no holds barred

Glamourising the grind

If only it was so easy to do journalism: reveal people’s hypocrisies with ease and get away with it unscathed

JUL 17 -One of the good things about being a journalist is that your character often makes it to the movies. A nosy reporter treading a minefield of egos in the newsroom and upsetting or threatening the protagonists outside are everywhere to be found. The pen and the camera, it seems, is still mightier than the sword in the imagination of moviemakers. Journalists, of course, know better.

The latest addition to the list of movies that have a journalist among its main characters comes from Bollywood. In Dil Dhadakne Do—a dull peek into the unrelatable lives of extremely rich Indians—Farhan Akhtar plays a journalist stationed in Egypt. Sunny, his character in the movie, reads books in his cabin while on a luxurious cruise while the rest waste their time gossiping. And as if that was not enough to set him apart from the usual male Bollywood protagonist, he is a feminist.

“What gives men the right to think that they have the power to give ‘permission’ to women to do anything?” he asks. For a film industry habituated to selling the most regressive of roles for women, such dialogue definitely breaks new ground. But lest you forget, he is only doing what a journalist is supposed to do: ask difficult questions and inflict the comfortable.

If only it was so easy to do journalism: reveal people’s hypocrisies with ease and get away with it unscathed.

To expect Bollywood, which thrives on the notion that the audience come to the theatres to ‘escape’ reality, to do any better, however, would be stupidity. In any case, a well-dressed and widely travelled character, who is almost always a photographer (think Ranbir Kapoor in Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani) is not the staple Bollywood journalist. An interesting research on the popular portrayal of journalists in Bollywood over a 30-year period from 1981 to 2011 shows that the five most common stereotypes played journalists in the movies are romantic companions, glamour chasers, investigative superheroes, power magnates and brainless characters.

In Bollywood, being what it is, the focus is more on the singing, dancing and seduction skills of journalists. One must invest more time in chasing one’s love interest than in chasing stories. Reporting can wait, always. Sharukh Khan, an Air India Radio journalist, dancing dangerously atop a moving train in Dil Se is an example. Even so, lovers live. Investigative superheroes, on the other hand, are either ‘martyred’ or attain the pinnacle of popularity and power real-life journos can only dream of.

Of late, television scriptwriters in Mumbai have taken an interest in the lives of journalists too. In April this year, Sony aired a series called Reporters in which viewers get to see a decent number of female journalists in the TV newsroom. Who knew that Indian television could envision women stepping outside the chaukath of their houses and facing graver moral dilemmas than the kind one faces after adding excessive salt in the daal? That’s the only good thing about the series. The bad news is, Reporters is an extremely poor copy of the Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom.

In one of the early episodes of Reporters, the female protagonist tells her boss at an editorial meeting that she is disappointed that a man who once stood for fearless journalism has now sold out. Such abundance of drama would make anyone wish to be in the newsroom.  If only people went around risking their jobs by speaking the minds! Zoom out and here’s what happens in real editorial meetings: journalists drag themselves out of bed reluctantly to report on what they are working on to their seniors.  Then they leave the room muttering about the futility of it all, without fail. In case a reporter has a bout of idealism, she gets a gentle reminder about the difference between working in a private news company and writing fiction.

No wonder the take home message of a scathing review of Reporters in firstpost.com is: it’s better for TV producers “to stick to making something they are good at—emotional dramas which are a deadly mix of over acting and sexism—than pretending to be ‘hard-hitting’.” The biggest failure according to the review is that the makers of the series have not done any homework to depict the nuances of journalism. Given the long history of Indian journalism and the upheavals the media has seen, there should have been no dearth of inspiration.

Closer home, however, it seems as though moviemakers do not think that fictional journalism would be interesting enough to watch on the silver screen. After all, if media reports are anything to go by, the Nepali journalist has been stripped of any glamour that might still be synonymous with the profession elsewhere.  The portrayal of a Nepali journalist, as reported by other journalists on TV or in the newspapers, is that of person who does not get to either sleep well or eat enough on time. The resultant bad state of health is further compounded by the perennial lack of money. Reports on the sexism women journalists face in newsrooms filled with men and while out reporting are equally depressing. The other, more conspicuous reason could be: every other person in Nepal seems to ooze with the confidence of being able to do a better job as a journalist. The lack of respect journalists command in society could be another deterrent for their onscreen presence.

the-newsroom-dev-patel-character-poster-season-2

Even so, the protagonist of Rekha Thapa’s 2014 movie Himmatwali is also a man in the media. Guess where he works? Forget the daily grind of journalists working for Kantipur or The Kathmandu Post, Himal or Nepal or the Himalayan Times and the hundreds of FM stations all over the country plus the handful of television stations. They don’t offer all that action heroes are entitled to. Therefore, he works for Wikileaks in the US and has come to Nepal after killing a man there, hiding from American authorities.

