Tag Archives: Review

Does the Great Indian Kitchen Lead to the Great Indian Marriage?

While I ran about in the sprawling open courtyard of my mother’s house in a somewhat sleepy little village in rural North Bengal, I remember my granny sitting on a low stool cooking in the dimly-lit kitchen. It was already dusk and a few hours later, a tasty dinner was served. My parents had gone down to spend a few days during the Durga Puja holidays. 

After my mother’s family moved to Kolkata, I often used to visit my maternal uncle’s place. Here, the kitchen was big and bright, but granny still continued to cook. Her specialty was a chicken dish which no one ever in my family has been able to replicate. Maybe it was the spices she used or her loving and caring hands that were behind the deliciousness. 

Granny is now no more. She passed away a few years ago, but I still remember her chicken curry. Today, after watching The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam movie earning rave reviews from critics, I realize how I never knew my real granny: what was she like, her likes, dislikes, desires, and aspirations. Maybe none of these things ever mattered to anyone in the family.

And this is what makes the ‘great Indian marriage’ such a fearsome thing to enter into, especially in an arranged marriage set up, where women are mostly expected to cook and clean and act submissive. Exceptions are always there. In my family, I have seen my father making tea, cooking rice, and even doing household work. An aunt of mine who lives in Delhi was horrified when she learned that I had praised her husband’s culinary skills in front of my other relatives. It was a most shameful thing for her and she reproached me for making the hush, hush fact “public”. 

I can understand her consternation, the great dilemma she felt because women are expected to cook for their families. Little do they realize that in doing so, they become fettered and chained forever. 

A scene from the Great Indian Kitchen.

I am no great cook, but I can make basic meals for myself and during the lockdown prepared a few dishes, among them egg biryani twice. My friend Neeraj, who is a great cook himself, keeps on sending me recipes and colorful snaps from his kitchen from time to time. He once taught me to cook the perfect rice over the phone. 

Cooking is art no doubt, but as the movie shows it can become a tedious routine. The movie’s female protagonist, Nimisha Sajayan who plays the docile wife and later leaves her husband to follow her dreams, is expected to cook rice on the firewood, besides making a variety of tasty dishes and serving food to the men. In almost all the scenes featuring her, she is shown cutting, chopping, and dicing vegetables, besides making hurried meals, attending to the faulty kitchen sink in need of urgent repair, cleaning up the kitchen, dusting, and washing her hands frequently.

I entered into a brief marriage only to regret it to this day. My in-laws expected me to shift to a small town where they lived, take up a part-time job or better still become a housewife and cook for the family whereas I wanted to pursue my dreams. So, I packed my bags and came to Delhi when I was offered a transfer. 

Cooking is not an issue. I prepare food for myself every day and quite enjoy doing it. But slaving away in the kitchen is quite another matter. In the movie, the men are shown relaxing, doing yoga, and reading newspapers whereas the women are portrayed tirelessly working in the kitchen. The most evocative scene in the film is the one where the women eat food at the table made dirty by the men with spilled over and chewed food. When the wife confronts her husband about it later at a restaurant over his bad table manners at home, he gets angry.

For most women, cooking and doing housework is a routine and they are not supposed to complain. It is for us to decide whether to follow our dreams or please the men. If you want the first, just let it go like I did eight years ago, or else give up on your desires and aspirations. 

My next-door neighbor back in Kolkata could not fry papad properly and they always used to get burnt. She was always the subject of criticism in the neighborhood, but nobody praised her ever for being an excellent teacher, her love for Bengali literature, and intelligent conversations. 

Women in our kitchens have become such a regular fixture that we never pause and question their narrowed existence. All my childhood memories are centered around the great Indian kitchen: my granny on her low stool, my father’s mother stirring the milk tea, my aunt chopping vegetables, my mother making sweet delicacies in winter, the neighborhood aunty (she was called Ronny’s mom after her son’s name as if her identity never mattered) making parathas so that we children could enjoy it on Sundays.

Welcome to the great Indian kitchen. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave like Nimisha’s character or me. After so many years, a remark by my erstwhile husband came back to me. He had remarked once, “You never served me tea (in Bengali of course).” But you see I was born to rule and not to serve. I served him coffee, of course, but he conveniently forgot all about it. But what I remember is that he never made either tea or coffee for me and that’s what made all the difference.


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

Connecting’s Parvesh Cheena Acts to Quell Xenophobia

Being connected is crucial in the time of the 2020 pandemic!

We all have been through a strange time period. When the virus came to our shore, everything shut down in shock. The initial week or two of isolation was like an extended holiday. For those of us who could stay home without having to work, this was an escape from reality. We divulged in home-cooked meals, lazy afternoons, boisterous evenings filled with board games, binge-watching TV shows, or reading. At my home, we fashioned our timetable around morning yoga, the adulation of Hercule Poirot, long meandering walks up the mountain, boomerangs of plated food, categorizing the flora and fauna around us. Despite Covid 19 raging in the world around us and contrary to health guidelines, We longed to take a break from ourselves and to connect with our friends. Misery seeks company! The human angst and the hysterical response to the global tragedy appear to be the premise of the show.

The plot of NBC’s Connecting urges us to be aware of our diversity as a country and how we got there. The NBC original showcases American history and our civil rights. So we hope to be informed in a lighter vein as we follow the lives of six friends. The show is innovating in the use of Zoom, filming the actors in their own homes. The time period is through early March 2020 and it will take us through our surreal day to day experience in the United States through our Presidential elections. 

