Mar 082013

My edit piece for Lokmat Times, on Women’s Day

8th March. International Women’s Day.

It is a tradition that dates back almost a century earlier, when women were fighting for basic rights. Until then, even in the West, women were considered to be property of the men in their lives – first their father, then their husband. They neither had the right to vote, nor the right to own property, nor the right to divorce. When women worked, they tended to work longer hours for lesser pay than a man doing the same work. In 1908, women finally came out to protest against centuries of being considered chattel. 15,000 women took to the streets in New York to demand equality at the workplace, at home and as citizens.

The first ever International women’s day was celebrated on the 19th of March, 1911 – in Germany, Austria and other parts of the Prussian Empire – it was to commemorate the day of broken promises. Almost 60 years earlier, during the 1848 revolution in German speaking regions, King Frederick William IV, promised women equal citizenship rights, especially the right to vote. But nothing was done about them. At its core the International Women’s day stood for just one thing – Equality – in the eyes of the State, the law, at home, and at the workplace.

A century later, political demands have been met. Most states in the world have guaranteed political rights for women. Less than a century ago, armed police in the western world attacked women who demanded the right to vote. Today, apart from the Vatican City and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – no other country discriminates against women vis-à-vis voting rights. Equal Representation of women in politics has increased, and women have become increasingly more important as voters who exercise electoral decisions independent of men in their families.

There is still a long way to go. Equality at the ballot box does not translate to equality or even equity in the job market, nor does it translate into a fair share of economic resources. The UN world survey on the Role of Women in Development published in 2009, casts a light on the dismal state of women in terms of access to land, housing, property and productive resources. They also tend to have a limited access to technologies and services that would ease their work load. It is this unequal access to resources, believes the United Nations that makes women more vulnerable. As the United Nations states “In some regions, women provide 70% of agricultural labour, produce more than 90% of the food, and yet are nowhere represented in budget deliberations”. It goes beyond access to resources; it also manifests itself in wage disparity. It is estimated that women earn almost 20% lower than men for the same work. Women also tend to work in the informal sector with no benefits.

It is estimated that if women are paid as much as men, ‘America’s GDP would be 9% higher; the euro-zone’s would be 13% higher, and Japan’s would be boosted by 16% (UNESCAP, 2007). So on the 102nd women’s day, maybe we all need to move beyond the lip service of advertisers, platitudes of politicians and challenge the status quo. One hopes it will not take 100 more years for real meaningful economic equality.

Jul 012012

There was something about the way Rajesh Khanna smiled that made your heart lurch. It wasn’t a perfect smile by any stretch of imagination. It was slightly crooked. But there was a twinkle in the eye that went with the smile – a slight tilt of the head and  a swagger. It is hardly surprising that women of all ages fell for him like a ton of bricks. He was possibly the first Star to get mobbed and police would be deployed to keep the women away from him. In his hey day there was no other actor or star who could come close to his popularity . He was the original Superstar of India.


Rajesh Khanna (born Jatin Khanna) was the product of a talent hunt run by Filmfare and United Producers, in 1965. In a world without reality television or indeed 24 hour television – it is difficult to believe how a short, pimply, slightly podgy person, with really small eyes and poor skin won a talent hunt. But, obviously the panellists saw something that modern television does not. That something was Star Quality. The X factor that we all talk about but can never define. It is strange that none of the superstars produced by India have ever been the ‘gora, chikna’ varieties that television repeatedly throws up.


Rajesh Khanna’s first big – though big is an understatement – hit was Aaradhna, that set up the hit pairing of him and Sharmila Tagore. The film has Rajesh Khanna in a double role. Two songs in that film helped build the myth of Rajesh Khanna – super Romantic hero. The first was the wet song. The smouldering eyes of Rajesh Khanna following a very wet, blanket clad Sharmila in “roop tera mastana, pyaar mera deewana, bhool koyi humsena hojaye’. And the second is “Mere Sapnon ki Rani Kab Aaye gi tu” – the carefree lover boy song for that generation. Rajesh Khanna and Sharmilla Tagore was a hit jodi starring in some fabulous films- tragedies in which the loving couple never gets together. Amar Prem a film in which e he plays a dissolute landowner in Calcuttaand she a courtesan, and their unfulfilled love story. Songs such as Chingari Koi Bhadke, and Kuch toh Log Kahenge add to the pain of two good people (despite her profession and his habits) who will never see happiness in their lives. The same is the case in Safar – a story of sacrifice and tears and unconsummated love.

