We need to let movies like ‘Udta Punjab’ fly

Photo credit: DNA India

Its been a long time since I watched a movie that broke my heart. Bollywood movies in particular often fail to make me emotional because of their formulaic story lines, stock characters and their inability to depict a world that one can truly relate to. Hindi cinema rarely moves away from the norm: romantic or flawed heroes saving the day, titillating dance or ‘item’ numbers,  the glamorisation of violence and much too often, typical stereotypes in abundance.

But ‘Udta Punjab’, a film about drug abuse in Punjab, is very different. Directed by Abhishek Chaubey, it finally released on June 17th when Indians went up in arms and demanded freedom of expression. This came after the Indian Central Board of Film Certification was set to make a whopping 89 cuts to the film. Despite the Bombay High Court clearing the movie for release with just one cut, the war on drugs was not over when the movie suffered yet more controversy. Two days before its release, copies of ‘Udta Punjab’ were leaked online, free for all to watch. Many claimed it was intentionally leaked by the Indian censor board. If any movie has had difficulty reaching its audience, it has been ‘Udta Punjab.’

The movie’s brilliance however lies in its stellar script and cast. ‘Udta Punjab’ is proof that a good story and impeccable acting can move people out of the comfort of their homes and into the cinema.”Speak the truth even if your voice shakes” is a quote I associate with its release. And the movie sure does speak many truths.

We follow the lives of four people directly affected by the immeasurable drug problem plaguing Punjab, which has now become the well-established drugs capital of India. It focuses on Sartaj, an officer working for the Punjab police, Preet, a doctor dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts in her hospital, Kumari, a woman working in the fields who come across a mysterious package and finally, Tommy Singh, a Punjabi singer addicted to cocaine and facing a downward spiral because of it. ‘Udta Punjab’ reveals how these previously unconnected lives come together because of drugs, and its subsequent impact on their lives.

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Kareena Kapoor as doctor Preet and Diljit Dosanjh as police officer Sartaj in a still from ‘Udta Punjab.’ (Photo credit: Indian Express)

But why is a movie like ‘Udta Punjab’ so important? For me, the story really hit a nerve. Somewhere deep within me, I was waiting for the Bollywood film industry to make a movie focusing on my hometown, Punjab. And I didn’t want it to appear on screen all frills and beauty, with generic fields of lush green, funny-sounding horns blaring down the GT road, repetitive dialogue about delectable Punjabi cuisine or shots of colourfully-clothed women singing jaunty songs and celebrating Indian festivals. That’s the kind of Punjab the rest of India and the world dreams about, but it is far removed from what Punjab is really like. I’m glad to say this surpassed my expectations.

As someone who is Punjabi and spent less time in England and more in India, any issue that affects my hometown of Punjab is always one that affects me. Drugs has been one of them for a long time. Back home in India, I have family members addicted to drugs, and have heard many stories of the lengths they’ve gone to in order to obtain illegal substances. I know relatives who have overdosed and nearly died, addicts locked up inside their homes with families seeking help from false representatives of God, people who have hidden little sachets containing smack in their pockets for all their life, and even those who have been high and driven my family and I on 8-hour journeys from Delhi to Jalandhar – just because they can. So when it comes to drug abuse in Punjab, you can say it’s a pretty sensitive subject.

What ‘Udta Punjab’ has done for cinema goers like me is simply astounding. I walked away deeply emotional and affected by what I’d seen. The direction was impeccable and the story line brutally honest. At its heart, the movie showed the destruction brought about by the presence of drugs, and the rapid breakdown of Punjab, a state which is in absolute turmoil. The police force are represented as corrupt, calculating and ready to take their cut of 10,000 rupees at the expense of those dying for just one more hit. Helpless and lost are the young boys on the streets spending money either stolen or forcefully taken from their parents in order to shoot up. Women are sex slaves reduced to objects and abused by sadistic drug lords. Politicians mimic reality and offer drugs in exchange for crucial votes that will keep them in power – a power that will continue to allow illegal drugs into the state and which will ultimately kill thousands of people involved in the trade.

