Tag Archives: jyoti minocha

Shikara – The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pundits

A movie about Kashmir is a natural magnet for me, since my mother was born and brought up in Srinagar. I’ve grown up listening to her stories of this Shangri-La, where every garden bloomed with apple and cherry trees, and where nature was like a gorgeous and generous mother, her bounty of fruit and flowers overflowing on the bosom of a land crisscrossed by crystalline streams and clear blue lakes.

The exodus of my mother’s side of the family from Kashmir during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 wasn’t considered a permanent separation. Like most Kashmiri refugees at the time, they considered themselves Kashmiris first, and Punjabis, second. They were sure things would settle down, treaties would be signed, a peace accord reached, and they would be able to return to their homes, and their beloved Kashmir.

Shikara is a movie about the flight of Kashmiri Pandits to India in the early 1990’s. The same journey my mother’s family had undertaken in 1947 was repeating itself with a different population in 1990, but with a similar, sadly predictable ending – no one gets to go back once a land is dipped in the bloodletting hatred of communalism.

Sadia Khateeb and Aadil Khan in Shikara

The movie begins in the late 1980’s when unrest is beginning to heat up. The two newcomers who play the lead, Aadil Khan and Sadia Khateeb, are a delightful, romantic pair, and the movie diffuses the brutal, bloody violence of strife between Hindus and Muslims through the soft prism of their young, idealistic love.  Aadil Khan plays Shiv Kumar Dhar, who falls in love with Shanti (Khateeb) after accidentally being paired with her as an extra during a movie shoot in Srinagar. 

This thread of an eternal love story which survives the cruelties and trauma of communal violence by clinging fiercely to each other is one frame of the movie. The other frame is the thousands of letters, one every day, that Shiv writes to the President of America to plead for help when they become stateless refugees. 

In the first half we see the innocence and beauty of an era where Shiv’s best friend, Lateef Lone (Zain Khan Durrani) is the messenger who carries Shiv’s declaration of infatuation to Shanti. Their wedding is simple, involving immediate friends and family and Shiv insists on including Lateef and his father (whom he calls Abbajaan) in his family wedding photo. We see the young couple endearingly in love, finding the perfect place to build their own house, and Lateef’s father bringing stones for the foundation of their future home from his own land. Hindu or Muslim, they are Kashmiri’s first. 

Shiv is a dreamy poet who’s working on his PHD in Literature and plans to teach, while Shanti is content being a housewife and doting on him. Their little piece of paradise is shattered by the death of Lateef’s father, Abbajaan, in one of those ‘unfortunate incidents’ which are all too common in Kashmir – a trigger happy government force fires on a peaceful protest. This trauma turns Lateef into a terrorist, determined to exact revenge for his father’s death, and aligned with the cause of the Mujahedeen who want to make Kashmir an all Islamic state.

The movie tries to depict both sides of this thorny issue, but the weight of suffering is clearly on the Kashmiri Pandit end. Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to bring balance by depicting both the ‘good’ Muslim neighbors (who help the Dhars escape when violence escalates) and the ‘bad’ ones (their doodhwaala who openly eyes their house, informing Shanti that he plans to move in when they leave, and then enters and squats illegally once they’re gone). But we are clearly primed to sympathize with the minority Pandits and their burning homes. 

The movie has some very poignant, cinematic moments which capture the pain of forced displacement – the exodus in crowded, overladen buses and cars which jams the highway to Jammu; an old man at the Jammu refugee camp crying incessantly that he wants to go back to his home in Srinagar; and incident when a truck, laden with tomatoes to distribute to the refugees, makes the state of beggary they have been reduced to painfully clear to Shiv and Shanti.

However, Shiv and Shanti’s idyllic love story, which is the prism through which we view the movie, has the reverse effect of diluting its primary message – the loss of dignity and trauma, the displaced feel, and the government’s apathy to the plight of permanent refugees; their helplessness in the face of the political forces twisting an individual’s destiny. It romanticizes and simplifies the experience of becoming a refugee refuge by creating a dream like quality to the narrative, especially in the second half.

The narrative also leaves gaping holes in the story, which beg for answers: 

Why have these refugee camps become permanent? How and where did most of those who decide to leave the camp resettle? How culpable were the Indian forces in stoking anti-India hatred by their excesses. What about Pakistan’s involvement in creating terrorism? Chopra doesn’t address any of these issues throbbing in the foreground of Shiv and Shanti’s invincible love story.

Shikara is an enjoyable, melancholy love story, which doesn’t ask any gritty questions or deliver thoughtful answers—it deals with emotions, but in a sanitized, over romanticized way. Aadil Khan and Sadia carry it on the backs of their excellent performances, and obvious chemistry. It’s watchable, but not memorable.

I would give it two and half stars. Four stars for the actors! Now on Amazon Prime.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Sahib’s in Love With The Maid in ‘Sir’

It’s an old Bollywood plot – rich village landlord’s son falls for poor village girl who is clearly out of his social class and caste, and they battle the world for their love. SIR, the 2018 movie directed by Rohena Gera, is an adventurous attempt to spin this familiar trope into an urban 21st century setting.

What if the rich boy was a bachelor in a slick Mumbai flat and the poor girl was actually the maid who housekeeps for him? Can there be an actual romance that bridges the cultural chasm between them?

Until a few years ago, Bollywood kept ‘the help’ at arm’s length, using only the ridiculously cliched loyal- onto- death type of character, who alternated between providing comic relief or fading into the background.

Recently, however, the stream of innovative filmmaking pouring out of Netflix and other platforms has begun to take an interest in depicting the social dynamics between domestic help and their employers, with a realism most city folk can relate to.

SIR is unique in that it’s about the genuine feelings that develop between a master, Ashwin (played by Vivek Gomber), and his maid, Ratna (played by Tillotama Shome). It’s well done and quite absorbing, despite a hiccup or two. The suspense of wondering how far Ashwin and Ratna would go to challenge social norms hooks the viewer almost as much as great performances by the two leads and the supporting cast. After all, most urbanites can identify with the presence of ‘the help’ in the background of their lives – maids, drivers, cooks, guards etc., are ubiquitous in Indian urban settings, especially elite ones; we’ve all heard the jokes about the lady of the house who doesn’t care a whit where her husband goes, but is devastated when her cook returns to his village.

Tillotamma Shome as the maid Ratna

In many ways, SIR represents the new, economically and technologically expanding India, where there is an increasing awareness of class boundaries, even while there is a softening of them.

In 2021, even the poorest vendor on the street has a cell phone. A girl like Ratna, with little English and no money, but with a handy iPhone, can leave her village for Mumbai, where she repeats what her new friend (Geetanjali Kulkarni) tells her, This is Mumbai! You can be whoever you want to be!”

SIR begins with the ‘master’ Ashwin, returning home, furious and dejected, from his canceled wedding. We find out later that his fiancée cheated on him, and everything exploded just before the nuptials. Ratna is hovering around, servile and handy with glasses of nimboo paani.

We see him sinking into a quasi-depression, alone in his chic Mumbai flat, while his mama comes around to console him, and drops subtle hints to get him to forgive his fiancée’s infidelity. More than anything else, I was impressed with this progressive take on a woman’s cheating on her prospective spouse by the mother-in-law to be, no less.

Tillotamma Shome in SIR

Rohena Gera does a good job of weaving Ratna’s story into the mix – she’s a young widow who has been allowed to work in the city on the condition that she send 4000.00 rupees each month to her in-laws. Ratna is portrayed with an excess of dignity and virtue, and a fierce desire to forge her own economic independence.

