Bollywood’s latest legal wrangle is more than a petty squabble

626518-padmavati-deepika-shahid-ranveer-collage

You may not have heard, since British news seems largely uninterested in covering the story, but a Bollywood film has had major attention across India this week. “Padmavat”, the story of a Hindu rani defying a Muslim ruler, has been barred from release in four of India’s states. Since November, India’s High Court has been involved to overturn the local bans amidst a violent outcry.

The film stars favourite leads Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who have previously been paired up in similar epics Ram-Leela, a 2013 Romeo and Juliet-type tragedy, and Bajirao Mastani (2015).

Why the uproar? Although specific complaints have been about the sexualised treatment of Rajput legendary figure Padmavati (the “i” was removed from the film’s name in a superficial bid to appease some, following a recommendation by the Central Board of Film Certification, who approved the film’s release uncut). In a single scene, Muslim ‘king’ Alauddin Khilji dreams of a saucy tryst with the revered beauty Padmavati, the depiction of which has outraged Hindus across India.

To be clear, the film is not, strictly speaking, a romantic picture. So what is the real problem?

As usual, it’s about Hindus and Muslims, who just can’t seem to get along. It’s not surprising following centuries of invasions, massacres, Partition, heated rhetoric and ongoing bloody conflict. Frustrating is the way that the two sides can’t leave history where it belongs, in the past, and work towards a future of peace and cooperation. It’s easy for me to say. But it’s also easy to do. One simply puts down the sword.

I’ve simplified: it’s not just about Hindus and Muslims. It’s also about India and Pakistan, and about women and men. Women have a pretty shit deal in both countries. Padmavati is idolised as a powerful woman, despite her act of power being sati, suicide-by-fire. In this case her self-immolation was to protect herself from being ravaged by the enemy, but almost always sati was and is an act of social pressure and culturally-imbued madness on behalf of a widow, whose death must inevitably follow that of her husband if she is to remain pure and respectful. She does not, in any real sense, feel like she has a choice. I myself have seen the red paint handprints on walls of village buildings and forts that were the historic signatures of those about to die because of men.

I would like to say that the film controversy is, in some way, in sisterhood with the powerful MeToo movement/s here in the West, but it’s not. Boil it down, and it’s still about Hindus and Muslims.

So powerful is the outrage that the as-yet unreleased film has inspired the following:

  • Mass protests across large portions of the country, primarily Hindu-strong regions such as Rajasthan
  • Legal attempts to ban the film, or at least censor it
  • The invasion of the film set by one of India’s growing sinister caste groups, and personal attacks on the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Vandalism of cinemas who hadn’t denounced the film
  • Threats of violence against the lead actress, Padukone
  • The burning of effigies of Bhansali, and
  • A £1m+ bounty on the heads of Padukone and Bhansali.

Bhansali has denied that the film includes such a sequence at all.

But such is the mass madness that comes with the peculiar mob mentality of some Indians. Fuelled by ignorance of the truth, validated by the belief that they are on the side of God or gods, and buoyed by centuries of bloodshed and bigotry (against both faith and gender), violence has washed across the country yet again.

Padmavati is not a historical figure, but a fictional heroine, here portrayed in a work of fiction.

Is it naive to expect sense from hordes who are lit on such fuel? Yes, obviously, but to paraphrase Lenon, I’m not the only dreamer. My India novel ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ was a necessarily naive novel, written from the outside by someone who doesn’t have a stake in the ancient fued between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Only, I do have a stake, and it is a desire for less death and suffering in the world, on behalf of humanity, and as a member of the human race I was more than happy to speak out in my own modest if offensive way.

When I passed free copies of ‘Cycles’ to my Indian and Pakistani friends I was always told that the first chapter was good. But then followed silence. The novel is about the growing pains of modern India, a grand attestation I make, with some embarrassment, through a more modest analogy of teen rabblerousers in Rajasthan. In part it is also about the romance between near-atheist Hindu boy, Shivlal, and near-irreverent Muslim girl, Mariam. Told, I hope, sweetly, but paying due respect, I also hope, to the fierce history that precedes my shallow experience with the societies involved, I expected the star-crossed romance to go by without much offense caused. My desi friends, after all, were worldly-wise and, in their small ways, irreverent of their own traditions to get involved with this gora backpacker/kafir scribbler. But their silence spoke volumes.

