her acquittal, saw traffic jams across Madras as people crowded the streets in celebration. Several sessions of the State Assembly were devoted to paeans by her subordinates. Even among the intelligentsia, most people are hopeful that Jayalalithaa will find a way out of her legal troubles, at least for now, “for the sake of stability”. But it is not just anxiety about the pandemonium that would follow a conviction and sentence. Most of Tamil Nadu is in love with Jayalalithaa’s efficiency.

It makes no sense for Jayalalithaa to have public support.
In the first place, the case was moved from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka, because the prosecution felt it would be impossible to conduct an unbiased and fair trial in Jayalalithaa’s home state. Yet, the trial was fraught with issues, including that the Special Public Prosecutor was replaced multiple times. B V Acharya, who was appointed SPP because his predecessor’s appointment was deemed ‘bad in law’ by the Supreme Court, had only one day to file a written submission, and was not allowed to make oral arguments. Further, Jayalalithaa was acquitted on a technicality – the High Court went by a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that unexplained assets to the tune of 10 per cent of known income should not be questioned, despite subsequent amendments to the anti-corruption law that could be interpreted to make disclosure mandatory. Acharya has also stated that there were “glaring mathematical errors” in the computation of ten percent.
The highlight of Jayalalithaa’s first term (1991-96) was an extravagant wedding for her foster son, for which 12,000 guests were reported to have received invitations engraved in silver. The event itself saw a gigantic marquee erected over several arterial roads in the city centre, with tumbling acrobats and hundreds of folk dancers called in for entertainment, lorry-loads of flowers ferried to the venue, and 20,000 policemen put on duty. All this after Jayalalithaa’s much-publicised announcement that she would forego her allotted salary of Rs 11,000, and draw only Re 1 a month.
It is rumoured that her superstitions, ranging from the numerological empowerment of her name to her insistence on signing agreements and taking office at auspicious times, has often got in the way of her pragmatism, prompting transfers of government servants who are not heedful of her whims in this regard.
So, why does Jayalalithaa remain popular?
Part of her appeal may be explained by the fact that she was a film star before she entered politics. The story goes that Jayalalithaa was forced into cinema by her mother when she was a teenager, despite having topped the state matriculation examinations, and aspiring to study medicine. She was mentored by her famous co-star, M G Ramachandran (MGR), who would go on to serve three consecutive terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and eventually facilitate Jayalalithaa’s entry into politics. Following MGR’s death, Jayalalithaa took over the leadership of the AIADMK, winning a tug-of-war against his widow Janaki.
Aside from her glamorous past, Jayalalithaa’s public image is bolstered by her reputation as a shrewd administrator, suave and efficient, articulate and well-read, fluent in several languages including English, Tamil, and Hindi.
Her profile stands in stark contrast to those of her main opponents – DMK patriarch Karunanidhi, and DMDK leader and Tamil actor Vijayakanth.
Karunanidhi, who speaks a single language and has rarely put into effect public welfare schemes, is also – unlike Jayalalithaa – head of a large family, with six children from two wives and a live-in partner. He is also related by marriage to the Marans, who control the Sun media empire. Most members of the family are fighting corruption cases, ranging from buying votes to the 2G spectrum scam. Karunanidhi, during his last term, became notorious for holding extravagant felicitation functions for himself, during which large parts of the city were decorated with posters, cut-outs, and temporary lights, despite the state going through a power supply crisis. His sons, Stalin and Azhagiri, are constantly at war for the post of second-in-command of the party. It is considered unlikely that the party can propel itself back to power.
Vijayakanth, who is relatively new to politics, is currently most famous for ‘Captain’ memes. ‘Captain’ is his self-endowed soubriquet, in honour of his 1991 hit film Captain Prabhakaran. The actor-turned-politician, now paunchy and with a crop of hennaed hair, is the subject of ridicule in these memes for his lack of awareness on current affairs, his poor grasp of English, his regular state of inebriation, and – as his latest viral video from International Yoga Day demonstrates – his lack of coordination.
So, there is no convenient alternative to Jayalalithaa, who, this term, has launched a spate of ‘Amma’ schemes to subsidise essential goods. These include Amma canteens, Amma cement, Amma mini-buses, Amma mineral water, and even a plan to build Amma cinema theatres, where ticket prices will be capped at Rs 25. She launched a scheme for remote villagers to access key government officials, titled ‘Assured Maximum Service to Marginal People in All Villages’, and unsubtly shortened to A.M.M.A, an acronym that derives mostly from the redundant words in that title. She also set up mobile toilets across the state, though she didn’t quite endow them with her epithet, choosing ‘Namma Toilet’ (which translates into ‘Our Toilet’) instead.
But perhaps the most important reason for continued public sympathy for Jayalalithaa is that her sins are largely blamed on Sasikala Natarajan, her close aide, best friend, co-accused in several court cases (including the disproportionate assets case), and alleged puppet-master.
The two met in 1982, when Jayalalithaa, who was Propaganda Secretary in MGR’s AIADMK, visited Cuddalore, where Sasikala’s husband Natarajan was the party’s Public Relations Officer. Sasikala would often travel to Madras, where she ran a video rental store. The women became friends over time, and inseparable after MGR’s death. Sasikala even moved into Jayalalithaa’s home, and continued to reside there.

