Masaan- Exploring a Generational Gap | Phantom Films and Their Educational Project

 

This is a double feature. Maybe this would work better as two separate blog posts but in my head, they’re so tied together they have to be written together so here goes. 

Perhaps necessity and need leads everyone trapped within the temporal bounds of the same generation to believe in similar things and behave in similar ways. There are other things at play here, of course. The zeitgeist of a generation in India does not need to be similar to that of a generation in Australia or Japan. But, geography aside, the resistance of the young to the haranguing of  the old is not just a literary trope but also a life one. A mood, if you will. There is the older and grayer side who cannot see the world in any other way than the way their times fashioned them to and there is the young who are slowly and gingerly fashioning their own times. And there is a complicated resistance. That is what Masaan seeks to explore.

Masaan which means funeral pyre, is the feature debut of indie short film-darling and Anurag Kashyap’s frequent collaborator and assistant Neeraj Ghaywan. It follows an ex-Sanskrit teacher and now small-town vendor played to simmering perfection by Sanjay Mishra as he is forced to grapple with a cardinal sin his daughter Devi (Richa Chadda) commits, a policeman trying to exploit the situation and the safekeeping of honour, his and his daughter’s. There is his daughter who doesn’t quite want to live in a universe of her father’s construction. There is a family belonging to the Dom community who burn funerary pyres traditionally to make their living and there is the youngest of this family (Vicky Kaushal) who is trying to live and love on his own terms.

Ghaywan shoots and edits with a steady confidence his mentor Kashyap perhaps couldn’t ever afford, letting shots tantalizingly linger on his talented cast of performers and this plays very much to the strengths of Chadda, Kaushal and Mishra.  Kaushal and his upper-caste love interst played by the very talented Shweta Tripathi are so darn adorable I was smiling through most of the first half of this movie. The movie is careful and deliberate, stepping around it’s characters quietly enough to give them oodles of space to breathe and evolve enough to see a coming of age not just for the young but also for the old.

Like all good art, Masaan is about change. The arbitrariness of Devi’s ‘crime’, and the ‘illegality’ of it being a socially constructed fiction are things we all (should) know going into this. Ghaywan goes further than that to show a callous government and bureaucratic system exploiting emotionally hardwired concepts like honour and righteousness for nothing other than capital. This comes at is early and was enough of a sledgehammer of a plot device to make me think Mishra’s character would mostly remain the same. But the movie slowly meanders through his life, watching as he struggles to get money together to pay the bribe, try to understand why his daughter did what she did and, through a genius sub-plot featuring a terrifying gambling game and a young boy who drowns, learn how autonomous decisions taken by young people may be valid enough to solve real problems.

Kaushal’s inter-caste relationship is as deliberate and slow and serves as a counterpoint to the other narrative along with Chadda’s character’s story. They provide examples of the young being autonomous and perhaps more intelligent than the old. But the film does not leave you with a narrative as clean and precise as ‘the young are better than the old in ways the old will never understand’. It terminates at a place of understanding yes, but featuring the young looking back as much as the old look forward. Everyone learns something about honour, tradition, love and family. And everyone changes.

And the government hangs above them all, tinkering, exploiting and manipulating everyone’s weaknesses. And as such, it stands as a breathtakingly complete, emotional and empathetic portrait of India today.

Masaan hit it big in Cannes, bagging international distribution rights by Pathe. But the domestic production company is a familiar name.

Perhaps the thing people remember most about Phantom films is the logo animation where the Hindi alphabet फ is drawn across a chalkboard while the voice of a teacher calls out “pha se?” and a chorus of students reply “phantom”.

This is significant because it matches up with what Phantom Films have been doing since its establishment in 2011 by Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vikas Bahl and Madhu Mantena.

Starting with Motwane’s Lootera and till the gritty superhero feature Bhavesh Joshi in theatres now, the Phantom project has been noticeably educational.

Cinema has been teaching us to think for a long time. Or perhaps, the cinema of the times reflects how people think. That is probably a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario. But Phantom Films, ranging from the artistic to the commercial, with comedies, thrillers, crime-films and everything in between, have been subtly reshaping the contours of Indian cinema and the influence it plays on the masses who watch them, the occasional misfire like Hunterr notwithstanding (ugh).

Indian cinema, especially over the last twenty years or so, hasn’t been teaching us good things. You know the answer to questions like ‘what skin colour represents good and what represents evil?’ and ‘is stalking, abducting and/or coercing a woman romantic?’. You also probably know who taught you those things. Phantom has been working consistently, through bankrolling and controlling the productions of some of the most excellently crafted films of this global film-making generation, been trying to get you to ask why you think those things and whether you should think differently. Kashyap’s cinematic project seems to be one of constantly questioning whether the good and evil paradigm is valid, Bahl works at gender paradigms and preconceived notions with deftness and grace and Motwane looks at the seedy underbelly of the glamorous corporate urban life in modern India.  These movies are all very cleverly trying to teach you things.

It has also done something as significant. It has created an ecosystem of actors, directors and crew who work together and separately, spilling over to mainstream Bollywood as well as regional cinema who are taking this ethos forward. Longtime Phantom collaborator and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi directed two stellar movies questioning the problematic nature of romance as portrayed in the rampantly mysoginist world of Malayalam cinema (Annayum Rasoolum) and a stylish, slick exploration of caste history in Kochi (Kammatipaadam). Other film-makers like Zoya Akhtar, Dibanker Banerjee, and though I include his name here with several misgivings, Karan Johar have participated in short film anthologies produced by Phantom which shaped the trajectories of their careers in obvious ways. Pink wouldn’t exist in a world without Phantom.

What am I trying to get at here? Go find the Phantom filmography on Wikipedia, avoid Hunterr, and work you with through all the rest. Happy learning!

 

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Kanye… *sighs*

With the release of Ye, the second in a series of LPs (or really amped up EPs, depending on how you look at it) to be released in June by GOOD Music, all helmed by Kanye at the producer’s desk, it seems like every major music publication has got their resident weary Kanye fan to get back to it and write another review of what they know to be some sort of indisputable masterpiece, in spite of the egomaniac who created it.

I know this because Kanye fans, even closeted fans, have some very clear, almost inevitable tells. The most important of these is going to be the ‘liking Kanye is so hard‘ argument that usually comes towards the beginning of the four-star (three point five if he’s a very resilient Kanye fan) review. The Kanye fan is a miserable soul, burdened with having to reconcile their appreciation for his unfettered genius with their disdain for literally anything he does other than make music. And there’s always something.

Stage-invading during the heart(emoji)felt acceptance speech of that everlasting cutie Taylor Swift at the VMAs to say Beyonce should’ve won that award is reprehensible to the Kanye fan but after a few years and in the right circles, understandable and forgivable. I mean, ‘why you gotta be so mean, Kanye?’ but still, even though it isn’t said, it is rationalised into Kanye’s public persona. We all know who Beyonce is. We all know who JAY-Z is. We sure as hell know who Kanye is. We understand these people in relation to each other. We know that Queen Bey being spurned for anybody (let alone bubblegum teen cuteness sensation Tay Tay) tickles Kanye in those regressive cultural meme centres where he is most vulnerable. Family. Loyalty. Community. Standing up for all of the above. This is the way Kanye operates.

