Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Balak Palak: A must-watch for palaks (parents)

It’s been a while since Marathi cinema came of age, but it reiterated its maturity with its willingness to tackle a tricky subject like sex education for teenagers. Balak Palak is Marathi for children and parents but the initials BP could just as well stand for Blue Picture, the means that four teenagers in a Mumbai chawl, the one-time bastion of conservative middle-class domicile, employ to enlighten themselves on a subject that is stirring their interest.

The film starts with a man who loses his temper on discovering porn stash belonging to Shlok, his 11-year-old son. Even as the poor kid gets soundly thrashed, his mother reminds her husband, Avya, to understand, not punish, the child’s curiosity.

Cut to a group of fast friends, boys Avya and Bhagya, and girls Dolly and Chiu, on the last day of their school exams. Bursting with expectations for the upcoming Diwali vacations, they return home to find their chawl caught up in a strange hullabaloo. Jyoti tai (Marathi for sister) and her family are leaving the chawl out of disgrace. The children overhear Pednekar kakoo, the neighbourhood gossip, declaring that those who eat shenn (literally Marathi for eating cowdung) deserve such treatment.

Unaware of what the phrase means, the children make the discovery of the meaning the goal of their Diwali holidays. When the dictionary fails to yield the answer and their parents angrily brush their questions aside or slap them for daring to ask, they contact Vishu, a no-good under-privileged classmate of theirs whose circumstances have exposed him at a very early age to the knowledge they seek.

Vishu happily assumes the mantle of a guru, offering to initiate them into the intricacies of what he refers to as dhichuk-dhichuk. They start by reading cheap editions of pornographic literature, then graduate to hovering outside the windows of newly married couples. When both methods fail, leaving them with only the faintest idea of what constitutes dhichuk-dhichuk, Vishu tells them there is only one way to get all the answers they seek. They must view a BP to complete their education.

I took the trouble of looking up the meaning of Susangati Sada Ghado, a beautiful song to whose rousing rendition the quartet hustle about the important task of collecting Rs 115, the cost of hiring a VCR, the device that revolutionised home movie viewing in the 1980s, and its partner, the video cassette.

The song invites children to keep good company, to listen to kind words and eschew impure thoughts, to never use their hands to do something that would defile their character. As the song builds up to a crescendo, the visuals of the film show the Five ‘Find-Outers’ reaching the climax of the evocatively named, Raat rani ki shaitani.

The tryst with the forbidden knowledge alters their beautiful friendship forever and changes the innocent equations between them. As they try to come to terms with the sudden awareness of their sexuality, Bhagya develops a crush on Neha, a collegian residing in their chawl, who has always been a ‘tai’ to them. Avya meanwhile imagines himself in love with Chiu.

The film offers a visually delightful look at life in the chawl, the sense of community that it represented, where doors remained open throughout the day and, whether for good or for ill, people considered their neighbour’s business their own. The chawl, which serves as a microcosm of society, is filled with its share of characters peddling sexist attitudes, reinforcing the myth that you are a bad girl if you dress in a certain way.

There were several moments during which the entire audience burst out laughing spontaneously, particularly when Vishu, using a geometric compass, etches the name of Sampada, the girl he loves, across his forearm. Unfortunately, spellings aren’t his strength, and so Sampada begins to look like Sanpada, a suburb in Navi Mumbai. Later Vishu advises Avya to love Dolly instead of Chiu because ‘Doli’ is easier to spell.

The imagined dance sequences, once a staple of Bollywood films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, offer a glimpse of the mindsets of the teenagers, as they seek to navigate tricky terrain through an imitation of what they see on the big screen. Incidentally, the film is set in the mid-1980s.

The sub-titles are superb, enabling even non-Marathi speakers to relate to the film completely.

The film makes a case for adolescents, who are driven by their curiosity to ask questions that make their parents uncomfortable. And yet those parents were once children themselves, but have forgotten what it once meant to have hormones raging, and to see the whole world differently.

