Categories
Issue 6

Politics of Viewership : What can Patriotic Films Tell Us?

While some films and shows have explicit propaganda and political alignments that they aim to put forward, there is content that handles the ideological waves shifting around us in much more subtle ways. With the global far right and Populist Waves gaining momentum, as observed in the administrations all around the world (recently disrupted by the fall of Trump’s administration in the US), is there a shift in storytelling on screen and how viewers converse with the content they are consuming? 

In the Indian context, we’ve had films like Uri (2019) being highly celebrated for portraying the valor of the soldiers for the surgical strikes in our neighboring country of Pakistan. The general conversations that the film provokes are not completely new, Pakistan has been in the cinematic realm since the 1947 Partition and has been villainized more so post the Bangladesh war in 1975 and Kargil war in 1999 – like in Border (1997) which is based on the Bangladesh Liberation  War of 1971. Films like this bank on the invocation of patriotism from the viewers, India wins at the end and the audience is rooting for the Indian soldiers to survive the war. But Border was released 26 years after the war that it was based on; by virtue of the distance of time it ended up making an appeal against war and the trauma it causes to soldiers and their families on both sides. Thus, the shift from Border to Uri lies in the fact that the latter’s audience was prompted to make a connection between the success of the mission and the upcoming elections, and the eventual re-formation of the BJP led government. 

Also, in light of the 2019 general elections – The Accidental Prime Minister (January 2019) and PM Narendra Modi (May 2019) are important to note. The former looks at India’s former PM Manmohan Singh and his term and the latter at the rise of Modi; the timing and the titles are enough to indicate the propagandist nature of the releases. 

The above-mentioned films were a little too on the nose about their affiliations and ideological leanings. But let’s look at other Indian films and how the patterns of invoking patriotism seem to be shifting. 

In the early days of our country’s independence movement, filmmakers were making films that would be against the empire, songs and stories based on the concept of swaraj. Nationalist agendas and patriotism were achieved in these through rebellion and attacking the ones with power. The British administration would fight back by trying to censor any inflammatory songs or messages, although language was an obstacle they had to get by first. Post-independence, films critiqued the conditions of the 1947 partition and the violence that had happened, and would continue to point out the corruption, unemployment and other vices that the government needs to deal with, while also celebrating the newly formed democracy. 

More recently, the quantity of sports biographical films, based on real life incidents and successes where Team India won and made its citizens proud has increased. Chak De India (2007) was a fictional narrative about the Indian women  hockey team winning the World Cup. But in the next decade, prompted by the success of Bhaag Mikha Bhaag in 2013, we had lieu of real-life sports victories – Dangal (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and Mary Kom (2014). Though Chak De India had an additional victory in the acceptance of Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim coach – the patriotism had widened from being just a sports win to a reinstatement of India’s status as a multi-cultural, secular country. 

Fictionalized true life events make it easier for connections to be made between real and reel life politics, like with Uri. The conflation may or may not be co-incidental, the inspirational incidents may be old and the films new – but the rise in the top-grossing films that invoke patriotism only through real life wins indicates that the space for losses, for the state’s vulnerabilities being explored and exposed, has reduced. Dangal does mention the ill conditions of the country’s sports facilities, but such critiques are too far and too few. 

The biographical patriotic films aren’t limited thematically to just sports. Films like Mission Mangal (2019) celebrate the success of India’s space triumphs. And Pad Man (2018) pats the country’s back in terms of social awareness movements. Also, Parmanu:The Story of Pokhran (2018), based on the Indian army’s nuclear test bomb explosions in 1998. These are a stark contrast from films being made in the previous decade – films like Rang De Basanti (2006) and A Wednesday (2008) or even Nayak (2001) which implore patriotism through protest and rebellion. 

The branding of what it means to be patriotic has itself shifted for Indian cinema. 

The influence of populist waves, films seem to be choosing safer narratives, to only talk about the successes of India instead of critiquing the state and invoking the administration as an accountable figure in the context of nation making. The shift can also possibly be marked down to the lack of funding support or production feasibility of rebellious films and stories. Considering the losses that film productions can bear when they run into trouble with certain right-wing Nationalist groups (self-appointed protectors of the administration that is being critiqued) maybe playing it safe is the future for cinema.

