Using Silence on Screen: A Tentative List of Reasons Why You Should Watch Newton this Year

Standard

Set in the media-infamous forests of Dandakaranya, Newton (2017) humorously chronicles the quest of a government clerk to hold fair elections in a tense political situation. The cleverly written opening sequence of Masurkar’s Newton appears to set the tone for the entire movie: by thrusting the spectator into the electoral victory and subsequent capture and assassination of a political leader, the movie seems to present what the audience expects. There is the usual code of representation that most (Hindi) cinema-going audiences in India would recognize- continuous and parallel cutting used to create a sense of events happening in ‘real time’ building into suspense, a newly elected and bloated neta being felicitated with garlands of marigolds, his conversation with (presumably) a family member, saying he will be home for dinner. With these cues, the audience already knows that this man shall not make it home. Sure enough, his car is ambushed by armed militants, and it judders to a halt. After a few shots of the distressed neta’s face and news articles covering the ambush, the audience is left to fill in the gaps. Having shown the spectator this carefully choreographed sequence of violence that does not make any significant departures from either the aesthetics or politics of representation in Bollywood, the film turns this logic of representation almost entirely on its head once the ‘title card’ and the casting is over. It is as if Masurkar uses the opening sequence as a template of how a situation like this would have been shown on the screen- and Bollywood has had perhaps one too many patronizingly righteous movies about insurgency(ies) within the Indian state- and then proceeds to use this template to mark just how much the rest of the narration departs from this template. It is telling that (spoilers aside) this is the only sequence in the entire movie where the Maoists in the area appear on screen. By ‘making them real’ in this sequence and then avoiding a visual or even an aural representation in the rest of the film, Masurkar avoids slipping into dangerously melodramatic or caricatural depictions of the Maoists or Naxalites. To provide some context, one could refer to Arundhati Roy’s article Walking With the Comrades, where she details a moment of hilarity when ‘Comrade Leng’ asks why Naxalites are always sketched out quite so recognizably in Indian film (whether in mainstream Bollywood or other vernacular cinemas), and then proceeds to fall into an accurate caricature of a “hunted-looking man” stepping out of the forest with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Newton, in comparison, deftly sidesteps this trap, and instead uses the very absence of the Maoists on screen to build an entire narrative around.

This is not the only way in which Newton toys with spectatorial expectations. It manages to add a playfulness to its dark humour that makes the movie very refreshing for one set in the heartlands of the Indian state, the usually glossed over stronghold of the ‘biggest Internal Security threat’ to the country. The appeal of Newton lies in its modesty, and here the directorial intention clearly deviates from the protagonist who is portrayed with a great deal of skill and gentle irony. The exchange between Newton and his training officer for the Election Commission, included even in the trailer for the film, becomes a self-reflexive jab by the screenwriters as soon as Sanjay Mishra rebukes Newton of “imaandaari ka ghamand” (loosely translated, his self-righteous attitude). Each character included in the film, even Sanjay Mishra in this cameo, contributes an additional facet to the tightly constructed narrative. The film very cleverly uses the rather large cast of actors to evoke one of the foremost tenets of striving to realism in cinema- it allows ‘reality’ to lay itself bare. By utilizing this mode of representation and altering it with the addition of a healthy dose of satire, Newton manages to present to the audience a large picture that draws attention to its many pieces, and tempts its spectator into arranging these pieces to create meaning.

