Thursday, March 5, 2009

Two films without underwear

Pramod Muthalik’s band of moral warriors is gradually fading from studio discussions, page seven headlines and even the creative world of SMS humour. Facebook continues to host the pink chaddi andolan because in India every action calls for a greater and, on occasions, unnecessarily power-packed opposite reaction. The young men have been described as Indian Taliban and Muthalik, a desi version of the one-eyed Mullah Omar. Going by physical appearance alone, the young men would have probably frightened pariah dogs and stray cats. At best, they could have been as harmful as small-town roadside Romeos – more like Georgie Porgie who makes the girls cry and disappears when the boys come out to play.

That, however, is the crux of the problem. The Mangalore pub attack was always about making the girls cry. It was a stupendous fuss about women going out and drinking. Mind you, don’t dismiss Mangalore violence as a stray incident. Muthalik knew there is a grey area in Indian society where the virtues of a woman as defined in the middle ages are cast in stone. This is the same dark patch in the Indian psyche where a woman has inalienable rights to the kitchen and kitchen alone. Television serials seldom grant the Indian woman an identity beyond that of a gloriously proper housewife. She drinks Limca or plain nimbu pani. It’s a sin if she sips vodka; she is considered a complete social deviant if she graduates to whiskey.

Muthalik, therefore, does represent a credo, a belief system, which cannot be countered by extreme and often counter-productive measures like a pink chaddi or a pub bharo agitation. In a chaotic democracy like ours, it takes centuries for the value system to be redefined and recast. The progressive struggle is a continuous process and social standpoints evolve through a range of arguments and counter-arguments. Muthalik cannot be sedated with a miracle drug. He won’t wake up tomorrow to speak another language. The language has to be hammered into his brain through democratic tools.

And, fortunately, those tools can now be found in unexpected places. There was a time when Bollywood would sing hosannas for the predictable conformist and for the bored as well as boring homemaker. When Muthalik was hijacking Mangalore to the medieval era, two filmmakers from Mumbai pleasantly surprised everybody with their gender-sensitive perception of a changing India.

In Luck By Chance, Zoya Akhtar’s portrayal of a starlet’s journey in the shadowy world beneath Mumbai’s glitz and glamour doesn’t stop at a critical evaluation of the casting couch phenomenon. In fact, it accepts the problem because it cannot be wished away overnight. In this case, acceptance, however, should not be mistaken for condoning. The debutant director creates a Sonam Mishra from Kanpur who has escaped home and regressive parents to do what she likes doing best and believes it to be her vocation – acting. She is undeterred by the fact that flesh opens the doors to Mumbai’s studios and the experience doesn’t make her cynical.

Even betrayal by the producer she slept with doesn’t make her cynical. She persists with her efforts and makes it big as a small screen actor. She suffers a lot, jilted by her boyfriend, Farhan Akhtar. Suffering makes her stronger. She exudes a kind of confidence, which is not quite typical of the Indian woman Pramod Muthalik visualizes. Nor would Muthalik approve of the manner in which she views sex. Custodians of morality of the kind we have witnessed in Mangalore would have described her as a woman of easy virtue.

Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D completely changes the context in which Saratchandra Chattopadhyay had conceived of his Devdas. Dev D is the son of a sugar-mill owner and his masculine sense of possession dominates his perspective after he swallows hearsay that his betrothed Paro has been sleeping around. He takes to the bottle and only gets to know the real truth about Paro’s fidelity when she has already been married. Like Devdas, alcohol and lowlife carries him to Chandramukhi. A debauched virgin hunter lands in the lap of a prostitute and even learns to love her --- not exactly the storyline that would have satisfied the proponents of Sriram Sene.

These films reveal remarkable transformation in Indian attitude towards sex. In Kashyap’s film, Paro is daring enough to forward a scanned portrait of herself in the nude. Sonam Mishra in Luck by Chance has casual sex with Farhan Akhtar. Sex is a biological craving which a woman shares as an equal participant with a man. Sex is not an activity enforced and performed by a man on a plastic doll, as Muthalik would like us to believe.

Mangalore is not just about the woman’s right to go to a bar. It’s much more than that. It’s about a society’s collective attitude to gender. We cannot alter Muthalik’s perspective by dressing him in a pink chaddi. We can only dare with him with the creative work of those who proudly harbour and subscribe to an alternative sensibility. Let Chandramukhi taunt Muthalik from her celluloid pedestal that her world is possibly more real than Muthalik’s. Let Sonam Mishra explain to Muthalik that his worldview died with the Licence Raj. Despite the recession, moral policemen cannot jettison the global outlook that the new economy has sown in Indian soil.