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Sunday 21 April 2019
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Bollywood: Challenging the love laws

I wished to write about love, but that wouldn’t be completely "cultural" or maybe it is. There is a lot to be said about it from all perspectives: brotherly love, spiritual love, romantic love, maternal love, paternal love. It’s a magnificent word – LOVE – when you look long and hard at it, filled with various colours and ways of being.

I remember buying Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, the year that it hit the bookstores. I read it in one sitting, beginning somewhere around 9 pm and ending at around 2 am, thereabouts. I cannot be held to this time for it’s been 21 years since that reading. I had just completed my undergraduate work and my experience of the world was sorely wanting. So I read the work with a political detachment but also with whatever experience that I had about human desire and pain (not that I had any experience of this). Through the years, some lines remained with me and became even more relevant as experience dished out my lessons. They read, “…it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” (Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 33)

The lines formed the central point of the book. And to an extent when I think of Journey to the Center of the Earth, all I can think of is the centrality of love and how it is defined to us. But also, to borrow some lines again “Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons.” (Roy, the God of Small Things, 5)

I do not intend this as a literary essay of any sort, rather these are the results of some ruminations this week as I think ethnicity, as I think marginalisation, as I think cinema, as I think of the overall power of art to change the conversations, whatever those important conversations are. I thought of Deepa Mehta’s films Fire and Water, Arundhati Roy’s book, works by Indian women who pushed the boundaries, who challenged the limits of traditions and thought. They challenged not only the social constructs around women’s lives but the limits of love be it same-sex relationships or the plights of widows and widow re-marriage. In effect they were challenging time and cultural and social structures that belonged to the "back there".

And as it has been in my life, not by chance, a friend sent a whatsapp this week in response to a status update that I had posted citing two books that had changed his life. One was J Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known. “That’s a book that will have you questioning all your beliefs,” he said.

Last week, I began to think along ethnic lines because it was a historic week. When Hindi films first came to Trinidad in 1935, they began to change the musical and cultural traditions of East Indians here. They weren’t always met with acceptance by more conventional quarters but over time what was once modern and unacceptable, became normalised. Some elders recount that "seeing people like us on the big screen, at a time when it was white people only, gave our people a sense of pride." In a sense, films aid in no small measure, to legitimise changing beliefs. Our musical culture itself – steelpan, Carnival, calypso, chutney – all draw material from films.

Over the course of history, book burnings, banned books that included classics that we have access to today like The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath, The House Un-American Activities committee set up in the late 1930s to investigate allegations of communist material in the motion picture industry in America, which led to the imprisonment of a number of screenwriters, are evidence of administrators’ recognition of the power of artistic work to influence "public morality" and inspire political unrest.

So, two weeks ago when a close friend, in an emotional rush said in the midst of a conversation, "Oh my God! How did I not tell you? There is a film due to be released on February 1. Let’s go see it but I want to see it alone first ‘cause I am sure I am going to cry," all I could say was "Wow! And those are mainstream Bollywood actors! Kudos to them."

Here’s to the power of popular cinema. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha to Aisa Laga is on now at MovieTowne. We are yet to see what the public reception looks like.

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