Humanizing Politics

A major element that reoccurs in many forms of political media, whether it be television, film, or literature, is the attempt to humanize the politics and the events surrounding them. Bombay did this by following the story of a small family, whose odds were set against them from the beginning of the film. From the very start of their relationship, Shekar and Shaila fought to be together. Due to their difference in beliefs, Shekar being Hindu and Shaila being Muslim, the two had to go against their families’, society’s, and religions’ expectations. This difference in religion was the center of the film, using the couple’s differences and struggles as a segue into a larger political discussion.

 

But…let’s take a moment to go beyond the discussion of Bombay and politics in cinema.

There are several other forms of media that are used to humanize “political” discussions – short films, short stories, documentaries, novels, television shows, journalism, etc. While I know this post is meant to be dedicated to politics in cinema, I’m taking a chance and straying from the topic. While I started this post with the intention of focusing on Bombay, recent events and other political discussions have taken over my attention, and I can’t bring myself to ignore them. But first, a quick backstory:

I entered college as a photojournalism major, hoping to make a difference in the world by sharing stories that would otherwise be unheard. While I am no longer majoring in photojournalism, the experiences that I had while reporting and the work that my fellow peers have done have had a major impact on my life and my worldview. This is why in class discussions I often bring up the role of media, how it is portrayed, and the effects it has on the story being told.

That being said, I want to share examples of how various forms of media offer the chance for the unheard to be heard – for the political to become personal. In light of it being Pride, some of these examples will be focusing on the LGBTQ+ community.

Note: I do not claim copyright to any of these videos.

1.Imagine a World where being “Gay” was the Norm and being “Straight”was the Minority [Short Film]

2. In-Between [Documentary]

Video created and edited by Emily Harger

3. Formation [Music Video]

Copyright: (C) 2016 Parkwood Entertainment LLC, under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment

4. Cherokee [Documentary]

This video is only a very small portion of a larger multi-media project. This short clip is from a section called “Spirits of the Land.” I encourage you to visit http://2016.soulofathens.com/index.html to view the project as a whole.

The Big Bang Theory and its Portrayal of Indians

One topic that we briefly mentioned in the beginning of the class was how Indians and South Asians are represented in American television. One of the most well-known shows with an Indian character is The Big Bang Theory. The character, Rajesh Koothrappali, played by Kunal Nayyar, fills the role of the “funny foreigner.” This common trope in American television can be seen in various other comedies such as The Simpsons and Family Guy. TV Tropes describes and criticizes this trope by saying, “Foreigners are funny! Or so say a good number of comedy shows. The jokes practically write themselves; foreigners mangle the language(especially idioms) in funny ways, they are ignorant of customs in the show’s home country, and they have their own bizarre little customs that make no sense. They will either be unsure of themselves, or (more frequently) totally oblivious to how odd everybody finds them.”

tv-the-big-bang-theory10

Closely related to this trope, Raj’s character plays into many of the stereotypes surrounding Indian immigrants: he is portrayed as socially awkward, nerdy, and effeminate. He is unable to talk to women without being drunk, hangs out with a group of other “nerdy” scientists, and as the article “The Raj Prototype” points out, he “likes fru-fru drinks and The Blue Man Group.” While the show started off being written for an American audience, it is now attempting to cater to a more global audience. Despite this, the show fails to give Raj the opportunity for significant character growth, generally focusing on immigrant Indian stereotypes, Raj’s failed relationships with women, and his ignorance of American customs for humor’s sake.

What do you guys think? Is this portrayal of Indians acceptable just because a “Western” audience finds humor in it? What other shows come to mind when considering American television’s portrayal of Indians and South Asians?

 

 

Mississippi Masala: Transnationalism and Overcoming Prejudice

Mississippi Masala provides a unique view into transnationalism, focusing not only on the challenges that immigrant Indians face but also looking into the racial issues in Africa and the United States. One of the most interesting parts of this film was seeing how the father,  Jay, overcome his prejudice towards Africans and African Americans. After Jay’s fallout with Okelo and being forced to leave Uganda, he harbored prejudice against the black community. This created tension between him and his daughter, Meena, as she had fallen in love with Demetrius, a black American.

It is important to recognize, however, that the tension created between the two family’s because of Meena and Demetrius’s relationship went beyond appearance. Meena’s parents had always held hope that she would marry another Indian, and even Demetrius was given grief over dating someone “outside” of his community. At one point when Jay is speaking to Meena about Okelo and Demetrius, he says, “People stick to their own kind. You are forced to accept that when you grow older.” Meena refuses to accept this and points out the many times that Okello had helped their family and proved his love and loyalty to them.

