Silent Film, Sound Optional

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In the course of the last few years, everything has started to move into smartphones. Online activities which were previously accessible or executable only in the web browser on a computer, can now be done from a mobile phone screen with equal ease. As processing power of mobile phones increase by the day, even the UIs have started to match up with their full-fledged browser versions. No longer are they simplified, aesthetically disappointing light versions of the original.

With the smartphone market essentially ruled by two big players – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, app developers have found stable markets to develop and share their products in, and as a result, each OS app store now houses hundreds and thousands of apps that can execute virtually any task that can be carried out by the supporting hardware. But arguably, the biggest migration from computer to smartphone has been in the fields of social media and e-commerce platforms. Most e-commerce websites have their own dedicated apps for both iOS and Android, India’s Flipkart has even gone a step further to make their mobile-based browsing and transactions app-only, and some other websites have followed suite. As PC sales have dipped for the first time and smartphone sales have outstripped them, large digital corporations like Google and Facebook recently for the first time have reported that customers have consumed more data on their smartphones than on more traditional machines like a laptop or a PC.

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Another interesting speculation, made by Facebook, is that all media is essentially moving towards video, and soon enough video would be the ruling mode of media consumption. What this essentially means is that all media – be it news, editorial articles, personal blogs, whatever, would be in the form of video content. And if we notice carefully what comes up in our Facebook feed, we can already see this happening. Instead of the image-intensive feed that was the Facebook homepage even a year or two ago, it is quickly becoming a video-intensive one. Almost every channel publishes the majority of their content in the form of video; be it a short clip on the recent faux pas by Donald Trump produced by a news channel, or a video on ten moments when Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling were too cute to be handled, put out by a fashion and lifestyle channel, or a video clip on a half-million-dollar semi-automated mason robot put out by an architecture channel.

Now, it is well-understood that form is not independent of its medium. Technology, its strengths and limitations, both shapes and defines the way media is produced, and consumed. When Marshall McLuhan wrote the essay “The Medium is the Message” in early 1960s and later followed it up with The Medium is the Massage (the typesetter made a simple mistake which much amused McLuhan, and he decided to keep it), he was hitting the nail right on the head of the digital age media revolution that was to come about four decades later. The content, in many ways, serves and is shaped by the medium through which it is presented. Ideas change at a glacial pace, but changes in the medium are radical, and tectonic. And with every new change in the media landscape and technology, the content must reorganize and reshape itself to fit into the strong and weak points of the medium. The style of the content must always be determined by the medium.

It is undeniable that since YouTube introduced in-stream ads (these are the annoying little buggers at the beginning of your YouTube videos that you cannot skip for a full five seconds), the narrative format of digital advertisements, especially ads meant for YouTube, has changed. As most users are likely to skip the ad as soon as they can, it is crucial to get the message across in the first five seconds. Narrative development, advert humour, build-up – all these take a backseat. This also becomes important from a financial point-of-view. Most ads on YouTube are cost-per-view (CPV), and the advertiser is not charged unless the user reaches either the 30-second-mark of the video or the end of the video if it is shorter than 30 seconds. It makes sense if you can put your message across in the first five seconds and minimize payment. It does not matter if the user views the ad in full, or any of the medium’s aesthetic goals are fulfilled. Recently, though, I have started noticing ads on YouTube that are only 5-seconds-long. Mostly, these are ads that have been trimmed to fit the 5-second mark. Google’s ad for its Pixel phone, which was originally 1.22 minutes long, has been trimmed down to a mere 5 seconds (YouTube tried to force-feed its users the complete ad for a while, but I guess that was not working out very well for them). And why would this not happen? Once your brand has gained some visibility, a 5-second-ad is a complete win-win situation, combining the best of both worlds. We are in the age of speedier, shorter, crisper; hit and run, point and shoot.

Facebook videos are another, different but more obvious, case in point. Most users would be aware that by default, audio is turned off for all videos in the Facebook app. And as experience and observation suggests, that setting tends to stay as it is. The makers of Facebook videos (I am not too easily inclined to call them films yet, for no good reason) have been quick to catch up on this. Almost all videos on Facebook now come with subtitles or close-captioning in some form or another. Since audio cannot be taken for granted on this app, makers must rely on communication through text accompanied by the images. With optional sound, film is again becoming a purely visual medium, like it was a hundred years ago in the first few years of cinema. And limitations breed innovation. From regular subtitles to innovative use of intertitles, a combination of both, use of cue cards as subtitles (most probably to avoid more work during the creative process, but that Bob Dylan and Love, Actually vibes cannot be so easily ignored), creative graphic transitions… if you look carefully, it is all quite impressive. Harper’s Bazaar has ditched audio commentary altogether and has replaced dialogue and sound with upbeat music tracks.

