Author Archives: oddvolumes

Aligarh: Homosexuality is Humanised

[Last week, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. This is a win for the LGBTQIA+ community but discrimination still exists. There is still a long way to go. I wrote this film review for a class I had last year when I was completing my M.A in history. Everyone should watch this beautiful film.]

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The words “gay” and “Bollywood” rarely intersect. Steeped in controversy and conspiracy, Aligarh (2016) is a political and subversive film. In the span of years when homosexuality was decriminalised (2009-2013) in India, Indian society was unable to break the shackles of heteronormativity which is present everywhere in Aligarh – in the songs and inside the courtroom. The story follows Prof. Ramchandra Siras (played by Manoj Bajpayee), of Aligarh Muslim University, who loses his job because of his homosexuality.

A young journalist Deepu Sebastian (played by Rajkumar Rao) is determined to take this story to the fore and bring justice for Siras. The film is primarily about the conflict between individual vs. society and more questions arise rather than answers. Visibility/invisibility of the homosexual body is an important facet of Aligarh and it helps to break certain stereotypes.

Aligarh University is described in the film as an institution that was set up to be a “scientific and progressive playground” for the Muslims during the 19th century. Ironically, it had neither of those two qualities in 2010. On the night of 8th February, Siras and his male partner were illegally filmed while being intimate with each other. As predicted, the clip was publicised, and the professor was ostracised. His house becomes his refuge.

Shame is a huge part of the film. The desire to humiliate or inflict violence on another person is too. Siras never fit into the mould of “proper” conduct – he was an outsider, an unmarried bachelor, a poet, a homosexual man – and labeled as being immoral. In multiple scenes, Siras breaks down Western notions of homosexuality: “How can someone describe my feelings in three letters?” He rejects the imposition of the word “gay” on his identity.

The main themes in the film, I find, are morality and justice. Firstly, morality of an individual is extremely subjective and cannot be seen in the black and white terms as “collective morality” often is. Siras faces multiple prejudices in the courtroom due to his age, his sexual orientation and the fact that he slept with a lower-class Muslim rickshawallah from the slums. His personal space and morality are vehemently attacked.

On the topic of justice it is important on note that the film alludes to the larger picture on the state of things in Indian law. In 2013, homosexuality was criminalised again. Did we take a step back? Section 377 is a colonial legacy; it is the working of a Victorian mindset. Justice is given to Siras half-heartedly and the day before he was supposed to go back to work at AU again, he is found dead.

It is not specified whether it was suicide or murder but what is clear is the hostility and fear in the law system and society of India. In a space where fear of social taboos is high, Aligarh does a great job in normalising homosexuality and sending a message that all love/affection is human. At the root of it, Aligarh questions the boundaries of morality. India is a diverse nation but not welcoming of its LGBTQIA+ community, its constitution is “inclusive” but not to outliers like Siras. Indian law still has a long way to go in order to be truly progressive and ubiquitous.

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Searching (2018) – Film Review

(This is another review by Mr. A. Life stuff aside, I am trying to get back into reading fiction again. Hopefully, there will more book and film reviews to come before the year ends!) ☕️📚🎞

John Cho stars as David Kim in Screen Gems' SEARCHING.

Searching is a thriller film starring John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, and Joseph Lee. David Kim (John Cho) searches for his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La), aided by Detective Rosemary Vic (Debra Messing) and his brother Peter (Joseph Lee).

The premise of the film is worn and familiar in the thriller genre. Several films in recent memory rely on this plot: Kidnap, Prisoners, Taken, Gone Girl, the list goes on and on. What really separates this film from its peers is the slick presentation and stylistic flourishes. Searching is told through the perspective of computers and social media. Every scene is framed by user interfaces, programs, text messages, and videos. This unique presentation provides a fresh take on a worn and conventional plot.

The use of computers as a storytelling device is nothing short of genius, and it serves to highlight and accentuate the story. The entire film feels claustrophobic and cluttered, mirroring David’s state of mind. The screen is always littered with folders, websites, and messages. Exposition never feels clunky or forced since we as the audience can watch the same videos that David watches. One of the most impressive things about the film, at least in my mind, is how accurate and precise the film is in regards to the programs and websites that are shown. Skype, iMessages, Tumblr, Facebook, and Gmail are rendered flawlessly. This verisimilitude makes the film feel so real and more believable. This is truly an impeccable snapshot of what it’s like to live in the digital age.

The performances of the actors are likewise stellar. John Cho shows off his acting chops, especially through his facial movements and micro expressions. Many of the scenes in the film are shot with one character speaking in video clips online. There is very little actual interaction between the actors. Despite this, the characters never come across as flat or dull.