Everything he’s ever done since has been rationalised internally (on the outside, it’s just not talked about because this is a review of the music dammit, not the person!) along similar lines. It’s violent and offensive but hey, it’s at least consistent.

Till it stopped being consistent. Till it began to get really hazy who Kanye West was really standing up for. Did Kanye stop loving you like he loved Kanye and end up only just loving Kanye?

There has always been some confluence between the (revolutionary, excellent and groundbreaking) music Kanye has produced and the strange things he does when he’s not producing music. Now Kanye wants to tell you why he’s been doing what he’s doing the way he knows best: couched between meticulously sampled, artfully placed beats and punchlines like “I love your t******s ’cause they prove I can focus on two things at once.” (which in spite of everything, you have to admit, is uproariously funny). So, business as usual.

But is Kanye West really the revolutionary genius he claims he is?

I – idk probably 

We can try and argue our way around this for sure but beyond a level we’ll hit the rock solid dry-wall of the fact that nearly every trend that has shaken hip-hop up since the early 2000s was engineered by Kanye. He brought sampling back in a major way with his production on JAY-Z’s Blueprint and we haven’t  quite been able to go back to the drums and keyboard soundscape since. His bright, funny and often bitingly ironic chipmunk soul made it okay to write songs about things other than bling…you know, like Jesus and spaceships and an unromanticised approach to drug-dealing.

And then there was 808s which was him singing really really really sad songs about his life falling apart and synthpop was never the same thing again. And also, it was cool not to write songs about your own emotional vulnerability. Go back in time and kill Kanye and Drake would still be consuming copious amounts of maple syrup (isn’t that what one does in Canada?) and The Weeknd wouldn’t be a thing.

The maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came and went, and suddenly strings-sections were literally everywhere.

We’re still ostensibly living in the post Yeezus epoch where precise, industrial beats and Daft Punk beep-boops form a nearly inalienable part of the modern hip-hop soundscape.

The Kanye West story is a fascinating one where a young man from Chicago wearing pink polo shirts selling his own beats-CDs from his backpack (think Ed Sheeran’s work ethic minus the faux-humility) came to redefine what can and cannot be considered good art in this genre.

The revolution with Life of Pablo is a little more complex and a little less influential. It is a mostly personal turnaround where a producer known for his perfectionism decides perfection doesn’t quite describe his own state of mind. It is a jagged and misshapen piece of work, highs jutted awkwardly with the lows. And the usual last minute changes reflected not the refinement to an impossible perfection they usually did but rushing out an imperfect album. Because Kanye’s mind is as volatile and fickle ref. his personal life. And his latest record Ye is very much an extension of that. So what’s the revolution there?

II – it’s still there but it may not be the music 

Kanye has a revolutionary new idea. A 7-track LP. Maybe a couple of tracks longer and more defined than an EP but three songs shy of the shortest possible average LP. And this push towards minimalism is definitely a trend. Since Yeezus, sparse, less-is-more tracks have always been a part of the Kanye sound. He now plans to do it by releasing five such LPs in the span of a month, one by him, one by him and Kid Cudi, one by Teyana Taylor (for which I am most hyped), one by Nas and the one that started it all, Daytona by Pusha T.

III – Daytona by Pusha T

I have to admit, going into this record, I knew very little about Pusha T. I had heard of his being given the reigns to the Kanye chariot, GOOD Music in 2015 but I had never taken the time to listen to any of his work and I don’t know if that matters. Probably not. The reviewers say his previous solo LPs (since his split from the duo Clipse with his brother) were full of staggering promise but the lows of those albums (purportedly a couple of detours into RnB fluff) dampened the potential of the highs. Daytona is like a continuous high.

If Kanye wanted to sell this 7 track concept to me, I don’t think he could’ve done it better than with this album. Pusha’s identity is based around this narcotics-peddling narrative which in this world of sci-fi mumblerap (New Freezer, anyone?) is charming in a very old world sort of way. He tells us he’s sold more dope than Easy E which is so cute because I don’t know if the rap audience that demands street-cred in such a streety sort of way even exists anymore. And this project is lovingly molded by the able hands of that delightful polo-shirt clad right-wing “genius” provocateur Kanye West who’s about as divorced from the street at this point as Brad is from Angelina.

Separate from its subject matter, Pusha’s flow is, though at first unobtrusive and rarely calling attention to itself, masterfully confident. He’s aware of the ‘sport’ of hip-hop being in the metaphors and he plays with a quiet, experiential grace. Not that you’ll listen to a lot of the specific words the first time around because this is without a doubt an Old-Kanye masterpiece. He doesn’t try to create a sound so much as perfect the sound that already exists around Pusha’s voice which reveals that he’s still got that appreciation for and skill with meddling in and around human vocals so few producers operating at his level have. There’s this nigh-indescribable smudge where crisp samples not only apt for their choice but for their precise placement coalesce with tight, sometimes mischievously rococo beats and a creamy wall of bass, all of which maneuvers carefully around Pusha’s voice, connecting one song to the next to make a 7 track LP that feels like a definitive, epochal hip-hop event.

The subject and grander thematic concern of it all is where this gets weird because that’s where this juxtaposition between him and Kanye gets really incomprehensible. ‘I’m real because I sell drugs’, as messages go, is in poor taste but perhaps less so than the ‘misogyny is my DNA’ his producer-boss has been toying around with for a good few years now. But Kanye’s the guy who wrote those very measured songs about how important it was to work your way up from there and all that. He seemed to start with ambitions to rise well above the street.

Pusha wants us to know how on-the-ground he still is. If you know him from the Drake feud, that’s a pretty significant part of the album. Which gets even weirder because the emotional sad-rap ostensibly disconnected from the black cultural and economic reality (or at least that’s probably how Pusha would have you see it) Drake got rich off of is on the firm foundation Kanye laid. Even when Kanye was last on the ground (which was probably eighteen years ago) his eyes were firmly heaven-bound.

This gets even weirder when you look at Kanye’s guest verse in the fascinating song, What Would Meek Do (which is a sort of meditation on his moral compass after he became a rap-star). Pusha’s own narrative of making a lot of money and buying diamonds and being the best would be simple, were it not for an opening line I may be reading a little too much into: “I’m top five and all of them Dylan.”

This is a reference to a Dave Chappelle sketch from the cancelled Chappelle Show where he plays an off-the-rails, egotistical Dylan who says the five greatest rappers of all time are all him.

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This is too clever to be a hollow chest puff. There’s something so delightfully tongue in cheek about prefacing your claim to GOAThood by saying you’re Chappelle-Dylan. I don’t think Pusha thinks he’s the GOAT. I don’t think he even particularly wants to be. But after he finishes his beautifully flowing claim to greatness, he defers to the captain of the ship, Kanye West who finally tells us what’s been going on with his life.

IV – what’s up, kanye? 

