Same same? Not really.

Sharing an article I wrote for Times of India on Kerala Piravi, November 1 2018.  Because the same conversations are happening all over again. As someone said, those who understand, will and the those who don’t, wont.  Running, swimming same same. 😀

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At the time of Kerala Piravi I am wishing for a rebirth – an evolution of our society. During the floods, we saw how it is possible to think, act and do without bias. So many who have never done any humanitarian work in their life came forward and worked selflessly for the welfare of people they didn’t know. We watched with amazement as strangers got together to rescue stranded people and heave a collective sign of relief every time such a mission was successful. We saw how people mobilised vast resources for relief work in terms of money as well as in kind. The homecoming kits which were handed for the homes did not contain flavours of religion or caste or gender. It smelled of hope and a new life.

Not just hope for that particular person or family but hope for a new kind of community – one filled with humaneness beyond any bias.

Shankar Vedantam* has proposed a beautiful analogy in his writings – a comparison of how social bias works like ocean currents. Bias acts like a strong wave that moves towards one direction and against the other direction. A uni-directional force the pushes things a certain way.

Those swimming with the invisible currents move so quickly that they start believing that their strength & skill helps them swim with such speed. They rarely realise that the power of the current is what pushes them ahead and makes them reach beyond their individual capability.

Those swimming against the currents have an entirely different story. They have to swim with so much strength and dexterity to even remain, to not be swept away. And after all this effort they may reach a fraction of what they would have, without such a resistant force in the water.

In reality those swimming against the current end up becoming much better swimmers due to the constant testing of their skills but that does not mean they naturally get ahead in the race.

Bias works exactly like this. Specifically gender bias.

Ocean currents are natural. Bias is NOT. It supports and helps those favoured by it. It beats down those not favoured by it.

In an environment where all biases were suddenly lost to calamity, we saw people come forth and be their best and we witnessed an evolution of selfless spirit that was truly remarkable. We saw REAL heroes. What would life be like if we swam out of the bias that is holding us back?

Today in the midst of masks falling off, we see layers of patriarchy, misogyny and bias holding on tight to protect those they have favoured all along. Yes all along we have known that it is ugly  behind many smiling condescending masks. But rather than hide and brush any more things under the carpet, let us do some spring cleaning.

I have to say the masks are not just worn by the violators, there is another more dangerous mask. The mask of silence.

It does seems like it is time for us to evolve as a society and find a new way of being. They say there is nothing in the caterpillar that tells us if it will become a butterfly. Let us not deny ourselves the evolution we are capable of. This Kerala Piravi I turn to the hope of evolution. I hope we will shed all masks in order to grow.”


 

To read more about Shankar Vedantam’s theory : https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/04/09/the-hidden-brain-shankar-vedantam/

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A better take

It’s 9:02 PM on our shooting set. The last take was okay –  just okay. I would love another take but if we go beyond 9PM the crew payments go into 3rd call sheet, dinner has to be organised on set, there is need for late night transportation which eventually affects the next morning schedule etc. Considerable price for a better take. I look at the 1st AD  who reads my face and looks at the cameraman who looks at the line producer who looks back at me. It has been a long exhausting day and everyone just wants to hear the two magic words – “Pack up”. The clapper boy arches his back and looks at me. Such moments remind me that I should never be a producer when I am a director. Yet such moments happen in every single film. 

Every shoot day we start our working day at 6am with a one hour break for lunch that gets eaten into by many small bits of work. Every day finishes earliest at 9PM so that’s a minimum of 15 hours plus the time it takes to load, unload, gather, prepare, pack, unpack all that is required for our work. We work 7 days a week on shoot often shooting whole films in single schedules. This is not just our crew – this is how most film crews work in the regional film industry in India. About a hundred people on each crew.

Abroad film crews are much smaller in number mainly because they are quite expensive to hire. Instead of a hundred there can be 20-40 crew members to do the same kind of work. Then why do we need so many people? Fact is, in India labour is the cheapest to hire so the dynamics are accordingly different.  The same reason why we have lift operators, ATM security and such personnel when most of the world doesn’t. It is supposedly cheaper to hire personnel to ensure the safety of equipment that is far more expensive in comparison. Bulk of the crew here are untrained personnel just growing through the ranks. I have heard this discussed in condescending tones by top cast & crew, especially those who have just returned from a schedule abroad.