Unbelievable you might say, but journalists definitely relish watching their onscreen versions now and then. Whether it be the ‘ideal’ journalism pursued by Emily Mortimer in the The Newsroom or Farhan Akhtar, who speaks up against patriarchy, they are all a good break from the mechanical rush to file stories. For people who have a more boring job in the newsroom of dotting other people’s i’s and crossing their t’s it could even serve as a much needed reminder that they too are part of the hypothetically ‘glamourous’ world of journalism.

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Birgunj: a city of price-tags

It seems as though Birgunj is capable of putting a price tag on everything, including on the future of its girls

APR 17 – Birgunj, at first glance, looks as though it was built for business. A traveller does not need to know the history of the city to reach this conclusion. A short walk starting from the Ghantaghar through the Main Road—which changes its name at different points to Meena Bazaar, Mohan Market or Maisthan Chowk, Kalwar Market or Mahabirsthan and Adarshanagar—will suffice. This stretch and the side roads on both sides are filled with shops that sell just about everything. On a relatively quiet weekend, a pedestrian can find herself inhaling the smell of new clothes. But if Bhupi Sherchan were to write about Birjung now, he would perhaps slightly tweak his poem Mero Chowk, and say: “Birjung ma ke chaina sab thok cha, kewal grahak chaina” (Birgunj has everything but customers).

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Virtual is the new real

MAR 20 – A few days back, no sooner had I stepped inside a microbus in the evening, a picture of a brain displayed on a mobile phone caught my eye. From where my head was positioned, caught in between the arm of a woman in the front and a man at the back, the screen was unmissable. The brain which seemed to be a post in a stranger’s Facebook timeline resembled the insides of a walnut. The phone’s  owner, a young woman, was seated across a young man equally engrossed with this white-coloured phone.

Right above his head, a sticker pasted alongside Mahila/Apanga/Asakta 1, 2, 3 asked: Billions of rupees for leaders, what for the people? Smartphones, perhaps, I thought to myself.

It was an uneventful ride until it was time for the white-phone owner to get off.  As soon as he stepped out, he got into a verbal altercation with the conductor. Apparently, the latter pissed the man off by making a snide remark about his fiddling with the phone.

Kaslai hepeko?

Hepchas?

As is the case with such fights, it was difficult for me to establish who had actually disrespected whom. By then the passengers had already begun to take sides. “Why should a passenger engrossed with his phone be a problem unless he does not pay the fare?” one asked. “People need to kill time on a public vehicle some way or the other,” a woman added.

The man for whom the arguments were being made had long gone. At that very instant, it felt as though we (the people in the vehicle) had moved on too–to join our global tribe which, if need be, will fight tooth and nail for the right to stare at our screens as and when we wish to. It reminded me of something I binge-watched about a month or so ago and which has been bothering me ever since.

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Forced to survive

JAN 23 – The morning after the constitution was not promulgated within the stipulated time, for the second time, was like every other day. The remains of a dog crushed by a vehicle on the road to Pepsi-cola the night before stayed where it was. In Jadibuti, a man pushed his bicycle loaded with the dead body of a pig, mostly exposed. On the bridge connecting Kathmandu with Bhaktapur, buses plied and the Manohara flowed below, managing to fit in its ever-reducing width as people encroach its banks and grow vegetables and maize there. Then on the dusty road to the right of the Araniko Highway, two schoolboys returning from their karate classes observed that the cold had receded. At a nearby public tap, a child only inches taller than a 2.5 litre green—Mountain Dew—bottle was trying to lift it. The mother’s calls, to not touch the bottles, remained unheeded.

It was just another normal day.