During Jayalalithaa’s first term, Sasikala was seen as her deputy, with party members referring to her ironically as ‘CM 2’ and ‘Chinna Amma’ (Junior Amma). Her family – dubbed the ‘Mannargudi Mafia’ – secured key positions in Jayalalithaa’s party. In fact, the opulent wedding was for Sasikala’s nephew, whom Jayalalithaa had ‘adopted’. Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were photographed wearing identical sarees and expensive jewellery. This event – which took place in 1995 – is considered a crucial factor in Jayalalithaa’s 1996 electoral defeat. Following this, Jayalalithaa announced that she would be distancing herself from Sasikala, in line with “the sentiments of the general public and party men”. However, the two had an emotional reunion following Sasikala’s hospitalisation later that year.

After the DMK’s five-year rule, Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001. Sasikala kept a low profile through this rather turbulent period, during which the duo had to continuously fight cases in court. Jayalalithaa, who was convicted in a corruption case, temporarily resigned. The DMK came back to power in 2006, a term that was riddled with scams at both the state and central level for its party members.

When Jayalalithaa won a third term in office in 2011, Sasikala remained in the background, but remained a crucial party member. It was reported that even ministerial berths were assigned at Sasikala’s instance. A few months into Jayalalithaa’s term, there were rumours of trouble in paradise. Many of the appointees who were believed to be Sasikala’s nominees, began to resign, or were dismissed or transferred. Without warning, Sasikala and eleven of her relatives – including her husband, siblings, nieces, and nephews – were unceremoniously expelled from the AIADMK, and from Jayalalithaa’s residence. No reason was given for the quarrel, which led to the conjuring up of conspiracy theories – some said Sasikala was planning to stage a coup, some said the family had been secretly drugging Jayalalithaa, some said the family had been raiding the coffers of the Jaya TV bouquet of channels – while some maintained that Jayalalithaa’s advisers had told her to ‘get rid of’ Sasikala, who was likely to be convicted in the corruption cases.

After nearly a fortnight of silence, Jayalalithaa addressed the party’s General Council and the Executive, and clarified that the Mannargudi clan had been permanently exiled, and that there would be no renewal of friendship. But, predictably, Sasikala was back, a few months later.

When Jayalalithaa took oath as Chief Minister again, on May 23, 2015, Sasikala was spotted watching the swearing-in ceremony from the front row.

Yet, Tamil Nadu clings to the notion that Jayalalithaa will be an excellent administrator, straightforward and just, without Sasikala’s interference.

The tragedy of this notion is that it is unlikely to ever be put to the test, as Sasikala is never out of the picture for long.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How all men must die makes Game of Thrones so brilliant

(Published in DailyO, on June 16, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: Google Images

When one watches Game of Thrones, one is reminded of Shakespeare’s brilliant line from King Lear, “The worst is not so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’.”

Of all the people we first met at Winterfell in the pilot episode, the only one who has been left whole is Rickon, and that poor kid must be in deep psychological trauma. A Game of Thrones season isn’t quite complete until a Stark is killed, or maimed, or both, and the fifth edition has gone a little further than that. The three who had been saved from near-impossible situations, multiple times – Sansa, Arya, and Jon – finally became victims.

One could quite easily make a case for the viewers being the most traumatised of all the participants in this saga – if you thought the rape of Sansa Stark was bad, oh, wait for a couple of episodes, and there it is...the burning of Shireen Baratheon on a stake, filmed almost exactly like rape, with the camera trained on a helpless witness as we hear the victim’s screams. Hardly had we recovered before we had to see Arya, this girl whom we feel is safe even when she’s made a career of washing corpses, go blind. And that was a good half hour before Cersei’s long-drawn walk of shame, and oh-my-god-none-of-that-matters-anymore because Jon Snow – Jon Snow, of all people – is lying in a pool of blood, the betrayed expression that has become characteristic of his eyes, by force of habit, now frozen for all eternity. And the Old Gods and New and the Lord of Light and the Many-Faced God put together are not going to be able to save the wildlings, caught between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers in alien territory, so, yay, we’re in for a few more blood baths.