In addition to the incredible directing and performances, Searching succeeds because it is a powerful example of positive representation in Hollywood. It is the first mainstream thriller film to be headlined by an Asian lead. During the first few minutes of the film a theater employee walked in and announced that this movie wasn’t in fact Crazy Rich Asians. About a quarter of the audience stood up and left. This group of people had sat through the opening credits, title sequence, and emotional build up of the beginning without realizing that they were watching the wrong movie. It had to be Crazy Rich Asians because it has Asian people in it right? So what if the tone and actors didn’t match the marketing and advertising at all?

Overall, I’d give the film a 9/10. It’s stylish, fresh, and it was an absolute pleasure to watch. I could gush on about how the film also addresses social and cultural themes as well but this review is long enough as is. Truly incredible, a must see film.

The Magicians By Lev Grossman (Book Review)

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(Hi, my bookish friends. This is a guest review by Mr. A)

The theme of today’s review is subversion. Tropes are tropes for a reason. Little literary shortcuts are useful for telling stories because of pattern recognition. It’s why certain character archetypes and plots show up across all forms of media. Great stories add their own little twists to established formulas. The Magicians is a subversive novel that takes your expectations for a ride.

 On the surface, The Magicians is your standard post Harry Potter urban fantasy. A youth (Quentin Coldwater) discovers that magic is real and is invited into a Hogwarts-esque establishment (Brakebills). Quentin learns magic at Brakebills and meets a band of supporting characters including his friends Eliot, Josh, and Janet, and his love interest Alice. This is a fairly common plot that goes back to CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series and that is prevalent in fantasy even to this day.

 What really sets The Magicians apart from other novels of it’s ilk is in the way Grossman approaches the characters and the subject of magic. Magic is portrayed like any other area of study. The study of which is tedious and repetitive. It’s almost a language unto itself, with its own grammar and exceptions. The characters are likewise people that are obsessed with success. Intellectuals and high achievers. You’d have to be to even want to attempt to learn magic. Thus, magic is used as a means to explore these character’s personalities.

 Whereas many other stories take voyeuristic joy in the impossible, this novel makes the marvelous rather mundane. Despite his many gifts and powers, Quentin is perpetually seeking greener fields. He’s anxious and unhappy, constantly longing for an imaginary perfect happy place. He doesn’t really appreciate what he has in the present and he constantly sabotages his own emotional wellbeing in the pursuit of greater satisfaction.

 The Magicians is very much an anti-fantasy. It’s subversive and cynical, poking fun at the genre it belongs to. It borrows from and references other well known works and is an unusual amalgamation of its predecessors. Kind of like if you mixed Harry Potter with The Chronicles of Narnia and tossed in a dash of American Psycho. Is it worth reading? Sure, though I can’t speak to your enjoyment of the book.

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (Review)

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⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

“This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.”

I wouldn’t have known about this book if I hadn’t randomly stumbled across it in my library. The sinister, brooding cover called to me! I have read one book by Jeanette Winterson before: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I was very impressed with her writing. After reading The Daylight Gate, it safe to say I can’t wait to read more from her.

The Daylight Gate is a historical fiction novel about the Pendle Witch trials that took place in 1612. Its cast of characters are borrowed from history but of course, they are fictionalised and reinvented for the sake of entertainment. It should also be mentioned that the writing is not for the faint of heart or young. I was surprised how nsfw and triggering some of the content is but overall it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the story.

Our main character is Alice Nutter, a suspected witch. She is known for her wealth, land and eternal youth. The local magistrate Roger Nowell is determined to bring her and the women she helps down. Coupled with this, he suspects Alice is hiding a conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot. Jeanette Winterson accurately demonstrates the mass superstition and hysteria against witchcraft and Catholicism during the reign of James I, a Protestant king. Just under 200 pages, this was a super fast and intriguingly dark read.

Politics by David Runciman (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rating a non-fiction book about politics doesn’t feel right but let’s go with 4 stars. The title is mighty dull but don’t let that dissuade you. Politics is about the importance of political systems, why we need them, and why they’re here to stay. I heard David Runciman (and Francis Fukuyama) on an Intelligence Squared debate on YouTube because, yes I’m that person. The talk was about how even the best political system (aka democracy) can fail. And this was in 2014… those were rosy, rosy times indeed!

I guess this review will be a little pessimistic. If I had read Politics in 2014, my review would be a little different. It’s safe to say democracy went through two formative stages – the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the bloody mess that was the 20th century. David Runciman’s main idea is that democracy in today’s world is fractured and not what we all imagine it to be.

