Tag Archives: indian

The Venus Flytrap: Kabali As Political Text, In The Right Context

Standard

Growing up – as a Sri Lankan Tamil with an Indian passport who lived in Malaysia for 17 years – there was only one representation of that last country in Tamil cinema. Kollywood’s stars would shoot song numbers there, dancing in front of arbitrary things – pink buses, for instance – and architectural landmarks. It would infuriate me to watch, back then. How could filmmakers promote, touristically and aspirationally, a nation that held people of Indian descent under institutional subordination and cultural indenture?  When the Kabali poster appeared, I thought it would be one more such glorification.

By the time I learned what it was really about, most tickets were sold out. By some movieland miracle, I found myself seated at a theatre with two friends, one of whom had ecstatically called after his first viewing the previous day to say, “You have to watch it. I never told you or asked you about this, but when we first met I heard from my contacts in Malaysia how you had narrowly escaped detention under the Internal Security Act for fighting for Indian rights there.”

In 2007, after two years of tracking illegal temple demolitions and personal struggle to remain in Malaysia, I wrote that any nation that operates on a system of racial superiority and inferiority, as Malaysia does through its Constitution, is under apartheid. The term has now come into parlance, but at that time no one had ever publicly declared it. This attracted the ire of the said government. I was 22, briefly (I thought) in India; I could not go back.

What came first: ethical compass or compassion? I remember exactly when my politicisation deepened. June 2006: a photograph of an Indian gardener whose daughter had died of meningitis at a National Service camp. There was no clear-cut systemic element, no reason for activism. But I looked at that forlorn image and saw in his futility the burden and spiritual fracture of generations of disenfranchisement. It changed me, and my life, forever. Kabali reminded me of the pathos of that photo.

Kabali makes no sense to an Indian audience unaware of diasporic challenges. Around me, the theatre clapped raucously at random bits, but not for the political touchpoints. Me? I wept copiously. Because to those who know, the code is obvious. We know why the antagonist is played by a non-Malaysian actor with an accent so wrong he doesn’t even pronounce the slur “keling” correctly. We know why Kabali agitates against British and Chinese men, but not the Malay-run government. We know why the temple demolitions are in flashback and not in true chronological context. We know the name “Tiger” is an unflattering (thus accurate) allusion to Eelam.

The Malaysian release has a different ending, with Kabali submitting to authoritarian pressure. Like every compromise (and there are many) made in this film, it was worth it. Because if Pa. Ranjith hadn’t made them, it simply couldn’t have been released there.

And there is where it is most needed, among people who deserve to see themselves in truthful, powerful pop cultural lights. The political coding may be deep, but so is the healing that art makes possible.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Great Indian Guilt Trip

Standard

I have a proposal (actually, my friend the professional alliterater Deesh Mariwala, alleged by one publication to be the most charming man in Chennai, has a proposal, but I’m the one with the column). As a passionately patriotic poetess, I’ve spent a preposterous period of time pondering the position of the paise. Poor punnery aside, one doesn’t need to know a lot about economics to know that we need to get some foreign inflow into this country pronto.

So here’s the deal: what can we offer tourists that no other place on earth can quite replicate?

Why, the Great Indian Guilt Trip, of course.

The Great Indian Guilt Trip allows tourists an authentic experience. A package tour with customizable options, the price includes full-time residency with a bona fide, certified Indian Family. This is the single unique factor that makes this Trip indelible in the memory of the vacationer.

As an honorary member of an Indian Family, the wide range of experiences one can savour include: wedding, funeral, divorce, runaway hysterical young woman’s elopement, visit by relatives settled abroad, discovery that eldest son has been in the same room as a cigarette, serious illness in the matriarch that has been recurring for twenty years (usually in presence of daughters-in-law) and at least one suicide attempt.

More adventurous travellers can also sample of these experiences: only son coming out as gay, unwed heiress daughter coming out as pregnant and house-arrest of the girl who wants to be in films.

Of course, given that we’re the bunnies who gave the world the Kama Sutra, the Taj Mahal and the overpopulation crisis, we must sate the palates of those looking for romance, masala ish-style. The intrepid female traveller may particularly enjoy the experience of looking in the general direction of a random male and discovering herself to be engaged. Male travellers may like the prospect of liaising with beautiful women who are as free with their tears of remorse over their technical (always regeneratable) virginities as they are with their amorous advances.

In fact, the Great Indian Guilt Trip is so genuine that all passports are confiscated upon entry into The Home. Getting them back is easy. Usually, one only need wait between two and three decades before relatives in positions of authority die. Alternately, the traveller who longs for the truly holistic experience may suitably assimilate themselves into The Family and rise to an authority position themselves. However, it must be noted that most participants are so convinced by the experience that the concept of the passport and its uses is often forgotten by this time.

The Great Indian Guilt Trip is a complete journey. Unlike most packages that unceremoniously dump visitors at the airport, the send-off we give is truly fantastic. As a nation of many customs, we offer the finest farewells, typically in the range of cremation, burial, and being laid to rest at a Tower of Silence. Further options include a last leisurely ride on the Ganges. Most options involve an embarrassment of flowers. All options involve wailing, chest-beating, and professionally penned dialogues. Masochists may also enjoy the sati option.

Some will call the Great Indian Guilt Trip the experience of a lifetime. We, generally, call it life.

Since even dirty old bachelors are no exception in one of our great traditions, that of respecting one’s elders, and since I am about to save the economy of India by spinning off on his idea, some credit is due. So ladies, I have Deesh’s number (and gentlemen, here are my apologies). If you want it, I’ll throw in my entire family as a special bonus. No strings. No guilt. I promise.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

Chennai Sangamam

Standard

What I liked best about the Chennai Sangamam, performances aside, was how it had the air of a real festival. Performances weren’t preceded by speeches in English about culture and tradition and excavation. There were no tickets. No formal rustle of sarees and elite arts-patronage gossip. The night I attended, at Nateson Park, there was no stage. The crowds followed the sound of drums; circles formed of their own accord, within which performers stampeded and sang and shone.

I loved it. I loved how in my flat slippers, I could barely see above people’s heads. I loved how I could only hear the action most of the time, could barely photograph a thing, could only catch glimpses of bright costumes between the throng of bodies that was the standing audience. This was street performance at its truest. This was real, unfettered culture.

The festival was initiated last year, and mainly features folk dances, music and food from around Tamil country. Held over a week at various locations around the city, mostly public spaces like parks and beaches, I think it’s a wonderful way to encourage interest in heritage. Free of the co-opting and monopolizing that overpowers what we urbanites know of heritage, there’s a certain liberty to things. A certain authenticity.

Now that I’m on one of my sporadic trips to the land of the employed and days that end at 4am are no longer an option, I only managed to go one night of Chennai Sangamam. It’s an amazing addition to the city’s calendar of events, and I’m hoping that it turns into something as entrenched into our ethos as the Margazhi season — sans the cloying institutionalization.