Saturday, April 28, 2012


(Short story)

National Geographic Channel. I watched with bated breath as the leopards chased the poor deer. I sat straight on the couch, my mouth half open, my hand that was feeding the mouth with junk food frozen a few inches away from my face. I hoped against hope that the hapless creature will somehow escape the claws of death. The  leopards  were closing in....I closed my eyes...I was sure that the they will go hard at the deer's neck in no time. Only God could have saved him...and they did! I opened my eyes anxious to see the fate of the deer and saw him galloping to safety and the leopards giving up the chase. Although the leopards looked tired and hungry and defeated, I had a sigh of relief. I reclined to the back of the couch, my hand and mouth were unfrozen and I again started eating the delicious deep-fried chicken wings.   

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

'Locked Up Time' directed by Sibylle Schonemann

(Film review)

Locked Up Time is a documentary film directed by one of the most famous female film directors of Germany, Ms.Sibylle Schonemann. The film is based on her real-life story which appears to be stranger than a fictitious tale. Sibylle Schonemann and her husband had requested the socialist government of East Germany(GDR) in 1984 for exit visas to move to West Germany because of the curbs on their freedom of expression in the East. But never in their wildest dreams had they thought that they will be arrested as a consequence and put behind the bars. After serving a sentence of several months as a political prisoner, Schonemann was expelled to West Germany followed by her husband and children who joined her at a later date.

When the film opens the Berlin Wall is in the process of being demolished and Schonemann is seen travelling back to the East in search of answers to the question as to why she and her husband were hunted down by the authorities. She wanted to confront the people who were responsible for her arrest and subsequent imprisonment. She meets the prison warden, the interrogator, the lawyer, the judge, the colonel and several others to collect as much information as they are ready to divulge. The situation has already changed completely. The two Germanys have been united. No oppressive regime was in place. But still the answers were not easily forthcoming.

Schonemann is seen asking some aged labourers who are assigned the task of demolishing a part of the Berlin wall as to what is more interesting and satisfying for them: Building the wall? Or demolishing it? The obvious implication is that they were part of the team which built the wall several decades ago. It is not altogether impossible, but we will never know if someone, in real life, ever was a part of both the erection and demolition of the wall. But that is not important. What is important is the reply of the labourers: "We don't care as long as we are paid for it"

We will be shocked at the turn of events that changed the life of Schonemann and her husband. They themselves could not comprehend what is happening to their lives. They were picked up from their house at 6 a.m. in the morning. For apparently no reason at all, or so they believed. Their children were assured by the officers that their parents would be back by noon. But the poor kids did not see their parents for several months after that fateful morning. After they were picked up, they were detained separately and were told that they would be produced before a custodial judge the next day morning. Schonemann says that she spent the night in detention firmly believing that she and her husband would be apologised to the next morning for the mistake and that an order would be issued to release them immediately. It is this firm belief of Schonemann that the arrest was a mistake that reveals the complexity of the situation. Most, if not all, of the convicts believe that they are totally innocent. But the authorities are totally convinced of their guilt and the government machinery moves very swiftly to put the 'erring' citizens behind bars. Schonemann recollects walking several times along the road in front of the building that housed the prison. She says she never knew that there was a prison behind that wall of the building. That 'road' could be for real, or it can well be an image of her own life through which she was moving forward smoothly with no inclination of what is going to happen to her all of a sudden with no warning at all. She was just like you and me: a normal human being, a wife, a daughter and a mother.

When she meets all those who were part of the system that had done injustice to her, she confronts them with emotional questions: "Were you not aware that I had kids at home?", "Were you not aware, when you refused to hand over my husband's letter to me, that I had not heard from him for 3 months after our arrest?", "Didn't you know that I was innocent?". She repeats these questions several times to several people but nobody bothers to answer. They behave as if they did not hear anything. They are so cold in their response as if they don't care for such things. They are not remorseful; they don't think that they owe an explanation. They are otherwise friendly; they co-operate with Schonemann in the making of the documentary, but their tone is matter of fact. Their replies are gross generalisations. They insist that they don't remember much and that they don't even know much about Schonemann's specific case. The individual did not matter in GDR. It appears that the habit had stayed with the officials even after the collapse of the Berlin wall.

The judge says that he could not have acquitted Schonemann after the trial even if he had wanted to. He stops short of saying that he wanted her to be free. But he does say that since the conditions of the relevant Section of the law had been met in Schonemann's case, he had no other way but to sentence her to imprisonment. He also adds that the reason for Schonemann's delayed release was that the government did not want to let DEFA know that one among them was released so early and so easily.

