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Issue 12

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Stolen cars, dirty cops, a body dumped in a creek, and India’s richest family. These may sound like the elements of a thrilling Bollywood movie, but actually form the basis of a case that gripped Mumbai earlier this year. On 25th February, a Scorpio SUV containing 20 gelatin sticks (low intensity explosives normally used for construction) was found outside Mukesh Ambani’s 26 story residence in South Mumbai. A few weeks later, the owner of the car, Mansukh Hiren, was found dead in a creek. The high ranking police officer who had been leading the case, Sachin Vaze, was arrested by India’s main counter-terrorism body (the National Investigative Agency) for his involvement in the case. Vaze, a member of the famous ‘encounter squad’ of the Mumbai police, active in the 90s and early 2000s, has been suspended from his role as Assistant Police Inspector and is currently in custody of the NIA. Once revered by the media as a top cop, every facet of his life is now under scrutiny. As things got even murkier, warring political parties BJP and Shiv Sena quickly co-opted the story to hurl accusations at the other. News media were equally fascinated, and every new twist in the tale dominated headlines and primetime debates. 

Bombay is no stranger to twisted crimes and long drawn out investigations. Nor is the involvement of police and rapid politicisation of the case a new phenomenon. The city of dreams has had its fair share of nightmares, with three horrific terror attacks that killed hundreds of people in the past thirty years. One of the main accused in the first of those attacks was Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious gang-leader and designated global terrorist. The underworld of Mumbai was his playground in the 70s and 80s, but he fled to Dubai in 1986. The pervasive presence of these gangs and the bureaucratic roadblocks surrounding legal procedures led the city police to take matters into their own hands.

In the 90s Mumbai police formed an encounter squad to deal with growing gang violence and extortion cases. The judicial process was lengthy and it could take several years for a case to even reach the court, and ‘encounters’ were seen as an effective, if slightly controversial solution. An encounter generally involved the police cornering a gangster who would then attack or try to escape, and the police would use the opportunity to shoot him dead. Sachin Vaze was one of the original members of the squad and is alleged to have been involved in the encounter killings of around 63 gangsters. However while some appreciated this quick and brutal method of delivering justice, others were horrified and questioned the legitimacy of some of these encounters. There were also rumours that the cops were trying to outshine each other, and getting involved in gang rivalries in the process. Many members of the squad were dismissed from the force but later reinstated. In 2004, Vaze was suspended and charged with murder for the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus. In 2007, he resigned when his request for reinstatement was denied by the Maharashtra government. He then joined the Shiv Sena, and was later reinstated as a cop in 2020. But things quickly went wrong just a year later, when he was named the prime suspect in the murder of Mansukh Hiren. On 11th May, Vaze was dismissed from the Mumbai Police.

The tale kept many readers hooked for months, reminiscent as it was of a good Bollywood gangster film. In fact, many famous entries in that genre were based on the lives and cases of the encounter squad. That our desire for these fast-paced and intriguing stories is now being fulfilled by the news is a worrying trend, but in a year unprecedentedly low on movie releases it perhaps makes sense. Journalist Suketu Mehta has spoken about the curiously close relationship between Hindi cinema and the underworld gangsters: “The Hindi filmmakers are fascinated by the lives of the gangsters, and draw upon them for material. The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground, to the don-in-exile at the top watch Hindi movies keenly, and model themselves, their dialogue, the way they carry themselves- on their on-screen equivalents.” 

The connection between the two worlds runs deeper still, as gangsters used to finance major Bollywood projects, and actors like Sanjay Dutt have been arrested for ties to the underworld and terrorist groups. In 2000, an assassination attempt was made on the producer Rakesh Roshan, allegedly in relation to an extortion threat made earlier. The shooting followed a string of attacks on Bollywood actors and producers. In 2001, Nazim Rizvi and Bharat Shah, producer and financier of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, respectively, were arrested for aiding and abetting the don Chhota Shakeel’s activities. Preity Zinta, who starred in the film, later testified against him, saying that she had received threatening calls from the underworld. Mumbai’s underworld turned to the film industry as a target for extortion when the property business dried up in the nineties. 