Ashwin’s character is somewhat awkward – a privileged, goody two-shoes nice guy, the kind girls cheat on. And since he’s spending most of his time brooding at home, he begins to appreciate Ratna’s glasses of nimboo paani, home-cooked meals and, eventually, home-spun advice to soothe his aching soul.  

Gera handles the trajectory of emotional intimacy developing between Ashwin and Ratna with sensitivity and attention to detail. A series of realistic scenes depicts their tension-filled undercurrents, keeping the viewer hooked for an inevitable confession of love. Several small vignettes, like brushstrokes of  authenticity, depict Ratna’s life at the bottom of the social ladder and Ashwin’s at the top – Ratna counting her slim roll of money in her tiny room to pay for a tailoring class; Ashwin at a chic Mumbai bar with a friend who points him to “the girl across .. totally checking you out”;   Ratna’s foray into a designer boutique where a guard promptly ushers her out, a stark reminder that class boundaries still exist.

Yes, SIR is watchable, right up to its final surprising twist. The script, direction and acting can almost  make the viewer believe this relationship could happen easily. Can two people from such different universes – a barely literate maid, and an upper middle-class professional, the product of elite private schools, share a genuine, respectful love?

We almost believe the relationship until their first physical interaction – the first misstep which snaps the viewer out of this well-crafted romantic haze. In a ‘sex scene’ that happens too fast Ashwin fumbles, while Ratna’s physical response seems too sophisticated. An urbane Mumbaite making it with his maid in the real world is a hard sell. If Ashwin was less westernized or depicted as less entrenched in Mumbai’s party scene, disbelief could have been suspended more easily.

That being said, for a movie like SIR to have been made at all and receive good reviews (it won the Critics Week award at Cannes), is an indication of the cultural tremors that are transforming Indian social hierarchies. Definitely three stars!

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Smile, Please!

Yesterday was the second time in my life I cried at the movies (the first was when I watched On Golden Pond at the Chanakya Cinema in Delhi, at the age of 22). Despite some obvious flaws, ‘Smile, Please’ had the honor of squeezing the saline out of my eyes, which are usually unfazed by Bollywood’s tear-jerking tricks and sentimental shenanigans.

Smile Please tackles the heavy, hard subject of dementia (in this case, the rare early onset kind); however, like any Bollywood movie worth its salt, it multitasks heavily on the emotional front. We get a variety of engaging sub-plots stirred into the mix including family dynamics, the tradeoff between a career and family for ambitious Indian women, and the evolving relationship between divorced parents as they share parenting.

To director Vikram Phadnis credit, these themes add to the rich background tapestry of the movie, without overshadowing the overarching theme of dementia in a young woman.

Dementia could easily be crowned the Queen of The Most Horrible Diseases that Afflict Mankind. It robs individuals of their memories, and of everything that makes them human and connects them to other human beings. Apart from memories, basic learned associations, personality traits and the core of what makes up an individual’s identity, slowly dissolves into the merciless acid of this disease, which leaves a functioning shell of a person who may not even remember their own name.

Smile Please is a spin off from the accomplished 2014 movie, Still Alice, where Juliane Moore stars as a 50-year-old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia). Still Alice depicts the sudden devastation in Alice’s life as the person she has been is stripped away, and the movie gives a sensitive portrayal of how the disease sucks her entire family into its black hole.

In Smile Please we see a woman at the height of her career. Nandini Joshi (played by Mukta Barve), is shown conducting a high fashion photo shoot in the opening scene. She’s the divorced mom of a 13-year-old girl, Nupur (Vedashree Mahajan) and lives with her elderly father in an affluent, old world, Bombay neighborhood.

Her daughter (whose custody was surprisingly awarded to Nandini’s ex-husband) hates Nandini, but comes to visit her grandfather. This backstory could have been a movie in itself; however, we, the viewers, come late to the relationship between Nandini and her ex-husband. What we see is an enlightened, 21st century dynamic between the couple, a mature and accommodative affection, where Nandini’s ex-husband (Prasad Oak) tries to persuade Nupur to give her mother a chance. Those layers of civility will be lifted later in the movie to reveal darker corners in their marriage.

We begin to get clues that all is not well with Nandini right from the start – she forgets small things and misses appointments and then, one day, forgets what she’s saying during an official presentation. This scene was a complete knock-off from Still Alice; in the Juliane Moore version, Alice forgets the next word when she is teaching a linguistics class. I felt the director could have shown more originality here.

When her tests are done by a doctor who is Nandini’s old college friend, results show that she’s well into the first stage of dementia. We see the family struggling to cope with this new reality as Nandini goes through some typical stages of shock, denial and gradual acceptance.

Here, the movie diverges from Still Alice, but does so in typical Bollywood fashion. Enter, the family’s guardian angel in the form of a young man, Viraj (Lalit Prabhakar), who is a house guest. He fills in the empathy holes the family has left and ends up being everyone’s selfless savior. Remember, Kal Ho Na Ho, and Shahrukh Khan’s guardian angel?  Bollywood scriptwriters seem to find the sexy- heroic stranger- rescuing- the- hapless- family trope quite irresistible.

Lalit Prabhakar and Mukta Bharve in Smile Please

Viraj’s magical appearance seems contrived at first, but director Vikram Phadnis skillfully weaves the newcomer into the narrative, in a series of authentic scenes. He also brings out the compassion and the helpless agony of the family without making the film sit too heavily on the audience. The team of actors he picked are quite accomplished, and do a superb job of conveying the subtle horror and helplessness of the disease.

And, though the tears did flow, my rational brain felt mildly disappointed at the fact that the movie doesn’t get intimately into the changes in Nandini’s emotions, and her fear of the future, as she grapples with the disease. She seems curiously passive to her fate throughout, while there is more emphasis on the savior-hero and on family dynamics.  We also don’t see the desperation of extremes in this movie, except for a scene where Nandini comes to a party for her daughter’s birthday in a bathrobe. In contrast, Still Alice had a powerful scene where the character plans her own suicide because she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, not as a babbling, uncomprehending husk who is a burden to her family.

This is a movie which should be seen on a quiet evening with a glass of wine, when you are in a mood for the cathartic, melancholy sadness it will evoke. It brings out our very human mortality, as well as our stoic resilience in the face of heartless destiny, and deserves 3 stars.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Unpaused: An Anthology of Pandemic Stories on Film

One of the things that seemed to have flourished in the pandemic is creativity. From Tik Tok videos to books to podcasts, the time freed up by isolation was poured into expressing how people were surviving in their newly defined cages—their homes.

Unpaused was filmed during the pandemic which, in itself, must have been quite a feat. It is a collection of snippets- of -life short stories, directed by five talented filmmakers, that cover the angst, loneliness, desperation and, at times, ludicrousness of the emotions stirred up during the lockdowns. It’s funny in parts, melancholy in others, and an engaging cinematic confection overall.

Gulshan Devaiah & Saiyami Kher in Glitch
Gulshan Devaiah & Saiyami Kher in Glitch

The first story, Glitch, was an attention grabber, for its humor as well as its creativity. It conjures up a dystopian, future in the year 2030, after the battle between man and microbe is increasingly looking like a win for for the microbe – now christened Covid-30. It stars Gulshan Devaiah, and Saiyami Kher who are mis-matched on a virtual date by a glitch in an online dating system. He is a Covid-30 hypochondriac who can barely leave his apartment, and she is a Covid Warrior– a scientist who exposes herself to the virus every day. Apart from good acting, it has some hilarious comic touches involving Mala, a bossy, smug, Indian version of Alexa.  It’s futuristic creativity, and its funny take on dating in the age of online encounters and virtual rendezvous saves what would otherwise be a fairly cliched storyline.

