Sunday, January 21, 2007

Shilpa Gate - Thank God!

Ding dong, the witch is dead,
Which old witch?
The wicked witch!

(Lyrics from The Wizard of Oz)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shilpagate - Apoplectic over Poppadums...

In the continuing racism row over Celebrity Big Brother, today has continued to throw up more twists and turns. (Okay, I KNOW I should pay more attention to more pressing issues, but unfortunately, racism against a Bollywood actress and an Indian in a foreign land, Ye Olde Blighty to boot, is important to me!)

The highlight of the day has been Carphone Warehouse revoking their sponsorship of the programme. I suspect Channel 4 will need to rethink its strategy a little, and think whether trying to milk blatant racism for soaring viewership is necessarily the way to take this forward. So, as my favorite CBB watcher, India Knight, has pointed out, Carphone Warehouse has managed to demonstrate that despite all the flak that capitalism gets, large corporations can and will demonstrate ethical and "moral" behaviour where necessary.

The lowlight (if such a word exists) is learning that the racist slurs continue to be flung at la Shetty in the house. Today, the poor woman had the misfortune of being labelled "Poppadum". HOW Channel 4 can pretend that this is NOT a racist insult is beyond me. But then, the world of media is a strange and difficult one, so maybe they know something us petty mortals don't.

Watch this space - both the chief racist instigator and la Shetty have been nominated for eviction tomorrow. The results tomorrow will say a lot about British society, and the verdict will be closely watched by political commentators around the world (not least in Patna, where protests for la Shetty were held on the streets, with the customary effigy of the Big Brother producers incinerated on the street).

Shilpagate - Celebrity Big Brother's Ugly Underbelly

You can always gauge what’s big news in the UK by the contents of the gamut of free evening papers like “London Lite” or “The London Paper”. On the way back from work today, most of these free publications had enormous taglines about the row on Celebrity Big Brother involving Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. This morning’s Metro also had a full cover story, with a picture of Shetty in tears after yet another round of brow-beating.

In addition to being raised in the UK House of Commons, noted by UK Chancellor Gordon Brown on a trip to India, and commented on by the Government of India’s Junior Minister for External Affairs Anand Sharma, the issue has raged on the internet and news shows for the past twenty four hours. The key issue in question is whether the abuse and intimidation that Shetty is being subjected to by several UK housemates qualifies as racism, or its apparently less sinister cousin, bullying.

Fellow Desicritic Sakshi feels that the issue is one of bitchiness, not racism. I would however, beg to differ. The issue isn’t just that Shetty is being subjected to intimidation – that much is obvious. The issue at stake here is that for whatever reasons that might have caused the coven that have ganged up against Shilpe to have developed a dislike for her, they are choosing to act on that by picking on things that are blatantly racist. To refuse to identify her by her name, to generalise about Indians as a whole on the basis of their interactions with her, to tell her to “f*****g go back home”, and to “go back to the slums” is nothing if not racist. The motivations behind making those statements may or may not be racist – that is not what I question at this point. However, the manner in which the feelings of the coven are verbalised is definitely racist, and as a consequence totally unacceptable.

Unfortunately, Channel 4 seems to have decided that it will try to milk the controversy for all its worth, and by trying to adopt an attitude of feeding clippings to the public that will fuel the controversy are trying to milk the situation for all the viewership ratings it can get.

There have been some discussions of whether Shetty needs to be more aggressive in her reactions to statements from the coven. Funnily enough, when I hear that, I remember something that my mother told me when growing up – that by reacting to people in their language, you only reduce yourself to their level, and that does you no favours. Shetty has shown incredible restraint, resilience and much more class than any of her persecutors.

I only wonder how long it’s going to be before things get so ugly that external intervention is required. I am amazed that the producers of the show can sit back and let the behaviour that is rampant in the house continue without doing anything about it. I struggle to think how far this can go – will we need to see Shetty physically attacked by the deranged coven before they intervene? (Though given that she’s a black belt in karate, I wouldn’t mind seeing her kick some chav a**)

But what is worth investigating in some detail is what drives this victimisation of Shety. Perhaps not surprisingly, it probably stems from the insecurities that she creates in the coven. But more importantly, those insecurities are driven by the fact that she does not fit the classical stereotype of what South Asian/Indian women are truly like. British media and culture have incredibly static stereotypes of what Asian women are supposed to be like, and very few women have managed to take those stereotypes on. Her jamawar draped figure is in contrast to the standard Goodness Gracious Me or The Kumars & No. 42 imagery of slightly dumpy middle-aged women, who are neither glamorous nor sexy, and therefore non-threatening if you’re an aspiring beauty queen. She is incredibly articulate, but while this is okay if you’re a BBC newsreader or reporter (e.g. Nisha Pillai) it is at complete odds if you’re a UK celebrity – take a look around, and you will struggle to find a single female UK celebrity that is articulate, beautiful & successful. Try adding the adjective, “brown” to that set, and you’ll hit a total blank.