The Colonel, the highest ranking official interviewed in the documentary agrees that they were only two ways of dealing with the situation: One, believe in the socialist regime and its virtues and do whatever can be done to keep it going even at the expense of many things. Second, renounce it. He says in a lighter vein that when we love a person we have to love him unconditionally; we cannot partly like him and partly hate him. In much the same manner, one was not allowed in GDR to support 'this' Section of the law but oppose 'that' Section. There were only two ways. There was no third way. Probably that is the what differentiates an authoritarian regime from a democratic one!

The brilliance of the director comes to light in a small episode in which she manipulates a scene in which she meets one of the officials at the closed gate of his house. Without opening the gate, the official standing on the other side of the gate informs Schonemann, even as her crew shots the action, that he cannot make himself available for an interview at that moment and that she needs to take an appointment for a later date. She requests for a confirmed date, and the official expresses his inability to confirm the appointment because he had to go to the hospital for a check up and he was not sure what will turn up in the medical investigation. He may have been lying. Or he may have been telling the truth. He asks Schonemann to telephone him after two days and bids her good bye with a firm handshake through the grilled gate. Later on, when Schonemann telephones him, he excuses himself citing a medical emergency, but willingly answers some questions that Schonemann asks over the phone. What we see next is a footage in which the visuals are from the earlier scene in which  Schonemann and the official are seen on either side of the closed gate and the audio is from the recorded telephonic conversation. The video and audio are so perfectly synchronised that it will appear as if Schonemann is interviewing the official at the gate of his house and that he is bidding farewell at the end of the interview. No malice intended here, but probably Schonemann wants to show us how easily evidence can be doctored and how easy it would have been for the State to persecute someone on the strength of such evidences.

Every official interviewed in the movie appeared to be part of a long chain in the bureaucracy and when asked as to who was the ultimate authority who was giving the orders, the General says that, in short, it was the Government and the Party. We, as viewers, are not interested either in who was the particular person behind the persecution of Schonemann. She was not alone; there were several of them, and some more unlucky than Schonemann!

All in all, a brilliant and thought provoking movie.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Dance in Freedom - The last Devadasis": The degeneration of a system.

(Film review/Social commentary)

Danza en libertad" or “Dance in Freedom”, is a documentary film directed by Spanish director Ana Pinilla in Hindi and Kannada with Spanish subtitles. It is based on the Devadasi system which was prevalent in India in ancient times. The movie says that, though illegal as of now, the system is still being practiced in many parts of Karnataka, albeit in modified forms. The film pays particular attention to the Devadasis who have been dedicated to Goddess Yellamma. It also talks about the many NGOs and social activists who are working hard to bring a complete stop to this system that degrades the dignity of women and take away their freedom to live a life of their choice. 

A peep into history will show that the profession of Devadasis which was held in high esteem in the beginning had a gradual degeneration. The Devadasis of the early years of Orissa were chaste devotees who were expected to keep their virginity till their death. These girls who were devoted to the deity were considered the wives of the God/Goddess. They enjoyed very high status in the society, learned music and dance and performed regularly at the temples to please the deity.

This compulsion to preserve virginity was not a part of the Devadasi system practiced in some other parts of the country. To the contrary, the tradition in fact had unmistakable sexual undertones as well. It can even be doubted that satisfying the sexual desires of wealthy and powerful members of the male community was the most important driving force behind this tradition which continued to exist for many centuries and probably still exists illegally in some states. Traditionally, each Devadasi had a 'patron' who had exclusive 'rights' to avail sexual services from her. In certain cases the girls were free to provide her services to other males also, but the patron always enjoyed preference since it was he who paid for the maintenance of the Devadasi and her kids if any. It is beyond logic why the wives of the Gods/Goddesses were made to have sex with the mortals. If it was for sustenance, other better ways could have been devised. Many of the temples were rich enough to look after the Devadasis. Even if they were not, the devotees could have donated towards a maintenance fund, because after all, the Devadasis are the wives of the Gods on whom the devotees spend exorbitantly huge sums of money without second thoughts. Another thing that baffles me and must have confused you already is how a Devadasi, a female, can get married to a Goddess. Well, it’s not altogether impossible, but the more logical thing would have been to get a male, a Devadas, married to the Goddess. But that would not have served the interests of the 'patrons' who were the real beneficiaries. The film says that even 'untouchability' which was a strong tradition in ancient India could not deter the patrons from seeking sex from the Devadasis. Most of the Devadasis who were attached to the temples depicted in the documentary film were from the Dalit community but their castes automatically got upgraded once they became a Devadasi. The film suggests that this must have been done to facilitate the sexual escapades of the upper caste males at a relatively lower 'cost'. In fact, Indian history is full of examples of rites and rituals and traditions which were carefully formulated and meticulously followed with the sole intention of exploitation: exploitation of the weak, of the illiterate and of the womenfolk. But nobody dared to question them if they were practiced in the name of religion. However, things changed for the better during the Reformist movements of the 19th and the 20th centuries.  