First of all, Kanye’s too smart for any of you peasants to even understand, apparently. Also, his MAGA hat is great ’cause he’s not stopped by the police for being black anymore so…yay. Also, what would Pac say? In case you didn’t know, Tupac is rap’s catch all  messiah symbol. Nobody knows what he’d say but invoking his name is like a finishing move. What is Kendrick Lamar unfollowing you on twitter and Chance’s obvious unsettled shame in light of Pac’s alleged posthumous support of whatever it is Kanye’s doing.

Also Kanye doesn’t want you to call him crazy as an excuse for what he’s doing because he’s basically going to do that to himself in his own 7 track LP.

V – ye 

That last sentence was offensive and unfair. Ye is not as hamfisted as I was then about dealing with its subject matter. It’s about Kanye being bi-polar and it’s awesome. Ye is seven tracks of decay, violence, ugliness, you-hate, self-hate and fear for his daughter’s life.

It’s very good. It’s nowhere near as finely tuned as Daytona but I don’t think Kanye wants it to be because it’s a spiritual sequel to Pablo in that it’s a glimpse into Kanye’s crumbling edifice of a mind (I guess). It certainly sounds like that sometimes. It’s convincingly poignant about the loops of hate and love he’s caught in. Written last week, apparently, it feels recent, responsive and spontaneous.

It’s also not really a very convincing excuse. Ye being an absolutely necessary portrayal of mental illness in an industry that’s still struggling to get over it’s anxieties about women is important but this whole project suffers from the baggage of having to address Kanye’s past couple of months and how all these things connect.

I was waiting for something musically revolutionary. Something that would reveal the past few months (especially hard on Kanye fans) to be a phenomenal, performance-art prelude to rap’s new genre-defining masterpiece. That didn’t happen. Like every reviewer says, it feels like a Kanye shrug.

And now everyone who’s been holding on will begin their own mental Wexit. It’s time to cancel Kanye.

VI – moving on 

Will this experiment change music forever? It might, to be honest. It can be very good when done right. I can think of a number of records that would’ve benefited from the 7-track chopping block. Maybe the Teyana Taylor album would reveal how this would work outside a strict rap setting.

His work on Pusha is important because he still understands the power of a unified, concise musical statement in the form of an album. He’s still one of the best there is at his job. Why Pusha is a question neither of them can seem to answer. Pusha’s even a little salty about how Kanye can hear him ‘only one way’. Kanye entered into this with his own agenda and in the process pushed Pusha up (hehe) into the upper echelons of the hall of fame, the sort of stuff that’ll be remembered. But he also wants to do his own thing with a number of voices including his own in a way he hasn’t done for years. It’s just shocking that this time, that confluence between his personal life and his music is just noncommittal and frankly more than a little sad.

Kanye West might have changed the course of the music industry again without needing to get any of us to like his own music.

A lot of things have changed though. Kanye is never quite going to be able to say an ‘I am the greatest’ speech again because that sort of thing is tainted by everyone’s knowledge that everyone’s going to take something like that again with several grains of salt. The emperor has been exposed for his lack of clothes.

And now there’s just me cradling pleasant memories of The College Dropout and Yeezus, feeling sad.

Recommended Reading 

The Pitchfork Review (it’s very sweet and I love it)

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Cancelling Kanye

Some stuff about Kanye’s influence

Some Cat Videos

I Miss Old Taylor

Kanye West’s a heck of a guy. To blame the downward-spiral of the very talented Taylor Swift’s career and her degeneration to whatever one calls Reputation (‘selling out’ makes you wonder who she’s really selling out to and change-of-direction implies individual taste and preference that went into this which is just ugh) on Kanye West’s now hilarious and rather adorable interruption of her VMA acceptance speech and the chain reaction that that event triggered is to perhaps give West as much credit as he wants (which, as a rule of thumb, is always much more than necessary). But it makes me deeply uncomfortable to blame anyone other than Swift herself for this. Even Kanye West.

But, old Kanye-new Kanye. Old Taylor-new Taylor. Kanye’s new epoch is a nebulous thing. Post Pablo? Post Yeezus? Who knows. Who’s supposed to know. But with Taylor, this is where her discography shall now be cleft into two. The bisection starts here. The Old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Because she’s dead.

She seemed like such a fascinating artist, though. I was just listening to Speak Now. What a great album. Happier times, for sure. Until you realize they sorta weren’t. This was 2010.

2010. The year of Ke$ha’s Tik Tok. The Black Eyed Peas were a thing. Pitbull was a thing. Jason Derulo was a thing. Owl City’s Fire ‘The Whitest Song on Earth’ Flies was a thing. The DJ got us falling in love again, that year. This was not a year of quality music all around the board. If you look at what most publications considered the best albums of the year, the only properly big, commercial record on that list would be, ironically enough, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which was apparently his attempt to get to grips with the bad PR the VMA incident generated. Which is not to say that BDTF isn’t a great album. It is. But we didn’t really have Kendrick Lamar and 2017 Beyonce back then. We had The Black Eyed Peas and Owl City on one side and Vampire Weekend, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and LCD Soundsystem (who?) on the other.

In this commercially bleak, mostly indie world, Taylor Swift made a mostly excellent record everyone seems to have overlooked.

I shall also remind you that if you were a kid, this was the general era of Disney Channel. You listened to Hannah Montana and early Justin Beiber. Ooh, and the Jonas Brothers. All of them grudgingly or otherwise. Taylor Swift wanted to leave the club around then, I think. But she did her break in a far more subtle, graceful fashion than her contemporaries. At least, up till Reputation. Speak Now in some ways reflects the start of that break. It’s delightfully unsure of itself. Is it piano-pop? Is it pop-rock? Is it guitar pop? How much country should it be? Can she ditch the country altogether? The answer to everything is yes.

The countryest song is probably that powerful liberation anthem Mean which is so clever because it’s about how she’ll eventually outgrow the ‘limitations of her roots’ and be ‘livin’ in a big ‘ole city’. And the bumpkin who wanted to hold her back is none other than Kanye West. Dressing this song about Kanye West (who probably embodies big city better than anyone else could) not letting a poor little country-girl enjoy her big break as a country banjo-rollicker about some uncouth alcoholic degenerate holding her back from the big city is deliberate genius.

There’s a lot of strings which is interesting because the other big album that experimented with orchestral instrumentation that year was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Sometimes the strings are a bit much, like in Back To December where the pared down acoustic version is much better than the official recording.

But sometimes she’s very subtle with the strings like in Enchanted. This is a great song for several reasons (please don’t be in love with someone else) but I will point out a specifically great part. If you listen to the song, at around 1:55, when she’s launching into the first chorus and she sings ‘meet’, you can hear what is either a slide along a single string on a distorted electric guitar or a synthesizer with the pitch bent forwards on that single note in the background. Whatever it is, that is the sound of Disney Channel pop, distilled. Later, around 5:08, the same sound is played, but this time along with a violin. Nothing could represent a transition from kiddy-pop to grown up music better than that.