Shahid Kapoor as the drug-fuelled Punjabi star Tommy Singh. (Photo credit: India Today)

Throughout ‘Udta Punjab’ there is a sense of dwindling hope, where trusted members of society become monsters in front of our very eyes. What some would think of as a dystopian nightmare is what Punjab has definitively become. I can see exactly why the Indian censor board was so eager to make cuts to the movie. It doesn’t beat around the bush. Politicians are shown as leading and fuelling the drug abuse in the state, while the police are allies in protecting and assisting criminals in drug trafficking. Women are injected with drugs and gang-raped, blame is deflected and placed on celebrities themselves corrupted by drugs and the youth are demonic, possessed and inconsolable without their daily – if not hourly – fix.

This is how ‘Udta Punjab’ shows my hometown, and I cannot pretend this portrayal is wrong. Some scenes in the movie are so awful that I turned my face away and avoided watching. Beside me, my best friend sat in tears as we came face-to-face with a reality that is still so hard to digest. Hard-hitting. Gut-wrenching. Upsetting. Real. These are just some of the words that come to mind. But most of all, I am embarrassed and ashamed that a place I call home is living with such a crisis, and that nobody is doing anything to stop it. Drug addiction is everywhere, but not more so than in Punjab. The heights the abuse and greed has reached is spiralling out of control. Those who should be helping India to thrive are happily poisoning its name for money and power. Can it ever really end?

‘Udta Punjab’ is bleak and depressing, but for all the right reasons. While hope does come, it almost feels like it’s too late.

Alia Bhatt steals the show with her heartbreaking depiction of Kumari. (Photo credit: IBN Live)

 

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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.

 

Amy Jackson is cashing in on ‘Singh is Bling’, but can India really accept her?

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Amy Jackson and Akshay Kumar star in Prabhudeva’s latest Bollywood offering, ‘Singh is Bling’. (Photo credit: Daily Motion)

She’s the newest face in Bollywood, flown over from Liverpool to kick-start a career in the illustrious Hindi film industry. Arriving from England to permanently make India home while accepting its culture and language, its undeniable romance and its mysterious, whimsical magic is no mean feat, and Amy Jackson has certainly risen to the challenge.

Making her mark in Tamil movies initially with I and period-drama film Madrasapattinam, Jackson embraced Hindi cinema with movie Ek Deewana Tha, but has now found wider fame through starring opposite one of Bollywood’s biggest superstars, Akshay Kumar.

Through performing commendable stunts and including another eyebrow-raising bikini scene in the newly-released Singh is Bling, fame has quickly landed on Jackson’s doorstep. Yet this has also encouraged hushed whispers questioning Jackson’s place in Bollywood – the obvious issue being how a nation embraces a white, British actress trying to make it big in B-town. And while it isn’t totally unheard of for an international actress to find a place in Bollywood, it is interesting to see how quickly Jackson in particular has carved a career in it, now hinting at upcoming movies with the likes of Salman Khan.

Amy Jackson and Akshay Kumar in Singh is Bling. (Photo credit: India Today)
Amy Jackson and Akshay Kumar in ‘Singh is Bling’. (Photo credit: India Today)

Jackson’s sudden rise to fame is certainly unprecedented, so is it right for Indians to express anger as she fashions a career in Bollywood? Undeniably, it is difficult to process that a white, British-born female is playing the lead opposite Akshay Kumar, but how can we ignore the time when a fresh-faced, barely known Katrina Kaif, also born in Britain, entered the film industry speaking little to no Hindi and was quickly cast in numerous films, with the help of a dubbed Hindi voice-over?

Was it her Kashmiri origins or her familiar sounding name that simply ticked the box and rose her to ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ fame, or the fact that she looked somewhat Asian, and so got the job done? Why is it that Indians easily accepted Katrina Kaif, for whom it took years to speak and understand the Hindi language, but brush off Amy Jackson, who has fully tried to embrace a new language and culture?