Jaskiran is an English and Media Studies graduate from Ashoka University. She is now working on her capstone project on representations of terrorism and nationalism in cinema as a student of Ashoka’s Scholars Programme.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 6

Indie Films You Probably Missed and Must Watch

Even without theatres, 2020 had a constant flow of movies to watch. In the hustle to keep up with the dominant Twitter conversations, we spent the year watching some of the most talked about movies out there, like Tenet, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and that Taylor Swift documentary. Inevitably, some of the smaller releases slipped through the cracks. Here are five indie films released in 2020, three of which I’ve seen and highly recommend, while the other two I am myself eager to check out.

5. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

“There are a lot of ugly things about our history, but I think we have to know them.” This quote from the documentary Disclosure sums up the driving philosophy behind the film. Made by trans filmmakers, it presents the history of Hollywood from the eyes of trans audiences and actors, and asks its viewers to reckon with the good as well as all of the bad. I can’t speak about whether it makes for a necessary or a good watch for a trans person, but if you’re cisgendered, I can assure you that you need to hear what this film has to say.

4. The Forty-Year-Old Version

This music biopic doubles as an underdog story, telling the inspiring story of Radha Blank, an almost 40-year-old Black playwright who decides to make a rap mixtape. With a beating heart and sharp wit, the black-and-white drama keeps a fast pace without skimping on quieter character moments. Blank, who writes, directs, and stars, pokes fun at the kind of poverty porn that white people think counts as progressive, while an undercurrent of anger makes sure we never feel like she’s making light of the issue.

3. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson isn’t actually dead. Yet. As far as I know. But he’s getting close, and his daughter, documentarian Kirsten Johnson, made this movie to try to process that fact. This morbidly funny film is made up of scenes where the father-daughter duo enact various ways he could die, as well as a fake funeral ceremony. But much of the heart of the film comes from the scenes where they’re just talking, discussing the making of this film or remembering Kirsten Johnson’s late mother. Keep tissues handy.

2. First Cow

What would an indie film list be without an A24 release? First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt, sounds no less unique than we expect from the studio, and I’m kicking myself for not having watched it yet. Critics have started compiling their best-of-2020 lists (yes, before watching the December releases, it’s weird), and First Cow seems to be dominating. Like with any A24 film, I suggest watching this one knowing as little as possible going in.

1.Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Another movie gracing a lot of year-end lists, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. One of them faces an unintended pregnancy, and the two set off to get her to an abortion clinic, something for which they cannot expect local support. By all accounts, the film appears to be a quietly devastating drama. And the fact that the director has said that she was inspired not only by a true story, but by the flaws she noticed in earlier abortion dramas, only serves to pique my interest even more.

Utkarsh is a student of Philosophy and Creative Writing and a writer-editor for the in-house film journal of Navrang, the film society of Ashoka University. Tanvi is a student of English at Ashoka University and is head editor for the Navrang Journal

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 3

Stoned, Shamed, Depressed – A Conversation with author Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava

Stone, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens is a book that examines the lives of urban teens. Children as young as middle schoolers have started engaging in activities like social media usage, substance abuse, body-shaming, video gaming, sexual bullying and online-bullying. The author, journalist Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava, highlights the urgency of these matters. How does one deal with impressionable teenagers being exposed to virtues and vices that even adults have difficulty navigating? Why do these children, who have all possible resources and comforts at their disposal, engage in these activities? Here, I talk to the author about her observations and why she is worried.

Isha (I) – Starting with the topic of drugs, I always assumed that increased usage is a result of increasing freedom with age? Is that true or is there something else at play here? 

Jyotsna (J) – I have heard lots of stories about college and there being choices available for every budget, but I find it fascinating the easy and casual usage in very young children, even in middle school. The difference in how they use it is that it isn’t recreational, it is an effort to fit in with their peers. It isn’t even a choice for many with the enormous pressure they are under to achieve ridiculous 100% cut-offs and very often you aren’t that student. As a society, we haven’t reexamined what we keep pushing our kids into. So kids are saying look, we’ll do it but doesn’t mean we’ll do it the right way. So many of them fall back on drugs to help stay awake and study constantly. A student told me that he started having marijuana at 13 and used it as an “experience enhancer” for movies. Why do you need that, why isn’t a movie enough for you? He said we’re all trying to fill a void, fill something. So there is a lot going on and it isn’t recreational for these kids.