At this point, one wonders whether the last five years have been all about subversively garnering our support for the White Walkers.

And, yet, we know the viewership will break all records when the next season premieres. Because, hey, Bran is alive, and we haven’t seen him all season, and he has to do something quite fantastic, right? Because, maybe, like Bran, Jon isn’t dead, or maybe that Melisandre lady will resurrect him, because why eltase should she land up at Castle Black? Because, for all its clichés and binaries, and the fact that some of its scenes lend themselves to music from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, we are never quite sure what’s going to happen to whom, and that is the secret behind the hold Game of Thrones has over its audience.

No drama series which has gone on for so long can be said to have never flagged, not even Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. In fact, the only TV series that I can recall having maintained their standard all through are perhapsSeinfeld and Blackadder, and those relied on humour.

Despite all the outrage and criticism, ranging from the depiction of violence against women to colonialist undertones in Daenerys’ exploits at Slavers’ Bay, Game of Thrones keeps millions of viewers engaged, and will continue to do so.

Perhaps what makes it such a fascinating watch is its willingness to shock its audience, to kill off characters who are proven to be much-loved, and make departures from the novels, with authorial consent, so that even those who have read all the books so far can be surprised. A show becomes boring when one can predict what will happen, and one can never do that with Game of Thrones.

Yet, nothing that happens in the story is an obvious red herring. Often, a little piece of information is planted amidst a more exciting storyline, and eventually becomes significant in another episode. Take, for instance, the random seduction of Bronn by Oberyn’s daughter, through which we learn of a poison that is eventually used on Myrcella.

Game of Thrones made no bones about the fact that we would see extreme violence, right from the start. We saw a beheading the very first episode; in fact, we saw a ten-year-old being forced to witness a beheading by his father; soon after, we saw an animal sentenced to death for the foolishness of Sansa, and the sadism of Joffrey.

The show set a pattern – every season, there would be a gruesome death or an ugly battle towards the end, but the last episode would leave us with a sense of hope. In Season 1, Eddard Stark was executed when we thought, surely, any moment now, someone would intercede; in the final episode, Daenerys’ dragons were born. In Season 2, there was the Battle of Blackwater; but the season ended with all the Stark children safe; Bran and Rickon escaped against all odds, while Arya found a friend who gave her a coin that would help her find her way to safety. In Season 3, there was the horrifying Red Wedding; but then, Daenerys had her rockstar moment, being carried by a mob of grateful liberated slaves; and Arya killed a man, showing us she meant business. Season 4 was packed with ups and downs – Joffrey, that despicable creature, died; Sansa escaped; Tyrion was sentenced to death; Oberyn seemed all set to save him, and then he had his skull crushed; Jon Snow found support with Stannis Baratheon; a cute little princess was teaching everyone to read; Arya was sailing for Braavos; Bran found the Heart Tree.
But this season has been extreme, even by the show’s standards. The long-overdue re-transition of Reek to Theon was overshadowed by everything else that happened. At least six characters have died in the final episode, ironically titled Mother’s Mercy.

Even so, it leaves us with hope. Maybe the Khalasar that surrounded Daenerys after her dragon behaved like an Indian auto rickshaw will make her their Khaleesi because they’re Drogo fanboys; or, that ring she dropped in the vast nothingness may catch the light and allow the two men who are in love with her to find her; maybe Stannis is not actually dead, you know, not dead-dead; and Jon Snow can’t be dead, because whatever actor Kit Harington says about not coming back, we’re about ninety nine percent certain he’s the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, right? Hey, Sam just went to become a maester, and maybe in the few hours he’s had at the Citadel, he’s discovered an antidote to stab injuries; and, worst case scenario, when the White Walkers come, we won’t care because everyone we like is dead anyway.

That is one of the cleverest things about the show – every time we are sick of evil winning, it gives us hope. Who would have ever thought Cersei would land up in prison, starved and deprived of water, and released naked to walk through stony paths to the Red Keep, while the public spit and throw garbage at her? And every time we think this is a run-of-the-mill good-triumphs-over-evil story, we see otherwise – a Stark gets killed, or a Lannister gets saved, or a little girl is burned alive.

