Aug 31, 2013

The recurring motif

A powerful, tyrannical king hears a forecast that a certain baby will grow up to usurp his kingdom. The king sends out mercenaries to kill the child, but the child survives all odds. He grows into a healthy young man, comes back and kills the king, and takes over the kingdom.

krishna fights kamsa

This is the story of Krishna, a popular Hindu god. But it is also the story of Christ: it was forecasted to Herod that a child would come to usurp him, after which he sent mercenaries to kill all newborn males. Many people have wondered why the story of Krishna and Christ are similar, or, even, if Christ’s story was copied from Krishna’s, since Krishna is dated 4,000 years older than Christ. But is that all there is to the story?

In fact, the roots of this motif go far, far deeper in Indo-European cultures. In the earliest of Greek myths, Ouranos, the king of the world, is told that his son will overthrow him. His son Chronus castrates his father and becomes King. 

chronus eats his child
Chronus is again told that his son will supersede him. He swallows five of his children but his wife hides the sixth one (like Kamsa who kills seven of his sister’s children but cannot kill the eighth). Zeus grows up to rescue his siblings from his father’s belly and imprison his father.

In fact, the exact motif of Krishna’s story is found in another Greek story. Acrisius is told that his sister’s son will kill him, and imprisons his sister (his daughter in some accounts). Unlike Kamsa, this man had the sense not to imprison a couple together, but Zeus outsmarts him by creeping into the girl’s room as rain. Once Danae is pregnant, Acrisius releases her into the ocean, hoping she will die. Zeus’s jealous wife Hera (like Kamsa) sends mercenary after mercenary to kill the little one, but he survives and goes on to kill his uncle.

danae and perseus left t o die

The Bible itself has many precedents from which Christ’s story has a better chance of being inspired than Krishna’s story. The most famous of them is of Moses. He was born to a Jewish servant, at a time when the Egyptian king ordered all newborn Jews killed.  His mother floats him down a river, where he is found and raised by an Egyptian princess. He grows up to kill the Egyptian king and rescue fellow Jews from slavery.

princess finds moses

Merlin Stone writes in her book When God was a Woman, that these stories are remnants of an even older tradition of ritual regicide. Before the advent of patriarchy, Stone writes, when men were hunters and women controlled the homes, offices, and religious institutions, kingdoms were passed down along matriarchal lines. It was normal for younger kings to kill older ones and marry the reigning queen. Such was the tale of Ouranos, who killed his father Chaos to marry his mother Gaia. Such also was the tale of Chronus, who castrated his father to marry the next queen, his sister Rhea. It was also normal for queens, afraid of a king’s growing hold on power, to end it through the popular ritual of regicide, and marry younger men, usually their sons. Such was the story of the Near Eastern Goddess Ishtar and her boy lover Tammuz, who she killed and took new lovers.

cronus castrates ouranos

Due to developments such as agriculture, men no longer needed to hunt, and started staying home. That was when the next generation of stories began: those that depict the foundations of patriarchy. Zeus, after killing his father, defended his position. The prophecies were made even for him, but he overcame them. When he hears that the son of Thetis will grow up conquer his father, he gets Thetis married off to a mortal instead of fathering a child on her as he intended to. He ended the cycle of regicide, and patriarchy supplanted matriarchy. What better way to represent it than by the story of Metis. When Zeus hears the same prophecy about Metis, who was already pregnant with his children, he simply swallows her.

zeus swallowed metis, forever subduing her son, her daughter was born form his head

Then came the stories like Oedipus, where the pre-patriarchal practices were explicitly banned. Oedipus’s marriage with his mother is depicted as a sin, and the regicide, his father’s murder, an even bigger sin. This value system was a wide departure from the stories of Egyptian Goddess Isis, who, though famously depicted as nursing her son Horus, was eventually depicted as his beloved consort. This relationship was portrayed as normal and positive, a viewpoint found in many dead Indo-European religions. In Hinduism, the relentless march of patriarchy for several centuries has destroyed the stories of such practices. (Although it is notable that Aphrodite is considered to be derived from matriarchal goddesses like Ishtar and Isis. Aphrodite had many boy lovers. Her Hindu parallel, Rati, is perhaps the only Hindu goddess to love a boy she nursed. Pradhyumna grew up to marry her.) However, vestiges of these practices remain, in stories that warn against them.