Why is this important, or even interesting? It is difficult to say that at this point. All evaluation worth its salt needs a certain distance, a vantage point. But what can be said with some degree of certainty is that this marks a significant movement away from traditional film aesthetics of the sound era which has developed and dominated almost all forms of film for the last eight or nine decades. We are once again at the birth of a different cinema, made for a different medium and for a different purpose. And this new cinema shall have its new audience, perhaps a little less isolated than headphoned commuters. Shut your ears; are you watching closely?

Disclaimer: I could be completely wrong, who can tell…

– Souraj Dutta

Mere Bhi Sanamkhane: A Tale of Loss and A Lost Culture

Written originally in Urdu, titled Mere Bhi Sanamkhane and translated by the author herself, My Temples, Too (2004) holds within its folds the essence of what Qurratulain Hyder calls the “ganga-jumni” culture of India – a culture that is composite, harmonious and gracious. Set against the backdrop of the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the novel unfolds predominantly in Lucknow and Delhi, and captures how the all-accommodating and tolerant atmosphere of the multifarious cities is torn apart by a politics of individuality and religious fanaticism. The novel tells the story of young Rakshanda Begum, the idealistic editor of the progressive Muslim magazine “New Era”, of Peechu, her elder brother, Vimal, their friend and radio correspondent, Kiran, the young journalist, Salim, the upwardly mobile doctor, Ginnie Kaul and Diamond. The “Gang” gets together all the time at Ghufran Manzil, the dilapidated house of (Rakshanda’s) forefathers and a silent reminder of past splendour. The narrator describes the group as one that

“…loved to talk. They felt that the cultures and literatures of the world belonged to them, that they were the rightful owners of all civilization … They wanted to learn and do things. They were heart-breakingly young and enthusiastic.” (6)

The novel opens with the political activism of Rakshanda, aka Roshi, and her magazine “New Era” through which she desires to bring about revolutionary socio-political changes. However, there is a continuous lurking around of a sense of foreboding that tells Roshi of an impending doom which will scatter the pieces of her carefully arranged jigsaw puzzle and lead to a complete breakdown of the existing structure. The doom comes in the form of the announcement of partition which brings along with it an unbearable separateness and isolation. A series of political events divide the members of the gang and at the end of the novel everyone is alone: Kiran and Peechu in death; Ginnie in her pilgrimage; Diamond in Lahore; and Roshi in her insanity. Unable to negotiate with the alienation that the partition imposes on her, and the dispersion of the “gang”, Roshi loses her mental balance. Having had her existence always defined by the presence and the protection of the “gang”, a separation from them shoves her into a kind of identity crisis from which she never recovers. Roshi’s crisis in accepting the soio-cultural transformations becomes a symbolic miniature of the crisis faced by the newly divided nation(s).

While My Temples, Too is one among the many narratives that document the psychic rupture faced by the citizens of a partitioned subcontinent, its significance lies in portraying the transition of Lucknow from a city unaffected by the disparities of various religions to a city devastated by a war of religion. Ghufran Manzil, with its diverse inhabitants is a heterotopic melting pot of diverse cultures and a microcosm of a nation undivided by creed. Hyder further blurs the religious identity of the characters by forsaking their proper names and calling them by names that do not carry any religious implication. Roshi, Peechu, Polu, Ginnie, Kiran or Diamond are names which have a certain universality attached to them. The difference that exists between them on grounds of religion is transcended through such an act of addressing. Ghufran Manzil also arranges for programmes such as music conferences at periodic intervals which create a space of social bonhomie. People from various communities come together to participate in a celebration that is secular in nature. The early pages of the novel capture a society where differences exist but there is simultaneously a constant effort to accommodate those differences.

Such a dreamily idealistic world is shaken out of its reverie when hit by the catastrophe of partition. Overnight, a change is observed not only in the citizens of Lucknow but in the atmosphere of the city as well which discards its hospitable nature to become hostile to the Muslims. Roshi, for instance, observes a group of Muslims on the wayside platform who look strangely scared. The shadow of fear on their faces makes her extremely bitter for she realises that the partition has made them strangers in their own country. Kiran, on the other hand, in writing his dispatches from Delhi sadly observes how it has become almost a crime to be a Muslim in Delhi, a city that boasts of being the residence of the Great Mughals, of Nizamuddin Aulia and of Mirza Ghalib. Like other partition narratives here too are scenes of ghastly violence and an all too familiar shudder of horror:

“This year, the romantic rains were mingled with human blood which flowed in torrents on the earth below…. Corpses lay about in the streets or rotted in the sun or became decomposed and swollen in the rain. The bayonets of Gurkha soldiers flashed everywhere as they patrolled the corpse-ridden streets. The blood of the Muslim citizens of Delhi flowed in the lanes, dripped into gutters and mixed with muddy rainwater. It blocked the sewers and flowed in the drains on either side of lanes and roads” (p.156).

