Is “Sixteen” not sweet anymore?

This trailer is for a movie that is soon to be released. The description of the movie says that “Sixteen captures the life of these teens, as they go through their loves and heartaches, dreams and destruction in their school, home and the outside world. Sixteen is the story of their friendship and turbulent route it takes through the growing up years.” With such a noble theme, a close friend of mine (Gayathri Raj) and I were discussing what we think about the movie’s possible message.  As people who have spent a large section of our teens in India, we have several mutual objections to the content portrayed in the movie. Here is an excerpt as follows:

Self: So, what did you think of the trailer? What specific aspects in terms of its message came across to you and why?

GR: To be very honest, I hate it. I don’t think it is a very admirable thing they are doing by targeting teen audiences with this sort of a message, which depicts the absolute bastardization of Indian culture. Man, I was 16 in Delhi, and fine I was always in control of my life unlike these characters and I was also “staid”, but seriously there is no need to glamorize this.

Self : But don’t you think their story deserves to be told?

GR: Definitely every story needs to be told, but since cinema in a country like India deeply affects society. I find that this sort of a story line which depicts the Indian bourgeoisie teenagers getting up to no good, does not give us (students who have not been astray) any credit.

Self: But surely, people will understand that the content is purely fictional? As former students of esteemed institutions, I don’t think we can deny that there is some truth to the elements depicted?

GR: This film seems to rightfully flaunt a glamorous unreal lifestyle for most of us, as if claiming some sort of social independence from what is right, for example, the “I want to sleep with you” coming from a 16 year old. Indeed there is some truth in the statement, because one look at the Youtube comments tells me that there is a lager subsection of the Indian population living a very “teenage” “I want to try this out” lifestyle and all of them nod affirmation at this trailer. But I find that if indeed this movie is a barometer for our social “teenage” life then it falls upon us to reflect on what kind of a life we are leading.

Self:  However, as a society, we haven’t been very comfortable dealing with sexuality. Also, we cannot deny that most of us begin our first awareness of sexuality when we are 16. So are you saying that this is a wrong message to portray because of its dominant sexual themes? Wouldn’t that mean that we are still shying away from accepting the apparent?

GR: and what is the apparent here?

Self: that natural processes force us to come to terms with taboo topics at such an age because of curiosity?

GR: There are two-three factors here. One is that yes, puberty is wild wild west that needs careful navigation or can go wrong. Adolescence hits you and overwhelms you, but the thing is I feel that this entitled view of “I am just trying it out” is incorrect because while we might be curious as hell, we don’t necessarily have the liberty to act upon it. For one, we are not legal at 16, we live with our parents and they provide us with shelter food and comfort etc. So this blatant disregard for all our Indian filial/familial values is off-putting, because we tend to be a close knit society. And while I don’t strictly object to others having casual sex, I take an issue if you are going to get yourself knocked up, etc. Do what you want, but with a knowledge of the consequences would be my take. So,  in this trailer when you see the young girl lying on a hospital bed, you know that she is getting an abortion or something, because she is the one who triumphantly claims “we did it” and then if this film is claiming the ultimate social liberation, it does not at all talk about alternate sexualities. Because if 16 is the age of everything hitting us biologically etc etc where is the sexuality confusion in this debate? This film toes a very safe line actually- it shows an indulgent hedonistic lifestyle without ever really asking the right questions about the teenage experience.

Self:  You’re saying that we do not always have the liberty of experimentation, which is true. But then, without testing all possible alternatives, how can we expect these confused souls to find some direction in their life? You also speak about alternate sexualities, but at that age, can people really definitively decide how they express themselves?

GR: So you just asked me two contradictory questions- if indeed you are testing “possible alternatives”, why aren’t there sexual alternatives? And if one is unsure about their sexuality, how can one act confidently?

Self: My question was about testing to discover them, yes. Without testing, how can they know what works for them?

GR: But they don’t seem to be experimenting, which seems to be the film’s chief hypocrisy. They seem to be all “Okay, I am straight I need to shag someone, oh f*** I shagged someone now i am in deep shit.” Even though they are in a circle of hell, they seem to be evading the seventh circle of hell by making all the characters very sure of their sexuality. It is really a question of minor and major vices really.

Self: You’re right. They seem to be very decided about what they want to do with their lives. An example of the character Anu, who points to the magazine and says with complete certainty that “she wants to be there”. Since their decisions seem to be made, why is trying out not socially condoned? Do you think that these children, given their unique circumstances, could have come to their “coming of age” realizations through any other way than depicted in the story? I don’t mean that we compare them to us.