Richa Chadha in The Apartment

Story two, The Apartment, involves a potential suicide which is interrupted by the doorbell, an occurrence. which appeared to have been lifted directly from the Swedish film A Man Called Ove. However, there the resemblance ends, because the potential suicide, Devika (played by Richa Chadha), is the cofounder of a media company whose partner and husband has just been revealed to be a sexual predator. The doorbell is rung by a young, good looking neighbor (played by Ishwak Singh), complaining of water leakage and offering to come in and help fix the problem. The Apartment tries to deal with the sensitive topics of suicide and personal responsibility; however, the storyline is shallow, and the characters appear artificial and manufactured. It’s hard to feel Devika’s desperation as she ties a scarf around her neck to hang from the fan when we can clearly see her perfect French manicure. The film’s saving grace is good direction by Nikhil Advani, who stitches suspense and backstory skillfully together and holds our attention.

Lilette Dubey in Rat-a-Tat

Rat-a-Tat, directed by Tanishtha Chatterjee, is a delightful, poignant piece where some fine acting and an earthy, relatable script pull the viewer into the world of a nitpicking 65-year-old woman, Archana (played by Lilette Dubey), living alone in churlish isolation during the lockdown.

The story begins with Archana complaining bitterly on the phone to the police about a neighbor in her apartment complex who’s banging pans to honor frontline health workers, an activity which seems to be Archana’s regular routine. She’s soon jolted out of her irritable self-absorption by Priyanka (played by Rinku RajGuru), a neighbor who seeks refuge in the stairwell of the building because her apartment has been invaded by a rat. Dubey and RajGuru fit into their roles like second skins, and carry the story through to its somewhat cliched, but nevertheless enjoyable, ending.

Abhishek Bannerjee in Vishaanu

Story four, Vishaanu, was insightful and empathetic and left you are wanting more. This short had the potential to be made into a feature film. A construction worker, Manish (played by Abhishek Bannerjee), his wife, Uma (played by Geetika Ohlyan) and their small son, are marooned during the lockdown with dwindling rations and no way to get back to their home village in Rajasthan. They camp out in the luxuriously furnished sample flat of the unfinished apartment complex where Manish is employed. Vishaanu was the only nod in this collection of stories to the terrific suffering a majority of poor Indians faced during Covid, and it was funny at times and heart-rending in the end. The difference between how the wealthy and the middle class in India endured Covid, compared to how the poor experienced it, couldn’t be starker.

The squatter family is tentative at first, intimidated by the sleekly furnished and well-equipped model home, surrounded by unthinkable luxury they could never afford. They don’t sleep on the satin sheeted beds, preferring to lay mats on the floor, instead. Slowly, we see them getting used to their new, temporary home, until their adventurousness lands them in big trouble.

It was good to see a film reflecting the plight of poor, working-class Indians who were caught blindsided by the catastrophe of Covid. Director Avinash Arun did a great job of presenting the destitute couple with compassion and humor, without making the tone too plaintive or desperate.  I wanted more from the ending, though––after we’ve empathized deeply with the destitute family, its abruptness leaves one feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

Story five, Chand Mubarak, involves another lonely, old, upper middle-class woman, Uma (played by Ratna Pathak Shah), who is forced into an autorickshaw during curfew by an unsympathetic policeman.  She’s the embodiment of crochety, privileged hypochondria and sprays the rickshaw liberally and with unconcealed disgust, despite the rickshaw driver (played by Shardul Bhardwaj) reassuring her that he sanitizes it every day. The film is another short that is carried on the shoulders of great acting by Shah and Bhardwaj and skilled direction by Nitya Mehra. I thought the story line was predictable but sweet, one of those feel-good Bollywood clichés about unlikely emotional connections that save people from drowning in their own puddles of loneliness.

Unpaused is a quirky, funny, ride into the world of the pandemic–- a cinematic record of all the irony, anguish, hope, and emotion that spun out of the ordeal.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Ishaan Khatter – A Bollywood Star In The Making

Among the next generation of upcoming actors in Bollywood, Ishaan Khatter is a relative newbie. He made his debut appearance as a leading man in the 2017 film Beyond the Clouds, a melodrama set in Mumbai’s underbelly, which won him the Best Male Debut title at India’s 2018 Filmfare awards festival. 

Ishaan is no stranger to Bollywood, however, having grown up in a family of actors, most notably his older half-brother, Shahid Kapoor. His father is veteran actor Rajesh Khatter, who is known for his roles in movies like Don, Don 2, Traffic and in several TV serials.  His mother, Neelima Azim, has also appeared in many made- for- TV serials like Phir Wahi Tailash and The Sword of Tipu Sultan, among others. Film critic Anupama Chopra recalled how she had seen Ishaan at Bollywood film premieres over the years, an eager wide-eyed youngster, avidly sponging up the world of cinema that he was being nurtured in. 

Beyond the Clouds, where Ishaan played a street hustling drug dealer fighting to save his sister from prison, got an enthusiastic nod from critics.  Next came Dhadak, the 2018 remake of Sairat, a Marathi film about young star-crossed lovers, doomed by the bloodthirsty dictates of caste prejudices (this was also Sridevi and Boney Kapoor’s daughter Jhanvi’s debut film). The film got tepid reviews, but critics and audiences liked Ishaan’s passionate portrayal of reckless young love. 

Since these first two movies, Ishaan’s growth as an actor has taken a kinetic leap across the chasm which separates performances that are quite good from those which arise through the creative churn of real talent. He has earned high praise for his recent portrayal of Maan, the non-conformist and unpredictable young firebrand in love with a local courtesan in the 2020 BBC miniseries, A Suitable Boy, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel. The series brings to life Seth’s intertwined saga of four wealthy Indian families and their lives post-partition in a newly independent India, still tottering to find its new, post-colonial identity.

For this interview, we talked over the virtual reality of Zoom. When Ishaan appears in my small frame on the screen, he is impeccably polite and well-spoken. He exudes a boyish, unaffected charm in person, which makes his transformation on screen into the passionate, intense character of Maan all the more entrancing.  As we talk I realize that behind the boyish façade is a great deal of thoughtful maturity in his approach to his profession.

Working with Miradi was something I’ll always cherish,” Ishaan says in response to my question about the experience of being directed by Mira Nair for the first time. 

“I was in awe of her achievements and I had seen all her films—starting with the Reluctant Fundamentalist to the Namesake. She was so approachable though, and brought so much energy and an almost child-like enthusiasm to the set which surpassed even our eagerness as the youngsters in the cast.  We were all fired up by her drive.” 

“What were Mira’s expectations for you while playing the role of Maan?” I ask Ishaan.

“She gave me enough freedom to interpret the character,” Ishaan says. “She would step in occasionally with suggestions and she knew just how to tweak a scene to get the maximum impact.” 

There was one scene he recalls, where Maan is arguing with his father about money.

Instead of raging, which was how I planned to play the scene, Mira asked me to be playful and turn the situation around. And it worked. I could totally see that it worked better than the last take.”

Another first for Ishaan involved being part of an ensemble cast in a miniseries. 

It felt like chaos sometimes. But it was organized chaos, and Miridi knew how to handle it.”

“There were two sets going at the same time with up to 114 people on them – it was quite an experience. You really have to bring your own focus on such a large set because if you don’t you’ll get lost, there are so many  actors and so much going on.”  The mature self-awareness Ishaan displays in that statement makes him sound like a seasoned veteran. 

On an ensemble set like that, with so many actors, I think I learned a lot just watching Miradi direct all of them.”   

The character of Maan intrigued me a lot,” he adds. “He is such a kaleidoscope of unfolding emotions and irreverence as he tries to find his place in the world, and he keeps everyone on tenterhooks – one can never predict what he’s going to do next. He tears through traditions and facades and doesn’t worry about the consequences, and that combination of impulsivity and idealism was fascinating in terms of the challenge of playing him. He wasn’t a linear character and I had to bring much more thought to how to be true to the role.”