At one point, Kaka Kadam, a strict yet paternalistic figure whose kids have flown the coop, observes the behaviour of the foursome. He attempts to warn Avya’s father and later Bhagya’s, both of whom fail to recognise that their children are growing and that they might now need to alter their parenting frameworks and gain their children’s friendship. Another time, when Dolly’s mother hazards the suggestion that they could consider answering their children’s questions, she is ticked off by the other parents.

In the end, Shlok’s father speaks to his wife about the need to find the Vishu among their son’s friends. She wisely tells him that today’s kids carry their Vishu everywhere with them, in the form of DVDs, CDs and the Internet. It was a masterfully written line, which caused an oh-so-wee upheaval in my heart. Am I prepared for when the questions start popping in La Niña’s and El Niño’s minds?

She adds that when the quartet was grappling with the great mystery, they were 13; their son is 11. Strangely, she says, over so many decades, curiosity only became two years younger.

At the rate at which Vishu has pervaded our lives, I wonder how much younger curiosity will get by the time today’s generation of little kids grows up.

My only grouse was that Shlok’s father, the Avya of the flashback, so quickly accepted the error of his position. Having built up so beautifully, the ending of the film was a little too pat and dry. Aside from that minor quibble, kudos to the crew for fantastic direction, acting, characterisation, music, lyrics and cinematography. And above all, for bringing up an important message without sounding preachy.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Our Toy Story

“Tell your family and friends not to gift us dolls,” the Husband said, soon after La Niña was born. “No child of mine will play with dolls.” I was quick to take offence at this unjust slight against my maayeka (Indian term for a married woman’s maiden home).

But the aggression was short-lived. I knew him enough to know that it wasn’t the garden-variety of dolls that he was so vehemently opposed to as that paragon of impossible perfections, Barbie. Since I hated Barbie too, the argument ended before it even began.

As a child growing up in a Single Income Multiple Kids family, my brothers and I never asked for toys, knowing that the moolah was in short supply. Nor were there any malls or big brands to tempt us. Besides back then, children had healthy outdoor playing habits. Few people really had toys. We had cricket bats, rubber balls, sock balls too, carrom boards, playing cards etc, but we never thought of them as toys, more like props for our games. And yet what fun we used to have.

I wanted that for my children. I wanted them to have fun, without having to rely on toys. I didn’t want them to feel bored if the batteries of some expensive remote-controlled racer car ran out. I wanted them to be able to rely on their own imaginations to rustle up a fun time. I didn’t want them to bawl when their toys broke.

In fact for much of my childhood, a little plastic doll, about a foot-tall, was my pride. She was nothing like the plastic dolls of today, with separate body parts and clothing and accessories. This one was fashioned out of a single sheet of plastic that was then moulded into the shape of a doll and painted over. Its inside was completely hollow. How I loved that doll! My love did not falter even when my older brother painted a moustache over her lip. Once someone stepped on her and her stomach was completely flattened. I still remember how Dad did some repair work and got her up and about again. She retained the dent, of course, but I loved my ‘dented and painted lady’ all the same.

Nor did the Husband have any toys of his own as a child. In fact, he told me (and I've noticed my younger brother do this too, so I know it is a boy habit), he used to pretend his pencil box, eraser, even books, were cars and drive them around, making appropriate engine sounds with his mouth.

The fact that we had had fun with almost no toys had convinced us that the world is a playground and that fewer toys are actually better for kids in the long run. There’s no question of siblings fighting over toys. In the absence of toys, children learn to be creative with the other objects around them.

La Niña and El Niño have enjoyed themselves enormously playing with odds and ends such as a discarded talcum powder container, cassette covers, steel and plastic spoons, pencil box, comb, a large brinjal (which was soon confiscated), an old broken telephone, a desk calendar etc. The plethora of objects around the house encouraged their creativity and imagination.

The kids learned to play together and often involved any parent/grandparent who looked suitably idle in their playtime sessions. They also learned to look after their toys. After playtime was over, they put their toys away. Sometimes.