oedipus, shamed for sinning

The stories parallel Oedipus’, and explicitly forbid relationships with mothers and mother figures. Many folktales exist of estranged sons falling in love with their mothers and impregnating them. The story that follows is about expiating such a sin. Also in this category are tales that warn us of the consequences of frequent regicide. In Shishir Basanta ko Katha, Shishir ends up in a town where every day the queen’s new bridegroom is killed, and there are no young men left. So desperate are the townspeople for a king that they will crown any young man, which happens to be Shishir. The same folktale also exists in Newar community. Bisket Jatra tells the story of a hero who beheads the snake responsible for killing previous kings to become permanent king.

death of adonis, sometimes thought to be a remnant of the tradition of ritual regicide

In some versions of the Nepali folktale, a son is standing guard over his mother when snakes climb out of her nose. He kills the snakes, but spatters blood on his mother. Afraid to wipe it with his hands, he stoops to lick the blood off her breast, remembering that he suckled at it as a baby. In the older stories, this is the moment when the son deposes the father and marries his mother. But in the new story, the king is on the verge of executing his son for incest, but stops when the son explains that a mother’s breast is sacred to sons. This version establishes that a mother is a just a nurturing figure and not a sexual object for sons.

Coming back to Krishna and Jesus, they are among a myriad stories, leftovers of the old motif, which have everything but the offending incest and patricide, offering a socially acceptable alternative to the old mechanisms of succession. Among them are folktales of a king who hears a forecast through chhaiti ko bhabhi or something like that, and orders the killing of a child. But the child survives, eventually coming to destroy the king and marry his daughter. Krishna’s story is no different. Interestingly, Mahabharata, the oldest source of Krishna’s story, gives very sketchy details of Krishna’s early life. It only mentions in passing the murder of Kamsa and some other enemies. The background story (of the forecast, the mercenaries sent to kill him, etc) was built from folktales over generations, before finally being compiled in Bhagwat Puran and other Puranas.

Did he ever claim this?
Perhaps it is not surprising that a tried and tested pattern was used to furnish his background. The motif was so powerful that it was even squeezed into the story of Jesus Christ willy-nilly. Scholars trace the image of Mary nursing Jesus to the images of Isis and Horus. Even though Christ, with his death, effectively gave up any claim to kingship, his followers still see him as the rightful king, though of heaven. Like Horus who was reassembled from pieces of flesh, Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead. As new kings were celebrated every year after a regicide, Jesus is resurrected from death every year.

isis and horus?

At the end of the day, this is a story of transfer of power, of social rules for how inheritance should work (perhaps it is no coincidence that Oedipus and his father fought over the “right” to the road). Depending on the ending, one method is legitimized and another outlawed. The violent matriarchal system sought to limit male power and lineage through murder. The patriarchy that followed has been quite limiting for women. Any system where one sex seeks to kill or confine the other is ultimately self destructive. This series of stories seems to be still evolving, having still not arrived at an ending satisfactory to everyone. However, in passing this series does show that our values are not set in stone. Even the ones we hold as sacred and dear as the purity of mother-child relationship, are arbitrary, and subject to change with the vagaries of time. 

Note: The idea for this post came from a suggestion by fellow blogger Subodh :)

Aug 23, 2013

In the middle of nowhere

Once upon a time, a Martini used to be James Bond’s favourite drink. His instructions on how to make it: “Shaken, not stirred” was iconic, synonymous to Bond himself. It was used in several other movies and books to identify Bond. But not anymore. Since the past two movies, James Bond’s drink of choice has been Heineken Beer. Why did the movie producers decided to change such an iconic element of James Bond’s lifestyle? Because Heineken paid them to do so. The days when stars advertise their brands in commercials is passé, these are the days of product placement, where products are advertised within the movies. The scene may look like an innocent part of the movie, but the truth goes far deeper.