The sky did not fall because the mythical constitution was not promulgated. Chairs, not people, became the only casualties on Tuesday. So this, according to some pundits on Twitter is a time to heave a sigh of relief. After all, people want a democratic and inclusive constitution, not a rushed exclusionary document. Well said. But this almost a decade-long political drama is not just about an inclusive document. It is as much about living in a bubble of perpetual transition.

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The norm: an anomaly

Two years ago, Indian channels would frequently play a rather infuriating advertisement on TV. In the ad, a woman is seen putting a lunchbox in her son’s schoolbag while a man yells from the background, “Ritu, where are my black socks?” She climbs up the staircase looking like she could bite the head off her whining spouse, she thinks, “Black socks, white socks, how am I supposed to know where your socks are? You are 35 years old and still do not know where to look for your socks?” She then opens a drawer and hands her husband a pair of black socks without saying a word. The narrator of the ad claims, “When your system is not fine, then little things can make you angry and irritable. So eat Kellogg’s All Bran Wheat Flakes, which is high in fibre.” Fibre keeps one’s system clean so that people can be happy from within. By the end of the ad, Ritu has eaten her bowl of cornflakes and lovingly throws a pair of blue socks at her husband. The world reverts to perfection where wives happily look for their husband’s socks as the latter yell for it.

The ad is off the screen now, but its replacements are no better. Worse still, even as Indian ads have become somewhat progressive when it comes to gender roles in recent times, Nepali ads are busy imitating their old form. Messages of Nepali ads can be summarised as follows: go to the market looking for oil that prolongs the life of your husband. And if your family demands multiple dishes, get a rice cooker, a roti maker, a microwave oven and prepare rice, rotis and pizzas at the same time. Evolve into the modern-day devi, multitask in the kitchen as your husband fixes his tie (on his own, thankfully) and leaves for work. Any disregard for or questioning of these roles can, of course, be fixed by a bowl of cornflakes, nice smelling detergents, long-lasting soaps and kitchen appliances.

That such ads are the norm rather than an anomaly in Nepal should come as a surprise to us, but it does not. For what has changed in the life of an average Nepali woman as a result of long activism before and after 1990, including the decade-long Maoist war which boasted of high participation of women—both in combat and civilian roles, is largely the rhetoric of the women’s rights discourse. Writings by Maoist women, in the aftermath of the war, make it a point to mention that women are more than ‘machines that produce children’ and cannot be chained to their domestic roles at the cost of realising their full potential. The advertisements, on the contrary, show that societal perception is still to change. So, evoking the longevity of the husband while selling cooking oil in a society which is culturally trained to worship him once a year and the phallus for 365 days is, therefore, merely cashing in on the given.

Even so, the Maoist women have voiced their concerns against the subjugation and commodification of the female body. On the day the Miss Nepal beauty contest was held in April 2007, for instance, the Maoist activists protested against it in front of the pageant venue arguing that it commodified women and enslaved them to capitalism. [See protest photos by Joshua Kraemer in his website]They clashed with the police. A few days later, a former brigade commissar of the People’s Liberation Army published an article titled “Beauty Pageants, Lathi Charge and Future Nepal”. Dismissing the argument that such competition provided an opportunity for personal growth and career to the participants, Amrita Thapa Magar wrote, “What is the point of the opportunity created by unnaturally increasing the price of the products (by spending insane amounts on advertising) and adding pressure on livelihood of citizens?” The Maoists could have shutdown the Valley on the day of the event and resorted to violent ways, but they did not do so, she claimed. The Maoists’ aim was, she said, only to make the people aware about how such pageants were not in society’s best interest. It was ironical that the Nepal Television, directly controlled by the then Information and Communication Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, himself a top Maoist leader, continued with the old practice of broadcasting the event live. Much to the dismay of the Maoist women activists, he had to retract his earlier decision of not broadcasting the event succumbing to the pressure of the contest sponsor, which also happened to be one of the largest advertisers for the NTV. The sponsor had threatened to terminate its relationship with the channel.

A year later, the contest was rescheduled due to Maoists’ protest, but not cancelled. Thapa Magar wrote another article titled “Why Beauty Contests Should not be Held?” in which she reasoned against such spectacles under neat categories: cultural, economic, political, respect, female pride, human rights and psychological. Highlighting how women were not a homogenous category, she argued that Miss Nepal contests were only for a handful of women from the cities who had enough to eat and clothe. “Only  a few  women are considered beautiful—those who can afford to drink juice and can maintain their figures without having to work,” she wrote.