I make explanations for my naivety: It is naivety that will allow dreams to pave the way for future change. I make explanations but not excuses, since I was deliberately naive, and because an ‘enforced naivety’ – the choosing to forget about the things that don’t matter, in order to make things better for ourselves and our children – is what India and Pakistan need. But who am I to say this? I am a human stakeholder, that’s who.

It’s hard for me to hide my sad, weary disappointment. There is a lot of love in the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. But passion is a double-edged sword, and it continues to threaten to slice on both swings. I hope that there can be some new peace and cooperation found once this latest scandal blows over.

—db


The BBC has given some small coverage to the controversy, here, here and here.

You can read about ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here. 50% of profits go to Action Village India.

I strongly encourage discussion on this and related matters! Leave a comment here or email me at davidbrookesuk(at)gmail(dot)com.

 

Why fiction might need “white saviours”

In fiction, the “white saviour” trope is the unfavourable use of a white (typically Western) protagonist who saves a group of non-white (typically non-Western) characters from a situation from which they have been unable to free themselves.

Wikipedia puts it better:

“The narrative trope of the white savior is how the mass communications medium of cinema represents the sociology of race and ethnic relations, by presenting abstract concepts—such as morality—as innate characteristics (racial and cultural) of white people, rather than as characteristics innate to people of color.”

In almost any sense, this is not cool. It frames the person of colour as being too weak, incompetent or ignorant to solve their own problems, and it takes a outsider to ride in on a white horse (sometimes literally) to show them the light. This has appeared in a great many novels, films and TV series and continues to happen (Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’ (2017) and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-present) come to mind.

Iron Fist

Finn Jones in “Marvel’s Iron Fist” (2017)

Game of Thrones

Emelia Clarke in “Game of Thrones” Season 3 (2013)

As a young reader I was frequently irritated by novels set in other countries but which had a Western protagonist. I now see the advantage of this: the writer gets to show the exotic setting through the eyes of a newcomer, highlighting things of interest to an unfamiliar reader that would be ignored by a native protagonist as being too boring or too normal to be worth mentioning. But since the protagonist is (should) usually be important enough to the story to warrant having a novel written about them, they are typically the hero of the story, and this almost inevitably puts them in the position of a ‘white saviour’ type.

Personally, I would rather have the novel steeped in the local culture entirely; and besides, wouldn’t I be more fascinated by a protagonist who thinks and acts like a native? I’m smart enough to work out the differences myself, you know. Some of my favourite novels dropped me right into the thick of it, such as Salmon Rushdie’s masterpiece ‘Midnight’s Children’.

The problem with the current publishing industry (in the West) is that although exotic people and locations sell, naturally enough, today’s floundering publisher wants to flog as many books as they can, and that means alienating as few readers as possible. According to the industry, the weary commuter on a bus doesn’t want to go to the trouble of understanding a ‘foreign-minded’ protagonist. They don’t want to be challenged and have to look up unfamiliar words. It should be made as easy as possible for the reader, since most books sold are lowest-common-denominator fiction in the romance or crime genres found in Tesco, which I generally think of as formulaic fiction for dum-dums (sorry).

The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise in ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003)

Temple of Doom

Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ (1984)

I ran aground in this respect with my last novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ (2016). ‘Cycles’ is set in Rajasthan and deals with a group of lost teenagers struggling to find their place in modern India. Knowing what I (thought I) know, I chose to include one character who is an outsider who could introduce the glorious, frantic, artistic beauty of Udaipur to the reader in the opening section. This came in the form of Bindya, a young woman of Indian descent who was born in Udaipur but emigrated with her parents to Birmingham, England as a teenager. Years later she returned to this strange but familiar land, where she set up a youth centre. Although the main characters look to Bindya for advice, since she is older, she is actually just as lost as they are and is of little help.

I had hoped that this slight Westernisation of a character would be enough for the literary agents to whom I submitted the novel for representation. Actually it didn’t help at all. One agent said that no-one was interested in a book set in India written by a non-Indian (Isn’t that a bit–? Never mind). Another said that Bindya’s first chapter, in which she returns to Udaipur after a short trip away, read like travel writing (i.e. she was too much of an outsider). It seemed that I wasn’t going native enough – but did I have a right to go further, since I myself am an outsider? I was self-conscious enough about that when I set out to write ‘Cycles’.