Katrina Kaif (Photo credit: The Guardian)
Katrina Kaif dances in smash-hit single ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ (Photo credit: The Guardian/Sterling Media PR)

On the flip-side, it’s impossible to also dismiss Bollywood’s casual acceptance of international actresses who cannot speak fluent Hindi, but the odd way in which Kangana Ranaut – winner of the best actress accolade at the National Awards for her groundbreaking role in Queen – was mocked for her ‘inability’ to speak English because of her Haryana accent. Or the way in which Priyanka Chopra, now leading ABC’s Quantico in America, was recently scrutinized for her unconvincing ‘American drawl’ and her failure to stick to more Indian roots.

And that’s not all. It’s also problematic that in Singh is Bling, the make-up team have attempted to make Amy Jackson appear more ‘Indian’ through darkening her skin tone. It is this decision that shines a more negative spotlight on an industry which firstly, has always expressed a clear preference for fair skin and now, has cast a white actress in one of the blockbuster movies of the year, while simultaneously bringing her to a level of ‘acceptable brownness’. Where is the logic in this, and if Hollywood would not get away with making darker a white female actress in order to portray her as Asian or African, how does Bollywood?

With this in mind, wouldn’t Bollywood be better off saving the environment or the like through using less foundation and bronzer – or whatever is slapped onto Amy’s face – by bringing in new talent that is… well, Indian. It is frustrating that Hindi cinema has introduced a white British actress to a nation of Indians, but then made it a ‘requirement’ to be brown, which feels false and controversial when issues surrounding race are concerned.

There is no doubt that Bollywood must branch out and bring in new talent in a positive way, but when that talent draws in harsh, racist criticism, it becomes clouded by issues rooted deeply in India’s contradictory attitudes towards those who are selected to represent them on the big screen. And judging by previous results, if you’re British-Indian and can’t speak Hindi, it’s okay, but if you’re white and British, it’s not.

And if you’re Indian, well, you’re probably more worse off than anyone.

Movie review: PK

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Photo credit: rediff.com

 

Not too often does a Bollywood movie appear with promotional posters showing a naked man covering his bits with a radio. This is when you know that Indian cinema is beginning to head in a new (and probably eyebrow-raising) direction.

Here’s introducing the new and very controversial release of PK into Indian cinema. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani with a fantastic cast comprising of Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, Sushant Singh Rajput, Boman Irani and Sanjay Dutt, the story of an alien’s arrival on Earth to complete a research mission quickly escalates into his quest to find the stolen “remote control” that will get him home. This results in a hilarious journey which sees the breaking of Indian taboos and some frank discussions on issues that would much rather be swept under the carpet by the larger Indian majority.

Aamir Khan is an endearing, loveable PK with no knowledge about life on earth and implicitly poking fun at how Indian society works, from judging people based on their clothing (the white colour signifies an Indian widow but is also the colour a bride wears when she gets married) to critiquing the way in which people carry condoms in their pockets but refuse to talk about sex and using protection. The main premise on which PK is built underscores the need to question India’s various religious and social beliefs as well as the corruption and falsity often attached to them.

This is done in a perfect balance that sways between extremes of shock, sadness and humour, and Aamir Khan proves his versatility as an actor through the precision with which he captures a non-human’s response to Indian society. For example, at a stall market selling miniature statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses at varying prices, PK asks: “but does the one costing 20 rupees do the same thing?” Later, when he asks God to help him find his remote control and get him back home and receives no answer, he asks the stall owner “have God’s batteries run out?”

The social message behind the movie is simple and direct: we instill a huge amount of faith in religion, where people in India go to huge extremes in order to prove their religiosity and devotion, but does it bear fruit for them or for those who capitalise from it? And on a wider scale, what happens when you try every path and you find no resolve? It is indeed a controversial movie to make and market within India, and there has been uproar at the mockery made of religion and particularly Hindu dharma, but PK dramatizes in a completely ingenious way the questions everyone thinks about but refuses to ask, whether in Indian society or not.

A beautiful soundtrack interweaves throughout this colorful and vibrant movie as well as a quirky romance that keeps the movie from becoming too overbearing or righteous. Anushka Sharma also shows a transformation in her role as the charismatic and bubbly Jaggu, who has a style and fashion sense I fell slightly in love with.

PK is a strategically paced movie bringing provoking questions to the forefront of Indian cinema. It is one of a few Bollywood movies attempting to decode and unravel the complexities of Indian thought and society and leaves audiences with moments of utter comedy and despair. ★★★★★

What does the attack on Gauhar Khan tell us?

