I would like to indulge in the good kind of cliché, one with which I join the herd that can’t stop praising the creators of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” As someone preoccupied with context and an urge to constantly find meaning beyond the obvious, the film is an intellectual treat. It becomes clear in the very first few moments of the story that this isn’t going to be about conventional womanhood and treating issues that have become the norm in our world. It’s going to be about a “b*tch,” one that barks loud, clear and persistently.
As someone who has been an audience to several understudied and over-consumed revenge-dramas in India, “Three Billboard”’s take on the subject of violence against women is overwhelming. A clearly drawn narrative of the rape and murder of Mildred Hayes’s daughter in comparison to her own history with domestic violence becomes the very pivot around which I see the entire movie. The plot offers several distractions—from discussions of race to men that were bad and yet not that bad—everything is bound by Mildred’s tenacity, her questioning gaze over morality, legality, and femininity. It was essential for me, as a young woman traversing the contemporary film world, to look at characters that barged right through these boundaries in their discussions of the trauma of rape, violence, legal “blindsidedness” and the unnerving need to punish the culpable.
The movie creates an “other,” a word I will choose from my limited literary dictum, to reinforce the empathy we feel for Mildred as she breaks down. However, she doesn’t go down alone in her grief; she drags along every single man in question, pulling through their every nerve to find who brutally killed her daughter. Among these men include a good-hearted mollycoddled burn-victim violent officer, a dying cancer patient, a dwarf and most importantly, a man assumed to be a criminal that she chooses to teach a lesson at her mercy. There is a subtle reluctance always to question the rationality of her drilling machines and the houses she sets on fire.
The hysteria surrounding the rape, for once, isn’t saddening. Maybe Mildred owes this to the black comedy genre that she is written in, but she never saddens me. She cries when you would have already expected her to and laughs not till the end and yet when she does, it is not lovely or resonating, it simply reminds you that she laughs because she has been denied every other aspect of her sanity. It frightens me how much I could relate to her will to get every man in Ebbing to testify, to prove his innocence.
The characters interact within severed feminine spaces: Mildred, as a mother, no longer nurtures spoon-to-mouth, whereas another (as is the case with Dixon and his mom) becomes her son’s every movement and decision. Mildred’s motherhood becomes more pronounced in the absence of her daughter, something that cannot be made up for even in the presence of her living son. Her clear-cut disregard for maintaining decorum at home and in public places makes it evident that she is no longer going to sacrifice her sanity over niceties. Her conscience is staggering, but never the dictator of her decisions.
Amidst racist and sexist characters, the story finds the space for subversion in more intimate, domestic spaces. Mildred, though separated from her demonic husband, is still shadowed by him and a fear of what he might be doing to other women in his life. Through the course of the narrative, even when Mildred spirals, she embodies the temperament and astuteness of a man. Her necessity to hunt down the perpetrators becomes her final cry, her final act within the parenthesis of revenge.
“Three Billboards,” though set in a different political American climate than the present, caters to very relevant policies of today, questioning authority and institutions. Thank you, Frances McDormand, for building one of the sharpest, smokiest female characters I have ever seen. She moves, talks and threatens exactly enough to tell you that she is crazy and not becoming crazy, that she will have the blood of all that have wronged her—stirred but never shaken.
The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
Writing makes Richa Das jubilant and reminds her that mere existence is a cause big enough to celebrate, especially in a country like India, where there is no passing moment in which you aren’t contributing to something beyond yourself.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.
Often referred to as hijras and kinnars, transgender men and women are a part of society just like any other individual, regardless of how different their lives may be. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta and actress Sirat Taneja have created a documentary to bring to life a story about dual identities and the hardships that the LGBTQIA2S+ community members continue to face, despite the support they have found around them. Mehta and Taneja take the baton and continue the fight for equality in “I Am Sirat,” a documentary, presented at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), on Taneja herself.
“I Am Sirat,” set in Delhi, India, is shot completely on a smartphone. Talking more about filming the documentary on a cellphone — a conscious choice made by the ace director — Mehta confidently says:
It wasn’t a creative decision. It was the only decision we had [to] make the film the way we wanted to, which was very intimate and with nobody else around us. When Sirat was telling her story, she was free to tell it without a crew. That’s the way we wanted it. There were no cameras, no sound, no lighting. It was her life, she was in control of it.
The story highlights the deep intricacies of Taneja’s dual identity. At home, her mother cannot accept the idea of a trans daughter and requires her to be a man, even though she’s made many attempts to tell her family that she does not identify as a male. With her efforts to express her true, authentic self, falling on deaf ears, Taneja sets out to live a life that appeases both her family at home and herself. She goes as far as being her mother’s son in the house while renting out a room for her beautiful clothes and makeup elsewhere in the city; this room is the keepsake of who she really is, the woman she always longed to be.
At one instance she is even physically assaulted for expressing her true gender identity. While the film does not depict the assault, it showcases the traumatic aftermath of it. But the violence doesn’t discourage Taneja from living out her truth. If she’s oppressed at home, she leaves that baggage at the door on her way out — in public, she’s a woman.
The documentary allows viewers to see how Taneja carries this dual identity and how it impacts her as a person. We see her lose many things she considers important in her life, including her job with the Government of India and the love of her life, all because of her trans identity. The myriad of hardships that she faces can be seen throughout the film with struggles not limited to personal and social, but also financial and psychological.
Taneja lives in a single-parent household with her siblings. As the eldest child in a low-income household, she is required to take on her late father’s responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family. In addition to financial issues, the lack of a father figure in her life creates more obstacles for Taneja, including those around sex reassignment surgery. Enter, the idea of following tradition.
It would be remiss to not mention that “I Am Sirat” grazes over the idea of how paradoxical modern-day India really is. On one hand, there are talks about progression, making space, and living your most authentic life; on the other, people like Taneja are asked to put up facades in the name of tradition. Tradition, conservative ideals, and possibly even patriarchy are at the forefront of the oppression that Taneja and her counterparts face. So, even for a country that’s made some notable changes to its governing policies, many of its outdated conventions still trump the law.
“I Am Sirat” really makes the viewers reflect on how far the world has come in offering support and camaraderie to the LGBTQIA2S+ community on a broader level — mainstream media has made important strides to bring equity and inclusivity to the forefront — while hardly ever paying heed to the struggles these minorities face day-to-day with their loved ones. There’s an element of duality even for them in their fight to be recognized; they want acceptance from the public as well as their families. A story like Taneja’s puts into perspective how transgender men and women will never choose the easy way out; they’re determined to be an honorable part of society regardless of what it will cost. A heartbreaking truth, to say the least.
“I Am Sirat” brings about an important message for its global audience: never forget to celebrate who you really are, undeterred by the trials you’re put through. And Sirat Taneja is a living example of this simple life lesson, who danced her way from the TIFF red carpet right into our hearts with her soulful story.