To top everything else off, Shetty isn’t even consonant with the only image of a glamorous South Asian woman – Amber (played by Laila Rouass) in Footballers’ Wives; a character that is sexy and incredibly intelligent, but nasty, shrewish, conniving and vicious (“a Bollywood freak show” is one of the terms used to describe Amber’s less than savoury character)

Unfortunately, Shetty fits none of the stereotypes currently available to the UK masses, and is therefore that much more threatening. To top it all off, her privilege grates a large proportion of the UK’s white working class, which is resentful of the upper class & bourgeoisie anyway – to then have that posh-ness on display from a “brown” woman, someone who is subconsciously thought of as being less than them, is even worse.

So we have four disgusting, ill-mannered (and dare I say it, ill-bred) scumbags ganging up on a woman who is much better educated, more talented and classier than all of them put together, and try to “take her down” a few pegs. Unfortunately, the policy has backfired on them, and the sort of dislike generated in the majority of viewers should hopefully see all of them evicted sooner rather than later.

The only positive in this entire fiasco is that for a change, the blatant racism has not gone unnoticed. India’s growing economic clout has made this incredibly problematic an episode for the UK. The country is desperate to be seen to be multicultural, and currently has its Chancellor and PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown on a trip to promote trade & investment. The furore in the press and the concern expressed by the Indian Government over the appalling treatment of a woman who had gone to be a representative of Bollywood & India to the UK has made what could have been a UK media incident a global diplomatic embarrassment. It remains to be seen if the Government will choose to intervene or not.

Until then, all I can say is if you can vote, please vote to keep Shilpa in the house – after all that she’s been through, she deserves to win!

Check out fellow blogger Sunny's comments on Shilpa and the star narrative here

Also check out The Times weblog on Big Brother here - I love India Knight!!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Satanism, Hedonism & Incunabulum

This is the first book post of 2007, and in a season when we clear out the old to make way for the new, I am going to write over the next few days about three books that I read in December and wanted to share with you before moving onto the new reads of 2007.

The first one is titled The Dumas Club, and is written by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. The story traces the events in the life of a jaded intellectual detective, an Italian called Dean Corso, who specialises in tracking down and authenticating ancient scrolls, incunabula and rare editions of books. After a rare book dealer is found dead after selling a manuscript for a chapter of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and another book dealer acquires an even rarer medieval satanic text titled De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis, which is fabled to hold the secret for summoning the devil, Corso is assigned to the task of verifying the authenticity of both manuscripts. This kicks off a race across Europe to archives and private collections, all the while being followed by a sinister man with a scar across his face and random encounters with beautiful women whom Corso eventually manages to sleep with, despite an occasional inability to get it up - the effect of too much gin, I'd guess.

Perez-Reverte then takes us through several hundred pages of medieval fact finding, wild goose chases, intellectual cartwheels, plot digressions, and several dead bodies littered aesthetically along the course. The story is convoluted, trying as it does to be intelligent and factor into it several narrative styles, and the plot itself relies almost embarrassingly on The Three Musketeers for dramatic impact. There is a Cardinal Richelieu, there is a scheming Milady, and incredibly enough, there is also a Satan (oops - I mean a Fallen Angel) that accompanies Corso through Spain, Portugal & Paris on his quest to determine the authenticity of both works.

While an intelligent premise, the novel fails in its execution, simply because the author writes far too self-consciously. Corso is never completely fleshed out as a character, and the repetitive references to his Bonapartist ancestry is tiresome. He seems to be Perez-Reverte's idea of what Umberto Eco's Casaubon from Foucault's Pendulum would end up like after two decades of intellectual investigation - chain smoking, emotionally dysfunctional, addicted to gin and beautiful, unattainable European goddesses. Perhaps the biggest let down is in the denouement, when what appears to be an increasingly complex web of loose ends are so neatly and simply tied up that you're almost left flabbergasted and disgusted at having been led on a wild goose chase.

