In defence of ’13 Reasons Why’

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the latest Netflix sensation ‘13 Reasons Why’, a story centred around teenager Hannah Baker who reveals the reasons she committed suicide through a series of tapes sent to her peers from school following her death.

The show has been widely criticised for its graphic depictions of suicide in the final episode, and Australian mental health charity headspace has been quick to raise concerns about young audiences watching the show.

The show’s writer Nic Sheef has explained the rationale behind their decision to depict these scenes to Vanity Fair, but the debate has been flung wide open: do the scenes glamorise suicide? Does it exploit vulnerable people? Is the message too negative?

After watching the show, I think ’13 Reasons Why’ wanted to show not merely the reasons why Hannah commits suicide, but why suicide is not the definitive option.

Although Hannah’s suicide is painful to watch and disturbing, warnings are given about the graphic nature of the content beforehand, and the episodes prior to this scene (there are 12 before her death is shown) slowly and inevitably build to her suicide. Anyone that decides to watch the show knows what they’ll be in for – would a show really talk at so much length about its protagonist’s suicide only to skirt around her last moments? I wouldn’t think so.

Hannah’s suicide scene offers a very gutsy insight into the fragile mindset of someone who wants to end their life. For me, the key word is ‘fragile’ – Hannah, and others who might be contemplating suicide, are exactly that. I think this is exactly the point of the show – to highlight that suicide can often become an option to someone when they’re very fragile and feel there are no other avenues left. Personally, I feel the show is explicitly telling audiences to prevent someone from reaching such a state. Let’s think about the moments where Hannah shows resilience, has hope and where her peers and family reach out to her. The issue is, it’s just not enough – they don’t ask Hannah if she’s really okay, they don’t listen and they certainty don’t pay enough attention. The suicide scene in ’13 Reasons Why’ is therefore the warning sign that we as friends, family members and peers need – it’s telling us to ask, listen and be more for someone who might need us so that they avoid becoming so fragile and begin to think that ending their life is a solution. Rather than an encouragement, this scene and the entire show is waving a big red flag in our face. Help is around – we must seek and give it.

Suicide is a word so often feared and discarded in our world. Now that a show like ’13 Reasons Why’ has decided to openly tackle it, we’re quick to shut it down – we’re hurriedly tweeting that they’ve taken it too far, that it should be removed from our screens, that its been done all wrong. But what about the other content that is waiting to be enjoyed on our to-watch list? A lot of us seem all too happy watching graphic scenes of murder, sex and war in TV shows and movies. We hurriedly buy tickets and rush to the cinema to watch grisly horrors spewing blood and guts. We hand children tablets and phones giving them access to content and information that is far more distressing than ’13 Reasons Why,’ and yet we hide from the reality that is suicide – a reality that is so, so prevalent in our world.

It seems that as a society, we’re constantly talking about reducing stigma, having more open and transparent discussions about showing something real and authentic, but are perhaps not ready to open our eyes to it just yet. I understand the concerns and worries about that ’13 Reasons Why’ may encourage ‘copy cats,’ but to focus on Hannah’s suicide scene alone when the entire show portrays instances of horror, (rape, violence and bullying) seems somehow unfair. And what Hannah goes through when she ends her life is goddamn frightening.  Hannah doesn’t look like she’s enjoying it. There’s no glamour to it. And certainly not when her parents find her body in a blood bath.

Suicide is a truth which is graphic, and the world we live in is not all unicorns and rainbows. We need something honest like ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ in a world that sugar-coats and manipulates our reality.

 

 

Murdered by my Father’s Kiran Sonia Sawar: “Honour killings is an issue that needs to be dealt with”

Honour killings are confronted head on in BBC Three drama Murdered by my Father. Actress Kiran Sonia Sawar talks to me about ensuring Asian women are respected.

There is a moment in BBC Three drama Murdered by my Father where London teen Salma, played by Kiran Sonia Sawar, flees from her father’s imprisonment and jumps over the nearest balcony in her block of flats. While this happens, the camera pans to an Asian neighbour opposite who sees Salma escaping and in response, speedily closes the curtains. It’s a moment that is small, but extremely significant.

