Fandom justice: Is the fight against nepotism as righteous as people think it is?

As I write this post, the new Dharma Productions film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl sits at a rather unfair 5.2/10 score on IMDB and a trailer for another Bollywood mainstream film Sadak 2 creates a record in garnering the most dislikes on YouTube within days of it being posted. Right now the number of dislike impressions on the trailer are at 12 million. Why are people and the media so angry with the two films? Do they deserve to be so angry? And, do these questions even deserve a write-up?

To understand the anger, one would need to go about two months back to the fateful day when Sushant Singh Rajput, an actor in the Hindi film industry, died. His demise has lead to a number of speculations as to whether he was driven to suicide or was it a cold-blooded murder and who the perpetrators are: the “Bollywood Mafia” as the self-appointed gatekeepers of the film industry are being called or Sushant’s girlfriend. While the speculations haven’t settled on any one party, the incident has set the age-old debate on nepotism in the film industry rolling, and has clearly found a villain in the big names of Bollywood and their “star kids”, whom the netizens have been bashing ever since.

The anger among hardcore Sushant fans and others, who may or may not have been fans, has set off a campaign of hate and abuse against the star kids, the aforementioned movies and one particular filmmaker Karan Johar, who is also known as the mai-baab (godfather) of these so-called star kids. The internet and the news media are, it seems so, in a non-stop war with the Hindi film industry “insiders” for not allowing easy entry to talented “outsiders” in the business and even, in some cases, sabotaging the careers of self-made “stars” in the industry so that the less-talented and undeserving insiders continue to thrive in an industry they have claimed as a gated enterprise.

Quite a noble task the fans have taken up, haven’t they?

Fandom isn’t as menacing and toxic as some people suggest it is.

Not quite, on both accounts.

To begin with, most of us have a skewed idea and superficial understanding of merit, talent, discrimination and justice, and none of us can escape bias (I, as an independent thinker, have my own biases, too). The people who are trying to take down the Bollywood establishment are not any different. The idea of challenging an unjust organisation that thrives on hierarchical exploitation, allows and defends wage discrimination, and is only a less-structured version of corporations has my support, but the way people are going about it, does not.

One of my primary issues with this whole campaign against nepotism is that people are making it only about Bollywood. They are forgetting that they are not on the committee that sends the Best Foreign Film nominations to the Oscars. Nepotism is but only a tip of the capitalist, casteist, racist iceberg that has sunk a lot many smaller boats than a celebrity ship. Before I lose you with the metaphors, allow me to get back to the point: we forget that many of us (at least, the ones who are fortunate enough to be able to voice their opinion) enjoy the privileges of nepotism or other similar privileges that we are born with and have done nothing to achieve or be proud of.

But we wouldn’t question our claim to the life we are enjoying, would we? Because certainly we have worked hard for it. And anyone who does not enjoy a better position has only their lack of merit, sincerity and determination to blame. And as we are so meritorious, just and talented, we have the right to call out the ones who aren’t and are enjoying a position they clearly don’t deserve.

It doesn’t matter how righteous our anger is or how incompetent and undeserving the celebrities are because we are the ones who turned actors into stars. As with god, we created the celebrity cult and personality cult. The people who enjoy this status are merely good at exploiting it. We cannot simply put the blame on them and absolve ourselves of all the prejudices, biases and injustices we support to make it happen. We are a part of the machinery.

Ask yourself, who decided that all the top box-office-friendly “stars” are light-skinned and/or male. Or, why aren’t transgenders allowed to play themselves on screen and tell their own stories? Why is sexism and racism so prevalent in comedies? Why are celebrities afraid of expressing their political beliefs, especially when that belief does not agree with the majority’s? Why isn’t there more representation of indigenous tribes and Dalits? Think about it. All these aspects that we have readily accepted to be not good enough for space on screen and popular culture go on to make make the kind of entertainment we consume and the celebrities we idolise.

We can’t keep fooling ourselves that we are any better than the celebrities we love/hate. We can’t slight them for leading lavish, pompous lives when we ourselves aspire to it. And how do we claim to be fighting for justice when we scoff at stories of discrimination against gender, sexuality and minorities and are quick to accusing victims of pulling the victim card?

We are the internet generation: we fall in love online, our idea of relaxation is governed by a slogan from a video streaming giant, we get our next fix in virtual crates and carts and our obsessions are accompanied by hashtags. The collective consciousness of people has never been so easy to manipulate. But people have always been manipulated. Remember, there was a time when the only source of truth was the religious text. Things have changed, our sources of truth have diversified. But the one thing that has not changed is our love for spectacle. The grander the narrative, the more willing we are to believe. And what gets grander than Bollywood (after religion and cricket)?

Mainstream Bollywood continues to simplify or whitewash the issues faced by people who are at the margins of society as we continue to ignore them by downplaying their need for and right to justice and life of respect. It is not just Sushant’s family who needs justice, there are millions who need that prime-time slot to tell their stories, people who need us to raise our voices in their support. Boycotting movies and actors does not make us powerful consumers. We are still at the mercy of the media that exploits our obsession, weakness for jingoism and spectacle and the free time at our hands to continue peddling a tragic incident with new genre twists that range from suspense thriller, police procedural, family drama to the supernatural (so filmy). Ask yourself, wouldn’t a share of such coverage do wonders for people and issues that desperately need our attention?

