Padmaavat (i): Ranveer Singh’s Khilji steals the show even as you can’t quite take your eyes off Deepika

Hands down, Bhansali’s period drama is a testament to the raw acting prowess of Ranveer Singh.

padmaavat-serious-coup-makers-silent-0001

You would have to be living under a rock if you still haven’t heard/read/debated the billion controversies surrounding Padmavati, right up to the point of its release where it was reduced to Padmaavat (minus the scintillating ‘i’) with as many as 300 cuts. 

And if your curiosity has not yet been stoked, despite the unasked-for-constant-stream-of-assault-on-the-senses via scathing movie reviews, think-pieces and just plain rants on the magnum opus flooding the internet, know that I envy your aloofness and determination to stay away from this muck, but also know, that you might possibly be missing out on one of the fiercest performances of a Bollywood hero in recent times, minus the excessive praise showered on Rajput valour.

Does Padmaavat cater to the bombastic, upscaled grandeur of Bhansali’s vision and overwhelm you with its largeness? Yes.

Is it an accurate account of historical events? No.

So what can we take away from this semi-historical, sometimes borderline annoying cine fest? Ranveer Singh’s portrayal of the quirky, psychopathic Alauddin Khilji, arguably his career’s best till date.

From the moment Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) steps into the pallid dark grey frame of the betrayal-infested darbar of his crook of an uncle, Jalaluddin Khilji (Raza Murad), with a CGI-constructed humongous ostrich by his side instead of just its hair as asked for, his intent eyes set on the breathtakingly beautiful Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari, playing Jalaluddin’s daughter) and the tantalizing pull of the Khilji throne simultaneously, you get a sneak peek into the evil residing in this man, lurking in every inflection of the words spoken, every twitch of the lips, every gaze lingering a second too long.

And when he mouths this famed line: “Kaynat ki har nayab cheez par bas Khilji ka haq hai”, you know you’re set to witness an extravaganza  of talent-meets-opportunity, in almost every frame Singh inhabits as the tyrant Afghan ruler. You are made aware of the lengths the monster Khilji can go to and the rules he is ready to break to obtain every ‘nayab cheez’ that comes his way. So if it means engaging in semi-adultery right on the night of his wedding, so be it. If it means betraying his uncle and having him assassinated by the very slave, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) gifted to him so he can finally declare himself Sultan, so be it. And in the same vein, if it means he has to endure mountains and deserts and some gauche humiliation for a man in his position, to invade the formidable Chittor so he can ‘have’ Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), so be it.

download (3)

Image Source

This single line of thought defines Bhansali’s Khilji, a man so possessed by an all-consuming desire for a woman whose exquisite beauty he has only ever heard of, but never seen or experienced in person. Granted, this makes Alauddin Khilji look almost uni-dimensional and much like an incensed,  stalkerish lover-boy rather than the ruthless, strategic ruler he was; however, any regular cine-goer and Bhansali’s fan would realize this outright show of villainy and the smattering of barbarism in the character is only an old Bollywood trope of pandering to the good versus evil, Ram versus Raavan Hindu narrative.

In fact, this contrast is ever more apparent when paired against Shahid Kapoor’s Maharawal Ratan Singh’s sobriety and his unrelenting grip on Rajput aan, baan shaan, of which, of course, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) is the center piece.

A couple brownie points for the story though: thankfully, the movie borrows only the romanticized account of Khilji’s conquest of Chittor as narrated in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat (the source 2018’s Padmaavat is inspired by). Had the director chosen instead to adapt the entire poem for the silver screen, we might just have come to know what a dickhead Chittors’s Ratansen was in the first place, given his seven-seas journey to capture Rani Padmini’s heart based on mere hearsay.

Doesn’t make for an epic tale of war and love, right and wrong,  does it, when you have two idiots with near-exact temperaments fighting for the same thing?

And so we stick to Padmaavat, where Raja Ratan Singh happens to be the lucky bloke coming back home with a stunning second wife from the distant land of Singhal, when he was only seemingly on a vacation hunting rare pearls for the first wife. And we have Padmavati who, by the show of it knows how to shoot arrows, knows her mind, and still falls for the douchebag Ratan Singh, making for a love story as cold as the ice in Siberia. From happily picnicking in the jungles of Singhal, the duo go on to get married before the audience could go “wtf!” and return hand-in-hand to the home turf in Chittor, sparking the general praja’s awe, royal priest Raghav Chetan’s (Aayam Mehta) lust, and the first wife’s jealousy.

images

Image Source

Matters move speedily, as the priest is caught snooping in on the king and queen’s intimate moments and is promptly thrown out of the kingdom. The fact that Raghav Chetan is let out alive instead of getting beheaded alludes to Rajput honour, as we first come to know, and, are repeatedly reminded around 145890 times over the course of the movie. This obvious lack of foresight on the part of the Rajputs also drives the rest of the story ahead, as Chetan, on his way out vows to bring Chittor to its ruins, which, as see see over the course of the movie, he succeeds at accomplishing.

Despite the rather quick introduction of the three main characters (Ratan Singh, Padmavati and Khilji), the story doesn’t quite progress as fast as one would have liked it to. Bhansali takes his own sweet time in building up the background and digging into the motives driving each of these three characters, while we are invited to soak in the palette of hues and colors, and the air of grace and ferocity simmering at both ends of the extremely diverse worlds forming the battleground of this epic love triangle.

I say ‘love triangle’ solely because of the almost romantic touch Singh brings to his character – the helplessness, desperation and the heart-brokenness is apparent in a scene in the film when Khilji ends up realizing his near-futile attempt of getting a glimpse of Padmavati after spending a whole night waiting outside his camp dangerously close to Chittor fort. Amidst the manic depravity, ruthlessness, even boisterousness, Ranveer manages to bring out a seemingly softer side of the cold-blooded ruler, which is a major coup in itself and as much of an artistic liberty a director can take when relying on a fictitious tale.

download (4)

Image Source

Padmaavat, in no way is a straightforward saga of love, war and heartbreak though; its inherent turmoils deepened by Khilji’s marriage to Mehrunissa, and a simultaneous relationship shared with the slave-cum-companion Malik Kafur. Hydari enacts Mehrunissa with plenty of vulnerability and tenderness, but we see her largely relegated to the background until after the second half begins.

Aditi_Rao_Hydari_0

Image Source

With Kafur though, Bhansali seems to have taken a chance, choosing to subtly portray the undertones of a homosexual relationship between the slave and his master, rather than a blatant mention of the same. Jim Sarbh as Kafur is outstanding as Khilji’s homosexual aide, never loud or comical (as most Bollywood movies as wont to portray), with a queer accent and a gentleness characteristic of his position in the Sultan’s life. Sarbh continues to make an impact from the time he played a key role in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, and topped it off with a different shade in the rather disappointing Raabta. In Padmaavat though, he might have taken on his biggest challenge till date, playing a homosexual character without making it raunchy, exaggerated or an outlet for comic relief.

645905-jim-jarbh-ranveer-khilji-padmaavat

Image Source

Kudos to Bhansali as well for crushing ‘gay’ stereotypes and bringing out nuances in Kafur’s character, while lending a fatalistic touch to this behind-the-scenes relationship,  and while it is neither celebrated nor denounced, the mystery behind this amorous chapter adds an extra layer of complexity to Singh’s Khilji – we don’t see him trying to shake off his bisexuality, or deny its existence, even when he is busy raging wars in a bid to capture Padmavati.

As torch-bearers of Rajput pride and valour, Shahid and Deepika nearly fit in the template of grace, magnetism and restraint demanded of their respective characters. In the director’s world of excesses, it is a miracle how they manage to effectively portray their love more through subtle glances and tenderly spoken words, rather than outright expressions of passion. Kapoor however, mostly lets us down after starting off smoothly, as we watch him struggle under the weight of the laden Rajputana values – his stomach sucked in, his lips puckered in an ungainly pout, and his nostrils flaring, we see him reduced to a cardboard character where somehow being robot-like is a substitute for being taken seriously. Stacked against Khilji’s savagery, Ratan Singh’s self-righteous, stern demeanor is reduced to a puddle, blowing off unnecessary steam without causing any real damage to the opponent.

As a sensible viewer, you are appalled and annoyed by how Ratan Singh could pass up decent opportunities to capture the lunatic Khilji when those chances as good as fell into his lap, all because: Rajput pride and honour. You are equally stunned when the king makes a mention of ‘usool’ in the battleground, right before slumping to the ground. And so, you end up mocking Rajput stupidity, and lamenting their absolute lack of war strategy, rather than raising a toast to their pride and glory. The sole thing the movie set out to do, but ironically ends up subverting in these crucial moments. 

However, all is not lost and there is much to Padmaavat than fighting fair and losing. The director fluidly taken you on a journey where pivotal moments in the narration that make it all too clear who the real boss is: it is essentially Padmavati who succeeds in driving the maniacal Khilji mad, shredding his ego down to pieces, making a defeatist out of the invader.

Deepika is grace personified, as she moves about buoyantly, the pleats of her royal sarees/lehengas  tucked in neatly, and her pallu dancing in seductive waves. True to the director’s promise of at least one song the audience cant stop humming to, we are treated to a visual splendour in the form of ‘Ghoomar‘, quite a masterpiece within a masterpiece. It would be an understatement to say the actress has never looked as bewitching in any of her earlier movies.

images (1)

Image Source

Full credit to the director for treating her character as  more than just a cog in the wheel of this epic tale of love and war, when there was a mighty chance of her presence being drowned against the sheer scale of this project, but more so, by the compelling depiction of Singh’s Khilji that seems to tower over the very premise of the film itself.

In fact, much of the second half bears testament to Padmavati’s political strategies meeting with success, in not only avenging Rajputana humiliation and distress caused by instigator Raghav Chetan by having him murdered by the faithless Khilji, but in also  sneaking her husband away from right under the nose of the Muslim ruler. Her decision to not surrender to Khilji’s wily schemes climaxes in the much-debated and (mostly) ridiculed mass Jauhar, a cinematic glorification that has been lambasted by commoners and a few celebrities alike.

images (2)

Image Source

download (5)

More on this in a different post, but for a cinematic spectacle carved by an artist of Bhansali’s stature, one can hardly expect a dowdy, miserable showdown depicting jauhar as a bawl-fest.
Anyone who has watched the director’s earlier movies – be it Bajirao Mastani, Ram Leela or even Guzaarish – would know the man chooses to portray passion and dignity even in death, and roots for his characters’ abilities to determine their own fates, irrespective of how nonsensical and foolish that might appear to the outside world. I dare say, he probably believes, if one were to be snuffed out, one should exit the mortal world with a bang AND on one’s own terms!
As someone who hates insipid love stories in real and reel lives, I don’t quite mind the dramatic endings. However, in Padmaavat’s case, I quite welcome it because I see it as a powerful show between a man who thinks he can conquer a woman’s body simply because he feels entitled to, and a woman who intends to stand by her choices and not surrender, even if it means losing to death. I see it as a battle of wills. Not the usual Romeo-Juliet, Heer-Raanjha sob-fest, for sure.
I see it as a choice exercised towards freedom rather than sexual slavery when faced with an army of thousands of savage men. This psychological game might not appeal to us 21st century human beings, specially modern feminists, but to ferret and tear apart the motives and ideals that drove people in the 13th century to do what they eventually did, would be a pointless exercise.

So if you wish to partake in the visual expansiveness of the mega project, can allow for a weak plot line and a historically flawed account to consume close to 3 hours of your time, and are content watching Ranveer Singh turn upside down the trajectory of the traditional Hindi film antagonist while Padukone plays to the gallery, albeit, with controlled finesse, go ahead and give this a chance…but make sure you soak in the opulence on the big screen, not on TV!!

 Also, tough luck Karni Sena. Try harder next time maybe? 

Rating: 4.5/5

 

 

The Actresses Roundtable 2017, and why we need more of this every year

Rajeev Masand is out with his bag of small treasures, right before Christmas hits. Hear the leading ladies of Bollywood talk about acting, love, life and everything else in between.

What is the ONE time you get to see Bollywood actors/actresses baring their hearts open like it’s nobody’s business other than when they’re playing a character on the big screen?

When is the only other time you see a bunch of artists huddled together and bonding AND talking about cinema in a they-make-sense kinda way, a trait we as an audience seem to have dissociated from their seemingly gregarious, light-hearted onscreen and off-screen personas?

I’m not talking about glittery film fraternity parties, nor am I hinting at those carefully orchestrated charity/fundraising/book launch/other non-filmy events where more often than not much of what a celebrity says is PR-driven and meant to serve the script.

I am talking about the pepper-and-salt sprinkled, maddeningly interesting and evocative discussions one of the most charming and affable entertainment journalist in the country manages to engage the public in, year after year, and have a glimpse of the people behind the stars that we so adore and are intrigued by.

Stating the obvious but yeah, it’s Rajeev Masand, the man who can elicit a response from even the most somber, tight-lipped celebrity. The man you just can’t hate because despite the fact that he’s totally being nosy and in-your-face with his hundred and one personal and professional (bordering on personal) questions, he almost sounds and looks like the benign pastor at your Sunday church or that all-knowing, gentle, elderly uncle sitting in the park with lots of time to kill – who knows you have plenty of skeletons to fix in your closet, and he’s simply helping you take the burden off your chest by giving you a space to talk about it. Sometimes it is not as much a dirty secret as it is a constant annoyance, like flaky dandruff you would want to brush off your glossy black jacket before anyone else has a chance to judge you for it. Other times, like in Kangana Ranaut’s case, it’s a steely polite of conveying to people who matter and who’re definitely listening – hey, watch it before I take you down!

Every year Masand takes on the powerhouse performers and their standout performances of the year, and grills them (albeit with all smiles and a lot of heart) on a range of introspective questions – from how they prepared for a certain role to how they felt playing a role that was a contradiction of everything they were and stood for in real life, from how they felt about the changing perception of film fanatics to how society continues to be connected with this medium in a deeper way, as the years go on.

And while each year has a unique annual offering distinct in terms of the evolution cinema and artists are touted to have accomplished as the year wraps up,  2017, with its diverse range of performances and its clawing relatability to more humaneness, and less fiction indisputably comes out on top for being THE year where women in cinema took the spotlight for regaining their individual as well as collective voice – something they had found, lost, and then found again.

Now that I have gushed aplenty about Rajeev Masand and the reactions he routinely draws in these closeted, yet absolutely unscripted discussions, it’s time to explore why 2017 will be remembered as the year that shook us from within, as much as it did on the outside by making our cushioned butts squirm uncomfortably.

Below:

The most unmissable picks of year 2017 (from left to right): Zaira Wasim, Ratna Pathak Shah, Vidya Balan, Bhumi Pednekar, Swara Bhaskar

Stealing Masand’s words right off his mouth (but only because this is what I noticed too right at the beginning): “The most interesting thing about the line-up here today is the sheer spectrum that we cover…the range and the talent at this table is staggering.”

Hear, hear! He couldn’t have said it better.

From the newcomer (Zaira), to the veteran (Ratna Pathak Shah), to the experienced but-not-long-enough-to-be-called-a-veteran (Vidya Balan) to the ones still exploring the medium but not really struggling (Bhumi Pednekar and Swara Bhaskar), this table represents the range of aspirations and spectacular talent of young and old India as well as those who are middling it.

Not giving it all away because you must watch this intellectual, raw play of words and layered emotions among the ones who’re living it on and off the screen, but just so you know this roundtable is sheer gold, here are my top 6 favorite statements from the discussion.

  1. Ratna Pathak Shah (Lipstick under my Burkha): It’s good I hadn’t begun writing film reviews around the time this movie released, or else I’d never been able to hit full-stop. Can I just say Shah’s character in the film (as Usha Buaji) just knocked our socks off? Or hit the guys right on their balls, you know where it hurts the most (smirk, smirk)? Because an ‘old’ woman being so vulnerable about her sexual desires, so much so that she dares to make the mistake of falling for an attractive man years younger than her, can be termed as nothing but audacity and a huge blow to the ever-inflating unfounded male ego. I mean, how dare women acknowledge their own bodies and desires? To top it off, how dare OLD WIDOWED WOMEN even think they can get some action?!! I know I am digressing but coming back to the discussion, one of Shah’s first statements from the round table hit the nail right on its head, turning even Hollywood upside down on its heels.

““We don’t need to be Gal Gadot, who is doing everything that the guy would do, except that she is a pair of breasts. We are telling our stories, the way we see our world”

There, there Wonder Woman, our desi ladies might not be dressed in metal and leather and conquering battles alongside warring men, but they sure are turning heads and shaking up the quintessential Indian man’s ego simply by stating they have needs, even when they’re 50 plus. That they need sex. And they LIKE it. And slut-shaming or age-shaming them isn’t going to douse that fire of awareness anytime soon.

Our women have made people sit up and notice – even if to judge – merely clad in sarees, kurtis, burkhas and a touch of lipstick.

         2. Ratna Pathak Shah again (I’m being biased here right?) – 

“Every woman who decides to act in a film like ‘Dabangg’ where she is made a complete object of lust, they also need to stand up and say no.”

It cannot get more direct and hard-hitting than that. Sonakshi Sinha, are you listening? Thankfully, you have graduated to better choices, but we dearly hope, going forward, you will not make us cringe with the characters you choose to play.

Not related, but Shah’s candor in openly stating she never really fit the “heroine” bracket because she was no longer young, to saying “I never really got any work to start with, obviously I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t the right choice, just never got any work” -as a response to why it took her so long to make a comeback to mainstream films, was a breath of fresh air. Plain, unvarnished truth, instead of beating around the bush and saying she wanted to take care of her kids and be a “family person” yada yada.

That touch of real “ness” in the make-believe world of cinema is so so rare to come by. Ratna ji, you have my heart ❤

3. Vidya Balan (Tumhari Sulu) – The industry is a place of flagrant irony. It thrives on objectifying and demeaning women and relegating even the top crop of female talent to the background by having them play shoddy characters that exist to support the inherent dominant patriarchal vein, but won’t let actresses love their bodies and themselves without being part of an external narrative.

And while every actress routinely gets under the scanner for a pimple here and a little flab there, Vidya Balan, going by the mass vitriolage and public scrutiny over the past few years until very recently, has sure had it worse than her contemporaries, all because people can’t get over how she continues to wow us with each power-packed performance despite not having washboard abs.

She asserts herself, and beautifully so, that she is content being who she is, and how she is and in case haters are wondering if it’s going to come in the way of a remarkable career she has built on her merit alone, no, she isn’t going extinct anytime soon.

“We don’t want to be shamed by our bodies anymore. We are proud of our bodies.”

More power to you Vidya. We know we’ve said it out loud before, but we need to keep hammering this in so patriarchy knows we don’t anybody’s permission to own our bodies, to shape our identities.

4. Bhumi Pednekar (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan): Two of the perkiest movies this year with two much-needed but needlessly shushed subjects, Bhumi has scored a hat-trick with these two releases in 2017.

In one she plays the supposedly compliant village belle (Toilet) till the adventurous and abominably humiliating experience of shitting (literally) comes in the way of her basic rights, to being the confused and distraught yet progressive fiance who isn’t ready to back out on her man simply because he cant get it up (ahem), she has succeeded in tickling our funny bones, while slamming social messages right down into our bathrooms and bedrooms!

For someone who had to put on 30 kilos for her debut role in Dum Lagake Haisha to someone who has thankfully lost the drive to see herself in the mirror every now and then and fret about how she looks, she has traversed some philosophical journeys without having to painfully prolong the process of self-realization.

Here’s what she had to say:

“It’s liberating to not care about the way I look.”

5. Zaira Wasim (Secret Superstar): Since she graced the silver screen two years ago, the teen actress has been unstoppable. Quite literally. If there had to be a fledgling in this cinematic world to carry forward the baton of yesteryear’s’ legends, I dare say, Zaira could be on her way to greatness.

And while she continues to pop in and out of news headlines for reasons both good and bad, and I absolutely condemn the misplaced, unsubstantiated allegations of molestation she lately leveled against a poor, hapless chap flying in the same airline as her, I have to, and must laud her for her honesty, and willingness to delve into some areas of personal introspection even adults in this realm probably wouldn’t have dared to, at least not at her age.

So when asked about what she likes about acting and what she doesn’t, she revealed she might not yet be ready to face the big, bad world called Bollywood, reminding us of the chaotic dark mess the film industry can often be.

“I like that I can become somebody else, but I’m not ready for it, maybe because of the vanity that comes with it. I don’t think  I’m the kind of person who can handle it.”

Keeping aside her possible hunger for the arc lights (as I have ranted about at length in this piece here) though, the forthrightness and simplicity with which she responds to Rajeev’s questions is something I haven’t come across in a long, long time. Or maybe, she is just an actor par excellence, but let’s give her the benefit of doubt, shall we?

With that poise and sense of awareness of her very being and her surroundings, I would  not be surprised if she managed to take nepotism by its horns and twist them out of shape (Jahnvi Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan, and the rest of the nepotism clan, brace up!)

6. Swara Bhaskar (Anarkali of Arrah): Since the time I first watched her in Tanu Weds Manu, I have been an ardent fan of the actress. Despite having no connections, as well as not quite accommodating the typical Hindi film heroine image, she has managed to consistently climb the ladder with movies like Ranjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and most recently Anarkali of Arrah, which also happened to be the first movie she played the lead in.

The movie which largely revolved around a small-town erotic singer-performer being publicly molested by a powerful chap (Sanjay Mishra) and then fighting for her rights, borders on a heated debate which has consumed much of our spaces this year: sexual harassment in the workplace and/or sexual harassment because of the work women do (read actors, performers).

It was in this context that Swara give us a teeny-weeny glimpse into how life is like an actor, especially when you’re a woman, and how real even reel can feel at times.

“When the molestation scene was shot, the whole crowd was cheering and whistling. You get to see the sides of our society.”

This truly made my skin crawl, considering those men were undoubtedly partaking in some sort of vicarious pleasure, despite the fact that it was a movie and not real. I shudder to think what their reactions might have been had it been real life? Sad you had to confront that side of patriarchy Swara, but at least we know how much educating this country’s sinister male crowd needs.

Other reflections that made me nod my head going, “Yeah, I get you!” to grinning like a cuckoo

In a conversation spanning more than an hour involving the participation of five powerful, articulate women, and covering some very shocking to amusing stuff, it’s pretty darn difficult to pick favorites right?

And so I’ve listed some of the other things that blew my mind away. Truer words have never been spoken.

  1. Ratna ji on how Zaira shouldn’t think of acting as short-term and be bothered by some of the unwanted attention and other hazards she was currently faced with; expounding on this point, she truly embodies an artist’s spirit, stating in no uncertain terms that her desire for acting was not dependent on her success. I’m not sure if she has ever read the Bhagavad Gita, but she has beautifully rephrased the famous quote from the scripture, “Karm karo, phal ki chinta mat karo.”

2. Ratna ji again on getting comedy right, “If people on the sets are laughing, you’re making a mistake.”

Damn! We all knew pulling off comedy is tougher than bawling your eyes out on screen, we just didn’t know a good comic act had a yardstick it could be measured by.

3. Ratna ji, PHIRSE (okay, this blog post has started to sound like a seedy fan hyperventilating in the “Compose Mail” section of Gmail, except this “fan mail” won’t be mailed to the actress ever) –

“The nicest thing about growing old and letting your hair go grey is that I don’t give a shit about how I look now.”

Bhumi, you said pretty much the same thing, except Ratna ji said with it more aplomb and a dash of finesse, like a queen reining in her best years of her life after successfully navigating the fretting-and-feeling-depressed-over-how-I-look stage. There is something about life experience that you just can’t buy, or rehearse. And there’s something about a woman embracing her age and all the flaws that come with it.

4. Vidya Balan“Live life!” Well, want to be an actor, writer, performer? Go live life. Go watch plays, listen to music you love and even the kind you hate, meet people, fall in love, have your heart broken.

We have all been dished out this category of advice bordering on YOLO, but decades before YOLO even took birth, Vidya had the chance to imbibe her soul and spirit with this advice, imparted to her on a TV commercial set, and it seems to have served her well. It’s time those of us wanting to be honest to our craft do that. Live life. And draw from its infinite well of experiences. Accept the poison and the nectar, and retouch it with hand strokes of our own.

5. Zaira Wasim on conviction as a key weakness and strength she has discovered in herself in the last two years,

“If I’m not convinced about something, I’m not gonna do it. If I am, I am going to do my best.”

May not sit pretty on the expected narrative of an actor’s life and approach to roles, but hey, it is a good starting point for each one us dreaming of showing our art to the world one day. Let’s have faith in, and be convinced in the magic of our written and spoken words, music, art, sculpture before we try and make the world pull down its stubborn walls and let us in.

6. Swara Bhaskar on being real, and keeping it realistic

“Bollywood is just a small part of a really big universe, and if it doesn’t work out, then it’s not the end of the world.”

For an outsider who has made it here on her own and has a long mile to go, keeping one’s expectations free from the confetti-wrapped optimism an actor’s life is frequently prone to, is a no mean feat. Swara borders on cynical, but her feet firmly planted on the earth, acknowledging that even happy spells can cease to last and that there is a plethora of opportunities and experiences to be lived outside of Bollywood.

There. Just like that, some of the glamour has worn off hasn’t it, but does it make sense? Absolutely!

Is it a good way to keep one’s sanity intact? You bet.

It is no surprise then that we see her dabbling in a world devoid of Bollywood’s scripted mania, as is evident in her latest spoken-word performance titled Conceal, Remove, Repeat in association with TLC India.

That is some badass poetry, and the sass game perfectly on point! Not to mention, we hear the message loud and clear.

7. Zaira Wasim again, because I was saving the best for the last. Her parting advice for youngsters (and am sure even the older crowd out there):

“We are the sun and the moon and we have our own times to shine.”

Okay, honestly, this was so beautiful it made my hair tingle and my eyes tear up a little, because that sort of profound language shooting off a 17 year-old’s mouth is as common as the BJP acknowledging Muslims as human beings.

I envy her so much right now it’s not funny, but I am glad the Hindi film industry, amidst all the paid media and scripted answers and the pressure to entertain but not be contemplative or meditative, has this one gem. Predictably, all the other actresses at the table were in awe of her, just as we were. If only, she hadn’t jumped the gun and have poor Vikas Sachdeva publicly condemned for something he didn’t do.

Hits and Misses

From cackling wildly at Ratna’s sarcastic comebacks in Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai (as Maya Sarabhai) to actually listening to her talk in that fluid, un-self-conscious, organic way was an enriching experience in itself, one that had me consumed in the intensity and layers it unveiled. But what I was most bowled over was her voice. Her timber, tone, pitch are perfect; with an alluring voice like that paired with a feisty mind, who wouldn’t want to hear her talk for hours on end?

Speaking of voice, isn’t that what grabbed our attention through the run-time in Tumhari Sulu? Vidya Balan continues to enthrall us by drawing us in the coherence and fluidity of her thoughts, making her stand on numerous issues clear while unabashedly exhibiting the way to love oneself. It can be quiet, unassuming, never over-the-top, but always there. She’s sexy, powerfully feminine, and not afraid to speak her mind, and while as she chattily tells us what life and movies are like from her perspective, we can’t help but soak in the shimmy of her gorgeous metal earrings.

Zaira Wasim is one of the most self-assured actors to have occupied Bollywood’s ever-expanding, and admittedly over-crowded space in these times. Her present and growing awareness about survival in the tinsel world is glaringly honest, and commendably structured. Not only did she hold her own in the session, but chimed in at the right moments, without breaking into the conversation unnecessarily, preferring instead to absorb what the others had to say. That is quite unbecoming of a millennial (more so, in the film industry) in an Insta-bombed age, which is why I just cannot wrap my head around why she acted so hastily in the airplane molestation incident.

Bhumi Pednekar has had us thrilled with her acting chops considering the commercial success of all her chosen projects till date, and yet, I cannot say the same about the round table discussion – I was less than thrilled to hear her speak, visibly annoyed by how she kept throwing the ‘privilege’ word around. Yes, I get it, you had never stepped out of Mumbai and been a part of the cultural milieu of a tier two/tier-three cities in the country (it’s not A,B,C city for god’s sake!) until you chose to step into acting, but I am sure so have the others. Vidya Balan has lived her whole life in Mumbai, Swara has braved her growing-up years in Delhi, what’s the fuss then?

Might I say I was also unimpressed by the fact that Bhumi wouldn’t talk normally, but let the words tumble out in a drawl, like she was speaking to impress. An actor putting on an act when she clearly doesn’t need to, is obviously off-putting and dilutes the overall tempo of the discussion.

However, lest the tempo meander into the territory of scripted interviews and actors acting even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Swara ensures she was heard, AND seen, quite a bit, courtesy the excessive gesticulation. At one point, I started getting a mild headache from all the different directions her arms would keep flying and with the way her head/shoulders would twitch. Her animated movements more than made up for the sober, cautious, controlled approach taken by the others. Having said that, maybe we need to step beyond how actresses should present themselves on and off the cameras?

Note: why do I think Bhumi and Swara were constantly trying to one-up each other (goofy grin, the ‘competition’ is unmistakable, huh)? 

Now that I have penned no less than an epic on this topic, it’s time to wrap up, but not without thanking Rajeev Masand for his insightful questions, his diplomacy and intuition in ferreting out just what we want to hear from our stars.

Also, thank you for not asking some of these ladies the parroted and much-dreaded sexist question: So, how was it working with the Khan (s)?

The Curious Case of Zaira Wasim

A video of the actress having suffered molestation in the flight has been doing the rounds of late. When it comes to sexual harassment, where do facts end, and fiction/assumption begins? Read on to know more about it!

Disclaimer: I’ve almost picked a side, after dearly hoping it weren’t this way. But then I got a mind, that doesn’t quite agree with the popular, rigid narrative.

A little background

The first time the world was introduced to this 17-year old from Srinagar was a year ago in December when Dangal (under the banner of Aamir Khan Productions) released worldwide.

The rare display of talent and a nuanced performance in a film revolving around wrestling, no less, Zaira Wasim burst into the halls of India’s tinsel town in the quietest way possible, intriguing even the harshest of critics while surpassing the perfectionist Khan himself.