“Any close-knit communities will shut themselves out from directly addressing problems, but instead gossip about them, and I think that’s the problem”, says Sawar. “They’re more than happy to have a conversation with someone else about it, but they’re never going to hit it head-on. And I think that’s what that scene really effectively represents, it’s that problem of ignorance.”

Murdered by my Father focuses on honour killings and the plight of Salma, who becomes victim to her father’s rage after falling in love with cheeky charmer Imi (Mawaan Rizwan). As the title suggests, it ends with disastrous consequences.

Rather than feeling angry or upset about the family dynamic however, Sawar empathised with Salma’s father Shahzad (Adeel Akhtar): “I think it’s a gorgeous relationship, I think Salma really, really loves her dad and brother, and obviously Salma doesn’t see her dad’s demise, she doesn’t see that side of it until it’s too late, but her relationship with her dad is completely one of love.”

Having grown up in a Pakistani family herself, Sawar’s desire for discussions surrounding honour-based violence to be more prominent is palpable. While she has received incredible support from her liberal Asian parents – they have always encouraged her to pursue a career as an actress – Sawar feels a deep connection with Salma “in terms of love, intelligence, a passion for wanting to live your own life and make your own choices and deal with those consequences”. She adds: “That’s how you learn, that’s how you grow.”

But in trying to understand the mind-set of girls and women like Salma, portrayals of honour-based violence can often be inaccurate, dismissing the individual’s internal struggle to make life-defining decisions. “The media can describe it from a westernised point of view,” she says. Sawar understands the misconceptions attached to this issue and when discussing victim-blaming, her objection towards such attitudes is clear.

“It doesn’t make any sense in my mind. How can anyone dare to blame the victim in any situation where somebody is being attacked? Salma goes back [to her family] out of love, out of duty, out of care, out of passion, out of honesty, out of who she is as a person. For someone to want to walk away from their whole lives, from everything that they’ve built, and all their relationships and their parents, it’s a massive, massive, massive deal,” she says.

Sawar’s appearance in Murdered by my Father also comes at a crucial time for BBC Three. The broadcaster is redefining itself as a front runner in producing compelling documentaries and drama, while offering a platform for young emerging talent. And Sawar is no stranger to working with the BBC, having appeared in an episode of BBC One’s Holby City. More recently, she has also starred in the US TV series Legends, which aired on American TV channel TNT.

“My first TV job was only last year in June, which was ‘Legends’, and all three of my TV jobs have been based completely on the fact that I’m Asian. But I think that I’m not somebody who shies away from my culture and who I am, and should the story need to be told, I’m more than happy to comply and tell the story from an Asian perspective. That’s not an issue, but it would be lovely if there were more opportunities to play characters that are a bit different, a bit more daring, definitely.”

She is currently rehearsing for her next role in the world premiere of Brideshead Revisited. Sawar will play youngest daughter of the aristocratic Brideshead family in the adaption of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, set in 1943.

“I find that theatre is much more open to colour-blind casting and to casting based on what somebody can bring to a role rather than their appearance,” says Sawar.

For Sawar, Murdered by my Father is not just about using ground-breaking TV to educate girls. She wants to use this medium to change the mind-set of her male audience too.

“I’ve had lots of lovely messages from young Asian men. They’re going to grow up to be the next dads and uncles and grandads, and they’re just as important in this storyline,” explains Sawar. “If this is being taught to men from a younger age, about their treatment of women and their respect for women and how women are entitled to their own choice of freedom, then I feel like that’s my job being done.

“This is a human issue, it needs to be dealt with,” continues Sawar. “I don’t want honour killings to be another thing that people see and think: ‘oh, that’s not our problem, that’s this problem or that’s somebody else’s problem’, because it doesn’t just happen in Asian communities.”