Dear John is interesting, given who the target of her ire is. The ethics of addressing these songs to specific people by almost spelling out who they are so as to essentially drop fuel into the fires of the press aside, if you’re going to write a breakup song about John Mayer, this is how you do it. I have never appreciated production in a pop-album more than Dear John. Just listen to Slow Dancing in a Burning Room . Dear John mimics sappy John Mayer better than he can mimic himself while being a perfectly credible Taylor Swift song at the same time. That little slide-bottle guitar between the verses. The electric guitar riffs that threaten to choke out the words, the way Mayer…er…yeah. The conclusion to the song is gorgeously anthemic.

She wrote all these songs herself. Which is amazing. No Ed Sheeran. No features from Future. Nathan Chapman, who produced all her previous albums, doesn’t return on Reputation and his loss is felt. There was a folk-beauty to every one of those albums, however pop they became.

I think that had something to do with the writing. The little things nobody else would even think to include in a song meant a lot in a Taylor Swift song. There’s that ‘you wish it was me, don’t you?’ in the eponymous Speak Now which reveals so much about how tongue-in-cheek the whole song is. Red isn’t nearly as good as Speak Now, but even there, you have moments like ‘indie-record that’s much cooler than mine’ from We Are Never Getting Back Together.Then there’s 1989′s ‘I’ve been there too a few times’.

I hope Old Taylor really isn’t dead. New Kanye’s weird but he’s still interesting. New Taylor isn’t. I wanted to do a solid comparison with Reputation but that would involve listening to it more than once and I don’t think I can. Its music is grating and without any of the grace that seemed to come so easy to Swift in the past. Other than hardcore fans, who is this record for? Disney Channel kids don’t exits anymore. Fourteen year-olds are weaned on Khalid and Halsey and other indie-pop/neo-R&B artists or at the very least, Sheeran. Those people from 2010 aren’t things anymore. So why did she make an album that seems to belong to 2010 better than Speak Now ever did? Is Reputation some sick, dark way of getting back at the world for some sort of artistic neglect? Is this payback for caring more about whose bed Swift shared than the quality of her music?

If it is, I truly am very sorry. I think the world could use some ‘hey Stephen I can give you fifty reasons why I should be the one you choose. Well, those other girls, they’re beautiful. But would they write a song for you?

On Blue Whales, The Internet and Hysteria

Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? After a while, a masterfully crafted Christopher Nolan movie, maybe. But first, elephants. Don’t think about blue whales. No, seriously. Don’t.

I really don’t know where to begin with this. Structuring these sorts of texts is something I usually enjoy doing but here, it’s a little difficult. Factors alarmingly bleed into each other. Subtopics avoid me. It’s all a little terrifying.

So let’s begin with where I chose to begin. Don’t think about blue whales. Sensationalism and Indian media is a long and complex story which deals with stylistic and, more importantly, commercial factors far beyond the scope of this article. The Indian news channel is aesthetically garish and choked for space, headlines pared down to sometimes two-word phrases hitting your flatscreens and iPhones in big, bold, capital letters. The people behind the desks are more showmen than newsreaders. We criticize Arnab all we want. Who else is significantly better? Here we are now. Entertain us. Okay, so long as you pay us. Or at least watch this Ujala advertisement.

This becomes pertinent when we look at the way news articles on the Blue Whale challenge are written and captioned and the images used to present them. ”

Blue Whale challenge: A journey into dark side of internet”

Or so The Indian Express tells us. Sounds more like pulp horror than a news article. The pictures used are no better. A pale arm jutting out of a folded hoodie sleeve. A blue whale painted on it in chocolate syrup. Or blood, who knows? All that matters is that it does what any image so cryptic, so violent and yet so controlled, so very intriguing does to you. Which just happens to be exactly what that headline does to you. And I think the media can’t help doing this. How can one change the way they’ve been writing for most of this century just for one story? I don’t think journalists hunker down into their cubicles with their hipster-glasses on and Macbooks at the ready saying “how do we capitalize off the suicides of very vulnerable adolescents across our country?”. It’s a matter of practice. Of vocabulary.

It is unfair to accuse all media establishments uniformly of crimes so heinous. There are a number of very careful, very measured, very logical analyses of this matter in reputed newspapers. But those newspapers are printed on dead trees and slipped through people’s doors early in the morning. They are read by old people. The sensational stuff is all on the internet. Which leads to our second problem.

The Blue Whale Challenge is not the dark side of the internet. The internet goes much deeper. And much much darker. The internet is a scary place. This isn’t shocking stuff. Go to any debating/speaking society in any school, wait for the inevitable “Is the internet evil?” topic to come up and listen to smartly dressed little boys and girls tell you about how the information superhighway, despite being an instant repository for all information you will ever need about anything, is not the safest territory for young explorers to roam unsupervised. The very old bitch and moan about this and their cries go unheeded. Nine year olds play Farmville and their fingers hover uncertainly over strange new friend-requests and message-requests. The motor skills required to play Subway Surfers often overtake those required to walk. Kids are curious about kooky stuff. But in a world where Peppa Pig episodes come at you in a rapid clip with ad-breaks you can skip after a mere five seconds, The Hardy Boys, weird encyclopedias and true-crime TV shows don’t quite cut it.

We’ve talked about the very old and the very young. Those in the middle are the ones we need to talk about. But to cast blame here is to be callous. Raising a child in this environment is not an easy thing to do. To deny access to to this wonderland of education is to amputate your athlete before the race. To restrict just the right amount is a complex thing to manage, entailing a familiarity with the technology involved that is superior to the child’s (like that’s ever going to happen except in the rarest of cases) and a lot of time. Which nobody quite has now, let’s be very honest. To relent is the only possible solution. He’s scoring okay, not hurting his eyes and not getting into any trouble. Watch the news, eat dinner, go to bed.

Let’s talk about those very logical articles that academics write in those newspapers that old people read. The statistics angle is usually brought up. And rightly so. 17% of all global suicides come from India. 34% of suicides in India occur in the 15-29 age bracket. This is scary stuff and people have been doing a lot of interesting research about this and trying to sound the alarm for a long time. The nation wants to know only just now.

Why are these children killing themselves? Because of facebook messages asking them to wake up at night to watch scary movies or to climb on to the roof? No. If that triggers one to take her own life, there had to have been a problem before that. There have been problems before that for years, though and we’re perfectly happy pretending they don’t exist. Because mental illness isn’t like regular illness. Paracetamol doesn’t really fix it. It doesn’t make your forehead warm and your eyes bleary. It’s hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. So you’re just feeling sad. That’s okay. That’s normal. Everyone feels sad. Go watch some Peppa Pig. Play some Farmville. Make friends. Read the news. Online? Sure, read it online.

So now, perhaps you can understand my predicament when it comes to structuring this. There is no beginning, middle and end. It is not a cycle or a wheel. It is not linear. It doesn’t progress. It is muck, mixing and coagulating. There is news on the internet, written to make you read more. There are children reading up on this news and then beyond the news. Some of these children aren’t okay but they aren’t running temperatures and they aren’t coughing up phlegm so they must be fine.