I am sure all of us remember our early experiences of fumbling with zoom, from connecting and using gallery mode to changing backgrounds and sharing screens and all the faux pas. I am certain we are going to find it very relatable and hilarious like the Saturday Night Live skits about Zoom Call, Zoom Church, and Zoom Catchup. Most of us are on tenterhooks about not getting infected but at the same time, we are becoming Zoom savvy not wanting to be out of step with our fellow men! My experiences connecting with my grandson in India are interesting enough to fill a book because of the time difference, spottiness of the internet, his interest in playing games on the phone while talking to me, and lately a fuzzy camera because of disinfecting the phone with sanitizer.

Actor, Parvesh Cheena.

Parvesh Cheena told me that he was absolutely delighted to be accepted in the series, Connecting, on his birthday. The gregarious actor plays “Pradeep” a gay man who lives in Los Angeles with his adopted children. He shares his exertions on home-schooling his defiant brood with his friends, while his friends share their domestic woes, breakups, and other dramatic personal events. Parvesh has modeled his character after his college roommate who has adopted children. 

While doing the series, Parvesh realized that society is better equipped to deal with the previous pandemics (the Bubonic Plague of the 1600s, the Influenza of the 1950s, and even the SAARS of 2009 ) because of our access to the internet and social media. We can smile and laugh on video chats, offer our condolences, and give virtual hugs, but I reminded him that in older times, people had access to books and creative geniuses like the Bard churned out King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

As an Indian, I am proud of young people breaking the conventional career choices of our generation and finding their niche in acting, dance, literature, music, and politics. I wanted to study interior design but my persuasive father made a compelling argument for me to become a physician. It has been a rewarding profession but my creative instincts have found an outlet in the arts that covers the walls of my home.

So I agree with Cheena’s encouraging words: “It’s never too late to try!”  

He is an interesting person in his own words composed of “a quarter “Chicago” pizza” and in my words “three-quarters of bonhomie, gratitude, and ebullience”. It is hard to come across someone who is authentic and polite. I was intrigued by his journey as an actor. You might remember him from Outsourced as the preposterous busybody Gupta and as Sunil Odhav in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Parvesh recalls that he had to invent himself into an Indian culture that he was not familiar with. His parents came from North India in the 1970s in the time of Nixon and Lyndon Johnson but Parvesh was born in the US. At that time, scientists and engineers from the East were building America, and yet actors were not mainstream. Indians were depicted as a cabby, a waiter, or a doctor, so Gupta in Outsourced, although not culturally accurate, heralded a change.

I shared my experience with him from the 1990s, when strangers in New York would ask me if I knew a “Rajiv” in Los Angeles. Or was it okay to take the chicken out of my tomato broth or would I eat dessert as my main course? I was often floored by such quixotic questions but Parvesh has a generous response to this inane curiosity. He says, “People are just trying to connect.”

At the end of the day, Parvesh imagines himself as a storyteller rather than an actor. He was happy to share that the first role he played on stage was in his school play where he was cast as King George the III. Although the only word he spoke was “hmm”,  he fondly recalls how his Nani made him a red cape lined with gold. Ever since that time he dreamed of connecting with a wider audience! He is ecstatic to represent mainstream Indian Americans because he wants to raise awareness about other ethnic groups in society. He is acting to quell xenophobia. 

I know that Parvesh has a golden future as a comedian. Comedy is a difficult genre because it requires clever material, timing, and an honest perspective. He has a natural talent for it and I was touched by the positive energy exuding from Mr. Cheena in Connecting, restored by a cup of coffee. He was just a regular down-to-earth guy in Los Angeles, requesting everyone to “mask up” and stay safe.  I was a pathologist/ correspondent listening to him in my parked car outside the hospital and we were connecting so effortlessly on a gorgeous fall day. Since our interview, I have already recommended the show to many of my friends and I am excited to see their Halloween episode on October 31. Hope all of you do the same – social distancing while CONNECTING.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Mirzapur Returns to Prime

Under the dark cloud of COVID, watching comedy has been my panacea. Bollywood veteran villains of our childhood in India: Pran, Prem Nath, Prem Chopra, Amjad Khan, and Amrish Puri ruled the silver screen. We disliked their wicked characters but we repeated their “catchphrases”: Prem nam hai mera, Prem Chopra! or Kitne aadmi the? I almost jumped out of my skin when someone yelled, Mogambo hush hua”! outside a roadside restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida!  That’s when I realized the ubiquitous appeal and life of good scripts and dialogues.

Divyenndu Sharma, in an interview with India Currents about Mirzapur Season 2, introduced the storyline with a banal hook: A story about a cute family in a sleepy little town. The seemingly informal players with colloquial names like Kaleen bhaiya, Munna bhaiya, and Babuji are a gangster family embroiled in drugs, guns, murders, and lawlessness. 

The young and energetic production team of Karan Anshuman, Puneet Krishna, and Gurmeet Singh have packed so much sensational masala in the first nine episodes of Mirzapur that the fans are raring to go at the second season. The theme of the first series is “greed” where Kaleen bhai the carpet king and his drug-dazed son Munna Bhaiya try to establish dominance in Mirzapur! It’s a modern-day take of the power struggle between “good versus evil”!  It’s a window into Indian hamlets and far-flung places where mayhem, rape, and murders are not punished because of the corrupt regional government. The poor people serve as a means of money for goons and vote banks in elections. The web series unfolds malevolent characters in mucky boroughs with the idea to entertain and open our eyes towards covert and overt misogyny. Bad elements are increasing in society. In democracies like India and America awareness and involvement in the selection of governments and a robust set of checks and balances is a must. 

Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Pankaj Tripathi flow like water into their roles as mafia men! I prefer Tripathi in his roles as a doting father (Bareilly ki Barfi and Gunjan Saxena) but he is versatile and violence sells! Divyenndu who has been waiting for a role like this is animated as Munna Bhaiya! In the first part, he is a bully. In Mirzapur 2 his agenda shifts from arrogance to revenge! Women actors portray layered persona with learning to acquire survival skills on the run! Mrs. Pandit (Sheeba Chaddha) in her long house-dresses and dupattas is convincingly intrepid. She can garner her husband’s affection with “mutter paneer” and put the “ kiranawalla” in his place with aplomb! Ramakant Pandit (Rajesh Tailang) as a righteous country lawyer is pitched against the gangster inferno. I am waiting for the plot twist for him to gain dominance but will he do it with the help of his “brawny” son Guddu Bhaiya (Ali Fazal)?