But the other side of the coin is that the specialised crew abroad usually drops their gear when the shift is over and in the rare situation where they agree to work beyond confirmed hours, prohibitive overtime rates apply. Whereas that is not true of our homegrown local crew who still work for minimal pay and minimal work conditions. Like a friend observed, the professional crew here work like the student/ lo/no pay crew abroad.

“Madam! One more-alle?” calls out the lighting chief cheerfully interrupting my thoughts about a third call sheet. I nod without looking at my line producer. The crew swings into action preparing for a quick retake and all flows into motion – this time coming together as a magical take. My eyes light up as it unfolds before me. “Cut! Good take!” and smiling I turn to the chief and he smiles back acknowledging my silent thank you. Pack up is announced so we don’t go into another call sheet and the day ends well.

That willingness to go the extra mile irrespective of how hard the day has been  – is a specific trait found in film crews. Unlike other industries, this one calls for physical and mental work as well as undying passion that fuels the work. Every shot matters. Especially in a country that makes so much indie cinema within very limited resources, that passion is what makes it survive. The assistant directors who double up as junior artistes or sound lock up as and when the situation demands, the art assistant who carries a primitive pan of burning coal to get that misty look on screen, the costume person who up-cycles costumes to help save on budget, the DA who carries 5 heavy musical instruments himself to ensure their safety, the dancers who demonstrate a step a hundred times with the same energy, the catering staff who cheerfully serve every meal… each of them bring their own bit to make the film. Finally, the top cast and crew are lauded and appreciated for their work but could it ever be done the same way without everyone else? NO it couldn’t. While the big names may zoom off for rest and relaxation, the bulk of the film crew simply shift to other film sets and go back to work.

We have a tradition on our set. After particularly difficult days, everyone – the whole cast and crew get a lollipop treat. In an instant, everyone suddenly turns into a child, squabbling over flavours and numbers of lollipops! Those are special times when everyone is the same, going about their work with a smile on their face and a lollipop in their mouths, but they deserve so much more. My salute to the wonderful people on our crews who work so hard and yet keep alive that childlike enthusiasm for the work they do. They deserve a better take – much better work conditions and respect. I hope better will come soon. #May Day #Salute #Respect

Lollipop lowres

Unlike everyone else? Stay that way.

School is a place where we first learn about social behaviour. We learn from our peers and as much from our teachers. I have learned about many professions and I believe the most under-rated one is that of a school teacher. This I do not say from sympathy for the plight of the school teacher but more because I have empathy for the regular school students.

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I remember quite clearly my first days at school. Fresh off the kindergarten boat I had just gotten into the uniformed brigade in “big school”. Our first standard class teacher had given us our first home assignment – a 5 line composition on “My Best Friend”. We were supposed to stick the picture of the friend and underneath it write the lines.

I went home thoughtful because I had a basic issue. I didn’t really have any friends. Except for my imaginary ones of course. I grew up as an only kid who was dreamy and painfully shy, preferring to just disappear than make conversation. (Some parts of me are still like that!) So the subject of this assignment seemed beyond me. But this was traditional school education where formal instruction was obeyed. Period.

So I went home and sat amongst my books and toys for a while. I flipped open my favourite fairytale book, looked through all the characters in it and sighed. It was a beautiful hardbound book with gorgeous illustrations. Of the lot I decided that Sleeping Beauty would be the least disturbed if I took her out, after all… she was sleeping! I remember how careful I was as I cut her image out without damaging anything else in the book. It broke my heart but it had to be done. This was big school after all. No silly matter.

I stuck her carefully onto the four line book and wrote 5 lines under it about her.

The next day at school all our books were collected and piled onto the teacher’s desk. I waited excitedly for the teacher’s response. In the last period of the day the class teacher came in with the same pile. My book was at the top. She announced that all had done well but she wanted to show them something. She picked up my book and began… her performance.