But that isn’t what’s sad about this whole thing. What’s sad is that it’s something as ridiculous as the Blue Whale Challenge which finally made us sit up and take notice. A story which makes for interesting Whatsapp forwards. Because who wants to read about stress and hostile home environments? Let’s read about chocolate syrup whale patterns on pale hands instead. Let’s go on loving our hysteria.

Don’t think about blue whales. Think about the little one. Think about how he’s doing. How he’s really doing. Think about the news you love watching so much. Think about how it shapes the way you think without you even knowing. Think about statistics. Think about depression. Don’t think about blue whales. Don’t think about elephants.

 

 

 

The Sunflower Epoch: Definitions of Dalit Before and After Ambedkar

This was meant to be submitted as a writing assignment at a place I attended for a while. That submission never happened but I rather like this, warts and all. 

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The time is the 1970s. The fresh-faced idealism that came up with the Republican Party of India has now dissipated into a fizz of factionalism and insularity. The hope of coexistence, recognition and perhaps most important of all, the idea that it is possible for all sides to put the past behind them that was stirred in the hearts of all harijans or shudras or outcastes as the firecrackers of 1947 turned our newly free sky into a Christmas tree of light is now behind them. What settles in those hearts now is jaded pessimism. And sorrow. And rage.

Little has changed for the broken man. The precious few who could break free from the tight clutches of tradition look back to their broken brothers and sisters and write tear stained songs and poems. Namdheo Dhasal is a poet. And even though he recognizes that the future of the broken lies in the hands of the broken themselves, he cannot help but look back once more to the sunflower giving fakir and all he represented. “After a thousand years, we were blessed with sunflower giving fakir. Now, now we must like sunflowers turn our faces to the sun.1

That fakir represented an epoch in the dark history of these broken men and women. That history traces a sequence of ugly blots along the greater history of India itself. It coexists with the varnas, the Buddha, the Mughals, the British, The Indian National Congress and the state of affairs we are in today. Their story is the marginalia to India’s legacy. And it is far from over.

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We do not know when this story really begins. Early Indian society was patriarchal in structure with inheritance not only restricted to property but, in most cases, occupation. So, the son would learn his father’s trade and teach it to his son and so on ad infinitum. It is also known that at some point after 500BCE the religious elite began to codify social norms and regulations into Sanskrit texts called Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.

These texts were responsible for the classification of people into four distinct categories or varnas: The Brahmanas, The Kshatriyas, The Vaishyas and The Shudras. And then, of course, there were the untouchables. They were the scavengers, ‘savages’ and those who could not be easily classified into the existing orders. This concept emerged from the idea that the lower castes could pollute the upper ones through touch because the work done by the Brahmanas was pure and that by the Shudras or Chandalas was polluting or impure.

While we do know for a fact that this piece of dogma existed within the Shastras, it is not known how prevalent these ideas were, or whether they were universally accepted. Evidence, in fact, points to the contrary. Brahmanical mandates regarding gotras, the rules of marriage, descent, succession of the throne and even occupation were often ignored by some groups and sometimes did not reach all sections of society.

In addition, there were religious groups who reacted very openly against these classifications. The Bhakti movement in South India, the Buddhist Sanghas, the Jainas and the Lingayats are among them.

Despite this, this system of social stratification persisted through the years to come. The Deccan Sultans came and went. The Mughals arrived. Caste distinctions in the Indian village remained ever constant.

Even though agricultural land was abundant, sections of society were denigrated to performing menial labour, pushed into poverty only because of their caste. With the coming of the British, their morbid curiosity about the ways of the Orient and their extensive surveys, the caste identities of the population became all the more stark. The colonial government helped matters along by allotting administrative work to the Brahmanas and upper castes and menial labour to the lower castes.

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The arrival of Gandhian Nationalism in the early nineteen-hundreds would mark the next major change in the popular perception and, rather more importantly, the self-perception of the Untouchables.

The Mahatma’s relationship with the untouchables was always a complicated one. In his dual role as a political leader and social reformer, the eradication of untouchability was always one of his prime concerns. During the ‘first’ Independence Day in 1930, Gandhi had explicit instructions on how to celebrate it, allotting some amount of time to the service of untouchables. His encouragement of performing menial tasks usually relegated to castes added to his appeal among them. He even went so far as to state that he wished to be reborn as an untouchable. “if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition. I, therefore, prayed that, if I should be born again, I should do so not as a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra, but as an Atishudra.”2

Given Gandhi’s status as a messianic saviour of the colonised population, his opinion on the integration of these untouchables into mainstream society should have gone unopposed like all his other opinions. But it didn’t. And that opposition came from a very unexpected place.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an exceptional figure in 20th century British India. The son of an untouchable sepoy of the Mhow cantonment, his early education was spent segregated from the rest of the school. He recounts his experience of being unable to drink water from the common vessel unless it were to be poured down from above by an upper class peon. He sat on a dry old gunny sack he had to carry home himself after each day’s classes. Eventually, he became the only untouchable student at Bombay’s prestigious Elphinstone high school and the first untouchable to be admitted to Elphinstone College. Through a scholarship, he was able to pursue his postgraduate education at Columbia University in New York and then at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics. The fruit of nine years of dedicated higher education for Ambedkar was proficiency in Political Science, Economics and Law.

These were skills which put him in a position very few untouchables could even dare to achieve then. They helped him fight the broken man’s corner with the white man’s language.

And he did fight their corner, sometimes going toe to toe with the revered father of the nation. In the first Round-Table conference in 1930, he represented the Depressed Classes (or untouchables). The most iconic altercation between these two national leaders took place during the Second Round Table Conference when Gandhi vehemently opposed Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates for the Depressed Classes.

This changed things, not just for Ambedkar and Gandhi but also for the untouchables, whose reaction to Gandhi’s protest and subsequent hunger strike was less than entirely supportive. As N.S. Gehlot writes: “The intense feelings of the Dalits against Gandhi were manifested by black flag demonstrations against him on his return to Bombay.3

Eventually, Ambedkar was forced to relent to Gandhi’s plea for the safety of untouchables throughout the country.  “If Gandhi died, in villages throughout India there would be pogroms against the Dalits. They would be massacred.”4 But this acrimony between the Mahatma and Baba Saheb continued for a very long time. Ambedkar would later go on to claim that Gandhi, while maintaining a façade of being in support of abolishing untouchability in front of the English-language press, actually wrote against it in a Gujarati newspaper.

Gandhi, for his part, claimed that it would not be possible for the system of untouchability to be abolished if separate electorates and policies of reservations were put into place. He also spoke in favour of the caste system as a religious concept, claiming that untouchability was a mutation of something that was once good and that caste differences should not be done away with wholesale. Ambedkar was dead against that and encouraged the burning of copies of The Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text in which the varna system was codified. Eventually he even espoused that untouchables should abandon Hinduism altogether and embrace Buddhism.

Regarding the inclusion of those of the Depressed Classes into Parliament, a compromise was arrived at between the Mahatma and Ambedkar with the Poona Pact of 1932. The concept of separate electorates was done away with but a percentage of seats were to be reserved in both houses for untouchables. But this never stretched to anything beyond a compromise. Some claimed it was too little. Others claimed that it was too much.