The female actors are not paragons of virtue. Beena as Kaleen bhai’s wife (Rasika Duggal) is a terrific understudy for Lady Macbeth. She talks with her eyes! Gajgamini Gupta(Shweta Tripathi) as Golu is a lady to watch juxtaposed against toxic men.

I enjoy the pure Hindi names in Mirzapur and the local dialect, it provides for comic relief to me. Research has shown that people watch gory cinema if the violence gives meaning to confront real life and I wonder about censorship in the Amazon series. Euphemistic pseudonyms of guns, opium, and bribes as Katta, barfi, and pan spin these characters into caricatures of themselves. I confess that I had to fast forward through Quentin Tarrantino like “trigger-happy” sequences but I was vested in the story because of cerebral interpretations. I can’t wrap my mind around it but nonetheless, it’s been an education, so I will watch Mirzapur Season 2. 


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

A Purple Lotus Blooms From the Darkness

Empowered” is a gutsy and gritty adjective that some women have the luxury of being heralded with. But do all these women set out to be “empowered” or do circumstances simply tread them along a trailblazing path, which perhaps was the only path available to them, towards something as basic as self-preservation? 

Author Veena Rao, in her debut novel Purple Lotus, unravels the journey of one such woman, who embarks on a seemingly normal journey but is forced to summon her inner strength as she plunges into valleys of anguish, to eventually elevate herself to summits of triumph. 

Purple Lotus unfolds the life and times of protagonist Tara, much like the title flower that rises from the mud, blooms out of the darkness, and radiates into the world, in a soothing tone of absolute resolve to remain unaffected by the sludge that surrounds her.

The choice of the title plays quite a pronounced role throughout the narrative, both literally and symbolically. Tara, the lotus (literal translation), finds herself in muddy waters right from the get-go, when her beloved doll, Pinky, goes missing during the family’s move to Mangalore. Even as she bears the brunt of missing her friends and her priced doll, she watches in helplessness as her parents move to Dubai in pursuit of a bright future for the family, leaving behind Tara with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them. 

Amidst desolation, Tara ironically finds solace from her uncle in his moments of clarity when his mind is not bogged down by the disease. Tara even finds love in its warmest of forms in Cyrus Saldanha, only to be forced to let go when her parents return to Mangalore.

Rao submerges Tara in more of life’s slush in the form of Sanjay. The seed of abandonment seeped into Tara’s being at a tender age reaps its bounty as she is bound in a loveless and abusive marriage with Sanjay, a groom her parents picked for her, mostly because she was getting beyond the “marriageable” age and he was willing to marry without any bridal dowry (gifts). Her trials continue to mount as Sanjay’s indifference gradually turns into violence and Tara is forced to accept the kindness of American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances. 

Tara begins to bloom, when, in a moment of truth, she discovers the prominence of her own esteem and worth, turning towards the light, setting herself free from conforms of her community as she reconnects and eventually marries her childhood love, Cyrus.

The journalist in Rao shines through in the last chapter as she wraps up the novel with a fitting “article” by Tara that confronts a victim-shaming society. “Not all monsters are egregious. Some stay hidden in plain sight,” writes Rao’s Tara, pointing to not just to the perpetrators of crime against women, but also a spiteful society in general and a venomous close circle of the victim, in particular, that crushes the victim’s spirits, driving them into a deeper abyss of despair. 

Purple Lotus, an emblem of peace of tranquility, maintains a calm undertone throughout, staying faithful to its symbolic title. The wave of calm is evident in many instances, such as the incident where Tara forgives a friend who intentionally hurt her in childhood, when the friend admits it was her fault, despite the immense pain it had caused her at the time. Rao’s strength in writing is her ability to maintain the mellow milieu even as she powerfully propagates empowerment, confronts social stigmas, and deals with deeply disturbing feelings of dejection, rejection, and desertion with grace and poignance. Rao scores extra brownie points for the character development of Tara and her ensuing transformation. Never rushed or overtly dramatic, the growth is refreshingly organic and effortlessly relatable.

I particularly enjoyed the bonding between women, who, despite their own shortcomings, offer courage, companionship, and care to each other, forging sisterhood far beyond blood and borders.

The streets of Mangalore and Atlanta come alive, as does the food of the regions served up by its inhabitants, sometimes hearty like the abundant love and support she relishes, and sometimes spicy, like their harsh attitude she endures, all of which become companions of Tara’s tumultuous journey. 

This charmingly simplistic chronicle explores the many dimensions of the human mind and mindset of society, and the consequences of each, which may turn out to be tragic or triumphant.

“I take heart in the knowledge that the monsters around me do not sully me, because the names they have for me are not the names I have for myself,” Tara writes about herself.

In the age of social media, where kids are bullied, and adults are shamed by nameless cowards who hide behind their firewalls, and sometimes openly, just because they feel entitled to do so, could use the same realization to emerge victorious amidst the very soiled “victimization of victims”, as Rao puts it, and bloom into a glorious, serene lotus, a rare purple lotus even. 


Jyothsna Hegde is a City News Editor at NRI Pulse newspaper and an independent software consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Computer Science and has served as faculty at Towson State University. It gives her immense pleasure to share triumphs and tribulations of the indomitable human spirit through her writing. 