China is a technocracy. Russia has a federal presidential system but is basically highly centralised and autocratic. Runciman doesn’t mention this but liberal democracies have been dying since 2016. Protectionism and populism are on the rise – just look at the U.S and the U.K. Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 thesis (The End of History) is about the success of Western liberal democracy. He believed that democracy had perfected itself, that there couldn’t be a more ideal political system. Of course it isn’t always that easy.

It can’t be predicted but I’m pretty sure all political systems will undergo changes at some point in the future as there are always alternatives. Runciman points out that democracy hasn’t completed it’s work: there is rampant inequality around the world, states are inherently insular and concerned with their own problems. Unless huge disasters occur – the Great Depression, the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11 – democracies are complacent.

Politics got us out of those ruts. Politics causes wars, and politics is the thing that influences everything around us even if we can’t feel it. Because the world is so intertwined, failure on one end can be felt all the way on the other end. Runciman’s outlook is a depressing one, no doubt, but it’s pragmatic. If any big catastrophe occurs, it’ll be because of politics and only politics can solve that catastrophe. Give this a read. It’s well-written and has illustrations!

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐

(Mild spoilers)

lullaby
ˈlʌləbʌɪ/
noun
1. a quiet, gentle song sung to send a child to sleep.

Lullaby is one of the most creepiest novel I’ve ever read. “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.” After this banging beginning, the novel takes a detour and sets up the lives of our main characters who live in Paris. Myriam, a French-Morrocan woman, and her husband Paul have two young kids: lively Mila and baby Adam. Myriam loses her sense of self after motherhood and yearns for her dreams of being a successful lawyer to come true. Paul is a musician and is very busy. Myriam runs into her old friend from law school who offers her a job to work with him.

Enter: the nanny. I knew how this story was going to end, but I couldn’t stop reading. Leïla Slimani doesn’t offer a concrete plot but a series of incidents and scenes that are gradually more unsettling and disturbing. Louise seems to be the “perfect” nanny. She is friendly with the children, caring, and is content to cook and clean for the busy couple every day. As Louise’s personal life is slowly revealed, we catch a glimpse of who she is and what her intentions are. The novel subtly conveys themes relevant to us now:

The world of nannies who are predominantly a group of immigrants, legal or otherwise. They make the lives of white families easier.

The sense of fear in motherhood. Of having to choose between home and work.

The children who die everyday from neglect or violence.

Lullaby isn’t a mystery in the strictest sense, nor is it a thriller. We, the readers, know where the story is going exactly. And that’s the scariest part of it all.

My Favourite Novels of 2017

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I read a total of 56 novels this year. In the order that I read them, here are the most memorable and enjoyable books I read in 2017 – 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This was the first novel I read in 2017. I thought I’d set myself a precedent to continue reading more nonfiction over the coming months. Paul Kalanithi’s story moved me to tears, like big ugly nasty tears. Read this book!

The Girl in 6E by A.R. Torre

A. R. Torre might be a weird addition to this list but I honestly don’t care. I loved reading the hell out of this book and the sequel. Sadly I didn’t think the rest of the series was good… but The Girl in 6E was guilty pleasure goodness.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I’d never read a book set in Iceland, and it turns out this novel is a true historical story about the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir the last person to get capital punishment in 1828. Fascinating stuff, and could. not. put. it. down. 

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I’m surprised Fates and Furies made it on to this list since I gave it a low rating on Goodreads. Here’s the thing: I can’t stop thinking about the insane plot and twisted characters… I can’t let go.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant was a cozy, chicklit (ish) tearjerker with important social commentary on mental illnesses. Loved it a lot.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is my literary crush. I want to know how her mind comes up with the things she writes. Boy, Snow, Bird played elements of magical realism, fairy tales and issues of race in a way I didn’t think was possible to concoct.

Panty by Sangeetha Bandyopadhyay

Panty was one of the most exciting magical realist novel ever and it was one of the two translated novels I read in 2017. 

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

This is the second translated novel. Beauty Is a Wound is a genre-bending compendium of Indonesian modern history and is a book you’ll hate or love. Obviously, I loved it. Haha.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“I need more Austen in my life.” – Me, since 2010

American Fire by Monica Hesse

American Fire reignited (heh) my love for true crime.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Okay. So… I freaking love Tiffany Haddish. Her stand up is e v e r y t h i n g. The Last Black Unicorn is supremely funny but it’s also filled with details about her nightmarish childhood and teenage years growing up in foster care. I highly recommend the audiobook version.


Tiny side note: I might be posting less on my blog (in the coming months) because of a massive reading slump + other life stuff. In no way will i ever stop reading though, I’m trying to get into audiobooks at the moment… 😃 

Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading 📚