I – In today’s environment where drugs have been vilified so much, I feel like this book could be used by someone to back their anti-drug stance. So how do you think this book fits into that whole conversation?

J – I have been very careful to not judge any of the stakeholders in the book and let others hopefully read between the lines and judge for themselves. Because it is not at all normal for 13 and 15-year-olds to be consuming marijuana and laced drugs.  My attempt is to bring a mirror to our society because very often we don’t want to acknowledge that things happen, and if we don’t acknowledge if we don’t accept we’re never going to able to realize that some stuff is more important. We don’t really have a very cohesive drug policy or we’re not really looking at mental health when it comes to the young ones, so I think my book has been an attempt to actually bring issues out in the open so that we can accept and deal with them. If there is no acceptance there will never be any conversations and change. 

I- So regarding policy, how do you think legalising marijuana or changing legal drinking age and such will affect this issue?

J- With everything, I think the buck stops with the family. Banning has never been the solution and I think really it all comes down to where you’re coming from. I could say that schools need better policies and sex education but the truth is we need to talk about it at home. I think there is an enormous amount of wealth being substituted for parents’ time and it is doing a lot of harm in the long run. Giving devices to these kids at the age of 6 and 7 and taking them back at the age of 13, it’s not working. It’s leading to aggression. Social media is a new toy for everyone and I think parents need to figure it out first and help kids harness it in a better way. We need to teach kids about cyber safety, or about how just because everyone is having drugs, doesn’t mean you should too. We need to normalise the existence of things that happen around us and say that this is no longer a western concept that everyone is smoking, drinking. One of the first people who reacted to the book was a gentleman on Twitter who said: “This is western bullshit”. This is precisely the reason I’ve written this book we’re still caught up in what should happen versus what is happening. If a child is using drugs, they need counselling and de-addiction centres, which is so against our values. So many children only have one question for me “How do we talk to our parents?” If someone is genuinely going through an issue whether it is mental health or sexual bullying, we need to deal with it accordingly and figure out what is and isn’t a mistake. If we aren’t willing to accept that a teenager hitting his parents or talking gangrape isn’t a mistake and other things are a mistake, we won’t realise that some issues do need deeper intervention. It all depends on how we acknowledge these issues.

I- Were a majority of your interviews based in Delhi NCR or how were they located?

J- No actually I have a lot from Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. Each of these has its own problems. I think NCR is rocking it when it comes to drugs while there is more gadget addiction in Bangalore, gaming in Chennai. A college student in Delhi told me there is a difference in how drugs are used in Delhi versus in Bombay. In Bombay it’s something done by the older lot, you hear about celebs and substance abuse but it’s done and over with. In Delhi, it’s a production. All of these kids who were already on drugs in school, they are going into harder stuff in college and I don’t think there’s anybody who’s stopped them or had a conversation to tell them that you know when you’re lacing marijuana with something else, you’re reaching another level. They’ve never had these conversations and always had money.

I- So how would you say this works in Tier 2 And 3 cities?

J- The issues are different in Tier 2 cities. But anybody today who has a smartphone, even in rural and semi-rural areas is vulnerable. The genesis of it all is that smartphone. We’re pretty much the biggest market, I think some 839 million smartphone users by 2022, and a bulk of our population is young. You can do anything on that phone. I demarcated it as an urban book simply because in the very rural the issues are very different, the addiction is very different, it comes from the frustration of having to make ends meet, versus this society where everything is on a platter By that I also mean Tier 2 towns, they have a lot of money and are giving smartphones to kids. I don’t think you can demarcate too much because that vulgar language of gangrape in Mumbai you can also possibly hear it in Patna. In Tier 3, there’s a lot of gaming going on. As a country we’re aspirational and social media has opened up everybody to it. So kids who are getting botox at 15 are no different than the 9 or 10-year-old kid who has gone on the reality dance show on TV because the parents may be from Ludhiana or wherever, they’re equally aspirational. Many parents I spoke with find no issue when it comes to privacy, They say it’s part and parcel of the game. I am talking to you about cyber safety, but in a tier 3 city where you’ve given your child a phone and he’s gone to study in a school where you’ve never been perhaps, you’re not even equipped to deal with the knowledge he has.

I- Moving on to another topic you write about which is bullying, homophobia and body-shaming. These kids exist on social media where body-positivity and pro-LGBTQ+ stances are quite prominent. How do these kids exist in that space and still manage to act this way?