Published also in The Asian Today:

http://www.theasiantoday.com/index.php/2016/04/22/murdered-by-my-fathers-kiran-sonia-sawar-honour-killings-is-an-issue-that-needs-to-be-dealt-with/

Sunny Leone produces hostility because India still fears female sexuality

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Bollywood actress Sunny Leone was in the firing line this week when journalist Bhupendra Chauby chastised her for being a ‘porn queen’. (Photo credit: Getty)

The internet certainly does not forget. Google Indian-Canadian Bollywood actress ‘Sunny Leone’ and beneath the most recent news articles, her previous profession defines her almost instantly – she is a household name for once being a porn star.

Earlier this week, Leone faced journalist Bhupendra Chauby in a scathing interview where he claimed the actress was “lowering the level of the fine art of cinema” as she promoted her new movie Mastizaade. 

Support flooded in for Leone as viewers were left outraged by the journalist’s line of questioning, as well as his undeniable sexist and misogynist stance. After hearing about the uncomfortable interview and reading Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s display of support for Leone over social media, the issue felt incredibly important to discuss and naturally, I wanted to weigh in.

Porn is a complex issue to discuss not just in India, but globally. We are sold videos and images of sex through a guarded screen and prefer to keep it that way. Bhupendra Chauby’s interview of Leone reflects a nation’s difficulty to accept when someone – and in particular, a female – transgresses sexual boundaries and then tries to become part of the more ‘normal’ world rather than the sordid, covert and titillating world of porn.

If we attach ‘porn’ to Leone, India and its more conservative citizens are okay with it. Attach ‘Bollywood’ to her and suddenly, we’re in a very, very dangerous territory. Bollywood is sacred to nearly everyone all over India. It is a world that promises action: good versus evil, men fighting for their wives and daughters, women who are usually subservient and sometimes scantily clad and raunchy ‘item girls’ who dance provocatively, often enticing many male cinema-goers. Bollywood is a world of national pride and a place for romantic heroes saving the day. While it is rapidly evolving and producing more edgier stories, Indian audiences leave the cinema after watching a typical Bollywood movie and still feel their morality is intact, their pride in place and their Indian identity reinforced. It is simply not a place for an ex-porn star like Leone to make her mark.

But how can we forget the recent upsurge in sex scenes within Bollywood movies, as well as those Bollywood actresses who happily film them? What do we say about bold actresses like Rekha (who is deemed legendary), Mallika Sherawat, Bipasha Basu, Vidya Balan, Alia Bhatt and Anushka Sharma – all of whom have filmed sex scenes for Bollywood movies? If leading female actresses are already doing sex scenes anyway, how can a journalist stigmatize and dismiss Leone, but not act the same way towards say Alia Bhatt or Anushka Sharma? Is it because they are only marginally naked while she goes all out? While pornography is traditionally said to be more sexually explicit, I fail to see how someone ferociously riding a man in bed as Zareen Khan recently did in erotic thriller Hate Story 2 is considered more acceptable. For some viewers, this could also be sexually explicit and therefore almost pornographic, so where exactly does India draw the line when it comes to chastising someone for their on-screen past?

Equally, this isn’t just a problem in India. As humans, we inherently seem to define and judge people on their past. We define them by the ‘mistakes’ we think they have made. However, in some way, should Leone have expected that someone would inevitably interview her in this way? Surely, if she is going to try and break the Bollywood industry, she should have prepared herself for taunts and judgement about her character considering how conservative and worried the entire nation is about sex – a subject which is taboo, delicate and still associated with shame and weakness.

My answer to that is no. She should not expect or prepare for it. Yes, Leone has starred in many porn films, but we – or Bhupendra Chauby – cannot decide whether it is wrong or right. A problem exists with women like Leone because when consuming her in secret, people have no worries as she is a woman in their control – you can press play, pause, rewind, forward and watch her how you please through that guarded screen. But when she decides she wants to take more control and redefine herself in a more ‘prestigious’ domain, it is not allowed.  Leone is not asking for people to forgive her. She is not ashamed – but what Bhupendra Chauby did was tell her that she should be.