With foreign invasion of the country the wealth of the temples and the clout of the kings who were the patrons of the temples declined. This was one among the many reasons which contributed to the fall of the Devadasi system.  The Devadasis lost their patrons and with nowhere to go they were like fishes out of water. The only way forward, which was also the logical continuation of what they were already doing, was to move to organized prostitution. Many devadasis migrated to other towns and cities to become sex workers and to thus earn a living.
THE KARNATAKA DEVADASIS (PROHIBITION OF DEDICATION) ACT, 1982, says: “Notwithstanding any custom or law to the contrary, the dedication of a woman as a devadasi, whether before or after the commencement of this Act and whether she has consented to such dedication or not, is hereby declared unlawful, void and to be of no effect and any woman so dedicated shall not thereby be deemed to have become incapable of entering into a valid marriage.” "Dedication" means the performance of any act or ceremony, by whatever name called, by which a woman is dedicated to the service of any deity, idol, object of worship, temple, other religious institutions or places of worship ; and  "devadasi" means a woman so dedicated.

Thus the Devadasi tradition was made illegal in the state of Karnataka with good intentions and great hopes. But the rehabilitation programmes didn’t work as proposed and practically most of the devadasis were left to fend for themselves. The law may have prevented many girls from being dedicated, but the social and economic conditions of the earlier decades which must have been the real cause behind the religious prostitution, still remains unchanged. Many inhabitants of the backward villages still live in abject poverty and in miserable living conditions. No wonder then that the Devadasi system still continues in Karnataka, as the film claims, by evading the law.   

We would have been forced to look at the Devadasi system from a totally different angle had the girls been becoming Devadasis out of their own choice. But it was hardly so. Why would a girl willingly choose a life of desolation? In many cases they were being forcibly dedicated as a Devadasi by their mothers who were Devadasis themselves. The film asks why any mother would push her daughter into prostitution which has been the almost certain consequence of being dedicated as a Devadasi. The interviews in the film throws up some answers too, however unconvincing or illogical they may be. The mothers of prospective Devadasis hold that since they are Devadasis and their grandmothers and great grandmothers too have been, their daughters too are bound by tradition to become a Devadasi. But the truth is, the film says, that the poverty stricken stomach is not allowing the Devadasis to exit the system.

The film focuses exclusively on Devadasis, but it is worth mentioning here that there is a parallel in Christianity, although the characteristics are quite dissimilar: a nun is considered to be the bride of Jesus Christ. Kerala is a state where Christianity has established its roots so firmly ever since St.Thomas set his holy foot on the Kerala soil in AD 52. It is generally said, although without proof, that some of the young nuns who take the vows of ‘Poverty, Chastity and Obedience’ in Kerala are not doing so out of their own wish. Some from poor families are emotionally forced to become nuns since their parents are not wealthy enough to marry them off. If this is true, the number of nuns in Kerala will increase in coming years, given the importance of gold ornaments in Kerala weddings and the ever increasing price of gold! In certain other cases, the parents decide on their own that one of their daughters will become a nun in return for favours received by the family from the Almighty. There is an economic rationale in the former case, and a religious rationale in the latter. But the disagreeable aspect which is common in both the cases is that the girl is not having any say in these affairs. However, a nun in Kerala cannot be even remotely compared with a Devadasi. A nun leads a respectable life devoted to the God and the Church and enjoys a very high status in society. They remain a virgin till their death. They are not exploited, neither sexually nor otherwise. They are at a disadvantage only to the extent that they are not able to rear kids and lead a normal family life. However, girls who are forced to become a nun are a small minority only and most of the nuns are devout followers who willingly chose celibacy over family life to devote themselves to the God and, more importantly, to the mankind.  My only intention is to point out, without any disrespect to any community or profession, that the ways in which society forces some of its female members into roles unsuitable for them and the reasons behind the society's doing so have remained unchanged over the centuries.

The NGOs which have been featured in the film, some headed by former Devadasis, are doing the best they can to eradicate the Devadasi system and to bring respectability to the lives of the women who had been victims of the system. But it is not an easy task. The film shows the daughter of a former devadasi who, although hopeful about a better tomorrow, talks about the social stigma attached to being the daughter of a devadasi. We can well imagine the plight of such children in schools and other public places.