 

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It is in the midst of this conflict about reservations, social justice and the blotting away of past evils that issues of identity and nomenclature come to play.

Even during the early history of the fourfold varna system, the specific names and identities of the lower castes were blurry at best. While the roles of the shudras and athisudhras were relatively well defined, there were a variety of other social categories (each distinctly named) that an individual could belong to with nebulous systems of power relations connecting them to each other and to the upper castes. There were the chandalas, scavenger outcastes who Chinese Buddhist historians claim were forced to live separate from the general public, there were the nishadas, hunter-gatherers who lived in the forest and mlechchas, ‘barbarians’ from foreign lands.

There was also the complex system of jatis or sub-castes in which those practicing the same occupation would be classified into the same group. In essence, it is possible to infer that a whole host of ‘types’ of people who did not fit into the four varnas were placed into lower castes or other derogatory categories by the Brahmanas. This malign mess of categorization based on hazy family history and random theories had its impact far into the future. It became a matter of identity. And in the case of the caste-system in India, identity bleeds into language in very disturbing ways.

Gandhiji’s preferred term for the Depressed Classes was harijan, which means ‘God’s people’. This term had a mixed response among the untouchable community. Gandhiji’s own caste lay between him and the people of God he cared so much about, a schism neither side could quite manage to bridge. This, to some extent, contextualizes Gandhi’s repeated impassioned cries that he would, if he could, turn shudra.. But for a lot of the shudras he was trying to appeal to, the fact that he refused to support getting rid of the system as a whole made his status as the saviour of the untouchables questionable.

Nomenclature morphed into different forms even in the official spheres of jurisprudence and government. Depressed Classes transformed into Scheduled Castes, implying castes that were on the schedule (or list) of untouchable communities.

The new names did little to transform the situation for individual untouchables in towns, cities and most especially villages, the terminal end of India’s federal administrative system. They were still denied access to common property like pools and wells. They were ghettoized, oppressed and violated. The untouchable woman was a particularly easy target for upper caste men.

From this oppression came a new name, a name chosen not by a political scientist or a benevolent Mahatma but by the broken themselves. Dalit became a new name and a new identity: disillusioned, anguished and militant.

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A definition of Dalit has been a contested issue among social scientists, anthropologists and lawmakers. Sunita Reddy Bharati says: “Dalit is not a caste, it is a constructed identity, which is a reality that cannot be denied.”4 This lack of specificity when it comes to the boundaries and extents of Dalit stems from the Dalit Panthers, a militant organization of Dalit students, poets and thinkers drawing inspiration from the Black Panthers of America.

The Panthers emerged from among the slum-dwelling educated class of Dalit youth in Mumbai and gave rise to an entire new genre of Marathi literature. The movement grew to encompass a variety of broken people under its umbrella but the origin of Dalit always came back to the untouchables. The mahars or shudras.

The violence of Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry represents a paradigm in the self-identity of the Dalits. That paradigm stems from an epochal moment in their history, distinct from the peace and non violence of the Mahatma. The Panthers were violent, not just in their methods but also in their poetry. Dhasal invokes not a reworking of existing upper-caste society but a destruction.

That violence originates from an intellectual violence; from a sunflower giving fakir who set fire to copies of the Manusmriti, who forced the Father of the Nation to threaten to fast to death before eventually relenting and who never for once advocated anything less than burning the entire enterprise of caste relations down.

Before the Ambedkar Epoch, there was, as there always has been and continues to be for the broken men, misery and sorrow. But Ambedkar brought a unified identity and an equally unified rage against the mechanisms that had arbitrarily forced the Dalits down for centuries.

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The real test for India’s untouchability problem post-Ambedkar lies not only in the position of untouchables today but also in the popular perceptions of the other castes towards them.

Issues of caste based violence (especially against women) continue to happen but their frequency and social acceptability are very different from the time of the Panthers. Untouchables are gaining significant access to mainstream society and the present generation shows signs that there is hope for an abandonment of all caste distinctions in the foreseeable future.

But, sentiments towards policies of reservations, equity and special treatment get icier by the year. One side argues that continuing these measures only increases the gulf between Dalits and the rest of India. The other side argues that it is not fair to promote the employment and education of an ironically ‘arbitrary’ category of people at the cost of the employment and education of ‘hard-working’ members of the general category.

With India subtly riding the coattails of a worldwide trend of populism and nationalism, we may eventually have to deal with the Dalit being in a similar position to a black man in Trump’s America. And with fears like that baying at our doors, just how less broken is a broken man in 2017 than one in 1947? The situation is not one which either Gandhi or Ambedkar would be proud of. And we aren’t any closer to a solution than those men were.

A new generation of sunflowers try to turn their face to the sun and the rest of us watch, as uncertain as ever.

The Real Baahubali: Legend Through The Lens of History

#SpoilerAlert for Baahubali 1 & 2. Don’t read if you haven’t watched. 

When we talk about Baahubali and we talk about history, it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that this duology of historical-fantasy/action/drama/romance movies has become the first in the history of Indian cinema to gross a 1000 crores rupees worldwide. It also just happens to be the most expensive Indian film ever made which goes to show that huge investments lead to equally huge payoffs if everyone’s heart’s in it (Peter Jackson wink wink nudge nudge). It also happens to not be a Bollywood film and not star any of the Khans.

The film also fundamentally presents itself as a history. Or does it? That’s what this post is going to explore.

Broadly, Baahubali is the story of a particular phase in the history of the fictional empire of Mahishmati (not to be confused with the real 13th century city of Mahishmati which was the principal city of the Avanti Mahajanapadha). It follows the lives of two members of the royal family, Bhallaldeva and Amarendra Baahubali who are raised together by the Queen Mother, Shivagami under the promise that the one who is wiser, stronger, more just and more fit to rule will eventually become king. Bhallaldeva is very evil because he has a scary scar and a nasty mean look and his father looks like the Grinch.

The Grinch Who Stole Navratri

Baahubali is awesome because he’s got a very friendly looking mustache, fighting skills second to none, abs, unparalleled strategic skills, more abs, the love and respect of the entire kingdom, yet more abs, the ability to charm anything sentient and did I mention the mustache?

Basically, things go south for the good guy. He wins the test, mommy says he’s going to be King, stays awesome for a bit, goes on a tour, falls in love, gets schemed against (by the grinch, no less), loses the throne, gets married, creates a fetus, loses admission to the palace, lives with the proles, stays awesome, gets schemed against by the grinch again, gets killed by his uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor.

The aforementioned fetus grows up in the bottom of a waterfall, gets raised by an old Malayalam movie actress, moves a Shiva lingam with this bare hands to the bottom of a waterfall, sees a butterfly woman in a bikini, chases after her up the mountain, finds out she’s real but not in a bikini, proceeds to get her into a bikini, goes sledding with her, takes up bikini-girl’s mission of saving the old woman tied up in the middle of Mahishmati, gets chased by Bhallaldeva’s son (in other words, the grandson of the Grinch who is still very much alive by the way) and the uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor, kills the prince, gets told the whole story by the slave, goes into battle with evil meany king, burns him and becomes king.