GR: I mean this is not the first movie we are seeing about the great Indian lonely teenage. We had Udaan which i think did a marvelous balancing act. Also one of the points that really rankled me, and I am sure you thought of this too is- 16 was shit and all that, but it was also a lot about discovering yourself rather than discovering others wasn’t it?

Self:  You’re right about discovering ourselves. However, as most children (and even adolescents must be excused to some extent for being children) learn about themselves from trying to mimic outside behavior, right? How can we expect them to intrinsically know what works for themselves?

GR: Well this is where I turn the spotlight on us.

Self: Personally, I would say that the only “boldest” thing I did during my adolescence was talk back to my well-wishing parents. I realized my folly almost immediately. But I managed to figure out a way of dealing with my frustrations with humanity by myself, mostly through personal acceptance.

GR: I agree with you entirely and I think one of the chief points of disagreement I have with this film is it projects rampant stupidity and bad decision-making without any parental interference on all teenagers. I didn’t have a rosy teenage or anything, but I definitely didn’t f*** up. I was too busy worrying about “Ooh I like writing”, “Ooh why do I feel this strange rush when I see this guy in the next class”. I feel 16 is like 18, and a bit of 18 on steroids.

Self: But, as some other posters of this movie claim, aren’t there some lines we must cross in order to “grow up”? Do we really have to let go of “innocence” as our “first casualty”?

GR: What indeed is our innocence then? Our virginity is our innocence? Our first cigarette is our innocence? This is a wrong perception at work.

Self:  I still don’t believe I’ve lost that innocence. It’s not about being naive. But I think, what childhood with all it’s fairy tales taught us, is to believe in happy endings. That optimism is our innocence. What about you?

GR: Yes, exactly. what is innocence but an absolute lack of self knowledge and optimism? So I think it is important to move away from innocence being linked to a girl’s hymen. Innocence is probably lost when you hear your first cuss word.

Self: Innocence is also probably lost when you take your first blow to your self-esteem and discover that it exists and it can be hurt.

GR: I mean at age 10 everyone hits the age of curiosity. But how we act upon it tends to define our life. At the risk of sounding too self-righteous or generalistic, most of us have better things to do.

Self: Also, given our hyper-competitive academic environment, it really seems a miracle to find time for anything else beyond that.

GR: Yes I mean aaj kal baap ka business sambhaalne ke liye bhi business degree chahiye hoti hai [In order to handle your father’s business, a business degree is mandatory]. So all those teenagers on the Youtube comment section saying “Yep, this is my life.  It is so accurate”, I’d say instead of feeling like you have been accepted into some secret hedonism cult, think about where you are going with this.

Self: Clearly, they feel vindicated at having their story on the silver screen.

GR: Exactly. This film shouldn’t garner that sense of vindication, but rather a contemplation of actions. Which I dearly hope it will, because it apparently has a tragic ending with a few attempted suicides, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse gone wrong case.

Self: To some it’s a matter of pride, even, how fast can you grow up? But I think most of them fail to realize that their childhood is something they will never be able to get back.

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How to create your own Indian soap opera

My grandmother has always had a habit of regularly following several Hindi/Bengali soap operas. In the many times that I’ve learned to tolerate them I’ve come across a few integral trends, which if carefully followed, could enable one to write their very own drama. The following are some glaring attributes of some of the most popular ones (or the ones that my grandmother watches). More than actual writing, this covers the cinematography aspect of the series as well.
A family shot of one of the more popular shows: Sasural Simar Ka.  Image credits: spotonlists.com

A family shot of one of the more popular shows: Sasural Simar Ka.
Image credits: spotonlists.com