Dil Bechara: From Reel to Real

Sushant Singh Rajput’s posthumous film Dil Bechara recently released on Disney+ Hotstar. Clearly dedicated to him, the film begins with a smiling SSR playing the guitar while a quote of his flashes in the background: “Perhaps, the difference between what is miserable, and that, which is spectacular, lies in the leap of faith…#selfmusing.” Inspired by John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, the film is set in Jamshedpur and its opening dialogues are what most bedtime stories start with: “Ëk tha raja, ek thi rani; dono mar gaye, khatam kahani.”   

Kizie Basu (Sanjana Sanghi) is a young girl suffering from thyroid cancer. An oxygen mask is attached to her person, which she carries with her at all times. Due to her disease, she has a largely boring life and feels like a reality TV show contestant who can be eliminated from the game of life anytime. She often attends funerals of strangers and sympathizes with their loss. More than anything else, she longs to be just like any other normal girl her age. 

Enter Manny (SSR), who she meets at a cancer counseling group. Though ill too, he is fun-loving and likes to sing, dance and act. SSR is sadly so energetic and full of life in this—his last film—with expressions that remind one of Shah Rukh Khan from the DDLJ days. He also spins magic with some promising dance moves in the film’s dreamy title song. Watching it one can’t help but lament with a heavy heart about such a talented life tragically wasted. 

The film has its share of clichés too—like the fact that Kizie and Manny’s taste in music doesn’t match. While she likes to hear soppy, mellow songs, he prefers the likes of Honey Singh. Along with Manny’s friend, the two of them start shooting a comical film together, and he shows her how to enjoy life. In turn, Kizie gets him to hear an incomplete soulful song by a singer whom she admires, and he begins to love the tune too. They write to the singer to conclude his song and request to meet him. Kizie can barely believe it when the singer invites them to Paris. Since her immune system is weak, it’s risky for her to travel, but with some coaxing, she goes to Paris along with Manny and her mother—who agree to fulfill her long-cherished dream. Though meeting the crazy singer (Saif Ali Khan) is a bit anticlimactic, the three of them have a great time in the city. 

With the stars of young love in her eyes, Kizie soon finds a raison détre in Manny, but filled with emotion, she frequently gets breathless and her heart beats faster when around him. Manny later tells Kizie that an ache had led him to discover sometime back that he too is going to die very soon. In a poignant scene, his family hugs him and cries, as his condition steadily deteriorates. He also attends a mock funeral for himself where his best friend and girlfriend read weepy vows to him, while he sits across and hears them out. Predictably the end of the film is melodramatic, made more true to life by the fact that SSR is no more in reality too. There are several dialogues that seem ironic now—and while they were being shot, no one probably had a clue about what the future holds. In one instance, Kizie tells Manny, “One doesn’t need to be popular to be a hero. You can be one in real life too.” 

The film’s subtle message is in the letter that Manny leaves behind before dying: “We don’t decide when we are born and when we die, but we decide how we live.” As Kizie tearfully watches visuals of the completed film that they had shot together, it could very well be Sanghi herself watching the completed Dil Bechara in real life now. In a sense, the film and SSR’s life remind you of the fleeting nature of existence itself, making you almost want to hug your loved ones a little tighter, laugh a little louder, and just live life a little more fully…

_____

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.

Gulabo Sitabo: So Good, I Watched It Twice

Before the movie was released my friends were curious about the name. But that curiosity is divulged in the opening scene with a street “Kathputli” show or an Indian Punch and Judy performance in the streets of Lucknow. This is a victorious performance by the veteran actor, Amitabh Bachchan, as a 78-year-old Mirza in his ragged teal colored cotton Kurta, a red satchel to carry things to sell, betel stained headcloth, a bent frame, and a limping gait. His myopic eyes bulge from a broken spectacle frame constantly in search of household items to swap for money. He sells all and sundry items from light bulbs, tin cans, furniture to antique chandeliers. His energy is vested in inheriting and selling the historic mansion for money. 

Ayushmann Khurrana is believable as Baankey Rastogi who runs a flour mill to sustain his family and pays no rent. His performance is fearless with a lisp and his ease of acting in front of Amitabh Bachchan is nothing minor! It’s sad to see him lose his girlfriend though…

There are wonderful dialogues between Bachchan and Khurrana that become even more comical if you understand a bit of Avadhi”

“Ghar mein nahi dane amma chali bhunane! Ab khao biryani garma garam.”

His response to any monetary transaction is “ Itna hi hai hamre pas…”

When he goes to buy a cheap shroud for his wife’s anticipated death he says. “ Koi sasta walla dikhana, Itne phool kya karne hain ghar thode hi sajana hai…Marne ke bad bhi haveli mein ghuse rahna…”

There are so many characters in the movie: renters, archeologists, paralegals, and builders who are in it for their own share of the proceeds from this dilapidated property! It makes you feel really worried about getting old. Amitabh has played an unforgettable character as Mirza! No one will be able to forget the scene when he sits down on the suitcase full of currency! That scene declares his true love! Money! 

But one look at Fatima Begum and her feisty demeanor portrayed effortlessly as in: “Arre bulb na chori hua nigodi jaidad chori ho gai ho…” This is certainly the most memorable performance by Farrukh Jafar who steals the Punch and Judy show without giving any inkling of her plan. I was so impressed by her natural acting in this film, I went back and watched her poignant scene in “Umrao Jaan” with Rekha and as Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s prescient grandmother in the movie “Photograph”. The fact that her husband encouraged her to study after marriage and act in films at a time when most women were home bound, is commendable.

Best movie during this COVID pandemic by far. I watched it twice back to back. Hats off to the cast and crew of Gulabo Sitabo! Well done Shoojit Sircar!

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Sita, the Contemporary Indian Woman

In the fertile landscape of Indian writing in English, poetry is a less prolific genre. This is not due to a dearth of talent, but because poetry has generally been considered less likely to attract a popular readership. However, lyric poetry in Sita’s Choice is more relevant than ever during a public crisis. 