J- Again this comes back to the conditioning of our society. I can actually see that with 90% of people if a child goes up to their mother and father and says that I’ve been body shamed, I can actually see that the reaction is going to be, it’s okay, it’s a part of life, you’ll get over it. As a society, we don’t deal with anything that isn’t tangible. Even with the Sushant Singh Rajput incident, we circled around the issue for months. Finally, when we did come to mental health, we were talking about older people. We haven’t touched children. It’s enormous in the 15-20-year-olds. All kind of positivity starts with a society that says we may be traditional but that doesn’t mean it’s always correct that we need to move with the times and unfortunately I think that’s a long way from now.

I- A third topic you address is teenagers exploring their sexuality and having sex. How does one deal with this, at what age is it necessary to have a conversation about this?

J- My dilemma has been, how do you deal with consent by minors, when they have consensual intimate relationships and then have been asked to leave their schools and such. A lot of children are really sexually empowered and these conversations need to start very young, at 7 or 8 years according to some counsellors. Consent to me is a very big word with not adequate importance given to it by society. A lot of mothers have come up after some of these cases and said we’re teaching our boys respect but I think that’s tokenism. We need to go beyond it. A doctor made a lot of sense when he told me that in the last few years, we have been talking about how our girls are changing, how they are driving and working late doing everything. But we forgot to tell our boys to change as well. If they still remain where they were while girls are changing, we’re going to have this clash. There’s frustration in teenage girls as to why the onus is on them and we have done this to ourselves as a society. So consent is a very important word that we need to teach them.

I- In addition to body-positivity, social media is also urging women to embrace our sexuality. I am guessing that it’s targeting slightly older women but the narrative is also being embraced by younger girls. Since increasingly younger girls are trying to fit into this narrative of let me embrace my sexuality, how do you deal with that? 

J- To be one of the girls, you have to let go of your virginity or you aren’t cool enough. Getting rid of it is like a badge of honour and very casual for 15, 16-year-olds. It really does come down to how comfortable a child is in their skin to be able to take this enormous onslaught of peer pressure. And knowledge is important when you’re, say, trying to date a boy and you send nudes over Snapchat and you think they will disappear after being seen, but somebody else has recorded it it’s in circulation. When no one speaking to them, they’re listening to their peers and going ahead so I think it boils down to really what those conversations you’re having at home, that communication channel has to always be open. 

I find that even six months make a difference. If you keep pushing social media, say a child who gets in at 13 versus at 15 or at 8 versus at 12, I find that the child is evolving and learning more things. You can’t push beyond a point but that little bit of experience keeps adding up, that ability to scope things out react accordingly adds up.

I- How do you see these phenomena of drug usage and social media and such play out as these kids enter college and parents lose even more control. You have said that drug usage tends to increase in such cases, but what else changes?

J- I find that again it all depends on how solid your base is. Some things do change, for instance, people in their 20s are using social media for activism in unimaginable ways. Drugs may become a recreational activity more than before, but then mental health is escalating in the 20s. With the whole sex thing, I think kids are taking control of their lives you’re adults, so in that sense, it’s your life. Your parents have to make sure they’re around to hold hands be there if you want to talk. 

In my interviews, this kept coming up about social media anonymity, how do you trust the world with bearing your body and soul? But we’ve all had our rebellion, unfortunately, it’s a lot to be on social media and living a public life. So the pressure to be somebody is more for your generation. We went to school and got bullied, got home and forgot about it until the next day. You go to school and get bullied and you come home you’re still getting bullied so its 24×7 now.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Categories
Issue 3

Tanishq: Victim of an uncontrollable beast

Image: screenshot from Advertisement

Much has been written about the controversy raised by the Tanishq ad that depicted an inter-faith marriage.

Since all of you would have seen the ad, I’ll refrain from wasting time and space describing the ad.

The big tragedy about the reams of editorial coverage in print and on news TV is that the focus is on the advertising industry and the debate has been reduced to a discussion on whether brands should ride on ‘political’ developments and ‘divisive’ subjects.

As far as I am concerned, the issue has little to do with advertising and all to do with the larger issue of the collapse of tolerance in society. Much of this erosion of tolerance is provoked by the need to follow the herd to be popular in social media.