The film also addresses the complexity of transnationalism, focusing especially on Jay’s background and story. When asked by Okelo why he was so stuck on staying in Uganda, Jay replied, “I was born here! I have always been Ugandan first, Indian second. I have been called a bootlicker and a traitor by my fellow Indians.” This illustrates that no matter where he was, Jay was unable to find a place that he felt a part of the community. He was forced out of the place he grew up, unable to find sanctuary with other Indians because of his background, and moved to the U.S. in an area where minorities are not taken seriously or seen as human. Although he and his family did find a community to surround themselves with, Jay continued to try to find a way to go back to Uganda – his home.

Gangs of Wassyepur: The Cycle of Poverty and Corruption

As a general note: I watched this movie a little while ago and while I remember the themes, I may end up confusing the details from Gangs of Wassyepur with those of Slumdog Millionaire. If anyone reading notices this happening, please feel free to comment and let me know.

Two of the major themes that I picked up on in Gangs of Wassyepur were poverty and corruption. The way the film goes about representing these themes shapes its message to the audience and allows for a broader commentary on what causes them. My belief is that the film was putting an emphasis on the cycle that each generation in the main families go through, reinforcing their socioeconomic statuses and the “need” for corruption.

In the beginning of the film, the audience is introduced to Shahid Khan, a character who steals grain from British trains under the name of a Qureshi man.When Shahid was caught and forced to leave Wasseypur, he went on to work in the mines to support his wife and expected child. During this time, the film emphasized the poor working conditions and inhumane treatments that coal miners recieved while struggling to make a living wage. After the death of his wife, Shahid did what he knew how to do and used his strength in deceit and force to move up the ranks within the company.

The death of Shahid, rooted in a corrupt coal mining operation, sets his son on the path of revenge from a very young age. In Sadar’s quest in finding revenge, he finds himself following the same footsteps as his father, using deceit and leverage as a way to make personal gains. As Sadar gains and maintains his powerful status, he has many children, two of whom become a part of the family business. Having known no other way of life, three generations of this family fell into the cycle of corruption – all of which stemmed from Shahid’s decisions. But the question that is left unanswered is: why Shahid feel it necessary to steal from British trains? From earlier discussions, we know that British colonization had a large impact on India’s economy, leaving some towns and areas in poverty and without food. Was Shahid stealing to make a statement against the ruling government? To explicitly frame the Qureshi? Or did he do it out of need for food, money, security, and power?

In saying that poverty and corruption are a cycle, I am not implying that the characters had no agency – I am merely pointing out that larger-scale corruption within the corporations and government of that time had a profound impact on the lives of the characters in this film.

I apologize if this post is sporadic and unorganized, I underestimated how difficult it would be to discuss these themes in a short amount of time and only in the context of one family from the film.

 

Slumdog Millionaire: An Outsider’s Perspective

It was interesting to see how Slumdog Millionaire, a British-made film, compared to the Bollywood films that we have been watching in class. Slumdog showed its viewers an alternative side to India, focusing on how poverty and class can affect one’s actions, perception, and treatment. While other Bollywood films, such as The Gangs of Wasseypur and Namak Halaal, have commented on class, Slumdog provides a deeper look into what poverty in India can look like and the challenges that those in poverty can face.

Having this outsider’s view of India has both its strengths and weaknesses. As we have seen in a couple of the Bollywood films that we have watched, mainstream media coming out of India is less likely to be self-critical, be more nationalist in nature, and often promotes stories that focus on well-off characters. An outsider’s perspective on some of India’s national issues, such as class, can provide a more critical social commentary that Bollywood films are less likely to make. On the other side of that, this outsider’s perspective brings the film’s accuracy into question. While Slumdog did seem to respect India’s culture, it is difficult to determine if the film’s representation was an accurate depiction of poverty and culture in India. Another possible weakness is how this film could shape other countries’ perspectives of India. As I saw in another post, it is important to keep in mind that this film may be the only exposure that some “Westerners” have to Indian culture.

Overall, I enjoyed this film. It was engaging and intriguing, to say the least. I think one of the most important things to keep in mind while watching a film like Slumdog is the fact that it is a work of realistic fiction based on a country that the producers are not from. While it may strive to represent and give voice to a group that is often not thought about, there are bound to be mistakes and weaknesses when trying to create an understanding of the class system and culture of a country that is not your own.

Gender and Family in Namak Halaal

Gender

I found the representation of gender in Namak Halaal to be predictably patriarchal. The female characters are often objectified, and presented as untrustworthy and helpless, while male characters are presented as masculine and clever.