She displayed my open book to everyone in class and spoke with dripping sarcasm about this one student who had written about her best friend and stuck a picture of what was actually a cartoon. She walked over to my desk and mocked me as I stood up with a shudder. I still remember my ears burning in embarrassment and fighting back the tears while everyone laughed at me. She then showed me other books of students who had done the assignment. I realised soon that most students had exchanged passport size pictures with their seating mates in class and written about each other. Most of their lines were identical and predictable. But that didn’t matter here. I was the only one who had not done so. And she punished me for it. For having thought and done something differently. For not having conformed. That could have been the last time that 5 year old did something creative.

But fortunately I have also had teachers who inspire and impart what they know and yet allow us to grow our own thought and philosophy. Teachers who took us through experiences and moments where we discovered our potential. These are two extremes but nowadays I hear teachers are more concerned about lessons than about students. Lessons that are learnt and not interpreted simply produce students who absorb but do not glow. It is easy to point blame but what exactly is the mandate given to the ones who teach? And who sets this mandate? What are we seeking from our education? With so many alternative schooling methods arriving at our doorstep, are we truly stepping out of the box or are we moving from one box to another?

Fast forward to today: I write my own characters and they are my best friends. I trust them and protect them like I would my dearest friends. Today I am thankful that I wasn’t like everyone else in that first grade class. Like everyone else I have been judged for my mind, appearance, race, gender, religion, caste, profession and every time I remember what I repeated in my head when I went back to that first standard class the next day – “it is okay not to be like everyone else around you.”

Conformity isn’t the greatest value if it turns every one into “another brick in the wall” as Pink Floyd put it. But armchair rebellion is just as worthless as textbook mugging. The world is far beyond the school walls or social boundaries and to educate oneself about it, one has to search it, explore it and learn one’s place in the universe. And maybe learn how to be a child again. For every adult is simply a sandpapered child. Some shorn a bit more, some a bit less – of goodness, creativity and open minded wonder.

~

First published in a 2018-19 Kerala school souvenir publication.

Image credit : https://www.globalyoungvoices.com/fast-news-blog/2016/1/23/social-conformity-why-do-we-choose-to-go-with-the-flow

Taking a stand

When I was studying at Pune University, one day we heard of a Mumbai television unit that was shooting on the campus. I trooped off to go see the action and I stood there watching Vinta Nanda directing. I remember seeing her as this exuberant, energetic director and wondering if I had to shed being soft spoken and shy to become a director myself. To me, she represented a strong person who knew where she was going.

A few days ago, when Vinta Nanda revealed her horrific experience I was aghast. I realised that she was far far stronger than I had realised then. But also far far more traumatised than anyone could have imagined. She belonged to the golden age of television where she helmed multiple shows that are still iconic and wielded considerable power. And yet this is what she was going through. Imagine the plight of newcomers and those who are at weaker positions in this ecosystem.

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Image Courtesy : The News Minute

As women we often are aware of the traumatic stories of harassment that are shared through hushed whispers. Now, with Vinta Nanda sharing her 19 year old experience publicly, the rest of the Mumbai film industry has woken up to reality. They have pledged support to Me Too survivors from the industry.

(Read here https://www.ndtv.com/entertainment/after-vinta-nanda-reveals-rape-trauma-producers-guild-pledges-support-for-metoo-survivors-1929248)

In swift action the Producers Guild have set up a special committee for the same (Read here – https://www.ndtv.com/entertainment/producers-guild-sets-up-a-special-committee-to-help-metoo-survivors-1930080) Networks like Hotstar are cancelling successful shows made by alleged perpetrators. Film Festivals like MAMI are dropping films by alleged perpetrators. Companies like Phantom Films are shutting down to avoid working with alleged perpetrators. Actors like Aamir Khan are walking out of films engaging alleged perpetrators. The actor organisation CINTAA is sending a show-cause notice threatening expulsion to their member – an alleged perpetrator and they have extended full support to the Survivor (who is not their member).

(Read here https://www.indiatoday.in/television/top-stories/story/cintaa-notice-alok-nath-sushant-singh-full-support-1359089-2018-10-09)

By such powerful action the Mumbai Film Industry are taking a stand – that such violations are NOT acceptable in this industry.

In 2017, a woman actor who was actively working in the Malayalam film industry for 15 years, was sexually assaulted. She spoke up about her experience (as soon as it happened) and filed a police complaint and is taking things ahead to ensure the culprits are brought to book legally.  Kerala is home-ground to powerful film bodies, many of whom have shown strong solidarity with one another. Not to forget powerful actors and powerful writers & makers whose work has won international acclaim from the world.