When the toys ceased to entertain them, and Mamma was home, there was always time for a cuddle and a book reading. Or a drawing and colouring session on some used paper. Another advantage was that our home décor wasn’t overtaken by building blocks, stuffed bears, steel kitchenware, rubber and plastic balls and bats and plastic toys. And oh, the greatest joy, to be able to go to a mall without fearing a long list of demands or tantrums.

Both of us agreed that we didn’t want our children to measure the worth of their childhood by the wealth of their toys. That sequence in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Jingle all the Way, where all the parents are at the toy store, ready to bite each other’s heads off and get killed in stampedes in an attempt to get that all-coveted Turbo-Man action figure was a nightmare we didn’t want to play a stellar role in.

Once children get bitten by the lust for new toys, a hunger that toy companies and big brands riding on the back of cartoon TV channels judiciously nurture, toys cease to be childish playthings. They become status symbols, much as gadgets become for adults. Cost no barrier. I am, therefore, I want.

On the few occasions when we set out to buy gifts, things didn’t really go well for us. We were once walking through the children’s section of a mall. The Husband insisted, “We must buy educational toys for our children,” all the while eyeing this huge remote-controlled child-scale model of a car, large enough for a toddler to sit in and pretend it was the real deal. I realised that if I wasn’t careful, we’d end up buying toys that my children’s Dadda never had when he was growing up.

Incidentally, both the Husband and I are against Chinese toys. The few times we have looked for toys either for our own kids or for other children, we painstakingly look for the Made in India tag. Naturally, there are not too many toys like that. So we buy books instead.

Even though we steered clear of toy purchases, our home got inundated by toys after the first birthday parties of La Niña and El Niño. We put the toys out of the kids’ reach, having decided that we would bring down a toy or two on infrequent occasions as a special treat, or when the kids weren’t well and needed special comfort.

The advantage of this method of offering toys selectively ensured that, aside from a few well-worn toys, they always had something new to look forward to, which would promptly be put away after playtime. This made the few toys appear endlessly new in their eyes.

Above all, both of us consciously admitted that we had to be our kids’ first toys. When I sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or try to reproduce animal noises, the effort is likely to go further than a Chinese-made piano belting out nursery rhymes and Beethoven’s Fur Elise with equal felicity.

When the Husband goes down on his fours to be a donkey for the kids to ride on or when he playfully wrestles with them, he achieves far more than toys that promise to stimulate the synapses in their brain and enhance their cognitive abilities.

After all, the big toy corporation has always been stressing, Toys R Us. This is our way of showing we believe them.  

This article was written for Parentous, an online community for parenting-related issues. You can read the original HERE.  

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Title: Jobless Clueless Reckless
Author: Revathi Suresh
Publisher: Duckbill
Pages: 175

Whoever said First impressions are the best impressions was way off the mark.

When you first start reading Jobless Clueless Reckless, the debut novel of Revathi Suresh, you feel distracted by the vagueness and begin to wonder just how jobless and reckless the author was to come up with a character as clueless as Kavya.

And then things get better.

The trick lies in not spending time looking for a plot that isn’t there, but in enjoying the tumultuous ride that is an adolescent girl’s life. Here you will find boy issues, best friend issues, distant mother, absent father and pesky brother issues -- everything that seems larger than life, when you’re a teenager whose life seems all set to crash before it can even take off.

Even as she tries to make sense of her clueless-seeming life, young Kavya shoulders the burden of this difficult journey upon her shoulders. Not an easy task, what with the rumours that she has invented and bumped off a fictional best friend, Manisha, and that she can haul out your intestines with just one look. What’s more, Kavya’s favourite dress code is always all-black, giving rise to reports that she may be a vampire. And of course, she has never been to school.

Her life is complicated by an 11-year-old brother Dhrittiman, who seems to be from another planet altogether but who she must babysit, because her mother has more energy and inclination for the family dog Mowgli than for her children, and her father has flown away with his prized collection of board games to Holland.