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The real reason people climb mountains

That’s about it.

I wasn’t a big fan the first time I watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The whole thing was very unrealistic. The Baahubalis, father and son, were both morally perfect beings of mustachioed physical and mental puissance par excellence. Nothing could ever kill either of them (other than betrayal by daddy’s closest ally, of course). Because one sword can kill a man when fifty arrows can’t. The villains were irredeemably bad, grinchy looking, brutal, uncivilised, lacking in strategic capability and cartoonishly sadistic.

On a rewatch, I got it. I understood what all of it meant.

Baahubali isn’t a history. It’s a legend. What’s the difference, you may be asking? Well, for the purposes of this discussion, think about it like this: it’s the story of this phase in Mahishmati’s history written by a dude hired Baahubali. Who happens to be the emperor of a very powerful empire with a lot of soldiers and pointy things that kill so you really don’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. So obviously, he’s handsome and upright and perfect and loved by everyone and can be killed by no one. Also obviously, his rivals are evil and mean and grinchy looking.

The movies don’t really try to hide this fact. Literally half the overall story is narrated by a very guilty man who killed the main character of his story to the son of the man he killed. And the other half is so over-the-top it’s obviously trying to be mythic or legendary.

One of the  ways the director Rajamouli pushes this theme through is with the use of divine symbols. This was very common with the myriad of rulers who established themselves through ancient and medieval India. Many of them would try to associate themselves with a particular god. Many would, without trying to outright suggest it, say that they were gods themselves. The way they would spread these messages would be through paintings, carvings and, of course, legends passed on from generation to generations.

The movie uses divine symbols not directly but not subtly either. Baahubali the Younger is named Shivu by the Malayalam actress who adopts him. The Elder uses the same sobriquet when he’s trying to charm the princess he falls in love with (so that she can see his true character instead his riches or whatevs). The musical theme that plays when Baahubali does something awesome translates to “Hail Shiva!”. There’s an extended song sequence in the second part where the princess sings a lullaby for the god Krishna as part of a festival. The song cuts between Baahubali and the idol of Krishna, some of the offerings being made to the latter reflecting to the former.

This changes the way you look at the entire story of Baahubali because you can sort of assume most of it is skewed in the favour of Baahubali & Son. But, the broad strokes of the story probably did happen, just not in the way the legend describes it.

So how do we uncover the real story? The usual approach is to find other sources. No historian in her good senses would consider a mythic or legendary story as being anywhere near authoritative. The historian would dig around for material remains (like Indiana Jones with less swag), find sculptures, reconstruct ordinary patterns of life and collate all that information together to find something that approximates to the closest extent what actually happened.

But with Baahubali, we don’t have any of that because the story didn’t actually happen. Instead we have a multi-crore budget cinematic exaggerated legend of a story that was in reality probably very different, if it would have actually happened.

So the next idea is to de-exaggerate the legend and try to come up with a more plausible version of the events that could have happened. To do this, we use the metrics of other examples from history and a fair bit of common sense.

The Baahubalis were not perfect. We know that because we know from common sense that literally no one is perfect, especially not rulers of vast empires. On a less abstract basis, we know Amarendra wasn’t perfect for the apparent reason that he died. In fact, if you trace his political history, devoid of its mythic backstory, you’ll find the story of a classic failure rather than the wounded martyr figure the legend presents to us.

Things started out pretty good for Amarendra Baahubali. We can assume that he was probably better loved by the general public than his more politically minded half brother. He was probably not loved unanimously by every living human soul in Mahishmati as the legend would have you believe but he was probably the more popular among the two. That was probably what would have swayed the Queen Mother to initially crown him King, not a moral lesson after a very cinematic battle sequence.

From there, the legend says that he falls in love with Devasena, the princess of the Kuntala Kingdom south of Mahishmati. Romance makes for delightful storytelling (and equally delightful dance sequences on lotus boats in the sky) but from what we know from the political history of India, love had little to do with marriages among royal families. We can assume a more plausible turn of events. Amarendra attempts to enter into some sort of alliance with the southern kingdom. The Queen Mother is not pleased (probably because she warned against it by the Grinch) and demands that he either break the alliance or give up his throne. He goes for the latter option for what could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps he favoured the more absolute control over the smaller kingdom rather than puppet authority over the empire. Perhaps he really was a little in love with the beautiful princess. Perhaps it was a fit of youthful rage that was not very strategically thought out.

So then, he accedes his throne to Meany McMeanypants Bhallaldeva and becomes the Commander of the Army. Then, he loses that position as well. Why? Was it because of a passionate outburst by his fiery bride like the legend says it is? Not likely, given the social position of women (especially the wives of powerful men) in early Indian history. Influential? Certainly but rarely directly. Which is why the character of Shivagami is a bit implausible as well but it makes sense as an exceptional circumstance. Things like that have happened.

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No, he’s not a Power Ranger.

So why was Baahubali exiled? A conflict of interests is the most likely answer. His dethronement was because of what was most likely an alliance with a subsidiary state. If a political figure became closely linked with both the ruling hierarchy of one kingdom and the military of another empire, the rulers of that empire would obviously get a little testy.

So, Amarendra’s response was to live among the people. Again, possible but not entirely likely. What is more likely would be that he established base in his wife’s kingdom. A downgrade, for sure given the prestige he previously enjoyed.

This also explains why the new king would want to kill him. Given the guy’s general awesomeness and popularity with common folk, an uprising of the Kuntala kingdom under Baahubali’s command would be very very possible. Was he killed of by his uncle-slave-buddy? Again, great storytelling but unlikely. It could very well have been just a random assassin.

So the end result is that this person was first the most powerful person alive in a very powerful empire and eventually ended up dethroned, weakened, exiled and finally killed. Doesn’t sound very perfect to me.

Machiavelli would have called him a bad prince.

So Baahubali the legend is flawless. Baahubali the man is quite obviously flawed. What are those flaws?

We know for sure that he wasn’t the real son of the Queen Mother. Perfectly plausible there. People get adopted all the time, even into royal families. That fact was most likely a psychological complex, clouding Amarendra’s political judgement with this strong sense of loyalty and adoration to the woman who elevated someone who wasn’t even the fruit of her womb to the highest position in the empire. The Queen Mother had Baahubali wrapped around her finger. Any order that came from her would be followed without question. That is quite a strong weakness in a man with the hopes of ruling over the empire.

Added to that is this naivete about the people around him whom he expected would all follow the dharma or righteous law his mother had so earnestly taught him.

He probably never saw it coming. The literally-on-fire sequence where he gets stabbed in the back probably never happened. It is much more likely that he was lying on a hammock in the Kuntala backyard, combing his mustache and thinking he wasn’t a threat to anyone in the world out here when he was shot by a poisoned dart or something. Idk.

So Baahubali isn’t perfect. By extension, Mahishmati probably isn’t perfect either. This is openly alluded to by Baahuballi’s waifu in a fiery, impassioned speech which is just the kind of thing that would get you exiled. The empire was operating on the basis of an extrapolated edition of the dharma that left plenty of loopholes for characters like the grinch to manipulate to achieve their own ends. Bureaucracy outweighed righteousness. Protocol trumped justice. The popular choice was chilling out with waifu while Evil McEvilpants was allowed to rule.