And yet…  where is the proactive action supporting the survivors?

This too is a stand. A highly disturbing one.

 

The Great Leveller

Last month I was invited to be guest editor on the Onam edition of Times of India. It was my first time doing something like this and with great excitement, Dipal Gala, the Features editor & myself set about getting the writers together. Of late many incidents in Kerala illustrated how divisive things were becoming and the need of the hour seemed to be inclusivity & social consciousness. The team agreed wholeheartedly that the agenda of the edition should be around inclusivity in every sphere.

So much has happened since then. From a divisive space, today Kerala has catapulted itself into an example of a society that is inclusive and socially conscious conquering all biases of gender, caste, religion, age and much else. Water has been the great leveller and its wave has entered all our lives in one way or the other. Never before have we been overcome with such emotion & empathy for our state and our people. Never have we experienced such extent of devastation. Never before have we prayed with such intensity for Kerala. 

Through the rescue we held together and I hope we will hold together through the relief & the rebuilding. Grateful for the wonderful people & support we have with us to tide over this time. This Onam I am wishing that we hold on to this oneness even after the waters have flown away. Sharing here my note on the Onam edition that was written before the floods: 

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The Pookalam

My favourite thing about Onam is the tapestry of flowers, gathered by little fingers from diverse spaces, laid together on the soil – the many colours, textures and shapes that are brought together into a form. Creation of a synergy for beauty but is it beauty alone? Why do we make a pookalam? Why does it represent Onam?

Myth-lovers say it is in welcome of a benevolent ruler who visits once a year the land he once ruled. The legend carries with it touches of good governance, the conquest of ego by wisdom, the values of benevolence and compassion and honour. But rather than see the flower carpet as a mere tribute laid on the floor, I believe there is far more in that pattern that speaks to us about Onam (than it is given credit for) through the experience of making it.

While picking the flowers, patterns start to emerge in our minds about the possibilities. As these ideas grow our search widens, for a particular colour, a particular texture, a particular quantity. Like any creative process we sift through so many to find our precious ingredients. It is a treasure hunt of sorts that takes us beyond our boundaries and frees us from the usual rules of propriety. In seeking those flowers we find our way back to our soil, its texture, the dragonflies, butterflies and the bees. The sense of delicacy in gathering thumba, the sense of wonder that the blue of a shankhupushpam can evoke, or the sense of patience in sorting aripoo, the sense of fluid thinking as the pattern evolves are all the real gifts of Onam. The experiential gifts.

Isn’t it representative of our sense of self & society? This coming together celebrates the unique identity of every flower and yet discovers beauty in its cohesive role among many in the pattern. The flowers at the centre are as important to those at the defining periphery. Most importantly, the Thiruvona pookalam is always round. This radial symmetry represents many things and in the context of multiple components it represents the ultimate state of oneness. How the many are actually part of one.

Today’s flowers types are many – the traditional ones that were cherished earlier but are rare now, the migrant ones that arrived here on a truck from elsewhere, the ordinary local ones that have only recently been allowed into the pookalam. 🙂  As we sort the flowers and arrange them into a pattern, it is with a sense of democracy that every new floral contribution is accommodated into the pattern. The pattern grows beyond one person’s imagination when the contributors are many and is perhaps the first step many of us have taken towards collaborative art.

Our writers for this edition represent as a group and as individuals a growing social consciousness in Kerala that recognizes such patterns and textures within our societal fabric. Many are doers more than writers, enriching our world with their actions and this edition with their words. There are those who are gathering the traditional and conserving them through new world practices. Others who are bringing the marginalized into the circle and restoring their place in the pattern. Some who are pointing out our homegrown harmful weeds and the damage their can cause. One who interprets the deeper meanings of our circular game. And another who tells us how even a statistical majority breathes like a minority in this state. Gender, Age, Caste, Faith…. Bias in any shape or size needs to be recognized and weeded out for they stand in the way of us to being the beautiful, strong tapestry we can be.

This Onam we need eyes that seek- to find the flowers, to see the pattern. What it is & what it can be. We hope you enjoy this pookalam of ours! Wishing everyone a happy and insightful Onam.

*As published in the Onam edition of Times of India 2018