The writers also keep us guessing by paying attention to the rumours in which fans engage. This year, the big hope was that Benjen Stark would return. We got excited, only to find ourselves in a trap, along with Jon Snow. Yet, we don’t feel played. When we step back, we’re amused by the writers’ little jibe at us.

The intelligence of the writing is also in how much we know that the characters don’t. Which is why we find ourselves biting our nails so often, and yelling, “Oh, my god, don’t do that!” We knew that Cersei had a hand in killing Jon Arryn before Eddard Stark knew, and we knew it was crucial for him to tell Robert about the parentage of Joffrey before he told Cersei what he had found; we groaned when he spared Robert the secret on his deathbed; we sighed when Sansa refused help from Brienne of Tarth; we screamed when she trusted Reek; we ached for Bran to call out to Jon at Craster’s Keep; for the longest time, we were the only ones who knew that Bran and Rickon were alive. Knowing more than the characters do makes us care for them, and care for their stories.

Game of Thrones can get away with a lot, because, right from the start, it has reinforced the idea of a world that is far removed from ours, with different rules – a world in which a woman falls in love with her rapist husband (let’s not forget that Daenerys was subjected to marital rape long before Sansa), a world that is ruled by belief in black magic, where brothers and daughters and wives and sisters and sons will be sacrificed for power, where everyone appears to have sexual perversions.

Oh, wait, is that world so very different from our own, a world where a blogger is sentenced to a thousand lashes, and journalists are burned alive for flouting those in power, and marital rape is not a crime? Even while fulfilling our wishes for escapism by creating a world whose costumes, codes, and use of ravens in place of mobile phones tell us that it belongs to a different era, it remains relatable by referencing the issues we confront every day – crime, deceit, corruption, power-brokering, prejudice, oppression. It mocks the notion of honour, by throwing every honourable person into a crypt.

It features several of the worst fathers and brothers born of a writer’s pen, with Stannis frontrunner for both titles – though he has some competition from Craster, with his daughter-wives, and Tywin, who, you know, sentenced his own son to death. Let’s not forget Daenerys’ brother Viserys, who tells her, “I would let him and his entire army of forty thousand men, and their horses too, fuck you if it meant I can go home.”

And yet, no main character is one-dimensional, not even Stannis. Not even Jaime Lannister, whose loss of a hand seemed to make him almost human. Oh, hell, we saw him well up in the last episode, and share that corny father-daughter moment that seems to precede every daughter’s death in the series. Jaime, unlike most of the men in this series, does a fair bit to protect his siblings and children. Of course, he fails every time. Not even Cersei, arguably the one irredeemable character in the series, is one-dimensional; her humiliating Walk of Atonement was shrewdly shot from her perspective, so that we are forced to empathise with this thoroughly detestable character.

Which brings me to another point – is the show going too far with its depiction of violence against women? Cersei’s walk of shame, shot in graphic detail, often with full-frontal nudity, could be interpreted as yet another exhibition of the fetishist, sadistic sexuality with which Game of Thrones is rife. But, it is based on a real practice, and it is the brutality with which it is shown that strips the body of sexuality and makes it an object of humiliation and suffering.

I wonder whether any television show or fantasy novel has ever engendered as much discussion on as many subjects as Game of Thrones has, in the course of stirring controversy. Yes, we do wonder how some of these scenes were shot – a woman breastfeeding an eight-year-old, for instance, or the seduction of thirteen-year-old Tommen by Margaery, or the brothel scenes where Meryn Trant was seen whipping pre-teen girls. But there are enraged columns, and discussions on internet forums, debating topics that have rarely been broached on mainstream television – across the world, we are discussing marital rape, and BDSM, and blood-curdling punishments ranging from naked parades to penectomies, and superstition, and paedophilia, and incest, in the context of this show. Surely, it is doing something right.

That is why, irrespective of Twitterati declaring that they will never watch the show again, Game of Thrones will continue to be successful. I may joke that I’m with the White Walkers now, but I honestly cannot wait for the next season. A show that can constantly surprise, constantly intrigue, constantly distract, and constantly provoke its viewers will never run out of an audience.

Why Team India will keep disappointing fans

(Published in, on June 22, 2015, retrieved from

It happens with most teams. Every time they win a major tournament, their grit and determination and spirit and form are praised. And every time they lose, everyone who follows the game pounces on them, dissecting every aspect of their performance in post-mortem-like columns.