India is morally bankrupt – but so is the entire world. Sunny Leone isn’t someone to blame for increasing rates of porn consumption in the country, and she is certainly not someone who needs to be called out for anything.

We can’t label someone for one thing their whole life. Give her a break.

 

Putting Sri Lanka on the map: Asian Provocateur

Romesh Ranganathan goes back to his Sri Lankan roots in Asian Provocateur (Photo credit: BBC)
Romesh Ranganathan goes back to his Sri Lankan roots in BBC Three documentary Asian Provocateur (Photo credit: BBC)

He’s the straight-faced comedian who has quickly amassed a large number of fans, becoming one of the most popular faces on TV and in the comedy circuit. For the last few weeks, Romesh Ranganathan has been entertaining us in his new BBC Three documentary Asian Provocateur, which has seen him exploring his Sri Lankan heritage and reconnecting with his familial roots.

Romesh has experienced a chicken being rubbed on his head, participated in Sri Lankan martial arts, had weight-loss medicine inserted through his rear-end and given a frankly phenomenal performance in a Sri Lankan MC battle. With his fresh gags and witty comments in stow, viewers have been following his quest to learn more about his ethnic background with the added help of mum Shanthi, who has masterfully planned activities for Romesh’s unconventional voyage of self-discovery.

As well as the show offering Romesh’s trademark sarcasm and angst, it has also alerted audiences to problems that children with immigrant parent’s face when growing up in modern Britain. “I know absolutely nothing about the culture of where my family are from. I know more about Horsham. That’s sad isn’t it?”, says Romesh in the opening episode. The series is not only hilarious and often bonkers, it also manages to explore Romesh’s disconnect from a family and heritage left waiting on the sidelines – but without this becoming the focus of the show. It is also fittingly representative of the way in which second-generation children of immigrant parents can become confused and conflicted when negotiating their identity and juggling two cultures.

Tuk tuks and displays of dramatic black magic aside, the show has given positive exposure to Sri Lanka and its wonderous ways, while expressing how definitions of ‘British-Asian’ can be problematic for those who are very loosely tied to their Asian roots. Far from being an Eat, Pray, Love-style figure, Romesh is interesting since he represents a British-Asian figure who is very simply unsure about his cultural background and how to approach it, which makes the series all the more funnier. Having successfully soared as an ethnic minority figure in the heavily underrepresented Arts sector in Britain, Asian Provocateur shows that issues of ethnicity and identity are still commercially valuable, and definitely worth making a 6-part series about.

Watch the first 4 episodes of Asian Provocateur here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fq3x4

Romesh goes fishing, Sri Lankan style. (Photo credit: Radio Times)
Romesh goes fishing, Sri Lankan style. (Photo credit: Radio Times)

Priyanka Chopra’s lead role in ABC’s ‘Quantico’ is a big deal

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Poster for ABC’s new FBI drama ‘Quantico’, starring Priyanka Chopra. (Photo credit: Hollywood Reporter).

She’s one of the leading actresses in Bollywood, known for her boundary-breaking roles and for winning the Miss World title in 2000. Recently, Priyanka Chopra also flew the nest and pursued her penchant for singing in America, working with the likes of Pitbull and Will.I.Am and even performing at NFL with ‘In My City’. It’s safe to say that Priyanka is certainly no emerging talent.

Quite fittingly, she has now been snapped up by ABC for new drama ‘Quantico’, set to air this autumn. She plays leading lady Alex Parrish, who is selected at FBI training centre Quantico to be a detective, but is suspected of plotting the largest terrorist attack since 9/11. And why should anyone care that Priyanka is the central character? Well, to put it simply, she’s Indian, and that’s a big deal. To have an Indian actress leading a new American show and playing someone American without a stereotype attached to her is in fact, major. Aside from Mindy Kaling, star of Fox’s ‘The Mindy Project’, America hasn’t provided much diversity in its highest-rating programmes, and especially not when it comes to women of ethnic minority. While Kerry Washington of ‘Scandal’ and Viola Davis of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ put African-American women at the forefront of popular American TV shows, many Indians like myself have eagerly been waiting for someone to represent us in ways that differ from those such as Rajesh Koothrapalli in ‘The Big Bang Theory’, Timmy Patel in ‘Rules of Engagement’ and  of course, Apu from ‘The Simpsons’.