Photo credit: The Independent
Photo credit: The Independent

The image above shows actress and TV star Gauhar Khan left shocked after audience member Akil Malik slapped her during the filming of a TV show for wearing a ‘revealing’ backless outfit. According to Mumbai Police, he justified his actions by stating that “being a Muslim woman, she should not have worn such a short dress.”

This incident has been on my mind since yesterday, when reports first emerged in the UK media. What surprises me is how this male managed to get passed 250 security guards and an audience consisting of 2,500 people and failed to get spotted as he made his way on stage and carried out the attack.

But this isn’t the only issue plaguing my mind. It is simply horrific that Khan was subjected to this act of violence because of her clothing and a desire to express herself through it. Not only has she been traumatised, she has been denied the right to choose.

Now, I understand that the Muslim woman is expected to cover herself, but I think we can all agree that this aspect of the religion does not follow suit on a national or global level. While some females may adhere, others do not choose to  cover themselves and ultimately, a choice is made to dress how they wish. While Khan may be Muslim, we must not forget that she is a woman, and more specifically, a human. What is wrong with Khan’s decision to wear what she wants? Should one be condemned for following a religion, believing in a God but doing it in a way that fits them? If that brings them solace but angers us, then why should we interfere and try and condemn them? Why should we play God? Wouldn’t God then be angry that humans were trying to steal his thunder anyway?

More importantly, however, if someone has decided to mould a religion to what they want it to be, then why does religion need to exist at all?

The slapping of Khan has acted as a warning for women of fame and fortune to cover up or face being subjected to violent treatment. Indian society seems to be saying:

“we’ll watch you on our screens, but if you appear in front of us in reality, wearing what we feel is ‘inappropriate’ clothing, then we have the right to make sure we violate that body and let you know that you’ve done wrong”.

Malik’s slapping of Khan is an attempt to control the female body and show that it is men who will decide and carry out a fitting punishment for women who are not doing what is ‘right’.  It’s a clear, patriarchal mentality to inhibit and shun female expression, success and sexuality, and it is wrong. Gauhar Khan has been victimised and found herself on the receiving end of everything that is wrong with how women – whether celebrities or not – are viewed. We are constantly hearing of the ridiculous suggestion that women should dress less provocatively in order to prevent sexual assault and rape, but these people fail to consider that men could change their attitudes to it. It is the perverse and patriarchal male gaze and the view that women are unequal and bodies offering unrestricted sexual and/or violent access that produces such defaming attacks on innocent women. Gauhar Khan will now think twice before wearing an item of clothing and stepping outside the house. One slap, and her whole outlook on her body, the way she presents it and her confidence will now change.

In my view, the slap was an act of hatred under the guise of religion. We should be questioning the perpetrator himself and asking whether he practices Islam in a way that is 100% accurate. How do we know whether or not Malik – who apparently condemns Bollywood actress for ‘exposing’ themselves – sits in his living room enjoying the show of flesh himself? What if he is indulging too? How can anyone know whether he is perfect? Who gives him the right to endanger a woman and enforce the ‘right’ way of doing things?

Gauhar Khan, although now ‘recovering’ from the situation, should not have had to face this. Muslim or not, she should decide what she wears and how she carries herself. We may raise our eyebrows, but at most, that is all we should do when pondering over the inconsistencies that religion brings out in people.

Sometimes, people just want to be themselves. Live with it.

Deepika Padukone isn’t all that!

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Deepika Padukone is all the rage at the moment. Last year was definitely one of her finest in terms of delivering blockbusters in Bollywood. From Chennai Express to Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani and of course her most popular role to date as Leela in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram- Leela, Deepika has proved she’s left her days of starring in less than average movies well and truly behind.

Now, with Bollywood award season in full-swing, many are anticipating that Deepika will scoop the best actress award at nearly every award ceremony, and why not? She has starred in movies which have made millions and attracted global attention, receiving at least three nominations in the best actress category of every award ceremony because of it. More than likely, she will win this title for her success in 2013. Fair play to her, she has done very well.