Before we get to the crux of this article, which is ‘the interaction between social media and advertising in the Tanishq case’, let me give you a quick lesson in media.

For a moment, think of all news TV consumed as represented by a one-meter rule. All the viewership of ALL the news channels is represented by the one-meter rule. If you look at the share of ALL the English news channels, it will occupy perhaps ONE centimeter of this one-meter rule. “English news is very niche in India, and therefore accounts for only 1% share of News viewership at an All India level,” says BARC.

That’s it. That is the reach of English news channels. 

Yet, English news channels are not without influence – perhaps they enjoy unnatural and undue influence, thanks to the scale of India, the low allocation of funds to news-gathering in India – and social media.

So let me illustrate how this undue influence works.

Republic TV does a story, say, on match-fixing.

Republic’s social media handles all talk about this issue.

Republic’s social media team creates a flurry of hashtags connected to the story.

Republic’s social media team ‘buys’ reach (legally) on social media and cause the story and the hashtags to trend.

The underpaid and under-resourced journalists in small towns across India, with no budgets for travel or, indeed, for endless phone calls across the country, take the easy way out and follow ‘influencers’ on social media. In the current illustration, they’re following Republic’s handle and, of course, keeping an eye on trending topics.

So journalists across the country, thanks to this extraordinary, unchecked and unfettered ‘source’, viz social media, decide that the match-fixing story is VERY IMPORTANT.

And they write and file their own stories as well.

So much for what the media does.

The consumer, the citizen, does his or her own amplification, spurred by similar provocations.

The consumer, too, follows influencers and keeps track of hashtags and trends. In addition, the consumer keeps an eye on social media updates of friends and relatives and truly LOCAL infleuncers. 

And if the Republic match-fixing story pops up on these pages, up pops the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). In dealing with the fear, the consumer adds his or own bit of spice to the story, based on the echo chamber he or she lives in.

Now, let’s get back to the Tanishq ad.

Consider what has happened to a citizen of Jamshedpur who has no knowledge of Tanishq or the controversy, no problem with Hindus and Muslims marrying each other and has never seen the ad and has not seen the coverage on TV.

The story appears on Twitter because the citizen’s classmate RT’ed a tweet. In the RT, the citizen’s classmate denounced the ad, denounced Tanishq and denounced the Tata group.

Aware of FOMO, our hero, the citizen of Jamshedpur referred to earlier, RTs the RT.

And, as thousands of similar citizens do the same, a controversy is born, even if the ad has hardly been seen by the majority who protest about it.

Now it gets worse. Politicians of all hues, too, are on social media and follow the same trends.

And, very quickly, they find that they have the opportunity to ‘ride’ a trend. They can profit or lose by choosing one side of the controversy; in the Tanishq case, the ‘profitable’ side was to denounce inter-faith marriages and, consequently, denounce Tanishq.

So they ‘protest’ at Tanishq showrooms, confident in the knowledge that the protest will be covered by media.

And a new story will be born and aired by news channels.

And the new story will find its way into social media.

And the new story will come back to Jamshedpur.

And FOMO will make the new story trend….

It’s a new news cycle. Unchecked and without a sense of responsibility. More frighteningly, no one has control over this beast.

Tanishq was a victim of this uncontrolled and vicious beast.

The question is: Who is the next? And the next? And the next?

Anant Rangaswami is the editor of Storyboard, the advertising, media and marketing show on CNBC TV18. He is also senior editor at FirstPost.com, and has authored two books, ‘Watching from the Sidelines’ and ‘The Elephants in the Room: The future of advertising in India 2016.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Categories
Issue 3

Remembering Eddie – 6 Essential Songs

Eddie Van Halen was an idol for an entire generation. Van Halen, along with bands like Journey, KISS, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue defined the 1980s fantasy of being a rockstar. Thanks to MTV and the popularity of music videos, band members were as recognizable as movie stars. Eddie was able to break the stereotype that virtuosos should always be serious or brooding characters. Van Halen brought joy to rock and roll.

The name of Van Halen is synonymous with incredible solos and lightning fast shredding, but what made Eddie special wasn’t his skill or flawless technique, it was his creativity and limitless passion for music. 