It is no accident that New Yorkers after 9/11 turned longingly to poetry. In today’s period of COVID 19 isolation, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins has been reading his poetry live on Facebook. The musicality of the lyric form provides a sense of comfort in uncertain times and the shorter stanzas allow us to anchor for a short time in words that can transport us beyond our immediate devastation.

Sita’s Choice is Athena Kashyap’s second full-length collection of poetry. Kashyap grew up in India and currently teaches English at City College of San Francisco. In her foreword, Kashyap introduces the character of Sita in Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana and uses Sita to “explore issues facing women living in contemporary India.” Kashyap is not only drawn to Sita as the embodiment of a suffering wife but also to her role as a mother and her connection to the earth and the environment leading to  three thematic sections in her book: ‘Body’, ‘Seed’ and ‘Soil,’ following the opening section  titled ‘Sita Septet’

Sita’s ordeal by fire.

Kashyap is haunted by the mythological Sita’s decision at the end of the epic not to subject herself to another test of fire to prove her chastity. Instead of reuniting with her husband Rama, Sita chooses to return to the Earth, her mother.

This scene is evoked in the poem “Sita’s Choice,” in which Kashyap depicts this myth through a detailed description of Raja Ravi Verma’s painting of Sita being taken by Goddess Earth. In the poem that immediately follows “Letter to Valmiki from the Other Sita,”, we hear Sita’s voice expressing her disappointment in the poet Valmiki “It broke my heart, . . . the story as you told it.” Kashyap is thus reimagining Sita as a vocal woman, talking back to male figures of authority. 

Kashyap segues from the fire image to contemporary issues of dowry burnings in India in the poem “Fire Trials.” Instead of brides being killed, Kashyap recreates these women as asserting agency, packing their bags, and returning to their natal families.

In the section ‘Body,” Kashyap shifts her attention to many aspects of contemporary Indian American life, with an emphasis on the female body capable both of sexual fulfillment and degradation. From the joyous celebration of “Punjabi Wedding,” to scenes of hidden bodily trauma in “The Mirror” and “Crocodile Lake Revisited,” this section progresses to poems which bear witness to the indignities of women in India not having access to toilets in “This City is Claimed,” ending finally with the desolation of widows living in a peculiar limbo between life and death in “City of Widows.”

The sections ‘Seed’ and ‘Soil’ which follow offer many vignettes of women’s lives as mothers, from the onset of menarche in “Blood, Oil and Water” to the travails of pregnancy, birth, and the sleepless monotony of early motherhood.  In “The Leela Poems,” of the final section, Kashyap widens her focus to include experiences of farmers marching to Lalbagh, Bangalore to demand attention to their precarious lives. Leela is a servant and a migrant domestic worker in the city, subjected to myriad oppressions. But like Sita, the central figure in the collection, Leela longs to go back to the rice fields of her home in the village and is haunted by the longing for rich harvest.

Unlike a novel, a work of poetry does not follow a linear path of plot and character. Instead, this collection of poems is like a palimpsest, the poet’s own life layered with images of disparate women’s lives and traumas, yet gesturing at hope and fulfillment inspired by the mythological Sita.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


Sita’s Choice, Poems by Athena Kashyap. Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2019.

Isolation Therapy: Top Five New Shows on Streaming

As the isolation period extends, feast on these delightful new shows on streaming which range from small-town slicks to big city woes.

Panchayat, Amazon Prime Video

In Prime drama Panchayat, director Deepak Kumar Mishra and writer Chandan Kumar create the perfect isolation watch, transporting us to the rural Indian world of Phulera in Uttar Pradesh. Produced by TVF, the comedy-drama follows an average engineering graduate Abhishek (Jitendra Kumar) through his reluctant journey as secretary of a Panchayat office after he misses the popular CAT exam bus. On arrival, he encounters Vikas (Chandan Roy), an office boy, Upapradhan Prahlad Pandey (Faisal Malik) and long-serving Pradhan Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghuvir Yadav). Although he is currently fronting the office for wife Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), elected on paper (under nari quota), so he could still perform his duties. The quirky innocence of small-town characters wrapped up in simple dilemmas shine through all eight episodes even as the seemingly slick city boy tries to make his presence felt. With some fine performances, heartwarming situations and slow-cooked old charm, you cannot go wrong choosing to binge on this one.

Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega, Netflix

Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega sucks you right in with poor young-bloods determined to find their power spot in the world. Writers Trishant Srivastava, Nishank Verma, and director Soumendra Padhi keep it raw, real and intense throughout with some thrilling and chilling moments to keep you hooked. School dropouts, reckless and cut-throat, the unemployed youth of Jamtara (Jharkhand) want to make quick cash which will lead them to a successful future. Leading the pack is Sunny Mondal (Sparsh Shrivastav) who runs a money-spinning phishing scam with older cousin Rocky (Anshuman Pushkar) aided by school friends. Sunny’s partner in crime is Gudiya (Monika Panwar), ambitious with her own agenda. They are the wannabe power couple and run coaching classes together. Standing in the way of their dream and the whole racket, for different reasons, are local corrupt politician Brajesh Bhan (Amit Sial) and Dolly Sahu (Aksha Pardasany), Superintendent of Police. If you can swallow the liberally sprinkled but necessary cuss words, the show is a winner. It depicts a world very much rooted in power and its layered dynamics, depending on which side you are on.