However, for the Indian team, which has strutted about ever since the World Cup victory of 2011, fuelled by promotional campaigns such as the ‘We won’t give it back’ and ‘Mauka Mauka’ ads, to lose to Bangladesh, is a debacle that was waiting to happen.

The defeat in the opening game could have been dismissed as a one-off. And the management decided to blame the bowling. But, in the second match, the Indian team put up a miserable total, and its batting and fielding were clearly more at fault than its bowling. Despite the aid of the asinine Duckworth-Lewis method, the team lost the match, and therefore the three-match series.

To lose a series to an emerging team, which – for all its talent and promise – is still finding its feet in international cricket is indicative of several larger problems, which need to be urgently addressed.

The selectors are never adventurous

Traditionally, in sport, it is said that a player is only as good as his last match.

This, of course, is rarely true of stars, in any sport. And often, it costs the team dearly. Take, for instance, the Italian football team’s persistence in starting with an injured and out-of-form Alessandro Del Piero in the 1998 World Cup, over an older, but sparkling, Roberto Baggio. The team crashed out of the quarter-finals, which it reached with some difficulty.

Contrast that with the decision made by Cricket Australia in the 1997-98 season, to split the cricket team into two, a test side and a one-day side, following a spate of middling ODI performances. Veterans, including the test captain Mark Taylor, and long-serving vice-captain Ian Healy, were dropped overnight from the one-day squad. Despite criticism for their early performances, the team went on to win the 1999 World Cup, and retain it for the next two editions. Even Steve Waugh, instrumental in the 1999 victory, was not spared when he was out of form.

Despite the fact that the Indian team management is packed with former players, no one seems to be leaning towards finding fresh blood.

A series such as the one against Bangladesh would have been an excellent opportunity to explore the abilities of new talent.

The captain has too much say

The Indian cricket team has long suffered from the captain having too much say in the squad, and the Playing Eleven.

During the Eighties and Nineties, the captains were often accused of parochialism and regionalism.

Now, it appears to have engendered a cult of sycophancy. Even more unfortunately, the sycophancy appears to work.

It is perhaps why Ravindra Jadeja, despite his regular failures overseas, manages to find a place in the team, and why Suresh Raina has retained a place in the side despite long stretches of poor form, while warming the benches are the likes of the in-form Ajinkya Rahane, who has so often stepped up when the team needed him most.

Some players are gods

Most of us remember the furore that followed the omission of Sourav Ganguly from the Indian side in 2005.

Sachin Tendulkar, who really ought to have retired a couple of years before he did, was given carte blanche to stay on until he had ensured he would have the perfect farewell – 200 test matches, 25 years, and a last match at home.

But, at least, Tendulkar is truly exceptional, ranking among those who will be remembered for as long as the game is played, and his conceit could perhaps be forgiven in that context.

How about the much-loved, much-hyped Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who walked out on his team in the middle of a series, announcing his retirement and leaving them without a wicketkeeper?

The mourning that followed his sudden announcement distracted from the speculation that he would likely have been fired from captaincy at the end of the series, had he not retired in the middle. The decent thing to do would have been to stay on until the end of the series, and give the team time to find and groom a regular wicket-keeper and captain.

And we make more gods

The media has played no small role in making stars out of players. The likes of Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, and Rohit Sharma, feature in advertisements celebrating their invincibility and dedication, spouting jingoistic and self-aggrandising lines, which are played over and over, irrespective of the form they are in.

As for the public, no other country treats its cricketers with as much devotion as India does. So extreme is the cult of worship here that even the fans become stars in their own right. Case in point, Sudhir Kumar Chaudhury, who has apparently never missed a game in which India plays, and who has been tracked down by journalists for his story multiple times.

Very few Indian players, and the names of Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman come immediately to mind, are able to rise above their celebrity status and stay level-headed, expecting to be picked on the basis of their performances rather than their reputation.

There seems to be no scouting

For the longest time, we have seen almost no changes to the Indian batting line-up. Despite the plethora of tournaments that dot the domestic cricket landscape, despite the keenly-watched IPL, despite the multitude of talented young players in Under-21 and Under-19 sides, very few seep into the national team, and it appears they cannot be replaced.

There can be no doubt that there are extremely capable players out there. When India played Bangladesh in 2014, most of the senior players were rested, and a young, ‘A’ side was sent in. They did spectacularly, managing to defend a score of 105 at one point.

Why have so few of those players been brought into the Indian side, even for low-risk games?