Perhaps the easiest place to find his bag of tricks on full display is the solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” one of the biggest singles of all time. The story behind that track encapsulates his approach to life, he decided to record the legendary solo for a case of beer and dancing lessons from the King of Pop because he didn’t want to complicate their equation with contract work, initially uncredited on the track from Thriller.

Van Halen, who passed away on Oct 6th after a long battle with cancer, managed to push the boundaries of the electric guitar in a way the world hadn’t seen since Jimi Hendrix. His unique style has left an indelible imprint on all rock music that has come out since the 80’s. He expanded the repertoire of guitar players to include fireworks like tapping, tremolo picking and blistering legato (playing only with the left hand) runs across the entire fretboard.  When people heard the unaccompanied guitar track “Eruption” off Van Halen’s debut album for the first time in 1978, they couldn’t believe what they were listening to. Getting those sounds out of a guitar was unheard of. 

Reducing Eddie to just his solos would be doing him a disservice – many professional guitarists will tell you that he was one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time. Eddie was an innovator, an inventor of sounds and styles that keep him relevant to this day, more than 40 years later. He was a master of the keyboards, responsible for the unmistakable intro to “Jump”. He built his own guitars, hot-rodding different parts from his favorite models to create the “Frankenstrat”, the iconic red and white striped guitar. He didn’t stop there, he modified his amplifiers with a light dimmer to coax a rawer, more powerful sound that is instantly recognizable. It became so popular that it was even given a name, the “Brown Sound”. Head into any recording studio today and you will find some kind of replica of that particular sound, which is plastered across modern rock music.

Six songs are not nearly enough to define his legacy, but in my opinion this is the best entry to discover Eddie’s work.

Runnin’ With The Devil (Van Halen I, 1978)

The first line of their first song signifies what Van Halen is about – “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow.” This song began the Van Halen era, introducing Eddie and the band to the world with a bang. Melting horns bring in the staccato bass and legendary intro. 

Ain’t Talkin Bout Love (Van Halen I, 1978)

This song gives you everything you want from a classic Van Halen tune –  iconic riff, catchy chorus, a steady beat and a great solo. This is a tune that sticks in your head from the moment you listen to it, one of the band’s best. 

Hot For Teacher (1984, 1984)

I must confess, this is my favourite Van Halen song. The lyrical content is meant to be relatable and frivolous but the musicianship on this track is par excellence. The breakneck pace of the song seems effortless because of the years that Eddie and his brother Alex (the drummer of the band) spent practicing together in their garage. Listeners get treated to the Eddie show with leads, dynamics and intelligent rhythm on full display. 

Jump (1984, 1984)

This is Van Halen’s most successful single and perhaps their most well known song. A perfect blend of pop and rock, this song rocketed to the top of the US charts. The song is defined by its instantly recognizable keyboard line. Eddie shows off his entire synthesizer arsenal with acrobatic arpeggios sprinkled all over the track, most notably in the pre-chorus where he plays a 4:3 polyrhythm over the drums.

Panama (1984, 1984)

The band wrote this song after lead singer David Lee Roth was accused by a reporter of singing about only women, partying, and fast cars. He realized he’d never written a song about fast cars, and decided to write one. During the bridge of the song we can hear Eddie revving his vintage Lamborghini Miura! The rhythm guitar work on Panama is quintessential Eddie and this strong is a strong contender for having the best Van Halen riff. This song is a staple in pop culture, heard everywhere from Superbad to Family Guy.  

Why Can’t This Be Love (5150, 1986)

This single is often unfairly criticized as it marked a departure from the original vocalist, David Lee Roth. However, Sammy Hagar shines on this synth driven catchy track which is a perfect 80’s time machine. An interesting fact about this tune is that on the first two world tours after this song was released, Sammy Hagar played all the guitar parts and the solo while Eddie Van Halen only played the keyboard sections.

Shaayak is an Economics and Finance Major at Ashoka University. He is a guitarist at Delhi band Apartment Upstairs and a music producer.  He has also worked with the Centre for Social and Behavioural change to produce an audio adherence program for Iron and Folic Acid pills for pregnant women in rural areas.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Categories
Issue 3

Louise Glück Wins a Prize She Never Needed

I don’t know why I picked up The Wild Iris but I did. Maybe it was the shiny stamp that read “Pulitzer Prize Winner” adorning its cover. I’ve always been a sucker for awards of all shapes and sizes. Even awards that I hate. Actually, especially, awards that I hate.

The Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the ‘O.G.’ (Original Gangster) literary prize, has heard its fair share of criticism— fuel for the flame of my growing disdain for awards of its ilk. The Nobel Committee has been accused of ignoring authors for extra-literary reasons, being too Eurocentric, and being too male-oriented. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen controversies surrounding the 2016 prize which was the first to be awarded to a songwriter, Bob Dylan; the 2018 prize which was cancelled due to a sexual assault scandal surrounding an Academy member; and the 2019 prize which was awarded to a prominent genocide-denier, Peter Handke. I bring up these criticisms and controversies because it is important to remember that the Nobel Committee is, at the end of the day, an organisation, like any other, comprised of ordinary humans. They care about their brand.

It is this logic that led many pundits and commentators to expect the 2020 prize to go to a ‘safe’ choice. Now that Louise Glück has won the prize, the reactions, alongside many of celebration and joy, include a sizeable number of folk who believe the Swedish Academy has simply done the expected. She’s a white, American writer who has been perceived as not overtly political; the statement given by the Swedish Academy about her is as bland and vague as it gets, praising Louise for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.  As much as I would like to agree with these cynics and naysayers – walk as I do amongst their ranks too often – perhaps it is my love for Glück, borne solely of the one collection of her poetry that I have read in its entirety, that compels me to pen a defence of her win (although, it goes without saying, it’s not like she, nor the literary community at large, are waiting for me, of all people, to come to her aid).

Let’s start with a common misconception. The charge that she isn’t ‘political’ enough. I think those who bring up this accusation often forget that politics isn’t just the flashy flairs of identity politics laced revolution that permeates a generation of young, slam poets. Politics exist within every relationship of power. And where Glück excels, often, is in using simplicity, wit and vulnerability to interrogate the politics, or the relationships of power, within marriages and love, within loss and grief, and, within our innermost lives. Here’s just an excerpt of one line which illuminates the best of all her biting qualities:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

Who would dare to call this apolitical? A glaring flaw in our evaluation of Glück is the retrospective, ’20/20’ vision which we use, all too often, to judge work being created and published more than half a century ago. Her ability to assert the inner lives of women, the banalities of family and personal tragedy as subject matter worthy of the forefront of the page are political achievements in and of themselves. However, this is not to say that the effect of her poetry is lost on us today. In fact, Glück’s work, old and new, will always be remembered for its seamless, effortless and, almost invisible, quality in its approach to a myriad of thematic concerns. If anything, these qualities make it stand out more today. Reconsider the line presented above with the knowledge that Louise Glück suffered from debilitating anorexia in her youth— to the point of it almost killing her. A poet today would, arguably, waste no time in confronting their suffering on the page. I certainly don’t mean to shame them for doing so, yet, I must appreciate Glück’s restraint. Read the line again:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

How much more tragic is it now? She presents what one can only imagine is a startlingly intimate confession without being confessional. She makes an astute, insightful observation without being observational. She waxes her intelligent, poetic craft into a universal, political statement— without being intellectual or political. Is this not magic?

Louise Glück has spoken about not wanting to be “somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many”. Unfortunately for her, or rather, fortunately for us, she is accessible: understandable, likeable and available. But is any of this easy? No. The experience of reading Glück’s work is far from diluted. It requires an immersion, an imagination and an empathy that will elude not just the instant, clingy, Instagram poets but also many casual readers of all ages who aren’t ready to reckon with the full force of all her meaning. This doesn’t mean Glück writes in riddle or code. She writes, like all the best poets, arguments of the heart. The real question is if you’re willing to engage.

This piece is short and, suffice to say, there is much more to explore about Glück’s work which could not be covered here. In particular, her manipulation of the mythological and the natural are precious, winning parts of the entire Louise Glück phenomena. I would not be able to forgive myself, however, if I didn’t include at least a few lines from The Wild Iris. The premise of this collection, to give proper context, is that each poem is written from the perspective of a flower or a plant. Glück inflicts their inner lives with a devastating level of detail, the closest one can get to granting them a soul. In the following passage, she flips the usual human concern with the transient nature of life and the preoccupation with symbolic immortality – as Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 55, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” – into nature’s tale of literal immortality:

“I don’t need your praise

to survive. I was here first,

before you were here, before

you ever planted a garden.

And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon

are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.”