If this was a mainstream movie all the loose ends would have been tied up and the good guys would emerge victorious. Unfortunately, life isn’t a movie and the difference between good and evil isn’t always clear, especially when politics enters the mix. News readers eventually moved on from the case, distracted by the ongoing pandemic and newer scandals. Sachin Vaze has been in jail since March 13, potentially wondering how he fell from grace. If we’re lucky, a biopic is already in the works.

Photo courtesy: Shambhavi Thakur, Newslaundry

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

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 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

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).

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Uncategorized

Myth Theory – Dum Maro Dum

By Devdutt Pattanaik

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 24, 2011.

Cannabis is an illegal narcotic in most parts of the world, even India. Its more deadly form is called Marijuana. From it comes some of the most lethal addictive organic drugs that ruled the party circuit until the arrival of even more lethal, even more potent, even more addictive chemical drugs.

But still, it is amazing to see Indian television soap operas directed at women showing Bhang being prepared from leaves of the Cannabis plant and consumed by the family during Holi. We have Bollywood songs where heroes and heroines run around trees consuming Bhang and singing “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” and then we have the famous “Dum Maro Dum” with a very young and very beautiful Zeenat Aman surrounded by hippies smoking pot, hoping it will destroy all sorrow. No one is upset or outraged. An acknowledgement that Cannabis is sacred in India — it is sold in the temple markets of Varanasi, Puri and Nathdvara. Every sadhu smokes this potent drug.

Shiva, the hermit, smokes Cannabis. He is described as always being on a high. There are miniature paintings showing Parvati making Bhang for her husband. She berates him for always being in a hemp trance and never doing household chores. Krishna’s elder brother, Balaram, is known for his fondness for Bhang. Bhang drinking is a common part of rituals in Vaishnav temples. It is called a coolant to calm the short-tempered Shiva and Balarama.

Not just cannabis, many stimulants and depressants, including alcohol are part of sacred and social traditions all over the world. Vedic priests kept referring to Soma which enabled the mind to take flight! Homer’s Odyssey refers to lotus-eaters who lie around all day doing nothing. Across Arabia and Africa chewing narcotic leaves known as Khat is a part of the tradition. Ancient Egyptians called it divine food. Betel nut is an alkaloid that gives a chemical high when chewed and is famously consumed in every household in South Asia in the form of paan. In tribes, shamans have used chemicals to transport themselves to the world of spirits. Alcohol is served to Kala-Bhairav and other fierce deities. Wine is a sacrament in Christianity.

In modern times, most of these have been deemed as substance abuse agents and are banned in different capacities in different parts of the world. We want to create a world where no one takes any chemical stimulant. We want to force people to be good. And so now, people who smoke cigarettes which contain tobacco, have to stand outside buildings and smoke like criminals. Tobacco is deemed evil because it causes cancer. Even fatty and starchy food are being slowly treated as evil as they also cause disease. The worst sin of the 21st century is to eat a high-calorie meal.

This use of law to control human behavior did not exist in ancient times. There was a tendency to trust the human will, human intelligence and the human ability to self-regulate. Modern society seems to have lost faith in human beings. Modern society does not want to allow humans to take responsibility for their own lives. It therefore uses laws to control human behavior, domesticate them into perfection. Invariably it fails. Prohibition simply spawns a booming black market. And I realize this when I hear — much to my disquiet — well-educated and affluent boys and girls describing how they snort lines of cocaine in the toilet cubicles and how it makes them feel ‘cool and dangerous’.

This article was first published at https://devdutt.com/. Republished with the author’s permission.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical professional by training and writes on relevance of mythology in modern times. He has authored 41 books and over a 1000 columns and has also appeared on television.

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).