Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for June, 2012

Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 8, 2012

Realising he’s trapped by the police.

Because Shanghai – which I’ve now watched and highly recommend – was coming out this week, I decided to revisit my favourite of Dibakar Banerjee’s films. It turned out to be even better than I remembered.

When you hear that a movie is being made about the life of a thief, you assume that it is either a damning of the thief, a critique of society (“the honest people are the real evil!”) or – if the filmmakers are really awesome – a metaphysical examination of the nature of property. Dibakar Banerjee’s stellar Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! has element s of all these, but one of its basic statements is their rejection.

It’s almost impossible for me to unravel the layers of nuance here and tell you what (I think) Banerjee was going for. Just as an example, take the whole real crimes show which brackets the movie: it seems to be a frame but it’s not, because when was the last time one of these episodes was over two hours long, starred the real criminal (we know Abhay Deol is playing Lucky and not the guy who plays Lucky because of the photo interludes, which are obviously from the show), and had a scene where the anchor complains about the word ‘sansani khez’? (I’ve grown up with that phrase – in exactly this type of show, actually – and take it so much for granted that I don’t have the slightest clue whether it’s one word or two and whether it means sensational or sensational news,) It’s in fact a sub-plot that acts as a simple critique of the role of the media (life is just not sansani khez, damn it) and also a synecdoche of the attitudes of society (notice that these shows at the same time vilify and hero-fy the criminals).

Lucky is above our society, a trailblazer and an outcast, and yet is so only in his own imagination. If it’s possible to fit OLLO into one sentence, that last is probably it. He is not an abstract moral anti-hero who hates his society, but a brilliant, arrogant man who considers himself a level above all those around him; the central conflict of the movie is that no one else agrees. His family considers him a nuisance, his colleagues think of him as a troublesome ‘un who can be profitable if handled right, the world at large thinks of him as a menace, and his girlfriend (Neetu Chandra) considers him just another dude who happens to have a weird career choice.

It’s telling how Lucky fights these perceptions. He tries to appear penitent to his father, impress the older brother with his wealth and power, bribes his younger brother to turn up at his wedding, tries superhuman-seeming stunts for his girlfriend, and treats his colleagues like shit just expecting them to lick his feet anyway; because, respectively, he wants to win his father’s approval, his older brother’s respect, his younger’s love and his girlfriend’s awe, and to him his colleagues are just annoying people who give him shit while he’s doing what he’s great at.

Speaking of his relationships, the juxtaposition between of and above comes out perfectly in his relationship with his girlfriend Sonal; well, it’s seen in many places actually, but it’s easier for me to write about this because I’ve been really learning about the politics of discrimination the past few months. He lives in a deeply sexist society, where a girl is ‘asking for it’ just by being a dancer or wearing a revealing dress. On the surface, he rejects this sexism, fighting violently on the behalf of women where others just say that nothing can be done because the harasser is too powerful a person and winning Sonal’s heart rather than asking her family for her hand; and yet when you really look at it, throughout the movie he often treats her like shit, first stalking her till she falls for him (that she falls for him after that is itself a symptom of society’s sexism and its effect on women), always trying to keep her in awe of his power and manliness and afterwards constantly pushing her aside, abandoning her on camels, whatnot. This is exactly how we’d expect someone who takes the “respecting women as our mothers” part of our culture very seriously indeed: love women but always remember that they aren’t men.

Looking at this essay, you might be forgiven for thinking that OLLO is rather a pessimistic movie. For most of its running time, it is; even though it is almost unrelentingly funny, the jokes usually range from the throwaway moment to the morbid, rarely if ever venturing into the territory of happy. But, it redeems humanity too; yes, it doesn’t pretend to offer a real solution to the various muddles Indian society has got itself into, but there are two scenes at the end of the movie where we are allowed to see the world stripped of it baggage, where we are allowed to see that the trouble here is in the culture not in the people in it.

The first is an extended scene where Lucky cheerily arbitrates the reclamation of property. The police love the guy; there’s both the fact that he’s something of an icon and the fact that he’s very co-operative and charming. There’s one bit here where he meets a couple who doesn’t remember him but whom he remembers: he reminds them how he robbed them, and where to find the stuff he stole. The couple and he take each other’s leave with a respectful Namaste.

The second is with a paan-walla who may or may not know who he is. Maybe he is a man who just thinks this guy is a TV star and is honestly honoured to have him eat paan at his shop, and maybe he knows who Lucky is, and he’s a fan of this icon. But whichever be the case, he is nice in the simplest, most pure fashion possible – an affliction rarely seen in this movie.

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“It’s something we are all intimately involved with.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 1, 2012

Originally published at madaboutmoviez.com.