There is way, way, way too much cricket

The Indian cricket team arguably plays far more cricket than any other side. Worse, rather than test cricket, which has the benefit of honing skills in every aspect of the game, most of their matches are in the shorter editions of the game.

The Twenty20 format, and notably the IPL, has often induced bowlers to change their actions and batsmen to change their batting techniques, usually to their detriment. This is bound to do long-term damage to the team.

And so it goes on. The Indian team’s defeats are blamed on everything from complacency to unsuitable weather conditions to injuries to jet lag, but the more serious problems that niggle the selection is unlikely to ever be acknowledged, leave alone tackled.

So, the team will keep disappointing fans, and not just by merit of its increasingly aggressive and un-gentlemanly on-field behaviour.

Let's remember that ads are selling products

(Published in, on June 15, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy:

The advertisement for Myntra’s clothing line Anouk, which was incorrectly branded India’s first lesbian ad, has gone viral, notching up more than a million views on YouTube, despite its meandering storyline, mushiness, and length.

On the surface, it ticks all the right boxes – oh, look, here’s this lesbian couple, and they’re as normal as normal can be, in our heteronormative perceptions of a ‘normal’ relationship; and, guess what, they’re both pretty and they both use kaajal, so there’s no butch partner; they mock-argue and pout; they caress each other before a parental visit; one of the girls is dusky; one has long hair, and the other has short hair; one speaks Tamil, albeit almost unrecognisably, and the other is a Hindi-speaker.

The ad could not possibly be more politically correct while being beautiful and fanciful. South Indian in love with North Indian, girl in love with girl, hair and complexion and makeup perfectly complementary.

And, yes, it is an improvement on the tacky Fastrack commercial that preceded this.

Contrary to popular belief, neither was India’s first gay ad. Hindustan Times had come up with a far more palatable commercial featuring how most people tend to react to homosexual PDA.

Full points to the makers of these ads, because they are excelling at their jobs. These videos will be noticed, and discussed, and even brands that had no mileage earlier will be recognised because of the unusual angle.

It happens every time an ad features a dusky woman, or a large woman, or – hey – a dusky mother getting married for the second time, or a teenager scurrying about to get her mother ready for her second wedding. We rave about them, and then start finding fault with the inconsistencies in their reality.

Let’s not forget that these are ads. They will all feature beautiful people, they will all be pretty and glossy, with all the impossibilities that make them commercially viable ads. Often, the storyline will have as little to do with the brand as Amitach Bachchan has to do with cooking Maggi noodles.

And this is all right, because they are advertisements, using all the strategy and marketing gimmicks they can to make the brand stick in your mind, and hopefully push sales.

The problem begins when we want these advertisements to authentically portray relationships and attitudes.

When we dissect these ads for sense and substance, we come to the inevitable conclusion that, while seeming to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘progressive’, they could also be interpreted as talking down to a particular demographic – “oh, look, we’ve not left you out.”

The fact is, if this ad had featured a heterosexual couple, we would have been bored out of our skulls. It is inexplicably long, and we have no idea what it is trying to showcase until the end, and then we realise it didn’t quite showcase that at all. It would have perhaps made more sense if it had been an ad for the brand of kaajal rather than the clothing line.

So, the copywriters and filmmakers came up with a clever idea.

And, after we have seen the advertisement, our collective reaction traces an arc:

Step 1: Oh, wow, look what they did!
Step 2: But is that really what happens?
Step 3: They’ve got everything wrong!
Step 4: Oh, well, at least they tried.

Ads are not meant to be our beacons of light. At the most, they can create the illusion of breaking stereotypes. In order to aesthetically appeal to us, they cannot help but construct a false reality.

What we need to understand is that a commercial is not a documentary, or a portrayal of society as it exists. It is a sponsored film that intends to lure viewers into thinking of the brand, and hopefully buying it.

Especially in India, we have a tendency to ascribe undue importance to advertisements, and those featured in them.

Take the case of Maggi noodles. How does it make sense to file FIRs against the celebrities who endorsed it? One is either buying Maggi because one likes its taste, in which case the celebrities are not to blame, or one is buying Maggi noodles because Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, and Madhuri Dixit were paid to claim that they eat it, in which case one ought to be sued for one’s stupidity.

It doesn’t really matter that the Anouk girls are pretty and use makeup and coo about hair. The ad is selling a product, not setting a trend.

Will Caitlyn Jenner change the world for transwomen?