Speaking of Mister Evil, the reality is that nobody could really ever be that evil. In brief chinks in  the fabric of the legend, Rajamouli gives us a glimpse of the real Bhallaldeva behind the grey highlights and abs. A political man, perhaps. A lot more ambitious than his adopted sibling and a lot more aware of the people’s love for said sibling than the sibling himself. A little insecure. A little too much of a daddy’s boy just as Baahubali’s a little too much of a mommy’s boy.

And what of daddy himself, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas? He was probably just very resentful. Resentful that the throne went to a woman instead of him. Resentful of his disability. Maybe he suffered from the same ailment most Indian parents suffer from: the need to vicariously live out their fantasies through their children. My beta will be an engineer/King because I couldn’t be.

And that leaves us with Baahubali the Son. He suffers from essentially the same character flaws as his dad (probably because he is the same character as his dad). His obsession with what his mother(s) want him to do and truckloads of naivete. We can envision a similar future for the real Mahishmati, backseat ruled by Devasena instead of Shivagami.

Which is why the ending of the movie is rather curious. The movie is expected to end when the S.S. Rajamouli seal is stamped right next to Baahubali II’s face at the end of his speech. But it doesn’t. It’s followed by this sequence where the golden head of the statue of Bhallaldeva rolls down the same path that Shivu followed up the mountain to chase his destiny. The statue eventually comes to a stop in front of the Shiva lingam that Shivu moved with his bare hands so long ago in Movie 1. Plaintive, sad music plays throughout this sequence and you’re left a little confused. What does that mean? That good triumphs over evil? That the will of God prevailed over human greed and ambition? Or is it trying to draw attention to the fact that this is the legend of a god among men? But who decides who god is? The person who tells the story, of course. But like I said, the story is obviously skewed in Baahubali’s favour.

Baahubali is a treasure trove for the amateur historian. It is the work of a confident film-maker who operates on multiple levels. The legend of Baahubali is a stirring story of good triumphing over evil. The history of Baahubali is a more complicated affair concerned with the politics of managing a large empire, the ambitions of two aristocrats and the women behind them and human flaws in human beings on both sides. And both stories and in there. It’s just that one of them takes a little digging.

Music Musings – Laura Marling’s Semper Femina and Kanye West’s Yeezus are two sides of the same coin

 

Chill.

Fans of either artist who read this (lol, who am I kidding, I pray every night for more than one person to read these scraps of nonsense also thank you mom) will go through the whole tearing their hair out, sackcloth and ashes routine.

A more likely question to be floating around in your noggin right now, dear reader (mom), would be: “Why are you talking about that chauvinistic egomaniac freak in 2017 and also who the fuck is Laura Marling?”

To answer your first question, because he’s interesting. We have more than enough bland reflections on life and the inner journey pumped out year after year by independant record labels and listened to by pubescent girls in their chokers and winged eyeliner pretending that abhorring Justin Bieber, Drake and those four Irish boys with peculiar hair whilst adoring electronic indie trite (OH WONDER) ridden with more ‘piercing the fabric of the intellect’ platitudes than  the bedroom of an educated stoner. Where’s the edge? Where’s the balls to do something properly different in the confines of pop-expectations? Kanye stole all of the balls.

Who’s Laura Marling? Laura Marling is the only one all the critics took seriously from the whole Communion group that we called nu-folk that was taking over London in 2010. She’s also the one who’s been most artistically consistent out of the whole lot. Noah and the Whale wrote a break up album and then disappeared. Mumford & Sons remodelled themselves into a rock outfit and wove out and then back into my heart. But Laura Marling has been singing about the same things she’s been singing about since she was seventeen. Melancholia and the burden of womanhood.

Only, with her, you could always buy that. She always looked burdened by something very elusive. Maybe she didn’t know it was femininity when she was sixteen. But this has been a sort of touchstone for almost every album she’s ever done. The juxtaposition (I love that word, can’t you tell) between so many different emotions, all relating to womanhood has been something she’s been obsessed with. The power it brings, the responsibility, the frailty, the fickle nature, the vulnerability, the demand to deny that vulnerability, &ct. Her feminism is always heartfelt and earnest.

So is Kanye’s masculinity. This is where things get a little un-PC because I’m going to have to defend Kanye’s chauvinism. I like to think of it more as violent masculinity, though. And that violence permeates the album Yeezus from the word go. It is abrasive and hostile from the beginning to end. But, there’s something very insecure in the middle of all of this as well. The art isn’t insecure, for certain. And it isn’t overcompensating, whatever that means. People who make claims like that don’t really understand Kanye as an art form.

Kanye as a person, I’ll be the first to admit, even I don’t understand. But Kanye the artist is undeniably extremely talented. We could talk for hours here about his production skills (and Miss Marling’s guitar skills) but let’s cut right to the chase and explore what both these artists are all about and also what they have in common. Which happens to be the same thing.

If you pick apart all of Kanye’s oeuvre for a theme, the best answer would be identity. That identity is a  fluid concept is something Kanye knows all too well. There is something very self obsessed with Kanye’s sense of identity but that is what is so genius about the whole thing. In the framework of rap, introspection (and it’s leaner, meaner cousin narcissism) rarely ever stand out. To brag is the norm. And that basically gives Kanye a ticket to explore every facet of his own psyche and identity he wishes to from his Christianity to his heartbreak to his race and sex.

Race and sex happens to be what Laura Marling is interested in as well, only she’s a lot more soothing than Kanye. So soothing that you’re tempted to almost stop listening to what she’s saying and hear legit the most beautiful voice on the planet overlaid with Blake Mills’s sweet sweet production. Ah. Eargasms. But if you actually listen, what Marling’s trying to do with femininity is interesting. As a concept album, the guist of it is that it is about women from the perspective of men, only written by a woman. So it goes sort of like the Ouroboros. How much of the album is written to herself, I do not know. But, buried under the standoffish subtlety that has come to define Laura Marling, you have a healthy vein of introspection that is most Kanye like.

The first song from Semper Femina is a song about sex. Soothing (arranged like an inevitable, tribal doom ritual) follows a protagonist who is forced to grapple between her reluctance to allow someone to enter her life and her burning lust for this person. That’s what the album title is all about. The Virgil reference. Woman is fickle and changeable always.

Most of the songs from Yeezus are about the same thing. The pressures of married life choking away his previously vibrant sex life. This may seem terrifically banal and gauche compared to Marling’s contemplative reflections on womanhood but scratch the surface and you’ll find he’s railing against the same thing. It isn’t a entirely societal, the expectation for male promiscuity. It is something deep rooted in our collective psyche and he feels the need to live up to that. But he also wants something rich and meaningful from his marriage, as Bound 2 shows us.

Both of them are railing against norms put on them by things they do not fully comprehend. And both speak their pieces beautifully.

But you know what they say. Speaking about music is like dancing about architecture. So I’ll leave you with these: