Sunday, 27 March 2011

Film director Onir - Florence Interviews (3)

Note: In December 2010, during the River to River film festival in Florence (Italy) I did brief interviews with Aparna Sen, Rahul Bose and Onir. All the three interviews were very satisfying because each of them gave me an opportunity to meet and get to know some lesser known aspects of people I have liked and admired. However, I am really pleased with this Onir interview because it talks of some issues that resonate emotionally with me. I have also contributed to his new film "I am" by helping with the Italian subtitles.

Interview
Sunil: Let us start with your new film "I am". The film was supposed to have five stories but in the end it has only four stories, what happened?

Film director from India, Onir
Onir: Initially I was thinking of five stories. However, when I made the second film, I realized that it was going to be difficult because I wanted the entire film to be less than two hours. For the five stories, the time needed would have much more so I decided to limit it to four stories.

Sunil: How did you decide which story to not to use in the film?

Onir: The story I discarded, I was not too happy with the way it was shaping up. I felt that that story needed more space, it needed a full length film just for itself, to do justice to it.

Sunil: Among the four stories of "I am" - Afia, Megha, Abhimanyu and Omar, do you have a favourite?

Onir: I can't say! All the four are stories that I wanted to make into films. When it was difficult to get separate finance for each of them, I decided to make them together. Each part of the film has its own distinct character, mood and style, so each of them is special to me for a different reason.

Sunil: You were born in Bhutan, so that means you are a world citizen. From a family that is originally from Bangladesh, then born in Bhutan and now settled in India. Increasingly, we all have mixed roots and identities.

I have been to some Nepali refugee camps where they had persons who were thrown out of Bhutan, so I am aware of some of the issues involved in this. You have been a migrant. What does that mean to you?

Onir: My leaving Bhutan was linked to the Nepali exodus. My father was principle of a school where they had Nepali children. There ten Nepali students were arrested and next day they were found hanging. So my father resigned and moved to Kolkatta.

Though I was born and brought up in Bhutan, they decided that people who are not of Bhutanese origin, will be second class citizens in that country, so we had to decide what to do. I didn't want to be a second class Bhutanese citizen, I preferred to be Indian citizen. However, when I talk of home, in my mind, my home is the place in Bhutan where I was born and where I grew up.

Due to this reason the story of Megha in "I am" is very special to me, because it is about homelessness. When I came to Kolkatta, though I was a Bengali, I was an outsider. Then I went to Berlin, and there of course, I was even more of an outsider. Then I came and settled in Maharashtra, where language and other things make me a little outsider.

I agree with you that where ever you live becomes a home, and at the same time, you are always an outsider.

I have some very very good friends in Berlin from the days when I was a student there. So there I feel absolutely at home with them, and with them I don't feel that I am an outsider. But at the same time there are things - like the time when there was this bomb blast in London. I was travelling in Berlin in the S-Bahn and suddenly I realized that I was the only brown person on the train and everyone was looking at me. So it was a kind of strange feeling that I had.

But I also have such feelings in Bombay when ever there were those Maharasthrian things .. I travel a lot by local trains and I feel that if you don't know the local language, then the place is not as friendly. Where ever we are, at the time of conflicts you realize that you are an outsider.

Sunil: Did you ever go back to Bhutan?

Onir: That experience is what has influenced Megha's story in "I am". In the story she is back home after twenty years. I had gone back to Bhutan after about thirteen years. Emotionally it was a very exhausting period, to go to the same old house and find other persons staying there. At the same time, there are so many things from your memories that are still the same there. But after that one experience, I didn't want to go back there, because emotionally it was very painful.

Sunil: Salman Rushdie in one of his books had written about "imaginary homelands" that we emigrants carry in our hearts, but these homelands are only spaces in fantasies, because when you do go back, you realize that it is not the same place anymore.

When I go back to places of my childhood, the differences between the reality and my memories always strikes me. Like to go back and find that the "big square" of my memories is actually a narrow little space. Did that happen when you went back to Bhutan?

Onir: I realized that all my friends were gone and the few there were .. in Bhutan, people get married very early, so there were these old friends with three kids and I realized that our worlds had grown apart a lot.

When I went to our old house, I immediately spotted this tree, I loved gardening and I had planed that tree, to see it was very emotional, though it was a small thing. Then inside the house, where we had our fireplace, the hole above it for the smoke was still there, though they had shifted the fire place .. so there were so many small things that brought back old memories.

Film director from India - Onir

Sunil: Your decision to get in to films came at a time when the TV and media revolution had not yet taken place. So how did your family react to it?

Onir: My parents were keen that I become a doctor. They wanted one son to become a doctor and the other son to become an engineer. After school, I came to study in Kolkatta and my father got me admission in the science college. He was thinking that after the science college I will try to go to the medical college. After he went back, after one week I applied for a literature course in another college. I shifted there and only after my name was cut off from the science college, I told my father.

So first there was shock in the family that I was doing literature and arts. Then I started doing very well in literature so my father was happy, he started saying that I will become a professor. Then one week before the finals of my post-graduate course, I quit and came to Berlin to study cinema and that was another shock to them. They were worried that we had no connection in Bombay or in the film fraternity, and Bombay is a very family driven industry, so were worried.

When I managed to my first film, it took me ten years to do it in Bombay .. I knew that this was my goal. I also knew that it will take time, and I was patient. I never thought, oh my god, it is taking me so long, etc. I knew that I was going to do it. When they finally saw my film ... and even now, they know that I have zero savings, I don't have a house, I don't have a car, what ever I earn goes back into film making because that is what makes me happy .. but now I find that they are happy about my work and they share my happiness when my films get made. I know that they are worried, but they are also proud of me.

Sunil: Did their other son become an engineer?

Onir: Actually he went into research. He did do computer engineering, but he liked physics. He went to do physics at Presidency college and I know that my parents are very proud of him. He has recently won the highest award that a scientist can get in India. I don't remember the name of the award, but it was given by the Prime Minister of India, about one month ago. He is very well known in his field of work.

My parents never really pushed us .. and now they are happy about both of us.

Sunil: You said that they were happy when they saw your first film, but that film (My Brother Nikhil - MBN) had a theme that may not have been very easy for your parents?

Onir: I was also worried about their reaction .. regarding the sexuality issue. My mother called me from Kolkatta. I was in Bombay and she had just seen the movie and was in tears. And she said, "..but couldn't you get a better looking man opposite Sanjay?" (laughs) And my father said, "I was never so nasty as a father" (laughs) and I had to explain that film's father was not you. Their reaction was very interesting.

About my dad, I was very moved because I had gone to New York for a screening of MBN and at the same time there was the first GLBT film festival in Kolkatta and my father went there. He went up on the stage and said, "I am very happy that you are giving him an award but I would rather you all paid a ticket and went to see the film in cinema theatre and not to see it free here."

Sunil: Actually when I had seen MBN, though it was a daring theme in Indian cinema, I had also thought that to show he is gay with a very strict authoritarian father was a kind of stereotyping. Another thing that had struck me was in terms of film's structure, I had thought that it very similar to an American film called "Jia" with Angelina Jolie.

Onir: It is interesting that you are pointing this out because people have compared MBN with Philadelphia. They were on the similar theme, but in terms of films structure, MBN was inspired from "Jia". I had been thinking, how do I make this film when I don't have much budget, how to tell this story. From "Jia", I got the idea of docu-fiction, though the idea that people are talking about a person, whom they had loved and who is dead ...

Sunil: I had felt that "Jia", though similar in structure, differed from MBN in an important aspect. In the sense that in "Jia", each person talking about the character played by Angelina Jolie presents a very different person, it was as if she showed a different aspect of her personality to different people, while in MBN, the vision of Nikhil by the different people was really similar...

Onir: Yes, we didn't take any story idea from other films, we just took the idea of docu-fiction and other persons talking about Nikhil, mainly his sister talking about him ...

Sunil: You have also been a song-designer for "Daman". What does that mean, to be a song-designer?

Onir: I had first done some song editing for Kalpana (Lajmi) and it was my first film work. When she started "Daman", she asked me to be the editor and it was my first film as an editor. For me it was an important step to get into films. I had liked her "Rudaali" and "Ek pal". As an editor I wanted to be on the sets and see what was happening, even if most editors don't do that. I knew that I wanted to be a director, so I wanted to see and learn as much as possible. So when she asked me, "Do you want to come" I said, "Of course and I will give whatever help I can give".

She knew that I had a sense of the music, so she asked me, "Do you want to direct the songs" as she didn't have money for a choreographer. I immediately said yes.

Before that I had already produced two music albums with Pritam. I had brought Pritam in film industry. Even there, he was composing the songs while I was a kind of song designer. There are different elements in the songs, and a song designer influences how those elements shape up, there were a lot of discussions and I was also involved in those. Decisions like what kind of singers, how many singers, what kind of instrumentation, what kind of song, etc. So I was part of the song design.

In "Daman" I was involved not only in the process of music recording, I also went on the sets and started shooting the songs. This experience with Kalpana was great because she had a small unit. Most of the assistants there were working on the film as a job, but they didn't have the passion. I was waking up early, I used to go to the sets take care of the art, check the costumes, etc. I didn't want more money but I wanted to learn as much as possible from all the different departments. So that when the time came for me to my film, I will be less dependent upon others.

Film director from India - Onir

Sunil: There was an interview of another person from south, who has worked with you on "I am" ..

Onir: Sandip

Sunil: In this interview, he had said that you are very well organized and you plan every thing in advance. Do you think that you are a "perfectionist" kind of person who wants to control every thing?

Onir: It is more about planning .. I have always been the producer of my films. And I have always made my films with extremely tight budgets. "I am" was shot in 24 days and MBN was shot in 28 days. For me planning and preparation means that I am not sitting on the sets wondering what to do next, what shot to take, etc. All that has already been planned and on the sets, I do a lot of home work. On the sets, I spend more time with my actors to prepare them for the scene.

Money and time are important resources, it is extremely important to respect what you have and to get the best out of it. For this self-discipline, I thank my Berlin days. Discipline is something I learned there.

Sunil: You also did some work for Ram Gopal Varma?

Onir: I did editing of some promos for his film "Bhoot". It was a nightmare working for him but any way ..

Sunil: I think that it is appropriate that working on a theme like Bhoot (ghosts), you have nightmares .. but my question is about other film makers and how they have influenced you?

Onir: I don't have an icon or an idol. I love the works of lot of different people who are good film makers, ... but the person who really inspired me to get into films was an experience when I was very young. It was because of the images from that film that stayed with me, very strong imagery that made me dream and want to become a part of films. That was Shyam Benegal and the film was Junoon. I was really young at that time and I didn't understand so much, but the visual impact was so strong that it made me desire to become part of the films ..

Sunil: Junoon was good .. I remember its premier at Chanakya in Delhi, where Shyam Benegal had come with Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval... I read some where that you have some three old scripts and you are working on one of them with NFDC?

Onir: It was my first script and now I am reviewing it .. NFDC has been a partner in developing that script and I am planning to make it after "I am".

Sunil: Are there other old film scripts that are waiting to be made into films or are they part of a development process?

Onir: They are not ready for developed into films .. they keep on getting modified. I always keep on writing. I can't sit idle. When I am waiting for something, I will start writing. I write new scripts, I develop ideas, may be some of them will some day become films, may be not ..

Sunil: I wish you would make a musical. I like the music of your films. I loved the music in MBN.

Onir: MBN was at Milan GLBT film festival and it won the audience choice award. I remember the next day, a group of Italian men came to me and started singing "Le chalo ..", it really touched me.

Sunil: OK Onir, thanks for this interview. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Rahul Bose - Florence Interviews (2)

Rahul Bose, 43 years old, is known for his subtle and understated roles in many films such as Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, The Japanese Wife, Shourya, etc. He had directed "Everybody says I am fine" and is supposed to direct, "Moth smoke" (based on a book by Mohsin Ahmed). He has also played in the Indian national Rugby team for many years.

Rahul Bose, actor and director from India
I had the opportunity to meet and interview Bose during the River to River film festival in Florence (Italy) in December 2010. In the festival there was four of his films - Split wide open, Every body says I'm fine, The Japanese wife and I am. I had spoken to him before "I am" was shown in the festival.

Here is a transcript of my talk with him, that focused mainly on his work with voluntary organisations and only briefly touched some issues related to his films.
***

Sunil: I am curious about your role in Onir's "I Am". I know the screen play of "I am" because I did the Italian subtitles of of that film. It has four stories - Afie, Megha, Abhimanyu and Omar. In which of these four stories you play a role?

Rahul: I am in "Omar" but I am not Omar, I have the other guy's role.

Sunil: Can you say something about this role?

Rahul: This part deals with homosexuality, related to the judgement on the abolition of section 377, which decriminalized homosexuality in India. My part of the film looks at that. It looks at life before the judgement and after the judgement. It is about the discrimination and terror inflicted on homosexuals.

Sunil: This is not your first time with Onir, you were also there in "Bas ek pal"?

Rahul: No, this is my first time with Onir.

Sunil: I read your article in Tehalka magazine a few months ago, about raising funds through an auction. Then I also read about some work that you did in leading a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Bombay.

Rahul: That was the "group of groups". We had formed it after the tragedy of 26/11 so that we could get together and speak with one voice to the Government. There were a lot of groups that were speaking at that time, but we were all speaking with different voices. So our attempt was to get everyone together. We had worked very hard and in the end we had 52 groups under one umbrella. But like all things, the work needed to keep something like this going on, is so tremendous that after about 6 months, it fell apart.

Sunil: What kind of things this group was trying to achieve?

Rahul: So many issues linked to 26/11, like asking for police reforms ..

Sunil: In the sense of the outcry that happened after 26/11?

Rahul: Yes, but we wanted to give it a more secular and tempered response, by looking ahead and not reacting in a knee-jerk manner by blaming people and other nations unnecessarily. So it's aim was to try to speak in one voice and to speak in a temperate reasonable voice as citizens of a city that wants to say things to the Government ..

Sunil: But the kind of things that are allowed to happen in Bombay, they are so negative, and where Government does not step in, it does not do anything to stop those groups .. so what can you expect from that kind of Government?

Rahul: Whatever the Governments do or don't do in Maharashtra, it is important that they are made aware that there is an active citizenry that is watching, controlling and is going to speak about it. Just doing that is important. I am not saying that it made a big difference, but our idea was to tell them that we are here, we are listening and watching, and that we are angry. We want good governance.

We don't need 26/11 to ask for better governance. The city has had a very patchy record of good governance. Politically it is a hot bed.

Sunil: Tell me about your foundation.

Rahul: My foundation is called "The Foundation". I was raising money for this foundation through India's first sports' auction. We had 25 pieces from 25 Indian world champions, and we raised money for the foundation.

Sunil: What does the Foundation do?

Rahul: It has two initiatives - REACH and HEAL.

REACH is about restoring equality though education for advancement of children. We have given scholarships to 6 children in Andaman and Nicobar islands, to study at the Rishi Valley school outside Bangalore. The idea is to empower children, who otherwise would never leave their communities. They are getting education at a world class institution, so that they can one day get into mainstream of India's economic life and hopefully they will also take their learnings to their communities, or they can go anywhere in the world. But we never see anyone from Andaman Nicobar in any jobs in mainland India. So it is my wish that these children will become a bridge between people.

But there are different ways to do it and there are different questions. One way could be to build world class schools in Andaman and Nicobar, but then that won't really bring those children out of Andaman to go to the rest of India and become part of mainstream economic life.

Now we are looking at supporting children from another part of the country that is also disfranchised, we want to send children from there to world class schools. The schools have to be chosen carefully and the entire thing takes almost a year to be organised.

The other initiative is HEAL - help eradicate abuse through learning. It is about sexual abuse of children. 53% of all Indian children have some kind of sexual abuse.

Sunil: What kind of data you looked up on this issue? It sounds huge, like almost every second person in India is sexually abused?

Rahul: It is a police data, and it is absolutely shocking. Like most other countries, these are hidden statistics.

Sunil: How long you have been involved in the NGO work? How did it start?

Rahul: I have been involved in it since 2002, after the Gujarat riots. At that time, I began to work with a gender based NGO in Mumbai called Aksharma that worked together with Muslim girls and some Hindu girls, mainly dalits. The idea was to educate them with values of secularism and to empower them slowly, slowly expand their social orthodoxies so that they could attain some kind of status in their communities.

Sunil: This kind of involvement in different issues, has it changed the way you look at those issues, between 8 years ago when you started and today?

Rahul Bose - actor from India
Rahul: Yes, completely. I went into it with good intentions but with little knowledge. As you start to understand how social orthodoxies work, you start to respect the need to change things very slowly without antagonising the other side. For example, you don't want to antagonise the men in a girl's family. She has to go back and live with them, so it has to be done in a way that creates consensus, slowly. There can't be gender equality without men.

One learns, especially in India, that there are complex problems within the problems. It could be income, it can be health. You suddenly realize that the woman can't go out of the house because she is not well, she does not get right kind of food. India is a deeply humbling place, you think that you know things, but you don't. You start appreciating that to bring about any change, you need a long long time and it is never permanent, you always have to go back and look.

Sunil: The children you are supporting in Andman and Nicobar, they come from indigenous families?

Rahul: No, only one of them is half tribal. Out of 550,000 persons in Andmans and Nicobar, only about 35,000 are tribal and so there are about 8,000 tribal children. Rest of the persons came there in different waves of migration. All the children that we support come from modest socio-economic backgrounds.

Sunil: I am asking so many questions about your NGO work, because I work in a NGO too, an organisation that deals with persons affected with leprosy and disabled persons. I just came back from Guwahati, two days ago.

Rahul: I became familiar with Andamans after the tsunami. I made 23 trips there over a period of two and a half years, to organise relief and rehabilitation. I was representing a network of organisations called the Solidarity Initiative. We managed to do a few concrete things on the ground and it was satisfying.

Sunil: So many issues you are talking about and specifically in terms of secularism, how did you get there? What made you think about these issues in these terms?

Rahul: I think that part of it is do with the way I grew up. My family, the city, the milieu .. Bombay, where I grew up .. my friends - like I never asked why Nasir was Muslim, Vinay was a U.P. Brahmin, Cyrus was a Parsi. They were and remain my childhood friends. At that time, in our upscale economic circle, religion didn't play an important role. But it changed in 1992, when there was popular religious resurgence from all sides ..

Sunil: After the Babri Masjid thing?

Rahul: Not just that, it happened on all sides. Today we also have Christian fundamentalism, we have Hindu terror. You can see that today terror is polarised along religious lines.

Sunil: Let us leave this line of discussion, and to conclude, let me go back to the films. Your image has been that of an understated kind of actor, so I was a little surprised when I had seen "Split wide open", it was pleasant kind of surprise that you can play loud characters also.

Rahul: Thanks.

Sunil: Among all the roles that you have played, have there been characters that you didn't like becoming? Characters that made you feel uneasy?

Rahul: It was my role in Thakshak.

Sunil: The villain's role?

Rahul: It took me to some ugly places in my heart and I was afraid to be that ruthless psychopath, a complex person. It was very different, mentally very different from me as a person. Even the character in "Everybody says I'm fine" was very challenging.

Sunil: What was your role in "Everybody says I'm fine", I had seen it long time ago and I don't remember it.

Rahul Bose, actor and director from India
Rahul: I was the actor who has no work, a flamboyant character who wears all kinds of weird clothes. And, all his lies about how successful he is. (Smiling) In real life, I am not very successful, but I don't lie about it.

Sunil: But you are successful, especially in your own particular kind of cinema.

Rahul: Yes, I am happy.

Sunil: You also had some mainstream films. But were they not commercially successful?

Rahul: Hardly any of my films have been commercially successful! Perhaps Shourya, Chameli, Pyar ke side effects and Jhankar Beats had some commercial success. Two of my Bengali films, Antaheen and Anuranan had success in Calcutta, they ran for 100 days.

Sunil: And you are recognised as a good actor ..

Rahul: So I am happy ..

Sunil: OK, thanks Rahul for this chat. I greatly enjoyed it.

Note
I think that I was too much taken up by his work with NGOs that I forgot to ask all other things. Yet, I am happy that I spoke to him about NGO work and other social issues. He came across as a sensible and articulate person.

If I had more time, I would liked to talk more about their scholarship for poor children from marginalised groups such as from Andaman and Nicobar islands. I would liked to share ideas and experiences of organisations that I have visited in many countries that are concerned about making sure that children from marginalised groups are not made to feel ashamed about their original cultures and that strive to keep strong links between the children and their original communities.

I also wanted to know more about his parents, his schools, the things that influenced and molded him as a person, but there was no time for it.

If you have not read his Tehlaka article, I suggest that you read it. He writes really well.

***

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Aparna Sen - Florence Interviews (1)

In December 2010, during the River to River Film Festival, I had a brief talk with well known film actor and director, Ms. Aparna Sen. Two of her films were at the festival. Her new film, "Iti Mrinalini" (2011) opened the River to River Film Festival, while the beautiful and lyrical "The Japanese wife" (2010) was the festival's closing film. Both the films were loved by the people but then Ms. Sen is no stranger to rave reviews, right from the first film that she directed almost 30 years ago - 36 Chowranghi Lane.

As a teenager, I had a huge crush on Aparna Sen and to talk to her was a great moment for me. We were sititng in a bar near the Odeon cinema, a heritage cinema building in Florence, where festival was being held. Here is a transcript of my interview with Ms. Sen.

Sunil: I can't believe I am sitting here talking to you. I had first seen you "The Guru" probably in 1970!

Aparna: No, it was not 1970, it must have been much later ... no, probably you are right, it was around 1970.

Sunil: Yes, I think it was 1970. I had seen it at Rivoli in Delhi. Ok, lets come to our interview. I have read a lot of your interviews and I would like to try to ask something that hasn't already been said about you. What did it mean to you as a child, to grow up in a house where your father was a film critic ...

Aparna: Apart from being a film critic, actually both my parents were the founder members of Calcutta Film Society, so what it meant was that as a child I was brought up on a diet of best of the world cinema. My taste in cinema was formed by that experience. I was seeing films like Battleship Pottemkin, Ivan the Terrible (1) and Passion of Joan the Arc (2). So these were the kind of films, I was brought up with.

Sunil: I read some where that you did your first film when you were ten years old?

Aparna: No, it is wrong, I didn't do any film when I was ten.

Sunil: So your first film was Teen Kanya (3) .. did you realize at that time that you were working with the great Satyajit Roy?

Teen Kanya, Satyajit Ray - DVD cover
Aparna: Not really. I mean, I knew that he was a big director, but for me, more than anything else, he was a friend of my father. It was a lovely story that I had read recently at that time and I had liked the story very much. I liked being Mrinmoyee.

It was very exciting, but for me it was more like a picnic. I didn't have to go to school, no exams. So it was lot of fun.

Sunil: And going back to school after doing the film, how was it? Had you become famous?

Aparna: School was awful after that. After all the excitement, the routine of the school was terrible and there were people who made fun of me, made little remarks and all that.

I had also missed my exams. I went back to school in time to give exams on 2-3 subjects. I did very well in those subjects. I was very good at English and history. I think that probably I came first in those subjects, but on the whole, I was no where because I had missed on so many subjects. We had a kind of marks reading meeting at the end of the year and when the principle read my marks, she said something like, "Oh, so we are more interested in our acting than in our studies", or something like that, sarcastic, and I was close to tears.

Sunil: You spent part of your childhood in a place called Hazaribag?

Aparna: My grandfather used to live there. He was a Brahmosamaj missionary  and he had a nice interesting, charitable dispensary over there. It was a beautiful house with a garden, very simple and austere, but very beautiful. We used to go there every year during our holidays. For our holidays we always went there to Hazaribag, especially in winters. It was lovely.

Sunil: You have done lot of films. Was there a character you hated doing, which you thought was completely unlike you?

Aparna: Sometimes you had to do films as a mainstream actress where you didn't like it and you were doing it just for the money. I did a film called Abhichar in Bengali, I didn't want to do it, so I asked for a huge sum of money. But they said yes, and so I had to do it. But I didn't like it at all, I hated every minute of that role, it was directed by Biswajeet Chatterjee.

Sunil: Biswajeet the actor, Prasanjeet's father?

Aparna: Yes he directed it.

Sunil: Your mother was cousin of a well known poet ..

Aparna: Yes, Jibananda Das.

Sunil: Did you write poetry too?

Aparna: Not really. I mean I wrote poetry like everyone does in their youth but it was nothing important. Jibananda Das was one of the great poets after Tagore and he was my mother's second cousin. He was also very close to my parents.

Sunil: Did your mother write as well (4)?

Aparna: Yes, she wrote short stories.

Sunil: Did you feel that you were not very successful in Hindi cinema?

Aparna: (smiling) I didn't try very hard, my heart was in Bengal. I always made my Hindi films for the wrong reasons. Like when I had an income tax installment to be paid or needed money for a car ... I never did a Hindi film for the right reason!

Sunil: Thanks Aparna ji.

Aparna Sen, Florence Italy, December 2010

PS: Actually I had prepared lot of questions to ask to Aparna Sen, but there was not enough time for a proper discussion. On lot of different things, I would have liked to ask more and understand more. However I was very much aware that in another ten minutes, Onir's new film "I Am" was going to start and we both wanted to see it.

And I was also a little overwhelmed by the idea of being with my teenage crush!

May be there will be another opportunity to meet her and to interview her with more in-depth questions. Inshallah.

Notes:
(1) Battleship Pottemkin and Ivan the terrible were both Russian films directed by Sergei Eisenstein
(2) Passion of Joan the Arc, silent film in French by Carl Theodor Dreyer,1928
(3) Teen Kanya: directed by Satyajit Ray, came out in 1961 when Aparna was 16 years old; the film was based on works by Ravindranath Tagore, it had three stories and Aparna played the role of tomboyish Mrinmoyee in third story, Samapati. On that same story, Samapti by Tagore, Rajshri films had made "Uphaar" in 1971 where the role of Mrinomoyee was played by Jaya Bhaduri.
(4) Aparna's mother was Supriya Dasgupta.

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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Remembering Naidu

Naidu died on 15 March morning.

I had met Naidu only a couple of years ago. While planning for a workshop on mental health in Bangkok, someone had suggested his name. So we exchanged some emails. Then when I met him for the first time in Bangkok, I was immediately captivated by him. He wanted to be called only Naidu.

D.M.Naidu, Bangkok, February 2009
There are people who tread softly in life. Naidu was like that. Treading softly, always gentle, positive and understanding. He had that smile that spoke of a life of suffering, but he never talked of his own problems.

He advocated that persons with mental illness should have the right to decide and take decisions about their lives. Most persons in the workshop were not convinced. How can mentally ill person think and take decisions?

"All right, sometimes there is no choice and you have to safeguard the lives of the persons and of those surrounding them, their families and friends, so you make decisions for them, but it must be for a very limited time. Every one, even those who seem like they are having severe problems, have their moments of lucidity and they can understand and make their decisions. This is a human right of everyone that we decide about our own lives and they must also have it", he had gently explained.

He worked for Basic Needs an organisation based in Bangalore (India), and practiced what he preached.

We had continued to exchange emails once in a while, and I had met him twice more, in India. Last month, in our research project, he had decided to come and share his own experiences with persons who get convulsions. He had talked of his own fight for dignity and independence, after polio and convulsions.

Common friends told me that he had problems with his kidneys but he refused to have a kidney transplant and in the last days, he didn't want ICU, he wanted to be left to die peacefully.

I know Naidu that all those persons for whom you were a friend and patient listener, who matter so little for the society, they are the ones who will miss you most. I am happy that I had the opportunity to know you a little bit. Where ever you are my friend, I know you will continue to tread gently.

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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Different world views of human sexuality

The dominent discourse on sexuality is the popular discourse that considers "male-female" sex as "normal" and is often homophobic. Alongside this dominant view of human sexuality, there have been and there are, other ways of looking at "normal" human sexuality, that are often ignored or forgotten today. This article attempts to look some of these differing world views of human sexualities.

Given the article's subject, there are a few explicit sexual references in it. If you feel offended by such words or discussions, perhaps it will be better if you don't read this article any further. (Below one of my images from erotic sculptures of Konark - Orissa, India)

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Erotic scultures, Konark, Orissa, India

The issue of human sexuality interests me for a long time and I have written many times about it. However, this specific article is result of a reflection following a talk given by Prof. Maria Grazia Maioli in the archeological museum of Bologna (Italy) in February 2011 on the "Lives of women in ancient Greece", that had many references to the ancient Greek view of human sexuality.

However, let me start this discussion with the "scientific" view of sexuality.

Modern or Scientific View of Human Sexuality

Alfred Charles Kinsey is considered the father of modern sexualology. A biologist, born in a devout Christian family, Kinsey started working on human sexuality in the nineteen thirties and produced different reports on human sexuality, including the Kinsey scale for measuring sexuality (from 0 to 6, where "6" is exclusively heretosexual, to "0" which is exclusively homosexual). Apart from the sexual behaviour represented in the Kinsey scale, his reports also touched on pyschological aspects of desires, sexual attraction and fantasy. (Image on left: Kinsey on the cover of Time magazine, 1953 - from Wikipedia)

Kinsey's reports became bestselling books and are supposed to have influenced the "sexual revolution" of 1960s and 1970s, especially in Europe and America. These reports were followed by countless researches and theories, that continue even today.

For example, Nancy Friday conducted research first on female sexual fantasies and then on male sexual fantasies, and wrote different bestselling books about these sexual fantasies including My secret garden (1973), My mother myself (1977) and Men in Love (1980). At that time, most people believed that there no such thing as "female sexual fantasies" and thus such research was important in changing public perceptions about female sexuality.

In an interview, she explained her work on female sexual fantasies, "I chose to write about women's sexual fantasies because the subject was unbroken ground, a missing piece of the puzzle...at a time in history when the world was suddenly curious about sex and women's sexuality. The backdrop was a widespread belief that women do not have sexual fantasies...are by and large destitute of sexual fantasy .. more than any other emotion, guilt determined the story lines of the fantasies in My Secret Garden...women inventing ploys to get past their fear that wanting to reach orgasm made them Bad Girls."

In her book "Men in Love" Friday also talked about "the male rage" provoked by the mother, the object of first love for the baby, who also stops them from touching their genitals and teaches that sex is bad:
He doesn't want to be like mother. His body, his anatomy, tells him he is different. He knows mother finds one side of him acceptable: the good boy. The other side is bad, dirty, sexual, wilful. This aspect must be hidden - but it is stronger, constantly threatening to overwhelm him. .. The predictament is agonizing. The boy wants sex but feels he is wrong to want it. Women have placed his body at war with his soul. .. How can a man not be in rage with members of the sex who make him feel dirty and guilty about the very desires they have gone to such pains to provoke in him.
Friday also looked at same-sex relations and considered homoerotic emotions as one of the "most highly charged and misunderstood themes" in human sexuality:
What I feel is more important than mere piegeonholing is the evidence, in my contributors' own words, of a new awareness among men that traditional msculine attitudes of isolation from and competition with all other men leads to an impoverishment of the possibilities of life; the strained, exaggerated effort to forestall even the merest suspicion that one might harbour emotional interest in another man is an artifical stance too burdensome to maintain.
The scientific view of sexuality as a continuum between hetero and homo sexuality, also takes note of transgender issues linked to mismatch between genitals and inner feelings of persons of being a man or a woman.

Human sexuality in popular cultures

Pupular cultures often reduce the debate on human sexuality to a "normal" heterosexuality of the majority and an "abnormal" or even "perverted" homosexuality of a small minority. Such popular views may be accompanied by laws that consider anything outside the heterosexual sex as being illegal, sometimes even punishable by death.

This popular view of human sexuality in large parts of the world has been influenced by views of sexuality in the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). Through colonialization and cultural dominence of such thinking in the media, such popular views of sexuality are common even in those parts of the world that had their own specific ways of looking at it in the past. For example in the recent past, many Hindu religious leaders came out with statements condemning the decriminalization of homosexual relationships through a Supreme Court judgement, even though Hinduism has different narratives that take a more nuanced view of sexuality.

Sexuality in Abrahamic religions

Among the Abrahamic relgions, sexuality is seen as a moral issue with clear boundries between "natural" and "un-natural". In this view, sex is closely linked to procreation and thus closed between the boundaries of marriage between a man and a woman, where it must not be tempered with by using barriers of condoms or anti-conceptive pills. For example, the following excerpt from an article by Janet Price on a Catholic Education Resource centre website, lays down the basic idea of "God's view of sexuality":
Christian morality – especially sexual morality – is quite similar to natural or commonsense morality. One does not need to be a Christian to understand why certain sexual practices are wrong. Christians differ from unbelievers not so much in the understanding of what is moral as in their commitment to trying to live morally. A Christian understands that when he is doing wrong, he is not only violating good sense, he is violating God's law; he is failing to be the loving and responsible person, God made him to be.
In this view of sexuality, there are no variations, there is a narrow path of human sexuality, outside of which everything is "abnormal". Thus, sex outside marriage and sexual gratification without aiming for procreation, are undesirable. While homosexuality is not just an aberration, it is a sin against God's law, that needs to be suppressed by will-power and right thoughts.

In spite of opposition from conservative Christian groups, most countries in Europe, US, Canada, Australia, do have laws that accept a wider view of human sexuality.

Though conservative Jew groups, based on the traditional Judaism views, have also opposed homosexuality, Isreal also has progressive laws about human sexuality.

On the other hand, the situation of non-heterosexuals continues to be critical in most Islamic countries.

Alternate visions of sexuality

It was at Prof. Maioli's talk on women in ancient Greece that stimulated the reflections on the alternate visions of sexuality among different cultures. So let me initate this part with some of the things she told about sexuality in ancient Greece.

Prof. Maioli illustrated her presentation with some explicit images, mainly from Greek vases, and I am trying to sum the main points of her presentation from my memory.

She started by saying that there are very few women's accounts of their lives in ancient Greece - it could have been that in the past there were more accounts that have not survived to our age. On the other hand, there are images painted on the vases and there are accounts written by men. These accounts paint an account of Greek life before Christianity that is often not well known.

She showed a number of paintings to point out two kinds of women in the Greek paintings - wives and companions. Wives are always painted covered with clothes and placed in homes - sex with the wife is part of husband's duty and her main role is to have children. Companion-women called Etera, were for giving pleasure to men and Prof. Maioli showed images of young women learning to introduce objects in their vaginas to learn how to give sexual pleasure to men.

At the same time, images of nude women from ancient Greece show that artists were not very clear about female anatomy. For example, some vases show women with breasts going in two different directions. Prof. Maioli explained this by saying that artists were probably making these images from their memories and not by directly observing nude female anatomy.

On the other hand, ancient Greek vases are full of nude men, sometimes with erect penises and sometimes engaged in sexual acts. It was a patriarcal society, where men had community life with other men in common or public spaces such as gymns, baths and other community spaces, where wives were not admitted. The "eteras" were admitted in these mainly male spaces.

Images from vases also show that men in ancient Greece introduced their sons to older men and to sexuality in these community spaces. Prof. Maioli showed different images of vases showing young men being masturbated or fucked by older men. There were other images, that showed young men being initiated into sex with older "eteras" also.

The Greek idea of beauty was essentially male nudes, and they were shown with small penises. This is because of their idea that longer the sperm took to come out, the colder and less potent it became. Thus, small penise would mean quicker exit of sperm and thus more virility and potency.

I am not sure if images of vases can be taken as accurate representation of social understanding of human sexuality of ancient Greeks or if it was a representation of life among certain section of Greeks. However, it does introudce a vision of a society that considers bisexuality as the norm, or at least acceptable. I was also wondering if the word "heterosexual" came from the word "eteras" or the women companions.

Obviously many of the things Prof. Maioli explained about ancient Greeks, such as fathers taking their young sons to older men or women for sex, would be today considered as horrifying crimes punishable by laws in almost all countries of the world.

Were such attitudes prevalent only in the past or did they continue to exist in the region till much later? I think that some hints to similar practices do come from the region.

For example, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk in his celebrated and wonderful book, "My name is red" based in medieval Turkey writes repeatedly about a society where men seeking young boys for sex seems to be acceptable social practice, at least among some groups: ".. followers of the outlawed Kalenderi dervish sect, claiming to be on Allah's path, would spend their nights in dervish houses dancing to music, piercing themselves with skewers and engaging in all manner of depravity, before brutally fucking each other and any boys they could find."

Indian concepts of human sexuality

In India, ancient societies' ideas on sexuality, like those on so many other issues, can be understood through the ancient stories and myths. Sudhir Kakkar in his introduction to "Intimate Relations - Exploring Indian Sexuality" had written, "The spell of the story has always exercised a special potency in the oral-based Indian tradition and Indians have characteristically sought expression of central and collective meanings through narrative design. While the 20th century West has wrenched philosophy, history, and other human concerns out of integrated narrative structures to form the discorse of isolated social sciences, the preferred medium of instruction and transmission of psychological, metaphysical, and social thought in India continues to be the story."

Kakkar looks at books such as Manusmriti to conclude about the traditional views on sexuality in the marriage in the Indian subcontinent, "Physical love will tend to be a shame ridden affair, a sharp stabbing of lust with little love and even less passion. Indeed the code of sexual conduct for the householder husband, fully endorses this expectation."

On the other hand, books like Kamasutra and ancient traditions depicted on temple walls of Khujraho and Konark, represent a different and probably more popular version of beliefs about human sexuality.

Different Puranic tales present a view of human sexuality that is much more varied compared to popular perceptions of sexuality proposed by some of the Hindu leaders during debates on alternate sexualities. For example the tale of Shikhandi in Mahabharat, born as a daughter (but treated as a son and married to a woman), who later turns into a man, is a complex representation of transgender issues. The story of Manikantha in the Buddhist Jatak tales is about love between two men. The book, Same Sex Love in India (Penguin India, 2008), edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, takes an in-depth look at many of these issues.

God Shiva is often depicted as Ardhnarishwara, where male and female elements are both parts that make one whole. This can be interpreted as sanction for male and female union through marriage, but it also means, presence of male and female elements in each person.

Conclusions

Though popular discourses on human sexuality consider heterosexuality as "normal", ancient and scientific views on sexuality are/were more varied and nuanced.

In the same way, the concepts of gay or lesbians that have originated in the west, especially over the past century, seen almost as closed categories in terms of "either/or", do not match with alternative views of sexuality in the past, that looked at sexuality in a more flexible way, as variations in a continuum, rather than as fixed identities.

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