(Published in DailyO on June 4, 2015, retrieved from

Picture courtesy: Google Images 

For over a year, Bruce Jenner – known to some as the 1976 world-record-setting Olympic hero, and known to some as everyone’s punching bag from that Kardashian reality show – was hounded by the paparazzi. They followed him everywhere, from neighbourhood restaurants to doctors’ appointments, catcalling and shoving cameras in his face. He was the subject of ridicule on television shows and stand-up acts.

In April, he sat down to a two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer, a tell-all piece in which this former athlete – winner of the decathlon in the Olympics, no less, and therefore a paragon of male sporting achievement – frequently broke down, as he spoke of his struggle with his gender identity. It was unthinkable – a sporting hero, brand ambassador for various health foods and fitness products, father to six biological children, a man who was often pictured hoisting his children above his head – had come out as a woman.

And when Bruce became Caitlyn Jenner, she did so in grand style – breaking the internet with her Vanity Fair cover, which showed this stylish sexagenarian posing seductively in a white basque, and prompted former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s declaration that he would like to take Caitlyn out on a date. When Caitlyn Jenner took to Twitter, she set another world record, this time for the fastest to reach one million followers – it took her only four hours.

Jenner’s story has suddenly drawn the world’s attention to our collective insensitivity towards transgender and intersex people.

Yes, there have been significant successes – there are transgender models, transgender talk-show hosts, and hell, actor Laverne Cox graced the cover of TIME magazine last year – but there have also been ugly stories of transgender children being bullied in schools, transgender teens committing suicide, and transwomen being attacked in restaurants for using the women’s restroom.

In India, the situation is even bleaker.

It was only in April this year that a Supreme Court ruling accorded recognition to trans people as “the third gender”. Ironically, the US visa of activist Amruta Alpesh Soni, who received her passport with her gender marked ‘T’ after the ruling, was put on hold, since the US consulate did not have the ‘T’ option on its visa application form.

Worse is our treatment of athletes whose gender has been cast in doubt.

Take the case of Santhi Soundararajan, the silver-medal-winning athlete at the Asian Games in Doha and gold-medal-winner at the South Asian Games in Colombo. She underwent several gender verification tests, and was finally determined to have androgen insensitivity syndrome. More than two decades before she was tested, Spanish hurdler Maria José Martinez-Patiño had challenged the prevailing norm of compulsory gender tests for all female athletes at competitive games. When South African athlete Caster Semenya faced a similar situation, her entire country got behind her, providing her with lawyers to argue her case and get the ban against her lifted. In Santhi’s case, not only was she stripped of her medals, but the Indian sports federations washed their hands of her. The Tamil Nadu government gave her a television set and a sum of Rs 15 lakh for her services to the nation. But neither the state nor the central government would give her a job, or take her on as an athletics coach, and the last that was heard of her was that she was earning a daily wage at a brick kiln near her home. She had earlier been recruited by the Tamil Nadu police, only to be rejected after the results of the gender test were known.

And then, there was the case of Pinki Pramanik, the Asian Games gold medal-winning track and field athlete who was accused of rape, and whose gender test was uploaded online. The video went viral, and calls were made for the arrest of the person responsible, but no action was taken. Pramanik had to spend 25 days in jail following the accusation. At a press conference following her release on bail, she told reporters she was “treated like an animal” at the hospital that administered the gender test and alleged sexual harassment and torture in police custody. Pramanik too lost her job with the Railways.

For decades, with the odd exception, our films have been typecasting trans people. The latest of these was Shankar’s bilingual I, which drew flak for its portrayal of a transgender makeup artist.

The Tamil Nadu government has been relatively progressive in its treatment of trans people, issuing voter identity cards with gender marked ‘T’ more than a decade before the Supreme Court ruling. The government also allocated land for trans people to build their own houses, purportedly to spare them from prejudice and the difficulties of finding houses to rent. However, the allocated land was in Natarajapuram, more than three kilometres from the nearest town, and its future residents were given only Rs 30,000 to build homes from nothing. The idea of separate housing for trans people by the government could just as easily be seen as segregation and ghetto-isation.

Transgender rights in India have a long way to go, as they do in the rest of the world.

Among the issues we need to sort out range from accommodation in hostels and use of public toilets, to the recognition and legalisation of their relationships.

India claims to be progressive on this front, and we often speak of talk show host Rose, author and actor ‘Living Smile’ Vidya, and actor-dancer Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, all of whom are high-profile activists for the transgender cause.

But we have been as unsuccessful as the rest of the world in integrating trans people into our society.

As a community, trans people have rarely found acceptance, even in countries that claim to be liberal.