The transition of Lucknow, Delhi and the nation at large, from an all-accommodating space to one founded on grounds of religious hostility, results in the physical death of Kiran and Peechu, and in the mental death of Roshi and Ginnie, the latter searching for a lost peace in her spiritual quests but repeatedly denied of it. In depicting the loss of home, culture, brotherhood and value system in the aftermath of partition, Hyder is warning her readers of the pernicious effects of religion, especially if it is awarded more importance than humanity. Hence the timeless appeal of the novel. The relevance of My Temples, Too looms large even when the narrative is taken out of its historical context and placed in the current times of religious fanaticism, where one observes in despair, a repetition of history in the criminalising of a religion and the social alienation of its followers. As the lines of demarcation between politics and religion are steadily blurred, as blatant vendors of communal hatred assume democratic power, as the nation inches towards democratic theocracy, “ghufran’ or ‘mercy’ remains urgently required and yet abjectly absent. The novel forces us to revisit the past but only with a heightened sense of the dangers of the present. Therein lies its relevance.

                                                                                                                         ~ Deblina Hazra

Hyder, Qurratulain. My Temples, Too. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004. Print.

Rang De Tu Mohe Gerua?: Reflections on the UP Verdict

In the wake of BJP’s landslide victory, there are shockwaves being felt across the country and outside among those who remain steadfastly opposed to the Sangh Parivar’s fascist vision of a Hindu rashtra and cling on to the constitutional illusion of a secular India.

The knee-jerk response has been that of blaming it all on the EVMs. After Mayavati and Lalu Prasad others are joining in as well and erudite scholars are searching and sharing articles that focus on the vulnerability of the EVMs and how they may be hacked and how the victory could well have been a product of a massive technological fraud. Now, political leaders often find it difficult to stomach losses and they are therefore prone to explanations verging on the absurd. But what makes secular intellectuals run for the same caves? I remember left leaders in Bengal scurrying in the same direction after the debacle of 2011. But such explanations are rather improbable because EVM machines are manually checked in the booth by the Presiding Officer in the presence of all polling agents by conducting a mock poll just before the actual polling begins and upon the discovery of any anomaly, the machine in question is immediately changed. The possibility of rigging an election through technological manipulation of the EVM is therefore a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory which can only be uttered by those who are in desperate denial of the reality. Had it been so easy, we would neither have a functioning multi-party democracy nor hung-assemblies. Perhaps this also stems from our hubristic inability to accept that the majority of the voters did not share our beliefs. That is why we either try to reject their agency by hatching stories of a conspiracy or claim like Akhilesh Yadav that the poor do not always know what they really want. When a former CM begins to distrust the same people who had once voted him to the power one begins to get a sense of the distance between those who have lost and the voters. So it is better if we get ourselves out of the ostrich manoeuvre and look at things more objectively.

If seen in the light of the results of the Parliamentary elections of 2014, the results in UP are not really a surprise. BJP had won 71 of 80 seats from UP with 42.6% of the total votes. Even the votes of Samajwadi Party and Congress combined could not come anywhere near the BJP vote share. So why this shock? In West Bengal, the trend of the electoral results in the Loksabha election of 2009 had spelt the doom of the Left Front government which became a reality 2 years later in 2011. Why did people think that the same logic would not apply in case of Uttar Pradesh? Was this simply a case of wishful thinking or did some people get swayed by the novelty of a SP-Congress alliance which failed almost as miserably as the equally egregious Left-Front-Congress alliance in West Bengal? This in fact is one of the problems with elite liberals around the world: we live in our cocooned world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Netflix and suppose that the rest of the society would follow our footsteps and sink into despair when reality comes crashing down on us. This is all the more true in case of Indian elections which often hinge on cunning caste and community based electoral arithmetic combined with strong organisational mobilisation of voters to the polling booth. This is not a dust-proof, air-conditioned world of logical debates and informed discussions.