  1.  The wives of the household are always ornately dressed and you will find them in the same state of being whether asleep, or at work. They wear too much make-up and often, the background soundtrack attempts to cover up for their actual lack of expression. So, you need something loud to moan in the background while the pretty wronged wife feels misused. Also, they must never be seen working, even though the story may claim they are fully qualified.
  2.  Their is a lot of unnecessary weeping. In the event of a medical emergency or a loss, people will much rather cry than do the call for the doctor/inform the authorities. Inevitably, when the doctor is called, the health condition is fatal. Common symptoms of this unknown/rare/fatal disease always include a lot of dramatic fainting. Also, the weeping must not damage the layers of carefully applied make-up. As a show of stoicism, only one tear will be shed per character.
  3.  During dramatic or shocking moments, you must provide a close-up of every character’s face at least three times in succession with a resounding crash. This is to indicate that everyone is surprised. If the female characters of the room are unable to deal with the consequences, they will undoubtedly drop glass/ceramic objects on the floor and shed the solitary tear. This clip must also be repeated three times, in order to impress upon the audience just how deep the emotional impact is.
  4. For your story to be popular, you must have several marriages and an occasional visit to the court/police station or hospital. The secondary cast at these venues (nurses, officers, etc.) must remain very expressionless so that the empathy with the primary characters is heightened. Often, the secondary cast must be brusque/busy/doing normal things with their life, while the primary characters are too busy feeling offended or contemplative. It is absolutely necessary that none of the characters do anything relevant or productive.
  5. When there is a conniving mother in law, there must always be a saintly wife who tolerates inhuman behavior as a daily regime and vice versa. Misbehavior is rampant, but nobody speaks up because it will offend their dignity relative to other families in that community.
  6. All male members of the household besides the patriarch and the youngster in love are redundant additions to the family. They may be exposed/revealed/created only during discussions in which the patriarch expresses displeasure at the philandering ways of the youth and must now find some way of distributing his legacy.
  7. Cheesy romance scenes are a necessity. There need not actually be any flirting. Just lots of moments when one character is gripping on to the other for dear life against the backdrop of a soul-stirring love song. The audience will inevitably infer that this is out of passion and not out of any survival instinct.
  8. Antagonists of your story have to be shown in moments when they are thinking to themselves. This involves several scenes where they are smirking to themselves in an empty room, while the actor/actress reads out sections of his/her script. You must note that there isn’t any strategic planning. They will merely think things like, “I hate her and now I’m going to make her pay” several times.
  9. Due to their poor planning, antagonists often do not prepare for contingencies when defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory. Also, their short-sighted methods lead to no achievable goals. For example, why would you perpetually choose to be a menace in your sister’s life, when that translates to the disgrace of you own family? But antagonists are people who believe in the present. Long-term concerns do not bother them. This means that your “nasty” characters have to be predominantly stupid or selfish, rather than actually evil.
  10. In the event of a profound disgrace, elderly members of the family are allowed to denounce the wives of the household of their status. Legal termination of the matrimony is often not required, and if so, should span over several episodes that map the noble quest to acquire the papers from the necessary authority and back. A scene or two involving crying over their own signatures on the paper may be inserted at will.
  11. Former wives (see above) may also be asked to leave the residence. Such moments in the story usually occupy an entire episode which will show the stately procession of the misunderstood wife from the top of the stairs to the door. Again, the usual rubric must be applied. One solitary non-make-up-smudging tear, whose descent must be carefully followed by the camera, several close-ups of shocked members of the family, some heavy sneering on behalf of the perpetrators and the slow walk across the house. During these departures, the character will not be allowed to carry his/her personal belongings like a toothbrush or a spare change of clothes or even documentation to secure better housing. A large door of the mansion will be shut upon the poor girl’s sad face.
  12. It is the duty of the good wives to be religious at all times and be regular with the prayer routines. However, in every family, there must exist at least one bigoted/over-zealous/over-pious character who will go forth to cause tensions in the household all the while chanting divine names. I am yet to understand what is the point of these characters, but they exist.
  13. The protagonists must never rest in peace. When one problem has been dealt with, another must immediately come their way. This is the only way to prolong a series’ life beyond 500 episodes.
  14. In the course of events, the children of the family will grow up and have children of their own. This involves just replacing the child actors with adult ones, with the same immaturity. Their previously young parents are now allowed to be shown with only one gray streak in their hair and the grandparents of the family will look the same as they did a few decades ago. In fact, they may even live long enough to see their n+3 generation. During this while, the same family feuds and jealousies must continue.
  15. Perfectly editable moments must be included in the cinematography. For example, an entire episode can be devoted to a wife getting anxious while sitting in a swanky car en-route to a destination. This requires her to simply tell the poor overworked chauffeur to “drive faster” and attempt to make phone calls which do not get received. A background track that has several violins repeatedly building up to a climax is necessary. Nothing that contributes to the development of the story must happen in these scenes.
  16. There are traffic problems, weather problems, vehicle problems only on important days. You cannot have episodes where the family car gets only a minor scratch or an insured dent. Also, the occupant of the car (besides the hardy chauffeur) must either die or lose their memory or something drastic. Characters must survive impossible odds such a death or two, complete amnesia or even being replaced by a clone of themselves from somewhere. These events must be kept secret in order for the household to function normally.
I’m sure there are several more which skipped my attention. But please feel free to add your own.