Recently, while reading about alternative gender identities like transgenderism and pangenderism, I came across a type of person known in porn circles as a “shemale,” usually a trans-woman who has had breasts grown with estrogen but hasn’t had the surgery to replace the penis with a vagina (less offensive term: gynandromorph). Apparently, there’s a whole sub-genre of porn devoted to gynandromorphs. Now, in the minds of most, this raises an important question: who is turned on by this? Definitely, there is a small subset of humanity for whom they are the ideal sexual partners, or one of a set of equally preferable ones, but I feel safe in assuming that the porn industry isn’t interested in targeting them; if they went down that road, the first milestone would have been porn aimed at women. So, the conclusion is that heterosexual men are turned on by gynandromorphs. But while you are pondering this question, there are more obvious ones, like why are men so often turned on by lesbian sex? For that matter, why are men turned on by women and women by men?

For the last question, we can easily fill in some platitudes about reproductive instinct and whatnot, but the fact remains that, experientially, in our head is a black box that takes certain images and sensations as input and gives feelings of arousal as output. J G Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s movie Crash are about people for whom these black boxes have wiring very, very strange to us; they make a gynandromorph fetish look like something you’d be willing to discuss with your mother.

The movie begins with a woman making love to an airplane wing, before she is joined by a man who gives her what the wing can’t: fingers. She is Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), wife of movie producer James Ballard (James Spader), who is at that moment having sex with his camerawoman just off set. Later, they compare notes – “did you finish?,” “did she finish?” – before themselves having sex, aroused by the notes.

Cut to James driving. He drops a script, veers into the wrong side of the road, and crashes. The man in the passenger seat shoots into his car and immediately dies. The woman (Holly Hunter), like James himself, was wearing a seatbelt and so is still in place. She shows him her breast.

James wakes up in hospital. Catherine describes the ruins to him, in the tone of dirty talk. There’s a man (Elias Koteas) who seems very interested in his injuries.

James, after months healing, still morbidly fascinated by the experience, visits what’s left of his car and there meets Dr. Helen Remington, the other driver. He gives her a lift, they narrowly avoid another accident, they fuck, she takes him to a staging of the car crash in which James Dean died by Vaughan (Koteas) and a couple of his stunt driver friends – no seat belts, real cars crashing into each other – and they go back to Vaughan’s, where he and one of the drivers (who’s still concussed) start discussing the Jayne Mansfield crash (“we can do the dead dog”).

So, here’s the big secret: Vaughan, Helen and their posse are turned on by car crashes. Vaughan, the ringleader, has a load of words about why that is so – apparently the sexual energy of a crash victim is concentrated into a crash. He very much has the dangerous allure of a cult leader. When James tells Catherine, they have the most passionate sex they’ve had in a while.

The most amazing thing about this movie is not that it depicts such a subculture, but that it depicts it without the slightest hint of judgement. Yes, their blackboxes are oddly wired but they are their personal boxes and none of our business and all Cronenberg does is portray them; pop psychology is completely absent (most of the Holvudine idiocracy would try to add something about childhood molestation or abandonment issues) and the mainstream culture only exists in so far as these guys couldn’t care less about it.

Modern western culture is more tolerant than many others, but it’s still remarkably churlish about sex. Many people have stopped watching this movie because it is too “sick,” but, as Roger Ebert insightfully points out, replace crashes with your favourite fetish and this is pornography.

Another thing we have difficulty with is the value of individual life; in that we wish to rank it highly, but never really do except with our nears and dears. Let me put it this way: how many people here would like to see criminals behind bars (or, better yet, dead)? How many of you have watched and been deeply affected by a gangster movie where there is no black and white only grey? (Note: in real life, there’s almost never black and white.) There’s a story a friend of mine likes to tell people, about how a European traveller found a tribe where there’s a guy whose only purpose in life is to serve as the chief’s chair; the traveller, of course, was shocked, and the tribals amused at his shock. They’ve been taught to believe that there’s a social order that’s more important than they are (and despite our discomfort with this notion, the martyr is a common form of hero in our mythologies).

Where does this tie in with the movie, you ask? Remember the cult whose leader just told the whole cult to drink poison and they did? Well, in the movie, soon after the happenings discussed above, one of the stunt drivers does the Mansfield crash. And dies. And kills god only knows how many innocent bystanders (and a dog). And arouses Vaughan, James and Catherine.

The progress of the movie is similar to a teenager who starts off masturbating to women in bikinis, and then goes into pornography because bikinis don’t do it for him any more, and then… what starts off as better sex with his wife ends up with James putting his penis into a crash victim’s scar (and, for good measure, every time Cronenberg lets us see it before that it looks rather vaginal) turns into climaxing with the crashing of cars turns into Vaughan killing himself by driving off the road and landing on the roof of a bus turns into James crashing Catherine and, when she assures him she’s all right, him saying “Maybe next time” followed by a nice fuck.

The tendency here is to regard these people as damaged somehow; but remember, for you will have to understand and deal with certain truths about your own moral code, whatever such conclusion you come to is yours and yours alone – the movie merely presented the facts of the case, merely put aberration in our faces to make us think things that we really ought not to be proud of.

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