I was somewhat saddened by the fact that Perez-Reverte is obviously an incredibly smart man, but writes far too much in the shadow of that master of semiotics, medievalism and fiction, Umberto Eco himself. His plotlines, narrative style and even the forced inclusion of The Eco himself at a gathering of intellectuals & Dumas admirers ("Look who's arrived. You know him, don't you? Professor of semiotics in Bologna...") only underscore that this is a writer who read Foucault's Pendulum and somehow so desperately wanted to create his own version that he ended up writing The Dumas Club. There is also an almost obsessive desire on the author's part to impress the reader with his knowledge of literature, both medieval & contemporary, as well as an urge to write a thrilling intelligent murder mystery. Unfortunately, the book is too self-conscious to make it truly worthwhile.

End verdict? Mildly entertaining, but unfortunately not enough to keep you engrossed to the end. Good reading for the Tube, but only if the Metro doesn't keep you entertained.

Coming soon - The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore & Broken April by Ismail Kadare...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sexing Up the Sati Savitri

So 2007 finally rolled around. So here's wishing all of you a fantastic 2007, and hoping that it brings you all the very best this weird and wonderful world has to offer!

I could have danced all night...And while we're on the topic of weird, I found this story on the Wall Street Journal this afternoon while at work. Normally, I'm not one to read Media & Marketing stories, principally because my work interests lie elsewhere - I'd much rather keep up to date with global politics, or try to keep abreast of the latest events in the world of financial services, corporate finance & capital markets. The title, though, ""Holy Heroes of Indian Lore, Batman!" caught my eye for its decided departure from conventional financial journalism headlines.

YOU SHALL NOT PASS!So there you have it, folks - after centuries of hearing Indian mythological stories from our grandmothers, reading about the exploits of legendary heroes in Amar Chitra Kathas, and more recently learning about the Ramayana & Mahabharata from television, we will now see our stories told by Virgin Comics LLC. Add to this is a Nicholas Cage starring movie, titled "The Sadhu". Indian mythology, apparently, has gone global, and the craze for all things Indian seems now to extend to our cultural narratives as well.

To be honest, I'm not completely happy with this particular development. I appreciate that Indian mythologies are continuing to reinforce their cultural positioning after centuries of European colonial rule and Occidental imperialsim. More importantly, cultural narratives are only as good as their relevance and involvement in the communities they are a part of, and Indian mythology has a long standing tradition of being shaped, transformed and evolved over the centuries as the stories were transmitted between generations through the oral tradition, before being formally committed to paper. Call me modernist, but this idea of a living story and an evolutionary meta-narrative that can alter and mutate through time adds greater depth and synchronicity with the community it is a part of.

It is an incredibly inclusive concept if you think about it - a mythological legend that is as easily altered and transformed by the narration of a very ordinary person as it is by a powerful intellectual; what it engenders is a fantastic, participatory cultural narrative that can evolve, adjust and ultimately remain relevant for the times it is told in.

Sita was born of the earth - and so is siliconThat, unfortunately, is where the good news ends. I am especially troubled by what appears to be a blatant appropriation of an Indian & Hindu cultural narrative by a Western world, to be shaped, altered and transformed by people who will not have the cultural moorings to really grasp the intricacies of the stories, the profound reverence with which they are viewed in India, and the importance of keeping something that is linked to religion from descending into profanity. Linking into this appropriation of a Hindu & Indian narrative is the forced imposition of a clearly non-Indian aesthetic into the animation. The initial imagery that Virgin has released from their comics shows a startling similarity to Japanese anime - the landscapes are dark, menacing and unclear, while the characters seem similarly morphed and completely "un-Indian". The character Tara is not even vaguely Indian looking, while Devi herself seems like a Beverley Hills starlet - a silicone-enhanced white woman, with giant breasts, lacking totally the curved waist, hips & thighs that are normally seen in Asian representations.

Hello Boys!More disturbingly, and especially with reference to the planned Hollywood release, "The Sadhu", the fact that a Caucasian actor, Nicholas Cage, was chosen to play the modern incarnation of a Hindu holy man just seems to go that much further and reinfore the fact that in media that emanates from the West, the good guy is still the white American, even when his superhero status lies in a previous, Asian birth. So while the idea seems good enough, and would have fit ideally into the idea of a self-regenerating and re-inventing cultural narrative, this particular development is nothing more than yet another example of a Western, white international media structure that seeks to identify, but then appropriate and distort, cultural metaphors from around the world, and to fit it into a "white" paradigm.

Where is the Sangh Parivar when you need them?! Oh right - they're building temples to protect us from ourselves...

All images from: Virgin Comics LLC