But the pitfalls of secular elites on social-networking sites are far less important than what these results portend for the country as a whole. UP has often been called the heart of India. Although the tourism department of Madhya Pradesh disagrees. Be that as it may, as the largest state in India, UP does decide, to a certain extent, the political future of India which right now, seems to be smeared in saffron. Theoretically speaking, we are witnessing the gradual re-assertion of a hegemonic bloc which is trying to utilise the ideology of Hindutva and the alluring rhetoric of development to create an inclusive alliance of different social groups who are no longer satisfied by the tokenism and empty rhetoric of identity politics of one kind or another. As the Sachar committee report had shown, Muslims in various Indian states, even states where BJP or its allies were not in power, were terribly excluded from developmental projects. Perhaps it is that disillusionment that turns them to the BJP despite its avowedly communal Hindu-nationalist identity. Perhaps that is also why backward communities other than Yadavs (traditional SP base) and Dalits other than Jatavs (traditional BSP base) also voted for the BJP. And when one organisational behemoth, with potent auxiliary units like RSS, VHP, Durga Vahini, Bajrang Dal, comes up against a divided opposition scarred by relentless infighting, the result is more than obvious.

But there still remains the question of ethics. Where is the voters’ sense of justice when the instigators of the Muzaffarpur riots are provided with electoral victories? What happens to the security of the family members of Mohammad Ikhlaq of Dadri (a seat that BJP has also won) who had been lynched to death on suspicion of eating beef, even though that was his constitutional right and even though he did not actually have beef at his home anyway? Where is the ethics of returning to power the same political force which was responsible for the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent massacres? Perhaps 20 years is too much for public memory and perhaps people have either found reasons for trust or that they just don’t care. Perhaps anti-incumbency rides roughshod over all other considerations. Perhaps. At least this much is certain: one should not hope that electoral results should reflect ethical judgments. The art of the possible necessarily excludes the realm of oughtness. But even this is not a surprise: the people of Gujarat had overwhelmingly voted in favour of BJP even after the inhuman massacres of 2002.

In his discussion of the ‘Southern Question’ Gramsci had argued that “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilise the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois state” (Selections from Political Writings 1921-26, 443). In India, we desperately lack a vanguard that can ensure such leadership of the proletariat with necessary alliances. Instead the proletariat remains fractured along the lines of religion, caste and communities, allowing the vacuum to be occupied by the united hegemonic bloc led by the Sangh Parivar which papers over its fascist violence and asphyxiation of dissent with illusions of moral strength, integrity, discipline, charity, masculinist machismo and nationalist pride which a sacrificial Indian people enthusiastically accepts. Unless the rest of India can create possibilities of resistant solidarities, the coming days will seem darker and bleaker for secular Indians who might even find their faith in democracy, shaken. What is required therefore is the attempt to effect moral-intellectual transformation at the grassroots which can neither happen in English nor within air-conditioned television studios. Does secular India have such leaders who are willing to do the literal groundwork? I wonder.

-Abin Chakraborty

Reclaiming Sita: An Exploration of the Subversive Strength and Evocative Power of the Figure of Sita in Malashri Lal and Namita Ghokale’s Anthology In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology

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Raja Ravi Varma’s popular painting of Sita depicts her as the abducted wife of Rama, sitting in the gardens of Ravana, lonely and vulnerable; yet there is an evocation of power in her raised head and unblinking gaze. The painting by Raja Ravi Varma captures splendidly the dilemma of the iconic mythological figure of Sita. An archetypal figure of Indian womanhood, Sita is deified in the patriarchal canon; her character is seen as a symbol of sacrifice, loyalty, and wifely virtues. Feminist critics have often seen her as a subservient symbol of the female self and banished her from their emancipated consciousness. Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale’s anthology, In Search of Sita, explores, through essays, commentaries, conversations, and stories, the figure of Sita as an embodiment of strength and power: after reading the anthology we meet the Janaki who could lift bows and fire arrows, who refused to accompany Rama to his palace after her second exile, and who emerges as a woman who resisted the shackles of patriarchy time and again.

In her essay in the anthology, entitled “Sita: A Personal Journey”, Namita Gokhale writes: “Janaki, the daughter of Janaka, was a strong young woman who could lift the Hara, Shiva’s bow, with one arm . . . Then why do I picture her weeping? When and why did she become a figure of weakness rather than strength?” (XIII). As we read through the collection, this “weeping”, “weak” Sita of the patriarchal canon is challenged and overridden; instead we meet the single mother who raised her twin sons, the assertive wife who took decisions in the forest during Rama’s exile, the willful woman who resisted Ravana’s advances and reduced his self-esteem to shreds.