Just so you don’t write the actress off as a fluke or a one-off wonder in Bollywood’s fleeting landscape, she proved her mettle again in the endearingly crafted Secret Superstar ( October 2017), quite literally overshadowing mentor and fellow powerhouse performer Khan.

Since star success is not just reliant on stellar performances alone, but largely dominated by how many bums on seats a movie can draw in, we know Dangal went on to become the highest-grossing Indian movie overseas (a whopping 2000 crores!!) while smashing just as many records in the home country itself! Same can be said for Secret Superstar that went on to become the fourth-highest grossing Bollywood film in the international markets in addition to its commercial success in the home turf, all on a budget of Rs. 15 crore.

This kind of unexpected, massive fame in such a short while and at a tender age as hers; heck, a national award in her debut performance itself is nothing short of magic, and can easily turn someone’s head around. Couple it with a YouTube/Insta/Twitter/Facebook obsessed regular teen’s ambition for rapid fame, and you have an adolescent heading towards delusion and an imminent fall, which could well be just as dramatic as the rise was.

Zaira will have none of it – ‘the trappings of fame’- so to say. At least that’s what I used to believe till a few days ago, till the memory of her recent interview with film critic Rajeev Masand was dominant of the image I had of her in my mind.

Dressed crisply in a white vest and a black-and-white striped jacket of sorts, she shoots off responses like she owns her being, and that entertainment space where she is a mere newcomer, but with a poise and grace unmatched by even experienced artists in this realm. Not one of her answers sounds doctrinated (well, she’s a brilliant actor too, so you never know, but let’s give her the benefit of doubt, shall we?), and not once does she falter, not once does she give away her power, even when Masand asks her a couple click-baity questions ;).

I was truly bowled over….

Until a video of the starlet having allegedly suffered molestation by a passenger on a Mumbai-bound flight did the social media rounds barely a week ago, largely unsupported by facts and necessary evidence – making me question, for the first time, if Zaira indeed was as unaffected by the spotlight as she portrays herself to be.

How the drama unfolded

The video that she shot herself while in the flight to capture the ‘molestation’ does show the accused’s (Vikas Sachdeva) foot hanging loosely by Zaira’s side (not moving though as per Zaira’s allegations); the little footage that we have access to is certainly insufficient to substantiate an accusation as grave as the one made here.

 

 

 

 

Airline Vistara promptly apologized for the ordeal Wasim had to suffer and let the public be known of its PR-drilled stand on the issue stating, “We have zero tolerance for such behaviour”, while initiating an inquiry into the incident, even flying two of its senior team members to meet the actress.

The accused was taken into custody by the police for further questioning, and as many as three charges under the IPC and POSCO were slapped against him.

Sachdeva’s wife, Divya Sachdeva on the other has cried foul at these allegations leveled by the Dangal star, calling it a “publicity stunt”, while offering a possible explanation stating, “His mama ji had passed away and he was not in the right frame of mind. He was feeling very low and asked for a blanket. He wanted to sleep. I am shocked at Zaira’s allegation.” I say Madame, this is not a valid enough reason to behave in this manner-less fashion in public.

But then again she raised some pertinent questions as well, demanding to know “Why did Zaira not raise an alarm then and there? Why did Zaira tweet two hours later? Zaira had her mother for company. Despite that, the two ladies chose not to make any noise, why?” This is a fairly reasonable doubt that has had no responses offered to it as yet.

Meanwhile, Twitter too went berserk over this incident, rushing out in support of the teen actress.

Sample these:

 

 

 

And even as netizens denounced such appalling instances of women harassment even in broad daylight and clamored to have the “culprit” punished, there were some who found the whole affair fishy and reserved their sympathy and encouragement for more “deserving cases” – in not-so-subtle terms.

A look at women’s rights activist Madhu Purnima Kishwar lets us know in harsh, unapologetic language that she isn’t buying any of this.

Even Vikas’s co-passenger came out in his defense, stating that while the suspect’s legs did touch Zaira’s armrest, he had dozed off immediately after being seated and had not misbehaved as alleged by the actress. Apparently, the man had also apologized to Zaira after the plane landed at Mumbai airport, post which the matter was reportedly settled.

What’s the verdict, then?

The last we know, Zaira’s mother refused to file a complaint regarding the alleged molestation on board (I wonder why though).

The latest update states Vikas has been granted bail by a Mumbai court today on a surety of Rs. 25,000. Seems the matter has been laid to rest, for the moment.

As of now, the public remains divided on whether the accused placing his foot on Zaira’s armrest really constituted molestation; I don’t blame the differing points of view offered on this incident, considering the first thing a rational human being (note: I’m not using the word ‘woman’) would first do is to politely ask the passenger behind to take their foot off the armrest.

I’ve done this in countless situations – in theaters, in airplanes, buses – and I believe so have others, before jumping the gun. Nine times out of ten, it has been a lack of basic etiquette that people suffered from, than the malicious intention of getting touchy with a stranger like me. But then, the few instances where I have called out deliberate sexual behavior also add to existing testimony that men do try to take advantage of the crowd, of the naivete of young girls and women, and many a time of their mislaid assumption that a woman can’t possibly draw attention to herself in public because of the shame involved.