Through it all, Kavya wonders if her life is doomed for failure as she struggles to re-create the kind of best-friendship she once had with Manisha, her one-time occasional best friend from America who disappeared, with her friends in Grand Canyon, the pretentiously named housing complex in Bangalore where she lives. The casually doodled circles around the equally casually scrawled page numbers are an indication of the couldn’t-care-less attitude with which the adolescent Kavya imbues her life.

Much of Kavya’s life, like her prospect of appearing for the tenth standard board exams, the very bedrock of a young person’s future in India, is in limbo. No one understands her, not even Lara, who has been conferred the title of Best Friend.

Kavya’s biggest problem is that she seems like a freak to those around her. We’ve all experienced moments like that when try as we might we could not fit in. We yearned for the approval of our peers, when it seemed the only thing worth having.

Ironically while teenagers are often accused of being irresponsible, hormonally driven, selfish individuals, Kavya shows herself to be mature enough to look after her younger brother, a task her mother is shirking out of laziness and perhaps out of spite. Perhaps as a way of hitting out against the husband who walked out of their lives.

The writing, in the present tense, invites you into Kavya’s disordered world in which youngsters have to shoulder the responsibilities that adults have shirked. The style of writing, though chatty and conversational, does not fail to give us a glimpse of the angst suffered by a teenage girl as she navigates the landmines that adolescence throws in her way. 

Pay close attention to the poignancy of feeling experienced by a child rushing to her father’s room to make sure his cherished boards games are still there, the ones he’d never leave without, though he might leave without them.

The teenage vocabulary has been reproduced to telling effect, right down to the indiscriminate and arbitrary use of Like and other colloquialisms and slang words, so favoured by urban English-speaking, Facebook-checking and tech-savvy youngsters. More power to Revathi for having so successfully recreated the idiom of teenage angst and turmoil in urban India.

The names that Kavya calls people that she is annoyed with are marvelously creative. Sample this: cataplastic epigenesist, hypertonic diploid. The writing is funny in the subtle, clever one-liners, not the ROFL kind that readers these days expect. The humour of Kavya’s lingo catches us totally unawares. It is the kind that walks around with a straight face, then sneaks up on you and thumps you hard on the back, while shouting, “Gotcha.” There were more than a few occasions when I found myself shaking helplessly with laughter, unable to stop the laughing fit once it had started.

Such a strong character can come into being and thrive only when a good writer throws away the plot lines and dialogues that she started out with and allows herself to be led. Revathi has done just that and so we have a girl who hopes her eyes leave bite marks.

They certainly do.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Mother India's Five-Point Plea

Thought you’d never ask.

So you want me to do a SWOT analysis on myself? Figure out my greatest problems and see how I can improve? I know the answers, you ignorant children of mine. And you do too, but you don’t care enough about me to work towards making things better. It suits you, this current situation. You benefit from it, and that is why even though you can try to bring in change, you won’t. What other explanation is there? What other excuse do you have?

Centuries of wisdom run through your veins. Your instinct is home to so much knowledge that people travelled far to seek. They battled all kinds of hazards just to reach me and drink of my learning. And I, profligate mother that I am, lavish that learning on you. Cause it to flow like water.

Anyway, what is the point of raking all that now? I’m only saying this because you asked me for my views on what ails me? Here are the diseases that I suffer from, in no particular order:

1) You have no respect for women. You worship a pantheon of goddesses and you revere me. But ordinary women, the kind who struggle to breathe and give life, they are ill treated by you. You may call me Bharat Mata or Mother India, depending on your background and your sensibilities, but women continue to be reviled by you, treated as mere objects, a sum of body parts. Your mother, wife, sister, daughter have to live a life that is subject to your rules. Their choices, you say, threaten your family honour, so they have to be kept under subjection. Eyes lowered, head covered, body parts hidden. These are the rules they must follow. Or suffer your lascivious eyes, your groping hands. But do your rules guarantee their safety or security. No. They are just a farce, to protect you, and give you an excuse to shift the blame on them.