Afsos, Amazon Prime Video

“My life story is so poorly written that I feel like I’ve written it myself.” Failed writer, lover, sibling and son Nakul (Gulshan Devaiah) has only one goal in life – he wants to end it in Afsos. After failing to go through with the act 11 times, he hires a committed assassin Upadhyay (Heeba Shah) to finish the job. After assigning the task, his luck changes dramatically, and Nakul changes his mind. The only hurdle is Upadhyay, who doesn’t like unfinished business. A dark comedy that is wicked and funny. The show’s characters are superbly enacted, irrespective of their length, even though they find themselves in some irreverent and unbelievable situations finely crafted by writers Anirban Dasgupta and Dibya Chatterjee. The only discomforting scene was when his therapist, Shloka (Anjali Patil) hands Nakul a razor knife and provokes him to kill himself. Nevertheless, director Anubhuti Kashyap balances the bustling plot with slick direction and solid attention to detail, keeping it sane, grounded and palatable. 

Mentalhood, ZEE5

If you are a Karishma Kapoor fan, you will be delighted by her foray into the digital TV world with Mentalhood, a TV show which explores the vagaries of motherhood, female solidarity and modern issues such as bullying, domestic violence, infidelity, homosexuality, and a mother’s guilt. ALTBalaji attempts to woo the family audience with a cleverly adapted Indian version of HBO show Big Little Lies which connects five mothers, Meira (Karisma), Anuja (Sandhya Mridul), Namrata (Shilpa Shukla), Diksha (Shruti Seth) and Priti (Tillotama Shome), who share lives as their children attend the same school. Director Karishma Kohli keeps the tone light, sensitive, and feminine. As a show, it doesn’t reach the high level one would expect despite the taboo topics it explores but nevertheless entertains and conveys some important messages in the process. With its troop of crackling actors and Kapoor’s fine presence, it’s definitely worth a watch.

She Netflix

She suffers from an age old problem: He. A bunch of men write and direct a female story about sexual awakening and do a huge disservice to an important topic. Producer Imtiaz Ali leads this venture, co-writing with screenwriter Divya Johri, jointly directed by Arif Ali and Avinash Das of Anarkali of Arrah fame. Bhumi Pardesi (Aaditi Pohankar), a junior police officer is chosen by Narcotics Bureau officer Jason Fernandez (Vishwas Kini) to play a prostitute in a bid to bring down a drug cartel, fronted by Sasya (Vijay Varma). The protagonist is viewed throughout from an external perspective, which is not the worst part, she rarely takes a solo decision and the little voice she has is mostly muffled by the male energy. Perhaps it is her surroundings or the fact that she is not aware of her own sexuality. She is initially embarrassed by her body, then recognizes its influence and eventually finds her power through it. This is where it becomes problematic because she starts seeing her body as a tool and the only way to get her share of power. Despite the obvious flaws, Aaditi Pohankar lends dignity to Bhumi with a layered, masterful performance. She maps the journey from timid female to an aggressive temptress effectively and smoothly. Vijay Varma is always a surprise package, with many twists to offer. It’s definitely worth a watch for the actors, some of its sparkling moments and the bold territories it travels to.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.

Thappad: The Slap That Confronts Patriarchy

Zero, one, two, three, four, five… how many slaps justify the end of a marriage? Whichever numerical digit you picked or didn’t pick after watching Thappad, if introspection is your thing, you will feel guilty for being a part of a system that feeds patriarchy, enabling men and women to diminish a woman’s status.

Thappad does a fine job of meticulously and neatly unpacking layers of permissiveness, hypocrisy and privilege which runs through Indian society and its people. How all of us casually, unknowingly, knowingly chip away a woman’s respect with words, sentences, action, inaction, behaviours, interactions and deathly silence. How the tolerance level for failing men is way higher than women and why they get away with worse and beyond, without many murmurs.

Marie Shear defined feminism as the radical notion that women are people. The writers don’t let this window of opportunity slip even for a nanosecond to prove it right. They even place the blame for the one slap where it belongs, which by itself is a monumental step, with the man. Yes, you heard that right! Not his work, not his mood, not his whim, not his fancy, not his mental illness, not the woman. Him. We live and perpetrate inequities to such an extent that even questioning bad behaviour or inhumane treatment becomes an extreme act or rebellion, when really it’s a justified fight for a little space, voice, breath, expression of emotion, and most importantly, respect.

The movie starts simply, Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) frantically stretches herself to manage the home front while her husband Vikram (Pawail Gulati) races up the corporate ladder, losing her own identity and desires in the process. At a party meant to celebrate his success, Vikram involuntarily slaps Amrita in front of guests forcing her to introspect and examine her place in the marriage. Is she happy, is she respected? The answer seems to be painfully obvious even though Vikram himself fails to comprehend the real issue. As in real life, not one person questions the man on the slap but some of them do expect that Amrita should let that pass. 

Breaking the mould of the Hindi cinema heroine with gusto is Amrita, who refuses to play the sacrificial lamb or be bullied into a happy ending. She takes her time and space to question the routine of her marriage. She rightly asks: why did he feel comfortable enough to deliver that slap in the first place? Such a relief to see a determined woman in the face of opposition by people around her, starting from her mother Sandhya (Ratna Pathak Shah), mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi), brother Karan (Ankur Rathi), even her own lawyer Nethra (Maya Sarao) before she takes up her case. Supports include her father Sachin (Kumud Mishra), maid Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), sister-in-law Swati (Naina Grewal) and neighbours Sania (Gracy Goswami) and Shivani (Dia Mirza).

I loved the subtle ways in which the writers bring out the vagaries of everyday existence and our own blind spots. That moment when the progressive father realises he has been an ignorant husband is a hallmark scene. The dilemma of the lawyer who benefits from her in-laws repute, lives within an abusive relationship even as she fights for women’s rights. The maid who has no one fighting for her, the way she battles her own violent husband with spirit. The moves in the legal chess game, as the story progresses, with a delightful cameo by Ram Kapoor who plays Vikram’s lawyer Pramad. Many, many such satisfying moments to cherish in a balanced, exceptional movie.