The character of Malko, played by Anjali Patil, remained one of the best parts of the film for me long after I had watched it. Though she is not one of the better-known faces of commercial cinema in Bollywood, Patil has also starred in Chakravyuh (2012), where she plays a Maoist revolutionary. Whether this was an intentional ‘quotation’ on the part of the film-makers or not, it provided an additional layer to the narrative when I ruminated about Newton in retrospect. In Newton, Malko occupies the position the filmic narrative hopes to situate the spectator in by the end of the movie. Interestingly enough, her introduction on screen occurs directly after a very charged confrontation between Newton and Aatma Singh that made me wonder what the movie would have looked like with a non-male protagonist. Seconds after I had posed this question to my friend in the theatre, Malko appeared on screen, wading out of the dark forest, framed exactly like Newton is in numerous shots, but in reverse- where he is always surrounded by light or the suggestion of it, Malko materializes out of the dark with a torch in her hand. As the Adivasi woman who is also an election official, she provides nuance and complexity to the entire narrative. She often counters Newton, undercutting his more idealistic grandstanding with her levelheaded prior experience of the world they enter (to which Newton is a complete stranger). Her deadpan sallies animate the action of the movie, much of which is spent in waiting in one room. Malko provides an interesting counterpoint to Newton’s insistence on rationality and proper procedure, and without her mediation, these values would appear to the audience as absurdly at a remove from the situation in which the film is grounded. Malko is ‘sensible’, but not in the way Newton is; she is an election official whose zeal for the democratic process is tempered by a lived experience of the numerous ways in which electoral politics fail on the ground, and even take on repressive aspects. She provides some of the best comedic moments in the film, such as when she offers a branch full of red ants to Loknath, played by Raghubir Yadav, to counter malarial infection, and goes on to talk of the red ant chutney made by the locals, making fun of Newton for being a stranger to indigenous practices such as these. This one scene again subtly underscores the self-awareness and criticality of the screenwriters; they know very well that they cannot convey the experience or subjectivity of the locals, and therefore, they do not try to. Herein lies what I believe should be commended about this film- its unassuming nature. Somehow, Newton manages to tread the thin line between melodramatic, heroic narrative, or its other extreme of sanctimonious ‘social realism’ by pointing repeatedly to its own failures and gaps in representation. These moments with Malko as a counterpoint to the ‘enlightened’, urban Newton serve to undercut bits in the movie that seem in slightly bad taste and correspond to the patronizing attitude I feared it would adopt- such as the montage of locals with their fingers held up, indicating how Newton has brought them into the benevolent fold of electoral politics.

Whether filmed as a melodramatic film, or in some kind of uncritical ‘realism’, the movie would have necessitated a ‘taking of sides’ in its specific context. By avoiding both while playing with elements of each, the film avoids a didactic stand, and instead lets the audience decide by sparsely laying out clues for them to pick up. That the school building in a burnt-down village is not simply a propitious choice is obvious; the knowledge of villages like Ambeli and Kotrapal ravaged in this manner is not necessary to understand the magnitude of such an act of violence. The presence of the Salwa Judum hovers menacingly over the characters in the movie, and the police force’s distinct discomfort when Newton asks for a culpable party also subtly implies the State’s complicity. Absences- of sound and image- gain importance as vehicles for meaning, or at least to open up a variety of possibilities repeatedly. When Newton and Malko are standing outside the school building reading graffiti, he asks her if the villagers had written on the walls, and she assents. The film audience, however, is not shown the text. Later, while Newton and Loknath converse in the foreground about Ravana being the first ‘Indian pilot’, the frame widens as the camera moves out, until the two characters are framed by a window and a bit of wall where fragments of graffiti in Devnagri, saying ‘Salwa Judum’, ‘kutte’, and ‘Hindu’ are slightly visible. Malko remains in the background, framed by the open door on the other end and a bit of forest. This use of depth of field serves a very important purpose when the entire film is constantly negotiating with the fear of censorship- how much and what can be shown on screen?

Newton is persistently engaging in a dialogue with these problems. There is no ‘one’ truth depicted anywhere in the film, or even a ‘solution’. Even when Newton and Aatma Singh adopt similarly patronizing attitudes towards the locals while explaining how voting functions, and subsequently get into an argument, they are interrupted by a village elder, who mildly tells them that he is the elected chief and therefore responsible for the villagers. The fact that Gondi in the movie is not glossed with subtitles adds even more to this scene. The majority of the cinema-going audience are put in the position of Aatma and Newton for a moment, and made aware of their own complicity in the functioning of a state mechanism where citizens are in such a predicament, and where the usual attitude adopted is the paternalistic one both Aatma and Newton take on in the scene. That the ‘village chief’ steps up to solve the almost childish squabble of the two men does not gesture at a Janatana Sarkar, perhaps, but at least creates a fissure in the dominant narrative where the Adivasi gains agency, and not just through the figure of one token Adivasi woman. This is an important break in the tradition of realism in Indian cinema as it exists. For me, it evoked and broke away from the unpleasant memory of the casting of Simi Garewal in blackface for Ray’s Aranyer Dinratri (1970). In Newton, there is no reference to the sexual exploitation of Adivasi women by security forces- or most recently, members of Operation Green Hunt- but there are subtle references to the forms this may adopt, the most benevolent of which is probably the police force’s demand for chicken curry (a source of some hilarity among the audience).