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Kunal Nayyar playing nerdy, mute-at-the-sight-of-women Rajesh Koothrapalli in ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

That being said, it was more than refreshing to watch trailers of ‘Quantico’ and see that Priyanka was playing a very normal American girl, with an American accent and with none of the usual attributes attached to Indian figures. It was indeed one of those gospel-like ‘Hallelujah’ moments as finally, a script for an American TV show was altered to accommodate a non-white female and took an Indian’s acting abilities seriously. For too long,  it feels like we’ve been degraded as American TV shows have played up ideas about us, showing the Indian with an accent, or one who wanted or possessed a degree from one of the ‘top’ universities,  with overbearing parents too, or who got entangled in an arranged marriage scenario (I remember Hannah Simone played Cece Parekh on ‘New Girl’ and eventually ended up down that route too).

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Another arranged marriage… Hannah Simone playing Cece Parekh in Fox’s ‘New Girl’.

So while the trailers appear promising and have many Indians rejoicing, only time will tell whether ‘Quantico’ will bring Priyanka any more global success and give rise to a new perception of Indians within mainstream media. Nevertheless, for her to even be cast and given such a platform as ABC speaks volumes about the (slowly) changing state of diversity on TV, and I for one am content with that.

Watch the trailer for ‘Quantico’ below:

Get acquainted with ‘The Affair’

Dominic West as Noah and Ruth Wilson as Alison in The Affair (Keyart). - Photo: Steven Lippman/SHOWTIME
Dominic West as Noah and Ruth Wilson as Alison in The Affair.

It feels like there just isn’t enough sex shown on TV nowadays, right? Of course, I say this in jest before I fill you in about titillating new drama The Affair, which debuts tonight on Sky Atlantic. And there’s a few good reasons why everyone is talking about this intriguing Golden Globe winning show aside from the abundance of sultry sex scenes and its immaculate casting of Dominic West (famed for his role in The Wire), Ruth Wilson (known for playing Jane Eyre and Alice Wilson in Luther) and Joshua Jackson (Pacey in Dawson’s Creek, don’t ever forget!).

Labelled widely as the classic ‘he said-she said’ tale, The Affair tells the story of unfulfilled husband and struggling author Noah Solloway, alongside the grief-stricken Alison Lockhart, who meet one another when Noah and his family arrive in the Hamptons for a holiday at his wealthy father-in-law’s estate. Unable to distance themselves, Noah and Alison embark on a sensuous and intense love affair, becoming dangerously entangled in one another’s complex lives. As they fall further in love with each other, the show reveals the hidden secrets of what appears to be a perfectly serene small town and two very different families and lifestyles, exposing once more that appearances can be ever so deceptive.

What is striking about the show is that the hour long episodes are split and told through the perspective of Noah and Alison, which at first appears immensely confusing but as the show progresses, hints quite strongly at the show’s aims. Through flashbacks we are told about the affair and what occurs outside of it, while in the present, Noah and Alison answer the questions of Detective Jeffries, who is inquiring into a murder investigation (we don’t find out till much later who has died, and why Noah and Alison are linked to it). The show’s writers have claimed they wish to tackle subjective reality, and The Affair does indeed show how our memories of the same event can frighteningly differ from those who also experience them.

Of course, for the progression of the plot, the different ways in which Noah and Alison view their affair and the devastation that is caused by it is equally misleading and doesn’t match up, and with an on-going murder investigation, the show does not provide answers as to who we should believe and why. Through changes in costume and dialogue, discrepancies in memory and the alternative narrative of two closely intertwined lives, we are forced to question everyone and everything we are witnessing through the lens of Noah and Alison. It does all get very Broadchurch-y, in that there is a cliffhanger at the end of every episode and various characters all hiding secrets – some are hinted at and just as quickly glossed over, and some things are so glaringly obvious that you still miss them.