If the pairing between Sharmila and Rajesh Khanna was riddled with angst and guilt , the pairing between Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz was zany and fun. Who can forge the scene where like Jack and Jill they come tumbling down the hill under the influence of bhang in the film “aap ki kasam” – Jai Jai Shiv Shankar encapsulates the zing of the pairing. While the film is a tragedy (his possessiveness drives her away), their pairing was not. Films such as Apna Desh – remember Rajesh Khanna in that ghastly red jacket and peach trousers and Mumtaz in a blonde wig singing Duniya Mein Logon Ko Dhoka Kabhi Ho jaata hai – Sachcha Jhoota and Roti brought audiences in droves to the theatres.


While Rajesh Khanna played a great romantic hero, wooing his heroine with a light tough, he played the heart broken hero with more panache. There was something terribly vulnerable about him as the man who is pining for love. It is hardly surprising that his fanclub was predominantly women. They probably wanted to hug away all his sorrows. In films like Kati Patang , Safar, Aap ki Kasam or even Anand – his pain at rejection is palpable. Songs like Zindagi ke Safar mein bichad jayege (aap ki kasam),  Jeevan se Bhaari in Aankho mein, Zindagi ka Safar hai yeh kaisa safar (both in Safar)  – all added to the aura of Rajesh Khanna. The Rajesh Khanna Kishore Kumar combination is as much a part of Indian film legend as was the Raj Kapoor Mukesh or the Shammi Kapoor Mohd. Rafi Combination. IF people loved to see him fall in love, they also seemed to love to see him lose in love. And more importantly die before he can tell the one he loves that he loves her. The films in which he doesn’t get together with the heroine are numerous. Movies such as Aap Ki Kasam, Safar, Anand, Khamoshi, Namak Haram, Amar Prem saw the hero lose, women cry buckets in the theatre and box office registers ringing over and over again.

There were accusations of him being a light actor – but films like Safar and Anand– where he plays a cancer patient who knows he is dying – Khamoshi – where he plays a man committed to an asylum because he has had a nervous breakdown because he has lost in love or even Avtaar where he is the unforgiving father to ungrateful children – laid to rest that notion. But, audiences wanted to see him as the romantic hero, when romantic films were going tout of vogue. Audiences moved away from the romantic classics to the angry young man films – that were personified by Amitabh Bachchan. And Rajesh Khanna could not make the transition. Its possibly because audiences could not imagine him smouldering with anger, with passion maybe, with unrequited love maybe – but not with the desire to change society. His persona was very much – my corner of the world rather than I will change the world. And, he stuck to that. No matter how the industry or the fans treated him – he maintained his dignity and his distance and remained the star.


Top 10 films

  1. Aaradhna
  2. Aapki Kasam
  3. Anand
  4. Amar Prem
  5. Apna Desh
  6. Avtaar
  7. Kati Patang
  8. Khamoshi
  9. Namak Haram
  10. Roti
May 062012

My column in today’s Lokmat Times. page 14


Hero, Hero on the Wall – which one of you is tall

India. A land of myths and legends. Of heroes and their heroics. Of larger than life men who perform the most incredible of deeds. The characteristics of the hero are fairly well defined through the ages. He is the alpha male. The leader of the pack. The man other men will follow to the gates of hell. The man whom women desire. A man who is capable of managing each of his relationships as though they were the most important in his life. A perfect son, one who would respect his parents’ wishes through hell and highwater – and, that is exactly what Ram did. On the eve of his coronation he accepts exile to fulfil his father’s wishes. The hero is A considerate kind lover, and while he is an alpha male, he is also comfortable with the idea of a strong woman.  Myth and legend is replete with stories of valorous heroes and feisty heroines – all the women in the epics be they Shakuntala or Sita, Draupadi or Subadhra are no wilting lilies – they can hold their own against the strongest of men.  The ideal hero is a great friend – a friend who will lay down his life for you without thinking – think Karna .  The Hero is a leader – a man who can inspire people to follow him. The Hero is multi talented. He can sing, dance, woo, hunt, game, be childlike in his innocence, yet have the wisdom of a  philosopher, be statesmen like, be a street fighter, hold the peace, go to war, and yet not appear contradictory and confused.  Every Hero is deeply human yet capable of taking on the powers to be, even if those powers are those of God or those blessed by God, and win. Most of us, who have grown up with the Indian epics Ramayan and Mahabharat can recognise these characteristics of heroes.