Tabu with Ishaan Khattar in A Suitable Boy
Tabu with Ishaan Khatter in A Suitable Boy

Besides being unpredictable, Maan’s character is bold, promiscuous, and scandalously in love with an older woman, the courtesan, Saeeda Bai, played by Tabu.  

Which brings me to my next loaded question – how awkward it was playing a passionate lover to Tabu, who is a much older, established actress.

“I was nervous at first, because Tabu is such an icon in the industry, but she’s so delightfully easy to work with and such an experienced actress that she immediately put me at ease. We found we had the same focus on our work – we laid the groundwork with Miradi and asked all the important questions in advance. Tabu has this balance of sincerity and experience that just made me slip so easily into the role of Maan to her Saeeda Bai. The best part was that we also hit it off right from the start, and we would crack jokes and laugh, and we ended up really enjoying our time on set. She’s very receptive as an actress and just by being who she is, she gives you a lot. It was a fabulous experience working with her.” 

Within the short timeframe of our interview, I squeeze in one more question. My question is about nurturance. There is a fifteen-year age difference between Ishaan and his older brother Shahid Kapoor, and it is clear that Ishaan idolizes him as a mentor whose career has traversed the same route that his own is about to follow.

He doesn’t believe in handholding or curating my career,” states Ishaan. “He doesn’t want me to repeat his mistakes in the industry; he wants me to grow as an actor on my own terms, by learning from my own mistakes. At the same time, he’s always there with guidance, and his advice is very valuable because of the similar arc of our careers.  He became a leading man at a young age, and I got my first lead role at 21. I can learn a lot from him.”

“He’s been like a father figure almost, looking out for me. And at the same time, he’s really cool and fun and a sharp dresser, he’s such a great older brother to have.”

Ishaan’s face lights up when he talks about his brother – one can see a younger Ishaan skipping out from behind the adult façade – the eager adolescent who attended all those Bollywood premieres years ago, and dreamed one day of being with the stars. As Maan in A Suitable Boy, Ishaan Khatter is more than halfway there.

A Suitable Boy will premiere on the Acorn.TV   streaming service on Monday, December 7, with two episodes, followed by one new episode every Monday through January 4. Watch the trailer here. Sign up for a free one-week trial offer at https://signup.acorn.tv/.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

American Democracy Is Not As Fragile As You Think

The past year has been less of a roller coaster ride than a grey fugue the country stumbled through, like a blind man negotiating a highway in the wrong direction. 

At the end of the year, after battling a plague and an economic meltdown, terrible uncertainty and a horrific body count, came the event billed as seismic and life altering – the Presidential election. 

The American public was entrusted with the task of choosing their next leader, someone who would lead the way out of the fugue and escort the blinded country safely across that killer highway to the right side. The build up to the election of 2020 felt cataclysmic: millions of us voted, according to our convictions, which were the strongest they’ve ever been. 

2020 has been the year, when voting felt like you were a contestant in a gameshow, where you had to choose between two doors – behind the right door was the way out to safety and bliss. Make the wrong choice and a trapdoor opens and deposits you into a dark, unending hell. No matter who you supported, the wrong door, according to your beliefs, was a hell trap.

Because of how important I felt this election year was, I volunteered to be an election officer.

After all the votes were counted and the theatrics over election fraud began, it occurred to me that my experience in my official capacity as an election officer gave me a special, grassroots insight into the process.

The process was as clean and flawless as a new born baby. 

It began with my online application. I was then required to fill in an application in person at our local government center building. My ID was checked multiple times and cross checked with what I filled into different forms. I was assigned a precinct close to my home, in my daughter’s old elementary school, and told to report at 5:00 am on election day. I was also required to watch a two-hour training video, since in-person training in the middle of COVID-19 was out of the question.

On Nov 3, at 5:00 am, before the birds began to chirp, we gathered in what was the school gym. Our chief was already there, and the ballot machines stood bulkily in a corner. They required a special procedure to be opened and two of us were assigned to open and activate them. A poll watcher was present and there were at least seven other election officers milling around, prepping the tables and activating the poll pads. 

To try to stuff those machines with fraudulent ballots would be the equivalent of performing a naked tap dance in a kindergarten classroom and hope no one would notice. 

The polls opened at 6:00 am and voting public began to line up at 5:30, spilling out the door into the chill of the morning. There was a festive spirit in the air – people were eager to cast their ballot and make their tiny mark on history.

What really sold me on the experience of being an election officer was how democratic it was. 

There was no bureaucratic hierarchy with the chief barking out orders. We were volunteers -many of the officers were my neighbors. We were ordinary citizens entrusted with making sure the voting process was fair and accurate. 

The momentous, historic nature of the task was not lost on us. We joked about how we would tell our grandkids we worked the polls in the divisive, fateful, 2020 election. All of us took turns at sanitizing the tables after people voted, monitoring the lines, handing out ballots, checking in voters and handling the machines.

Jyoti Minocha with poll workers at her precinct.

When I was checking in voters I realized many were neighbors I had never met. I also gleaned after chatting with my fellow election officers, that some had political leanings which were the antithesis of mine. 

However, whatever our political bent, we were there to work at making our democracy a success – our small precinct was a study in how  people with  political points of view which are about as compatible as a spark in an ammunition dump, are capable of cooperation, in a sane and sensible fashion to further a common good – the right to a free and fair election. 

After months of watching the meltdowns, vitriol and extremism on television, it was a relief to realize that the average American is someone like me, a regular person just trying to do what is right and leave a better legacy for our children.  

At the end of the day after the polls closed, we tallied the ballots with the machine count, and sealed them in boxes which would be sent to the county clerk. There was no scope for tampering: all the officers were present and had to sign off on the final count before the boxes were sealed. 

It was as transparent a process as could possibly be.

I know for sure I’m going to volunteer for every election, going forward. Understanding how the system worked made me realize how important volunteers, the ordinary, everyday people, with no axe to grind and no political connections, are essential to ensuring that this grassroots foundation of democracy is preserved.

 I discovered that America’s democracy is much less fragile than it appears to be. 

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Whatabout The Men In These Movies?

Jawaani Jaaneman is a 2020 release on Amazon Prime about a father who doesn’t want anything to do with his newly discovered offspring.

It stars Saif Ali Khan who plays ‘Jazz,’ or Jasvinder Singh, a muscled, tattooed, Sikh immigrant in the UK. At 40, this committed bachelor inhabits a universe which is the equivalent of a permanent adolescence – a haze of nightclubs and one-night stands. He’s also a broker about to embark on an important deal, selling his building to a developer who planning an ultra-modern commercial complex.

Khan plays a convincing Jazz – a middle-aged, macho Jat, who believes he’s a ‘Babe-Magnet Casanova’ (though it’s mystifying that he grew up in England but retained a “Paaji” accent!) Jazz loves his shallow life of no commitments or responsibilities. He lives for his evenings at the night club, bumping and grinding like the 20-year olds around him, guzzling shots, and tossing one-liners like ‘oye phuljariyaan, Happy Diwali’ to a crowd of British women in a London hair salon.

His vapid life turns inside out one day when he invites a young woman, Tia (Alaya Furniturewala) home. She tells Jazz that he has a  ‘33.33 percent chance of being her father.’  Jazz recalls a 20 year-old tryst with a girlfriend Ananya (Tabu), and like whiplash, the middle-aged playboy in him reacts with a vigorous denial, “Nahin ho sakta—main batting hamesha guard kay saath karta hoon!”