However, in my eyes, we’re looking at someone who is being awarded because they have simply ticked the “made-it-a-blockbuster” box next to a movie. Deepika remains for me a very mediocre actress, and one who has tried to show diversity yet failed to actually act in a role which truly deserves commendation. Her role upon the release of Cocktail was very much hyped up, but upon watching it I found that she was at it again – playing a wild, youthful girl for whom it goes wrong somehow. I was hugely disappointed. Although the films mentioned above allowed her to branch out and try her hand at playing other characters, I still feel as though a daring, bold and incredibly different role was not occupied by Deepika. All she did last year was play a nerdy girl who undergoes a transformation in one movie and replicated a highly sexual and somewhat annoying female in another. At no point did I think “wow, she really is a master of her trade… HAND HER THOSE AWARDS NOW!!!” because frankly, I still feel like she has a lot to prove!

Deepika’s success can definitely be linked to the huge amount of promotion that took place around her 3 massive hits. It’s brilliant that she has starred in such successful movies but I remain convinced that the best ACTRESS award should probably have gone to no one.

Bollywood confuses me, immensely.

The title of my blog post sums up what I’ll be discussing in this post. The Bollywood film industry confuses me, a lot.

I don’t watch a lot of Indian TV channels, largely because most of it is extremely rubbish. What I do often watch is Indian music channels, and yesterday I watched (properly) the music video for a Bollywood song which had many an Indian going slightly barmy, titled “Chikni Chameli”.

What I saw was a much-loved Bollywood actress – Katrina Kaif, shown in the above picture – parading around with a bottle of alcohol attached to her waist and scantily clad. Dancing away in a rather sexual and vulgar manner, she is surrounded by a hoard of men. Striking the match from within her cleavage, she lights a cigarette for one of them. Then, flashed a message addressed to anyone watching:

“Cigarette smoking is injurious to health”.

Okay, thanks for the heads up, Bollywood.

Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this? If you know me already, you may have guessed where it’s heading. If you don’t, I’m about to tell you.

I was absolutely fuming that Bollywood cinema felt it was more important to portray, in a very normal manner, the sexualisation of woman without any warning flashing across the screen informing cinema-goers that this was not in any way an accurate portrayal of a female. Rather, it consisted of reminding audiences that smoking kills, as if people didn’t already know. What I’d like to clear up before I move on is that I’m not in any way stating that cigarette smoking shouldn’t be advertised as being harmful – by all means, it should! Rather, what I’m trying to highlight is that Bollywood needs to get its priorities right.

Seeing this smoking warning pop up while the bigger picture was being completely obliterated made me think about how Bollywood cinema essentially fuels the wrong mentality in men towards women. Being the massive industry that it is, I believe it is the one medium in India which can reach out to males and bring about a change in attitude to the opposite sex. It is disgusting to see how actresses feel it is okay to firstly, star in such roles and degrade their own gender, and secondly, how Bollywood promotes female objectification in such an explicit way. If actresses like Katrina Kaif, who perform what are called “item numbers”, rejected these kinds of songs and roles, then the Bollywood film industry we see today could have a huge hand in altering the minds of men who see their female counterparts as the unrealistic women portrayed on the big screen.

As well as advertising the fact that smoking kills, Bollywood needs to put across the fact that women do not gyrate amongst predatory men and that they sure as hell do not attach little bottles of alcohol to their waist in an attempt to seduce men. If women were portrayed in a more realistic and less derogatory fashion, and not in such a carnal way, then not only in India, but globally, our gender can finally begin to be respected for being human beings, and not marginalised as being sexual beings produced to sexually gratify the needs of men.

Considering the exposure that gang-rapes and female victimization has gained in the media recently, it would make sense if Bollywood began to take steps to ensure that the movies they produce promote gender equality and respect for women in India, especially. It is heartbreakingly sad for me to say however, that like any industry, Bollywood thrives on making money and ensuring that their female actresses are depicted in the most appealing way only.

It will continue to do this for a very long time, and this is why Bollywood confuses me.

Here’s the link for the song I’m talking about. Perhaps it will give anyone reading this some background on what I’ve written about:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7zqLiZ1GOo