Given that the bar for heroes has been set so high, it is little wonder that in creating the hero for celluloid, all these characteristics have been retained. Anyone lower than that belongs in an art house film. A century of Indian cinema, the hero has gone trough multiple evolutions. From the earliest films such as Raja Harishchandra and Alam Ara, to the more recent Dabangg and Enthiran, the hero may have changed costumes, may have become more contemporary but at his core he is the same as his 5000 year old counterpart from the epics.


The birth of Indian cinema, a hundred years ago, was also the period when the struggle for freedom began moving out of elite drawing rooms into the space of mass consciousness. The previous year (1911) King George V was crowned Emperor of India, and that act was possibly the greatest fillip to a nascent Independence movement. Films that began getting made reflected the underlying anger of being a slave nation, and attempted to awaken the audience by defining a pan geographic cultural identity that helped in communicating age old  concepts of justice, equality and unity. Raja Harishchandra –  immortalised by  Harishchadrachi Factory – told the story of a King who gave up everything to keep up his word. In his journey from King to chandala and back again, the audience learnt the value of empathy and the oneness of people. In a country riddled by caste there could have been no better first film. The movie resonated across audiences, across the length and breadth of India.


The introduction of sound increased the penetration of cinema. People began watching stories in the language they were most familiar with. Stories of heroism, of valour, of love, romance, of great achievement, of the human spirit and the pursuit of perfection (God). Because of the British Raj, and the rules of censorship that existed – the hero could not directly go up against the Raj. Film makers however, found away around it, with heroes taking on unjust rulers. While Hindi films such as Diler Daku (1931) – a direct remake of Zorro –  lal-e-yaman (the Jewel of Yeman), were costume dramas that featured swashbuckling heroes – who danced, sang, wooed, loved their mothers and overthrew the wicked king – brought in the audiences and made lots of money – they also helped create the pan Indian hero. Regional cinema at this time tended to focus on mythological and historical topics, for example The Marathi film Ayodyecha Raja (1932) and the Tamil film Kalidasa (1931). Both looked at contemporary themes in the context of age old stories.  These films would typically run for weeks in large cities, and then the film reels will move to smaller towns and villages. Incidentally, the warrior woman on horseback was also popular in this era. The woman who represented Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi without it ever being mentioned on screen.


Post independence, the role of popular cinema has been one of the key instruments in building National Unity. The exploration of themes, the depiction of inequality, the tackling of issues arising from the conflicts between traditional and modern, between capital and labour, between the new elites and the masses were all depicted through the travails of the hero. Through the 1950’s and 1960’s the role of the hero was to combat the changing world around him. IT was to stand up against injustice (Marmayogi, 1951, Tamil) , to hold on to core ‘Indian values (Shyaamchi Aayi, Marathi, 1953), to highlight social evil (Do Bigha Zameen, Hindi 1953) and issues regarding rural poverty (Pather Panchali, Bengali, 1955.


It was the troika of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor who played heroes in Hindi Cinema . Movies such as Shree 420 while actors such M.G.Ramachandran and N.T.Rama Rao began drawing in the audiences in Tamil and Telegu. Hindi film heroes played more real life characters with real life problems. While both NTR and MGR were definitely larger than life, imagery that helped with their political careers in the years to come.  Hindi films as well as films in the southern states worked best when hero led. While, movies in Marathi and Bengali worked more with story lines. It is an issue that has had repercussions on both Marathi and Bengali films in the years that followed. The absence of a Hero who would draw the audience into theatres consistently. That is not to say that Marathi and Bengali films did not have fine actors – they did and they do. But that one hero who cuts across class and sub regional barriers and unites the state or the region into seeing the film, is missing.


Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth, ,  Salman Khan all play heroes that we are familiar with. Larger than life. Superheroic. The stories they tell may be different, but their characteristics are immediately identifiable. On the other hand, actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Surya, Vikram play much more nuanced, much more westernised, more focused heroes. It is almost like the era of superhero is finally over, and Indian audiences have finally begun accepting men who don’t fight Gods as their heroes.