Saif Ali Khan, Alaya Furniturewala & Tabu

Jazz takes a DNA test to prove his innocence, but the results take him straight from nightclub schmoozer to dad of a 21-year-old. Tia declares that she’s dreamt about meeting her dad since she was 15 – and then drops a bigger bombshell  – she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and wants to stay with her newly minted Papa to have the baby.

Jawaani Jaaneman (directed by Nitin Kakkar) drips with cliches and transparent plot devices, but Saif and Alaya (the daughter of Pooja Bedi and the granddaughter of Kabir Bedi) have an onscreen chemistry that’s very engaging. This movie is a lighthearted, air-headed concoction you save for a rainy-day and a bucket of popcorn.

The flip side to the frivolous Jawaani Jaaneman is the intense Serious Men – another male-centric movie dealing with masculine identity.

In an era where the debate on social justice is increasing in public discourse, a movie like Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men brings an interesting, satirical take to the equation between those who lack opportunity and the people born into the kind of privilege that assures their place in our social hierarchy.

Serious men are men like Arvind Acharya (Nasser), who runs an agency like The National Institute for Scientific Research (NISR), and lobbies for government funding of obscure scientific projects – in this instance, hunting for alien microbes in space.  Acharya is a seriously privileged man from the right caste and educational background which has given him his social success and his obnoxious hubris. His privilege lets him manage awkward questions about the value of his eccentric research by talking about irrelevant metaphors that no one understands; he views their lack of comprehension as proof of his superior intellect.

In the film, Ayyan Manni (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Tamilian Dalit living in a Mumbai chawl works as a Personal Assistant to Arvind Acharya. By any measure, it’s a good, secure job for a Dalit but Ayyan has been bullied and humiliated all his life by his boss (calling Ayyan an idiot knucklehead with a primitive mind is all in a day’s work for Acharya).

However Ayyan is no meek pushover: He coins the half-mocking epithet ‘Serious Man’ for his boss. He’s also figured out that Acharya fobs off legitimate queries about his work by spouting incomprehensible, obscure concepts that no one understands. So, Ayyan bears his humiliation with a cringing smile, while plotting to make his son Adi (Aakshath Das) a ‘Serious Man’ like his abusive boss.

Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das in Serious Men

Unlike other films on India’s complex caste issues, Serious Men uses an unfiltered lens on both sides – the aspirational Dalit and the arrogant upper caste boss have serious flaws. Films like Aarakshan and Samar showcased the righteous rage of oppressed Dalits, but Serious Men looks at caste through a wily, conniving human lens.

Ayyan believes the system is stacked against him, so he feels justified in gaming the system. He’s a born huckster, ambitious and canny, and able to talk his way out of any scrape. He coaches and presents his son as a precocious ‘genius in a dishonest endeavor to gain an educational and social advantage, with the misplaced conviction that he’s doing everything to secure his family’s future.

The soul of the movie is encapsulated in a scene before his son’s birth. Ayyan cons his way to a hotel poolside telling staff that he’s a hotel guest. His dream, he tells his pregnant wife Oja (Indira Tiwari), is for his soon-to-be-born son to afford to stay like a regular guest at a hotel like this.

You see,” says Ayyan, “our parents were 1G, slogging in the fields. I got an education but didn’t know how important that was to get ahead. So, I am 2G. Our son will be 4G. He will be able to lounge poolside like this and do nothing if he wants to. It takes four generations to be able to do nothing.”

The first half of the movie cleverly holds our attention. We wonder what will become of Adi as he is thrust into the limelight as a ‘geniusmascot for the local Dalits by manipulative politicians. Adi begins to feel the pressure of performing like a trained monkey in his new role and Ayyan, in a delightful parody of Acharya, coaches Adi to answer questions that fluster him by shouting, “I can’t deal with primitive minds like yours!”

The second half becomes predictable and the plot convoluted. Ayyan gets his revenge on the abusive Acharya but things don’t turn out as planned. The multiple storylines – Ayyan’s ambitions for his son, his obnoxious boss, and the politicians using his son as caste currency – merge in typical Bollywood style. Despite the melodrama, there is a stark frankness to the dialogue when it touches upon the generational impact of caste on an individual’s life. Serious Men has some terrific, thought-provoking discussions and scenes which highlight India’s caste-based hypocrisies, and great acting by Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das.

Caste is like a baton handed down by ancestors in a lifelong relay race whose outcome has been fixed before birth, and Serious Men attempts to drive this point home. However, the movie ends without a sense of satisfying closure to the higher ideals it’s aspiring to.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents



COVID Can’t Beat A Pumpkin Spice Papaya Spoonshot!

Imagine going to your favorite smoothie bar and lchecking the menu, looking for something new and interesting to try. You spot a flavor labeled ‘Pumpkin Spice Papaya Turmericand think – how could that possibly taste good? But you give it a shot since you’re a foodie who loves exotic sounding names, and lo and behold, it actually tastes pretty fine. Makes you wonder, how in the world did they come up with this combination?  

If you thought a brilliant chef concocted this in a restaurant kitchen, you’d be wrong. 

This hit flavor was created by a ‘food innovation intelligence platform’, which basically uses Artificial Intelligence to build a virtual ‘food brain.’

All this is explained eloquently by Kishan Vasani, the co-founder of Spoonshot, a company that uses its innovative technology to provide this ‘brain’ to the food industry.

“It’s like combining the experience of the greatest chefs and food critics around the globe with food scientists, food ethnographers, (folks who plot how food interacts with culture and behavior) specialty and niche food communities and online chat groups which may have as few as a thousand members, food commerce platforms, etc. A billion disparate points of data are extracted from this wealth of foodie information and connections are made which actually predict future trends at the embryonic stage, almost before they happen. With Spoonshot’s input, food industry clients can have a head start on the food trends bandwagon. All that data is also used to innovate new food and flavors which have the greatest chance of succeeding in the marketplace, like our pumpkin spice papaya turmeric smoothie.”

“We are in the business of trying to predict future trends before they go mainstream,” Vasani tells me. “Companies spend enormous amounts on research before launching a new food, but their methodology hasn’t changed over the past several decades. The success rate for new food launched in the marketplace is often between 10 and 30%. Our technology, which requires much less investment, is poised to increase that rate significantly.”     

Food trends often originate from a particular chef or restaurant in a certain town or country: how it becomes a global trend is what Spoonshot’s technology tracks.

Quinoa was an Andean staple that grew popular at the same time as gluten-free, high protein food became attractive. It’s the perfect alternative to rice or bread for a population rife with gluten allergies and obesity. Today, there is a shift towards veganism and food which is ethically produced, climate friendly and good for the environment.

For example, Spoonshot, (in collaboration with International Food Trendologist Liz Moskow), has come up with a future food trends list which includes Silverfin fishcakes made from wild caught US Asian carp. Asian carp is an invasive species of fish that is threatening the Mississippi river, and for environmentally conscious consumers, the environmental impact of eating this carp is just as important as the taste. Food with a low carbon footprint like legumes, pulses, grains seaweed and algae are going to appear more often on restaurant menus and in everyday cooking.

“Interest in environmentally conscious food has grown 55% in the last year alone,” Vasani says.

A good example of an environmentally friendly vegan alternative to dairy, is ice-cream made from Aquafaba, the water chickpeas are soaked in. It may not sound scrumptious but it’s actually quite delicious, and is predicted to trend in the future. Since meat alternatives are increasingly popular, vegetarians are going to see more of Carob-based products – Carob helps provide much needed collagen for muscle health to those who don’t eat any animal products. 

The Covid19 pandemic has also produced an almost seismic shift towards comfort foods. Anxiety is at an all-time high and foods containing the essential oil Copaiba, from the Copaifera tree, which produces relaxation are likely to be popular.