One wonders whether a celebrity gender transition such as Caitlyn Jenner’s can change the world for trans people.

When schools introduce optional service charges

(Published in on June 6, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy:

You know when you board an airline, Economy Class? You wait in a messy boarding area, with overpriced food and water stalls, as kids squeal and scream, and people fight over the single charging point; you get in line minutes before the boarding announcement is made, because you know they will run out of cabin space for baggage; the airline employee announces brusquely that it is not your turn to board, and urges you to sit back down; the flight attendants don’t respond to your calls on board, and act like they’ve done you a favour by allowing you to fly; you pay for everything, from water to food you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole on the ground; when you finally crawl out of your space, your knees hurting and back stiff from being crouched into the sliver of space between consecutive rows, you have to wait aeons before your luggage arrives.

You know when you board an airline, Business Class? A chauffeured luxury car picks you up; someone loads your luggage on to the weighing rack; you’re given access to lounge facilities where you learn that airline employees are actually capable of smiling; you’re given gourmet food and how many ever bottles of  water you want; airline employees escort you to the boarding area when your flight is called; you’re free to board at will; a flight attendant makes your bed, right after serving you champagne, and food that you can actually eat; you have access to an in-flight lounge, with a bar, tapas, and pastries; everyone fawns over you till it’s time to get off the plane; your chauffeur doesn’t have to wait long before your baggage arrives, because it’s been marked ‘Priority’ and ‘Business Class’.

Over the last decade or so, the difference between Economy and Business has been growing. Airlines in America led the way in introducing bare minimum fares, and now, airlines across the world follow their model of charging for all services, from choosing your seat to carrying checked bags, to even carrying cabin baggage in addition to a personal item.

What happens when this kind of thinking spills over to essential services?

It already has, in the case of medical care – most private hospitals have a ‘Facilities’ page, where their catalogue of rooms reads quite like that of a hotel. Perhaps, one day, you can get a half-price Caesarian by opting to have a medical student operate on you, rather than an experienced doctor.

The differential fee structure that was recently introduced by Madras-based private school, Bala Vidya Mandir, may have been rolled back, but the fact that it made such a move is indicative of the direction private educational institutes could take in future.

The school managed to find a loophole in the Tamil Nadu government-appointed Singaravelan Committee’s recommendation for school fee structure. In addition to ‘basic’ facilities that would be covered by the regular fee – which is no small sum, ranging between Rs. 35,000 and Rs. 39,000 – the school introduced 59 additional ‘activities’ for which parents would have to pay more money.

This caused a furore, partly because of the ‘activities’ that came under the premium category  included lessons on child sex abuse prevention, medical examinations, sports, and access to the canteen.

Essentially, it meant that many students would be excluded from the things we take for granted in schools, such as field trips, being part of the school team in various sports and specialised activities, as well as participating in the Annual Day, Teachers’ Day, Parents’ Day, and other functions.

What if the school management had been cleverer in its choices?

What if the extra facilities had been different, such as dance, music, painting, elocution, and language classes? None of these is considered essential to education, but parents – especially those who hope that their children will get into foreign universities – would lap them up.

This would create a class system among students who are at an impressionable age.

The sad fact is, such a system is already in place. An acquaintance once told me how her ten-year-old daughter had said she and her ‘gang’ could not be friends with a classmate because the latter’s family did not have a car.

Where do children learn to differentiate on the basis of property? From their parents? From their teachers? From the media?

A look at exclusive private schools in the rest of the world might well tell us where India is headed. In England’s exclusive public schools, the cost of a uniform is ridiculously high. Several uniforms must be purchased every year, for daily wear, gym, swimming, and other activities. Music and dance classes are optional, and expensive. The children who opt for these classes form a little coterie that excludes others.

We should be dismayed if that were to happen here – a class system on top of our caste system.

Not only is the idea of a differential fee structure a bad one for the insidious effect it can have on the minds of children in terms of dividing people on the basis of class, but also because it denies some students access to a respite from pure academics, it reinforces the awful idea that one can buy anything with money, and – worst of all – it commoditises education, and makes it a service offered to consumers, completely erasing our long-held view of education as nurturing, as hard-won, as wholesome.

I went to a CBSE school where we had free access to dance classes, music classes, various kinds of games, swimming, art and craft, and vocational classes. Some students were selected for enrichment classes in languages and the sciences, with no extra fee, but based on an annually administered test. Advanced training was available in the arts in after-school hours to any student of the school for a nominal fee, but one could only choose a single discipline.

I wonder if that model will exist for long. 
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.