Of Cinema, Literature & the National Anthem

I spent a good chunk of September back home in Chennai, India, which partly explains why I haven’t added anything to this space for over a month. Back when I used to live in Chennai, my friends and I regularly whined about the city – its crowds, the heat, public transportation, the conservativeness. We moaned about life in Chennai while happily enjoying the free drinks that we were served in fancy bars on Ladies’ Nights (yes,the drinks were actually free, in a bid to get more women to show up).

And while I still can’t handle the excruciating heat, when I return to Chennai now, I’m able to appreciate its characteristics and quirks in ways that I didn’t before. Distance has that effect, of course. And so does living in Germany which, if I’m honest, can be a tad too organized to provide any kind of serious jolt to the senses. And I seem to need that occasionally.

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In short, I had a wonderful time being back home with family, eating way past the point of bursting, lounging around with my dogs, speaking Tamil (which I’ve missed!) and just generally gallivanting. I even managed to head to the gym everyday to counteract the effect of all that face-stuffing I was doing.

The Social Justice Film Festival

The first weekend, my mum and I headed to the Social Justice Film Festival held (ironically) at the Goethe Institut in Chennai. I was thoroughly impressed with the event; it was heartening to see that the auditorium was packed.

We caught a couple of panel discussions and a screening of the documentary Kakkoos, directed by Divya Bharathi. The film was difficult to watch, to put it mildly. It delves into the grim reality of manual scavenging, which is still widely carried out across India despite the ban and is a form of caste-based discrimination enforced upon Dalits. An overwhelming majority (approx. 90 percent) of those involved in manual scavenging also happen to be women. If you’re interested in knowing more, here’s a piece on The Wire from earlier this year on the topic.

Cinemas & Museums

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I had the opportunity to finally visit DakshinaChitra, an open-air heritage museum that showcases the rich cultural heritage of South India. You’ll find old structures that have been recreated with many of their original features, such as the crafted doors and woodwork, carefully preserved. This photo here is of the Chikmagalur House. Built in 1914 by Mohamed Ismail, whose ancestors had immigrated from present-day Turkey, it represents the Muslim heritage of Karnataka.

If you find yourself in and around Chennai, definitely pay a visit!

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Nothing beats watching a movie for ₹150 in a cozy cinema hall (seriously, you can even ask for blankets and a pillow) while munching on delectable popcorn. Which is why every time I’m in Chennai, I make sure to head to the movies even if there’s nothing good to watch.

We caught a screening of ‘Kurangu Bommai‘, a decent movie with a few laudable moments. What was bizarre, however, was having to stand still for the national anthem that echoed through the cinema hall before the movie began. We’re back to doing this again? I remember back in 2008, when a friend and I headed to the movies to watch ‘Rock On’, we burst out laughing as the image of AR Rahman singing the national anthem while his hair fluttered in the wind filled the screen. For the remainder of the song, we shook with muffled laughter as other movie-goers looked ahead patriotically.

But seriously, you know you’re in trouble when symbols of nationalism start to pervade the arts, regardless of which country you’re from.

The Haul

On a trip to India, it is customary to stock up on food (even MTR Ready-to-Eat seems like a treat when you’re abroad). I also indulged in a little bit of shopping for clothes and art supplies, and stocked up on some reading material as well.

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Nicolas Wild’s Kabul Disco was the first graphic novel I ever read. I’ve been addicted ever since, devouring the works of Joe Sacco, Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, Sarah Glidden, Jason Lutes, Amruta Patil, Riad Sattouf and many more. This time around, I finally got my hands on Wild’s third graphic novel, Silent was Zarathustra. I also procured Sarnath Banerjee’s ‘Corridor‘, and Sita’s Ramayana, featuring beautiful illustrations by Patua artist and storyteller Moyna Chitrakar. And I finally got my very own copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist work ‘The Second Sex‘, which I’d first avidly devoured back in graduate school. At ₹665 (€8.60), it was a steal!

“Through all my sojourns I had carried memories on my back like Huien Tsang’s chair, until at seventeen, I felt hunched over with nostalgia like a middle-aged man.” – Kushanava Choudhury

While at the bookstore, I sat in the deserted Cookery section engrossed in the beautiful prose of Kushanava Choudhury’s ‘The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta‘ as instrumental Carnatic music poured forth from the speakers, and was compelled to buy the book. The final addition to the pile was a copy of ‘Unseen: The Truth about India’s Manual Scavengers‘ by Bhasha Singh.

At the end of my trip, as I stood at the immigration counter waiting to get my passport stamped, the moustached man asked me what I’d studied. When I replied with “International Relations”, he nodded smugly and said, “Ah, so you’re exactly the kind of person Prime Minister Modi needs.”

I reckon he’s been spending way too much time at the movies.

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