The most engaging part of Vasani’s story is his entrepreneurial journey, and his resilience, especially with facing the latest Covid fiasco. He grew up in England where his father ran a grocery store. There was a subconscious emphasis on food which he says comes from his Gujarati roots: dinner time was always the central hub of the family.

He joined a retail bank after a degree in business from Aston University (UK), but found the pace too slow for his entrepreneurial itch. This was the early 2000’s, the era of rising digital media platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon.  Against his parents’ advice he launched his own digital marketing agency in 2006.

My parents gave me a year,” he says. “I was 22 years old and felt I had these ideas about personalizing a service product the way Facebook and Amazon were personalizing consumer experiences.

It was a rollercoaster ride. He eventually wound up his business and joined Just Eat, the European food ordering platform that acquired Grubhub in June, 2020.

Sai Sreenivas & Kishan Vasani, Spoonshot co-founders

However, the drive to be a self-made entrepreneur proved overwhelming. After a couple of years he left and, along with his friend Sai Sreenivas, created a business model that eventually led to the concept of Spoonshot. Initial investors were friends and relatives, before outside financing began to roll in.    

“Twice in the last five years we’ve been left with a week’s worth of money in the bank. The last time it was around Covid. We were about to close a round of funding and then Covid blew up around the country and our investor pulled out at the last minute,” Vasani recalls.

“This happened on a Saturday” he says. “We were so demoralized that we decided to shut everything down. Five years of grueling work and innovation would go down the drain, quite apart from the 20 full time employees we had in Bangalore. That was one of our worst days.”

“On Sunday, both of us woke up and seemed to be hit by the same motivation at the same time – we were not going to let a tiny virus beat us and negate all our hard work over the past five years. We decided we were not going to fire anyone; our company model believes in complete transparency with our employees, so we told them our dire financial situation. Some decided to leave, and some stayed. But no employees left because of Covid or our financial situation. One left to start their own business, and one left to pursue a PhD. We spent the next few days going to our network to secure emergency funding. We took 50% pay cuts but we steadied the ship.” 

The sucker punch of Covid19 has not dimmed his enthusiasm or his spirit of entrepreneurship.

“We’ve put everything on the line, cashed out all our savings and made enormous sacrifices,” he says. “The economy will recover, and we’ll be ready.”

In August Spoonshot overcame Covid19 by securing $1M in seed funding.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents

Image by silviarita from Pixabay 

Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitaray

Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitaray, does a couple of things which no other Bollywood movie has done so far: it normalizes sex (especially awkward sex) in  ordinary relationships, and deflates the ridiculously overblown representations in mainstream Bollywood of manly hunks and hot babes being transported to some nebulous heaven by the act. It also normalizes the notion that women, especially married women, are as deserving of sexual satisfaction in life as their male partners.  

These are pretty revolutionary ideas for Indian culture, and the secret of this movie’s appeal. 

Shrivastava has established herself as a sexual anarchist in Indian cinema. Her previous offering, Lipstick Under My Burkha, was a fierce jab at the patriarchal, social and sexual norms that still govern most Indian women’s lives. Dolly and Kitty push the envelope further and bring us the mundane realities of sex and sexual liberation, not in a big, glamorous neon-lit city, but in the sprawling, congested, middle class suburbia of Noida.   

Radha Yadav, known as Dolly (Konkona Sensharma) is a housewife who lives in a tiny, unattractive Noida flat with husband Amit, and who works in a tiny office, where one of her principal duties is making tea for her boss and her coworker – the infamous patriarchy is shown reflected in these innocuous, everyday things.  Her cousin Kajaal (Bhumi Pednekar), who has fled her small town home to escape a stifling arranged marriage, comes to stay. 

The movie hooks you rightaway.  At a local fantasia land, Amit’s straying hand fondles Kajaal, who tells Dolly about her lecherous  husband. When Dolly dismisses it as a misunderstanding, Kajaal insists, “Woh meray saath sex karna chahtay hain, Dolly di.”

That line sets the tone of the film. It’s about women who recoil against being abused or exploited or disappointed in their relationships, sexual or otherwise, and are not afraid to say so or take the risks associated with their boldness.               

Kaajal moves out and finds a job with Red Rose Romance, a company which offers soft-porn phone companionship to lonely men.  Her cover name is ‘Kitty.’

Meanwhile, Dolly juggles her dreams of owning a beautiful, brand new flat by employing a little skullduggery at her office, to help fund installments on her future home. Matters are further complicated by a frigid sex life at home and a budding romance with an attractive, young Muslim college student who is the local food deliveryman; she has a potentially trans-gender son and a mother who abandoned her when she was eight, but who now wants back into Dolly’s life.  

Konkona Sensharma and Amol Prasher

If that isn’t enough, events take an exhausting turn as Kitty makes friends with a bold, sexually opportunistic coworker from Red Rose who introduces her to a sleazy world of sex and money, where she narrowly escapes being deflowered by paunchy, alcohol guzzling, real estate developers.

Kitty ends up ‘falling for’ a phone-sex client, Pradeep (Vikrant Massey). She begins to explore her first real relationship with a man, whom she imagines is her boyfriend and decides to give her precious, patriarchally protected virginity to Pradeep.

Bhumi Pedneker and Vikrant Massey

From then on, the movie tumbles through a series of concocted situations which try to make points it just keeps missing. The problem is it tries to address too many social issues at once: a parent trying to deal with her child’s transgender proclivities, sexual dissatisfaction in a marriage, abandonment by her mother and lecherous behavior in her husband. Thrown into the mix are repressive gender roles in the workplace, sexual chauvinism and double standards in Indian men, a sexual coming of age story, religious chauvinism and bigotry, and the ugly, entitled, violence of Hindutva advocates.      

The movie lingers fleetingly on these subjects, like loose threads unwoven from the larger tapestry of a meaningful message about sexual liberation and the average middle-class Indian woman. 

Perhaps that’s because Dolly and Kitty are far from average. They are strong women, trying hard to fulfil what they imagine are their dreams, except that their dreams reach into the murky depths of social prejudice and pulls scum out into the damning sunlight.

They’re bold enough to take sexual risks and live with the consequences of their actions, while still trying to retain what they value as good and real. Kitty cries to Dolly when she confronts her with her promiscuous behavior, “I’m a good person, Dolly Di. I really loved him. I didn’t take a paisa for the sex.”

There are some wonderfully nuanced moments in this film, which highlight the mundane ordinariness of everyday, middle class life and love in suburban India – one is when Kitty’s lover helps wash bloodstains off a sheet in a bucket of water after she loses her virginity. Another is a drunk session between Kitty and Dolly on the rooftop where they touch on almost every defining issue in Indian sexual hypocrisy. 

“I said tata, bye bye to my virginity and I didn’t feel a thing,” Kitty tells Dolly, and her honest, reflective disappointment deflates the sexist virginity myth as surely as air hissing out of a balloon.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Red Rose Romance site for women too?” Kitty quips.

Konkona Sensharma and Bhumi Pednekar bring their usual excellence to their respective roles. Amol Prasher as Osmaan, Dolly’s younger lover, and Vikrant Massey as Pradeep, Kitty’s Red Rose boyfriend, fit in perfectly as supporting cast to this very female centric movie.

I would give Dolly, Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitary four Chamaktay Sitaray out of five for its entertainment quotient, but two and half for the muddled feminist message it tries to deliver. 