Recently, whilst doing a lot of enjoyable reading and pretending it’s research for my current novel, I returned to the vibrant graphic novel ‘The White Lama’ by Alexandro Jodorowsky (writer) and Georges Bess (artist). The story is full-blown fantasy (unless you happen to believe in reincarnation, shamanistic magic and demons), but I love the mystic melodrama of it. The story is set in 19th Century Tibet, where two white missionaries are killed soon after they arrive, and their orphaned baby is raised by local Tibetans, who believe him to be the reincarnation of a revered lama. He grows up to reach a high level of enlightenment, develops a set of fierce magical powers, and then saves his adopted people from tyrants and dark sorcerers.

The White Lama

Isn’t this just another example of a white saviour? I thought (secretly loving pretty much everything about it). The book is even called ‘The White Lama’…! Why couldn’t it have been about a Tibetan baby? Fair enough, he is a reborn Tibetan ‘soul’….

This was agonising for me, at a time when I had completed the first 70,000 words of an epic novel set in India, this time focussing on Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala. At first I imagined my Tibetan protagonist having a Heinrich Harrer-type confidante, but wasn’t that equally shabby of me? Eventually I settled on having the protagonist’s mother, who is the main focus of much of Part One, being the daughter of Tibetan exiles raised in Switzerland, where there are 4,000+. Like Bindya in ‘Cycles’, Padma Pema temporarily allows the reader to see the growing drama that surrounds her through the eyes of an outsider, though this time in a way that is far more significant to the plot.

Neither Bindya nor Padma Pema are saviours in their stories, but they do their jobs. It seems a fair compromise between a white hero in an exotic land and a ‘totally native’ novel written by an outsider.

What do my readers think? Are there any warranted examples of ‘white saviour’ types? Should writers only write about their own cultures?

—db

Buy ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here.

 

Paperback for more

News!

To date my novels Cycles of Udaipur and The Gun of Our Maker have only been available for e-readers like Kindle.

Coming this Sunday, you’ll now be able to order them as actual paperbacks made of actual paper, thanks to Amazon!

If you already have the e-books, feel free to get a lovely tangible version too for your bookcase. They look real pretty.

—db

CnUZIdaWAAA7rH2.jpg large

Available for pre-order: ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ by David Brookes

I’m thrilled to announce that my new novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur’, is currently available for pre-order! It will be published in ebook format to coincide with Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival in honour of the deity Shiva, occurring on Monday 7th March 2016.

You can read more about the book and pre-order your copy here on Amazon (for Kindle) or here on Smashwords (for non-Kindle e-readers).


 

Final Cover 01


 

CYCLES OF UDAIPUR
David Brookes

Rajasthan is a vivid land of colour and spice, Maharajahs
and gods. But the vibrant city of Udaipur is not the peaceful
Hindu refuge it once was, and as India races towards
modernity its youth faces a cultural identity crisis.

When young Raj hits a cow with his motorcycle, little does
he know that he has started a chain reaction that will
obliterate his close-knit group of friends. Mariam is a Muslim
artist forbidden to paint Hindu deities. Her paramour Shiv
aches to be a politician in a city ruled by gangland overlords.
And lovelorn Vansh finds himself sucked into a mystical
vortex from which his mind may not recover.

Set against the sweeping grandeur of Rajasthani history,
Cycles of Udaipur spins on the axle of tradition and
progress: a tangled web of hope, faith and enduring passion
that epitomises a new India heretofore unknown to the West.


 

Thanks again to everyone for their encouragement and support. Happy reading!

—db


 

New Release: ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ – coming soon!

I’m extremely happy to announce that my latest novel, ‘Cycles of Udaipur’, is almost ready for publication via Amazon and Smashwords!

Set in colourful Rajasthan, India, ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ has been described as a coming-of-age story for a whole country, as India rapidly modernises in the wake of Partition and globalisation.

More details to follow! Thanks to everyone whose love and support helped bring about this novel after four years of hard work.

199 Pichola Lake

Pichola Lake, Udaipur – 2012. (C) David Brookes

—db

100 years of Bollywood – What desi fiction does right

Deepika Padukone passion

Deepika Padukone in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

Bollywood recently celebrated its 100th year. Indian, Pakistani and Tamil have been close to my heart for a few years now: in 2012 I backpacked around India; some of my favourite people are Pakistani; and I spent a long and joyous time researching my (hopefully) upcoming novel Cycles of Udaipur [edit: it’s now available here!]. I’ve watched enough Bollywood films in the last few years to catch up with three decades of world cinema.