It is a must-watch not only for its message but for some stellar, well-rounded performances from an ensemble cast. Taapsee Pannu delivers her career best performance, supported strongly by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan (the Soni actress, outstanding, once more), Maya Sarao (effective), Pavail Gulati (excellent, he dishes his final scene sincerely), Dia Mirza (graceful), Ratna Pathak Shah (layered), Tanvi Azmi (natural), Kumud Mishra (superb) and Ram Kapoor (entertaining).

Hat tip to Anubhav Sinha (co-writer, director) and Mrunmayee Lagoo (co-writer) who deliver a living, breathing master stroke, conveying a crucial message with the balance, love and dignity it deserves. Every character is layered, living a dichotomous existence, highlighting our systemic and collective responsibility effectively.

Thappad is subtle yet strong in its message, devoid of unnecessary drama, yet sends the message loud and clear that we jointly tolerate, contribute and benefit from patriarchy. The spunky female fights the good fight and no justification is offered for privileged male behaviour. This slap is designed to fight patriarchy and it does.

rating: 5 out 5

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.


Thappad (2020). Director: Anubhav Sinha. Writers: Mrunmayee Lagoo, Anubhav Sinha. Players: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Maya Sarao, Dia Mirza, Ratna Pathak Shah, Tanvi Azmi, Kumud Mishra and Ram Kapoor.  Music: Anurag Saikia, Mangesh Dhakde. Theatrical release: Benaras Media Works, T-Series.

Love: Refreshed

A husband for home, a wife for away. Intrigued by the title, I clicked on the link sent by a friend who is also my travel companion. The premise of the essay; a special kind of relationship between friends who choose to travel together, leaving behind their families; reflected the kind of trips we had taken. For several years, we had been to exotic locations within and outside India, responding to the call that dragged us away from our families, filled us with awe and wonder, and refreshed and rejuvenated us. Like the essay in the New York Times, ours was a story of friendship, but also modern love.

I read this essay in the Modern Love column on my smartphone as I commuted to work in the air-conditioned comfort of a train in Singapore. On the way back, I clicked to related links at the bottom of the first essay and scrolled through several well-told tales of contemporary love, hooked. By the time I reached home, I was transported to the Mumbai of my teens, a phase in my life where I had preferred reading romance over other genres..

I devoured innumerable tacky Mills and Boon and Harlequin paperbacks piled up in hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstores that doubled as libraries. I didn’t expect anything depicted in these slim books, featuring people whose lives looked nothing like mine, to happen to me. I do not remember putting myself in the shoes of their blue-eyed protagonists. The books were more fantasy than romance. I read them for entertainment and, perhaps, escape.

Over the years, as my logical nature took over my impressionable self, I lost interest in reading romance. With limited time and a refinement of reading tastes, I veered towards fiction and non-fiction titles with more literary merit.

Modern Love essays came to me in midlife; a phase where my children were teenagers, I was remarried, and trying to find my way in our blended family in a new country. Certainly not the best time to idle away precious minutes in light reading when I could have been doing many more meaningful things.

But no matter how old, skeptical or cynical we may be about love, there is something about this ancient, universal emotion that tugs at us insistently, exhorting us to read and respond. No matter how crazy my schedule, I managed to read a handful of essays every so often.

Just like in teenage, reading romance in midlife once again provided an escape. This time the words held deeper meaning, because these were true stories. And they covered a wide canvas. Many featured same-sex relationships and the associated challenges. Some focused on loss; of a child, of a parent, of a way of life, and its consequent lessons. 

Except for a few, there were hardly any Indian protagonists. But it didn’t matter. I found more in common with the bibliophiles who flirted than the woman who tried to understand her Indian boyfriend. Although the protagonists didn’t share my skin color or cultural background, I suffered their heartaches and rejoiced in their success, because these were familiar emotions. From my own experience, I knew that love can hide when you go looking for it but show up uninvited, in the most unexpected places, between the most unlikely people.

Not all Modern Love stories were about romantic love. And I found them more interesting. The appeal of the story lay in the evolution of the protagonist and not so much in the specific nature of the relationship. 

I used to scoff at my friendly neighbor who, unlike me, was a happy housewife with no personal ambitions outside of her home turf. During a particularly trying time, she sent me food, lent me a gas cylinder, and offered to watch my daughter until I returned from work, thereby enabling my single mom lifestyle. Humbled by her generous gesture and loving offer, I learnt that love can grow between two very different people who respect each other. 

Not so long ago, books became movies. Today, essays become Netflix and Amazon shows. When Modern Love episodes showed up on screen, I was not surprised. But when I noticed an essay on Medium.com titled “Is Modern Love Only For White Women?” I was shocked. The writer called out the producers of show for not showing women of color as primary love interests in the eight or so episodes that have been released.

Failure of romantic relationships can be disappointing. But my life experience has taught me that even as we mourn failed connections, or deal with disappointment of interactions that do not live up to our expectations, if we pay attention, we can feel an undercurrent of deep-seated knowledge that we are richer for the experience.

Romantic love, after all, is only one shade among the myriad colors of love that we get to experience in a lifetime.

Resilience in the face of disappointment is an admirable quality. Walking into a romantic relationship after the failure of the first, is foolishness of the first order. But it is also a symbol of hope. A signal that we are deserving of respect, of acceptance, of love. I know this first hand.

Much of our ability to bounce back from failed relationships depends on how we have processed other kinds of love that preceded romantic love in our lives. From the care experienced in a nurturing home, from the mentoring of kind teachers, from the unconditional support of friends, from the solidarity of colleagues and teammates. These are all shades of love. I am sure there are more than fifty.

There is much to learn from Modern Love — not just the column and show, but from our own experiences in these confusing times. In love, as in art, taking the time to understand its subtle shades and nuances is what makes it (and us) special.