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents


A Charming Fantasy About The Good Old Days

There is something about the first few decades of India’s incarnation as an independent nation which holds a romantic fascination for our collective desi imagination.  One thinks of a world of black and white movies, of carved wooden swings creaking gracefully in colonial style verandahs, and of blue skies unadulterated by a haze of pollutants. Those early post-independence decades evoke memories of koyels singing after glorious monsoons, and images of young innocent girls in elegant embroidered saris with lips unblemished by lipstick, with long thick braids sporting dainty parandhas. Their colleges, if they were allowed higher education, were waiting rooms for their supreme goal of marriage.

A Suitable Boy is a charming ode to those Indian fantasies about the ‘good old days.’ Written by Andrew Davies and directed by Mira Nair, the six-part series, on Netflix later this year, is based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 book of the same name. It reproduces a suitably aesthetic, decorated version of that newly independent era in the 1950’s, when a young nation’s hope was alive and throbbing. However, being a Mira Nair production, it also takes a few sly swipes at the pretensions and the peculiarities of the times.

The series follows the intertwined fate of four upper crust Indian families– the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans and the Chatterjees. These are the Indian elite, the IAS officers, the zamindars, the movers and shakers of Indian politics.

The story follows the enchanting ingenue Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a 19-year old university student forced to choose a suitable husband from three potential suitors.

It starts of course, with a wedding! No Indian series, particularly one produced by the BBC, is considered authentically Indian these days without a Big Fat Indian Wedding popping up somewhere.

The bride is Kavita (Rasika Dugal), Lata’s older sister, who is being married off to the staid, bespectacled professor son of Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), the Revenue Minister of Brahmpur, a fictional city near Lucknow.

I don’t see any big thrills on the wedding night, do you?” quips Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami) Lata’s sister-in-law, and we know we are in a Mira Nair film, with tart asides and irreverent moments that liven the humdrum, bourgeois setting.

Gentle satire is Nair’s forte – Lata’s older brother Arun (Vivek Gomber) waves a hand at the wedding assembly and declares in a snobbish British accent, “Look around you! A sea of brown,” upon which his younger brother Varun (Vivaan Shah), retorts, “Just like us!”

Lata’s mother Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) is dead set on finding a suitable boy for Lata, before her daughter turns 21 – the median age for spinsterhood according to Rupa.

You have to marry a boy I choose for you, just like I chose for your sister,” she harangues Lata.

Lata on the other hand, is one step ahead of mum and bolder than her era permits. She falls in love with Kabir (Danesh Razvi), who thrills her but wrecks her peace of mind, and who turns out to be Muslim – strong indications of a ‘big romance’.

While Lata wrestles with social taboos, Rupa suggests another sensible option – Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), a footwear businessman who represents the rising class of aspirational Indians building on opportunities in their newly minted country.  And since good (or bad) news comes in threes, Meenakshi presents her brother Amit (Mikhail Sen), as another option.

There is no better way to aim a wide-angle lens at a culture’s norms and idiosyncrasies than the process of getting a daughter married.  Lata has to choose between running away with Kabir, her forbidden Muslim boyfriend, or marrying Amit (an affected, narcissistic, English poet, who embodies the Anglophilic legacy of the Raj), or settling for her mother’s  favorite – the ambitious, pragmatic, paan-chewing entrepreneur Haresh Khanna, whom Arun contemptuously calls ‘that shoemaker.’

Weaving in and out of Lata’s story is a parallel thread involving the Revenue Minister’s black sheep son, Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), who indulges in wayward behavior such as pushing  the Home Minister into a fountain under the pretext of playing Holi, and falling in obsessive love with local ghazal queen and courtesan, Saeeda Bai (Tabu). Mahesh Kapoor is just as bent on making a man out of this family embarrassment as Maan is on resisting respectability.

Added to the mix are the Khans, a landed Nawabi family of Brahmpur whose  friendship with the Kapoors predates the partition. This bond is further cemented by the one between Maan Kapoor and Firoz Ali Khan (Shubham Saraf), Khan’s son, a connection between the families that holds steady despite deep cracks appearing in religious harmony between Hindus and Muslims. The scenes of a Shiv temple being erected right next to a masjid give the viewer a chilling sensation of time collapsing, evoking memories of Babri Masjid–– it could be a communal riot scene from 2020.

The heart of the series, however, lies with the marital misadventures of Lata and the lovesick shenanigans of the Saeeda Bai-obsessed Maan Kapoor.  A Suitable Boy does not attempt social commentary or thoughtful insight into the consequences of Independence. All the poverty and drudgery of the 1950’s, the Zamindari Abolition Acts which tried to free oppressed peasantry, the  rise of the communist party and the sowing of the political seeds of communalism, are sketched in like incidental fillers to the main theme – a recreation of the 1950’s with vivid cinematography, great acting, and the romance of forbidden love and  difficult choices, leading to some critics calling it an orange-filtered version of India

A Suitable Boy was a first for a BBC production – a drama on colonial India with an entirely Indian cast, and the compelling performances of the cast hold the series aloft like the Tiranga, the tricolor national flag.

Ram Kapoor and Tabu give accomplished performances and newcomer Tanya Maniktala captivates and delights as Lata. (The story of how Tanya, a young, 22-year-old copywriter in Delhi landed the lead in Mira Nair’s production, is a fairy tale in itself.)

The series has received some flak from Indian reviewers for its mannered English accents and attempts to sound ‘browner.’  With the 21st century craving for authenticity in cinematic depictions, whether it’s accents or settings, the tradition of speaking beautifully enunciated English in an Indian setting for the pleasure of a Western ear occasionally jars, the way a missing button on a costume would. Mira Nair softens the blow with occasional snatches of Hindi and Urdu. In the final analysis, the accents don’t detract from the crafted charm of the story which is the kind of escape to a faraway place of beauty and intrigue that we all sorely need in these challenging times.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents

Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan – A Gutsy New Love Story

Bollywood, with its penchant for cheap thrills, has always projected gay men as comic, sadly fringe people whose sole function in a movie is to induce laughter at their expense. And so, as recently as the turn of the century, we got movies like Kal Ho Na Ho, where Saif Ali Khan pretends to be in love with Shahrukh to torment his homophobic maid, Kantaben (seeing the two in bed together, throws her into a  traumatized state of comic shock).

Fast forward 15 years to 2018 and India seems to have made spectacular progress towards a humane and liberal view of same-sex relationships. In September of that year, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples deserved the same legitimacy and respect that heterosexuals are afforded under the law.

The Supreme Court ruling can’t apply to hearts and minds, however, and the roots of homophobia still run very deep in India. Ancient prejudice can’t be obliterated as easily by a legal dictum.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan is a movie that takes on this final frontier of Indian bigotry – homophobia. casteism, classism, sexism, racism, ageism, bureaucratism, and nepotism have all been tackled in the past few years by Bollywood’s profitable ‘conscience cottage industry’ of showcasing ‘human rights.’  Homosexuality is the one topic mainstream cinema tiptoed around before director Hitesh Kewalya wrote the script for Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan, and Ayushman Khurana and Jitender Kumar had the guts to play the roles of the first ‘we’re just the regular guys next door’ gay couple in Indian cinema.

This movie’s significance lies in the fact that it emphasizes the sheer ordinariness of being gay. It’s a depiction of what it means to be a homosexual, not in any chic, metropolitan, big city sense – where there is a worshipful cult around prominent gay men (think Rohit Bal, Karan Johar, Manish Malhotra) – but specifically, in a small town like Allahabad, in India’s heartland.

It’s about two regular guys who also just happen to be gay, and who go public with their sexuality in a home-spun community that vilifies such relationships. All this is woven around some gut splitting comedy, which moves from the hilarity of dysfunctional small- town family bickering (another recently popular Bollywood money spinner), to satirical spoofs on those who are homophobic, like venerable parents.