In the scene where Arjun is singing to Poonam at the event, he tells her,”You are desirable…You are like a statue…Where you’re from, who you are, what your name is…Oh forget all that! We don’t care!” While I am sure the intention is to describe how much Arjun admires Poonam, his words and perceptions of her reduce her identity to that of an object to be admired. Her true identity and personality are disregarded at the whims of Arjun who, however unintentionally, finds it easy to place Poonam into a small box that reflects his (and society’s) idealistic views of femininity.

Much of the drama and confusion in the film stems from Dashrath’s distrust of Savitri. Despite her continued devotion to her family and her husband’s wishes, Dashrath refuses to believe that Savitri didn’t kill Bhim. While this does give the film an opportunity to emphasize Savitri’s strength and loyalty later on, the idea of women being untrustworthy is later reinforced with Nisha’s character. Nisha, a character that is also objectified throughout the film, is hired to murder Raja through the use of her seduction. In this way, not only is Nisha presented as an untrustworthy character, she is being used as a pawn, an object of blame, and an object of desire.

Overall, the portrayal of men and women in Namak Halaal reinforces several patriarchal ideals, not only erasing the female perspective and voice but also setting unrealistic expectations and representations of men. The men were often portrayed as unthoughtful, making remarks such as, “I want a room that’s as beautiful as you are,” to complete strangers and requesting women be sent to their rooms. They are also portrayed as the masterminds to all attacks, counter-attacks, and schemes, in which they often use women as side characters and objects. Going even beyond that, men are expected to keep “their women” safe – again reinforcing the idea that women need to be kept safe and that men are the only ones who can save them.

Family

The representation of family in Namak Halaal is complex and intertwined with the ideas of sacrifice, debt, and loyalty.

The film sets the tone for complex family ties as Girdhar, Seth Raja’s step-brother, organizes an attack to kill Seth Raja and his son Raja to gain wealth. As the attack happens, Bhim Singh sacrifices his life to protect Seth Raja due to a debt and a sense of loyalty. Continuing this sense of loyalty to his employer, Bhim makes his wife Savitri promise to raise Raja as her own son and to protect him at all costs. It is because of this promise that Savitri, Arjun’s biological mother and Raja’s adopted mother, sacrifices her relationship with Arjun, her perceived innocence in the death of her husband, and her home. This promise also led to Dashrath, Bhim’s father, to become Arjun’s guardian, as Dashrath was convinced that Savitri had betrayed her loyalty to Bhim and killed him.

In the film we see the main character, Arjun, following the footsteps of his father to protect Raja. While Arjun is not in “debt” to Raja as Bhim was to Seth Raja, he was brought up by Dashrath to be loyal – a consequence of Dashrath’s perception that Arjun’s mother was unloyal. It was in this way that Raja and Arjun began their relationship as friends, which is later recognized to be a sort of brotherhood.

While I have attempted to describe the situations which led up to this complex sense of family, it is difficult to do without the use of a chart or visual. The overall theme in the film regarding family was that family is not always made up of those who share your blood – that family is ultimately constructed by trust, sacrifice, loyalty, and love.

 

Considering Nationalism vs Ethnocentrism

To start off, I would like to provide definitions of both nationalism and ethnocentrism. Both of these definitions were taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Nationalism: Advocacy or support for the interests of one’s own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interest of other nations. Also: advocacy or support for national independence or self-determination.

Ethnocentrism: Tending to view the world from the perspective of one’s own culture, sometimes with an assumption of superiority; limited as regards knowledge and appreciation of other cultures and communities. Also in a neutral sense: aware of membership of an ethnic group, community, or culture.

Nationalism seems to have two sides: one where it builds community and pride, and the other where it gives nations the opportunity to disregard other nations and the world community. The second side of nationalism is what I would like to compare to ethnocentrism. While ethnocentrism mainly deals with culture, within the “imagined community” of a nation where culture is engrained, the two can be equated. While I am not fully aware of the motivations behind British colonization in South Asia, their treatment of the local citizens and government within that area can be connected to ethnocentrism: the idea being that the British way of life is superior to those they are there to “help.”

As we discussed in class, the second side of nationalism can also lead people to take action against an assumed threat without thorough planning or thought. In the face of tragedy, we raise our flags in resistance and vow to bring down those who threaten us, often without considering how or why they became a threat.

Connecting this to our class content, in Gandhi we were able to see the “good” side of nationalism as India came together to drive out British colonists. Groups who were at odds with one another came together under a shared motivation. While this led to India’s independence, it also put other national issues on the back burner. While they were focused on this one unifying goal, they failed to address the cultural differences that would eventually lead them to separate and turn against each other.

I would not label nationalism as either “good” or “bad.” Like many things, the way it is used and promoted dictates how it is perceived/labeled.