Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: On Potholes, ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Boys’

This week: A viral song about potholes that ruffled many political feathers, the lack of Indians in ‘Dunkirk’ and a video that turns men into sex objects.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter.  If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing here

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

A song about potholes

The past few days have served as an excellent reminder for why pop culture is important. People are still discussing the feminism (or lack of it) in Lipstick Under My Burkha, Jay-Z’s new album sparked off discussions about authenticity in art and marital relationships in general and a song about potholes in Mumbai has gone viral not only in India but Pakistan too.

Red FM’s RJ Malishka Mendonsa didn’t think this year’s pothole campaign would be any different from the station’s previous efforts. Each year Mendonsa and her team have found entertaining ways of tackling the municipal negligence that rears its ugly head with each monsoon. For this year’s campaign, she parodied a Marathi folk song to poke fun at the BMC’s upkeep of Mumbai’s roads. But then the song went viral.

It has all the makings of a meme – the much-derided yet quintessentially millennial way of communicating – nobody quite knows when or where it originated but it’s catchy, hilarious and can easily be adapted to suit other contexts. So naturally it went viral. But then the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) retaliated poorly and so the song’s notoriety only increased. Now if you Google ‘Sonu song’ (based on the original version) there are countless versions in multiple languages populating the internet. My personal favourite is the Pakistani one, released by a comedy group soon after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from bearing office on corruption charges.

The song’s a good reminder that civic engagement doesn’t always look like voting or reading the newspaper, there are more immediate (and fun) ways of engaging with the powers that be. Intentionally or not, Malishka has opened up a new perspective on Mumbai’s roads – one in which you actually remember that someone is responsible for their current condition and that those people are accountable to us.

§

The stories we don’t tell

Indian soldiers in France. Credit: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons

“More than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future,” writes Sunny Singh in a piece about Dunkirk.

One moment everyone seemed to be raving about the movie and the next my newsfeed was flooded with articles about its erasure of Indian involvement in the Second World War. One headline pointed out that it wasn’t just the British who fought the Second World War, it was the British Empire – which included Indian soldiers fighting on behalf of their colonial rulers. Since then there have been several pieces that have highlighted the role played by Indian, Algerian and other colonised subjects in the war. Even more have delved into why it’s important to depict these realities in movies like Dunkirk and break from the tradition of whitewashing history.

I took history all through school and even studying it in greater detail in 11th and 12th didn’t once involve learning anything about India’s role in the world wars. In fact, the distinction between Indian and World history was a clearly defined one with minimal intersections between the two. But representation, or its lack, in popular culture, is more jarring. Singh explains,

“The stories that we share among ourselves give us the vision of our individual and collective identities. When those stories consistently – and in a big budget, well-researched production like Dunkirk, one must assume, purposely – erase the presence of those who are still considered “other” and less-than-equal, these narratives also decide who is seen as “us” as opposed to “them”. Does this removal of those deemed “foreign” and “other” from narratives of the past express a discomfort with the same people in the present? More chillingly, does it also contain a wish to excise the same people from a utopian, national future?”

He’s writing from a British perspective so the “utopian, national future” he refers to lines up rather well with the anti-immigrant, isolationist stance that Brexit has come to stand for. It relies on a clean-cut history in which migration and globalisation are seen as relatively modern phenomena that threaten Britain’s national identity. Movies like Dunkirk reinforce these ideas by presenting narratives that show white Allied faces instead of the racial mix that was a direct result of Britain’s colonial practices. Acknowledging such a mixed-up history would directly impact the social fabric of our lives today. Singh asks,

“Could we still see our neighbours as less than human if we also saw them fight shoulder-to-shoulder with “our boys” in the “good” war? Would we call those fleeing war “cockroaches” and demand gunboats to stop them from reaching our white cliffs if we knew they had died for the freedoms we hold so dear?”

While Singh highlights the impact of such erasure, this piece actually presents some of the forgotten narratives from Dunkirk. Delving into archives reveals accounts from Indian soldiers who were present. One snippet reads,

“At least one of the captured Indian soldiers escaped from the Nazis —  Jemadar Jehan Dad. He disguised himself as a French colonial soldier and eventually reached the British colony of Gibraltar. He had served 26 years in the British Indian army at the time of his capture, an illustration of the long service typical of this detachment.”

The piece concludes with a quote from Raghu Karnad, an editor at The Wire and also the author of a book about the Indian history of the Second World War, “When you look at the world war through the eyes of an Indian soldier, the globe sort of turns, and you discover all these new continents, all these new campaigns, that aren’t part of the popular history of World War II. And many of them are quite marvelous and well worth exploring.”

Like what you’ve read so far? Please consider subscribing here if you’d like to receive regular updates from this column.

§

‘I was busy thinking about boys’

Joe Jonas in a still from the video. Credit: Youtube

The idea of looking at the same thing from a different perspective is not a new one for social scientists but the approach is not always useful. While examining history from a different perspective opens up several new narratives, sometimes switching perspective is fun but confusing.

For instance, CharliXCX’s video for her song Boys offers a “lighthearted critique of the male gaze” by playfully objectifying as many as 75 male celebrities in just over three minutes. Riz Ahmed, dressed in pink acts coy while holding a giant fluffy teddy bear (also pink), another man naked but for his underwear, pours rosé all over his body; Jack Antonoff pumps pink iron; two others indulge in a playful pillow fight.

Playfully prancing around on the screen and making eyes at the camera is usually reserved for women in such videos. As a male singer goes on about his desires, it helps to have visual aides (or I guess that’s how the logic goes). And when it’s a song sung by a woman, usually the singer herself becomes the subject of the video. For all our talk about the female gaze and women-centric narratives, it’s still a fairly novel phenomenon. It’s so new in fact that we don’t really have a definition for what exactly qualifies as the ‘female gaze’. Is it focusing on women as the central point of the narrative? Can we quantify it by counting how often women speak on screen? But what if they only talk about men? But what if that’s an individual character’s choice? Is it about objectifying men the way they objectify women?

Charli’s video does the last but in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously, coming off almost satirical (another word that has no definite meaning). Watching grown men behave like that on-screen while Charli sings about their interchangeability highlights the absurdity of objectification itself. “I need a bad boy to do me right on a Friday, and I need a good one to wake me up on a Sunday, that one from work can come over on Monday night, I want em all”.

The song is indeed boy-crazy but not in a romantic way that involves pining for a man’s love, nor is it a celebration of female sexuality that somehow centres on the pleasure that women can give men; it’s just a woman singing about all the pretty men she can’t stop thinking about. And we’ve all been there at one point or another so it’s all too easy to identify with, “Head is spinning thinking about boys.” The ‘queen of sugary subversion‘ is definitely back.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.