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

This piece was initially published on November 7, 2019 under the title Fifty Shades of Modern Love.

Lipstick Under My Burkha

Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur

Heartfelt and made with much gusto, Lipstick Under My Burkha amuses, shocks and even makes you cry. Director Alankrita Shrivastava surprises us in this tale of four women, separated by individual contexts but joined by a common will to be free. These women, trapped in their circumstances, go beyond convention, in rebellious but secret stealth measures. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional, flawed and funny, with shades spread over the whole spectrum-just as real people are. The voice of buaji (Ratna Pathak Shah), relayed as her reading of an erotic novel, connects the film beautifully. It gives multiple layers to the visuals, and meanings beyond what one can see. Lipstick Under My Burkha

Lying on a waxing table, a mother of three looks distraught. Her beautician and she have been discussing her husband. “He doesn’t touch you with love down there, does he?” The woman, looks away, trying to hold tears. “Why do you ask, when you know?” You feel a lump rising in your throat. In another scene, the beautician records her sex act with her boyfriend, just after getting engaged to another man. But she is also a woman in love. A 55-year old woman secretly has phone sex with a much younger swimming instructor, and he has no clue about her identity. Scenes like these and many more make Lipstick Under My Burkha tick and make the characters real. The actors give superlative performances, with a rare slipping of accent.

It takes a break from run-of-the-mill Bollywood romances, and speaks from the heart, in this case that of a woman. A film that unlike Bollywood films refuses to objectify women, and gives them real heart and soul. Women have dreams, women have desires, women have sexual desires, and seek control, at least of their bodies.

In an old residential building owned by buaji that houses all the central characters, Konkona Sen Sharma plays Shirin, a young mother of three and a secret saleswoman. She shines in the role of a repressed yet defiant wife, raising many a questions about independence, self-reliance, and respect for women.

Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), a young college girl, dreams of becoming a singer, struggling against her ultra-conservative upbringing. She attempts to blend in with the other college goers, even if it requires stealing, smoking or late night partying. This story seems to have a flawed sense of modernity, and in that sense falls short of the expectations and bars that the others set. It seems to propound conformity over exploration and adherence over questioning.

Leela (Aahana Kumra), a young beautician with a sizzling sex life with her boyfriend, is being forced into an arranged marriage. She is desperate to make money and struggles to start her own business. She is open and unabashed, even to the extent of cheating on her fiancé.

Buaji, addicted to erotic fiction, and widowed for far too long, craves to explore her sexuality. Her fascination threatens to spill into real life. At the age of 55, she seeks intimacy, which in case of a man would never even be question. But here, it is set to ruffle a few feathers.

The attempts of these women, at stealing this small slice of freedom results in comedy, and often in tragedy. The key strength of this plot is that these women don’t judge each other, taking their lives with a pinch of salt as they continue forward with indefatigable spirits.

The cinematography of the film adds to its realistic, raw feel. The editing helps seamlessly navigate through multiple narratives. The songs and music elevate the film. The pace in the middle part slackens a bit, but the engagement is high and we tide over it.

Refused a censor certificate for being “too lady oriented” and cited for “sexual scenes, abusive words and audio pornography,” the film has been blazing a remarkable streak on the festival circuit. Under that burkha lies a lipstick, and a heart.

 

Hrithik Roshan in “Kaabil”

Kaabil seems to be less of a film and more of a desperate effort to resurrect Hrithik Roshan’s sagging reputation as a bankeable star. Needless to say, Hrithik performs with a seriousness and sincerity that is familiar territory for him. What is missing is the over-weaning need for Hrithik’s hero to be a macho hero. There seems to be an effort to present more of him than the perfectly carved abs, classy steps and melting eyes. An effort that makes a point but sadly misses the mark.

Hrithik plays a blind dubbing artist who is naturally gifted to lipsync animated visuals without seeing them, how he manages the feat is something left unexplained. It does not bother us because everything else in the film is explained at length and in detail, sometimes excruciatingly so. Yami Gautami yet again plays the lovely, loving wife that dies too soon, whose death Hrithik sets out to avenge.

It is gracious of Sanjay Gupta to spare us gory graphic details of violence and violation but he does not spare us the agony of a tediously laid out plot that explains every move of its protagonist even as it shows it. Thankfully, some twists and turns arrive in an otherwise predictable howdunit to lift interest back.

But this ping ping pong ball session with interest becomes tiresome after a point when the long drawn out agony of the lead pair refuses to move you, or the shenanigans of the villains refuse to distress you. A film that was calling out to be vulnerable and raw quickly ends up being a cold, blunt butter knife instead.

The vulnerable hero’s journey is portrayed as an incredibly uphill task that he apparently covers with sheer grit and brains. However, the grit comes off more as courage by habit than an inner strength born of adversity and his smartness more as successful flukes. In the David vs Goliath battle Ronit Roy and Narendra Jha play the Goliaths with little impact, one is caricaturish, the other too dull. Yami Gautami looks as gorgeous as any lovely advertising model and performs accordingly too.

Perhaps, what is interesting to note also is the gaze that is telling the story, a gaze that thankfully refrains from lending a morality to the crime but is biased about the individual pain it has caused. Rohan’s pain is all that we see, Supriya is a mere reflection. Her pain is not important, not to her, not to the makers who sacrifice her conveniently to spare their hero more agony; that is the reasoning given to us for Supriya’s death. In the 21st century. But given the regressive route the world is taking it is not much of a surprise either. The gaze is far more telling of our real world than it is of the film.

Director & Producer – Rakesh Roshan;

Writers – Vijay Kumar Mishra, Sanjay Masoom (dialogue)

Cast – Hrithik Roshan, Yami Gautami, Ronit Roy, Rohit Roy, Narendra Jha

Music – Salim Merchant, Suleiman Merchant

Review first appeared in Indian Entertainment Online