If you watched the much hyped Chennai Express (which I fervently hope you did not, for your own good), you must remember Shahrukh Khan rattling off at breakneck speed the benefits of his phone. You might think he is being just annoying when he lists everything that a Nokia Lumia 920 can do, and finishes off with the price. But this is another case of product placement. And it is no coincidence that when the phone was thrown off the train, we got a close up of it twinkling amidst pebbles, not a scratch on it. When we walk out the theatre, they want us to say “remember, the phone did not break even when it was thrown off a train.”

The scene channelized a tried and tested advertising formula: whether the advertisement creates good buzz or bad does not matter, what matters is the brand recall. In other words, whether or not consumers remember a product is all that matters. The formula is used successfully in products like Bingo or close-up that make fun of themselves, but use striking ideas to do so. It was also used in the Zindagi Na MIlegi Dobara, where BPL was called bum pe laat. Sure, it makes fun of BPL, but the joke ensured that BPL the brand remained with viewers for long after the movie. The same was the case with Chennai Express. Yes, Shahrukh Khan was annoying, and Deepika made fun of his phone. But also, now all unsuspecting viewers remember the phone and its qualities by heart.

At least, this advertisement makes sense in the story. If anyone had watched the insipid movie Chashme Baddoor (which, again, I wish no one ever did) you probably remember the irritating scene where two characters sing a certain washing powder’s entire advertorial song, twice over. You might be forgiven if you thought the characters are so awkward at bonding that they have to resort to such unusual means. But surely it is possible to show an awkward bonding without any help from washing powders? In fact, the entire ten minutes that precedes the song, of one character dirtying his shirt, and the other washing it to perfection, is nothing but one big long advertisement, if you think about it.

No brand that appears in a movie is innocuous, though it may look so. Especially if it appears for more than two seconds. The air hostess academy that Katrina Kaif went to in Welcome paid for its name to appear in the movie, and Singapore Tourism Board heavily sponsored Krish. Shahrukh Khan may have got misty eyed at the sight of an Enfield motorcycle in Jab Tak Hei Jaan, and Ali Zafar may talk about his Mahindra Scooter with as much affection as for his girlfriend in Chashme Baddoor, but at the end of the day, those emotions are fake. (I mean, of course all emotions are faked in a movie, but this a different level of fake. I am sure you know what I mean by now.) 

Remember how Akshay Khanna and Aishwarya Rai drank from the same soft drink bottle in Taal? They could have fallen in love over a glass of homemade lassi or a local sugarcane juice, but no, it was Coke, because the multinational giant sponsored the scenes. And remember how Hrithik drinks only Bournvita in Koi Mil Gaya? Yes, it fits his childish character, but it fits the producers’ pockets even better. Ghanchakkar, after all that hype, turned out to be a forgettable film, but watchers will be loath to forget Vidya Balan dangling a packet of Manforce to Emraan Hashmi. Even period movies are not left alone. The jewellery brand Tanishq had designed an entire bridal line for Aishwarya Rai in Jodha Akbar, and a lighter everyday line for Paheli. Of course, modern brands cannot be named in a period movie, but it can be talked about extensively, which was done under their agreement.

Movie watchers have loved to copy the trends their favourites stars sport, and most fashion trends in modern times have come from the entertainment industry. If movies can make fashions popular, why not brands? Hollywood movies, especially action movies, advertise many gadgets and vehicles this way. And research says that this is fast becoming the most reliable type of advertising.

On one hand, innovative ways of advertising are good for everyone: the marketing industry, the products. Movie producers are happy to have a reliable source of finance. And if people buy these products, it boosts the economy. But on the other hand, what about creativity and storytelling? What if, in future movies, every five minutes is peppered with a corporate reference? Yes, it may fit perfectly in the story, like the three protagonists’ trip to Spain in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, but would the story have been different if it had been set somewhere else? Was the story compromised for the sake of advertising the Tomatina festival, for instance? 

What if we start altering our storylines just so that we can accommodate a few more brands? What if we compromise even on the central theme of our story, like James Bond did? And what if, like the washing powder ad in Chashme Baddoor, the ads just get clumsier and clumsier? Will we be forced to sit through boring advertorial collage for our money, instead of watching a story that touches our hearts? Maybe, at one point, having “Coca-Cola” in a song, was cool and funny (remember Latka from Hindustani, way way back? That was much before brands paid their way into movies). But today, the “set wet smell” in the middle of a song just reeks of money (Charlie in Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola).

Thankfully, product placement has not gained so much traction in Nepali movies yet. The last movie I watched, Loot, was still free of conspicuous advertising. Maybe because our market is so small that big brands have not found it worth investing in yet. As a result, we retain our creativity and freedom, whatever small measure we have of it. But the day is not far behind when the eagle eyes of multinational companies spot smaller markets. It goes without saying that their financing is desperately needed in Nepali films, where our limited market makes investment on a bollywood scale risky for individuals. However, corporate financing does come with a heavy cost, and our entertainers will have to fight to retain the integrity of their stories. We, the viewers must remember that whenever we see a brand in a movie, it’s not there because our favourite star likes it, or even that the scriptwriter thinks it is cool. Anytime we see a hero drinking Sprite and the heroine eating Lays, we must remember that it is no coincidence.

Aug 19, 2013

A wrinkle in time

There was a time when I had volunteered to take Rob and Ally, two residents of an old age home, to their house twice a week to feed their birds. They were sick, but they were confident that one day they would get well and go back to their homes. That is why they never sold or gave away their fives pretty little cockatoos. Twice a week we gave the birds feed, changed their water, and sometimes cleaned their cages.

But not everyone was as confident, or even as sane, as Ally and Rob.  One day at the TV room, one of the women was holding a big doll of an infant in her lap. She looked at me piteously. “I am about to be sick” she whined, “I would rather go to my room than stay here”
“Don’t worry, you will be fine,” I tried to comfort her.
“I am really feeling sick” she repeated, and made as if she was going to vomit into her napkin. I was really scared now.
“I’ll go get someone” I told her.
“Oh, don’t worry about her, she is just waiting for her turn” said the doctor who was examining another woman.
“I have been here for so long, and he has been with her for half an hour, and never comes to see meeee, I would rather go to my room” now the lady had begun whining, her pitch rising with each word. Just then Rob came along, and I waved goodbye to her.

Later, I found that this lady was in the habit of shouting in a very loud and singsong voice all evening. Her voice kept ringing in the background as I played cards with a few inmates.
“If I don’t go crazy in here listening to her voice, I will certainly go crazy when I go out” said Ally.
“Yes, I think so too, I’ll always be saying where’s that voice? And they will have to bring me back in here” said Cathy.

Many old people seemed to return to such childlike behavior as they lost their sanity.  I saw another lady clutching a big doll. I asked to have a look, but with a frown on her face, she turned away, hiding the doll. The next around though, she offered to let me have a look, and even told me the baby’s name. “How is she?” I asked. “Oh she’s growing up fine, she just got her teeth” the lady replied.