This haunting verse reminds us, or me at least, that Louise Glück, no stranger to awards, – having won the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, poet Laureate of the United States and many more – does not need another one. Her poetry existed before me, and it will exist long after I am gone. Of course, the Nobel prize will bring her a lot more attention, and that’s a great thing, but I truly hope that it is not the Nobel prize for which she is remembered.

Kanishk, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, is a graduate in political science from Ashoka University. His first collection of poetry, ‘Please Glue This Book Together’ was published by Shubhi Publications in 2016.  He is the founder of the humour and satire publication, ‘Kalinga’, and Ashoka University’s filmmaking society, ‘Navrang’. Along with award-winning short films posted on YouTube, he has co-written his first professional short film, ‘Suttabaazi’, set to release on Disney+ Hotstar.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Categories
Issue 2

Girl in White Cotton: An ‘Unusual’ Depiction of Mother-Daughter Relationship

Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi, just like cotton, flows through one’s hands. Released as Burnt Sugar in the United Kingdom, it is one of those rare novels which make you question its motive, the selection of words used to depict a scene or an emotion, the intentions behind acts and dialogues. It proceeds in such a way that by the time one is done reading, it feels like it’s time to read it again. There is so much to understand and so much to take away that one reading would never be enough. It is not surprising at all that this debut is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.

The novel is about issues and relationships of everyday life. It deals with the mundane in the ways of the profane. On the face of it, it’s an ordinary tale of failed relationships. In fact, the story revels in its ordinariness. In it, there are a lot of characters who have complicated relationships with each other. However, as the story progresses, the reader realises that in its entirety, it is about Tara in the voice of her daughter Antara. Tara has always been a woman who has broken convention, be it in her life as a daughter, a wife, or a mother. She has risked the ‘normal’ upbringing of her daughter for the pursuits of her heart. Never having really gotten along with her parents, in-laws, or her child, she is now at the stage where old age has crept in and dependency cannot be avoided. Antara narrates her trail of difficulties which she faced as a caregiver at the expense of a person she never really cared for. 

Antara talks about her mother’s hatred for herself. She delves into how her mother wanted her to be everything she wasn’t because she loathed herself so much. Even her name, which means intimacy, wasn’t chosen because Tara liked it, but because it was unlike Tara.

‘Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.’ 

Written in first person, Doshi presents a very crude and crucial picture of motherhood. It seems as if all the martyred depictions of motherhood that women are made to consume, and one day embody, fall apart. The story takes us through Antara’s life with Tara, going back and forth; her years at the Ashram in Pune where her Tara was a disciple, her convent boarding school, her college (which she never finished), and her married life. Throughout her journey we see her consciously attempting to separate herself from her mother. And yet, she gets reduced to being Tara’s caretaker, the caretaker of a mother who could never take care of herself or her daughter.

Doshi presents a very South Asian representation of motherhood, where being experimental and adventurous after marriage and after birthing children, isn’t appreciated.  It is the reason why this story hits so close to home. The entire episode of Antara’s pregnancy is a journal towards becoming a mother. It gives a glimpse into the apprehensions a mother might have — doubts, insecurities and fears — about how dreams might never turn into reality after her child is born. Such limitations might not be as perceptible elsewhere. I couldn’t help but draw a contrast between the mothers in Girl in White Cotton and Hideous Kinky, a novel by Esther Freud, in which the mother is celebrated for being carefree.  

The last chapter of Doshi’s book is a lost puzzle in some ways. Tara’s intentions become unclear to the reader — is she pretending to be someone she is not? Is she pretending to forget? Does she want to eliminate the traces of her daughter like she’s always done? No one knows. The only thing obvious here is to empathise with Antara. 
Girl in White Cotton is also about mobility; it shows how men move and are mobile while women stay. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about who gets to move and who doesn’t. What does mobility mean and how is it exercised? More than that, it is about how flexible romance is. It makes one wonder as to how much freedom one has in a codependent relationship. It also raises questions alluding to ethics but does not answer them. If that is a statement on Doshi’s idea of ethics, then she has wonderfully proven her point. All in all, it is not a story you might have never heard before; one of its elemental subplots resembles Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman. But the uniqueness and the beauty of this novel lies particularly in its how.

Ananya is a postgraduate student studying English Literature at St. Stephen’s College and a researcher with Zubaan.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).