Maoist activists and supporters shout at police during protest in Kathmandu

Maoist activists and supporters shout at police during a anti-Miss Nepal protest in Kathmandu, September 24, 2009.

CREDIT: REUTERS/DEEPA SHRESTHA

The Maoists’ routine of staging protests against the beauty content continued for a few years. But even before triggering the much-needed debate on the portrayal of women in the media or the implications of such beauty contests to society, the movement fizzled out. The Maoists apparently came to terms with reality. Instead of changing society, the party changed its ways and split. Thapa Magar is now with the breakaway faction, CPN-Maoist, that claims to be more revolutionary than its mother party, UCPN (Maoist).

Meanwhile, ratopati.com, a website run by UCPN (Maoist) sympathisers and promoted by the party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, regularly covers and promotes beauty pageants. In mid-December, it reported on the Miss Nurse Competition whose stated objective was to make nurses more accountable to society and responsible towards their jobs. How that goal can be met by putting up pictures of contestants  who are all decked up  and are posing with flowers is unknown.

In a matter of less than ten years, the Maoists’ grand plan of liberating women from the clutches of capitalism has come full circle. Malvika Subba, the much-touted ‘beauty with brains’ and Miss Nepal 2002, is busy encouraging women to prepare different food items on TV. Beauty pageants, on the other hand, have penetrated much deeper into the Nepali society. A woman can now participate in beauty contests throughout her life, starting from her childhood to be being ‘crowned’ Miss one ethnic group or the other and all the way to Mrs Nepal.

As for the socks, Onsari Gharti Magar, a Maoist leader and deputy-speaker of the Constituent Assembly, was quoted by setopati.com as saying how women in cities were more regressive than their rural counterparts. “They still take off their husband’s socks!” she said.

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post 

 

Drenched in Kathmandu

A few years back, me and a few friends decided to go on a trip to Chitwan. But just when we reached Aadamghat, in Dhading, a forgettable place along the Prithivi Highway, the microbus came to a halt. There was a protest going on somewhere ahead and no certainty on when our journey would resume. So, after realising we were stranded, we stepped out of the vehicle and walked alongside huge parked trucks, taking pictures, as that would most likely be the only time we would travel so far, together. In every shot, we grinned ear to ear, did something silly with our hands for lack of anything better to do and captured feigned happiness. A friend later uploaded them on Facebook without mentioning the context, and people liked them. It did, after all, look like we had a whale of a time. In truth, we returned to our rooms in Kathmandu, which we had so arduously planned to escape, dejected.

Each day, our Facebook and Twitter timelines are cluttered with such demonstrations of other people’s lives. Most, like our Dhading disaster, are devoid of context. At worst, such displays result in envy and dissatisfaction on part of the viewers. At best, users know that social media is just a selective display of people’s lives. Still there is nothing that can be done about it. Things are different when people are discussing an event in the city open to all, say a film festival at Kumari, a discussion at Martin Chautari or, like last week, the Literature Festival. When too many people engage online in unending platitudes of such programmes, it naturally makes people feel that they should be a part of it too. Who knows what one can learn there, what thoughts could be triggered? The possibilities are endless.

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Public transit perils

Five in the evening is not a time to expect much from life, especially if you take the public bus to and from work.  Sanity then, is a combination of the right thoughts and actions. First, take a deep breath and push someone else to make way into the vehicle, throw an apologetic smile and tell oneself ‘C’est la vie’. Next, be ready for everything that comes your way. The bus conductor wants you to go further inside: just do it. Your bag’s poking the eye of a passenger seated on the aisle seat, apologise profusely. Your butt’s touching somebody else’s, just forget it. Be careful about the placement of your hand on the iron rod, because once you remove it, you’ll forget where you’d put it before. Most times, someone else scrambling to hold onto something will have found it. On one occasion, an unknown passenger on a bus to Bhaktapur joked, in a bus so filled with people, you will not even find your own body part to scratch and instead end up scratching somebody else. This violation of personal space on all accounts—the sweat and scent of alien bodies pressed against yours, the loud senseless music—will more often than not, get to many.

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