The Affair is dark, complicated and erotically charged in all the right ways. It is far from being simplistic in its goals and focusing merely on a summer romance between two characters. Instead, it intricately envelopes the characters surrounding Noah and Alison’s illicit relationship into the main and often misleading narrative to great effect. Catch it tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.

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Photo credit: mirror.co.uk

Documentary review: Cobain: Montage of Heck

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Poster for Brett Morgen’s documentary on Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

For fans, this is as good as it gets. ‘Montage of Heck’ provides a much too intense picture of Kurt’s soaring creativity and ultimate helplessness. ★★★★★

Brett Morgen’s newly-released documentary titled ‘Montage of Heck’ examines the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, offering a tangible, pertinent window into a son, musician, father, husband and a ‘rock God’ who was unbearably human. Through interviews with his nearest and dearest, Morgen gives us access to the charm and despair of an iconic figure who was constantly straddling his dreams against his fears.

The documentary begins with home footage of his childhood, a beautiful glimpse into the young Kurt’s world. Morgen goes on to implement fantastic graphics and animations rendering the pained Kurt’s days of rejection from his family, reflecting on his days of songwriting, recording mixtapes and playing guitar while attempting to push Nirvana forward. There is a constant focus on Kurt’s sensitivity, his softness, along with the dread and rage he experienced when feeling shame or humiliation, a burden he potentially carried up till the point of his death.

Nirvana’s success is given exposure, but the focus is on Kurt and his experience of both growing and derailing alongside it. A particularly crucial moment shows his mother, Wendy, informing Morgen that she told Kurt to “buckle up”, and indeed, Morgen makes a point of returning back to Nirvana’s 1992 Reading Festival set and the video of a crowd stretching back as far as the eye can see, a crowd that appear more like worshippers, hanging on to Kurt’s every words, clambering on top of one another to catch a glimpse of him and laughing and applauding his antics on stage. Nirvana’s popularity was stratospheric as they transformed from playing in murky room with an audience of two to subsequently performing for audiences worldwide. The documentary is a surprising work of art that uses often disturbing visuals that attempt to decipher and depict Kurt’s mindset, and all the while an unsettling question hangs over us: did Kurt’s most glorious invention, Nirvana, become his worst nightmare?

As the band’s success grows we follow Kurt’s detachment from the media as he begrudgingly advertised TV channels and appeared frequently disinterested – he sighs, yawns and even feigns sleeping in front of a journalist. Kurt’s voice-over later reveals “sometimes I feel like they (the media) want me to die”, and his intimate journal entries reflect a fragile and increasingly fragmented individual. Inherent in almost everything is a scathing critique of the vicious, bestial media and its intrusion into the most personal and intimate spaces of his overexposed public life. However, the inclusion of home videos shows the blissful family life of Kurt, wife Courtney Love and newborn baby Frances Bean, and these are the moments in which Kurt appears happiest. Courtney, who has received much hatred and is the centre of conspiracy theories surrounding Kurt’s death, is funny, wild and much too obviously in love with Kurt. It is a more intriguing portrayal of their relationship and of the woman many believe had a huge hand in propelling his tragic end.

Morgen also focuses on the drug use that plagued Kurt, showing the struggle of realising that heroin had become deeply ingrained into his life. There is carefully selected footage which focuses on Kurt’s face, showing his often piercingly dazed, tired eyes and a face that masked a lot more conflict than it was willing to express. The documentary carefully proceeds to strip this mask away to reveal a megastar who became the voice of a “disaffected youth” without quite asking for it, who was fetishized, and repelled it to such a huge extent that he could not escape it. While he got what he wanted – the success of Nirvana – Kurt is shown to have wanted only the feeling of playing live, the comforts associated with success and most importantly, a normal life. It is almost a sigh of relief after such a whirlwind that the documentary ends abruptly and decides against dwelling too much over Kurt’s painful death.