The key here lies in discernment of a man’s true intention, a feat women don’t even have to accomplish since they’re already endowed with a powerful sixth sense no mansplaining can defy.

Her claims about the accused nudging her shoulder and moving his foot up and down her neck and back, sound illogical; primarily because it would have to come to someone’s notice at the very least, with co-passengers tightly seated around. I mean, I’m not sure how someone can pull this feat off in the presence of so many people around, the crew included.

And even if someone did dare, I cannot fathom why Zaira or any other girl in her position (irrespective of their celeb status) would not raise an alarm, considering at least some good-natured folks and/or the crew would step in to set the offender right in the plane itself. Having an unwanted strange-looking foot nudge you in your private space and enduring it for a good two hours or so, when you could have called for help doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially, when when you have your mother around!

This is also baffling, considering Zaira as a person does not come across as someone who can be shushed easily, or pushed into a corner where she sees no recourse. For a girl so forthright and self-assured, for someone who seems unafraid to speak her mind, it strikes me as odd that she should wait till the flight landed to make a video about it and cry about how “no one will help us if we don’t decide to help ourselves.”

It’s disconcerting as to why she didn’t try to help herself while on the flight as opposed to narrating her ordeal after deboarding the plane. The best help really would have been to turn around and confront the molester, shame him, even better -slap him, and ensure the passengers and the crew inside take notice and take appropriate action.

Lest my take on this be perceived as an attack on women empowerment and feminism, let me make it amply clear I do not wish to disregard the harassment faced by strong assertive women from all walks of life (circa the Uber scandal that came to light in February this year), and especially by women belonging to the entertainment industry, as has come to surface in the wake of Hollywood’s dirtiest scandal in recent times: the Harvey Weinstein saga.

By no means does being strong-willed, articulate and determined shield a woman in these times from getting sexually assaulted/harassed. Contrary to what one might think, the stakes in reality are higher for women who have tasted success and have been thrown into the glare of the public eye. Then again, this is also why it is so deeply traumatic for survivors to come out with their stories since they find themselves pitted against powerful men, with truckloads of moolah and a litany of connections,and can quite literally on a whim make or break their careers. Shame, guilt, and loss of agency continues to haunt even the most accomplished of women, only to crawl their way out years or maybe decades later.

We know the drill by now – the stakes are high.

And before you think I’m demeaning those women who aren’t as successful and established or have a platform at their disposal for airing their voice, or probably have no such “big stakes” well, I’m not even taking those instances into account, considering we’re talking about public figures here and cant wrap our heads around how bad  it can get for them, even with all the money, power and connections! Is it any wonder the rest remain restricted to simply being read as case studies or as mere statistics?

My point is – Zaira had nothing to lose and yet she did not raise an alarm right where it mattered most – in the flight. She effectively waited for the plane to land and recorded her ordeal, with tears streaming down her face. Not only does it betray the image she has already portrayed of herself in countless interviews this year, but also reeks of misplaced judgment as to what sexual harassment really means, and when you pair all the facts together, well, I hate to say this but it really does seem like a publicity stunt.

No, we’re not burdening her with being the torchbearer of women empowerment but not raising her voice where it did matter the most, but instead slipping into “victim mode” after a whole two hours, puts scores of other women at a disadvantage who might find actually themselves in similar situations but not react at the appropriate time because they feel safer being portrayed as victims and expecting help will somehow materialize; or worse, urge them into taking advantage of the feminism ride and accuse someone genuinely blameless!

Note: before I’m lampooned by people crying hoarse that “she is already do widely known, she doesn’t need to manufacture this kind of fame”, well, let’s not forget human flaws, the age we live in coupled and ambitious, driven youngsters bombarded with numberless opportunities to milk their constant hunger for fame.

In all likelihood, the man probably was sleeping, and at most, he deserves a telling off for sitting in an uncouth manner in an airplane, but definitely not being slapped with such grave charges for ‘molestation’, something he clearly did not engage in.

In this age of Instagram and Facebook fame, even the most innocuous thought/view/statement posted can have far-reaching consequences, some, that a mere two minutes of fame cannot even comprehend. Sharing an experience as traumatic as sexual harassment/molestation needs to be done responsibly, and not because one has a preconceived notion that men, are, across the board, just lusty animals and every accidental touch is an act of transgression deserving to be condemned and punished.

Ladies, let’s also hear the men out. By now we know what good touch and bad touch really mean. Yes, men can be uncivilized and stupid, but to paint them as sexual attackers/offenders in generic strokes goes a long way in defeating what feminism really stands for. Let’s not do that, because if we have honor, so do they. If we have a reputation and a public image, so do they.

Before I sign off on this really lengthy rant, here’s some food for thought. You really want to know how women can and should react if sexually apprehended by men in public? This video here (from more than two years ago) was recorded by a woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar, to shame this uncle who had reportedly tried to grope her through the gap between the seats. She raised a hue and cry. Right there. Created a scene. Made herself heard.

I believe the public shaming might have desisted the old moron from flying ever again.

But I also believe women, at least some of the time, have the power to change the drift of the wind in their favor.