“Bryan, if my oxygen runs out while playing, will you please refill it?” Cathy requested. Bryan was the head nurse.
“Sure” said Bryan before leaving the room.
“If he keeps that up he will even be my favorite nurse” said Cathy.
“Nooooo” Ally wagged her finger at her as Cathy laughed.
“Why not?” I was confused.
“If you lived here, you would know!” Ally explained. “He is not the best nurse, he doesn’t really change my dressing when it’s supposed to be done!”
Later, I saw what they meant. When Cathy did ask for her oxygen refill, help was not so forthcoming. “They always get their way” she grumbled to Ally. “Always” Ally nodded in agreement.
The incident made me think of how we idealize the west as having perfect “systems,” but how, if you scratch the surface, you see that the system leaves much to be desired. The old age home was a government institution, and all the personnel were just doing their duty. They had no special passion for it, and I realized that no matter how good a system is, it can never substitute for genuine care that we give our near ones out of love.

But not all was glum in the home. Because they did not like the head nurse, the inmates seemed to enjoy ganging up against him.
“Sometimes we hide the assistants out” said Cathy.
“Hide them out? What do you mean, like in the closet or something?”
“Yup” Ally decided to take the joke further.
“What do they do in the closet? Make phone calls?”I was still not getting it.
“Oh no, they just come in here and close the door, they take a break and they know we won’t tell” Ally finally decided to put me out of my misery!
Right on cue, an assistant came bounding in. “Can I stay here for a while?” she questioned.
“Sure, we can hide you in the fishbowl!” said Rob.

John told us college kids come to entertain them twice a week. “Tuesday nights the white girls come, and Wednesday night the colored girls do,” said he.
“Well, boys come too, but he only notices the girls.” Ally teased him.

As we were about to leave the common room, Ally and Cathy hurriedly began to assemble a jigsaw puzzle.
“Do u like puzzles?” I asked them.
“No,” they both replied. “We spoiled John’s puzzle, and he is going to be mad at us, so we are trying to put it back together.” The women kept giggling as they worked.
“I’ll bring my hammer,” said Cathy.
“No no, let’s just glue it together,” giggled Ally.
“The monkey in the puzzle looks like John,” said Cathy. It was a jungle scene.
“It’s sitting on top of a Bible, shame on us,” said Ally.
“So now the puzzle is blessed,” said Cathy.
Thankfully, they managed to put the puzzle together before John came in frowning.

I got plenty of weird questions about Nepal. Ally wanted to know if we hunted tigers and rhinos, and Rob asked if we used elephants to lift the timber. Later I found Rob was a regular joker. ”Are you trying to be a cheerleader?” he asked me on day as I was skipping around the yard. “I couldn’t be a cheerleader, I never do anything physical” I replied. “You do the dishes, don’t you? That’s physical!” he told me. If doing the dishes could give me cheerleading skills, then washing clothes would make me fly!

The top knuckle of Rob’s middle finger was missing. It was an inch shorter than other fingers. “What happened to your finger?” I asked Rob.
“Oh, she got hungry” he pointed at his wife, who burst into peals of wild laughter. Only much later did he relent and admit that he had come across his father’s sickle when he was six months old.

“Once I was standing behind a gentleman, and he was toasting marshmallows over the fire” Rob began another story. “I hollered at him, and he turned around and hit me square on the nose with his hot marshmallow”
“Ouch” I commented.
“Yeah, I said Ouch, and I said a lot of other words!” Dan finished!

The inmates were invited to a lecture in which none of them were interested. “This woman talked about outer space. I don’t know much about going up there, but I know some people I'd like to kick that high” Rob said grumpily.

The last time I took Rob to his house, he was glum.  “The wife had a heart attack, so now I can’t risk annoying her. Doc told me that for now, she is always right.” I looked back at him glumly. “But that’s easy to do, coz that’s what she always was!” he finished with his customary cheer, and I had to smile back.

That day Rob and Ally decided to read the Bible instead of playing games. Ally said she went to church every Sunday. “I have been known to pray, though I don’t go to church regularly. I am not perfect” said Rob.
“Only one person is perfect, we know that,” said Ally.
“And that is God himself,” said Rob.
I the atheist had nothing to say about this God that gave them comfort when nothing else did. And that is how I always remember them, holding hands as they read and looked forward to a bright future together.
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