Understanding Newton as set within a specific language of ‘realism’ and a logic of pleasure within Hindi cinema may provide a clue to why it has generated a buzz at the box office despite its probing of rather uncomfortable questions. Perhaps the audience in the Kolkata theatre I went to recognized it as entering into the genre of realist or even parallel cinema, following in the footsteps of Ray and Ghatak even while interrogating their styles. Vasudevan reads Satyajit Ray’s importance in the construction of Indian nationhood as informed by “imagining the present as a distinct moment” separated from previous generical imaginaries. It may be interesting to consider that Foucault points out a similar tendency as he deconstructs Enlightenment when he talks of the ‘heroizing’ of the present. Putting these two arguments together for Newton presents the audience with an articulate, modern, ‘Enlightened’ protagonist who is grappling with the ideas of subjectivity and nationhood that are so contested at the moment. In what has become one of the most widely circulated readings of the movie, Wankhede proposes that Newton is the ‘new’ Dalit hero, an “independent rational thinking human being”, who is born into a caste society but is himself free of his caste identity. For me, the appeal of Newton as a protagonist lay not in his seemingly casteless being, which seemed a marker of his urban class privilege, but in the very way the narrative attacks his assumption of rationality. What redeems the movie from becoming preachy, or upholds the idea of the ‘good’ Dalit or the ‘good’ Adivasi with a peaceful faith in electoral politics is that Newton himself in the climactic moment is not ‘rational’. When Newton picks up the “desh ka bhaar” (the weight of the country) by pointing a rifle at the security forces, wild-eyed, he is very far from the Enlightenment hero who is framed with a blank blackboard behind him halfway through the movie. This rupture in the narrative, and the subsequent gratuitous violence of the security forces, when taken with the more darkly comic jabs made at the role of the police officers (their making Adivasi children sing as ‘punishment’, or the talk of how much surrenders are worth monetarily), makes an interesting space in the movie to consider larger questions. The ‘selling point’ of the film for me was that none of these questions are answered definitively, and the film audience leaves the hall with a slightly nonplussed buzz once the story arc has drawn to a close with the characters at a ‘safe’ remove from the forests.

 

Advertisements

চোখ

Standard

Vultures Crossing

রিন টিন টিন টিন রিন টিন টিন

তিব্বতের গুম্ফায়ে ঘুস গ্যায়া চিন

তাকে দিন তাকে দিন তাকে দিন

কাকে দিমু কাকে দিমু কাকে দিমু

বাজারেতে বড় দাম , ইতিহাসে হিমু

তেরে তাক তেরে তাক তেরে তাক

আর্ট অফ লিভিং! তহবিল ফাঁক

রামদেব দেখিয়ে যান হনুমানের লাফ

কাশ্মীর শান্ত, সব মুসলিম সাফ

চাক বুম চাক বুম চাক বুম

চার বোতল ভদকা, লাগবে যে ধুম

আজাদি মাঙ্গলে কিন্তু হয়ে যাবে গুম

তো ধরো তান ধরো তান ধরো তান

হাসতে ভুলো নাকো, হয়ও না হয়রান

চোখ বুজে খবর শোনো – সব দোষ পাকিস্তান।

View original post

On Rape Culture and Brock Turner , Or, Rape Does Not Take Place in a Vacuum

Standard

https://mic.com/articles/145898/in-response-to-brock-turner-the-porn-site-x-hamster-is-cracking-down-on-rape?utm_source=policymicFB&utm_medium=main&utm_campaign=social#.rePqTej6q