As the single most distinctive form of cinema, Bollywood is often a love-or-hate thing for British audiences. I live in Sheffield, one of the north’s most cosmopolitan cities, so our mainstream and indie cinemas draw in big crowds for their frequent showing of Asian films. I’m usually one of the very few white faces in such crowds, but I rarely feel such a buzz or sense of camaraderie as I do at those viewings.

So what can writers learn from Bollywood cinema?

Jodha Akbar passion

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai in Jodha Akbar

If there’s one thing to define the “genre”, besides the spontaneous song-and-dance numbers and spangly productions, it is the emotional power that such films project. I know people who avoid Bollywood purely because each film is such an emotional rollercoaster. If I cry during a “filmi”, it’s probably because I’m watching Jodha Akbar (2008) or Ram-Leela (2013), or films like the lesser-known Raincoat (2004), each of which has a powerful emotional core that beats most dramatic films of the West hands down.

Jodha Akbar is a historical epic centering around the marriage of a Muslim conqueror and his Hindu lover. It is a story of love that transcends all barriers, much like the crux of Ram-Leela, a modern-day Hindustani Romeo and Juliet. Literature, of course, is no stranger to the themes of love, which has been explored in all its facets for thousands of years. But too many English-language novels neglect to dig deep enough into this fundamental emotion, shying away for fear of being too flowery in terms of prose. Is this a flaw of Western literature, or is it the right balance for our comparatively reserved culture?

Raincoat film passion

Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai in Raincoat

Ram Leela passion

Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone in Ram-Leela

There is a reason that so many Bollywood films are musicals; the emotions at play are far too powerful to be contained. This is a statement that is arguably laughable, but there is a lot to learn from the unashamedly ebullient nature of desi films. British literature at its best is a cultural caricature: restrained, emotionally suffocated, bleak and dour. D.H.Lawrence, Martin Amis, Jeffrey Archer and John le Carré make a fortune off the misery of their characters, with only a rare few – unsurprisingly operating in the fringes of genre fiction – allow their natural brightness to shine through: the likes of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Ruth Rendell.

I hopefully need not return to what I think of contemporary “romantic” fiction, all of which operates on the largely worthless scale between erotica and chick-lit.

The blandness of English literature could well do with a counteracting injection of Bollywood-style passion, not just of the tear-jerking variety, of which we have become quite adept, but also encapsulating the wealth of untapped positive emotions, which would bring colour to those drab bookshop shelves.

—db

Holy cows and swastikas – “Cycles of Udaipur”

199 Pichola Lake


In 2012-13 I was lucky enough to take some time to travel the world. My first stop was India, a country so crazy I don’t have the space to describe it properly here. India is a bizarro-England, in some familiar and in some the complete opposite. It is frantic, deliriously colourful, filthy yet pure, spiritual yet seemingly gods-forsaken. I loved it.

Despite the great times I had in subsequent countries – including the currently blighted Nepal (donate here) – I decided that my next novel would be set in India, which is in many ways unexplored by modern literature.

Contemporary novels set in India (at least, those written in English), are enamoured with the history and spirituality of the country, at the expense of reality. They acknowledge the issue of poverty and patriarchal social structure, but shirk its rapidly-growing modernity for a daydreamy post-Raj interpretation. They fail entirely to deal with the disillusionment of its modern youth, the outpacing of technology and wealth compared to the cultural maturity of its emerging middle class, and the much-underpublicised rise in sophisticated gang crime.


Cycles of Udaipur


I adored many of the cities I visited during my time in India, but my favourite was almost certainly Udaipur: beautiful, serene, artistic Udaipur, in deep Rajasthan.  There are two cities in the world that I felt a strong immediate bond with upon visiting (the second is Kathmandu, specifically Boudhanath). I set my novel, “Cycles of Udaipur”, in Rajasthan and set out to explore the new tribulations of India’s youth as described above.

The finished result is “Cycles of Udaipur”, which has been much changed and edited since I finished its first draft a long time ago. I’m now very excited to approach my first literary agency, which the is the first step on the long, steep, painful road towards traditional publication.

I’ll keep you posted – in the mean time, wish me luck!

—db