The classical, Sanskrit version of the Ramayana is believed to have been written by the sage Valmiki, who was inspired to write the epic poem after witnessing a mating bird killed by a merciless hunter. The dominant emotion invoked in Valmiki’s epic is that of love and compassion; subsequent versions, translations, and interpretations of the epic, from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas to Kalidas’s Raghuvamsha to the Tamil, Indonesian, Cambodian, Burmese versions, have appropriated these broad themes and furthered them to bring in ideas of duty, kingship, virtue, etc. Many of the versions portray Sita as a dutiful wife, unquestioningly in love with her husband. The depiction of Sita has further suffered because of the numerous televised dramatized versions of the epic (the most popular being Ramanand Sagar’s 1986 television serial Ramayana) where Sita comes across as not only suffering helplessly in weak meekness but also as a histrionic, melodramatic heroine.  In the commentary section of the anthology essayists like Meghnad Desai and Arshia Sattar have analyzed Valmiki’s version and written how very often Sita becomes an “absent heroine”, someone who dominates Rama’s actions even when she is absent from his life.

Arshia Sattar writes: “She [Sita] seems less and less a victim and more and more a woman of remarkable strength and fortitude . . . As her beloved husband battles his internal demons and external rakshasas to find himself, Sita too, has internal conflicts that she must resolve. Rama and Sita’s final separation, after she is asked to prove herself again (this time for the people of Ayodhya) is at Sita’s initiative. She disappears into the earth without even a glance at the man whom she has loved, and it is Rama who is left alone, abandoned to his public life and duties” (12-13). The ending of Valmiki’s Ramayana has been commented upon by other essayists in the anthology. Meghnad Desai, in “Sita and some other Women from the Epics”, writes: “She [Sita] . . . finally returns to her mother’s womb, thus establishing the autonomy of the female” (9).

Another dominant topic for discourse in the anthology is Sita’s trial by fire, the agnee pareeksha that has become a deep-rooted symbolic icon for testing the Indian woman’s honor. Madhu Kishwar and Rina Tripathi try to decode the agnee pareeksha in a subversive conversation entitled “Trial by Fire” while Smita Tewari Jassal analyzes the recurring motif of Sita’s trial by fire in the jatsaar, the Bhojpuri women’s folk songs. In the essay “Sita’s Trial by Fire and Bhojpuri Women’s Songs”, Jassal points out the similarity between Sita’s agnee pareeksha and the heroines of the Jatsaar who are subjected to various tests of chastity, to be proven by walking through raging flames. Jassal further elaborates on the song of Satmal which is inspired by Valmiki’s treatment of Sita’s agnee pareeksha, which was as much a test of Rama’s loyalty as Sita’s purity: “In Valmiki’s Ramayana, the motif of trial by fire is as much about Rama’s test and transformation in consciousness regarding his own divinity, as about Sita. The song of Satmal offers a glimpse into the anguished mental state of a husband, who, like Rama, must succumb to the censorious pressures of patriarchy instead of offering his wife protection against it” (174).  Kishwar and Tripathi also find in Sita a gesture of defiance rather than submission. Madhu Kiswar remarks:

“. . . Even a casual reading of the text shows that like any astute literary writer, Valmiki develops the two agni pareeksha sequences as great dramatic moments to evoke a sense of utter shock and disbelief in the reader as well as all those characters who witness Rama demanding them of Sita. It is similar to the dramatic horror evoked by Othello’s murder of Desdemona . . . Valmiki does not build any defence whatsoever of Rama’s behavior . . . Rama is projected as being highly flawed in his moral judgment  . . .” (102).

A very interesting reading is offered by Aman Nath in “Reading Pictures: Sita in Victorian Indian Prints”, where Nath connects the “colonized cleansing” of Indian mythological paintings with the influences of the photo studio. The essay features various Ramayana portraitures, paintings, and landscapes during and after the Nineteenth century which depict the hypocitical moralities of Victorian England, through their lack of sensual images. The anthology astutely presents a composite depiction of Sita, her varied interpretations, and the differing views concerning her character. However one chooses to view Sita, as a revered goddess or as a suffering woman or as a symbol of feminist strength and power, she remains a staunch component of the collective Indian psyche. In Search of Sita rereads mythology and literature to offer fresh insights and interpretations of Sita’s character, of the inevitable pull she exerts on Indian women and womanhood.

-Somrita Misra

References:

Lal, Malashri, and Namita Gokhale, eds. In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology. Gurgaon:

Penguin Books, 2009. Print.