I haven’t so far written about the Stanford rape case, or about Brock Turner, but he has been mentioned over and over in heated discussions I have had with people concerning the case. I have also been voraciously reading up every new report on the case, because I cannot believe what in my opinion is a gross miscarriage of justice, that is, the sentencing of Brock Turner to a period of six months (not six months, actually, since he is due for release in September) for a crime of this magnitude. It is incredible to me that with the overwhelming amount of evidence against him, and what he has done to another person, there are many who harbour sympathy for this very promising swimmer- a fact none of us have been allowed to forget with his defense stressing it over and over again. There are several things to be noted here, and of prime importance among them is that rape needs to be treated like other forms of violence. Yes, sexual violence works differently, but it is an assertion of power no less than murder is. What facilitates someone like Brock Turner to rape an unconscious woman- and presumably send pictures of her breasts to a group of friends- is a nexus of power relations. It is his wealth, gender and race, and therefore privilege that produces the kind of male entitlement that could prompt someone into thinking his “20 minutes of action” could even be termed that. Case in point:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-brock-turner-cory-batey-show-race-affects-sentencing-article-1.2664945

It is this intersectionality that deserves focus in this case. And since Brock Turner is a product of his immediate society, it is not for one to discount the power of rape culture. Misogyny and casual sexism abound in all forms of media we encounter, and to ignore them is to refuse to acknowledge their role in the shaping of our culture, and culture as such shapes our reality. Which is why I think it is a very positive step if porn site xHamster is shutting down availability of videos that carry the tag “non consensual”- a term that in itself is a problem, since it implies that non consensual sex is anything but rape. I do not believe in the argument that says porn does not give ideas to rapists and pedophiles, or that rapists and pedophiles do not need to take directions from pornography (an argument used also by Alan Moore in his defense of rape in Lost Girls). This argument is reductive and literalises the very idea of rape culture. Rape culture runs far deeper than pornography giving directions for rape; the very idea that women can be treated as sexual objects is perpetuated every day by things like this. It is but one step from this (is it even a step?) to the friendly, nice guy next door who does not hesitate to make a rape joke, and when I do not find it funny, tells me to “lighten up” because he is only making a joke, not actually raping someone, a statement which I suppose must fill me with immense gratitude. Male entitlement is reinforced every day with advertisements, tv shows, serials, films, books, and almost every bit of media we see around us in a world where information flows by the second. Which is why I think it is a sign of great positivity that at least with this case, pornography- an industry which is surprisingly progressive and not as misogynist as one presumes, as demonstrated by at least the immediate reaction to James Deen’s being accused of sexual assault- at least is responding to the harmful effect of rape culture, and this is something that should be celebrated, albeit with tentativeness.

(note: an update on James Deen: https://mic.com/articles/133343/3-months-later-here-s-what-the-porn-industry-thinks-of-james-deen#.EHv34exdn )

Stop Letting This Go.

Standard

A brilliant article that reiterates a point I also loved about another a few days ago that talked about how most women tend to “de-escalate”; we make offences against us seem “OK” or alright because we are so used to them in the worlds we inhabits in different kinds of ways, some always worse than the others. This article by Jessica Valenti talks about the importance of speaking up about these instances, no matter how ugly they are or how uncomfortable they may be. Living in fear should never be the only option available.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/28/jessica-valenti-my-life-as-a-sex-object?CMP=share_btn_fb

Rant for the Day

Standard

The Game of Thrones fandom collectively (and since I am not as much a part of it as a lot of other people I know are, I shall not claim superior knowledge with regard to fan theories, plot details from the books or the show, or possible factions within the fandom, all of which have my due respect and my apology for this extremely long parenthesis) has managed to do what very few things have before- prompt me to post on this blog a rant the likes of which I only articulate primarily with my long-suffering flatmate. After the recent episode of Game of Thrones, Season 6, which admittedly broke my heart with its impressive inclusion of an almost rabidly morbid interest of mine- the vagaries and implications of time travel, or to put it the way I like best, wibbly wobbly timey wimey- I was also incredibly happy about the way Sansa’s character is beginning to shape up. As far as my reading of the show goes (with which a fellow ranter agrees), Sansa’s turning point came in Season five as Miranda threatened her while bathing her, and her response to some shoddily written threatening was something that left me chilled as she lay claim to her power as the (to her knowledge then) the most immediate heir to Winterfell. Even though this claim to power came from a place of primogeniture the show upholds as part of its being set in the kind of timeline that it is, I thought this was a good hint towards where her character would hopefully end up, and that would not be in a place where she becomes a tool or an instrument for men to lay claim to power, particularly through her body. In a show where women’s relationship to power is always fraught and nearly always related to their bodies and to narrow it down some more, to their reproductive function, I thought this was a move towards a slightly less cloudy stance on gender than usual.