But the film does offer a hint of hope. The NGO members are enthusiastic, hopeful and hardworking. Many among the younger generation don’t want to follow the footsteps of their Devadasi mothers. They know that, if they can weather the storm, education can take them places. Yes, education, as always, is the path to salvation: For a fresh beginning and to bury the past behind.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

Life on a Divider

(Short Story)
It is a half kilometer walk for her from her office to the bus stop. She wanted to reach home early but she deliberately slowed down so that the well dressed gentleman who was staring at her buttocks while walking behind her was forced to walk past her. The road side tea-vendor was disappointed to death when she adjusted her sari just in time to prevent him from catching a side view of her pointed breasts. There were no zebra crossing or pedestrian lights. So she joined a group of people who braved the speeding traffic to cross the road halfway. All of them stood on the narrow road-divider hoping for a pause in the flow of the vehicles on the other side. The people standing on the median in a straight line appeared like a cross section of the Indian society: executives in formal suits, labourers, college students, a foreign tourist(he looked baffled), a person carrying a bicycle in his hands, a few smelly street kids in torn clothes carrying begging plates, a dog and our lady protagonist. For apparently no reason at all, she walked a few paces on the divider towards the right away from the waiting group, lost her balance all of a sudden and fell on to the half side of the road which she had just crossed. The vehicles did not stop, but the motorists took great pains to ensure that they did not hurt her as they whisked past her at 100 kmph. The street children who were standing on the divider waiting to cross the road jumped down to protect her and to pull her up to the safety of the divider. Some of the others on the divider were eager to help too, but unfortunately it was at the precise moment of her fall that they had sensed a momentary slowing down of the traffic on the other side of the road; and they had been programmed like robots to do nothing but cross the road whenever such an opportunity arose. But the street children were neither in a hurry, nor were their lives precious. It is not sure if their act was propelled by a selfish expectation of something in return for saving her life. She did not, in fact, give anything more than a sincere 'Thank you' to those children, not because she did not want to give them money, but because it would have been embarrassing. She was shaking all over and her eyes were moist with gratitude. As she narrated the incident to me the next day, she confessed that it was to avoid standing near those half naked children who "smelled like shit" that she had walked on the divider and moved away.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mother's love

She was not convinced, although her gynecologist was, that she should have antibiotics. She was willing to suffer, rather than take the medicine. The gynecologist assured that the antibiotic was mild and that it would not harm the baby in the womb. She was still in doubt....

And then the gynecologist added casually, "...for us, the mother is more important than the child, anyway."

She never visited that gynecologist again.

The child on the street

The other day I saw a girl by the street, 8 or 9 years old, a beggar's daughter probably, playing with a toy, a torn teddy bear. It was then that I realized that it is not only food that the street children require...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The quest to be independent.

(Film Review)

‘Independence’ by Neeraj Ghaywan is a short film featuring a little street girl who is trying to sell Indian national flags on the streets. The very presence of the tricolor on the screen suggests that it is Independence Day. The director does not explicitly tell us so and that places him at par with a great poet because a poet always tries to see how many words he can do without.

The little girl is obviously poor, but she is too proud to accept charity the way other street children do. She don’t want to beg, but would rather be independent. She will choose her own destiny. She will earn for herself. The close up shot of her face in which you can see in her eyes the reflection of another street child who has accepted alms from a passerby, says it all.

The little girl sells a flag to a watchman who hands over a coin to her. His master who approaches the big gate in his car drops a coin in her hand but refuses to accept the flag, disrespectfully waving his hand. She pleads with him but to no avail. She places the flag on the front glass of the car and walks away, her head held high, but not before giving the man in the car a sharp and angry look. He had not only insulted her by treating her like a beggar, but he had insulted his own country. The shaking of his hand was symbolic of the disrespect to the nation, which some of us harbor in our minds. We are just not concerned. August 15? Independence Day?? What’s the big deal??? But beware! Beware of the look in her eyes. She is the future. She is our hope.

She sees a group of girls in school uniform, playing with a ball. Again, the close up shot of her face clearly reveals how eager she is to play with them. But she knows all too well that it is impossible. She does not go and request the girls to allow her to play with them. She doesn’t want to risk a rejection; she starts playing using pebbles all by herself. Who can prevent her from doing that? All of a sudden there is a heavy downpour and the rain drops give her company. The girl looks up in joy and enjoys the rain to the maximum. The rain is something that is common for her and the other girls. Let it wash away the poverty and the backwardness. Nobody can take the little joy from her. Nobody can prevent her from getting wet in the rain. That is ‘Independence’ for her.

The flags in her hand get wet and the colors start to bleed. For a moment she becomes worried but she quickly overcomes the disappointment. She clutches the wet coins in her hand and the rain brings back the smile to her face. It is only the hard earned coins which will give her financial independence. And the rain will always be there to wash away her sweat.

‘Independence’ is a well directed short film with some crisp editing. The background music adds to the effect. The girl who plays the lead role has an expressive face as is revealed from the close-ups. All in all, a brilliant short film which utilizes every available second to the maximum extent possible.