Sunday, March 29, 2009

the different faces of bollywood

During my recent visit to Mumbai, I was once again intrigued about the contradictions of Bollywood. Mumbai's dream factory has been accused of all kinds of crimes, and in fact a recent cover story in Tehelka magazine presents a very intelligent indictment: Nisha Susan argues that Bollywood movies and other branches of commercial popular culture in India (TV, advertising, the fashion industry) have been streamlining the idea of "who is an Indian?" in such a way that actually the vast majority of the population is excluded from it! According to her observations, backed up by many interviews, especially the female icons of Bollywood are almost exclusively presented as fair-skinned, rich North Indian Hindus from cities. Which is bound to make everyone else wonder why they don't look like them. Susan quotes a hockey player from Jharkhand state who plays for India: 
Sarita Lakra says her childhood years were spent wondering how the movies could always be about happy and beautiful people. Sarita says, “They made me feel little and nonexistent. They still make me feel little.”
Even in South India, where the vast majority of people are dark-skinned, film heroines have to be fair - and people with different looks don't get a chance: The culture industry shows its cruel face. 
And yet, there are lots of creative and critical people in Bollywood. For all kinds of reasons, but mainly because they want to make films - and they actually make some very good ones. Let me mention just two new movies which I saw in India over the last week: "Firaaq" and "Gulaal". Both of them have nothing to do with the clichés of the entertainment industry, and each in its own way, the both are extremely thought-provoking. "Firaaq" by Nandita Das is a story set in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. It doesn't have song-and-dance sequences and its narrative is rather straightforward, so it comes across more like a European or American movie. Both topic and treatment are challenging for any audience. "Gulaal" by Anurag Kashyap, on the other hand, is about anger, student politics, separatism and love. It's gripping until the last moment, but also a very difficult movie, heavy with allusions, quotes and metaphors, almost like in a stage drama. Its innovative elements include a political mujra, a jester type character and a modern remix of the 1950s "Pyaasaa" hit "Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye". Again, there is no way you can leave the cinema without questions.
Here in Germany, we have the advertising slogan: "Bollywood macht glücklich" - "Bollywood makes you happy". Might be. But Bollywood also makes you think. Bollywood also makes you angry. Bollywood also makes you stupid.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

toilets, but no water

The Indian media widely reported a tragic incident some days ago: A 45-year-old barber died as he was trying to escape from a squad enforcing a ban on open defecation. It is common especially for Indian villagers to relieve themselves in the open, e.g. in the fields or alongside railway tracks. There are simply not enough toilets in the country. As access to sanitation is to be improved as part of the UN millenium goals programme, India has stepped up construction of toilets, and is also trying to enforce their use: Old habits die slowly... Thus, the village council in Supe Road in the western state of Maharashtra introduced fines of up to 1,200 Rupees for anyone caught in the open. And they established the "Good Morning Squad" tasked with catching offenders. Barber Sunil Jadhav was trying to flee from the squad when he had a heart attack.
The "Telegraph" newspaper explains the problem behind the incident:
Jadhav’s village, Supe Road, has public toilets that residents said couldn’t be used because they had no water in summer.
Water shortage is already a severe problem in larger parts of India and is bound to get worse due to population growth. The only real solution can be toilets that don't use water flush, but store and recycle the urine and excrements for producing manure for agriculture or cooking gas. China has already introduced more than a million of these alternative or "ecosan" toilets in areas with water shortage; but in India, taboos and the lack of political will have so far prevented their large-scale introduction. Maybe barber Jadhav's death will lead to a change of mind there...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

anything goes

Pakistan is in huge turmoil again. The lawyers and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif are trying to launch street protests against President Zardari, but the government is beating and arresting demonstrators and shutting down cable TV channels in quite the same way the former military ruler used to do. Now it seems information minister Sherry Rehman has stepped down in protest at the curbs against the media, further weakening Zardari's position. In the meantime, almost everyone from the army to the US and Britain are getting involved and trying to broker a compromise. But is Zardari ready to accept former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry? And to reinstate Nawaz Sharif's PML-N government in the Punjab? Nobody knows, although "The News" put it very nicely in an article detailing all the rumours about back-channel negotiations:
In Pakistan, anything can happen, to anyone, at any time. And that’s the tragedy, and the beauty of it all.