To digress a little and expand on my point about the reproductive functions women’s bodies perform and are limited to on the show- I am speaking exclusively about the show since my knowledge is limited to that, and this is my highly subjective reading of it at most- I think I could illustrate this best with the first episode in this season. Like most other fans (particularly fans I knew who were women or who even had vaguely feminist sympathies, if that is the way one can put it) I did not like the last season very much with regard to how the women were being treated, a tendency that had been characterising the show from its inception, but which culminated with key moments in Season five such as Sansa’s rape- where the camera invisibilised her suffering quite literally by focusing on the pain and trauma her rape happened to cause an already beleagured male character(I’m sorry, but boohoo)- and Cersei’s Walk of Shame, where the makers seemed to take as much voyeuristic pleasure from the spectacle as did the townspeople who wanted only to violate the body of the queen in an effort to tear her down from a position of power, all the more jarring because Cersei had not been seen in the nude before this. This one scene sickened me, and when after watching it I was confronted with various people saying “she deserved it”, I was horrified and almost made up my mind to stop watching the show. This season and its first episode did not make me feel any better what with its surprise ending. It did not, for one thing, come as a surprise to me that Melisandre’s defeat had to be visualised in the particular way that it was. A spectacularly boring episode ending with the expected undressing by this character whom the show writers seem to have written in for this sole purpose was not a surprise at all, and the shock of the ending as the camera itself seemed to reel did not hold any power for me at all. The show in characterising Melisandre has always concentrated on her overpowering sexuality and for me the point this revolved around the most was when she uses this as her tool to “give birth” to a shadow. For a show where the (incredibly self righteous almost) powerful woman character is called the Mother of Dragons, this is clearly the ‘bad woman’ at this point, and for me, the first episode of Season 6 with its ending was only under writing this point about how Melisandre’s character does not fulfill a reproductive function that is demanded of her as a woman and chooses to seek power instead while still being limited to do so by her sexual function as a product of consumption on the show. The narrative at this point still revolves around her body, and the shock value of the moment is in the fact that it is the body of an old woman, a “hag” who is not aesthetically pleasing by the standard Carice Van Houten’s depiction follows, that is on camera, a body that cannot possibly be thought of as desirable or desiring(without being deviant, of course). This is why I had a problem with the memes that claimed this was an important revelation and said things like “Have fun objectifying Melisandre now”, since in my understanding the show did not in any way move away from its fetishisation of a woman’s body- using an old woman’s body as shock value or to indicate defeat for a beautiful woman is very contrived, and no better than the very misogynist scene in Kubrick’s The Shining where Nicholson is shocked to find himself embracing the tattoed body of an old woman and not the nubile young woman he thinks he sees in the bath tub. The young woman turning old while she looks at her body in the mirror  is a tired and decaying trope, and I wish the writers of the show would do better.

Now that my digression about my problem with the constant fetishisation of women’s bodies and the narrative revolving around their function as baby making machines is done, I shall come to my point about the latest episode, The Door. When I began watching the episode with my friend, I was very pleasantly surprised by Sansa at the beginning of the episode. Sansa’s story arc in this season is one that has been giving me some hope, what with her confident declarations of family pride- verbal or sartorial- and her literal gathering of forces; I think she is shaping up to be a very powerful character. What stunned me at the beginning of this episode was Sansa’s confrontation with Littlefinger, one that has also been long in the offing. She pushes him into a corner, an impressive feat considering that this is Littlefinger, whose primary power stems from words and his ability to use them well, and she forces him to consider the ramifications of the life he condemned her to as Ramsay’s bride. Not only does she question his true loyalties, she also brutally talks about her bodily abuse by Ramsay, and this is the dialogue I want to concentrate on here:

S: What do you think he did?