I loved some of the initial scenes in the movie, especially the ‘Shaadi Express’ where members of a clan of Tripathis from Allahbad are running to catch a train all decked out in marigold garlands. They are heading to a cousin’s (Goggle’s) wedding to an elderly divorcee, the best she can get with one eye blinded and deformed by an accident.

The doted-on son of this cozy, joint-family clan is Aman (Jitendra Kumar), a closet homosexual.  Karthik (Ayushmaan Khurana), Aman’s love interest, is an irrepressible, fearless proponent of gay rights. He’s deeply in love with Aman and convinces him to let him (Karthik) join the Shaadi Express as Aman’s guest. Disaster strikes when Aman’s father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao), catches the two kissing passionately on the train.

Shankar Tripathi’s visceral reaction is to throw up. There is some great symbolism in this movie––throw up is like the imagined collective Indian reaction to a sex scene involving two men. But the admirable screenplay and direction of this movie make us feel immediately that the throw up is the father’s problem, not his son’s.

Once he is ‘outed’ to his father, the rest of the story involves a war between the protective parent (Shankar Tripathi), and the ‘corrupt’ influence (Karthik), on a much loved son. There are various side plots involving Goggle’s attempts to ‘normalize’ her unmarried state and Shankar Tripathi’s attempt to grow a ‘flawless’ cauliflower which worms would never attack. They seem to be designed to hammer home the same message—love can come in many forms and should never be criminalized. It’s all quite comic, but at times overwhelming, like an out-of-whack pinball machine.

This movie packs in so much energy, and so much funny, corny humor, that I wonder if the director was trying to make sure the movie would be a success despite its central theme—love between two men. A romance between a man and a woman would have spun out the romantic aspect, but here we get the struggle for acceptance decked out in hilarity. A somewhat gratuitous, but very funny scene, involves Karthik and Aman helping Bhumi Pedneker in a cameo role, elope with her boyfriend.

What Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan does is normalize the individuals attached to the label—Karthik and Aman are just regular ‘nice’ guys looking for the same things heterosexuals look for—love, acceptance and happiness in a future together. We see them as very likeable and we empathize with their need to not feel like they are weird social outcasts. The jokes are never at the expense of gay men and are sharp jabs at the stereotypes and prejudices against homosexuals ingrained in middle class Indian society.

This movie is a riot, sometimes an overwhelming, overdramatized one, that tries too hard to amuse while educating.  But it’s definitely a riot worth watching. And much of the dialogue is priceless – the Tripathi family’s desperation to get Goggle married, Karthik quips, “Shaadi na hogayi, antibiotic ka course ho gaya jo pura karna zaroori hai.”

Ayushmaan Khurana brings his usual irrepressible energy and dynamism to the role and Jitendra Kumar does a good job as a cautious, worry-laden counterfoil. Gajraj Rao as the father and Neena Gupta as Aman’s mother have the same comic energy we saw in Badhai Ho, with Neena firing rounds of snappy zingers at her harassed husband and the world in general.

One has to appreciate how Hitesh Kewalya plays with Bollywood’s memorable romantic moments and recasts them as satire, in the context of gay love. The ‘Jaa Simran Jaa, Apni Zindagi Jee Lay’ dialogue from Dilwale Dulhania Layjayengay was laugh-out loud!

It’s clear the Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan team had as much fun making the movie as you will watching it.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents

The New Neurotic Normal

COVID and the daughter’s boyfriend

It’s been a few months now since COVID moved into our neighborhoods and made itself comfortable.  If COVID could be a person, it would be the tattooed, lip-pierced boyfriend your daughter introduced you to months ago, and you commented privately on the ridiculously stiff and spiky black corona of hair where the part on his head should be. And you prayed that he would be passing through, like others before him, gone by summer, incinerated by warmer weather, poof!

Summer rolls around and the spiked Corona is still around, lounging on your sofa, scarfing up your snacks, and moving his toothbrush and hand sanitizer into the spare bedroom. He’s now metastasized into a fiancée, who has been kicked out of his apartment (all of Europe and the Far East and China) and needs a place to stay—the good old USA.

COVID evokes the same feelings as the daughter’s scruffy, disruptive boyfriend turned fiancée, who isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon. (There’s also a distant possibility of him murdering everyone and decamping with the family silver in the middle of the night, a scenario which keeps you on high alert, all the time.)

So, what is our “new normal” now that COVID isn’t going anywhere? It’s getting neurotic.

The Sneeze at the Grocery Story

I was at a grocery store when I felt a tickle in my nose under the surgical mask.  To my horror, it was a sneeze, pushing its way out through my nostrils with a final contraction designed to eject the snot baby into the atmosphere. I didn’t have time to think before I went ‘Achooo!’

When I looked up, I was alone in the aisle.  The two people near me had dive-bombed to the floor and were crawling towards the exit.  An assistant came running and shouted at me from a great distance, as if I were at the end of a long tunnel. Are you sick, Maam?

“I’m fine,” I mumbled and slunk, full of shame, out of the store.

One would think I had fired a gun—no wait, that was 2019. Nobody is afraid of being shot anymore. Not with COVID around.

The Fateful Trip to the Pharmacy

I was all equipped for this. We’ve been practicing for months, after all. Mask, gloves, goggles (eyes are susceptible too), tight clothing which doesn’t brush against things or people, boots, crossbody slung close to the hip not a giant bag swinging around inviting germs by hobnobbing with other people’s elbows or arms.

CVS, with its blessed automatic doors that slid open without touching, was a haven of social distancing and plexiglass partitions. The pharmacy counter had an extra table between the counter and the pharmacist to ensure over 6 feet of distance.

I picked up my medications and sailed out, soothed by the completely flawless, touchless, encounter with the pharmacy.

I peeled off my plastic gloves, discarded them in the outside trashcan and sat in the car. I was about to turn the key in the ignition when my beautifully constructed germ-free encounter suddenly collapsed.


I threw my cross body off and flung it on the seat next to me as if it were a vile thing, crawling with germs. What about the t-shirt? The COVID tribe of viruses could be doing a dance on it right now if it had picked up anything from the customer before me, who, now that I thought about it, was an elderly man looking pale and sick, and who may even have sniffled.  Now that I was jogging my memory, yes, I was pretty sure he had sniffled. And, he’d gripped the table with both hands to keep his balance.

Where was my disinfectant? I fumbled desperately through my bag—I had forgotten it at home! No, I wasn’t going back into that CVS cesspool of possible COVID encounters! To my horror, here I was, stuck in a contaminated t-shirt, upon which the COVID cannibals could very well be doing a dance in preparation for their upcoming feast—me!

Dare I tear off the Corona virus festival shirt and fling it onto my contaminated crossbody? That would leave me in my underclothes – all saucy lace and frills, bought on Victoria’s Secret special sale – driving home two traffic lights away.

This is the USA, the birthplace of toplessness after all, I told myself. No one bats an eyelid. It was just a five-minute trip back home. Who could I possibly run into, in my car, in the middle of the afternoon? I was going to whoosh home, straight into my garage, and charge upstairs for a bath. I tore off my shirt, hunched over the steering wheel and sped down the road.

At the next intersection I tried desperately to sail through the traffic light, but it was too late.  I was staring steadfastly ahead, counting down the seconds and a movement made me glance quickly left. It was my neighbor’s father-in-law Mr. Narsimha, smiling back at me, waving his hand. Mr. Narsimha, who had hosted his grandson’s naming ceremony in early January. He nodded and waved in recognition. Mercifully, the light turned red. I shot out of there like a cannonball and nearly totaled my car speed-swerving into my garage!

COVID almost killed me, but not the way you would imagine!

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Image by Chetraruc from Pixabay