Padmaavat (2018) Review Published at Asian Movie Pulse

A lot has been made about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s adaptation of Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem “Padmavat” (1540). Even before its release, the film had been mired in controversy due to rumors regarding tampering with Rajput (an Indian community historically known for their valor and honor) history and a prominent figure, Rani Padmini, in their lore. From vandalism on set and threats to the actors and Bhansali himself by right-wing groups to the eventual delay in its release (it was supposed to release on December 1, 2017), “Padmaavat” has been through a lot of trouble (it even lost the ‘i’ from its title). All of this trouble with an extremist right-wing group gave an impression that probably the film could build a counter-narrative against the glorification of ‘jauhar’ (self-immolation Rajput women used to perform in order to save their honor from victorious enemies) in Rajput lore. But alas! It was too much to expect from Bhansali. [Read the full article here]

Mukkabaaz Review – it takes a brawler to overcome odds

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To start with the review, let me first address the most important aspect of the film or at least as the title suggests – boxing. The actors throwing punches at each other and ducking and blocking those really looked like boxing, both in the alleys of Bareily and in the ring. That is really something given Bollywood’s record of disrespecting sports by either filming sports moves with lack of authenticity or expecting that realism in movie-sports don’t apply as long as you have a charming actor facing the camera. Of course, movies these days are really going an extra mile to make sports look legit on screen – Dangal, Saala Khadoos (Mary Kom – as in the movie – was so lame), Chak De India are some good examples.

Sports on screen looks only as good as the commitment of the actor pretending to play it, and Vineet Kumar Singh, who plays an aspiring boxer in Mukkabaaz, looks every bit a boxer, right from his boxing moves to his physique to his gait. You can see the level of commitment this actor has shown for the film; it is way more than make-believe. Full marks there for commitment.

Mukkabaaz (The Brawler), even with its overriding themes of ambition and love against all odds which inevitably clash with each other, is a story of oppression and people rising against it. With the opening shot – a gang of gau-rakshaks or cow vigilantes clobbering a couple of people for allegedly trafficking cattle for slaughter and recording it for circulation – Anurag Kashyap introduces a politically charged atmosphere, where crime against the minority is the order of the day.  While Kashyap doesn’t further indulge in commentary on communal politics (except in one more scene in the middle of the movie), he expands on the issues of caste, gender, and boxing – a sports equivalent of the marginalized in India.

Shravan Singh (Vineet) is the best boxer in Bareily, and under the tutelage of Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), a former boxer and now a local gangster cum sports promoter, he aspires to make a name for himself as a boxer. Ever heard that love has the power to raise people out of their miserable existence? Well, Shravan Singh discovers just that when he sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Mishra’s mute niece and is quickly inspired to defy Mishra by refusing to do his bidding. Mishra takes a punch to his face and his upper-caste male ego, and from then on takes up the task to ruin Shravan’s boxing career. Things spiral out of hand when Sunaina, who falls for Shravan for standing up against her uncle, and Shravan decides to marry. To add salt to Mishra’s wounds, even Sunaina’s parents decide to set caste aside and bless the marriage.

That was just the skeleton of the movie. To get to the dense flesh you have to watch the film. At one point in the film, Ravi Kishan’s character, an upright boxing coach, tells Shravan to decide whether he wants to be a ‘mukkebaaz’ (boxer) or a ‘mukkabaaz’ (brawler), whether he wants to waste his talent fighting the system from outside the ring or make a future fighting it from within. This becomes a metaphor for the struggle of life – where you either brawl your way to glory or fight the hurdles while still playing by the rules of life -.as well as Kashyap’s own relation to the movie industry. I wonder could the ending of the movie be any reference to his experience of going mainstream with Bombay Velvet.

While a large portion of the movie is about Shravan’s fight against system and caste to realize his dreams and Mishra’s evil plans to sabotage Shravan’s career and his marriage, a tender loves story blooms amid all the hate and brawling. Shravan and Sunaina’s love is so intricately woven with the rest of the fight, that Shravan’s every fight becomes a fight not just for his boxing dreams or to defy social norms but also for his love for Sunaina. And as all of these motivations come together, we get a climactic fight that is cathartic, to say the least.

Zoya Hussain gives a knock out performance with her mute turn. She plays the role gracefully and with charm. There is no single emotion that she doesn’t manage to emote with just her eyes. The level of commitment that Hussain shows with her learning of over sign language is in no way second to Vineet’s. She portrays Sunaina’s love for Shravan, her angst at not being understood, he hatred and defiance of the patriarchy with deafening silence. It is not by the mere whim of the screenwriters that Sunaina is mute, it stands for the voicelessness of women who suffer every day at the hands of patriarchy. The rest of the cast also does a fantastic job and lends the movie a depth by assisting Kashyap and co-writers realize an immersive world which the film takes two and a half hour to build.

It is the storytelling talent of Kashyap, his sense of songs (great music by Rachita Arora, Prashant Pillai, and Nucleya) and dialogues that elevates what could have been another populist masala film by a lesser filmmaker. The way Kashyap weaves a tapestry of social issues around a masala framework and gives it a gritty and rustic treatment validates the point yet again that Kashyap is at his best when he walks the thin line between the commercial and the indie.