L: I can’t begin to contemplate-

S: What do you think he did to me?

L: He beat you.

S: Yes, he enjoyed that, what else do you think he did?

After this exchange, Sansa goes on to make this statement: “I can still feel it. I don’t mean in my tender heart it still pains me so, I can still feel what he did in my body standing here right now.“For one of the first times after Jessica Jones, here was a woman on television talking about the consequences of physical, sexual abuse, down to the bodily memory it leaves one with. I have been on the receiving end of one such instance, and for me as well as every other account I have heard/ read about from men, women and others who have endured any form of sexual abuse, this is something that rang true for all of them- the bodily memory of this kind of abuse stays with one for a long time, if not for the entirety of a lifetime, and to heal enough to move beyond to a place where one can be secure with their body again is incredibly difficult and traumatic. Because of this, I thought it was a very positive step that the show was beginning to address this very crucial aspect of abuse, which I also consider essential in the making of Sansa as a character holding power in the near future. Imagine my disappointment when I realised that even this one instance of visibility for trauma caused by sexual abuse was immediately turned into the latest raging fan theory- that Sansa is carrying Ramsay’s child. Here is an article detailing the points connecting to this, for those interested:

‘Game of Thrones’ Theories: Is Sansa Stark Pregnant?

As a woman who watches the show and is considerably invested in it- if that is not apparent from the length of this rant- I find it deeply offensive and most of all just plain sad that this is the immediate recourse the entire fandom seems to have taken after a dialogue that had the kind of potential this one did for lending a voice to a victim of rape.I am myself not distanced from theorising about shows I watch, but I feel like this one theory reduces Sansa again to simply being a tool (note particularly how the above article ends detailing the absolute horror of Sansa carrying the child of a man who raped her, not horrifying because of the rape itself, but because of how universally hated this character is) and is nothing but insulting. This feeds into a tendency that I have lately noted in a lot of films and tv series primarily written/directed by men that deal with rape. A case in point if you will allow yet another digression) is Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, where a woman is raped by a man (bafflingly, a homosexual,  but I shall not at this moment delve into the homophobia in this film) for almost an unflinching fifteen or twenty minutes. The film, which works through flashbacks, had its most interesting point for me in the fact that the men this woman happens to love and trust are no less misogynist in their understanding of women and their position in sexual relationships. For me, the movie fails in the last instance because it ends with an idyllic depiction of the woman being in a happy romantic relationship and being newly pregnant, literally seated in a park, as if to ram home how horrifying this rape was because look, she was going to have a baby, she had a life ahead of her! Rape is horrifying and an act of violation in any instance and unquestionably so- why is it that a child and a pregnancy needs to be involved in order to gain the sympathy of the audience for the character involved? I think the question the fandom at this point needs to ask itself is, has it become so desensitized to violence and particularly sexual violence against women on this show that an unborn child must needs be involved for it to even be horrifying any more? Oh,and of course, to get started on the pro-life and pro- choice debate this will bring up is even more sickening since no part of the fandom seems to even have considered that even though Sansa may be pregnant, she may also choose to not carry to term her pregnancy with a child of rape. Truly, Game of Thrones is beginning to write interesting “Strong Female Characters”.

 

 

About Stories

Standard

 

Fairy-tales have always been a weakness of mine, though to call it a weakness as such would belie the strength they have often had in influencing the way I think or the way I relate to the world around me. As a child who grew up in love with stories and in the lap of many of them, stories have been things I have often been inundated by and willingly so. Even though I found some of them lacking in some ways, I have always found some basic themes in fairy tales fascinating and will continue to do so for a while, I think; for me they function much in the way of myths, and fairy tales are myths in my opinion for a lot of people, even if they may not be defined as fairy tales as such. Having such an attachment to them, it is quite heartening to see that they are truly making leaps forward, leaps which I had thought were long in the offing. This post is prompted by them, and by this one-

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/25/good-night-stories-for-rebel-girls-is-dream-kickstarter-success?CMP=fb_gu

This gave me a lot of hope, and did brighten my day a bit, so I thought it deserved a share on the blog.