First learn to keep your lusts under control, to think of women with respect. To see them as intelligent, sensitive beings with a mind of their own, not just as people who must cook and clean up after you.

If you are so insecure as to feel threatened by their freedom, seek to improve your characters and personalities, rather than subdue theirs.

Rapes, sexual assaults, molestation, and that horrifying reality that you trivialise as eve-teasing, they are all the stuff of too-real nightmares for half of the population. And yet you feel no shame at your part in bringing this situation to pass.

Learn to attach your sense of honour to the well-being of women everywhere and the sense of shame every time one of you commits an act that debases a woman.

2) Lack of governance: The history books your children learn talk about the glories of the past. But where are the glories of the present? From the smallest unit in the smallest village to the central level, the quality of governance is pathetic. Your elected representatives do nothing for the electorate, after the elections are over. They are too busy serving their own interests.

It’s time for you to step up to the plate. Make voting compulsory. Let people who fail to do their duty as citizens be stripped of privileges they take for granted. The poor come out to vote. It’s the rich who care little about whether their nation goes to the dogs or not and the middle class who smugly declare that things will never change that are to blame. Let those who fail to vote be taxed higher. Let the elected leaders be held accountable.

The lack of governance extends to the running of most systems. Courts, the police force, hospitals, schools, companies, they are all run without an effective leadership, without the urge to do good, to leave society better off. They all want to make a fast and quick buck at the expense of others.

Can you as people who pay for services demand quality in everything you pay for?

3) Lack of infrastructure: Development will never be achieved unless those responsible are held so on pain of punishment. Look at the roads, the railways, the airlines, the communication systems, they are all consistently and uniformly pathetic. You can seek to become another Shanghai or whatever other developed city catches your fancy. You won’t ever achieve it, unless you straighten out this mess.

4) Malnutrition and child labour: Sometimes I think you deserve this mess. No country deserves to aspire to glory and riches, if it cannot look after the welfare of its young ones.

Do you have any idea how many children under the age of 5 die every year of account of malnutrition? I will tell you. More than 47 per cent of Indian children under 5 suffer from malnutrition. That equals a figure of about 60 million children, the highest in the world. Two million Indian children under 5 die each year.

There are kids with distended stomachs like yours, but while yours are s due to excessive consumption, theirs are due to starvation and malnutrition.

Can you equip your primary health care such that every mother knows the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of her child’s life and thereafter supplementary feeding for at least till the baby turns two years of age? Can you inform poor mothers about inexpensive ways of bolstering theirs own and their children’s diets? Can you make these health supplements available at low rates? Can you make dahi and peanuts available to children to help them build body mass? Can you ensure that it does not become fodder for another scam?

Do you know how many children lose their childhoods forever because of child labour? Do you know how many of them suffer the attendant hazards of child trafficking and the doorway to evil that it opens?

Can you promise not to hire children in your homes and workplaces? Can you promise to boycott products that were made by the service and suffering of children? Can you do it in a manner that does not force them to the streets and to a worse life? Can you work towards the rehabilitation and education of such children?

5) Corruption: Nothing moves in this country unless money pushes it. And government ministers and officials think nothing of using their government powers for personal and illegitimate gain. I am ashamed of being ranked 94 on the list of the Global Corruption Index. Need I say more?

Can all political parties get together to set in motion a strong Lokpal with teeth? So everyone can be held accountable, and those who fail are penalised for it?

Know your rights, and hold your leaders accountable. Study how the best and most admirable systems of governance are run and learn from those examples.

There are other problems but I will restrict myself to these. Five has a nice ring to it, and you have a special fondness for it. Five-year plans, five-point agendas.

Let me see you tackle my list of five if you want me to be proud of the fact that you get your nationality and heritage from me.

I am,

Yours Sincerely,

Mother India

This post is a part of Weekend contest at in association with Chanakya's new manifesto


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